Reconsidering the Operational Approach to Phase IV Stability Operations


Why are Phase IV / Stability Operations hard to bring to a definitive conclusion?  Are the end states of our typical Phase IV Lines of Effort (LOEs) unrealistic and unproductive?  Why also is it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve lasting progress and irreversible momentum?  The problem may be the operational approach which frames our targeting.  The traditional approach to developing Phase IV Lines of Effort may be too broad, too ambiguous, and too stove-piped. 

Defining the Problem

The Kinetic Fight Dominates.  There are several negative results common to the traditional, operational approach.  First, the Security LOE becomes virtually independent of the other LOEs.  The goals and objectives underpinning the Security LOE have very little direct connectivity to the goals and objectives within the other LOEs.  One of the many results of this disjointedness can be seen from an organizational dynamics perspective.  How often within a division, brigade or battalion headquarters do we find the “lethal” and “non-lethal” staffs working, if not independently of each other, then at least far from in a unified, synchronized and mutually supporting relationship.  The threats we face in Phase IV do not operate this way, yet generally we do.  The threats to Phase IV security and return to normalcy (both lethal and non-lethal) are interrelated and interdependent.  Why is our approach to solving them not interrelated and interdependent?   

Teams of Teams instead of Team of Teams.  Another result of the traditional approach to LOE development in Phase IV is the lack of unity of effort.  As stated above, even within the Counterinsurgency (COIN) force itself, unity of effort between what we artificially label as “lethal” and “non-lethal” staff sections is difficult to achieve.  If within the COIN force, which largely has the advantage of unity of command, unity of effort cannot be achieved, how much more difficult then is it to achieve substantial unity of effort between the COIN force and the various federal agencies (i.e. Department of State) supporting the COIN force?  How much more difficult is unity of effort between the COIN force and the Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) and Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)?  And, how much more difficult is unity of effort between the COIN force and the host nation ministerial departments and local government offices?  Many of these organizations external of the COIN force conduct their activities across several of our LOEs; hardly will you find them operating solely within the scope of one of our LOEs.  To be certain, they typically have the advantage of much more focused and limited objectives -- but on the other hand, their approach to solving problems tends to span the economic, governance, essential service, civil control, and even security lines of effort.  Take for instance an NGO initiative to reduce humanitarian suffering in Indigenous Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.  That NGO will be working across several lines of effort in order to address the problem of humanitarian suffering within IDP camps.   There is an inherent commitment to unity of effort within these organizations which is not routinely found within the COIN force.  In comparison, the COIN force’s efforts to address the same humanitarian problem within the IDP camps will typically be as part of a goal or objective within one, particular LOE of the operational plan, with little to no supporting targeting within the other LOEs.  For instance, one may find an IDP-related objective within the Governance LOE.  Subsequently, during the targeting process only select, “governance”-related (typically Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), but not exclusively) fires will be employed to address the IDP problem. 

Birds of different feathers do not flock together.  The stove-piped LOE approach within the COIN force will cause a disruption to any possible unity of effort with the other external organizations.  Organizations with similar operational approaches tend to find it easier to communicate with each other, support each other, and realize common goals and objectives together.  Organizations which approach problems differently, especially in terms of fundamental visualization of the problems, will typically part ways rather than make substantial progress together.

Sound and fury signifying little.  The final major result we see from the traditional approach to LOE development in Phase IV is the lack of real, substantial progress.  We do a lot, but accomplish little, operationally.  The Phase IV LOEs are so broad - encompassing all the myriad of factors making up a society - that COIN forces spend too much time doing too many things, with little cross-linkages.  Let us consider “Support to economic development and infrastructure,” which is a typical Phase IV LOE. Economic development is the epitome of a complex system - encompassing political, social, cultural, legal, financial, and security sectors.  An economic target developed and executed under the traditional LOE approach will often have few linkages to these other sectors.  Economic progress under this approach will be negligible, at best.

A Different Approach

When planning the operational approach to Phase IV/Stability Operations, commanders should provide a strong linkage among the LOEs.  This linkage must be much more substantial than what amounts to an Information Operations (IO) theme.  It must be real and tangible.  It must fundamentally focus the entire headquarters, along with subordinate headquarters, into a team of teams, unified in effort, around a single decisive operation (DO).  All the goals and objectives across all the LOEs should be linked in some way (even indirectly) to that one single decisive operation. 

