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March 1, 2024

CHAPTER I: The Contemporary Operational Environment (COE)

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Chapter II: Universal and Enduring Techniques and Procedures to Support Tactical Operations in Afghanistan (Desert Environment)


At the direction of the Chief of Staff Army and the Commander, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the TRADOC Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence (ODCSINT) has studied the nature of current operational environments and those of the foreseeable future. The DoD officially defines an operational environment as “a composite of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of military forces and bear on the decisions of the unit commander” (Joint Pub 1-02).

The contemporary operational environment (COE) is the overall operational environment that exists today and in the near future (out to the year 2020). The range of threats during this period extends from smaller, lower-technology opponents using more adaptive, asymmetric methods to larger, modernized forces able to engage deployed U.S. forces in more conventional, symmetrical ways. In some possible conflicts (or in multiple, concurrent conflicts), a combination of these types of threats could be especially problematic.

Basic to understanding the nature of this COE are the following premises:

  • The United States will have no single peer or near-peer competitor until 2020 or beyond.
  • Nation-states will remain principal actors in the global political arena, but non-state actors (including transnational actors) will increasingly take prominent positions in world affairs. Such non-state actors will play important roles in any conflict – as combatants or noncombatants.
  • Nations will continue to field armed forces and use them as tools to pursue national interests. Entities other than nations will also pursue their own interests (which may be ethnic, religious, economic, or political) through force or by other means, either independently or in conjunction with other non-state or nation-state actors.
  • As nation-state or non-state actors pursue their own interests, their actions may cause U.S. intervention, either unilaterally or as a coalition partner, with or without United Nations mandate.
  • Nations that believe the United States will act counter to their national interests will develop diplomatic and military plans for managing U.S. intervention.
  • Nations will modernize their armed forces within the constraints of their economies, but based on an investment strategy of upgrading their conventional forces for possible use against regional foes and developing adaptive, niche technologies for possible use against extraregional foes such as the United States.
  • The rapid development and proliferation of advanced technology will make such technology available on the world market for a wide variety of nation-state and non-state actors.
  • All combat operations will be significantly affected by a number of variables in the environment beyond simply military forces.


During the period covered by the COE, the Army will encounter a variety of conflicts in a number of different operational environments. There are eleven critical factors or variables that define the nature of the operational environments in which those conflicts or other U.S. military activities may occur. These factors are “variables,” because the exact nature of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that make up the operational environment will vary according to the particular situation. The variables are:

  • Physical environment
  • Nature and stability of the state
  • Military capabilities
  • Technology
  • Information
  • External organizations
  • Sociological demographics
  • Regional and global relationships
  • National will
  • Time
  • Economics

These variables are interrelated and sometimes overlap. Different variables will be more or less important in different situations, but they are all common to any operational environment. Nevertheless, the collective content of these variables will define any operational environment the Army could face, whether we are involved in stability and support operations, smaller-scale contingencies, or major theater war.

In real-world operational environments, soldiers and leaders must be aware of the variables representing the “conditions, circumstances, and influences” that affect military operations. In Army training environments, these variables and effects must, therefore, be present to provide realistic and relevant training.

Each operational environment is different because the content of the variables is different. However, there are some common characteristics we can expect to find in any operational environment that exists between now and the emergence of a peer competitor. Only by studying and understanding these variables and incorporating them into our training can we keep adversaries from using them against us or find ways to use them to our own advantage.


The concept of asymmetric warfare is critical to understanding the COE. Nations and non-state actors in various regions of the world generally see the United States as a major international power, with large technological, economic, and material advantages and an overwhelming military capability. Given this strategic assessment, potential opponents will seek to avoid U.S. strengths while exploiting perceived U.S. weaknesses. In this way, they hope to achieve their own regional goals without U.S. intervention or, failing this, without the U.S. defeat of those objectives. If it comes to a fight with U.S. forces, they are not going to fight the same way they would fight their peers or lesser forces in their region.

Asymmetry is a condition of ideological, cultural, technological, or military imbalance that exists when there is a disparity in comparative strengths and weaknesses. In the context of the COE, asymmetry means an adaptive approach to avoid or counter U.S. strengths without attempting to oppose them directly, while seeking to exploit weaknesses.

While an asymmetric approach is not new, potential opponents will increasingly study and prepare for U.S. strategy, tactics, and capabilities. They will invest in technologies that negate U.S. strengths, but not necessarily in a direct, symmetrical way. They will use force design and investment strategies that allow them to achieve regional goals while preparing for the eventuality of U.S. intervention. Various countries and non-state entities have studied how the United States fights and have begun to devise ways to fight a technologically superior force, if necessary, and win.


In today’s world, the U.S. Army must be prepared to go into any operational environment and perform its full range of missions while dealing with a wide range of threats and other influences. Some threats come in the form of nation-states; this may be a country or a coalition of countries. Threats can also come from entities that are not states; these can include insurgent, terrorist, drug-trafficking, and other criminal organizations. These non-state actors may use force of arms to further their own interests and threaten the interests of the United States or other nation-states. Non-state threats may exist in isolation or in combination with other non-state or nation-state threats.

No single nation-state or non-state actor is expected to present a peer or near-peer threat to the United States until 2020 or beyond. However, this does not mean that the United States and its armed forces will not face serious challenges in the next two decades. The sum total of all the possible conflicts and the level of difficulty of those conflicts could present a challenge equivalent to that of having a near-peer competitor. For example, the net effect of the operational environments in Afghanistan, the Philippines, and in other areas where U.S. forces might be committed in the near term well expresses the challenge posed by the COE. Thus, when considered in its totality from a global, strategic perspective, the COE stretches our combat power in ways we have never before encountered.

