Small Wars Journal

Operational Design: Promise and Problems

Tue, 02/09/2010 - 7:32pm
Operational Design: Promise and Problems

by Adam Elkus and Crispin Burke

Download the full article: Operational Design: Promise and Problems

Approaches to Operational Design have become increasingly prominent in both Army and Joint contexts. Design, like all doctrines, is a product of specific political, organizational, and cultural forces, events, and influences both unique to the armed services and external to them. A product born of the US military's experience in counterinsurgency and nation-building campaigns, Design is a process best applied in the planning of campaigns and major operations. It is part of a general family of ideas inspired by FM 3-0 Operations. There are, however, substantial risks in the adoption of Design that must be addressed. Additionally, campaigning needs to be thought of as an aspect of strategy rather than a wholly separate operational level in order to best implement American strategic objectives.

We will first attempt to define the concept within the prism of recent military doctrine and the general idea of campaign design. We will then examine the doctrine's major claims about complexity in military affairs before moving on to a discussion of concerns over Design vis-a-vis more traditional planning ideas, and conclude with some recommendations about the evolution of campaign design in relationship to strategy.

Download the full article: Operational Design: Promise and Problems

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is currently Associate Editor at Red Team Journal. His articles have been published in West Point CTC Sentinel, Small Wars Journal, and other publications. He blogs at Rethinking Security and The Huffington Post. He is currently a contributor to the Center for Threat Awareness' ThreatsWatch project.

Captain Crispin Burke is a UH-60 helicopter pilot with assignments in the 82nd Airborne Division during Hurricane Katrina, Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras, and most recently, the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq. He writes for Small Wars Journal and under the name "Starbuck" at his blog, Wings Over Iraq.

About the Author(s)


The authors confuse Design with Operational Design. They write,

"The current understanding of Operational Design is simply called "Design" and was elaborated in the TRADOC Pam 525-5-500 Commanders Appreciation and Campaign Design (henceforth referred to as CACD)"

They are not the same thing.

Granted, the choice of "Design" as a name was poor and was bound to create confusion. Nevertheless, it appears the premise of the paper is flawed.

Thanks Adam. Y'all's paper helped me narrow down my approach. I'm going to focus on coping with wicked problems on the company/village level- planning, operations, and problem solving.

It's an issue that has not been addressed.

Hope y'all have a good weekend.


Away from the subject of a dancing Mike Tyson as an "ill-structured problem" (something to pursued in a future blog, no doubt), there are several elements of complexity research that NDU and the CCRP that did in the 1990s that may be of value today.

Chapter 7 has an essay by Alan Beyerchan on Clausewitz, and Chapter 10's essay by the Marine Corps's John Schmitt also is some food for thought.

Best of luck with the COIN academy idea, btw.

Nice. I think that we have just indirectly confirmed two points:

1. The Army is full of creative people.

2. The creative process left unchecked is a slippery slope.

No analogy between Iraq and the Hangover?

I just had an idea...I should write a story about the lieutenant that had too much near-beer at Salsa Night on some cushy FOB.


Thanks for the link. I'm still a student at this stuff. In fact, the more I study, the more I realize how little I really know :). I'll leave y'all with two observations that I've been considering.

1. The MDMP process is adequate. I don't think that there's anything wrong with our current format. Instead, I believe that we need to spend more time challenging/debating our assumptions and facts.

2. The Army is full of creative people. The NCO that figured out how to attach a mine-plow to break through the hedgerows during WWII is the same NCO that will determine a quick-fix to cholera in the village to save infants lives. We just need to do a better job of identifying, promoting, and retaining these individuals.



Thanks for the explanation--I'm a fan of Google products, though Mac much more so. This explains why they've been so successful. When it comes to the "antagonist" part of your process, have you ever heard of the concept of the Overton Window?

It's an interesting concept and I think that it shows that even some of the more extreme-sounding positions and COAs we've seen in debate over the last year have helped move or normalize new ideas.

Whoa. A guide to solving wicked problems with pictures of Megan Fox included. I think that I just figured out how to make millions :). Shhh, don't tell anyone!!! Also, Crispin, I'm boycotting Wings over Iraq for a while. You've got me over-analyzing every movie that I watch to figure out how it relates to small wars. Seriously, there is NO analogy to The Hangover and Iraq.

"Also could you expand on the idea of Google in design and problem-solving? I'm curious, especially in the light of their recent decision to challenge China."

Good catch. The China/Google dilemma highlights one of the problems when the creative process can possibly get out of control. In this case, idealogy and values are in direct conflict with the business model.

So Google's success. It started with an idea not a pursuit of profit. They wanted to figure out how to harness the power of the internet to better mankind. They used profit as a means to achieve their ends, and they became the largest company in the world. That in itself is worthy of study- an indirect approach to making billions.

