Operational Adaptability, Is it Self-Constraining?

August 31st 2012 in Analysis Publications

By Dr. Terry Tucker (PhD)

Dr. Tucker (PhD) is a Senior Consultant for Spatial Terra Consulting Group, a contributor to Wikistrat, a massively global geopolitical market place for geopolitical analysis, and is a US Department of Defense Analyst.


milops-300x200The paradox in military training is that we are taught that no plan survives first contact, yet the military decision making process leads one to believe that the process of strategy and operational decision making can be predictable. We attempt to plan and control for internal and external factors and then organize capabilities to meet these expected demands to mission and the environment. In all cases we expect change, yet are surprised by it.

In many respects this is at odds and counter-intuitive to our requirement for Operational Adaptability.

We pride ourselves in interpreting the intelligence and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), we feel that we can read the signals and interpret these signals faster than our enemy, yet our ability to implement goes awry when a seemingly, come-from-nowhere event alters the tone and texture of the operating environment…. Why did that Key Leader Engagement (KLE) go so wrong?

Commanders are well aware of the requirement to match strategy to the specific demands of the operating environment. Yet, use the strategy planning and decision making process to achieve and maintain predictability throughout the operation.

Are you self-constraining in this process? Ironically, it is three critical factors that, constrain and yet can liberate you to be operationally adaptive: (Harvard Business Review, Your Strategy Needs a Strategy)

  • Predictability
  • Malleability
  • Shaping

There are few missions with predictability and some elements in the operational environment can be shaped and are malleable to shaping. Much weakness is prevalent in the ability to be operationally adaptive to what is or is not malleable, and what can and can not be shaped within the operational commanders operating environment.

Our current methods of achieving operational adaptability are constraining. With such an overwhelming amount of information to adapt to, and with such rapid changes in the operating environment, the only real static is your basic “first-order” organizational structure. Operational adaptability is a “second-order” and “third-order” capability that is more than just creating on-the- fly innovations and learning the immediate tactical lessons of your operating environment.

The classical approach of developing detailed long term analysis is now challenged by the speed of globalization, technology, innovation, political and economic uncertainty, social media, and digital influence. In most cases, the carefully crafted strategy is obsolete by the time its implemented and the predictions and trend analysis wrong, making the plan really obsolete.

To be adaptive, the planning cycles must be condensed, and more importantly, highly integrated and embedded in the operations. This means the signals for interpretative change to the strategy should be driven from the bottom up. To the three bullet points above, the shaping and adaptive strategies should be short cycles and continuos. Your strategy and the implementation of that strategy is an ecosystem that constantly changes to the effects of politics, economics, your actions, and government inactions/inability.

So, although commanders and staff recognize the importance of operational adaptability to the strategic plan, few are able to overcome the self-constraints of planning and implementation in an effort to retain a modicum of predictability and control. It is the ecosystems at the operational and tactical level that give the signals of change.

Operational Adaptability as outlined in the Army Capstone Concept is really the operational level of war. Success at the operational level of war is the ability to adapt; and training adaptability is the hallmark of professionalization.

TRADOC PAM 525-3-0, Army Capstone Concept, looks at operational adaptability and operating under persistently complex condition’s. ” Honing its ability to integrate joint and interagency assets, develop the situation through action, and adjust rapidly to changing situations to achieve what this concept defines as operational adaptability.”

Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 3-0, Unified Land Operations, “provides a common operational concept for a future in which Army forces must be prepared to operate across the range of military operations, integrating their actions with joint, interagency, and multinational partners as part of a larger effort.” In this context, operational concept is the process in which “Army units, seize, retain and exploit the initiative to gain and maintain a position of relative advantage in sustained land operations to create the conditions for favorable conflict resolution.”

Joint Publication 1-02, Describes the Operational level of war as: “The level of war at which campaigns, and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas. Activities at this level link tactics and strategy by establishing operational objectives needed to achieve the strategic objectives, sequencing events to achieve the operational objectives, initiating actions, and applying resources to bring about and sustain these events. See also strategic level of war; tactical level of war.”

In this context, Operational Level of War is the process of Mission Command and all that it implies in design and implementation or execution.

Synonymous in Operational Adaptability, is the requirement to achieve, maintain, and sustain Information Superiority and Information Dominance. But this superiority does not automatically grant operational adaptability, or the ability to create the conditions to achieve it.

Operational Adaptability is the operational level of war that requires cognitive dominance and decision making that is decentralized. This cognitive dominance is the requirement for an organization to develop and utilize its collective genius.

The modern tools of technology speed more than information sharing; they speed the entire communications and data process, and contribute to the governments’ and commanders’ ability to apply decisive action. Cyberspace and the cyber domain is where information and intelligence is stored, shared and used for decision making. The storage of this information mitigates the amplifying effect of intuition and risk when one feels that they have complete situational awareness – both, internally and externally. Taken together it gives one the sense of mitigating the seriousness of friction in decision making and speed to process constitute the ability to achieve and exert dominance and decisive action. Cyber-threats and security breaches compromise this ability, eliminate it, create doubts, increase risk, and cause decision making to stop; pending an assessment of what the security breach actually accomplished. A key premise of training and training decision making in leadership, is to develop, hone, and imbue instincts to adapt to the “Operational Level of War”.

