#Operating in Confusion: A Reflection on the Army #Operating Concept


I realize that, to fulfill its stated purpose, the Army Operating Concept (AOC) must be written in a tone that is both vague and aspirational. But this document goes way too far on both counts, to the point of being both incomprehensible and ridiculous.

In the second half of my document, I will focus on the content, rather than the style, of the document. But this first point must be made.

Your humble correspondent being very humble, indeed, it has taken me a while to get here, but I have now reached a point at which I’m comfortable saying that I’m no dummy. I may not be smarter than the average bear, but I’m probably as smart. I’ve earned advanced degrees from some reputable institutions and I have taught successfully at the college level, so I am familiar with both regular English and its most ostentatiously academic varieties. I realize that this doesn’t set me apart from most of The Bridge’s esteemed readership; my point is only that my basic reading comprehension skills are more than adequate. Furthermore, I have fifteen years of active commissioned service in this Army, with commensurate Professional Military Education. In fact, I’m nearly finished with the crucible of intellectual rigor that is Optimized ILE of the Distance Learning variety, so I’m clearly at the very apex of my doctrinal dexterity. And the truth is, I really struggled to figure out what the h#$l this thing was trying to tell me.

For one thing, there is some serious tense confusion throughout. The meat of the document (which, incidentally, doesn’t come until fourteen turgid pages in) is called How Future Army Forces Operate (Chap. 3). The problem, as any of my freshman writers could have told you, is that future Army forces don’t operate — not presently. So we can discuss how they will operate, or might operate, or should operate, but since they will only do so in the future, we should discuss it in the future tense. This isn’t pedantic; the choice (I assume it was a deliberate choice) causes real confusion throughout the document. Since there are occasional references to the present and the past, even in the section on the future, the reader is frequently unsure whether the Concept is describing what we do now or what we will do down the road.

The bigger problem is the attempt to mint a new set of buzzwords with sentences such as this: “Simultaneity extends efforts beyond physical battlefields into other contested spaces such as public perception, political subversion, illicit financing, and criminality (19).” I’m sorry… what? And why do we need this new term “overmatch” to describe an idea armies have discussed, presumably, since the beginning of warfare (9)? I’m not particularly attached to JIIM as an acronym for the Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational environment in which we’ve long been working, but at least we’re all familiar with it. Does introducing “Joint Combined Arms Maneuver” gain us any clarity (16)? Other terms sound promising — whatever it means to get “strategic wins” by “compelling sustainable outcomes,” it’s probably something we should strive for, but the Concept doesn’t adequately explain either what these things are or how we would do them (iii, 14). Nor does it explain how the proposed “global land network” differs from our present set of alliances and partnerships (15). I could go on, but it’s painful.

A dozen years of our best efforts with unprecedented levels of spending have made us the best counterinsurgency force the world has ever known, but they still haven’t resulted in anything that we could call a “strategic win” or a “sustainable outcome.”

I am being snarky, but I’m not just being snarky. For a TRADOC pamphlet, this thing got a lot of press, and it was a great opportunity to actually deliver an important message. If the intended audience is just better equipped to process this stuff than I am, then kudos, and I would be interested to know who they are. In any case, it’s for good reason that the standard for Army writing (as I know from my quality ILE education) is “writing you can understand in a single, rapid reading and is generally free from errors in grammar, mechanics, and usage… Good Army writing is clear, concise, organized, and right to the point” (DA Pam 600–67, pg 1). By that standard, the new AOC is an unmitigated failure.

To the extent that I did figure out what the AOC wanted to say, I would summarize it thusly: we can do whatever you want us to do and we will make ourselves into super-warrior-ninja-jedi-scholar-priest-legomasterbuilders to do it, as long as you don’t cut our budgets.

Do I exaggerate? Observe: “Army forces gain intellectual advantages over adversaries through cross-cultural competencies and advanced cognitive abilities (18).” “Expanded leader and Soldier competencies allow Army forces to consolidate gains in complex environments (17).” Have they met us? How far do we think our competencies can expand, really? I have been privileged to know and serve with some incredibly brilliant officers, NCOs, and enlisted Soldiers in my time, but we should remember that, by definition, about half of us are below average.

As J.P. Clark observed in his post, it’s doubtful we could implement this Concept in a resource-rich environment. But the fundamental error of this AOC is it fails to recognize budget constraints will likely be the defining fact of the future Army in question. Of course, the OE changes continually, and new (or newly recognized) threats can always change our fiscal priorities. But it was not for nothing that, as Chad Pillai reported, the “Force 2025 & Beyond” initiative determined the budget would be our Center of Gravity.

In a surprising departure from the expected “do more with less” pitch, national strategic guidance in recent years has actually recognized the unsustainability of our post-9/11 approach, directing the development of a smaller force, not sized for large-scale stability operations, a greater reliance on allies and other forms of power, and with more discriminating force commitments. But the AOC, refusing the prescribed appetite suppressant, knows no limits, relegating budget concerns to a bullet in the list of assumptions.

Some have praised the AOC for rejecting what LTG McMaster calls the “RSVP Fallacy”, the idea that we can simply opt out of the kind of conflicts we don’t like — “Thank you for this invitation to your war, but regrettably we will be unable to attend.” The logic is as sound as it is sardonic, but it’s equally true that if you try to prepare for everything, you wind up prepared for nothing. And it’s also true that if your Operating Concept disregards national strategic guidance and fiscal realities, then your national strategic leaders and your fiscal managers will disregard your Concept.

Why can’t we admit, in some fashion, that compelling adversaries is very hard, and as their capabilities increase and our resources shrink, it’s going to get harder? A dozen years of our best efforts with unprecedented levels of spending have made us the best counterinsurgency force the world has ever known, but they still haven’t resulted in anything that we could call a “strategic win” or a “sustainable outcome.” Meanwhile, our conventional capabilities have atrophied. Why can we not recognize that in an increasingly complex world, there are limits to what military power can be expected to achieve?

If we did, we would write an AOC that started with our fundamental duty of protecting the homeland, which gets harder every day. Then we would build an expeditionary Army to defeat capable adversaries in a fight-tonight world, and an expansible force to provide campaign-quality endurance. These are no mean feats. The AOC does address these capabilities, to be sure (though insufficiently, in the former case), but they are interspersed with and overshadowed by such dubious promises as “Army forces are prepared to do more than fight and defeat enemies; they must possess the capability to translate military objectives into enduring political outcomes (8).”

Someone certainly should do that — our Unified Combatant Commanders, perhaps, with the help of the Joint Staff and OSD, under the guidance of the Secretary and the Commander in Chief. But can we expect Army forces to do that? Do we even want them to? The Army is a force provider — the American people will be well served if we build an Army that can “merely” fight and defeat enemies.

There are things to like in the AOC — I am particularly a fan of its emphasis on setting the theater and its call for organic, sustainable logistics, regional engagement, and better integration of SOF with conventional forces. Unfortunately, those actionable and achievable objectives are lost amid aspirations that are almost certainly unreachable, buried deep in a document that is all but unreadable.


Ryan Shaw is a U.S. Army strategist. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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