Why Non-U.S. Militaries Should Adopt the U.S. Army Design Methodology

Lebanese Armed Forces in the Nahr Al-Bared Campaign of 2007

How militaries address problems is crucial to their success as an organization. Militaries use many different planning tools to solve operational problems. Some of these tools follow a structured methodology that is quite similar to the U.S. Army’s Military Decision Making Process. On the other hand, the U.S. Army Design Methodology is a state-of-mind and a way of thinking that is not confined within boundaries. Instead of just solving a problem, this approach will help to solve the right problem.[1] By utilizing this methodology, non-U.S. militaries will benefit through better understanding, visualization, and being able to describe complex environments, unfamiliar problems, and their resolution. Additionally, they will be able to enhance functionality among distinct  military organisations.[2] This article recommends the introduction and incorporation of U.S. Army Design Methodology terminology and principles into the military doctrine of other nations to better support their operational planning through an illustration of the method’s major activities—framing the environment, framing the problem, and finally, framing the solution—through an analysis of the Lebanese Armed Forces experience in the Nahr Al-Bared Campaign of 2007.[3]

Background on U.S. Army Design Methodology

Organizations fail because they tend to address symptoms of a problem without understanding its complexity, use inadequate concepts to solve it, or they fail to face the right problem.[4] The U.S. Army Design Methodology enables commanders, supported by their staffs, to forecast the future, respond to contingent events, and develop solutions to problems. Planners then possess a basis for further learning that is required to adapt over time to the complex, ambiguous, and interactive environments they find themselves working in today.[5]

Complexity, uncertainty, and risk are all naturally inherent in military operations. This requires commanders and their staffs to advance, as a part of their planning process, a system of approach that promotes holistic thinking embedded within the Army Design Methodology.[6] Integrated planning combines the two aspects of planning (both conceptual and detailed) to produce executable plans and orders which shape tactical actions to achieve strategic objectives. Conceptual planning involves developing a more thorough understanding of the current and future environments, identifying core problems, visualizing an operational approach, and suggesting commander’s intent and planning guidance. Detailed planning translates these products into an effective and complete plan to achieve victory.

  Integrated Planning: Conceptual and Detailed Planning. Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 5-0.1, Army Design Methodology (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2015), 2-2.

Integrated Planning: Conceptual and Detailed Planning. Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 5-0.1, Army Design Methodology (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2015), 2-2.

Army Design Methodology is a vehicle for generating a range of options to the country’s national command authority which address the cognitive tension that exists when translating a strategy into a campaign to attain military and political objectives. These options are communicated in written narratives and graphical depictions that inform detailed planning.[7] A relevant example for these options is the “unclassified assessment of options for the potential use of U.S. military force in the Syrian conflict” that General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent in his letter to the Chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee in 2013.[8] The Army Design Methodology is a systems approach toward better understanding of a situation.[9] It is also a continuous process of collaborative sensemaking, assessment, and reframing that leads to new perspectives on problems and their potential resolution.  Despite the success of this method, many non-U.S. defense decision-making processes are limited in their ability to provide enough flexibility for conceptual planning. They center on solving a given problem and lack the essential capacity to identify unfamiliar problems. Nations face a magnitude of internal and external threats that vary from civil unrest, to rising terrorism and border tensions. The intrinsic complexity of their environments highlights the need to advance a systems approach inherent to the Army Design Methodology. Operational environments are interactively complex so that any effort to affect change on one part of the system will have an effect on other parts of the system.[10]

The Twelve Palestinian Refugee Camps Geographic Locations in Lebanon including Nahr Al-Bared. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), “Where we Work,” last modified July 1, 2014, accessed February 26, 2018, https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/lebanon

Framing the Environment

Framing the environment is the first activity of Army Design Methodology. This involves developing an in-depth understanding of the current operational environment and envisioning the desired one, both described through a graphic representation and a narrative. Operational environments are complex adaptive systems that exhibit cohesion and constantly seek for equilibrium.[11] They are comprised of parts and their nodes, interconnectivity, tendencies, interests, anomalies, and tensions. In addition, they are open to external and internal inputs (feedback loops) that leverage the system and provide the ability to survive and yield emergent behaviors.[12] Framing the environment enables commanders and staffs to set a boundary for inquiry and then to thoroughly explore the system to create shared understanding and depict reality before developing ways to solve problems. Assessment and reframing are essential in framing the environment process; this allows commanders and their staffs to continually question their understanding of the situation.