Google problem-solving. Google intentionally seeks, recruits, and hires unstructured problem solvers. Malcolm Gladwell would call them outliers- "wicked" smart folks that don't just think outside of the box, they erase the box. When they've encountered problems that their people cannot solve, they outsource, but they don't go to a SAS or Accenture. They go to groups like the San Francisco Orchestra or a Ballerina Company. This decision is very specific- musicians and dancers think through music. Music is math. Math is the real language of the world. Another group they turn to is artists and writers- left-brain people.

So, here's some easy/practical ways that I'm putting together on how this method can be applied to MDMP.

1. The White Board. Start with brain-storming. No right and wrong answers. Just run through every option. If the question is, "What do we do about A'stan?" force answers ranging from dropping a nuke to leaving. Get every possibility out there.

2. The Antagonist or Counter-Debate. In this scenario, I'd have Gian Gentile debate on how we should do population-centric counter-insurgency in A'stan. His opponent would be John Nagl arguing that we conduct a full occupy or leave. The intent behind this method is to force someone to step outside their "box." I guess another example would be to force Sean Hannity to take the side of President Obama is the greatest president ever while Rachel Meadows defends GW. Even if this approach doesn't work, it would provide some humor.

3. The Huddle. Get the right experts in the room to discuss a problem with no heirachy. I did this nightly in my patrol base with my PL/PSGs/SSGs. It is just a frank, open discussion on the problems at hand. The key to this is having a strict format and moderator. For the military side, eventually the commander will make a final decision.

That's a few thoughts. Here's one more book you might like to see how others are trying to solve problems in small wars.

"How the Change the World- Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas."
-David Bornstein


A.E. (not verified)

Wed, 02/10/2010 - 11:42am

Also could you expand on the idea of Google in design and problem-solving? I'm curious, especially in the light of their recent decision to challenge China.

A.E. (not verified)

Wed, 02/10/2010 - 11:41am

Mike, thanks for the praise! Yeah, it ended up getting pretty long because the subject is very, well, complex, to use an over-used word. I'll check that book out, but no guarantees whether Crispin will read it or not if there are no fold-out Megan Fox pictures.

As for the Powell Doctrine, I can't speak for my co-author but I think that it was an admirable attempt but provided something that was rigid and inflexible. People are trying to bring it back today in various forms but the only way to avoid quagmires in the long-term I think is a more foundational process that Mark Safranski and I described of building better institutions and policy planning organs in our last SWJ article.


This paper is one of the better articles that I've read on military design and problem solving. I'm not sure if you're conclusions will hold as the "answer," but the discussion that you provided is invaluable. I hope that higher-level thinkers and commanders really take the time to consider what you wrote. With that, I'll offer some comments, suggestions, and one critique.

"To sum up, the point we wish to make is that a realistic understanding of complexity should inform campaign design. The complexities we deal with today are not more complex, nor was the past ever simple. This is a foundational philosophical issue that needs to be ironed out in current military literature."

Yes. This point has been needed to be said for a long time, and y'all do a good job of describing why it is true. Another thing to consider, if we're completely honest with ourselves, is have we made the current wars more complicated than they needed to be? I would say probably. For example, if we had properly resourced, and planned Phase IV operations in Iraq and actually occupied, then the insurgencies may not have had the ability to mobilize, recruit, train, and spread. The same came be argued about the initial decisions of the CPA to outlaw the Ba'ath Party and disband the Army. So, through a series of poor planning and decision-making, we allowed a complex problem to grow worse.

"However, much of MDMP is grounded in certainty--turning planning assumptions into either facts or falsehoods--and does not lend itself well to ambiguous or complex situations."

Yes, sometimes constraining our initial problem definition into facts and assumptions can limit our ability to properly define the problem thus skewing the outcome and decisions. Facts and assumptions are derived from our own conceptual blocks- (world view, ethics, background, social norms, race, profession, education, etc...) Marc Tyrell can probably expand on that a bit better.

Due to my indoctrination and past experience, I'd initially determine that a hammer is the solution to every problem. If the problem is worse, then I'd get a bigger hammer :). Crispen could probably determine that every problem can be solved by Army Aviation. That's not a bad thing, it's just who we are. So, the question is, "how do we overcome our own limitations in thinking?" The answer lies in Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas (Dr. James Adams) and learning about and embracing the creative process.

I'd recommend that y'all take some time to study the company that I consider the best problem solvers of our generation- Google. Their approach to design and solutions is fascinating.

"This is why the Powell Doctrine--the idea that force should only be employed when a set of exhaustive strategic requirements were met--was admirable but unrealistic in its expectation of strategic sanity. Within the course of American military history, strict clarity is always demanded of the endstate. However, pragmatic experience has shown that our efforts often fall short of expectations."

I'm not sure that I agree with y'all on this point. Maybe it just needs further clarification.

Anyways, again, great job.

Mike Few