Risk assessments, and decision making about acceptable risk, include decisions about trust, information, capability and surprise, and the ability to rapidly process information and data to be “more” adaptable than your opponent when things go awry – in essence, the raw adaptability to friction and the operational level of war. Although there is much open access in the cyber-domain, most, if not all governments, and the military, operate under the de-facto assumption that their system is “closed”.

A Cyber-breach now becomes an event that is just short of a “black swan” event. The surprise and discovery of the breach becomes a “paralyzing” event that imposes a forced – either forced external or forced internal immediate stop to all activity. Imagine the psychological damage this inflicts when you rely extensively on this domain. Think of your fear when you realized that your accounts have been hacked and your computer crashed and you are unsure of when the last “back-up” occurred.”

Two examples in the history of US Army innovation serve to reflect organizational adaptability, and the development of adaptability in the force.

moblizedops-300x200The Infantry School went through a series of changes in the late 1920’s. LTC George C. Marshall wanted students to learn the art of tactical improvisation and creativity. Marshall intended to revamp the entire program in a gradual fashion so as to minimize opposition from traditionalists. The school’s commandant gave him free reign.

One of the important changes was to move the students from the classroom to the field to give the students more hands on experience and made the tactical exercises more complex and challenging. One of his most fundamental changes was to reduce the emphasis on the school, or pre-approved solution. Students were encouraged to develop original and unorthodox solutions. Another important step was to introduce the study of history and leadership. Students would analyze examples, present the findings to the entire class, and would defend their conclusions. “A veteran of the program remarked that Marshall had undermined the Infantry School’s “complacency, renewed its enthusiasm, and trained a new generation of ground force leaders.”

The idea for a National Training Center began in the early 70’s, directly on the heals of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the introduction of a new TRADOC manual, FM 100-5, Operations. The concept of a central location for combined arms training in unfettered maneuver was approved by the Army vice chief in 1977. The first Units arrived to conduct rotations in late 1981.

To accomplish the mission of training soldiers in as realistic setting as possible, the NTC based its program on three pillars. A dedicated opposing force, a group of experienced officers and NCOs to serve as controllers, and a sophisticated instrumentation system to gather data for assessment of unit performance.

The after actions review was the single most major influence on the revolution in training that would take place following Vietnam.

The program proved to be visionary. No single training development since WW II had so profound an impact on the readiness of the US Army. The success had a ripple effect. The JRTC would be created in 1987, and the Combat Maneuver Training Center, Hohenfels, Germany, would be established in 1988. Additionally, the Battle Command Training Program, a simulations driven command post exercise would be combined with the training centers and the relevant lessons learned would be captured and disseminated across the force with the newly established Center for Army Lessons Learned.

The overarching lessons learned is that innovation in the process of training is every bit as important as advances in new weapons, structure and tactics.

That innovation in training is where adaptability is bred with creativity, leadership, and decision making to develop mind sets that amplify this Operational Adaptability to become the Operational Level of War.

Lastly, developing this soft power dominance requires undermining complacency.

Operational Adaptability? Not without Clausewitz!

Clausewitz-248x300From a conventional view, we always understood that war was fought for a political purpose. That “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means”.

What if we misunderstood the underlying intent?

Not as readily accepted, understood, or apparent is that Clausewitz also meant the subsequent consequences and implications. If war was meant to achieve a political purpose, everything else entered into the equation such as the political, economic, social, informational, strategic planning, and actual conduct of operations that would determine its course, purpose and outcome.

A key component of warfare, counterinsurgency warfare, was the need and requirement to be versatile, flexible, and adaptable in order to serve the desired objectives.

For instance, “If war is an act of force, the emotion cannot fail to be involved. War may not spring from them but they will affect it to some degree, and the extent to which they do so will depend not on the level of civilization but on how important the conflicting interests are and on how long the conflict lasts”.

Although unstated, was Clausewitz was actually trying to articulate the synthesis of narrative, mission command, the elements of PMESII (Political, MIlitary, Economic, Social, Informational, and Infrastructure) and planning at the operational level?

War, and especially counterinsurgency, is a social phenomenon and the principles of war are necessary in a subjective sense, from an educational sense, that they are never sufficient for one to decide what one should do in actual practice, nor necessary for a right military decision.

This is where Mission Command takes primacy in operational adaptability and the operational level of war.

This is where all the training that did, or did not occur in Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) that will now impact your ability to be operationally adaptable. A commander will never eliminate all the friction from conflict, but he can mitigate the effect based on how, and what training occurs before deployment.

