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Improving Flexibility, Command and Control
With the Decision Support Matrix

by Major James C. Boisselle, Brigade Trainer, NTC


The decision support matrix (DSM) is a critical tool to the successful execution of a mission at the National Training Center, but it is often not used or developed in sufficient detail to be useful to commanders and staffs.


If developed and used correctly, the DSM can dramatically increase the effectiveness of a battalion or brigade tactical operations center (TOC) and improve the flexibility of a plan. This article discusses techniques for developing a DSM and using it as a key instrument for effective command and control and increasing a commander's options.

Before discussing the DSM, it is important to differentiate it from another decision-making tool called the decision support template (DST). Field Manual (FM) 101-5-1, Operational Terms and Graphics, defines the DSM as:

"An aid used by the commander and staff to make battlefield decisions. It is a staff product of the wargaming process which lists the decision point, location of the decision point, the criteria to be evaluated at the point of the decision, the actions or options to occur at the decision point, and the unit or element that is to act and has the responsibility to observe and report the information affecting the criteria for the decision." (p. 1-45)

FM 101-5-1 defines the DST as:

"A staff product initially used in the wargaming process which graphically represents the decision points and projected situations and indicates when, where, and under what conditions a decision is most likely to be required to initiate a specific activity (such as a branch or sequel) or event (such as lifting or shifting of fires)." (p. 1-45)

FM 101-5, Staff Organization and Operations, describes the DST in detail but contains only passing references to the DSM. This FM does not discuss how to develop a DSM in terms of the information it should contain or the format for depicting it.

The major difference between the DSM and the DST is:

  • The DSM is a written product.
  • The DST is a graphical product.

The DSM can be a one-page document that contains the information described in FM 101-5-1, whereas the DST is produced on an overlay or sketch and contains time-phased lines, enemy and friendly events, activities, and targets, friendly control measures, time estimates, and other critical items of information. Where this difference becomes important is in the time available to prepare the DSM or DST and their effectiveness as a product.

The DSM works nicely in time-constrained environment as it is easier to develop and disseminate than the DST. It can be a one-page document that is developed during the wargame by the XO/S3, refined following the wargame, reviewed by the commander, published in a warning order (WARNO) and operations order (OPORD), used as a stand-alone document at the maneuver rehearsal, clipped to maps, and tracked by the XO and battle staff in the TOC during the battle. Staffs and commanders can update or refine it easily with pen and ink corrections.

In comparison, a DST can be burdensome as it adds to the number of overlays subordinate commanders and staffs already must use. It can be a "busy" visual product that does not readily depict the friendly and enemy conditions that support each decision. The DST must be produced by the S2 and S3 sections, detracting from the time available to focus on other products they must produce. Lastly, it is difficult to disseminate and use effectively at rehearsals.


A technique for DSM development begins with the priority intelligence requirements (PIRs) issued by the commander in his guidance early in the military decision making process (MDMP). This foundation for decision points and associated named areas of interest (NAIs) is often misunderstood and contributes to a lack of synchronization of the reconnaissance and surveillance effort with maneuver. As FM 34-8, Combat Commander's Handbook on Intelligence, states,

"Because the decision point is dependent on an enemy action, the point is always associated with a NAI or indicator, and either an IR or a PIR." (p. Glossary 2)

FM 101-5 recommends that commanders develop their initial PIR as part of the mission analysis phase of the MDMP and discuss them in his guidance (pp. 5-7, 5-10). By issuing the PIR early, the commander focuses the initial reconnaissance and surveillance effort and places assets where they can contribute to timely decisions.

A technique for staffs is to recommend PIR during the mission analysis brief and then construct the linkage with NAIs and DPs. The commander can approve or modify the PIR as he deems necessary based upon his estimate of the situation and his experience. Once these critical information requirements are approved, the staff selects NAIs that answer the PIRs. The staff then develops an initial integrated reconnaissance, surveillance and security plan that assigns a primary and alternate collection asset to cover the NAI. During the wargame, the XO/S3 ensures that the linkage among PIRs, NAIs, and decision points is solid.

As an example of this linkage, consider a battalion task force with the mission of a deliberate attack against a motorized rifle battalion. The commander studies the situational template and determines that it is best to attempt a breach of an obstacle system where it is tied to terrain either in the north or south of a friendly zone of attack. He states in his guidance that he must know the composition of the obstacles at those locations and the number and location of direct fire systems that can influence those points. The staff develops NAIs that cover the templated obstacles and enemy positions and the S2 assigns collection assets to focus on them. The last step is to link the NAIs with a decision point to breach in the north or south. This step is normally accomplished during the wargame when the staff determines the latest time a decision can be made without compromising the synchronization of the combat multipliers required to conduct an effective breach.