In the Nahr Al-Bared Campaign in 2007, the Lebanese Armed Forces planners realized the complexity of the operational environment and that its subsystems comprised of various military, political, religious, and international actors, and their interrelations.[13] They also recognized the Fath Al-Islam terrorist organization’s intent to establish an Islamic State in Northern Lebanon. In addition, they understood the inherent threat, the political divisions among Palestinian factions in the camp, the social consensus and unified decision among different religious and political parties of the Lebanese society, and the international community’s support to the military. They also defined the desired future end-state as the defeat of Fath Al-Islam, clearing and controlling the Nahr Al-Bared camp, and Lebanese sovereignty restored in the region. Through framing the current and future environment as illustrated below, the Lebanese Armed Forces commanders and staffs were able to acquire a complete understanding of the complex system that characterized the situation in which they were operating.

The Nahr Al-Bared Campaign Design

Framing the Problem

The second frame of Army Design Methodology is identifying those discrepancies and obstacles that prevent attaining the desired state of affairs. Framing the problem involves isolating the root causes of these issues and understanding the interrelated nodes, dynamics, and interactions among them.[14] The objective of framing the problem is to generate a narrative of the problem statement supported by graphics that generate a deeper understanding of the operational environment that was acquired in the environmental frame step. Successful problem solving requires going beyond the linear cause and effect ways of addressing problems to understanding the interrelationships and interconnectivity within the parts of systems.[15] Because identifying the correct problem becomes exponentially more difficult as the level of uncertainty increases, commanders and their staffs continuously assess and reframe their results by conducting new experiments whenever new problems and solutions emerge.[16]

By framing the problem in the Nahr Al-Bared Campaign, Lebanese Armed Forces planners were able to identify the discrepancies between the current and desired operational environment. Planners discerned the problems they were challenged to resolve included limited resources, lack of the initiative, the need for units to rapidly maneuver to regain control on three checkpoints seized by Fath Al-Islam militants around the camp, and the deployment of additional units to defeat an enemy more prepared for unconventional warfare (as shown above).[17] It was an ill-structured problem and the planners succeeded in isolating its root causes and framing it correctly. Moreover, they constructed an efficient interpretation that allowed them to identify the main problem, which led to a sound operational approach and comprehensive initial commander’s intent and planning guidance.

Framing the Solution

The third frame of Army Design Methodology is framing the solution by exploiting the newfound understanding of the environmental frame, the problem frame, and generating a broad operational approach including an initial commander’s intent and planning guidance.[18] The operational approach identifies required resources and provides both focus and boundaries for the development of courses of actions during the military decision-making process while also accounting for higher headquarters’ direction and risk acceptance. Commanders describe their operational approach in a narrative supported by graphics. While doctrine does not provide a prescribed method for constructing an operational approach, it recommends that the design team consider the elements of operational art as a framework for guiding its development.[19] By continuously reframing the solution, commanders and staffs do not isolate their proposed solutions from the cumulative knowledge gained from the problem and its context.

