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The joint narrative: describing the future environment and joint operations.

Among the most vexing challenges that confront today's national security professional are the notions of change, complexity, and uncertainty, and more importantly how to respond to these. Two recently published documents make important contributions toward addressing these issues. U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) published the Joint Operating Environment (JOE) 2008 in November to describe potential future operational environments and their implications for the joint force. The JOE outlines likely challenges and opportunities, in essence describing the demand signals for the future joint force. The Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO), signed in January 2009 by Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, articulates his vision for how the future joint force will address the challenges and opportunities of the future operating environment, meeting the demands described in the JOE.


The principles of joint operations found in the JOE and CCJO form a strategic framework that outlines how the joint force can best address future challenges. The dominant themes found in these two documents can be thought of as an emerging joint narrative--a succinct, cohesive, and coherent logic that connects the complex and uncertain threats and opportunities of the future to the concepts of joint force operations, and then to joint doctrine.

The idea of the joint narrative is the opening statement in a larger conversation about the nature of the future and the role of the joint forces within it.

The major theme of the emerging joint narrative is doing what is required to prevail in current fights while simultaneously preparing for an uncertain future. This requires a balanced and versatile joint force that is superior across the full spectrum of military operations. Without balance, we risk being dominant but irrelevant--that is, superior in nuclear and conventional warfare but vulnerable in irregular contests.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has emphasized, the defining principle for defeating both current and future threats is balance, and this is the central thesis for the joint narrative. Recognizing and avoiding our strengths, our future enemies are likely to confront us through indirect methods, in wars of a hybrid nature that combine irregular and conventional modes of attack, using a blend of primitive, traditional, and high-tech weapons and tactics.

This article highlights the ideas contained within the JOE and CCJO--the companion documents that begin to outline the joint narrative.

International Environment

The purpose of the first element of the joint narrative, the JOE, is to focus national security professionals on the security environment 8 to 25 years into the future. The JOE approaches this goal by examining three questions:

* What trends and disruptions are likely to affect the joint force over the next quarter century?

* How are these trends and disruptions likely to define the contexts for joint operations?

* What are the implications of these trends and contexts for the joint force?


Although the JOE is speculative and does not presuppose what will happen in the next 25 years, it is intended to serve as a starting point for discussions about the future security environment at the operational level of war. JOE 2008 first recognizes that while much about the future will change, much will also stay the same. The nature of war will not change. Fundamentally, war will remain an endeavor based in competition and conflict between two learning, creative, and adaptive forces. It will retain its political dimension, whether originated by state or nonstate actors. Fog and friction will continue to distort and conceal, perturbing judgment and the course of events.

As well, despite our best efforts at prediction, the future will be characterized by uncertainty, change, and surprise. One only has to examine the last 25 years to see that much of what has transpired was almost completely unforeseen. Surprise will never be eliminated, but the JOE contends that we must make the effort to forecast the future, or we will certainly be caught off guard.

After the discussion of constants in human nature and in the nature of warfare, the JOE quickly transitions to a description of some of the major trends that are changing today's world into tomorrow's. JOE 2008 describes changes in a number of areas that will have significant implications for the future joint force. These include shifting demographic patterns and the relative economic strength of great powers around the world. Most specifically, the balance of economic strength is shifting away from Europe and North America and toward emerging Asian economies. The JOE looks at the phenomenon of globalization with its expanding trade and investment patterns and movement of peoples around the world. It also includes a discussion of the nature of energy scarcity, its relation to geopolitical events, and the increasing scarcity or abundance of other natural resources, such as water and food. Another situation depicted in the JOE is the nature of technological change, including key trends in the information revolution, the realm of cyber threats, and the exploitation of space for civilian and military purposes by a wide array of actors.

The trends discussed in JOE 2008 can be grouped by three major themes: trends that are eroding conventional state power, trends that are enhancing conventional state power, and trends that are accelerating the pace of change.

