Small Wars Journal

Large-Scale Combat Operations: Risk and Adaptability at the Corps and Division Levels

Mon, 05/28/2018 - 3:34am

Large-Scale Combat Operations: Risk and Adaptability at the Corps and Division Levels

Scott A. Porter

The recent increase of corps and division capabilities to operate in large-scale combat operations comes with an increase in risk. Large-scale combat operations are intense, lethal, and brutal.1 To win in large-scale combat operations successful corps and division commanders effectively assess risk and foster adaptability throughout their organizations.  Historically, commanders who did not accurately assess risk nor adapt to a rapidly changing environment experienced high casualty rates and mission failure. A tragic example was the U.S. II Corps during the 1943 battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Five thousand American soldiers were killed over the course of just 10 days: during the first 3 days of fighting the Army lost soldiers at the rate of 1,333 per day.2 The II Corps commander, Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall spent most of the battle in a dugout tunnel 70 miles behind his divisions in the defense. Commanders and their soldiers in the front lines were well aware of German General Erwin Rommel’s panzers rapidly penetrating their lines but failed to adapt in Fredendall’s leader-centric organization. Without effective communications or collaboration, Fredendall never gained situational understanding of the operational environment (OE) and thus he was unable to determine risk, decisive points, or focus his combat power against a highly aggressive and adaptive enemy. In contrast to the enemy, the II Corps was unable to adapt and lost the battle.

On the future battlefield, corps and division commanders will have even a more difficult challenge determining risk and adapting in large-scale combat operations. An OE will be much more complex within a multi-domain conflict involving air, land, maritime, space, and information/cyber.3 To operate in complexity, the use of operational art can provide corps and division commanders a set of intellectual tools to help them understand their OE.

Risk and Operational Art

Operational art is “The cognitive approach by commanders and staffs-supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment-to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, and means.”4Risk is one of the 10 elements of operational art. Because risk is inherent in all military operations, senior commanders use the other elements of operational art to balance risk and opportunity.5By using operational art, corps and division commanders link tactical actions to strategic objectives. For effective tactical actions, these senior commanders must set conditions within their subordinate commands to enable creative and bold decisions in anticipation of, or a response to, a rapidly changing battlefield. Still, risk is associated with every sequence of action. Therefore, planning and executing operational art at the corps and division levels is imperative to anticipating complex problems and subsequently developing a wide array of branch plans and sequels. No branch or sequel will ever be a perfect plan for a rapidly changing environmental, but the development of a wide range of contingences reduces risk by providing a framework for allocating and maneuvering warfighting resources. For example, all corps and division contingency considerations must include the operational art element of operational reach.  Operational reach includes analyzing military capabilities and warfighting resources for employment within time and space to enable commanders to make timely decisions and determine prudent risk.6

As corps and divisions plan and allocate warfighting resources, commanders at brigade and battalion levels must have the capability, agility and flexibility to reposition and re-orient lethal and non-lethal systems to adapt to the fluidity of large-scale combat operations. Warfighting resources provide a transition in the balance of combat power to give friendly forces more capability. Risk is high during the period of transferring warfighting resources because it is a period of tactical vulnerability.7 Because it is a tactical transition, every effort must be made to conceal and protect the warfighting resource. Examples include commitment of the air or ground reserve, movement and employment of non-organic fires, receiving additional forces, using chemical decontamination assets or the use of ISR platforms.

Risk During Transitions in War

Also an element of operational art, transitions mark a change of focus between phases or between the ongoing operation and execution of a branch or sequel. Shifting priorities between core competencies or among offensive, defensive, stability, and defense support of civil authority’s tasks involve a major transition. More specifically, transitions can include reorganization operations, transitioning to war, moving from one phase of an operation to another, reliefs in place, and tactical and operational pauses. Transitions require planning and preparation before execution to maintain the momentum and tempo of operations. The force is vulnerable during transitions and commanders establish clear conditions for execution to account for this vulnerability.8

Vulnerability during transitions means increased risk. During periods of transitions, corps and division commanders must consider different kinds of risk: to the mission, to the force, and the risk of escalation.9 Considerations of risk to the mission and force are integral to success. Escalation is an intense and violent action that can sharply increase risk. Escalation can consist of enemy actions against friendly forces, or friendly forces escalating actions against enemy forces. Typically, the escalation is against vulnerable or unsuspecting forces and provides high payoff for the aggressing unit. American corps and division commanders must quickly recognize fleeting windows of opportunity and be adaptable enough to aggressively escalate combat operations against a vulnerable enemy.