We must be ready to counter all possible threats and, at the same time, be prepared to deal with various third-party actors, such as international humanitarian relief agencies, news media, refugees, and civilians on the battlefield. These groups may not be hostile to us, but they can affect our ability to accomplish our mission when we are operating in a foreign country. Their presence can change or constrain the nature of the conflict and can influence the outcome.

Most nations of the world and other actors of consequence have devoted considerable effort to studying the United States and how we fight. Since it is difficult for us to predict whom we might have to fight, we don’t always have the luxury of having studied them in detail. So, it is quite possible that the enemy may know more about us than we know about them.


Given this overall situation, what does all this mean for future warfighting involving U.S. forces? Warfighting in the COE may transcend the traditional definitions of what constitutes “war” or “victory.”

Most of the participants in conflicts around the world would not start out with the intent to fight the United States, so they are looking for ways to keep us out of the conflict or keep us from staying involved. If it does come to a fight, they are not going to fight us the same way they would fight their peers or lesser forces in their region. Thus, we can expect potential adversaries to adapt their methods of fighting, most likely using a combination of the following principles:

  • Control access into the region
  • Change the nature of the conflict
  • Employ operational shielding
  • Control tempo
  • Neutralize technological overmatch
  • Cause politically unacceptable casualties
  • Allow no sanctuary

These principles attempt to exploit weaknesses or vulnerabilities believed to exist in the U.S. force’s activities, force structure, or rules of engagement (ROE). Many of these principles are interrelated and overlapping, since all contribute to the overall goal.

Initially, potential opponents will seek to selectively deny, delay, and disrupt entry of U.S. forces into their region. Even if the opponent can’t deny the U.S. access, he will seek to control it. Meanwhile, the time required for any phased U.S. deployment affords the enemy the opportunity to begin changing the nature of the conflict to something for which the U.S. force is least prepared once it gets there.

The enemy will begin to use operational shielding to protect key elements of his combat power from destruction – particularly by U.S. air and missile forces. This protection may come from use of any or all of the following: dispersion, complex terrain, fortifications, countermeasure systems, information warfare, and the risk of unacceptable collateral damage or noncombatant casualties.

During the initial phases of U.S. entry, the enemy may employ a high operational tempo, taking advantage of the weaknesses inherent in U.S. power projection. As U.S. forces gain a foothold in the region, the enemy may slow the tempo to prolong the conflict, taking advantage of a perceived lack of U.S. commitment over time. He will try to survive tactically and operationally long enough to win strategically. For the enemy, a stalemate may be good enough, as long as he maintains enough power to live to fight another day.

As our adversaries focus on preserving their own combat power, they will try to neutralize our technological overmatch, particularly our long-range, standoff precision fires. They will not mass their forces in predictable linear patterns of echelonment and timing. Rather, they will disperse forces in areas of physical or moral sanctuary often located in urban or other complex terrain and shielded by civilians and manmade structures. Then they will use maneuver tied to opportunity, massing forces and fires from dispersed positions at a time and place of their own choosing. At the tactical level, there is a high likelihood of close combat in urban environments or other complex terrain. In specific tactical situations, the enemy might be able to employ a niche technology to create parity or overmatch U.S. forces deployed in that particular area.

The enemy will not avoid combat, but will seek battle in urban environments and other complex terrain that may be better suited for his forces than ours. Since we are fighting in his region, he may also have the advantage of being more familiar with the terrain and other features of the environment than we are. He will be looking for conditions or creating conditions advantageous for using his forces at the time and place of his choosing. When opportunities arise, he will use these forces to destroy high-visibility U.S. targets and cause politically unacceptable casualties. Thus, his targeting of U.S. systems and personnel is not always linked to military-style objectives, but often aimed at creating a psychological effect.

The enemy will seek to deny U.S. forces safe haven during every phase of deployment and as long as they are in the region. He is prepared to attack U.S. military and civilian targets anywhere on the battlefield, in the region, or even in our homeland.


In U.S. Army training environments, the COE is the environment created by the opposing force (OPFOR) that portrays the military and/or paramilitary forces of a composite of potential adversaries and by manifestations of other COE variables in models and simulations, curriculum in training institutions, and the manning and equipping of training centers. Army training must contain sufficient manifestations of the COE variables to provide realistic conditions that challenge our leaders, soldiers, and units, to produce certain training outcomes desired for the legacy, interim, and objective force.

Another way to deal with U.S. technological overmatch is the use of military systemology – a warfighting concept that attempts to destroy or neutralize systems as opposed to formations or weapons platforms. Our military is a system of systems, and opponents will seek to disrupt or destroy the links and nodes that provide the synergy of our system of systems.

The training venues include combat training centers (CTCs) and home station training for units and institutional training (primarily in TRADOC schools) for soldiers and leaders. Models and simulations provide the driver for most training. In CTCs, as well as in home station training, the COE is the environment created by exercise design and manning and equipping of the centers to provide realistic conditions in which units train mission essential tasks to standard. Unit training must have sufficient manifestations of the COE variables (live or simulated) to realistically challenge the unit’s ability to accomplish those tasks. In leader and soldier training, training institutions must also have sufficient manifestations of COE variables in their curriculum, scenarios, and programs of instruction to produce the desired leader and soldier training outcomes.

The goal of COE implementation in Army training is to produce an objective force of leaders, soldiers, and units capable of rapidly adapting and optimizing capabilities to achieve mission objectives – to fight and win – in a complex and evolving environment across the spectrum of conflict. COE implementation is less about equipping and organizing our training venues to reflect the COE and more about seeing warfare through a different lens.

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Chapter II: Universal and Enduring Techniques and Procedures to Support Tactical Operations in Afghanistan (Desert Environment)

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