The first group of trends highlights that the state as a unit of political organization is increasingly competing with a range of actors for power and influence. As borders become ever more permeable to trade, human migration, information, and money, states will find their claims to legitimacy and the allegiance of their citizens challenged by other groups, associations, and identity-based networks. For this reason, the international environment will feature states that are increasingly unable--or unwilling--to maintain a global monopoly on violence and war. Thus, irregular and unconventional forms of conflict feature prominently in JOE 2008.

The second major theme of future trends is that, while the state is certainly being challenged by a host of unconventional powers, it will likely remain the primary broker in providing security and stability for the next quarter century--even as many states employ proxies to engage in unconventional conflict, or more accurately, a hybrid form of conflict employing both conventional and unconventional means. The United States will maintain the largest single concentration of power in the world, but the margin of primacy is shrinking as the economic, political, military, and cultural power of other states grows more quickly. For this reason, new centers of conventional power will emerge in the international arena. This "rise of the rest" will rebalance relations between the United States and these new centers of power and feature aspects of both competition and cooperation. (1) As the population continues to grow more rapidly in the developing world, and as new economic and scientific powers rise in Asia, the world of the 2030s will be characterized by growing economic and technological power around the globe and greater levels of wealth and prosperity. Moreover, that world will feature far greater potential for encounters with state adversaries with advanced technical, human, military, or economic power. Thus, the future joint force may confront new or heightened forms of competition in space and cyberspace, over the global commons around the world, or for the control of sources of scarce natural resources used to fuel growing economies and the chokepoints that link great nations to the world around them.

The third major theme of the trends found within the JOE is the increasing complexity of networks around the world and the speed at which technological change is occurring. The globalization of trade and financial links means the United States is more dependent than ever on the foreign financing of its debt and must import critical technologies such as microchips or Internet routing hardware used throughout our society and by our joint forces. Military procurement programs that take decades may be obsolesced in an afternoon by new technological innovations. Meanwhile, faraway events, such as a pandemic health crisis in Africa or an earthquake in Asia, can have global repercussions that may swiftly draw U.S. interest. Issues such as climate change could exacerbate humanitarian disasters in unanticipated ways. Increasing connections and the speed of technological change mean adversaries will have more avenues to "reach into" U.S. society and attempt to directly influence or bend it to their will--through violence or persuasion.

Contexts of Future Conflict and War

The task for the JOE 2008 was to resolve the many complex and disparate trends found at the strategic level and translate and focus them into hard-hitting, operational level challenges. The device that USJFCOM developed to make this transition is the idea of "contexts." These contexts are a set of troubling "knots" in which technological, geopolitical, legal, social, and demographic trends might merge to create conflict and war. Together, these contexts describe a potential set of circumstances that might explain how and why future wars could be waged and the vectors through which the joint force may become involved.

Competition and cooperation among conventional powers will likely remain the primary context for the joint force as states will remain the most powerful institutions in the international environment. States often have massive military, economic, social, and legal resources at their disposal and will act in the international environment to secure those interests. Often, state powers around the world will have many interests in common with the United States, and the joint force will have a role in encouraging or reinforcing common interests with these states. At times, conventional state powers will perceive their interests to be at cross-purposes, or even opposed to U.S. interests around the world. In these cases, the joint force will have a role in deterring or dissuading these activities. The United States will likely remain the most powerful state over the time frame posed by the JOE. However, in a world of perhaps a dozen countries with populations greater than 100 million and economies larger than $100 billion, it will not have the ability to dominate or dictate and must seek to partner with others to achieve its security objectives.

Threats from unconventional powers will be the second major challenge for future joint forces. Militias, transnational terrorist groups, international criminals, pirates, and other "substate" or "trans-state" entities will challenge both states themselves and the wider international system in which they are embedded. Empowered by weakening state borders and massively increasing flows of money, people, information, and trade across borders, a bewildering array of transnational organizations will make their own rules and challenge U.S. interests around the world. These groups will employ niche technologies and present little physical presence, but they will be capable of wreaking havoc far beyond what their small size and limited resources might suggest.

