Professional Readings

Reading #140

  • Access:
  • Type:
  • Saturday, April 22, 2017

That Elusive Operational Concept

  • By: Brigadier General (Retired) David Fastabend
  • Published: June 2001
  • Read "Who Moved My Cheese" article here.

Acting Director Major General Robert “Bo” Dyess’ Comments:


For centuries military strategists and practitioners understood that a fundamental conception of war was necessary to inform military thinking to prepare for future conflicts. An examination of the history shows many examples of leaders who understood this necessity. For example, in 1864, Prussia and Austria-Hungary went to war with Denmark over the duchy of Schleswig-Holstein. Unlike previous European conflicts, the war with Denmark was conducted within a conceptual framework created by the Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Helmut von Moltke led the Prussians to victory against Danish forces that were ensconced in an earlier conception of war, one rooted in early nineteenth century. Following Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. military attributed much of its success to the efficacy of the AirLand Battle concept. This week’s reading underscores the importance of concepts in thinking about the problem of future war and providing a method for militaries to grow and solidify their understanding of what future combat may look like. This can often be the difference between success and failure on the battlefield. As General Donn Starry stated in his Commander’s Note #3, 20 Feb 1979: “A concept is an idea, a thought, a general notion. In its broadest sense a concept describes what is to be done; in its more specific sense it can be used to describe how something is done.” Concepts provide the intellectual foundation and framework for future force development.

In his 2001 essay, “That Elusive Operational Concept,” Brigadier General (Retired) David Fastabend, former ARCIC Concept Development and Learning Directorate Director, analyzes concept development. Fastabend’s argues that concepts have common characteristics. Characteristics that concepts should possess:

  • 1) An idealization of war. The operational concept is an image of combat: a concise visualization that portrays the strategic requirement, the adversary and his capabilities, and the scenario by which that adversary will be overcome to accomplish the strategic requirement.
  • 2) A reflection of strategic context. Operational concepts vary between nations and over time because they must reflect the wide range of strategic environments for those who would employ them.
  • 3) A link among theory, strategic context and doctrine. The operational concept filters theory through the lens of geopolitical circumstances, national culture, historical context and technology to frame a doctrine of war—the codification of practice.
  • 4) A choice. An operational concept comprises a fundamental choice: a clear decision that selects among an array of potential approaches, the preferred technique for success.
  • 5) A component of conflict. Operational concepts are essential components of conflict because they compete with those of our adversaries.

To develop a clear articulation of how the future Army will fight, Fastabend stressed the importance of overcoming challenges to concept development:

  • 1) Ideas Matter. The operational concept is fundamentally an idea, and ideas matter. A list of concepts is not an image of future combat; they offer no real choice.
  • 2) Debate Matters. Because ideas matter, good ideas create good debate. Without debate good ideas may fail.
  • 3) Clarity matters. Debates matter, but they are not possible if the disputed ideas lack clarity. Concepts that are recognizable only through the lens of historical retrospect lack utility. It is not enough if the composite elements of an effective operational concept are unrecognizably buried in doctrine.
  • 4) Resources matter. The common thread that links the history of concepts is resources. Once developed, concepts must be fielded and embedded in the force. Concepts require widespread understanding; they cannot be put together on the fly.
  • 5) Leaders matter. Concepts need leaders who recognize ideas that matter, refine those ideas through effective debate, distill them with clarity, and bring resources to their implementation. If the Army does not offer a simple, clear depiction of how it will fight in the future, development efforts will result in a concept that is easy to sell but impossible to execute.

The Army modernizes and develops the future Army using the Think-Learn-Analyze-Implement paradigm. While doctrine explains how current Army forces operate and guides leaders and Soldiers in the conduct of training and operations, concepts describe how commanders might employ future capabilities against anticipated threats to accomplish missions. Concepts are the result of Army leaders thinking about the problem of future warfare to illustrate how future joint and Army forces may operate, describe the capabilities required to carry out the range of military operations against adversaries in the expected operational environment, and explain how a commander might employ these capabilities to achieve desired effects and objectives. Concept development is informed by known shortfalls; technology, threats, technologies, missions, and lessons learned from previous operations, experimentation, and research. The absence of a well-developed concept has potential to adversely affect the Army’s ability to innovate, resource, and prepare for the future.

As the Army develops the Multi-Domain Battle concept leaders must be mindful that the concept requires broad debate and the expression of new ideas and the consideration of old ideas used in new ways. Leaders must consider when and who will debate the ideas and ensure the debates do not turn into parochial arguments. Leaders must strive for clarity and simplicity while capturing the complexity of war. Leaders must refine concepts through experimentation and testing to validate ideas in realistic and challenging. Leaders must ensure concepts allow for a grounded projection into the future to ensure we can meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. Lastly, leaders must remember that concept development is not completed overnight. The development of AirLand Battle was years in the making. Given that DOTMLPF solutions are derived from concepts the Army doesn't have to get it completely right but it does have to be more right than our enemies.