In the next step in DSM development, the S3 or XO prepares for the wargame by listing the known decision points. The XO/S3 can go one step further than this by listing the typical decisions a commander can make for a certain type operation and the friendly and enemy conditions that are generally necessary to effectively implement the decision. For example, in a deliberate attack, typical decisions can include committing the main effort to one flank versus another, committing the breach force, executing a branch plan to defeat a counterattack, and shifting direct and indirect fires. An example of typical conditions that support the decision to execute a breach can include suppression and obscuration of the enemy that can influence the breach site, preparation of the mine-clearing line charge (MICLIC), activation of the critical friendly zone (CFZ) over the breach site, and positioning of the assault force, air defense systems, and scouts. With these potential decisions and conditions already in mind, the XO/S3 will be more likely to synchronize them during the wargame.

As the wargame begins, the XO fills in a blank DSM as decision points are developed. The headings of the blank matrix are:

  • the decision point (DP) number.
  • the action to be decided.
  • the enemy conditions.
  • the friendly conditions.
  • the location of the action.
  • the NAI and the observer that contribute to the decision (see Figure 1).

The conditions columns are extremely important since they reflect the most critical pieces of information the commander on the battlefield and the XO in the TOC must consider before the commander can make an informed decision. These conditions also serve as an expedient way to synchronize a critical event. For example, as the staff war-games the breach, the XO reviews his preparation notes and prompts the fire support officer (FSO) to confirm the location of the Q-36 radar that will execute the CFZ, the position of the artillery battalion that will shoot the smoke, and the location of the primary and alternate observers for the smoke.

  • He tells the engineer to select a location for the MICLIC preparation to ensure it is not too early or too late and is in a safe position relative to maneuver forces.

  • He asks the S3 to review the time-distance factors to ensure the support, breach, and assault forces are in the appropriate positions relative to each other to maintain tempo.

  • He reviews the air defense officer's asset positioning to cover air avenues of approach that can effect the breach site.

  • Lastly, he ensures scouts are positioned to observe NAIs that will provide early warning of an air or ground counterattack.

Appendix 1 (DSM) to Annex C (Operations)

DPActionEnemy ConditionsFriendly ConditionsLocationNAI/Observer
1Attack along
Inf strongpoint ID'd
Obstacles ID'd
Direct fire systems ID'd
Scts in OPs 1&
C FIST in OP 3
GSR in position
Mortars set vic CP4
PL SUE5/Sct 1
6/Sct 2
10/Sapper 2
11/COLT 3
2 Execute breachMRP C-1&2 obscured
MRC B suppressed
MICLIC prepped
B FIST in pos'n
CFZ 3 active
Sct 1 at OP 2
BSFVs set AAA2
TmB at SBF2
TmC at CP2

Figure 1

As the wargame progresses, the XO completes the DSM for the remaining decisions that must be considered. At the conclusion of each critical event, he reviews the decision number that led to the event and the friendly conditions (synchronized battlefield operating system actions) that contribute to the decision. At the conclusion of the wargame, the document is copied immediately so that the XO, S3, and commander can review it and so that the S3 planner can include it or a typed copy in the next WARNO and ultimately in the OPORD. The commander might find it useful at this point to decide what conditions are a "must" which, if not met, would result in the decision not to execute a particular action.

The XO next uses the DSM at the maneuver rehearsal to track the execution of friendly conditions leading up to a decision and to highlight the point at which the commander must make the decision. The XO pays attention as the scout platoon leader describes his "set" as the breach decision approaches to ensure he is meeting the conditions. Likewise, the XO ensures the FSO describes the positioning of the artillery and smoke observers, the air defense platoon leader correctly positions his assets, and other combat multiplier representatives have developed plans that support the synchronization conducted at the wargame. The XO reiterates the enemy conditions stated by the S2 at a particular point in the course of the battle and states that a decision point is reached. He summarizes the friendly conditions that have been met and the commander then decides whether or not to implement the associated action. The commander may wish to describe to participants his view of which conditions are a must. This command emphasis can cause subordinates to pay particular attention to their piece of the critical condition and ensure they place the appropriate level of effort into ensuring its accomplishment.

During execution of the mission, the DSM is in the hands, or on the maps, of key leaders throughout the task force or brigade combat team. Because of this, each leader has a heightened awareness of the options available to the commander and is better prepared to execute a flexible plan. The XO in the TOC closely tracks the friendly and enemy conditions listed on the DSM and informs the commander when a decision point is about to be reached, summarizing over the command net the key conditions as he did in the rehearsal. All conditions need not be perfectly met before the commander executes the decision, but each condition should be assessed by the XO and staff in the TOC to present the commander a complete a picture as possible. The commander then decides whether or not to initiate the action.

The DSM is a powerful tool that can greatly assist in the command and control of a brigade or battalion. It is a concise and easy document for XOs to develop during the wargame that helps ensure the battlefield operating systems are synchronized to achieve the desired outcome for critical events. Perhaps most importantly, the DSM enables the brigade or battalion to develop and execute flexible plans with multiple options, avoiding the lockstep approach that can result from a single course of action.

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