During the Nahr Al-Bared Campaign, the Lebanese Armed Forces planners structured the campaign plan along four lines of effort: diplomatic measures, informational activities, military capabilities, and economic actions.[20] First, through the diplomatic measures, the Lebanese military was able to gain domestic and international political support. Then, the informational campaign maintained a counterpoint to Fath Al-Islam’s biased and disruptive propaganda. Furthermore, by developing, updating, and acquiring adequate military equipment, the Lebanese Armed Forces successfully projected its military force on the camp. Lastly, the economic measures restricted Fath Al-Islam’s ability to survive longer and obliged them to come to negotiation. This operational approach outlines the commander’s visualization and his initial intent. It also provides planning guidance of how to exploit the nodes and interactions that underpin the desired future state and further mitigates the effects that generated the problem. These lines of effort are related to the overall strategic goal of defending the homeland and achieving unity of effort. The operational approach facilitated detailed planning within the commander’s intent and guidance. The approach relied on a thorough understanding of the environment and problem set and resulted in the defeat of the Fath Al-Islam terrorist organization.

The Lebanese Armed Forces Operational Approach in Nahr Al-Bared Campaign


When Army Design Methodology is implemented correctly, it can be a useful approach in the planning process by continuously validating assumptions, thus helping commanders and staffs to rapidly adapt to changes in their operational environment. This leads to a new understanding of the problem and new approaches to solve it. Framing the environment, the problem, and the solution, as well as reframing when necessary, becomes part of a continuous effort focused on improving the critical and creative thinking and organizational learning abilities.[21] Commanders are responsible for the correct application of this methodology; their involvement provides a flexible learning environment.

Army Design Methodology does not replace the existing doctrinal concepts of the military decision-making process. It offers additional considerations and completes it by adding the conceptual part of planning. Depending on the situation and the resources available, commanders and staffs may employ design before, in parallel with, or after decision-making.[22] Understanding its theoretical underpinnings, in-depth analysis, and the products that planners generate, assists them in all steps of developing courses of action. Effective planning requires integrating both the conceptual and detailed components. Military leaders and planners must adjust their cognitive approach to improve their ability to anticipate, understand, and solve problems.

The primary challenge that could face non-U.S. militaries in adopting Army Design Methodology is in the resistance to change because of apprehension, fear of uncertainty, and the misconception that design performance is only for large organizations  Another obstacle is the paradox of learning, especially in the initial phases where planners cannot at first understand what they need to learn, and so they educate themselves only while designing.[23] Lastly, mastering Army Design Methodology requires time, which consequently creates an adaptive space that ultimately enhances the operations process.

The last decade has seen a shift in the character of war from conventional to unconventional with operations more focus on counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and nation stabilization. This has added more complexity to the threats nations face and revealed a more adaptive enemy that requires continual assessment and reframing of the operational environment and the problem. In this backdrop, taking into consideration each country’s distinctiveness, foreign militaries need to institutionalize and incorporate the U.S. Army Design Methodology into their doctrines because it represents a crucial means to provide a better understanding of uncertain environments, unfamiliar problems, and potential solutions to achieve military objectives. The utility of using the Army Design Methodology perspective is in understanding that the problem is not in the individual parts of the system themselves, rather, it is in the relationship between them.[24]

Jean Dagher is a Lebanese Army officer and a student at the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, KS. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect official policies or positions of the Lebanese Army, the Lebanese Ministry of National Defense, or the Lebanese Government.

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Header Image: A Lebanese flag flies as smoke rises from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, June 3, 2007. (Jerry Lampen/Reuters)


[1] Jamshid Gharajedaghi, “Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity: A Platform for Designing Business Architecture,” 3rd ed, Amsterdam: Morgan Kaufmann, 2011, 222.

[2] Army Design Methodology relies on a variety of theories, including chaos and complexity, systems, and organizational theories and is characterized by a set of cognitive activities and key concepts, including operational art, critical and creative thinking, collaboration and dialogue, systems thinking, framing, visual modeling, and narrative construction. Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 5-0.1, Army Design Methodology (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2015), 1-5 – 1-10.

