Small Wars Journal

Army Design Methodology: Framing the Operational Environment

Wed, 01/04/2023 - 8:39pm

Army Design Methodology: Framing the Operational Environment

By Jason L. Glenn


            According to the Department of the Army (2019), Army design methodology (ADM) is a system of creative thinking and critical reasoning that assists the commander and staff in visualizing and understanding problems within an operational environment (OE). Additionally, ADM is a tool used in the conceptual planning process that fuels the military decision-making process (MDMP) with a problem set for further analysis and development of a course of action. The activities associated with ADM include framing the OE, framing problems, framing solutions, and reframing as necessary while utilizing specific tools, techniques, and key concepts (Department of the Army, 2015). The synthesis of framing activities, key concepts, tools, techniques, the role of the senior enlisted leader, and the Ia Drang battle in Vietnam will highlight the importance of the ADM framing activity within a genuine OE.


Framing Ia Drang Operational Environment

            According to the Department of the Army (2015), framing the OE begins with the assemblage of a planning team to assess current conditions within the OE, how the OE may trend, the future state of other actors, and the desired end state as visualized by the commander. Framing is a key concept used in the ADM process that uses models of reality to understand, organize, and interpret situations to solve problems (Department of the Army, 2015). Moreover, visual models and narratives enhance framing activities by demonstrating the relationship between actor goals, culture, history, and other variables within the OE. After the staff receives initial guidance from the commander, they begin the framing process by utilizing several key concepts, tools, and techniques that aid in understanding the air, sea, space, cyberspace, and land domains within the OE (Department of the Army, 2022c). The senior enlisted leader, sergeant major (SGM), or command sergeant major (CSM) assists the commander by assessing, leading, and directing the staff. Additionally, the CSM uses years of experience to assist staff members in the framing process by facilitating the understanding of the relationship between variables and how they have reacted in past scenarios (Department of the Army, 2022a).

            Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Harold Moore, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, initiated the framing of the OE of Ia Drang on 13 November 1965, one day before the execution of the assault. During this minimal timeframe, LTC Moore did not allow his staff to gain a clear understanding of the OE. Instead, according to Moore (1965), LTC Moore briefed his commanders and staff on the potential enemy situation and operational plan after the unit consolidated at the landing zone X-RAY (LZ X-RAY). LTC Moore should have taken every step to understand the current state of the OE before the assault.


Current State

            Understanding the current state of the OE is much more than a simple observation. According to the Department of the Army (2015), the planning team must assist the commander in understanding the operational variables, relevant actors, physical environment, and how each interacts with the other. Moreover, one way to discern the current state of the OE is from a systems perspective. Systems thinking is a key concept in which a series of interrelated components interact within the system. A systems perspective identifies relationships between groups, networks, governments, multinational corporations, etc., and how they may alter the OE (Department of the Army, 2015).

            Another of the key concepts employed in this step is operational art. Operational art relies on the knowledge, experience, and creativity of the commander and staff to understand the current state of the OE and how to integrate capabilities to achieve victory (Department of the Army, 2015). The American command employed operational art by identifying which resources would best achieve the end state. However, LTC Moore and his staff put little effort into understanding the current state of the OE before their assault on LZ X-RAY.

            According to Builder et al. (1999), Americans in Vietnam considered themselves superior to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and did little to understand the situation in depth. Americans believed that the most challenging part of the war was finding the enemy to destroy them. With that belief in mind, the 1st Cavalry Division Commander, Major General (MG) Harry Kinnard, ordered his 3rd Brigade, led by Colonel (COL) Tim Brown, to execute an air assault to prevent the NVA from crossing into Cambodia. In turn, COL Brown gave LTC Moore the same order. LTC Moore and his staff attempted to understand the current OE by conducting a brief flyby of the area and reports from external cavalry units. The current state of the OE included an open landing zone for his entire battalion and an unknown number of enemies nearby. LTC Moore failed to consider how the enemy forces would react to the American presence, which almost cost him his battalion. Had the staff used the ADM process, they may have predicted an aggressive enemy and discerned how the OE might trend without American influence.


How the Operational Environment May Trend

            The Department of the Army (2015) highlights that the commander and staff are more likely to succeed by understanding the natural tendencies of the OE. These tendencies define how the OE may trend without external influences. Additionally, they help identify patterns and relationships within the OE between variables and actors. Planning members utilize key concepts of collaboration, dialogue, and critical thinking to create visual aids and narratives of the OE.

            Collaboration and dialogue occur between more than two people or organizations and build a mutual understanding of the OE, resulting in a unity of effort. Moreover, collaboration encourages people to speak candidly, which is an asset in planning. Critical thinking identifies relevant facts, statistics, and details to understand a situation and enables timely decision-making (Department of the Army, 2015). American politicians relied heavily on critical thinking to determine how the OE may trend, although LTC Moore appeared more reactive than forward-thinking.

             The overall trend of the OE in Vietnam was one that Americans wanted to avoid. According to Britannica (2020), at the national strategic level, American leaders were concerned that communism in Vietnam would cause a domino effect and spread to neighboring countries. LTC Moore determined how his specific OE may trend with limited information. According to Builder et al. (1999), LTC Moore knew that enemy forces were slipping toward the border of Cambodia. Under the circumstances, he and his staff anticipated that the enemy would continue across the border and regroup for another attack. The Americans understood the relationship between the NVA and other Vietnamese citizens and wanted to prevent the rise of communism under any circumstance. The Americans also predicted that the NVA would be successful without intervention and that Vietnam would be a communist state. This prediction was an observation of the future state of other actors.     


