Small Wars Journal

Narrative Led Operations: Put the Narrative First

Wed, 10/17/2012 - 5:30am

At a recent symposium, Chief of US Army Forces Command General David M. Rodriguez in the Q&A after his keynote address was asked the very simple question: “Sir, Should we start teaching Narrative Led Operations”? – His just as simple answer came without any hesitation – “Yes”.[1]

But why did he answer yes to this question related to a non-doctrinal and perhaps quite controversial concept so quickly?  

Looking at the context in which most contemporary operations are conducted we find that the operational environment is increasingly complex. This complexity is the result of a whole array of factors mostly associated with the globalization of information and knowledge and more visible cultural differences. This also affords a wide range of actors with the possibility to actively try to influence and participate in, or be influenced by, armed conflicts and crisis. The military forces or units employed in crisis-management and stability operations therefore have to work in a complex context with many actors such as regular and irregular forces, asymmetric opponents, political actors, criminal organizations, international and non-government organizations, medias and civilian populations. Nearly all the employments of military forces will be in populaces’ areas and it will increasingly be the norm that military operations are conducted by smaller units operating at the tactical level but with operational and strategic implications. The technological developments over the last decade and the speed with which information is shared worldwide through the internet and social network medias compressing time and space also have a huge impact on contemporary military operations. It also blurs the traditional boundaries between strategic and tactical level more often than not elevating tactical operations and events to strategic issues. The other way around tactical events is used by media, politicians and opponents to characterize and frame the entire campaign either positively or negatively to support a given narrative. These new security policy challenges often characterized by local conflicts becoming global challenges have amongst other things driven the development of the use of strategic narratives and highlighted their role on all levels of warfare.[2]

But has this increased awareness of the importance of narratives and information in crisis management, counterinsurgency and other stability and security operations actually made any difference to how we plan and execute military operations? I would argue that it has not. Most military planning still departs from a classical approach to warfare and does not address the contemporary use of military force in the complex scenarios described above. If military planning does take the narrative into account, which is done to some extent in Afghanistan for example, there is a tendency to phrase the narrative to fit what is going on operationally and tactically rather than letting the narrative inform the these operations.                  

Narratives as a concept has been widely discussed the last couple of years in different forums including Small Wars Journal. The focus has, however, predominantly been on one of two aspects of narratives. The discussion has been either on so called strategic narratives for a mission or a theatre of operations or on the use of narratives at the tactical level to influence local audiences and events. Reed Kitchen´s “Things I Learned from People Who Tried to Kill Me”[3], Ben Zweibelson´s  “What is Your Narrative, and Why?”[4] and Scott Mann´s “The Shaping Coalition Forces´ Strategic Narrative in Support of Village Stability Operations”[5] to mention just a few are all good examples of this discussion. The concept of narratives is also debated in other forums as IO Sphere and in other studies, doctrines and handbooks one such being US Joint Forces Commands “Commander´s Handbook on Strategic Communication and Communication Strategy”.[6] All have argued that narratives are important in winning contemporary wars and rightly so. But most of these discussions are communication centric and discusses narratives in the framework of Strategic Communication, Information Operations, Psychological Operations and to some extent Public Affairs  to minimize the so called “say – do gap” and winning the “Battle of Narratives”. Unfortunately on the premise that it is the communications that should be better planned, synchronized and coordinated in order to effectively employ the narrative – not the other way around, that it is the operations in their entirety that needs to be based on the narrative.      

Much has, as indicated above, been written in the last four to five years about narratives and their importance in contemporary operations particularly in counterinsurgency and other stability operations and interventions. Little, however, about how they operate through the levels of warfare—strategic, operational and tactical—and on how they might inform the operational planning process all levels. The latter discussion must be at the heart of the issue for it to add any value to current military operations heavily influenced by the “fourth operational factor” – information – and the demands put on all operations to be transparent and legitimate in the eyes of the media, domestic, international, or in-theatre audiences – all actors that continuously scrutinize our actions and seek to make sense of them in the framework of narratives in the information environment. At the end of the day their perception of our actions will inform their behavior and human behavior is what contemporary conflicts are all about. 