This decisive operation must be concrete and limited.  If the objective is a theme or a concept, it will not be concrete and will not fit this approach.  If the objective is some grand social, political, or economic aspiration for the AO, it will not be limited and will not fit this approach.  “Return to normalcy” or “irreversible momentum” or “By, with and through” are themes, not concrete, unifying objectives.  They are not the type of decisive operation which will successfully link the LOEs together and provide unifying focus and direction to the team of teams.  Likewise, “ending sectarian violence” or “political reconciliation” or “economic prosperity” are aspirations not decisive operations.  They are not limited and will not work under this new approach.  Under this approach, the COIN force must avoid hinging their campaign on both lofty rhetoric and unreasonable aspirations.  LOE end states must be linked to a concrete and limited decisive operation.

“Resettlement of IDPs” or “reestablishment of the dairy industry” are two examples of decisive operations which could successfully link Phase IV LOEs in this new approach, depending on the circumstances of a particular Area of Operation (AO).  The circumstances of AOs will vary, and will require a thorough Intelligence Preparation of the Battefield (IPB) which gives the commander and staff a comprehensive situational understanding.  However, the “resettlement of IDPs” or “reestablishment of the dairy industry” are examples of decisive Phase IV operations which are concrete and limited.  Furthermore, when a headquarters analyzes the true, complex natures of these problems, they find that the problems have major components, contributors, influencers, and friction points which cross every single traditional Phase IV LOE.  If chosen as the decisive operation for the organization, they will literally bind together all the LOEs. 

Doing this provides the headquarters with a framework for targeting and actually making real progress in the AO.  It also employs all the LOEs and all the resources of the organization in harmony.  This approach does not mean that the subordinate commander is limited from targeting when a direct linkage to the decisive operation cannot be made.  Exceptions will exist.  In general, however, the targeting process should be focused along the decisive operation, with all the shaping operations linked to  the decisive operation.   

As an example.  If IDPs are a large problem with an AO, think about the massive amount of cross-functional work it takes to successfully resettle those IDPs.  Within the Security LOE, the camps must be secure and free from hostile influence or recruiting.  The IDPs must be secure to transit back to their homes.  The IDPs must be secure back in their homes and neighborhoods.  Within the Civil Control LOE, the resettled IDPs must be able to address their security-related grievances to the host nation police.  The host nation police must be able to investigate crime and deter crime.  The host nation prosecutors must be able to successfully convict criminals.  The host nation judges must be able to conduct court operations.  Within the Governance LOE, the various ministries must first account for and document all the IDPs.  They must control the orderly resettlement.  They must deconflict the political and legal challenges to resettlement.  They must reintegrate the returnees into the local political systems.  Within the Essential Services LOE, beyond the immediate humanitarian assistance within the IDP camps, the critical Essential Support and Services (ESS) nodes must be restored before resettlement can occur.  The ministerial sub-departments within local areas must be prepared to receive back the IDP population, and account for the increased demand load on the various ESS networks.  Within the Economic Development LOE, the basic industrial or agricultural production, transport and marketing systems must be reestablished to support the employment of the IDPs after resettlement.  As one can see, this one decisive operation of “resettle IDPs” encompasses every critical component within each LOE.

Another example.  In a given agrarian AO “reestablish dairy industry” may be deemed the decisive operation.  Like the IDP DO, this DO will require substantial targeting across all the LOEs.  Host Nation Security Force (HNSF) must be able to protect the farmers and the supporting dairy networks.  The legal system must be able to police and prosecute criminal activity ranging from stopping illegal irrigation canal tapping to disrupting illegal cartel or organized crime activity exploiting any aspect of the diary supply chain.  The ministries of agriculture, water resources, transportation, and others will need to have regional offices, engineers, and specialists staffed and resourced to support and regulate the dairy industry.  The ministries of electricity, rural development, and others will need to establish or repair the critical ESS nodes which power and support the dairy industry.     

Rising tides lift all boats.  Not only will the concrete and limited Phase IV decisive operation tie together the LOEs, but it will improve many of the other situations and problems within the AO too.  Think of the governmental sophistication and coordination required to thoroughly resettle IDPs.  Aggressively working a decisive operation based on IDP resettlement will result in residual improvement across many areas spanning all the LOEs.  As the host nation government evolves to meet the challenges of resettlement, ministries and departments with only indirect ties to the IDP problem will improve.

