News | Oct. 30, 2023

Risky Business: Using the Joint Force’s Framework for Managing Risk

By Bryan Groves, Jerad M. Rich, and Kaley Scholl Joint Force Quarterly 111

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Colonel Bryan Groves, USA, is Director of the Commander’s Initiatives Group at U.S. Army Forces Command. Lieutenant Colonel Jerad M. Rich, USAF, is Commander of the 28th Operations Support Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Kaley Scholl is the Deputy Director of the Strategic Assessments Branch at the Joint Staff J5, Strategy, Plans, and Policy.
Italian navy anti-submarine frigate ITS Carlo Margottini and command and control ship USS Mount Whitney transit alongside USS Harry S.
Truman in support of Neptune Strike 22, February 2, 2022, in Adriatic Sea (U.S. Navy/Hunter Day)

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis presented President John F. Kennedy and his advisors with one of the riskiest strategic dilemmas of the Cold War. How could America force the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Cuba without triggering a nuclear conflict? In response, President Kennedy implemented a multidimensional approach. He showed strength and resolve through a naval quarantine around Cuba while creating room for diplomacy by promising Premier Nikita Khrushchev (via discreet diplomatic back channels) that U.S. missiles would be pulled out of Turkey if the Soviets removed their weapons from Cuba.1 Kennedy’s decision to implement a naval quarantine balanced risk of action against risk of inaction or “overaction” (that is, too great an escalation). Kennedy effected the removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba while also providing an off-ramp to deescalate the situation.

Those 13 days in October 1962 were fraught with risk as President Kennedy aimed to reverse the Soviet’s emplacement of nuclear weapons 90 miles off Florida’s coast. While risky throughout, the decisionmaking and implementation were straightforward due to the bipolar international environment in which the United States and the Soviet Union were the two superpowers. The Kennedy administration assured military leaders that implementing the quarantine mitigated the severity and probability of risk appropriately through the specific policy directives issued and civilian oversight. The contemporary environment is not charged in the same way as during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The current multipolar world order that pits the United States, China, and Russia as Great Powers, however, complicates leaders’ risk decisionmaking and mitigation measures beyond that experienced during the Cold War.

Today’s multipolar dynamic means that risk and resourcing decisions must be made considering the signaling that actions against one Great Power are expected to have on another. Leaders’ risk assessments and communications must reflect the prioritization provided in strategic guidance.2 A prominent current example involves considering the effects on China of actions in Europe against Russia. How closely are Ukraine and Taiwan linked? What would be the best approach against China, America’s long-term pacing challenge, in the Indo-Pacific region and globally? Should the United States unequivocally support the Ukrainian resistance to buoy its credibility and signal to China what its fate might be if it invades Taiwan? Or is Taiwan a separate and higher priority matter for which America and the joint force should save resources? These are policy decisions. Yet senior military leaders involved in related discussions support policymakers with military advice to inform that decisionmaking.

In this environment, managing risk across regions and over time in accordance with policy priorities is an especially important imperative for senior military leaders. A shared understanding of and approach to risk facilitates a coherent decisionmaking process for the U.S. military. While following civilian policy direction, the joint force uses the Joint Risk Analysis Methodology (JRAM) to prioritize globally and across time in a multipolar environment, for strategic competition, during crises, and throughout armed conflict. Coherent, prioritized decisionmaking that properly accounts for diverse types of risk is important because lives are in the balance. Decisions made in peace to prioritize one threat over another, one area of the world over another, one Service or capability over another, or urgent operations today over important and longer term modernization efforts could facilitate either tomorrow’s success or its failure.3 Managing critical decisions regarding force posture, planning, modernization, and investments in ways congruent with long-term strategy is truly “risky business.”

This article provides the analytical basis for the JRAM, the framework for appraising and managing risk. It explains how risk informs national security decisionmaking. The JRAM is useful and flexible, within limits, to facilitate commanders’ decisionmaking regardless of level. This article, however, focuses on the Joint Staff level and above. Beyond education, the purpose is to illustrate key risk considerations, including impacts of mitigation measures to other regions and across time in a multipolar environment.

Lieutenant Isay Rapoport, left, directs F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to “Tophatters” of Strike Fighter Squadron 14, on flight deck of USS
Abraham Lincoln, March 13, 2022, in Philippine Sea (U.S. Navy/Javier Reyes)

Theoretical Underpinnings of Risk Methodology

To facilitate the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s military advice to the Secretary of Defense and the President, the Joint Staff J5 formally penned, and coordinated with all combatant commands and Services, the first JRAM, in 2016, to promote a common risk framework and lexicon to the joint force.4 Since then, the updated JRAM, dated October 12, 2021, prepares the Chairman and military leaders at every level to consider and handle risk appropriately in an environment where the Nation and its allies are faced with two Great Powers engaged in a “no-limits” strategic partnership.5 The 2021 JRAM represents an outcomes-oriented risk process that informs strategy and resourcing decisions, all the while nested in policy, doctrine, and practice.6 The JRAM is not a tactical one-size-fits-all approach to risk; instead, the JRAM represents a common methodology for the joint force to normalize risk appraisal and risk management processes, facilitate consistency across the Department of Defense (DOD), and enhance risk communication for national security decisionmaking.7

