Small Wars Journal

ADP 3-0: A Theory of War Disconnected from Operational Art

Fri, 11/04/2016 - 9:08am

ADP 3-0: A Theory of War Disconnected from Operational Art

Adam Taliaferro

A great source of frustration when reading current US Army doctrine, specifically Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0 Unified Land Operations, is the lack of a definitive characterization of the theory of war and warfare. ADP 3-0 is the capstone publication of US Army doctrine that provides the common operational concept for the use of Army forces.[i] ADP 3-0 attempts to provide the future framework for the range of military operations the US Army expects to conduct, but without the explicit reference to the nature of war and the character of warfare. This omission in conjunction with a new doctrinal concept for the execution of operational art creates confusion and ambiguity on the role of operational art and its relationship to unified land operations. In spite of this exclusion, a further review of ADP 3-0 reveals that the US Army did have an implicit theory of war and warfare that underlines ADP 3-0. Unfortunately, based on the US Army’s theory of war and warfare, they have incorrectly described operational art and the relationship between unified land operations, operational art, and strategic aims.

The underlying theory of war as implied in ADP 3-0 is the continuation of Clausewitz’s theory of war and that war is “but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.”[ii] Using the Clausewitzian theory of war as a lens to analyze ADP 3-0, the assessment of ADP 3-0 is that unified land operations have replaced war as the continuation of policy with other means. As described in ADP 3-0 war is only one component of unified land operations. The US Army is not limited to just prevailing in war, but performs a wide range of operations under the umbrella of unified land operations. All aligned under and integrated with joint or multinational elements for the use of policy aims.[iii]

Arguably, ADP 3-0 and its fundamental theory of war is a complete repudiation of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine. Criteria under the Weinberger-Powell doctrine such as sufficient force for the intention of winning and the use of force as a last resort are not even remotely mentioned in ADP 3-0.[iv] The term win is not even used in ADP 3-0; unified land operations “describes how the Army gains and maintains positions of relative advantage” in all described scenarios.[v] ADP 3-0 implicitly acknowledges the use of the Army in limited conflicts for limited aims. Regardless of the operational environment the US Army will confront, its theory of war as identified in ADP 3-0 places the primacy of policy first.

To determine the US Army’s theory of warfare as identified in ADP 3-0, it is necessary to review how the US Army views the operational environment. This includes where and whom the US Army thinks it will fight. Comparable to when Helmuth von Molkte the Elder examined Prussia’s operational environment of multi-front conflict, technological advances in firepower, and extended battle frontage, he developed a new theory of warfare to adapt to a new environment. Moltke’s strategic envelopment concept was a new theory of warfare that favored armies that converge quickly, engage an enemy from multiple flanks, and subsequently envelopment an enemy in decisive battle.[vi] ADP 3-0 applies the same construct to determine its theory of war.

ADP 3-0 implies that the US Army expects to operate in a diverse range of operational environments.[vii] The lack of any specific geographic area or environment implies that the US Army expects to fight anywhere. A similar theme is present in ADP 3-0’s characterization of the threat. ADP 3-0 describes a collective and diverse group of threats that includes a “combination of regular forces, irregular forces, terrorist forces, and criminal elements.”[viii] Based on a complex, varied environment with conventional and unconventional threats, the US Army referred to the past for its theory of warfare.

The implicit theory of warfare identified in ADP 3-0 is a continuation of combined arms warfare to achieve decisive victory over a perceived threat. Unified land operations is the new name of a historical theory of warfare in use since Germany employed it during World War II.[ix] To achieve its position of relative advantage, the US Army utilizes its core competencies of combined arms maneuver and wide area security. Both competencies are the application of multiple elements of combat power in unified action, otherwise known as combined arms maneuver.

Ever since Germany developed the concept of integrated weapons and arms, this theory of warfare has been sustained in some form or fashion by the US Army. The post-World War II period of limited wars for limited aim saw the development of many force concepts and doctrine to accommodate the variations of each era, from the armored cavalry regiment to air mobile divisions.[x] These concepts are still combined arms warfare, integrating diverse combat forces for military operations. Field Manual (FM) 100-5 Operations written in 1982 described AirLand Battle as requiring “the coordinated action of all available military forces in pursuit of a single objective.”[xi] This statement feels just as timely and relevant in ADP 3-0. Despite if the US Army calls it AirLand Battle, Full Spectrum Operations, or Unified Land Operations, the name is merely the continuation of the German theory of warfare, combined arms maneuver.