The challenge of conventional and unconventional power will be amplified by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the increasing availability of advanced technologies, and urbanization that blunts traditional U.S. military advantages. Each of these three contexts will make the employment of military force more difficult and more susceptible to surprise as adversaries adapt to the U.S. way of war and apply the fruits of technology in new and innovative ways.

Perhaps the most far-reaching context found within the JOE is the notion that all conflict and military competition will be embedded within a "battle to capture the narrative." This battle will take place through the global media and across the communications links that tie the world together. Joint force commanders already wrestle with pervasive media presence during their operations. In the future, the joint force will be confronted with a profusion of new media, and each member of the joint force will have a role in reinforcing and amplifying America's strategic narrative at all times.

Implications for the Joint Force

A number of important implications flow from this discussion of trends and contexts. These are introduced in the JOE but are further expanded and refined within the CCJO. The first and perhaps most important challenge is that in a world of change, complexity, and uncertainty, the ability to both wage and deter war will be central to wider U.S. security strategy interests. The joint force is the key instrument for these missions. The difficulty facing the joint force today is to understand what mix of human, conceptual, and technical capabilities will address these security challenges at a reasonable cost to the Nation. Today, the joint force faces a period of reconstitution and rebalancing that requires sustained physical, intellectual, and moral effort. The challenge is to build into future joint forces the ability to innovate, be flexible, and adapt as conditions, adversaries, and circumstances shift and evolve.

The ability to innovate in peacetime and adapt during wars requires institutional and individual agility. This agility is the product of rigorous education, appropriate applications of technology, and a rich understanding of the social and political context in which military operations are conducted. But above all, innovation and adaptation require imagination and the ability to ask the right questions. Adaptation in war provides little time for reflection because of the immediate demands of combat. Here, the patterns of thought developed in peacetime are crucial because adaptation requires the questioning of assumptions with which military organizations have entered the conflict. In the past, military organizations that have ruthlessly examined and honestly evaluated their assumptions in peacetime have done the same in war.


The defining element in military effectiveness in war lies in the ability to recognize when prewar visions and understanding are wrong and must change. The fog and friction that characterize all wars make the task of seeing and understanding events extraordinarily difficult. The application of human thought through command and action is the key to success. No technology will lift the fog of war or reduce the friction inherent in the clash of human wills that defines war.

Finally, future adversaries will remain learning, adaptive, and willful actors. The lessons of today, no matter how accurately recorded and then learned, may no longer prove relevant tomorrow because the enemy is human and therefore part of a living organization as well. As we have seen, adversaries are studying the American way of war and will develop methods to challenge our established and often predictable preoccupation with the science of warfare and speedy recourse to precision firepower, materiel, and money as the answer to operational challenges. JOE 2008 provides a stark warning that adversaries may adapt faster than we can unless we develop a force that is intellectually, organizationally, and technologically adaptable. Additionally, the JOE highlights the need for acquisition and personnel policies that are innovative and adaptive enough to "fight through" inevitable surprises.

Nature of the Future Joint Force

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has described his vision of future joint force operations. This vision is set out in the second element of the joint narrative, the CCJO, which expresses in broad terms the Chairman's view for how the joint force will operate in response to the wide variety of future security challenges. It describes the joint force as one of many instruments of national power and sets the enduring national security challenges that will demand its employment. This description provides a backdrop for the central ideas of the CCJO about how the joint force can contribute to meeting national security challenges and advocates a set of common operating precepts that likely will underpin successful future joint operations. Each subordinate joint and Service concept should reflect the vision of the CCJO and take its precepts into account.