The theoretical underpinnings of the current JRAM originated from the Joint Risk Assessment System (JRAS), which was the product of over 8 years of development and leveraged 2 decades’ experience conducting the Chairman’s Risk Assessment, Quadrennial Defense Review risk assessments, and other risk assessments. This system was developed in collaboration with the major risk stakeholders, including the Joint Staff, Services, combatant commands, and Office of the Secretary of Defense. Additionally, the Joint Staff J5 conducted research and engagements with the private sector, academia, and think tanks. The Chairman employed the JRAS’s foundational risk governance framework from 2006 until updated in the JRAM in 2016.8 While the JRAS provided the joint force with a concept of risk governance based around risk analysis and risk management for senior leaders, it only viewed risk through the lens of the commander providing the risk assessment instead of an assessment of global risk to surmise impacts across the joint force over time. The new JRAM addresses these shortcomings, providing a framework to understand globally integrated risk.

The JRAM’s approach uses an index of severity (consequence levels) assessed for a harmful event (with various probability levels) that results in a risk level along a contour graph (that is, probability x consequence = risk), as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1. Probability and Consequence

The combination of probability and consequence levels determines the initial risk assessment for a potential threat, which then allows for risk judgment, or the qualitative effort to determine a decisionmaker’s final characterization of risk.9 This approach allows the decisionmaker (that is, military leader) to determine an appropriate risk level based on an objective assessment of probability and consequence while incorporating the commander’s judgment to account for various factors decisionmakers face.

Risk Assessments: Supporting Senior Leader Decisionmaking

Across Regions. Evaluating and communicating risk across regions is at the core of any successful risk appraisal and management effort. The JRAM strives to reduce misunderstandings between risk stakeholders despite the complexities and uncertainties in the dynamic global security environment by providing a common framework and lexicon. Leaders’ use of this framework and risk vocabulary is foundational in communications with partners and adversaries.10 For example, on March 15, 2022, the U.S. Navy conducted an air demonstration from the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Yellow Sea, using F/A-18 E/F and F-35C aircraft. The official press release reaffirmed the U.S. security commitment to Japan and the Republic of Korea. Leaders also designed it to signal the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to reconsider its ongoing intercontinental ballistic missile launches.11 These risk decisions, actions, and corresponding communications reaffirm security guarantees to Indo-Pacific partners while warning regional adversaries of the continued U.S. commitment to its Indo-Pacific allies and partners, despite its current focus on Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Across Time. A risk assessment should consider drivers of risk not only across combatant commands but also various time horizons.12 Assessing risk over multiple time horizons is a recognition that managing risk today affects future risk. The JRAM employs three time horizons gleaned from other DOD strategy documents: force employment (0–3 years); force development (2–7 years); and force design (5–15 years). By analyzing risk across various time horizons, decisionmakers can be intentional about their willingness to accept, avoid, mitigate, or transfer risk to ensure their choices reflect global strategic priorities (see figure 2). In a 2021 article, General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., USAF, and General David H. Berger, USMC, discussed the need for a new strategic readiness paradigm, and that risk appraisal completed on behalf of the Chairman must look holistically across the joint force.13 The 2021 JRAM supports the call to facilitate risk decisions that consider implications across multiple Services and combatant commands. Figure 2 and the corresponding vignette demonstrate one way this could play out.

Figure 2. Risk Across Regions, Services, and Time

On January 21, 2022, leaders directed the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group to participate in Neptune Strike 22 exercises in the Mediterranean Sea amid pre-invasion tensions among the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Russia. The participation of the U.S. carrier strike group was a signal of transatlantic unity but did divert assets from the Persian Gulf. However, the carrier had just returned to sea after three consecutive deployments in 4 years, spanning 56,000 nautical miles through the U.S. Northern Command, U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), and U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) areas of responsibility (AORs).14 The carrier was supposed to enter a rigorous maintenance cycle. Instead, leaders slimmed down the maintenance to minimize maintenance backlogs in the shipyard and met the demand for the Truman to return to the fleet.15

