Small Wars Journal

Assessing the Operational Environment: What We Learned Over the Past Year

Fri, 01/26/2018 - 12:52pm

Assessing the Operational Environment: What We Learned Over the Past Year

TRADOC G2 Operational Environment Assessment

This paper argues that fast-moving trends across the Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic (DIME) spheres are rapidly changing all aspects of society and human life, including the very character of warfare as TRADOC described in “The Operational Environment and the Changing Character of Future Warfare,” published in 2017.  The convergence of these trends also reveals an erosion of U.S. military overmatch in several areas and set the stage for more aggressive challenges for the U.S.

This Operational Environment (OE) is dynamic and capable of changing when new drivers, new developments, and/or new trend lines are discerned, but changes to the whole OE construct will be rare.  This does not mean that learning about the OE is a static process.  TRADOC’s OE Enterprise is a learning enterprise that seeks to answer key questions and close critical OE knowledge gaps so that the Army can make the best decisions it can.  Over the past year, TRADOC has learned a great deal more about the OE, but we have not changed our underlying assessment of the OE’s trajectory.  There are critical lessons and insights that will influence the Army’s training and leader development, concept and doctrine development, and materiel acquisition efforts.  We can categorize these critical lessons, or assessments, into four categories:  general, tactical, operational, and strategic. 

The general lessons we have learned over the past year confirm our OE analysis of trends and factors that intensify and accelerate the transformation of the future OE.  The first trend is instability caused by demographics, identity issues, economic imbalances, competition for resources, climate change, and other issues that create fault lines within nations, regions, and broader international relations.  The second trend is the rapid innovation, development, and fielding of new technologies that promise to radically enhance our abilities to live, create, think, and prosper.  The factors that cut across these trends and bring them together are the accelerated pace of human interaction and widespread connectivity through the Internet of Things, and the concept of convergence.  Convergence of societal trends and technologies will create new capabilities or societal implications that are greater than the sum of their individual parts, and at times are unexpected.

A consequence of convergence is a willingness by global actors to challenge U.S. interests.  The perceived waning of U.S. military power in conjunction with the increase in capabilities resulting from our adversaries’ rapid proliferation of technology and increased investment in research and development has set the stage for challengers to pursue interests contrary to America’s. 

  • We have seen adversaries directly attack our national will with cyber and sophisticated information operations while bypassing or metering any military attacks.
  • We will face peer, near-peer, and regional hegemons as adversaries, as well as non-state actors motivated by identity, ideology, or interest, and individuals super-empowered by technologies and capabilities once found only among nations. 
  • Any area into which the Army will deploy between now and 2050 is expected to have instability that can be exploited either by U.S. Joint Forces or our adversaries.  Fault lines in these areas generally include political disenfranchisement, economic disparity, and issues relating to identity.
  • Technologies in the future OE will be disruptive, smart, connected, and self-organizing.
  • Major cultural divides and gulfs in understanding will exist between individuals, interest groups, nations, and regions, which will create disparities and increase instability.
  • Key technologies once thought to be science fiction are here today, and are improving daily.  They present new opportunities for military operations ranging from human operated / machine-assisted, to human-machine hybrid operations, to human-directed / machine- conducted operations; all facilitated by autonomy, Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, enhanced human performance, and advanced computing. 

The tactical lessons we have learned reveal tangible realities found on battlefields around the globe today and our assessments about the future rooted in our understanding of the current OE. 

  • Our adversaries already are using weapons and systems that in some cases are superior to our own, providing selective overmatch of some U.S. capabilities, such as long-range fires, air-defense, and electronic warfare.
  • We also have witnessed the use of commercial-off-the shelf (COTS) technologies to create new and novel methods of warfare.  
  • Convergence, in particular, plays a role here as our adversaries often combine technologies or operating principles to create novel, and at times unique, methods of attack. 
  • Our adversaries continue to make strides in developing chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) capabilities.  We must, at a tactical level, be prepared to operate in a CBRN environment. 
  • Our potential adversaries are deploying complex combinations of capabilities that create unique challenges to the Army and Joint Forces.  Adversaries, regardless of their resources, are finding ways to present us with multiple tactical dilemmas.  Our adversaries are combining capabilities with new concepts and doctrine, as evidenced by:
    • Russia’s New Generation Warfare.
    • China’s active defensive and local wars under “informationized” conditions.
    • Iran’s focus on information operations, asymmetric warfare and anti-access/area denial.
    • North Korea’s combination of conventional, information operations, asymmetric, and strategic capabilities.
    • ISIS’s often improvised yet complex capabilities employed during the Battle of Mosul, in Syria, and elsewhere.
    • The proliferation of anti-armor capabilities seen in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, as well as the use of ballistic missiles by state and non-state actors.
  • Over the past year we have seen our adversaries field a number of new systems and technologies that have increased their capabilities.  The most ubiquitous are drones and robotics that have been particularly successful in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine.
  • Our adversaries have excelled at Prototype Warfare, using new improvised capabilities that converge technologies and COTS systems—in some cases for specific attacks—to great effect.  ISIS, for example, has used commercial drones fitted with 40mm grenades to attack U.S. and allied forces near Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria.  While these attacks caused little damage, a Russian drone dropping a thermite grenade caused the destruction of a Ukrainian arms depot at Balakleya, which resulted in massive explosions and fires, the evacuation of 23,000 citizens, and $1 billion worth of damage and lost ordnance. 