The strategic narrative must be derived from and inform the theatre strategy developed at the political level and then be supported by the operations and actions on ground in theatre. Especially as it to a high degree the accumulated sum of tactical operations and actions that make up the desired strategic outcome all these operations and actions must be informed by and support the strategic narrative. In order to achieve this both operational and the subsequent tactical level planning must happen within the narrative framework. The commander’s intent and planning guidance to the staff and the staff’s development of the Operational Design, selection of Course of Actions Concept of Operation and Lines of Operations must fit within the narrative framework. Likewise the execution of operations on ground must provide proof of the strategic narrative in a visual way. This also means that our soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers must not only be trained and educated to use the narrative in planning and operations, they must also know and understand the strategic narrative and so to speak “live by it” in words and deeds. The aim with this is that all our operational planning and our operations are informed by and amplifies the strategic narrative giving us legitimacy and credibility and thereby influence in an ever more complex operational environment. It is in this context that that the concept of Narrative Led Operations must be seen.

Narrative Led Operations

Narrative Led Operations is about putting the narrative at the heart of the operational planning process and letting it inform the planning of both the kinetic and non-kinetic activities in order to support the strategic intent articulated in the strategic narrative. The operations and battles we plan on engaging in must thus support the strategic narrative. The battles we are drawn into must during and after be framed to either support our own narrative or to counter that of our opponents. Operations must therefore be conducted within the narrative and not be allowed to contradict it even though a particular tactical action or execution of a target of opportunity might be what wins the day. Narrative Led Operations is therefore a question of linking what we say politically (theatre strategy) and what we do militarily in the theatre of operations. Militarily it is a question of ensuring that both operations and communications are planned and executed or framed within and in support of the strategic narrative for the mission or theatre of operations.  

Narratives are already being used in a series of handbooks and doctrines on operational planning and operational design to amongst other things describe the operational environment. As for an example in US Joint Staff´s Planners Handbook for Operational Design; “The operational environment narrative captures a more detailed understanding of the relevant actors, their interactions, and relationships. When used in concert, a diagram and narrative become powerful tools.[7]   Narrative is also used in the Handbook as a definition of the problem to be solved. A narrative is then the basis for developing the operational approach; “A narrative problem statement that includes the required timing to solve the problem.”[8] The handbook finally describes a narrative as “A description of the operational approach in form of a combination of a narrative and graphics that describe end state objectives, desired conditions, and potential Lines of Operations and Lines of Efforts.”[9] The handbook thereby describes three different narratives in the operational planning; the operational environment narrative, the problem statement narrative and the operational approach narrative, but not that the strategic narrative have any influence on the planning from the beginning.

Looking at another planning publication, the US Army War College´s Campaign Planning Handbook, you also find that it describes the operational environment narrative when stating “The ‘product’ of the analysis of the current Operational Environment is a set of narratives that describe the important interests in the Operational Environment of the key actors. Though the narrative may be PMESII-based,[10] they go far beyond the baseline PMESII analysis to describe the dynamics of relationships of the critical aspects of the environment.”[11] Also this publication uses the term narrative to describe the operational approach when it states: “The Design Concept should include graphical representations and narrative descriptions of the logic behind the operational approach, and describe the operational approach.”[12] Furthermore the handbook mentions what is called a mission narrative that it defines as; “Mission narrative that describes the “story” of the operational approach. This narrative expresses to external stakeholders desired effects for the mission to help shape their perceptions that are relevant to the campaign.”[13] The handbook also describes the Commanders Intent as a narrative; “The Commander’s Intent is a concise narrative describing the key aspects of his understanding of the environment and the problem and his visualization of how the campaign must progress to achieve the desired end state.”[14] Finally it describes how narratives can be used to describe Cause of Actions and the output from the war-gaming.[15]

Both the handbooks thereby describe several different narratives and how they can be used to articulate different aspects of the planning process and the intent to both internal (both subordinates and superiors alike) and external stakeholders. The output from the planning process therefore contains multiple narratives – not a single unifying one that in itself can be used as direction and guidance for planning and execution of operations as well internally as externally.      