Analyzing the risk associated with this decision, we find that leaders accepted higher near-term risk in USCENTCOM AOR to drive down near-term risk in the USEUCOM AOR. Prioritizing select AORs to focus finite DOD resources on priority threats may necessarily raise risk elsewhere. For instance, if DOD prioritizes contemporary campaigning today in the USEUCOM and USCENTCOM AORs over modernization and maintenance, it may be accepting increased risk in a potential future fight in the Indo-Pacific region—if everything cannot be sufficiently resourced. Therefore, policymakers’ resourcing decisions drive the joint force’s ruthless prioritization of operations, activities, and investments consistent with policy guidance and long-term strategic aims—what some have referred to as “strategic discipline.”16 Again, because DOD resources are finite, policymakers must use the other levers of national power to compete with adversaries. President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance highlights the use of diplomacy as the national security tool of choice, with the military being the tool of last resort.17 By articulating risk holistically across regions and time, while also considering impacts across functions and domains, senior military leaders can better understand and articulate risk decisions’ various implications.18

Commander’s Discretion in Risk Analysis

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine represents an important inflection point for defense policymakers. One approach could be to shore up NATO and European partners and allies by refocusing departmental and national resources toward NATO’s eastern flank. A second approach could be to maintain discipline by allocating resources toward the pacing DOD challenge, China; in the Indo-Pacific region, globally; and toward related modernization efforts. As civilian policymakers decide on such policy and resourcing decisions, it will be incumbent on joint force commanders to mitigate risk with their campaigning, in crises, and potentially in armed conflict. Senior leaders must consider more than urgent force employment actions in these risk judgments. The JRAM presents a methodology to do just that. Yet it does so while realizing that actions taken today can also positively shape the future. Thus, it does not force leaders to forgo all operations or activities necessary to advance defense priorities today.


The United States no longer enjoys the strategic overmatch it encountered after the Cold War and now faces a multipolar security environment defined by two nuclear-armed Great Powers. To compete against these near-peer adversaries, joint force commanders must ruthlessly prioritize resources across regions and over time in accordance with global policies and imperatives. A foundational question addressed in each decision is how many resources to expend in each effort today versus apply toward another activity, hold in reserve, or invest for the future. The 2021 JRAM’s risk framework supports Service chiefs, combatant commanders, and military leaders at all levels and aligns with recently released and forthcoming strategy documents.19 There is still room for improvement.

Future iterations of the JRAM should consider applicability of the framework to assess strategy, analyze risk as opportunity, and apply the methodology to evaluate cumulative risk over time. In the meantime, its standardized yet flexible framework is a significant improvement in thinking and acting holistically about global risk to the joint force, across regions, elements, and time. Consistent use will facilitate senior leader decisionmaking in appraising, managing, and communicating risk throughout the tough decisions in our dynamic security environment. JFQ


1 Graham Allison, “Putin’s Doomsday Threat: How to Prevent a Repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis in Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs, April 5, 2022.

2 National Military Strategy 2022: Strategic Discipline (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2022); Ian Bremmer and Preston Keat, The Fat Tail: The Power of Political Knowledge in an Uncertain World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

3 Michael J. Mazarr, “Rethinking Risk in Defense,” War on the Rocks, April 13, 2015.

4 U.S. Code 10, § 153(a)(4)(B), “Chairman: Functions: Comprehensive Joint Readiness,”

5 Brian Waidelich, “3 Possible Futures for China-Russia Military Cooperation,” The Diplomat, March 11, 2022.

6 Mazarr, “Rethinking Risk in Defense.”

7 See Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Manual (CJCSM) 3105.01A, Joint Risk Analysis Methodology (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, October 12, 2021). This document contrasts sharply with the assessment found in Neils J. Abderhalden, “Risk Hindering Decision Making: How the DOD’s Faulty Understanding of Risk Jeopardizes Its Strategy,” The Strategy Bridge, March 11, 2022.

8 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction (CJCSI) 3100.01C, Joint Risk Assessment System (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, January 1, 2015), 2.

9 CJCSM 3105.01A, B5–B6.

10 CJCSM 3105.01A. This document contrasts with the assessment found in Abderhalden, “Risk Hindering Decision Making.”

11 Dzirhan Mahadzir, “U.S. Carrier Fighters Overfly Yellow Sea in Response to North Korean Missile Launch,” USNI News, March 15, 2022.

12 Abderhalden, “Risk Hindering Decision Making.”

13 Charles Q. Brown, Jr., and David H. Berger, “Redefine Readiness or Lose,” War on the Rocks, March 15, 2021,

14 Diana Stancy Correll, “Aircraft Carrier Truman Is Back in Norfolk After Extended Deployment,” Navy Times, June 17, 2020.

15 Megan Eckstein “USS Harry S. Truman Out of Maintenance After 10 Months; Material Challenges Caused 3-Month Delay,” USNI News, May 12, 2021.

16 Caitlin Lee, “The U.S. Military’s Force-Management Tug-of-War,” War on the Rocks, March 23, 2022,

17 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (Washington, DC: The White House, March 2021).

18 CJCSM 3105.01A, B-11.

19 CJCSM 3105.01A. This document contrasts with the assessment found in Abderhalden, “Risk Hindering Decision Making.”