Returning to the example of Kasserine Pass, multiple transitions occurred. After Operation Torch, four American divisions organized in the newly formed II Corps. Within days, the corps transitioned to the offense, then expecting a German attack, quickly transitioned to the defense at Kasserine Pass. Rommel recognized the opportunity to penetrate and defeat inexperienced American forces in their ineffective defensive positons. He ordered his veteran Afrika Korps to rapidly escalate offensive operations against Fredendall’s vulnerable and untrained II Corps. Fredendall’s unsuccessful defense at Kasserine Pass was the first large-scale combat operation for U.S. forces in WWII. It was a disastrous transition to war.10

Organizational Adaptability

Organizational adaptability is an attitude, or a mindset, that must pervade the organization.11 It also concerns leaders setting expectations for the individual and the organization to adjust to the ever-changing environment.12 Mobilizing followers to overcome challenges and improve the organization is also a key component of organizational adaptability.13 The organizational leader must create the organizational climate and attitude to foster “ambidextrous” organizations–meaning an organization that can complete the objectives of today while simultaneously envisioning the problems of tomorrow in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. Organizations capable of performing both of these seemingly conflicting tasks will excel in the complexity of today and in the uncertainty of the future.14


Organizational adaptability is a multidimensional construct that encompasses a range of cognitive skills and behaviors that leaders develop in themselves and inculcate in their organizations through education, training, and experience. Developing organizations capable of adapting requires active leadership that fosters a culture that values collective adaptability. Leaders who establish rigid and inflexible organizational systems, processes, and activities stifle adaptive and creative individuals by suppressing new ideas and change.15 An organization capable of adapting is one that can both anticipate and react to changes in the environment. Adaptable organizations have an organizational mindset that values change, accepts new ideas, and demonstrates this mindset in both planning and execution. Creating the capacity for adaptability in organizations is about setting the conditions in the organizational climate that transforms the culture by establishing processes and encouraging behaviors that encourage both proactive and reactive activities during execution.16


Army doctrine does not address organizational adaptability, but focuses on developing an adaptable mindset: Adaptability requires leaders who think critically and creatively, are comfortable with ambiguity, accept prudent risk, and can adjust rapidly to the environment while continuing to assess the situation.17 Army doctrine also defines adaptability as the capacity to respond to changing threats and situations with appropriate, flexible, and timely actions.18At corps and division levels, organizational adaptability must be proactive and reactive while responding to changing threats and situations.An adaptive corps and division commander anticipates problems and develops alternative solutions to a wide range of possible outcomes while assessing and responding to the ever-changing environment.19


The challenge is how leaders develop adaptive organizations, especially at the corps and division levels. At the lower tactical levels, leaders apply their personal power to mobilize soldiers to tackle tough challenges and thrive. Through tough and realistic training, soldiers can learn to adopt an adaptive mindset in a changing environment. Historically, American soldiers have adapted under harsh conditions within their “band of brothers” to fight and win. Often, the paradigm in today’s Army is that if higher-level commanders do not plan accordingly, that is ok, because the expectation is that American soldiers have always, and will continue to adapt to any situation. The reality is that in many cases, soldiers adapted because their higher headquarters lacked the capability or competency to provide them effective combat warfighting resources (e.g., combat enablers) at the right time and place. Soldiers had to “make do” with the resources at hand to survive and complete the mission.

As discussed earlier, corps and division commanders possess many warfighting resources, and they must be proactive to respond to changing threats and situations with appropriate, flexible, and timely actions. In short, this means providing warfighting resources to the warfighters. Even though corps and division commanders may possess these resources to respond in a rapidly changing OE, it does not automatically mean they lead a more adaptive organization. These higher-level commanders must be capable to assess and mitigate risk and recognize opportunities to employ resources through their situational understanding of an OE.20 

Situational Understanding, Context, and Collaboration

Situational understanding is the product of applying analysis and judgment to relevant information to determine the relationships among the operations and mission variables to facilitate decision-making. 21 Situational understanding is essential to managing all risk.22 To gain and maintain the initiative, commanders have a better situational understanding of the OE than their enemy commanders maintain. To develop a deep situational understanding, commanders know the context of the OE.23 Context includes the circumstances that have formed the OE. This includes, but is not limited to, the history of the area and conflict, the culture and motives of the local population and the enemy, the operational and strategic objectives, and how the upcoming operation is nested into the higher headquarters objectives. Army Design Methodology is one process to aid in understanding context. For soldiers to understand the context means collaborating with and between levels of command.