Furthermore neither of the handbooks describe how strategic narratives can inform the commanders intent and planning guidance and the subsequent planning process to ensure the needed coherence between the strategic narrative and the operations on ground.

Implications for operational planning

Based on the premise that a commander receives not only a mission or task but also an accompanying strategic narrative, Narrative Led Operations starts with the commander’s intent, which then again drives the operational planning process. To give the narrative the primacy needed, the commander’s intent and in the planning process the narrative must be stated in the very beginning of higher levels’ planning directive, ideally right after the mission statement, just as the commander in his intent should articulate not only in physical effects but also in informational effects to be achieved.

Prior to the commander stating his intent and planning guidance a comprehensive PMESII-based analysis of the operational and information environment must be conducted to inform the rest of the process. This includes an analysis of existing narratives in the information environment.   

Narrative Led Operations are command-led, but “mission command” must apply. That the strategic narrative informs and guides the operational planning and execution of operations and actions does not preclude the delegation of authority for decentralized execution. On the contrary In order for the words (communication) and deeds (operations/actions) to be convincing and intrinsically believable to all audiences they must be contextualized and framed in local terms and play into local narratives, within a context of a long-term view. This requires agility, empowerment and acceptance of risk.     

Narrative Led Operations therefore means that traditional fires and maneuver operations must be designed to support the narrative, instead of vice versa. In other words the given mission and subsequently the commanders mission statement, intent and operational design must be informed and guided by the narrative. Subordinate formations and units must “live out” the narrative in the context in which they operate. Ultimately, the commander at any given level determines the optimal way to execute his given task within the restraint and constraints that the narrative set up.

To this end Narrative Led Operations have both an internal and an external function. Internally it is a tool for the commander to communicate their assessment of the environment, the threats and opportunities it presents, key actions the force could take to exploit those opportunities and payoff (benefits) and associated risks such key actions could achieve framed within the strategic narrative. It informs the development of Causes of Action and Lines of Operations to include both physical fires and maneuvers and supporting Information Activities. Furthermore it will internally guide education and training, troop information and coordination instructions in regards to own forces’ behavior (Presence, Posture and Profile) to ensure that PPP is in line with the strategic narrative. Externally it can be used to inform and educate the various relevant partners and stakeholders whose perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and subsequent behavior are pertinent to the mission.    

The bottom line is as the JFCOM study the Joint Operating Environment 2010 states “Dominating the narrative of any operation, whether military or otherwise, pays enormous dividends. Failure to do so undermines support for policies and operations, and can actually damage a country´s reputation and position in the world.”[16]


Given the current operational environment there is a need for giving the psychological domain and especially narratives – both the strategic narrative and local existing narratives – primacy in the operational planning process. This means that an enhanced understanding of systems and actors in order to create a shared understanding of the operational environment and its links to the strategic framework is essential for the planning and execution of operations. With respect to execution of operations it is essential that all means are considered equal – both kinetic and non-kinetic ones. This requires an emphasis on the analysis and appreciation of the operational and information environment before Courses of Action and Lines of Operation are considered to ensure that they are in line with and support the strategic narrative and play into the existing local narratives, to include using the narrative as a guiding parameter in the war-gaming of plans.

The aim with Narrative Led Operations is to influence selected actors behavior through influencing their understanding, will and capability by creating effects in both the psychological and the physical domain through mutually supportive employment of all our means – both kinetic and non-kinetic, based on the strategic narrative. But it does require acceptance of restraints and constraints on the operational planning put in place by strategic narrative – or basically political considerations – and thereby also limitations on the operational and tactical commander’s freedom in determining the operational approach. It also requires acceptance of planning parameters that are not objective driven and that the execution of operations and actions requires empowerment and thereby acceptance of risk. All, at the end of the day, to ensure that the operations we conduct are in line with the strategic narrative.    