The operational level lessons we have learned are teaching us that our traditional, and heretofore very successful, ways of waging warfare will not be enough to ensure victory on future battlefields.  Commanders must now sequence battles and engagements beyond the traditional land, sea, and air domains, and seamlessly, and often simultaneously, orchestrate combat effects across multi-domains, to include space and cyberspace.  The multiple tactical dilemmas that our adversaries present us with create operational level challenges.  Adversaries:

  • Build increasingly sophisticated Anti-access/area denial “bubbles” we have to break.
  • Extend the scope of operations through the use of cyber, space, and asymmetric activities.
  • Simultaneously target individuals and segments of populations.
  • Complicate our operational deployment of forces.
  • Utilize sophisticated, and often deniable, methods of using information operations, often enabled by cyber capabilities, to directly target the Homeland and impact our individual and national will to fight.
  • Create the imperative to develop multi-domain capabilities.

We will have to operationalize Multi-Domain Battle to achieve victory over peer or near-peer competitors.  Additionally, we must plan and be prepared to integrate other government entities and allies into our operations.

  • The dynamism of the future OE is driven by the ever increasing volumes of information.  The importance of information operations will continue, and may become the primary focus of warfare/competition in the future. 
  • When adversaries have a centralized leadership that can send a unified message and more readily adopt a whole-of-government approach, the U.S. needs mechanisms to more effectively coordinate and collaborate among whole-of-government partners.
  • Operations short of war may require the Department of Defense to subordinate itself to other Agencies, depending on the objective.
  • When coupled with sophisticated whole-of-government approaches, information operations, backed by new capabilities with increasing ranges, challenge our national approach to warfare.
  • Our adversaries’ asymmetric strategies blur the lines between war and competition, and operate in a gray zone between war and peace below the perceived threshold of U.S. military reaction. 

The strategic lessons we have learned demonstrate the OE will be more challenging and dynamic then in the past. 

  • A robust Homeland defense strategy will be imperative for competition from now to 2050.
  • North Korea’s strategic nuclear capability, if able to range beyond the Pacific theater to CONUS, places a renewed focus on weapons of mass destruction and missile defense.
  • A broader array of nuclear and weapons of mass destruction-armed adversaries will compel us to re-imagine operations in a CBRN environment, and to devise and consider new approaches to deterrence and collective security.
  • Our understanding of deterrence and coercion theory will be different from the lessons of the Cold War.
  • The Homeland will be an active theater in any future conflict and adversaries will have a host of kinetic and non-kinetic attack options from our home stations all the way to the combat zone.
  • The battlefield of the future will become far more lethal and destructive, and be contested from home station to the Joint Operational Area, requiring ways to sustain operations, and also to rapidly reconstitute combat losses of personnel and equipment.
  • The Army requires resilient smart installations capable of not only training, equipping, preparing, and caring for Soldiers, civilians, and families, but also efficiently and capably serving as the first point of power projection and to provide reach back capabilities.
  • Trends in demographics and climate change mean we will have to operate in areas we might have avoided in the past.  These areas include cities and megacities, or whole new theaters, such as the Arctic. 
  • Personalized warfare will increase over time, specifically targeting the brain, genomes, cultural and societal groups, individuals’ personal interests/lives, and familial ties.
  • Future conflicts will be characterized by AI vs AI (i.e., algorithm vs algorithm). 
  • How AI is structured and integrated will be the strategic advantage, with the decisive edge accruing to the side with more autonomous decision-action concurrency on the “Hyperactive Battlefield.” 
  • Due to the increasingly interconnected Internet of Everything and the proliferation of weapons with highly destructive capabilities to lower echelons, tactical actions will have strategic implications, putting even more strain and time-truncation on decision-making at all levels.
  • Cognitive biases can shape our actions despite unprecedented access to information. 

Understanding the OE is perhaps more important now than ever.  The future OE presents us with a combination of new technologies and societal changes that will intensify long-standing international rivalries, create new security dynamics, and foster instability as well as opportunities. 

The Army recognizes the importance of this moment and is engaged in a modernization effort that rivals the intellectual momentum following the 1973 Starry Report.  The Army’s intellectual momentum recognizes that the “big five” (i.e., M1 Abrams Tank, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter, UH-60 Black Hawk Utility Helicopter, and Patriot Air Defense System) had accompanying changes across leadership development and education, concept, and doctrine development that provided the U.S. Army overmatch into the new millennium. 