A culture of collaboration amongst all commanders and staff both horizontally and laterally is key to having a common understanding of the OE throughout the organization. Collaboration offers commanders others situational understanding and an opportunity to question assumptions and reframe problems. Collaboration helps organizations identify risk, anticipate change, and adapt to the changing conditions. The senior commander drives collaboration within large military organizations.24Much like setting the conditions for having discussions on risk, senior leaders have to provide opportunities for collaboration, even as part of a joint and multinational force. This underscores the importance of commanders continually collaborating with multinational partners. Commanders must use effective interpersonal skills, understand allied cultures, and leverage supranational military commonalities with a shared purpose to build strong alliances.25

In 2017, Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey co-authored a book with the New York Times bestselling author Ori Brafman called Radical Inclusion. The authors assert that in today’s uncertainty, fear of losing control in a fast-paced, complex, and highly scrutinized environment pushes leaders toward exclusion-that is, in the wrong direction. Like Major General Fredendall’s actions at Kasserine Pass, exclusion is when the senior commander centrally controls all actions and dictates all decisions, resulting in an organization unable to adapt to a changing OE. Dempsey and Brafman contend that collaborating at every level of the organization enables leaders to gain the best possible understanding of an OE. Thus, Inclusion is collaboration at all levels, and maintaining a command climate whereby all leaders are responsible for taking part in understanding the problem, risk and determining the most creative solutions. Establishing redundant processes (e.g. mission command system) at the corps or division level to quickly and efficiently collaborate amongst all headquarters will result in faster and better decisions. Dempsey adds, as in mission command, commanders clearly articulate what needs to be accomplished, and empowers soldiers to develop creative ways to achieve the outcome.26

Command Climate and Adaptability

At all levels of command, maintaining a healthy organizational climate empowers subordinate commanders to embrace the mindset of an “ambidextrous” organization. All commanders must facilitate the candid exchange of information, combined with the capacity to analyze current information and apply it to future problems. Senior commanders must develop and permeate “psychological safety” throughout the chain of command for an atmosphere that encourages open-mindedness, innovation, critical thinking, and creative thinking. Highly adaptive organizations are often characterized by a climate where no issue is too sensitive to discuss.27

With a healthy climate, senior commanders and leaders “go forward” and circulate with subordinate commanders and their soldiers to gain a better situational understanding of the OE. Commanders use dialogue as a type of collaboration to exchange ideas or opinions. The senior commander sets a tone for open dialogue that encourages candor and the presentation of alternative views, no matter the rank. Owing to the complexity and volatility of the operational environment, all leaders must often rely on subordinates to raise issues that may indicate an impending problem or impending risk.

To encourage the surfacing of issues, a commander’s dialogue must encourage respectful dissent. An organization that has free flowing information, an unrestricted exchange of ideas, and access to information, internally and externally, fosters an adaptive environment that can inspire new thinking and generate new ideas. Using information from various sources, that may or may not seem connected, can lead to creativity and innovative ideas. Adaptive organizations also have more latitude due to fewer internal restrictions. The higher the degree of freedom, combined with the other adaptive characteristics, can result in more flexibility for the organization.28

Adapting also requires corps and division commanders to develop a climate of trust whereby the implementation of mission command as a foundational philosophy and executed as a warfighting function is integral at all echelons.29 Corps and division commanders must ask subordinates not just what they think they need to know, but what the subordinates think the commanders need to know.30 This enables the senior commanders to better understand the OE and ask follow-on questions. Do we all have a common understanding the OE, especially the terrain and the enemy? Can we do this? If so, are we doing this the right way? Do we have the proper resources? Considering prudent risk, are we taking on more than we can accomplish? Will this achieve our objective? 31

Organizations that fail to adapt are typically hierarchical organizations where information is not readily available, is often controlled, and limited to those that believe they have a need or right to know. Leader-centric organizations often foster environments that focus the attention on the leader’s ideas instead of the collective knowledge of the group. This type of environment precludes opportunities for communication and limits opportunities for critical and creative thinking and innovation. The traditional command structure or “classic bureaucracy of the industrial age” characterized by rigid rules and procedures, often hinders information flow, collaboration, and ultimately adaptability.32

Organizations that demonstrate high levels of adaptability and create solutions have a favorable balance between centralized and decentralized control.33 An example of this favorable balance are corps and division commanders who can maintain just enough centralization to facilitate the gathering of data from the lower echelons, and are able to synthesize the data and then coordinate the different elements for appropriate action.34 In the current operational environment, rigid structures are inadequate to meet the demands of the ever-changing, complex situation. To develop adaptive organizations, senior tactical leaders need to loosen controls, promote collaboration and understand they may not be the smartest person in the room.


