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Incorporating the operational environment within the operations process.


As a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Quality Assurance Evaluator for the operational environment (OE), I have observed a number of leader development exercises across the Army's institutional domain. An observation I see is a myriad of applications that incorporate the OE within planning processes. Much is written about the OE in doctrinal publications with regard to its role in military operations. At times, understanding where and how it fits within multiple planning processes, with some occurring simultaneously, is confusing. This article suggests a simplified approach to address the OE in planning, preparation, and execution. This article does not alter doctrine but draws connections between doctrinal processes to facilitate OE integration within the design methodology.

The OE Explained

Before any application of the OE begins, it is important to establish a baseline of what the OE is and is not. Army doctrine found in Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0 states the OE "is a composite of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of capabilities and bear on the decisions of the commander." ADRP 3-0 further states: "Commanders at all levels have their own operational environments for their particular operations." The take away is that a single OE does not exist, at least not pragmatically. A singular conceptual global OE only exists in the minds of strategic planners who synthesize global trends in a way to help inform and shape National Security Interests and Theater Campaign Strategies. However, to the operational and tactical planner, there are multiple OEs. From the Ground Force Land Component to the brigade combat team, commanders may experience multiple OE subsets with significant distinctions. These OEs do not necessarily correlate within an assigned area of operations or interest and is why commanders may face multiple OEs, each with their own unique dilemmas and challenges.

OE Taxonomy

Part of the challenge in understanding where the OE fits within the operational process is first describing the OE. A number of taxonomies in use today serve as mind-joggers to help facilitate OE awareness. This article does not imply one is better than the other or that one is right and the other wrong. Therefore, keep in mind these taxonomies and their acronyms were developed by military planners to assist planners. You might have your own taxonomy that helps describe the OE but for doctrinal purposes, we will stick with the two primary OE taxonomies the Army recognizes in the conduct of military operations. These are the operational variables: political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical terrain, and time (PMESII-PT); and mission variables: mission, enemy, troops and support, terrain and weather, time available and civil considerations (METT-TC).

It is important to note the Army recognizes other OE taxonomies such as these and others:

ASCOPE: Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, and Events.

SWEAT: Sewer, Water, Electric, and Telecommunications.

OAKOC: Observations and Fields of Fire, Avenues of Approach, Key Terrain, Obstacles, Cover and Concealment.

These are useful tools and their purpose is to provide substance to the operational and mission variables. In essence, they are sub-taxonomies. I'll go back to my remark on simplification, if you have a taxonomy that works for you, go with it. However, this article will stick to the Army's two primary OE taxonomies: operational and mission variables.

Operational variables. ADRP 3-0 explains the operational variables are aspects of the OE, both military and non-military, that can differ from one place to another. As soon as a command has an indication of where it may deploy to, the staff begins to analyze that location using the variables of PMESII-PT.

Mission variables. ADRP 3-0 states that upon receipt of a warning order or mission, the command then refines previous analysis of the OE using the variables of METT-TC for greater fidelity specific to the conditions expected during mission analysis. A common misperception is once METT-TC analysis begins PMESII-PT analysis ends. This is a mistake. Keep in mind the two have a mutually benefiting relationship. While METT-TC draws from analysis previously done in PMESII-PT, information gained on the OE through METT-TC analysis also helps build data that feeds into PMESII-PT for future planning. More on this subject is covered in the operations process.

A moment on ASCOPE. ASCOPE is a sub-taxonomy under civil considerations for METT-TC. ADRP 2-0 states: "... upon receipt of the mission, Army forces use ASCOPE characteristics to describe civil considerations as part of the mission variables (METT-TC) during IPB." I have seen planners use imaginative ways to incorporate ASCOPE with PMESII-PT. Perhaps the most useful I've seen is using it to bring fuller fidelity to PMESII-PT via an x and y axis comparison as seen below. The key point is that ASCOPE is a sub-taxonomy and while useful it does not replace PMESII-PT, but builds upon it.