[1] 17th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium (ICCRTS), sponsored by the Pentagons Command and Control Research Project (CCRP), Washington D.C., JUN 21, 2012. 

[2] US Joint Forces Command; The Joint Operating Environment 2010, US JFCOM, FEB 18, 2010, Page 4 – 12. And William J. Gregor: Military Planning Systems and Stability Operations, Prism 1, No. 3, JUN 2010, page 99 – 100.

[3] Reed Kitchen: Things I Learned from the People Who Tried to Kill Me. Small Wars Journal, JUN 19, 2012.

[4] Ben Zweibelson: What is Your Narrative, and Why – How the Media, the Military, and the World Struggles with Telling the “Real Story” in Afghanistan. Small Wars Journal, OCT 15, 2011.

[5] Scott Mann: The Shaping Coalition Forces´Strategic Narrative in Support of Village Stability Operations, MAR 31, 2011.

[6] USJFCOM: Commander´s Handbook for Strategic Communication and Communication Strategy, US Joint Forces Command, Joint Warfighting Center, JUN 24, 2010, version 3.0.

[7] Joint Staff J-7: Planners Handbook on Operational Design, Joint Staff, J-7, Joint and Coalition Warfighting

Suffolk, Virginia, 7 October 2011, page V-15.

[8] Ibid, page VI-6.

[9] Ibid, Page VI-6.

[10] PMESII is a model to describe the operational environment covering the factors; Politics, Military, Economics, Information and the associated infrastructure. 

[11] US Army War College: Campaign Planning Handbook, Academic Year 2012, United States Army War College

Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, United States. Page 31.

[12] Ibid, page 39.

[13] Ibid, page 39.

[14] Ibid, page 66.

[15] Ibid, page 90.

[16] US Joint Forces Command; The Joint Operating Environment 2010, US JFCOM, FEB 18, 2010, Page 59.


About the Author(s)

Thomas Elkjer Nissen, MA, has worked at the Royal Danish Defence College (RDDC) since 2001 as a Subject Matter Expert responsible for Strategic Communication (StratCom), Information Operations (Info Ops) and Psychological Operations (PsyOps). He conducts research, advises and teaches in the fields of Info Ops, PsyOps, Media Operations (Public Affairs) and the military’s role in Strategic Communications and Public/Defence Diplomacy.


Scott Kinner

Mon, 10/29/2012 - 10:31am

Fundamentally, and cynically, it must be asked...aren't narrative led operations basically drinking our own Kool-Aid?

The realm of the military professional joins those of the mechanical engineer, mathematicians, and other similar vocations as eminently practicable. In the end, it wasn't so much whether Eisenhower wanted to enter the continent of Europe, but how and when he could do so with a reasonable chance of success. The narrative of a Second Front in terms of our Allies (the Soviets never bought it), to the populations of the occupied continent, and to the Germans, was all well and good - when it could actually be done, was something different. Reality dictated when a second front would occur, the narrative "informed and influenced."

There is - and always will be - a general disconnect between why we are saying we are doing something and why we are actually doing it. You need not enter the foreign policy camp of the offensive realists to cede that - especially for democracies - much of what is advertised as a cause for conflict is hardly the real reason for conflict. The concept of the "war of religion" springs most readily to mind. Rare indeed is the conflict fought over the finer theological points of transubstantiation during the Eucharist - much more likely are conflicts fought over resources around which religious differences become part of the "narrative" to stimulate support for the war - the same goes for ethnicity, ideology, and host of other bumper stickers which are convenient for political and philosophical purposes but are hardly helpful in determining true causal factors.

Of course, the real problem with narrative-led operations is what I alluded to in the beginning - drinking our own Kool-Aid, becoming convinced of our own righteousness. No doubt the excesses of Pol Pot, Stalin, and others were narrative-led. No doubt the excesses of Spanish Jesuits in Central and South America and the depredations of the American Revolutionary War in the Carolinas were narrative-led. And what of "Manifest Destiny" and the Indian Wars...were these not narrative-led?