War is, and always will remain, a human endeavor. Corps and division commanders develop command climates that are inclusive and foster adaptive mindsets. Strong bonds between leaders must exist based on mutual trust and a shared sense of purpose that enables the free flow of ideas, including those from multi-national allies and partners. Especially in today’s digital age, senior commanders in large-scale combat operations must circulate the battlefield, being a leader of presence and engage soldiers in dialogue. Battlefield circulation and collaboration enables corps and division commanders to gain and maintain a situational understanding of the OE. They can then effectively mitigate risk and enable organizations to be adaptive through an accurate allocation of warfighting resources.

End Notes

1 Department of the Army. Field Manual 3-0, Operations (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, October 2017), para. 1-4.

2 Ibid., 1-3.

3 Ibid., 1-16.

4 The Joint Staff, Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 17 January 2017), II-3.

5 FM 3-0, 1-91.

6 Ibid., 1-89.

7 Ibid., B-1 and B-2.

8 Army Techniques Publication, 5-0.1, Army Design Methodology, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1 July 2015), 5-39.

9 FM 3-0, 4-84.

10 Carlo D’Este, Patton: A Genius for War (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995): 458.

11 Steve Boylan and Kenneth Turner, "Developing Organizational Adaptability for Complex Environment", The Journal of Leadership Education, 2017, 16(2), 184.

12 J. C. F. Tillson, et al. “Learning to Respond to Asymmetric Threats”. (IDA document

Number D-3114, Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analysis, August, 2005): 14-16.

13 Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, & Marty Linsky. “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership”. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston Mass. (2009): 14.


14 Julie Battilana & Tiziana Casciaro. “Change Agents, Networks, and Institutions: A Contingency Theory of Organizational Change.” (Academy Of Management Journal, 55(2), 2012): 381-398.


15 Ibid.


16 G. A. Klein & L. Pierce. Adaptive Teams. (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters Department of the Army, 2001) (accessed 05/08/2018).


17 Department of the Army. Doctrine Reference Publication 6-22, Army Leadership (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, August 2012), 9-5.


18Department of the Army. Army Doctrine Publication 1, The Army (September 2012), 4-3.

19 Steve Boylan and Kenneth Turner, "Developing Organizational Adaptability for Complex Environment", The Journal of Leadership Education, 186.

20 Army Doctrine Publication 1, The Army, 4-3.  

21 Department of the Army. Army Doctrine Publication 5-0, The Operations Process (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, May 2012), 5.


22 Field Manual 3-0, Operations, para. 1-92.


23Martin Dempsey and Ori Brafman, Radical Inclusion: What the Post-9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership (Missionday, 2018), 121-122.

24 Steve Boylan and Kenneth Turner" Developing Organizational Adaptability for Complex Environment", The Journal of Leadership Education, 191.

25Angela Febbraro, NATO. TO-TR-HFM-120. RTO-TR-HFM-120. Chapter 3, “Leadership and Command” of TO-TR-HFM-120, (November, 2008), paragraphs 3.2.6 through 3.2.6.

26Martin Dempsey and Ori Brafman, Radical Inclusion: What the Post-9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership, 54. 

27 Steve Boylan and Kenneth Turner" Developing Organizational Adaptability for Complex Environment", The Journal of Leadership Education, 190.

28 Ibid., 192.

29 Department of the Army Doctrine Publication 6-0, Mission Command (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 2012),  

30 Martin Dempsey and Ori Brafman, Radical Inclusion: What the Post-9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership,122.

31 Steve Boylan and Kenneth Turner" Developing Organizational Adaptability for Complex Environment", The Journal of Leadership Education, 192.

32 J. A. Raelin, J. A. “Leadership-as-Practice to Leadership Practice”, Leadership, 7(2), (2011): p. 195-211.

33 Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (3rd ed., San Francisco, CA., Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2006), 24-25.


34 Steve Boylan and Kenneth Turner" Developing Organizational Adaptability for Complex Environment". The Journal of Leadership Education, 191.

About the Author(s)

Scott A. Porter is an associate professor in the Department of Command and Leadership at The U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  He is a retired Army Armor officer, a veteran of three conflicts, and a former board member at the National World War One Museum at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.   In 2013 he was the Civilian Educator of the Year for the Department of Command and Leadership, The U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.