A thoughtfully selected, concrete and limited, decisive operation can link together all the Phase IV LOEs.  It also comprehensively employs targeting within all the LOEs, while not overly restricting or limiting action.  It does, however, require the commander to do something innovative and perhaps even audacious -- stop trying to do everything and chose a true, decisive operation (not in name only) within Phase IV.  The commander must provide focus in a real and substantial way.  The commander must employ some degree of risk and innovation.  The traditional approach to broadly defined Phase IV LOEs, and assigning decisive operations in name only, seems less risky because it is so broad and seems to “cover all the bases”.  It is, however, less innovative and less likely to produce real results in the long run.

The use of the designator main effort (ME) should be retained for designating that one unit within that particular AO which will receive priority of support.  The use of the designator DO, however, should no longer generally be used during Phase IV to designate a specific unit within a particular AO.  The approach to designating a DO must be radically different in Phase IV.  A good test for verifying the usefulness of a proposed Phase IV DO would be to ask oneself, “How can every organization, both within my command and partnered outside my command, contribute in a real sense to this DO?”  If every unit inside and every organization outside cannot in a substantial sense, directly contribute to the unit’s DO, then it is a DO in name only and not in accord with the approach recommend here.     

Where to Start

In developing the decisive operation, some thought should be given to determining the threat center of gravity after completing a comprehensive IPB.  The IPB must cover the entire AO, and look at governance, economy, civil control, and essential services as comprehensively as it analyzes security and the host nation security forces.  Only through approaching, if not arriving at, situational understanding, can the commander and staff make a best guess at a decisivie operation close to the threat center of gravity.  The linkage should be related to the threat center of gravity as closely as possible.  Ultimately, however, the linkage between the DO and the threat center of gravity does not have to be perfect. 

Why can the commander risk linking and focusing his Phase IV LOEs on something which turns out to be not the center of gravity?  Because in Phase IV, the Means justify the Ends.  In contrast to Phase III, when we conform our Means and Ways to meet our Ends, Phase IV should take a different approach. 

This may sound illogical at first to say that within Phase IV Means are more important than Ends.  In Phase IV, however, our goal is to establish systems and procedures within the host nation.  In essence, the development of host nation Means and Ways (systems and procedures) is our operational Ends.  Our approach is more important than our goals because our goal, in reality, is a host nation with functioning procedures.     The COIN force working as a unified, coordinated system (as a team of teams) will support the host nation in developing their own unified, coordinated systems.   


Commanders must give real thought to fresh operational design in planning Phase IV LOEs.   The goal of the design must be a set of Phase IV LOEs which are linked to a decisive operation.  The decisive operation must be limited in scope, but large enough to have significant linkages to all the LOEs.  The decisive operation must also move beyond lofty messages, and be concrete enough to translate into real, measurable progress on the ground. 

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Defining success so narrowly in order to allow for even more narrowly defined LOEs to be focused on one particular and simple end state seems a bit unrealistic to me. Yes, I agree, it does make sense on some level, but I do not believe that it would lead to any greater success than we have seen in the not so recent past. The author states that “The final major result we see from the traditional approach to LOE development in Phase IV is the lack of real, substantial progress. We do a lot, but accomplish little, operationally. The Phase IV LOEs are so broad - encompassing all the myriad of factors making up a society - that COIN forces spend too much time doing too many things, with little cross-linkages.” The enemy does have a vote. The enemy will cause some LOEs to be harder to achieve than others in any given environment. This is not the only factor that leads to stalled or slow success, but it is something that is largely, if not totally, out of a commanders control most of the time. The enemy chooses when to use his vote, and it is usually not at a time that they know will be convenient for us. Also, there are many other factors that lead to us “doing a lot, but accomplishing little, operationally” that go far beyond just a lack of unity of effort that the author writes about here. Lack of resources, lack or time, political will, host nation support and effort, public support….there are a host of other things that contribute to the slow pace of operations. Even if objectives were to be as narrowly defined as the author would like, I believe that the things that hinder progress now, would hinder progress in a more narrowly defined environment as well.