[3] Jean Dagher, “The Lebanese Armed Forces Engaging Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian Refugee Camp Using the Instruments of National Power,” Command and General Staff College, 2017, accessed February 20, 2018, http://cgsc.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p4013coll2/id/3591/rec/1. Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian camp is one of the twelve refugee camps in Lebanon recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (see Figure 2). The Nahr Al-Bared Campaign was a joint operation that the Lebanese Armed Forces conducted against Fath Al-Islam terrorist organization from 20 May to 2 September 2007 in Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian camp in North Lebanon. The Lebanese Armed Forces defeated Fath Al-Islam and denied their attempt to establish an Islamic State in North Lebanon. Army Design Methodology is not part of the Lebanese doctrine; even though, the Nahr Al-Bared Campaign shows an understanding of the concepts embedded in design by Lebanese military planners.

[4] Jamshid Gharajedaghi, “Systems Thinking, 87; Dietrich Dorner, The Logic of Failure: Why Things Go Wrong and What We Can Do to Make them Right (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 1996), 60.

[5] Planning is the “art and science of understanding a situation, envisioning a desired future, and laying out effective ways of bringing that future about.” Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 5-0, The Operations Process (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2012), 6, 9.

[6] ATP 5-0.1, Army Design Methodology, 5-8; Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the learning Organization (New York, NY: Random House, 2006), 68, 73-75; TRADOC Pamphlet 525-5-500, Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design (Fort Monroe, VA: Training and Doctrine Command, 2008), 261.

[7] Karl E.Weick, Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, and David Obstfeld, “Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking,” Organization Science 16 (July-August 2005): 409-21.

[8] Martin E. Dempsey, “Letter to the Chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee,” last modified July 19, 2013, accessed March 18, 2018, http://thehill.com/images/stories/news/2013/07_july/22/dempsey.pdf.

[9] Alex Ryan, “What is a Systems Approach?,” last modified September 10, 2008, 27, accessed February 3, 2018, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dafc/dc5b54e42f874dbe30bdae398f5b181cb9f1.pdf; Jamshid Gharajedaghi, “Systems Thinking,” 88.

[10] Robert Jervis, System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 6; TRADOC Pam 525-5-500, Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign, 261.

[11] An operational environment is “a composite of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of capabilities.” Joint Publication (JP) 3-0, Joint Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017), XIV; TRADOC Pamphlet 525-5-500, Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design, 7; ATP 5-0.1, Army Design Methodology, 3-1; Joe Strange and Richard Irons, “Center of Gravity: What Clausewitz Really Meant,” Joint Forces Quarterly 35 (October 2004): 20-27.

[12] Feedback loops can be positive (destabilizing and creating opportunity for change) or negative (stabilizing and dampening the likelihood of change) the system. Robert Jervis, System Effects, 6; Jamshid Gharajedaghi, “Systems Thinking,” 29, 88, 117-118, 137; Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 72; Bryan Lawson, How Designers Think (Boston: Architectural Press, 2006), 119.

[13] Jean Dagher, “Nahr Al-Bared Camp.”

[14] TRADOC Pam 525-5-500, 8. The Army Design Methodology categorizes various problems into well-structured, medium-structured, and ill-structured problems. Well-Structured Problems are easy to control through technical reduction. Medium-Structured Problems are more interactively complex. Ill-structured problems are the most interactively complex, non-linear, and chaotic—and therefore the most challenging.

[15] Yaneer Bar-Yam, Making Things Work, 24; Dietrich Dorner, The Logic of Failure: Why Things Go Wrong and What We Can Do to Make them Right (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 1996).

[16] Alex Ryan, “What is a Systems Approach?,” 28.

[17] Jean Dagher, “Nahr Al-Bared Camp,” 56-63.

[18] TRADOC Pam 525-5-500, 13, 112.

[19] ATP 5-0.1, Army Design Methodology, 5-2, 5-1.

[20] Jean Dagher, “Nahr Al-Bared Camp,” 80.

[21] ATP 5-0.1, Army Design Methodology, iii.

[22] Ibid., 2-1, 2-2.

[23] Donald A. Schoen, Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987), 93, 116.

[24] Yaneer Bar-Yam, Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems in a Complex World (Cambridge, MA: NECSI Knowledge Press, 2004), 24