CHAPTER I: The Contemporary Operational Environment (COE)
SECTION I: INTRODUCTION
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.
- 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
- 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.
SECTION II: CRITICAL VARIABLES
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
- External organizations
- Sociological demographics
- Regional and global relationships
- National will
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.
SECTION III: ASYMMETRIC, ADAPTIVE APPROACHES
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.
SECTION IV: THREATS AND OTHER INFLUENCES
In todays 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
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
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 dont 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.
SECTION V: WARFIGHTING IN THE COE
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
- 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. forces 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 cant 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.
SECTION VI: COE IN THE TRAINING ENVIRONMENT
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 units 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
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.