The Operations Process

The Army's operation process consists of three steps: plan, prepare, and execute, with all steps continuously assessed. The operations process is the Army's framework for executing one of the six warfighting functions-mission command. A key point in understanding the operations process is that not only is it continuously assessed, it is cyclic. As such, so is our understanding of the OE.

Plan. OE analysis, at times, comes short in planning due to incomplete approaches. ADRP 6-0 states that upon receipt of a mission, planning starts a cycle of the operations process that results in a plan or operation order to guide the force during execution. From an OE aspect however, planning must start before receipt of mission. This is necessary because in order to generate the operational planning process, we must have some knowledge on the OE. Analysts are constantly collecting on the OE; to wait until receipt of mission steals valuable time from the operations process.

Nested within the operations process is the intelligence process. Chapter Three of ADRP 2-0 describes the relationship between the two processes. The intelligence process is designed to complement the operations process and can occur multiple times within the operations process. Additionally, it has continuous intelligence-unique activities. It is similar to the operations process but has four steps: plan and direct, collect, produce, and disseminate. The intelligence process also has the two additional activities of analyze and assess.

It is within the two constant activities of analyze and assess that the case is made that generating OE knowledge is never idle. ADRP 2-0 states within the plan and direct phase of the intelligence cycle, "generate intelligence knowledge" is a critical activity that lays the conceptual planning foundation in which intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) takes place.

Conceptual planning starts with understanding the OE. In fact, defining the OE is the first IPB step. As previously stated, as soon as the command has an indication of where they will go, the staff begins to analyze that location using PMESII-PT. To put this in context, the staff is not formally within the operational planning phase since the mission is not yet received; however, the staff is certainly conducting an activity of generating intelligence knowledge found within the intelligence plan and direct phase.

This is a subtle difference yet it is also a complementary effort between the two processes. Within conceptual planning, I have observed the staff generate knowledge using both PMESII-PT and METT-TC constructs. I caution against the application of METT-TC at this point. We must first establish a broad knowledge of the anticipated OE to drive future detailed planning and at this point we are without a specified mission.

While the commander drives the intelligence process, it is the S2 that coordinates intelligence production. Clearly, an improvement I have seen over the years is the collective effort by the staff to produce information and not let this job rest solely on the intelligence officer. Yet despite the collective effort, OE information, particularly within the political, economic, and infrastructure variables, is lacking. While the intelligence warfighting function facilitates an understanding of enemy, weather, terrain, and civil considerations; I don't believe this function intends to omit other influences of the OE such as political and economic factors.

During conceptual planning, a commander asking how the economic and political situation has affected military capabilities in an area he anticipates deploying will not accept understanding of politics and economics are outside of enemy, weather, terrain and civil considerations. Rather, it is up to the S2 to collaborate with other staff members and leverage the intelligence enterprise to not only satisfy the commander's requests for information but generate intelligence knowledge within conceptual planning that posture the staff for follow-on detailed planning.

While conceptual planning is viewed as an operational art that enables the commander to understand and visualize the OE, detailed planning is the science that translates the OE into possible manifestations that may impact military operations and bear on the decisions of the commander. An indicator that signals the transition from conceptual to detailed planning is receipt of the mission. A mistake I see is upon mission receipt; the staff immediately switches to METT-TC in their evaluation of the OE and disregards the need to feed the greater OE picture. PMESII-PT analysis does not end at mission receipt. Rather, ADRP 3-0 tells us "they (operational variables) continue to refine and are updated even after receiving a specific mission and throughout the course of the ensuing operation."

While the mission statement narrows the scope of the OE and the staff is correct to refine their approach using the mission variables of METT-TC, details coming from this analysis also feed back into our greater conceptual OE understanding that enables future planning and promotes mission command. This gets back to the point of mutually benefiting relationships between sub-taxonomies and the operational/mission variables. This mutually benefiting application is part of the operational art behind planning. It frames the OE and helps identify the problem(s) that require a planning methodology (such as the MDMP) to solve. It is also why intelligence analysis and assessment never ends.

