#Operating: Beginning a Discussion on the Army Operating Concept

This is the first article in the #Operating: A Personal Reflection on the Army Operating Concept series.


The new Army Operating Concept (AOC) posted earlier this week received a lot of feedback on social media and in the halls of military installations – which ultimately led to this series, titled “#Operating: A Personal Reflection on the Army Operating Concept,” on The Bridge. This post will kick things off by taking a holistic look at the document; later posts will focus on personal reactions to the document – what it says, what it fails to say, or even particular elements from it that resonate.

To begin, the framing of this future-oriented document is solidly rooted in the past…something we should all expect given that the overseer of its publication is the noted Warrior-Historian, LTG H.R. McMaster. A military document that not only references in the endnotes historical analysis and theory found in texts like those by Thucydides, Clausewitz, and even past military doctrine, but also conceptually intertwines their wisdom throughout, is likely to be more valuable than a document typified by “buzzword bingo.” While professional vernacular is a tool to accurately and quickly convey terms among members of the profession, it can also be used to gloss over or even replace deep thought and vital understanding, even among the “initiated.” So, while the AOC certainly reduces its use of typical military language from previous versions, it does still contain its fair share of jargon.

For the uninitiated, the AOC is supposed to “describe how the Army…employs forces and capabilities…to accomplish campaign objectives and protect U.S. national interests” (Page 8). It takes a little digging to find that in this document. To make things a little easier (at least for me), I’m going to break out some key elements and translate its contents into my language, hopefully increasing the accessibility of the concepts.

First, what problem is the AOC trying to solve?

“3–1. Military problem: To meet the demands of the future strategic environment in 2025 and beyond, how does the Army conduct joint operations promptly, in sufficient scale, and for ample duration to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and win wars?” (Page 14)

Translation: How does the Army “prevent, shape, and win” 1) promptly enough for political leaders and to address the military issue at hand; 2) at a sufficient scale to achieve military and political objectives; and 3) for an ample duration to create an enduring, positive effect.

For me, the question remains if the Army (or any military Service) can do all three of these items in a resource-robust environment, let alone a fiscally-constrained one? For instance, I think the Army (and all the Services) provided the capability to be prompt and enduring in the last few conflicts…but for many reasons (political and military), scale was another issue.

Now, what is the solution to this military problem (what the AOC terms the “Central Idea”):

“3–2. Central idea: The Army, as part of joint, interorganizational, and multinational teams, protects the homeland and engages regionally to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and create multiple options for responding to and resolving crises. When called upon, globally responsive combined arms teams maneuver from multiple locations and domains to present multiple dilemmas to the enemy, limit enemy options, avoid enemy strengths, and attack enemy weaknesses. Forces tailored rapidly to the mission will exercise mission command and integrate joint, interorganizational, and multinational capabilities. Army forces adapt continuously to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. Army forces defeat enemy organizations, control terrain, secure populations, consolidate gains, and preserve joint force freedom of movement and action in the land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains” (Page 15).

I did mention this document, while rooted in history, still contains a bit of military jargon. So, here’s my interpretation/translation of this dense paragraph:

The Army must prevent and shape conflict by engaging regionally (thereby being able to develop partners capable of providing local/regional security and stability, as well as assure allies to prevent miscalculation) and respond globally with credibility (to deter adversaries). Additionally, the Army, when necessary, “presents multiple dilemmas” and “limits enemy options” when conducting combat operations against an adversary; this will theoretically compel an enemy to submit to our desired military and political objectives.

How will the Army operate to achieve this solution? I won’t quote the ten paragraphs, but instead provide my interpretation (I think some of them are subsets of others or redundant, so my list is a little shorter). The Army will:

  1. Be regionally engaged – provides access and intelligence/understanding of the area, as well as increases partner capabilities and assures allies in the region.
  2. Be globally responsive – provides ability to project power and deter adversaries.
  3. Conduct combined arms operations – in support of Joint Force and that CAN BE sustained for long periods.
  4. Be capable of controlling adversaries and populations – this is accomplished through security, presence, and support local civil authorities.
  5. Build/shape Army forces that can do the four items above – this is done through the Army’s Title 10 responsibilities (design, man, train, equip), of which leader/people development is an important subset.

When I read a list like the above, what it tells me is the Army must be capable and willing to regionalize its units, operations, and paradigm. The Regionally Aligned Forces concept largely addresses this, but structural issues must be overcome to drive it even further. The AOC touches frequently on one of those structural items; set the theater capabilities. In order to deploy, employ, and sustain units – even inside the U.S. – maneuver and maneuver support units must have the infrastructure to operate. This includes “essential capabilities including logistics, communications, intelligence, long-range fires, and air and missile defense” (Page 21). If the Army wants units regionally engaged and globally responsive, then capabilities to conduct those activities – as well as those that support them – they should be assigned to the regional military authorities; the Combatant Commanders. Underneath each Combatant Commander is an Army headquarters element charged with being regionally aligned and capable of setting the theater; the Army Service Component Command. Resourcing and empowering it with set the theater capabilities, assigned forces, and more robust planning elements would greatly enhance the Army’s ability to achieve the first two bullets above.

Placing the “set the theater” activity as a core element of how the Army operates is one of the greatest strengths in the new AOC – and one that is frequently overlooked by the Army, as well as the other Services and DoD as a whole.

Finally, the laundry list of “required capabilities” in the AOC does not really address capabilities, but activities the Army needs to perform (i.e. intelligence collection, SFA, command and control forces, etc.) (Page 29). The true capabilities are addressed later when the AOC details, “future force development principles” (Page 33). They include:

  1. Retain capacity and readiness to accomplish missions that support achieving national objectives.
  2. Build or expand new capabilities to cope with emerging threats or achieve overmatch.
  3. Maintain U.S. Army asymmetrical advantages.
  4. Maintain essential theater foundational and enabling capabilities.
  5. Prioritize organizations and competencies that are most difficult to train and regenerate.
  6. Cut unnecessary overhead to retain fighting capacity and decentralize capabilities whenever possible.
  7. Maintain and expand synergies between the operating force and the institutional Army.
  8. Optimize performance of the Army through a force mix that accentuates relative strengths and mitigates weaknesses of each component.

I know there are different interpretations of the purpose of the AOC, but I believe the above items are what the Army should have focused on in the AOC – these are the capabilities required that would allow further analysis and experimentation to flesh out “how” the Army should operate in the future. After the admirable description of the operating environment (well-rooted in the past), the AOC could have detailed these items and used them to drive how the Army would achieve them in the future – a vision for an Army that can operate consistently across the world day-to-day, but coalesce on specific areas to conduct combined arms operations against defined enemies to achieve political objectives through military force.

The Army continues to consolidate and articulate its means and ways as we venture into the future…and the new AOC is one element of how the Army, as an institution, drives that change.


Nathan K. Finney is an officer in the U.S. Army. He is also the founder and Managing Director of the Military Fellowship at the Project on International Peace & Security, the founder and editor of The Bridge, a member of the Infinity Journal's Editorial Advisory Board, a founding board member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, a founding member of the Military Writers Guild, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and a PhD candidate in history at the University of Kansas.  Nathan holds masters degrees in Public Administration from Harvard University and the University of Kansas, as well as a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona.  He tweets at @NKFinney.


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