The future joint force will face a changed world in which some capabilities, modes of operation, and habits of thought will be less relevant than in the past. The CCJO takes change and complexity seriously. It eschews the idea that the joint force is the only tool through which the President conducts his national strategy and policy. Rather, it will be one part of a whole-of-government effort and one that works best in concert with other instruments of national power. At the highest levels, the CCJO describes a future joint force that will remain engaged in the tasks of winning the Nation's wars, deterring potential adversaries, developing cooperative security approaches with friends and allies, defending the homeland, and responding to civil crises. These challenges will be enduring products of the political environment from today through the 2030s. Each of these challenges, however, will exhibit new features based on the character of change, complexity, and uncertainty.

The CCJO describes the imperative that will require the joint force to be as adaptive as potential adversaries while creating unique asymmetries that force the adversary to react. Furthermore, the future joint force will have to find balance between winning major wars against the less likely, but perhaps more dangerous, conventional adversaries while growing the capability to fight and win against irregular adversaries who are far more likely to attack the United States. The CCJO emphasizes the need to balance these competing imperatives, helps to define the nature of some of the tensions, and even provides some guidance on how to do this, but each such decision will have to be the product of detailed and thoughtful analysis. Each national security challenge presents its own unique set of imperatives, which will be further explored and elaborated in subordinate concepts.

To avoid war, the United States will require capabilities to deter and dissuade adversaries from taking actions contrary to our interests. In order to ensure the credibility of deterrence, the joint force must have a role in developing cooperative security arrangements to "harden" the global security framework that is threatened. Part of the maintenance of this security framework is to employ joint forces to respond to civil crises that may disrupt civil society and international peace. The ultimate obligation of U.S. joint forces is to defend the homeland. The joint force is engaged around the world to ensure that U.S. sovereignty, territory, domestic population, and critical infrastructure are protected against external threats. This mission requires considerable interagency cooperation and integration. The future joint force must be prepared to meet any of these challenges, finding an appropriate balance in the process since preparing for one does not necessarily prepare the joint force for another.

Future Joint Operations

The core of any operating concept is the central thesis, the fundamental description of how the force will resolve the military problem that has been set out. It is the Big How, the "concept of the concept." In the case of the CCJO, it is a single concept for how joint forces will meet any or all of the national security challenges described above. The central thesis of the CCJO comprises three interrelated ideas that together describe broadly how joint forces will operate. Together, these three ideas portray a process of operational adaptation designed expressly to cope with the complexity, uncertainty, and change that the JOE identifies as the defining features of the future operating environment. This process applies to all joint operations, even though the specific ends, ways, and means of those operations may vary widely according to the situation.

The first idea is to address each situation on its own terms, in its unique political and strategic context, rather than attempting to fit the situation to a preferred template. In a world of change, complexity, and uncertainty, the underlying causes of any situation may not be obvious, and "off the shelf" solutions may be inadequate or altogether counterproductive. The joint force commander will have to think through the ultimate nature of the situation and define and question assumptions along the way. Planning must imbed broad political and resource limits within which operations might be conducted.

The second major idea is to conduct and integrate a combination of combat, security, engagement, relief, and reconstruction activities according to a concept of operations designed to meet the unique circumstances of the situation. Most joint operations will require some combination of two or more of these broad categories of military activity, which in total embrace virtually every mission a joint force could be called on to perform. Operational art thus becomes the arranging and balancing of these activities to achieve the objectives of the joint operation or campaign--and their continual rearranging as that operation or campaign unfolds. Thus, for every operational situation, the joint force commander will have to develop a concept of operations that integrates--and reconciles--the frequently competing demands of each broad category of military activity.

The third major idea is to conduct operations subject to a continuous assessment of results in relation to expectations, modifying both the understanding of the situation and the conduct of subsequent operations accordingly. Because of the complex, uncertain, and changing characteristics of the environment, any initial operational design, no matter how carefully conceived, is likely to prove inadequate in some respects. The plan must therefore incorporate specific means of continuously reevaluating the fundamental assumptions on which that plan is based.

