Framing the Operational Environment, and the Role for the Sergeant Major
By Jason Crawford
This paper will examine the process used by commanders and staffs to create the operational environment. Armies that don’t know what to do with their problems can waste precious resources and end up failing to address the problem. In the initial phases of the war in Afghanistan commanders routinely chose to destroy poppy plants. They believed that poppy destruction directly targeted the Taliban’s finance networks. But poppy destruction brought about a more serious problem. Poppy destruction created a much more serious problem. Farmers relied on the income from poppy harvest. Without it, they turned to Taliban for assistance and began attacking United States forces. This situation proved that the Taliban’s financing was the biggest problem and not poppy reliance.
Army design methodology (ADM), provides commanders with a process for analyzing and framing ill-structured issues (Department of the Army 2019, 2019). ADM requires staff to use critical thinking to help a commander understand, visualize, or describe complex problems. The ADM process is conducted by a staff. This includes framing the operational context (OE), framing the problem (or reframing) and framing or rephrasing solutions (Department of the Army 2015). This process is led by the sergeant major, who provides oversight, training, and advices the commander. Inability to understand the operational environment can hinder the staff’s ability to identify the centers of gravity and root problems. This will prevent a commander from imagining the steps required to move from the current state to the desired state.
Framing to Understand the OE
An OE is a mixture of terrain, contexts. Influences, and conditions. Each OE is unique and has its own level of complexity. This can be influenced by external and internal influences as well as the nature of the relationships among actors. Before the sergeant major can begin to frame any OE the sergeant major must first make sure that all staff members have the proper standard operating procedure and adequate training. ADM allows for flexibility in its design, which allows commanders to adjust the approach and presentation to fit their preferences. The SOP must reflect these preferences. The staff must be able to think critically and creatively during the initial phases of ADM/OE framing in order to fully understand the complex conditions and conditions specific to the target area (Department of the Army 2015).
Operational Variables (and the Current State)
To understand the current state, the staff uses operational variables. The key actors, conditions, and relationships between the military, political, economic, social and information (PMESII–PT), allow a staff to create a model of the current state (Department of the Army 2015. The higher headquarters order is used by the staff to determine the OE’s size, scope, and desired end state. The majority of staff begin visualizing the current situation by holding brainstorming sessions that are focused on each PMESIIPT variable. After brainstorming is over, a designated team will begin mind mapping to group actors or variables and combine similar items or eliminate insignificant ones.
The staff then uses the mind mapping results to create an illustration of the relationships between all important actors to an OE. These actors can be individuals, governments, economic entities and militaries as well as criminal organizations and pivotal coalitions. The diagram must be well-organized, easily readable, and include a legend to highlight enemy, neutral, or friendly relationships (Department of the Army 2015). The team creates a narrative which explains each actor and their subsequent relationships. This is then shared with the rest of staff to help them in the next phase of OE framing.
Example of a Diagram for the Current State
The sergeant major leads the staff through this phase and assists commander in establishing critical information gaps, establishing a timeline for model and briefing presentations. The sergeant major plays a vital role in ensuring that the current state planning team has all the necessary supplies to create a readable diagram.
What the OE May Trend
Once staff has a good understanding of the current state, they can project the future direction of an OE without external intervention. The most important factor in determining the evolution of an OE’s future is the relationship between actors. Staff will not be able to correctly predict trends if they are unable to accurately assess and describe the fundamental relationships within an OE. Environments often tend toward natural tendencies, or the direction influenced most by the most significant actor (Department of the Army (2015)). The current situation in Ukraine is a great example of an OE trend. Under the leadership Putin, Russia influenced the OEs steady trend from an inner political conflict to a boundary dispute to a special operation by Russian forces. The commander can see the barriers to friendly actions that might lead to the desired end point and this helps to establish the foundation for determining what the desired end states of other actors. After determining the OE trend, the staff uses a diagram and narrative as a briefing tool to inform the rest of their staff. During this phase, the sergeant Major continues to advise the staff, provide resource information, and help the commander maintain a shared understanding.
Example: How the OE May trend diagram
Desired End-State of Other Actors
The staff considers the wishes of other actors and begins to formulate information to frame the problem. The staff helps with problem framing and enhances their understanding of the OE by assessing other actors’ desired end states. The desired end state for Russia, as illustrated in the Ukraine situation, is the establishment of Russian influence or control over the land and economic resources of Ukraine. Understanding the desired end states of other actors allows a commander to identify external motivations and friction points and to begin the process of evaluating operational options to counter hostile obstacles (Department of the Army 2015). The staff develops a narrative and diagram that illustrates the similarities and differences between the desired ending state of friendly actors and other actors. The sergeant major serves as a soundingboard for ideas and relies on his experience and exceptional knowledge of the nature of conflict and war. Once they have a mutual understanding about the desired end-state of other actors, staff shifts to depicting that friendly state.
The staff uses higher guidance to combine mutual understanding of the current and likely trends with the desired end states of other actors in order to envision the desired outcome of a potential operation. An illustration of the desired state depicts the desired conditions and relationships among actors, much like the depiction the current state. While feasibility is important, staff must ensure that the desired state accurately represents the desired conditions. Commanders can address feasibility later during problem formulation and the development or an operational approach. The situation in Ukraine is a perfect example of how to identify the desired state. The desired state for the United States would include the affirmation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the removal of Russian forces and borders from Ukraine, and the development and stability in the Donbas to allow for long-term peace. This last step in framing the OE allows a commander understand the current environment and visualize the desired circumstances (Department of the Army 2019). The commander and his staff will have the necessary information to understand the problem and formulate an operational strategy. The command runs the risk of miscalculating the problem or applying an operational approach that is likely to fail if it doesn’t have a good understanding of the OE. The final phase is where the sergeant major ensures that the desired end state conforms to higher headquarters guidance. He also prepares the staff for framing the problem. A dedicated sergeant major is able to refine operating procedures and align staff teams to support greater accuracy and efficiency in the subsequent phases.
Staff must engage in open dialogue and critical thinking to create an operational environment that will support commanders in understanding the problem and developing an appropriate operational approach. A commander’s ability to create a plan that supports the desired end state is limited if there is not a mutual understanding of the OE. This includes key actors, trends, and motivations. The major sergeant must actively participate in the ADM process to ensure standard operating procedures and support efficiency, maintain adequate supply, and provide sound leadership based on a wealth experience and leadership.
Department of the Army. (2015). Army design methodology (ATP 5-0.1). Army Publishing Directorate. https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/atp5_0x1.pdf
Department of the Army. (2019). Operation (ADP 3-0). Army Publishing Directorate. https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/ARN18010-ADP_3-0-000-WEB-2.pdf