Theory does not teach commanders the rules of war as an art, but only attempts to analyze war as an object”. This is where ARFORGEN, Situational Training Exercise (STX), Auftragstactic, Mission Command, and flexibility and adaptability move this “object” into the “operational realm.”

Clausewitz, Scharnhorst, Gniesenau and von Moltke recognized this with the development of the Militariches Gessellshaft, The Military Society, a professionalization of the Officer Corp to develop adaptability.

The objective of a vignette, a STX, and the process of examining and re-enacting the After Actions Review (AAR), is not just to learn correct procedures but to engage and come to terms with the rational and emotional elements of command dilemma; to understand the multiple vectors that influence decision making under difficult conditions, and to develop adaptability under realistic conditions that will mitigate friction.

Science and history is a collection of observations. Doctrinal theory is derived from these observations. Clausewitz lays out rules for learning and proscribes three primary activities: finding all the pertinent facts, tracing the effects of their causes, and, the investigation and assessment of all available means.

He also offers key considerations such as: every effect has more than one cause (in Counterinsurgency Targeting, and Measures of Effectiveness?); war involves a real, rather than abstract social component, and the analysis has to be thorough. (Social Narrative and Spatial Terra?)

Building adaptability is not building predictability, but it does enable some elements of shaping an malleability. Organizational structure and the capabilities equated with that structure might be the first-order effect, but it is the second and third order effect that are as crucial.

It is an axiom that the right people will never be in the right place, but, you can train independent critical thinking skills; skills that must be trained beyond power point depth and checklist manifesto’s in order to obtain adaptability in complex uncertain environments. Ambiguity and social phenomena must be injected in all training early and often, starting at the Squad, Platoon and Company.

The US COIN Doctrine is brilliant, but was reduced to traditional cliches with no real understanding that adaptability was the key to blending the right amount of money, kinetics, and civil-military actions. The JCOA, Decade of War Lessons Learned study illustrate the weakness to teach operational adaptability, that Learning adaptability does not come from reading theory and doctrine, and teaching operational adaptability must be more than a Brigade Combat Team (BCT) self-help project that is inadequately resourced.

It is said that Napoleon remarked that history is “fable agreed upon”. And Clausewitz noted: “Each era had its own kinds of war, its own limiting conditions, its own biases. Each would also have its own theory of war”.

Patience. It is a virtue and a skill. For those that don’t have patience, it is a skill that must be developed. Likewise, the new normal is the tactical event with far reaching strategic impact, and the tempo of operations requires a greater skill in “Operational Adaptability”.


Notes on sources:

Harvard Business Review, Your Strategy needS a Strategy, Martin Reeves, was relied on extensively. Accessed 31 Aug, 2012; http://hbr.org/2012/09/your-strategy-needs-a-strategy/ar/3 – and – http://hbr.org/2011/07/adaptability-the-new-competitive-advantage/ar/1

W.B.Gallie, Philosophers of Peace and War: Kant, Clausewitz, Marx, Engels and Tolstoy, pp 43-46 Cambridge University Press, 1978

On War, Howard and Paret, Book One, Chapter One, page 87

On War, Howard and Paret, Book One, Chapter One, page 76,


On War, Howard and Paret, Page 593

On War, Howard and Paret, Book Two, Chapter 5 , Page 158

On War, Howard and Paret, Book One , Chapter 1 , Page 88


On War, Ed and Tr by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976

History of Innovation, US Army Adaptation in War and in Peace.

Clausewitz and Contemporary War, Antulio J. Echevarria II, Oxford University Press, 2009

Decoding Clausewitz, A New Approach to On War, Jon, Tetsuro Sumida, University of Kansas Press, 2008

Editor’s Note: the first edition of this analysis paper “Operational Adaptability, Is it Self-Constraining?”, that is authored by Dr. Terry Tucker (PhD), was published by Spatial Terra Consulting Group. Ideas that Shape (ITS) has been authorized by the author Dr. Terry Tucker (PhD) and Spatial Terra Consulting Group to publish the 2nd Edition of the analysis paper “Operational Adaptability, Is it Self-Constraining?” on August 31, 2012. Ideas That Shape (ITS) hopes that this article would lead to constructive debates and studies about the issues highlighted and addressed within the context of this analysis paper.

Dr. Terry Tucker (PhD) is a Senior Consultant for Spatial Terra Consulting Group, a contributor to Wikistrat, a Global Marketplace for geopolitical analysis, and a Department of Defense Analyst. In addition, he is an academic and professor of history. Dr. Tucker was formally a US Department of Defense Analyst  for Yorktown Systems Group, Cubic Applications and MPRI, an L3 Communications Company; a Stability/Counterinsurgency Advisor; trainer to the Royal Saudi Arabian Land Forces;  and was Director of Material Logistics and Planning, and implemented total supply chain solutions for numerous Fortune 500 Companies while he was at National Oilwell-Varco, W.W.Grainger and Prosero.