This is why I so enjoy the Army's use of "inform and influence" terminology because it indicates that perhaps what we are saying and what we want the population to believe is to our benefit more than theirs.

Fundamentally, this nation does not enter into conflict to help people or make the world a better place - it might tell itself that - but it enters into conflict to pursue the national interest. These might often be parallel or even the same - but not always.

I know it was not the author's intent, but "narrative-led operations" strikes me as both cynical and dangerous.

(I have added to my original comment here.)

There are places in/areas of the world which are not presently oriented, organized, ordered and/or configured to optimally provide for, support and/or benefit from the global economy/global economic growth.

These places and areas of the world constitute our operational environment.

Our goal is to convince/compel populations within these places/areas of the world to transform their states and societies such that they might correct this deficiency (to wit: the deficiency of not being adequately oriented, organized, ordered and/or configured to optimally provide for, support and/or benefit from the global economy/global economic growth).

This is our mission.

Now, to Narrative Led Operations:

Herein, should we say that the "Modern Silk Road" concept endorsed by General Petraeus and President Karzai provides an example of the overarching narrative that is desired/required? Planning, operations, etc., to be undertaken with this such narrative being front-and-center in the minds of those who plan and execute operations?

Problem: While this "Modern Silk Road" narrative might "play" very well to those having significant business and security interests in the region and throughout the world, such a narrative might play very poorly with certain of the residents of these states and societies. This, because these local populations (much like the American Indians of the Old West) might come to worry that the coming of the Modern Silk Road (as was the case with the coming of the railroad in the Old West) marks the end -- if not of these populations themselves -- then certainly their way of life. Thus, the narrative described above tending to galvanize these populations against the soldier/businessman/statesman and tending, thereby, to make their job that much harder.

This suggesting that a proper and effective narrative, in these circumstances, must be one which is (unlike the "honest" Modern Silk Road concept noted above) sufficiently oblique; this, so as to ensure that the subject population DOES NOT know that our efforts, and their own, are actually being undertaken to eliminate the thing that is most important to many of these people, to wit: their way of life.

(The elimination of the less-market friendly way of life of these populations -- and the replacement of this way of life with a more-market friendly way of life [such as our own] -- this being the goal that we have set out to achieve. Herein, see paragraph three above.)

In today's operational environment, 'information' should not be viewed seperately from fire and manuever when planning unit operations. Operations officers and Commanders should understand this - and many do. However, a large part of the challenge lies in properly understanding the operational / information environment and how to produce effects within them. This understanding is crucial to supporting a narrative (strategic or tactical) through a unit's overall actions - read as the sum of a unit's 'words and deeds'. None of the concepts I mention in this post are new. I do believe that properly supporting a narrative is largely a matter of military art that requires advanced intelligence and IO support coupled with a commander willing/capable to direct the correct operational focus.

Another thought wrt this article is that a suitable/supportable strategic narrative is a very challenging given the constant churn of US policy due to the 4 year election cycle.

Roger Erickson

Wed, 10/17/2012 - 8:59am

Rather than deducing the operations first, and then trying to build a campaign around them, hasn't group perception vs group success always followed parallel paths, displaying hysteresis? Build a narrative bridging from present situation to desired situation, and let people rediscover the obvious operations on their own?

That way they feel like they discovered, and own, their own solutions. People are recruited by potential, sensed through narrative. Operations & tools are always incidentally adopted while pursuing potential outcomes.

There are obvious implications regarding any operations. "It's the narrative, stupid!" People don't like the attributes of the situation they're in. So elicit a list of the attributes of the situation they'd LIKE to be in, then simply insist on getting from here to there. All subsequent operations will be incidental ... as always.

Campaigns which manipulate narratives can always stay inside the social OODA loop of campaigns that try to propagate operations sans narrative.

e.g., see…