Based on the future OE, the Army’s leadership is asking the important questions of what type of force do we need?  What capabilities will it require?  How will we prepare our Soldiers, civilians, and leaders to operate within this future?  Clearly the OE is the starting point for this entire process.

About the Author(s)

The TRADOC G-2 develops, delivers, and validates the Operational Environment products and services to enable realistic training, leader development, education, concepts, and capabilities development for the United States Army.


During the Old Cold War, it would seem to have been rather difficult to "assess the operational environment;" this, without first acknowledging the political objectives of the primary actors concerned -- for example, as per "advancing communism throughout the world" on the Soviet/the communist side, and as per "containing and/or rolling back communism" on much of the Rest of the World side. (Herein, this "advancing of communism" effort being seen by much of the Rest of the World, in this earlier era, as being clearly threatening to many/most non-communist ways of life, ways of governance, values, etc. -- and -- to those most privileged/protected by same?)

Likewise, in the current era, it would seem to be rather difficult to "assess the operational environment;" this, without a similar effort being made to acknowledge the political objectives of "us" and "them" -- for example, as per "advancing market-democracy throughout the world" on the U.S./the West side, and as per the "containing and/or rolling back of market-democracy" on much of the Rest of the World side. (Herein, and much as in the "advancing communism" case/effort during the Old Cold War, the "advancing of market-democracy" effort, being made by the U.S./the West today, this clearly threatens much of the Rest of the World and, specifically therein, [a] their non-western/less-western ways of life, ways of governance, values, etc. -- and -- [b] those that are most privileged/protected by same?)

(As to this latter case, to wit: as per the political objective of the U.S./the West post-the Old Cold War, to consider the following -- Obama era I believe -- U.S. State Department mission statement:


American diplomacy in the 21st century is based on fundamental beliefs: our freedom is best protected by ensuring that others are free; our prosperity depends on the prosperity of others; and our security relies on a global effort to secure the rights of all. The history of the American people is the chronicle of our efforts to live up to our ideals. In this moment in history, we recognize that the United States has an immense responsibility to use its power constructively to advance security, democracy, and prosperity around the globe. We will pursue these interests and remain faithful to our beliefs.


Thus, it is against the acknowledgement of this post-Cold War political objective of the U.S./the West (to wit: "expansion") -- and it is as per the acknowledgement of the political objective of those confronting same ("containment and/or "roll back") -- that I offer the following additional item; which, given the information I have provided above, hopefully will allow us to better understand, and better deal with, our "operational environment:"


The political context of future conflicts ("expansion of market-democracy" efforts by the U.S./the West; this, versus "containment and/or roll back of market-democracy" efforts by much of the Rest of the World?) will have a far greater impact on the conduct of war than current U.S. military modernization efforts reflect. The effects international actors will be able to achieve through non-lethal informational, political, cultural, and economic weapons will begin to overshadow the use of force. ...


(Items in parenthesis above are mine.)…

(Note: In this "assessing the operational environment," we should not miss, and as our new National Defense Strategy now clearly indicates, that the U.S./the West today -- much as was the case with the Soviets/the communists during the Old Cold War -- faces both great nations and small and both state and non-state actor enemies; enemies, thus, which are common to the "expansionist" v. "containment and/or roll back" character of "cold wars?")


Wed, 02/14/2018 - 8:56pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Couldn't agree more on the need to refine and adapt our training and education, organization, and our concepts of planning. Too often we sacrifice strategic agility for a 'process' and we fail to effectively address, mitigate, or reduce a threat. I've long thought that a driver of these challenges was how we incentivize leaders. We reward tangible and visible 'changes' as 'progress' and end up creating a system where a new leadership team is rewarded for challenging the status quo - regardless of whether or not the current approach was working. Body counts in Vietnam, # of kinetic operations in early OEF, OIF, and less about some of the softer metrics. I recognize that this approach is sometimes elusive in terms of tangible metrics, but I would imagine there are organizations who have cracked this.

In order to get a military to behave the right way, we have to reward / incent them appropriately (not advocating to throw $$ at the problem). This starts at the top and the Hill and I get that, but imagine how Division and below would start to behave on thier own if we actually identified AND rewarded the behaviors and attributes that are indicative of a highly agile, collaborative, and innovative team.

Bill M.

Sat, 02/10/2018 - 12:53pm

Overall the assessment of the OE seems accurate, but perhaps incomplete, which is understandable for a short article. While I don't disagree with the multi-domain battle concept, it is not a panacea for managing the various threats we face. The other comment on the need to subordinate the military to interagency partners is true, but in reality we have done that for years outside of war zones. Subordinating isn't a challenge, but developing actionable interagency strategies, plans, and directing their implementation is a challenge. Integrating new technology into operational concepts will always be a critical component of defense strategy, but equally, if not more important is how we educate/train our force, how we organize our force (more modular, plug and play, organizations that enable agile decision making at the lowest level, etc.), and how we conceive strategy and develop plans. Our current process was designed for time period that has long passed.