The CCJO goes on to identify 10 broad precepts of action that it proposes will underlie all successful future joint operations. All flow logically from the conditions and challenges described earlier in the CCJO. Although none is fundamentally new, the emphasis each receives and how it is implemented in the future may change. Subordinate joint operating concepts will apply these precepts in greater detail to more specific situations.

What's Next?

The JOE and CCJO articulate the joint narrative at the most fundamental level and will be used to inform and guide the contents of the library of joint operating concepts, joint integrating concepts, and joint doctrine. Underpinned by the enduring themes and fundamental principles about the nature of warfare and joint operations found in the JOE and CCJO, the library of joint publications will "flesh out" the details of the joint narrative.

The emerging joint narrative should provide a compelling common framework for military professionals for thinking about joint operations, describe a future operating environment tailored to the joint force, describe future joint operations for policymakers and others, establish a conceptual foundation for subordinate concepts, and guide experimentation in joint operations and capabilities.


The intention is to further develop and expand this dialogue with a wider array of partners over the coming year. USJFCOM, together with the Services, other combatant commanders, and interagency and multinational partners, will further explore and refine the ideas of the JOE and CCJO in a series of collaborative wargames and seminars leading up to the capstone event in this effort, the CCJO Experiment, held simultaneously in Suffolk, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

The body of work developed through the joint narrative should also influence the Department of Defense (DOD) Analytic Agenda and Defense Planning Scenarios. This effort is focused on the difficult challenge of ensuring that defense acquisition is properly focused on anticipating future national security challenges. The JOE plays an important role in informing the larger contexts and wider international environments in which the DOD Planning Scenarios' more specific analytic wargames could be embedded. The CCJO will influence the concepts of operations by which joint forces are employed in wargames and studies across the span of the DOD analytic agenda.

The ideas found within the JOE and CCJO were developed with an eye toward defining the operational constructs of a balanced joint force that is capable of making the adaptations and adjustments necessary to prevail in the face of inevitable surprise. Indeed, the ultimate objective of the JOE and CCJO is to assist in understanding and recognizing key military challenges in the future, and how the joint force must respond given this vision.

Building the optimum joint force will require tough choices. Our resources are not unlimited and nobody has a crystal ball to see the future. We also can expect our enemies to continue to study us, learning and adapting so they can challenge our vulnerabilities. We must be prepared to out-study the enemy, using our knowledge and creativity to imagine ways to checkmate his logic.

Again, as Secretary Gates made clear, balance will be the guiding principle behind our efforts to prepare for an uncertain future. Balance will enhance the agility and effectiveness of the joint force across the spectrum of warfare as we work to make irregular warfare a core competency. As the emerging joint narrative captures these ideas, connecting our best vision of the future with joint concepts and doctrine, it will serve to enhance the long-term security of our nation.


(1) See Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008); or Robert D. Kaplan, "America's Elegant Decline," The Atlantic

(November 2007).

The Joint Operating Environment 2008 describes seven specific contexts of conflict and war that will engage future joint forces:

* competition and cooperation among conventional powers

* potential challenges and threats

* threats of unconventional power

* proliferation of weapons of mass destruction

* technological change

* battle of narratives

* need for security in urban environments


The Capstone Concept for Joint Operations proposes that these precepts will underlie future joint operations:

* achieve and maintain unity of effort within the joint force and among the joint force, U.S. Government, and international and other partners

* plan for and manage operational transitions over time and space H focus on operational objectives whose achievements suggest the broadest and most enduring results

* combine joint capabilities to maximize complementary rather than merely additive effects

* avoid combining capabilities where doing so adds complexity without compensating advantage

* drive synergy to the lowest echelon at which it can be managed effectively

* operate indirectly through partners to the extent each situation permits

* ensure operational freedom of action

* maintain operational and organizational flexibility

* inform domestic audiences and influence the perceptions and attitudes of key foreign audiences as an explicit and continuous operational requirement

General James N. Mattis, USMC, is Commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command.
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Author:Mattis, James N.
Publication:Joint Force Quarterly
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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