The description of operational art described in ADP 3-0 is in conflict with the US Army’s implied theory of war. ADP 3-0 describes operational art as the pursuit of strategic aims through tactical operations, yet fails to elaborate on the creative application of ways and means to pursue strategic aims.[xii] Nor does the publication explain the collaborative process to align policy and military aims. These omissions and the declaration that operational art is not exclusive to the theater or joint force commander only adds to the confusion of who is actually conducting operational art.

The precursor to ADP 3-0, FM 3-0 Operations correctly defined operational art as the realm of the joint force commander.[xiii] The US Army’s theory of war is the primacy of policy, but an army commander does not necessarily have the authority to discourse with policy. Only the joint force commander has the authority to negotiate military means to accomplish the policy aims.[xiv] ADP 3-0 fails in explaining the connection unified land operations have to the operational artist. Army commanders have a role in operational art through advisement and collaborative planning with the joint force commander on how army units conducting unified land operations, provide a capability and means to support the achievement of policy and strategic aims.

Some might argue that APD 3-0 correctly defines operational art because every commander, regardless of the formation or echelon, must accurately translate strategic objectives into tactical operations. As Emile Simpson argues, “if one fails to understand one’s environment in its own political terms, one does not know what political effect one will have.”[xv] ADP 3-0 attempts to convey the necessity that all units must understand the linkages between their local conditions, their tactical operations, and how these actions achieve strategic goals. Regardless of the echelon, operations cannot occur in a vacuum, disconnected from the strategic reality. Military action is the translation of strategic objectives by the tactical commander.[xvi] This is why ADP 3-0 articulates that every commander is an operational artist.

ADP 3-0 wrongly identifies that every commander is essentially an operational artist.  It is a fallacy to assume that every commander is executing operational art because not every commander has the authority to decide the ways and employ the means to achieve strategic aims.[xvii] Hypothetically, every formation arranges their respective tactical actions to support the achievement of a strategic objective because why else would the formation be operating, but that is not operational art. ADP 3-0 more closely describes the idea of the “strategic corporal” and that every tactical action can potentially have a strategic effect.[xviii]

For example, ADP 3-0 describes a stability operation scenario to create a safe and secure environment. Depending on the commander, the arrangement of tactical actions to create a safe and secure environment may vary from a 24-hour curfew to arresting every military-age male. The operational artist through their authority to discourse with policy establishes conditions, rules, and the employment of tactical forces to achieve strategic aims. This limits a commander’s authority to arrange tactical actions. The operational artist aligns policy and military aims to determine the means and ways to arrange tactical actions to achieve strategic objectives.

Although the US Army did not explicitly define its theories, its doctrine has an underlying theory of war and warfare. ADP 3-0 implicitly describes a Clausewitzian theory of war based on the primacy of politics over military operations. Unified land operations continue a theory of warfare based on combined arms maneuver. The weakness in ADP 3-0 is its doctrinal definition of operational art. Unified land operations provide a unique capability to the joint force, but an army commander cannot arrange actions in time and space without the purpose, authority, and ways developed in discourse with policy by the joint force commander.


Army Doctrine Publication 3-0, Unified Land Operations. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012.

Ancker III, Clinton J. and Michael A. Scully. “Army Doctrine Publication 3-0: An Opportunity to Meet the Challenges of the Future.” Military Review (January-February 2013). Accessed August 9, 2016. MilitaryReview_20130228_art009.pdf.

Benson, Bill. “Unified Land Operations: The Evolution of Army Doctrine for Success in the 21st Century.” Military Review (March-April 2012). Accessed August 9, 2016.

Citino, Robert M. The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich. 3rd ed. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008.

Doane, Lawrence M. “It’s Just Tactics: Why the Operational Level of War Is an Unhelpful Fiction and Impedes the Operational Art.” Small Wars Journal (September 24, 2015). Accessed August 13, 2016.

Field Manual 100-5, Operations. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1982.

Field Manual 3-0, Operations. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2008.

House, Jonathan M. Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th-Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization. Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 1984.

Krulak, Charles C. “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War.” Marine Corps Gazette 83, no. 1 (January 1999). Accessed August 13, 2016.

Lauer, G. Stephen. “The Tao of Doctrine: Contesting an Art of Operations.” Joint Force Quarterly 82 (3rd Quarter 2016): 118-124.

Rothenberg, Gunther E. “Moltke, Schlieffen, and the Doctrine of Strategic Envelopment,” in Makers of Modern Strategy. Edited by Peter Paret, 296-325. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1986.

Simpson, Emile. War from the Ground up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Strachan, Hew. The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Translated and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

End Notes

[i] Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0, Unified Land Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012), Foreword.

[ii] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, Translated and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 87.

[iii] ADP 3-0, iii, 1-2.

[iv] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 19-20.

[v] ADP 3-0, 1-14.

[vi] Gunther E. Rothenberg, “Moltke, Schlieffen, and the Doctrine of Strategic Envelopment,” in Makers of Modern Strategy, edited by Peter Paret, Gordon Craig, and Felix Gilbert (Princeton: Princeton University, 1986), 299-300.

[vii] ADP 3-0, 2-4.

[viii] ADP 3-0, 4.

[ix] Robert M. Citino, The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich, 3rd ed. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008), 254.

[x] Jonathan M. House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th-Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 1984) 158-165.

[xi] Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1982), 1-5.

[xii] ADP 3-0, 9.

[xiii] Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2008), 6-5.

[xiv] G. Stephen Lauer, “The Tao of Doctrine; Contesting an Art of Operations,” Joint Force Quarterly 82, (3rd Quarter 2016), 122.

[xv] Emile Simpson, War from the Ground up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 103.

[xvi] Lawrence M. Doane, “It’s Just Tactics: Why the Operational Level of War is an Unhelpful Fiction and Impedes the Operational Art,” Small Wars Journal (September 24, 2015), accessed August 13, 2016,

[xvii] G. Stephen Lauer, “The Tao of Doctrine; Contesting an Art of Operations,” Joint Force Quarterly 82, (3rd Quarter 2016), 122.

[xviii] Charles C. Krulak, “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War,” Marine Corps Gazette 83, no 1 (January 1999), accessed August 13, 2016,


About the Author(s)

Adam Taliaferro is an U.S. Army Major attending the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is an Armor officer who served combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He holds a MA in Defense and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College. These views are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.


The ADP 3-0 is available on line, 28pages pdf.

Many Americans to this day consider what America did in WWII was right and what America did in Vietnam was wrong. The liberal mind set which became the dominant voice claimed America got it all wrong in Vietnam. Sometimes when I am reading these responses, in Small War Formats, I think we are being made to chase our own tails.
Sometimes I think that the real problem we avoid is the difficulty of managing long wars with our hands tied when it comes to addressing the confabulations of American politics. Especially after this election and the impact it has made on our enemies and friends around the globe.
Small Wars correctly identifies the effect on a population but fails to apply the same implications and lessons to understanding our own population, which enemies are learning and have been exploiting.
I have read, that to address the violent acts of antisemtism in France one third of its army is deployed to protect Jewish places and institutions another third is likewise deployed to defend France from internal threats.
We more likely lose the next small war on American soil and it seems as though there is no concern it is any business of the military.

Bill M.

Sun, 11/06/2016 - 10:59pm

In reply to by J Harlan

Your point is valid. The former Chairman would probably agree with you up to a point. He explained that national level leaders weren't looking for strategy or campaigns, they were looking for options (tactical actions) to respond to various challenges. President Obama allegedly said he did not need strategists or a strategy. Furthermore, our civilian-military relationships impedes our ability to execute a campaign plan.

I don't think we should interpret that as we should discard operational art because it is difficult to do. There may be a time again the future when the right personalities are aligned in our country, and we will actually be able to practice operational art (a valid art in my opinion) to achieve our strategic ends. I also suspect that after this Presidential race to the bottom with the current Presidential election, we have a good chance of seeing a self-correction in the near future, and we will elect some of America's best, not just America's ambitious. One can hope the next generation of leaders will embrace and practice strategic art in a way that gives purpose to employing the military beyond simply creating the perception that we're taking effective action.

J Harlan

Sun, 11/06/2016 - 9:43pm

In the US context I don't think the operational level exists and pretending it does causes unnecessary confusion. The reason it doesn't exist is the ability of the national level to micro manage campaigns. The theater commander is not left to get on with it as he would have in WW 2. There is no requirement for him to link tactics to strategy because that is (hopefully but not necessarily) being done by the national command level on the political level. The senior military officer in theater doesn't even command all of the resources being used- CIA, SOF, DOS, USAID, NGOs, and host nation.

For the sake of a practical exercise -- and as per the "real policy and real problems related thereto" (aka: "A Theory of War Connected to Real Policy") suggestions that I have made below -- let us consider, for example:

a. The apparently no longer completely tolerable (both here at home and abroad) "sacrifice and change" policies/requirements of our current international order.

b. The rebellion, thus, that we appear to be witnessing -- again both here at home and in other cultures -- to these such constantly disruptive/exceptionally demanding policies. (From the "at home" perspective, for example, to consider the current, and on-going, "populist backlash" in this light?) And, thus,

c. The new coercive approach that may need to be undertaken -- both here at home and indeed aboard -- to overcome the, worldwide, resistance to these such policies/requirements.

