Reflections on the new U.S. Army #Operating Concept: What’s in a Name?

When critiquing high level conceptual documents like the U.S. Army Operating Concept, it’s important to remember what they are and what they are not. They are an attempt to steer already ongoing group conversations into specific directions that the leadership feels are needed to prepare the group for future success. They seek to reinforce or clarify some ideas, discount or refute others, and, most importantly, provide direction on how the organization will address both new challenges and existing unresolved problems. They seek to provide common starting points for the discussion and set the parameters for future debate and exploration.

They are not designed to deal with specific problems, they do not prescribe solutions, nor do they usually make specific predictions about the future, except within ranges of possibilities.

Given that perspective, and with the assumption that others more qualified than I will likely provide analysis on the “nuts and bolts” of the document, I’d like to comment on two of the specific words that the authors very deliberately chose for the most important part of the document, and why I’m glad that they did.

The words? “Complex” and “Win”, both in the title.


There is a good reason this word keeps showing up in our strategic documents like the 2010 and 2014 QDRs (which this document reflects), and there is also a reason the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has used it consistently in his messaging. It’s a recognition that the world is becoming rapidly connected, and also that the ways we collectively make sense of the world — and define what is meant by expertise and authority — are not keeping pace with this rate of change. Some have already said “It’s just jargon — the world has always been complex.” There is an element of truth in this statement, since the experience of complexity — and complicatedness as well, for that matter — is in part an experience between ourselves and the things we observe, and remains universal across time. We experience complexity when our mental schemas — built through combinations of personal experience and theories passed on from others — are not adequate to understand and make sense of the system changes and interactions we’re observing. Over time, with knowledge and experience, we can often overcome this feeling through deduction or instruction.

But here is where “complicated” and “complex” differ: with complicated systems — such as in the case the oft-mentioned Swiss Watch — once you figure them out, your understanding of their workings will remain valid over time, and the experience of confusion and uncertainty will disappear. In contrast, complex systems are in a continuous process of co-adaptation, with ever increasing numbers of nodes and degrees of interconnection that stymie prediction and understanding. This means that you can never stop and rest on your cognitive laurels, assuming your understandings from the past are still adequate today. It’s this mindset the document is driving us towards, and appropriately so, no matter how much we might want to take a mental knee after over 13 years of very complex warfare, with even more to come.

But in many ways, the challenges of the future will likely be harder than they were in the past, as this increased connectedness raises the bar for achieving even a basic understanding of what is happening all around us. Highly destructive effects — brought directly to our Homeland at the speeds of sound and light as disruptive technologies, ideologies, and applications spread faster, wider, and more cheaply — will be increasingly available to smaller and smaller groups of bad actors, who will all-too-often be shielded and supported by traditional nation states using them as proxies to maintain plausible deniability for the actions they sponsor. But the challenge of dealing with increasing complexity is not just a military one — even if all of our wars miraculously ended tomorrow, we would still be challenged to understand what is happening in society as the world becomes ever more connected, with even the smallest ripples increasingly having faster and wider effects. Thomas Friedman may not have conclusively or persuasively proved The World is Flat, but his observations about the “democratizations of information, technology, and finance” in The Lexus and the Olive Tree were apt, and help to explain why General Dempsey often recommends books like Present Shock and The End of Power to subordinates.

Bottom line: The days where you can get almost everything you need to know in a “Bottom Line Up Front” statement are over. Elegance is always to be sought, but in complex environments, “Keep It Simple Stupid” will increasingly become “Keep It Simple = Stupid” unless we successfully upgrade our own mental operating system through the development of more sophisticated operational and strategic concepts. More on that during the upcoming Innovation Week series here on The Bridge and at CIMSEC…


Perhaps our greatest cognitive challenge will be defining what “winning” looks like in a world where “taking the gloves off” against an adversary has a much greater potential to provoke an even wider problem than seeking decisive defeat would. Our Iraqi experiences in 1991, 2003, and 2011 made it crystal clear that “winning” and “end states” are only mile markers in a sociopolitical journey that continue to emerge on their own accord no matter how we characterize them internally, reminiscent of the “Zen Master” story in Charlie Wilson’s War (Adult language warning).

In many cases, the time, effort, and risks to be taken in order to “win” in a systemic sense against some of our foes and their sponsors may be beyond the reach of our ways, means, and our nation’s will to sustain them given acceptable levels of risk. Seeking tactical success is always an imperative, but we must enter our conflicts wide-eyed to the strategic realities of engaging in “repair service” behavior when this occurs, as the AOC suggests. The AOC’s description of winning is incomplete in one sense, however. While “presenting the enemy multiple dilemmas” may indeed be a source of gaining continuing advantage — which may be the best we can do when a decisive win carries unpalatable costs — it does not resolve fundamental tensions that spark future violence.

Short of complete attrition, the only way to achieve that is to shape situations in which the previous enemy has become a nonviolent stakeholder in the same future you desire (or at least one close enough). Finding a “win-win” acceptable to you is truly winning in the strategic sense, even if human nature, unavoidable competition, and irreconcilable priorities often preclude such arrangements. So if we’re going to have to accept more nuanced interpretations of what it means to “win” in the future, why am I glad it was used — with no qualifications or asterisks — in the AOC title? Because it implies an attitude we must preserve at all costs, especially as we tackle the complexities of the modern world. And if the U.S. Army ever stops believing that it can and will win, then God help us all…

Dave “Sugar” Lyle is a U.S. Air Force strategist. The views expressed belong to the author alone and do not represent the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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