Small Wars Journal

Framing the Operational Environment and the Role of the Sergeant Major

Fri, 03/04/2022 - 3:38pm

Framing the Operational Environment and the Role of the Sergeant Major

By Jason Crawford

            This paper aims to analyze the process commanders and staffs use to frame the operational environment while defining the role of a sergeant major in the planning process. Ill-defined problems cause Armies to waste valuable resources to treat symptoms and risk total mission failure. During the early phases of the war in Afghanistan, commanders routinely elected to destroy poppy crops. They believe that destroying poppy directly targeted the Taliban finance networks. However, poppy destruction created a much more significant issue. Farmers relied on the money they received from the poppy harvest; without it, they immediately turned to the Taliban for assistance and often began directly attacking United States forces. This scenario proved that the reliance on poppy presented the most significant problem, not the Taliban's financing.

            Army design methodology (ADM) provides commanders with a process to analyze and frame ill-structured problems (Department of the Army, 2019). The ADM process forces staff to apply critical thinking to enable a commander to understand, visualize, and describe complex problems. A staff conducts the ADM process by framing the operational environment (OE), framing the problem, and framing or reframing solutions (Department of the Army, 2015). The sergeant major plays a pivotal role in this process by enabling adequate training, providing oversight, and advising the commander. A failure to fully understand the operational environment limits the staff’s ability to accurately identify the relationships, centers of gravity, and root problems preventing a commander from visualizing the steps needed to transition from the current state to the desired end state.


Framing to Understand the OE

            The mixture of terrain, contexts, influences, and conditions define an OE (Department of the Army, 2015). Each OE presents a level of complexity that remains in a constant state of change based on internal and external influences and the nature of the relationships between actors. Prior to taking the first steps to frame any OE, the sergeant major must first ensure the staff possesses the proper standard operating procedure (SOP) and each staff member possesses an adequate amount of training to carry out their respective missions. ADM allows a level of flexibility in its design, enabling commanders to adapt the approach and presentation to their preference. The sergeant major must ensure the SOP captures these preferences. During the initial phases of ADM and OE framing, the staff must think critically, creatively, and collaborate effectively to truly understand the complexity and conditions specific to the target region (Department of the Army, 2015).


Operational Variables and the Current State

            The staff uses operational variables to understand the current state. The key actors, circumstances, and relationships between the political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment (PMESII-PT), and time facilitate a staff’s ability to develop a model for the current state (Department of the Army 2015). The staff uses the higher headquarters order to determine the OE's size, scope and desired end state. Most staffs begin visualizing the current state by conducting a brainstorming session that focuses on each PMESII-PT variable. Once brainstorming concludes, a designated team begins the process of mind mapping to categorize each actor or variable and combines similar items or remove insignificant actors. 

            The staff then uses the results of mind mapping to create an illustration or diagram to depict the relationships between all significant actors to an OE. These actors include individuals, governments, economic entities, militaries, criminal organizations, and pivotal coalitions. The diagram must appear organized, easy to read, and contain a legend to highlight friendly, neutral, and enemy relationships (Department of the Army, 2015). The team also develops a narrative that includes an explanation for each actor and subsequent relationship to support the diagram then briefs the rest of the staff to support the next phase of OE framing.

Example Current State Diagram

The sergeant major guides the staff during this phase and assists the commander with beginning the process of establishing critical information gaps and instituting a timeline for model or briefing presentations. The sergeant major also maintains a crucial role in ensuring the current state planning team possesses all the required supplies to develop a readable diagram. 


How the OE May Trend

            Once the staff understands the current state, they must seek to project how an OE will trend without outside intervention. The relationships between actors identified in the current state play the most significant role in influencing the evolution of an OE. A failure to accurately assess or describe the fundamental relationships of an OE will prevent the staff from correctly predicting any trends. Environments commonly trend toward natural tendencies or the direction influenced by the most significant actor (Department of the Army, 2015). The current situation in Ukraine provides a perfect example of an OE trend. Under the leadership of President Putin, the Russian Federation influenced the OE’s gradual trend from an internal political conflict to a border dispute, and finally to a “special operation” led by Russian forces. Understanding the most likely trajectory for an OE enables the commander to visualize the barriers to friendly actions attempting to reach the desired end state and lays the foundation for determining the desired end state of other actors. Once the staff determines the OE trend, they use a diagram and narrative to brief the rest of the staff before moving to the next framing step. During this phase, the sergeant major continues to advise the staff, provide resources, and assist the commander with maintaining a shared understanding of the information presented. 


Example How the OE May Trend Diagram


Desired End State of Other Actors

            While considering the desires of other actors, the staff begins the process to develop information to frame the problem. The process of assessing the desired end state of other actors supports the problem framing process while enhancing the understanding of the OE. Using the situation in Ukraine as an example, the desired end state of Russia involves the establishment of Russian control or heavy influence over Ukrainian land and economic resources. Understanding other actor desired end states enables a commander to determine external motivations, friction points, and to begin the process of considering operational approaches to counter hostile obstacles (Department of the Army, 2015). The staff develops a diagram and narrative to illustrate the commonalities and differences between the desired end state of friendly and other actors. During this phase, the sergeant major focuses on serving as a sounding board for potential ideas by relying on experience and an exceptional understanding of the nature of war and conflict. The staff shifts focus to depicting the desired friendly end state once they achieve a mutual understanding of the desired end state of other actors. 


Desired End State

            During this phase of the process, the staff combines higher guidance with the newly established mutual understanding of the current state, likely trends, and desired end state of other actors to envision the desired end state of a potential operation (Department of the Army, 2015). Like the depiction of the current state, an illustration of the desired end state portrays the desired conditions and relationships between actors. Staffs consider feasibility but ensure the desired end state accurately reflects the preferred conditions as commanders directly address feasibility later during problem framing and the development of an operational approach. The situation in Ukraine provides a perfect scenario to understand the process of defining the desired end state. The desired end state for the United States includes the affirmation of Ukrainian sovereignty, removal of Russian forces from Ukraine and its borders, and the development of stability in the Donbas region to allow for lasting peace. This final step in framing the OE enables a commander to understand the current conditions of the environment and visualize the desired conditions (Department of the Army, 2019). With this understanding, the commander and staff possess the required information to frame the problem and develop an operational approach. Without a proper understanding of the OE and comparing the differences between the current state and desired state, the command runs a significant risk of miscalculating the problem and applying an operational approach with a high probability for failure. During this final phase, the sergeant major ensures the desired end state maintains accuracy to higher headquarters guidance and begins preparing the staff to move into framing the problem. A dedicated sergeant major possesses the ability to refine standard operating procedures and realign staff teams to support achieving greater accuracy and efficiency during the subsequent phases of the ADM process.


             The staff must apply critical and creative thinking and open dialogue to properly frame an operational environment to support a commander's ability to understand the problem and develop an operational approach adequately. Failure to achieve a mutual understanding of the OE to include key actors, potential trends, and motivations result in the misidentification of problems and limits a commander’s ability to develop a plan that supports achieving the desired end state. The sergeant major must take an active role in the ADM process to ensure standard operating procedures, support efficiency, maintain adequate supplies, and provide sound guidance based on a wealth of experience and leadership.




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

Department of the Army. (2019). Operations (ADP 3-0). Army Publishing Directorate.

About the Author(s)

MSG Jason Crawford is currently a student in the US Army Sergeants Major Course. Over a 17 year career he has served in multiple staff positions at the Battalion, Brigade, Division, and Joint level to include experience working at a premier three letter intelligence agency.