In this regard, let us consider the following speech that one might expect to see, for example, at the next Davos World Economic Forum(?):


"In spite of our recent setbacks and revolts, experienced significantly both here at home and, indeed, throughout the world, our struggle to cause the populations of the world to adapt -- as per the wants, needs and desires of our "international order" -- this such struggle continues.

And this struggle will continue to overflow into economics, politics, ideology, etc., for the foreseeable future.

It must of necessity now thus -- and specifically in the face of such broad and deep resistance as we are witnessing today -- become a relentless political, economic, subversive and propaganda offensive against those individual and groups (both here at home and abroad) -- and indeed all "resisting" states, societies and other entities -- who:

a. Refuse to abandon their current way of life, their current freedoms, their current protections afforded thereby and their current values, attitudes and beliefs upon which these are based. And against those who,

b. Refuse, thus, to adopt, and adapt themselves accordingly to, the requirements - and to the demands -- of our international order.


Now, might we say, that we have before us a very timely(?), a fairly accurate(?) and a very contemporary(?) "real policy and the real problems related thereto" scenario?

One that we might sink our teeth into and -- in an "all enemies foreign and domestic" sense for example -- consider the problems presented by our author above re: a theory of war, operational art, etc., today?

(Full disclosure: The above fictional speech was adapted from/inspired by an item from the Soviet publication "Komunist" -- referenced by COL Slavko Bjelajac in his 1962 paper entitled: "Unconventional Warfare: American and Soviet Approaches" -- and found near the top of the right hand column of Page 78 thereof. [Link provided below.] Herein, I found the acknowledgement of a similar[?] "struggle" -- found both within and outside of the former USSR and re: the communist "world order's" equally policies/requirements -- to be interesting/compelling.)


Sat, 11/05/2016 - 5:23pm

A well written and timely contribution to the Army's ongoing discussion over the meaning of operational art and identifying who the primary operational artist is. Always refreshing when officers are willing to question doctrine and offer strong, and even contrarian, opinions. This is a hallmark of the graduate program the author is attending. Given that the US Military's major failures since 2001 have been more strategic and operational than tactical, this kind of inquiry is important for laying the foundations for better outcomes in future campaigns.

J Harlan

Mon, 11/07/2016 - 5:25pm

In reply to by JEB

I would agree that since WW 2 the US military has excelled at tactics. It hasn't done "operations" and it's not its function to do "strategy". That is the job of civilians after military advice. This level has usually been bungled.

The difficulty with "strategy" is that it's not a science and nothing has been written by Clausewitz or anyone else that provides the answers to the problems brought about by mass democracy, mass communications and the AVF. Domestic politics intrude into strategic deliberations as much as time/space/logistics.

It is a waste of time for military officers to study "operational art" beyond understanding the logistics required to keep forces in the field. The theater commander will not be given the authority to run a campaign without continuous real time meddling from DC. That meddling will be driven by domestic politics. There may have been "operational art" during WW 2 but not anymore.

I personally think the armed services should be very explicit in what levels of war they focus on, rather than pretend that everyone operates at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels simultaneously. Realistically, the US military has excelled at operational art and tactical execution, but strategy has only been given lip service.

Rather than trying to shoehorn Unified Land Operations into a one-size-fits-all solution to our strategic problems, which it is not, it would behoove the DoD to specifically assign responsibilities for strategy, rather than hoping the services would develop it by chance or osmosis.

America has lost wars because everyone involved was trying to produce the best (operational) answer, but nobody was bothering to read the (strategic) question.

If we were to discuss "policy" in more-specific, rather than in more-general/more-generic terms,

(For example: As per our specific policy to transform outlying states and societies -- wherever these outlying states and societies might be found throughout the world -- more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines)

Then might we, via this approach, more easily be able to see -- and, thus, more easily be able to discuss and address -- the issues/the problems raised by our author above?

Thus, for example, to see the difficulties/the enemies/the problems, etc. -- facing the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today -- as being very similar to those that the Soviets/the communists faced in the Old Cold War of yesterday.

A time when they then, much like the U.S./the West today -- and re: our similar "expansionist" agendas -- sought to transform the outlying states and societies of the world more along one's own very unusual and unique -- and thus often alien and profane -- political, economic, social and value lines.

Thus, as an exercise, to use this exact context, this exact backdrop, these exact policies to discuss and address the disconcerting matters reported by our author above?

Possibly pertinent exercise question:

Given the similar "driving" policies noted above, did the Soviets/the communist then, like then U.S./the West today, have similar theory of war/operational art, etc., problems -- such as those noted by our author above?

If not, why not?

If so, how then did they favorably address/resolve/rectify these such problems?