Food for thought-while both constructs promote analysis and assessment, I find the PMESII-PT construct easier to comprehend environmental variable relationships, how they interact, and possible manifestations from these interactions that the commander must prepare for. Using a hypothetical example from the commander's earlier request on how the economic and political situation in country x affected a military capability. Country x has developed close relationships to countries y and z due to x's ability to export oil and y and z's need for oil. Consequently, this relationship has resulted in improvements to country x's military from country y and/or z in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles and attack helicopters. While possible to draw the same analysis using METT-TC, it is not as intuitive and illustrates the point that the staff continues to use PMESII-PT along with METT-TC to refine and update the OE even after receiving a specific mission and throughout the course of the ensuing operation.

Prepare. The preparation phase within the operations process consists of activities performed by units and Soldiers to improve their ability to execute an operation (ADRP 5-0). From an OE perspective, preparation requires staff actions that ensure the unit is knowledgeable of the environment and how the environment can affect operations. As mentioned previously, the intelligence process closely mirrors the operations process except you will not see a distinct preparation phase within the intelligence process. Instead, we have constant analysis and assessment taking place that facilitates a unit's ability to understand and visualize the OE in order to organize, equip, rehearse, and control operations.

Generation of intelligence knowledge never ends. Commanders want to continuously improve their situational understanding of the OE to validate assumptions or answer what they don't know. Future planners also require OE information to inform the development of branches and sequels. Therefore, intelligence collection must be synchronized to meet the commander's critical information requirements to support these efforts. During collection, the mission and operational variable constructs help the analyst manage both current operations and future information requirements respectively.

Execute. Execution puts the plan into action by applying combat power to accomplish the mission (ADRP 5-0). During execution, the situation may change quickly. Therefore, the OE must inform the commander in order to adjust, seize initiative, and understand where to accept risk. From an intelligence aspect, the staff continues to collect, process, and disseminate OE information to determine possible affects from future decisions the commander makes. Because of the inherent nature of changing situations and corresponding decisions, the staff frames the OE to support execution and adjustment decisions made by the commander.

Tying this action with the intelligence process, the continuous analysis of the OE using the mission variables (METT-TC) is critical to support variances between conditions that the plan forecasted and what is actually occurring. In some cases the variance between what was planned and what is materializing is so great that the decision to execute planned branches or sequels will not support a favorable outcome. In this case, reframing the OE is required to support assessment of the plan.

Assessment. Assessment within the operations process is the determination of the progress toward accomplishing a task, creating an effect, or achieving an objective (ADRP 5-0). Assessment involves comparing forecasted outcomes with actual events to determine if the original plan, to include its branches and sequels, is still effective. The assessment activity within the intelligence process is closely aligned to and supports the overall assessment within the operations process. Monitoring and evaluating OE outcomes may lead to the recommendation of reframing the plan. If this is the case, the staff may not have the luxury of time to completely reframe the OE. It is therefore imperative to have that foundational knowledge of the OE from the operational variables to draw on.

This is another reason why examination of the OE using PMESII-PT does not end at receipt of the mission. A key assumption of the OE may prove invalid, or a change within the OE may have negative consequences to conditions that dictate a new plan. With regard to the OE, it is important to note that reframing is not only influenced by the enemy, but through a multitude of OE complexities that manifest through variable interaction. Going back to earlier analysis of PMESII-PT variable interaction saves valuable time and allows the analyst to draw connections that shape new planning and inform a new refined look at the OE through METT-TC. This is part of the operational art and design behind framing the OE.

Making Sense Out of It All

The OE is a complicated subject. Add to that our doctrine does not necessarily explain the correlations between the multiple OE taxonomies in existence and where they fit within integrated planning and operational art. I have found through experience and observation that there is a mutual relationship between the operational and mission variables in that both feed off each other. Understanding this relationship and the art of applying both taxonomies within the operational process is a vital skill for the staff. As I stated earlier, OE taxonomies are simply mind-joggers made for planners by planners. The taxonomies of today may give way to others of tomorrow. You may have your own way to describe the OE. The important take away is that the OE remains the centerpiece to influence our doctrinal operational and intelligence processes.

Darryl Ward has 28 combined years of experience in Military Intelligence with the U.S. Army, civil service, and as a government contractor. He is retired from the U.S. Army and currently serving as an MCR contractor within the TRADOC G2 Training Directorate supporting the U.S. Army Quality Assurance Program. He holds a BS in Education from the University of Arkansas and an MA in Health Business Administration from Webster University.

PMESII-PT/ASCOPE relationship

                 Political                  Military

Areas            State/local boundaries,    Training Areas,
                 tribal lines,              cantonment Areas,
                 influences,                conflict zones

Structures       Meeting Halls, courts,     Airfields, hardened
                 capitals, monuments,       sites, troop
                                            facilities, HQ's

Capabilities     Meeting basic health       Conventional,
                 and security needs,        irregular, ground,
                 competing informal         air, naval, police,
                 and/or shadow gov't        private security

Organizations    Parties, tribes,           Gov't forces, local
                 NGOs, Int'l orgs           militias, insurgents,
                                            law enforcement

People           Tribal elders, judges,     Key leaders, soldier
                 mullahs, governors         proficiency, insurgents

Events           Elections, council         Training, insurgency,
                 meetings, shuras,          riots, civil war,
                 hearings, campaigns        aggressive state on
                                            state behavior

                 Economic                   Social

Areas            Affluent, slum, black      Housing communities,
                 market, agricultural       religious shrines,

Structures       Banks, mills, town         Religious bldgs, civic
                 centers, industrial        centers, arenas,
                 complexes                  theaters, restaurants

Capabilities     Banking, influence         Influence of the family
                 stock market, ability      or tribe, influence of
                 to absorb financial        religion, influence
                 hardship                   of culture

Organizations    Criminal, co-ops,          Gangs, clans, tribes,
                 investment firms,          religious, educational

People           Education levels,          Gender, age, ethnicity,
                 general laborers,          values, beliefs,
                 skilled workers,           norms, behaviors

Events           Stock market               Remembrance,
                 gains/losses, droughts,    sports, weddings
                 business opening/closing

                 Information                Infrastructure

Areas            TV, radio, printed         Industrial, housing,
                 press coverage             commerce, road network

Structures       Transmission towers,       Paved roads, bridges,
                 receivers, TV/radio        dams, electrical grid,
                 stations, libraries,       water treatment

Capabilities     Households with TV and     Ability to provide
                 or radio, literacy         electricity, water,
                 rates, households with     trash service, public
                 computer, internet         transportation,
                 availability               import, export

Organizations    Influential religious      Governmental,
                 groups, universities       companies, private,

People           Media personalities,       Pollution, disease,
                 religious leaders,
                 elders, social media

Events           Call to prayer, news       Road, bridge and
                 broadcasts, speeches,      building construction

                 Time                       Physical Terrain

Areas            History                    Plain, mountain,
                                            jungle, desert, oceanic

Structures       Monuments, Archives,       Caves, tunnels,
                 museums, historic          glaciers, springe,
                 register                   natural harbors

Capabilities     State and/or non-state     Ability to absorb
                 approval ratings,          natural catastrophes,
                 sustainability of all      facilitates or impedes
                 capabilities               transport

Organizations    Organizational value       Rescue, medical, park
                 added, adaptability,       service, environmental
                 public perception          groups

People           Cultural perception        Knowledge of the land,
                 of time                    adaptability, sanctuary,

Events           Holidays, history based,   Earthquakes, tsunamis,
                 calendar based,            floods, typhoons,
                 solar movements            volcanic eruptions
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Author:Ward, Darryl
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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