See the following webpage for MDB information, ideas, articles, and videos related to Multi-Domain Battle:

To contribute to the Multi-Domain Battle Dialogue: #MultiDomainBattle

As you read the article, consider the impacts on the following Army Warfighting Challenges:
#1 Develop Situational Understanding:

How to develop and sustain a high degree of situational understanding while operating in complex environments against determined, adaptive enemy organizations.

#2/3 Shape the Security Environment:

How the Army influences the security environment and engages key actors and local/regional forces in order to consolidate gains and achieve sustainable security outcomes in support of Geographic Combatant Commands and Joint requirements.

#4 Adapt the Institutional Army and Innovate:

How to improve the rate of innovation to drive capability development and deliver DOTMLPF-P solutions to the warfighter at a pace that meets operational demand within the existing constraints of the acquisition and budgeting processes.

#5 Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction:

How to prevent, reduce, eliminate, and mitigate the use and effects of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high yield explosives (CBRNE) threats and hazards on friendly forces and civilian populations.

#6 Conduct Homeland Operations:

How to operate across multiple domains and with multiple partners to defend the homeland and mitigate the effects of attacks and disasters.

#7 Conduct Space, Cyberspace, Electronic Warfare, and Communications Operations :

How to assure access to and integrity of critical data and information, across multiple domains, in an increasingly contested and congested operational environment, while simultaneously denying the same to the enemy.

#8 Enhance Realistic Training:

How to train Soldiers, leaders and units to ensure they are prepared to accomplish the mission across the range of military operations while operating in complex environments against determined, adaptive enemy organizations.

#9 Improve Soldier, Leader, and Team Performance:

How to develop resilient Soldiers, adaptive leaders, and cohesive teams committed to the Army professional ethic that are capable of accomplishing the mission in environments of uncertainty and persistent danger.

#10 Develop Agile and Adaptive Leaders:

How to develop agile, adaptive, and innovative leaders who thrive in conditions of uncertainty and chaos and are capable of visualizing, describing, directing, and leading and assessing operations in complex environments and against adaptive enemies.

#11 Conduct Air-Ground Reconnaissance and Security Operations:

How Army formations conduct continuous integrated reconnaissance and security operations across multiple domains (air/land/cyberspace/space/maritime) to rapidly develop the situation while in contact with the enemy and civilian populations.

#12 Conduct Joint Expeditionary Maneuver and Entry Operations:

The Army needs formations that can rapidly deploy into contested environments, quickly transition to operations, and be sustained to maintain high operational tempo with the overmatch necessary to destroy or defeat enemy forces.

#13 Conduct Wide Area Security:

How do Army forces establish and maintain security across wide areas (wide area security) and across multiple domains to protect forces, populations, infrastructure, and activities necessary to shape security environments, consolidate gains, and set conditions for achieving policy goals.

#14 Ensure Interoperability and Operate in Joint, Inter-organizational, Multinational Environment:

How to integrate joint, inter-organizational, and multi-national partner capabilities and campaigns to ensure unity of effort and accomplish missions across the range of military operations.

#15 Conduct Cross-Domain Maneuver:

How Army forces, operating as part of a joint, interorganizational, and multinational force, train, organize, equip, and posture sufficiently to deter or defeat highly capable peer threats in the degraded, contested, lethal, and complex future operational environment.

#16 Set the Theater Sustain Operations and Maintain Freedom of Movement:

How to set the theater, provide strategic agility to the joint force, and maintain freedom of movement and action during sustained and high tempo operations at the end of extended lines of communication in austere environments.

#17/18 Employ Cross-Domain Fires:

How to employ cross-domain fires to defeat the enemy and preserve freedom of action across the range of military operations (ROMO).

#19 Exercise Mission Command:

How to understand, visualize, describe, and direct operations consistent with the philosophy of mission command to seize the initiative over the enemy and accomplish the mission across the range of military operations.

#20 Develop Capable Formations:

How to design Army formations capable of rapidly deploying and conducting operations for ample duration and in sufficient scale to accomplish the mission.

Continuous feedback, collaboration, and teamwork are keys to the success of the Campaign of Learning and driving innovation in the Army. Please use the Army Warfighting Challenges as the framework to contribute your ideas and recommendations with respect to this topic to improve our ability to innovate as we develop the current and future force.

The Army Warfighting Challenges (AWFC) framework may be accessed here:

For previous weekly readings go to: ARCIC Professional Readings

  1. Army Operating Concept, TRADOC Pam 525-3-1, 30 October 2014
  2. Multi-Domain Battle

All the best,