Future State of Other Actors

            Staff members identify the future state of other actors to assist in framing the problem in the OE (Department of the Army, 2015). Additionally, knowing alternative end states help the commander and staff understand points of contention or support between others and their end state. American leaders took into consideration the future state of the NVA and acted to prevent it.

            On the macro scale of actors, Vietnam has a history of foreign rulers, from China's imperial rule to France's colonial rule. After World War II (WW2), Americans decided to intervene in Vietnam after the attack on a U.S. Navy Ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. On the micro-scale, LTC Moore’s only concern at Ia Drang was the NVA escaping across the border. He did not appear to consider the future states of Cambodian citizens, potential civilians in the area, or other actors to aid in understanding the OE. LTC Moore’s only concern was getting to the end state of destroying his adversary (Builder et al., 1999).


Desired End State

            The Department of the Army (2015) highlights that the desired end state defines the preferred conditions, relationships, political factors, or other circumstances within the OE. Moreover, the end state represents the overarching operational goal of higher levels of command and nests within critical strategic decisions. American commanders clearly articulated their desired end state to all levels of command in Vietnam. COL Brown issued the order to search and destroy the fleeing NVA forces to LTC Hal Moore (Builder et al., 1999).

            LTC Moore communicated the end state to his staff and commanders but neglected to articulate contingencies. LTC Moore did not achieve the desired end state because the overall framing of the OE suffered. LTC Moore did not use a written narrative in framing steps and instead relied solely on verbal commands. While LTC Moore and his battalion inflicted hundreds of casualties on the NVA, the American forces also suffered heavy losses. The scenario demonstrates that the overall risk of an operation is significantly higher with too much commander involvement (Department of the Army, 2015). Several tools and techniques would have been helpful during the assault preparation.


Tools and Techniques

            Tools and techniques of the ADM process include brainstorming, researching, mind mapping, meta-questioning, questioning assumptions, and four ways of seeing (Department of the Army, 2015). These tools highlight several ways that staff members can approach framing the OE. Brainstorming is a type of collaboration that generates keywords and initial ideas for further research and analysis. The analysis of ideas occurs when the planning team acquires more breadth and depth on the situation. According to the Department of the Army (2015), breadth refers to acquiring a large amount of information in as little time as possible, while depth refers to using multiple sources to research a single category. Depth gathers relevant scholarly information and utilizes subject matter experts to understand a topic further. After the execution of brainstorming and research, the team attempts to identify relationships through mind mapping.


Mind Mapping, Meta-Questioning, and the Four Ways of Seeing

            Mind mapping begins with a single variable and ends after the planning team identifies all secondary variables and their relationships (Department of the Army, 2015). Also, mind mapping works well as a visual aid through symbols, lines, diagrams, and pictures representing relationships. While using the visual aid, planning teams can continue understanding the situation through more detailed meta-questioning and questioning assumptions. Lastly, the group uses four ways of seeing to understand how relevant actors view others, view themselves, and how actors view each other. The logic behind the use of these tools can grow stagnant with time. Fortunately, as previously stated, the CSM, or SGM, acts on behalf of the commander at times to enable understanding among staff members and planners.

            The CSM mentors both enlisted and commissioned Soldiers within the unit. According to the Department of the Army (2022b), unit leaders are responsible for creating professional development programs that enhance understanding of mission-critical tasks. The CSM will assist the commander in preparing a professional development program for staff officers and planners to ensure the effective and efficient execution of the ADM process using the key concepts, tools, and techniques described in the Department of the Army (2015). Additionally, the CSM will assess the training and adjust as required.



            The overall synthesis of framing activities, key concepts, tools, techniques, the role of the senior enlisted leader, and the Ia Drang battle in Vietnam has demonstrated the importance and effectiveness of ADM through all stages of framing the OE. The lack of ADM used during the battle of Ia Drang highlights the implications of not fully understanding the OE and enemy. LTC Moore did not anticipate the enemy’s aggressiveness, although he successfully employed operational art by identifying and using appropriate resources and prevented the loss of his entire battalion. LTC Moore did little to understand how the OE may trend or the future state of other actors, although all echelons of command clearly articulated the end state. Identifying and defining the tools and techniques ensure that staff members can execute the ADM process while CSMs can incorporate the concepts into professional development lines of effort.



Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopedia. (2020). Domino theory. Encyclopedia Britannica.  

Builder, C., Bankes, S., & Nordin, R. (1999). No time for reflection: Moore at Ia Drang.

(pp. 89-102). RAND.

Department of the Army. (2015). Army design methodology. (ATP 5-0.1). chrome-


Department of the Army. (2019). The operations process. (ADP 5-0).


Department of the Army. (2022a). Commander and staff organization and operations. (FM 6-0).


Department of the Army. (2022b). Developing leaders. (FM 6-22).


Department of the Army. (2022c). Operations (FM 3-0).


Moore, H. (1965). After Action Report, Ia Drang Valley Operation 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry 14-            16 November 1965 [Memorandum]. Department of the Army.


About the Author(s)

Master Sergeant Jason L. Glenn is an Aircraft Maintenance Senior Sergeant. He has served in
every leadership position, from Section Chief to Noncommissioned Officer Academy Deputy
Commandant. He currently attends the Sergeants Major Course at the US Army
Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence.

Glenn’s civilian education includes an associate degree from Excelsior College and a
Bachelors Degree from Thomas Edison State University with a focus on Liberal Arts. ​He is a
recipient of the Thomas Edison State University’s Arnold Fletcher Award for exceptional
achievement in online learning. He is a lifetime member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor