Small Wars Journal

Setting the Theater: A Critical Intelligence Function

Sat, 04/28/2018 - 12:06am

Setting the Theater: A Critical Intelligence Function

James Chester

Setting the Theater for an Army Service Component Command

Setting a theater is often considered to be the responsibility of logisticians.  In fact, an entire issue in the sustainment counterpart to this publication was dedicated to the concept.[1]  While the sustainment warfighting function does play a large and essential role in the process, setting an operational theater requires input from all warfighting functions, including intelligence.  Most of us who deployed in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and their follow-on operations deployed into mature, established theaters where setting and opening a theater had long since ceased to be a concern.  Likely future operations will be conducted in far different operational environments.  The advances in adversary capabilities that underpin many multi-domain battle concepts require the Army to be ready to rapidly deploy into theaters dramatically different from late-stage Iraq and Afghanistan.  This article discusses intelligence warfighting function responsibilities and considerations in setting a theater and what INSCOM does and should do to meet these obligations.[2]

Defining Responsibilities

Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 4-0, published in 2012, defines setting the theater as “all activities directed at establishing favorable conditions for conducting military operations in the theater, generally driven by the support requirements of specific operation plans and other requirements established in the geographic combatant commander’s (GCC) theater campaign plan.”[3]  A more recent, but non-doctrinal definition suggested in 2015 proposes defining setting the theater as “the broad range of actions conducted to shape the operational environment, deter aggression, and establish the conditions in a theater of operations for the execution of strategic plans.”[4]  Either definition has clear implications for intelligence warfighting function responsibilities.  Setting the theater is simply a way of thinking about operations that include a wide range of activities in support of Phase 0 and Phase 1 requirements in the joint phasing construct that all lead toward specific condition-setting objectives.[5]  A wide range of organizations are setting operational theaters throughout the world every day, including INSCOM work in support of theater army requirements.
One of the key tasks for a theater army is to set the theater, briefly described in FM 3-94 as a task to “set conditions in the theater for the employment of landpower.”[6]  INSCOM’s Military Intelligence Brigades (Theater) (MIB(T)s support theater army/ Army Service Component Command (ASCC), and, in turn, GCC and aligned commander requirements in setting the theater in a variety of ways.[7]  In this article I will cover some of them, including conducting distributed intelligence operations, the importance of joint, interagency, and multinational (JIM) integration, and intelligence and communications architecture development.  I will also discuss some of the MIB(T)’s responsibilities in the theater opening process and what the future should look like as INSCOM and its MIB(T)s continue to improve our theater setting readiness.

Distributed Operations

Ongoing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations, intelligence analysis, partner nation training exercises, and a range of other operations and activities provide the theater-specific expertise necessary for MIB(T)s to support ASCC requirements in setting a theater.  This expertise allows MIB(T) personnel to inform ASCC actions, to improve aligned force and senior leader situational awareness, and to understand and request appropriate, high payoff support from other INSCOM organizations and the broader intelligence community.  In fact, ongoing distributed intelligence operations throughout a given GCC’s area of responsibility underpin all aspects of MIB(T) readiness to set an operational theater.  Without this regional and warfighting function-specific knowledge INSCOM would be unable to effectively conduct theater setting tasks.

Each MIB(T) conducts distinct operations based on a range of GCC authorities and requirements as specified by the respective ASCC.  This operational expertise serves other theater setting requirements beyond just creating groups of discipline-specific, regionally informed subject matter experts.  Active, distributed operations also help to set the conditions for future success by demonstrating an active regional commitment.  This demonstrated resolve can help to deter potential adversaries attempting to evaluate likely U.S. responses to actions counter to American interests.  These operations also can help to improve partner nation capability, giving our allies additional tools as they improve their own readiness to conduct operations.  Building this broad capability also provides opportunities for us to improve not just how well we and our partners can conduct separate operations, but also how well we are able to integrate these operations for even greater results.

JIM Integration
Close integration with JIM partners is essential when establishing the conditions for potential operations in a theater.  Our joint teammates provide capabilities we lack and can provide perspectives we might not have considered.  The same applies to other governmental organizations from outside the military.  In U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), for example, some law enforcement agencies have decades of experience conducting operations throughout the region and can provide a depth of knowledge on theater-specific information unmatched anywhere else.  Integration with these partners, balanced with careful recognition of differing authorities and responsibilities, allows both organizations to improve the performance of ongoing operations and to improve our readiness to conduct operations in the future.
Our multinational partners also provide essential perspectives and capabilities.  In some regions one or two partners are so significant that we would be unable to effectively plan or conduct operations without their input.  In other regions input from a wide range of partner nations is necessary to achieve the shared understanding that allows us to act effectively.  In either case they provide indispensable functions.  This includes not just relying on partner nation ground intelligence forces, but also leveraging expertise through U.S. joint and interagency partnerships with their own multinational counterparts.  The regional expertise and distinct capabilities of these counterpart professionals often provides knowledge and opportunities that other U.S. Army, joint service, or interagency organizations can’t match.  More importantly, based on the status of forces and other agreements signed between the U.S. and many of our international partners we are legally unable to conduct certain operations without host nation approval.  Setting the theater necessarily requires that primary effort take place prior to the outbreak of hostilities or the beginning of a contingency operation, so wartime authorities, if granted, are insufficient to allow us to conduct the actions necessary to set an operational theater.  The opening period of a named operation is too late to begin setting the conditions for mission success, making host and partner nation integration essential in any theater.

Intelligence and Communications Architecture Development

Modern advances in communications technology and intelligence systems have led to continual improvements in our ability to collect, analyze, and disseminate intelligence data.  These advances also require corresponding effort to ensure the systems architecture is in place to share this data and provide necessary mission command for distributed elements.  The work that MIB(T)s, functional intelligence brigades, and other INSCOM organizations put into building this architecture not only enables ongoing operations, but also serves as the foundation for the systems architecture that arriving forces will require in a newly opened operational theater.  By testing ideas and improving capabilities INSCOM allows potential future inbound forces to focus on the content of intelligence and communications data rather than needing to spend as much time on how that data will be transmitted, received, stored, and accessed.
This architecture development is not limited to physical systems and hardware.  Database management, managing data flow to and from the broader intelligence enterprise, reporting prioritization, and a range of other architecture and data management functions provided by MIB(T)s establish a baseline that deploying units will rely on.  Units arriving into a theater will deploy with their own intelligence and communications systems, but they can and should expect the resident theater ground intelligence experts to provide an effective systems framework that enables success.

Theater Opening

While conducting operations and other preparation in the shaping portion of the joint phasing construct is an essential part of setting a theater there are also required deliberate actions taken closer to the execution of a named operation.  Regardless of source, theater opening is defined far more narrowly than setting the theater.  Theater opening is defined in Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 4-0 as “the ability to establish and operate ports of debarkation (air, sea, and rail) to establish a distribution system and sustainment bases, and to facilitate port throughput for the reception, staging, onward movement and integration (RSOI) of forces within a theater of operations.”[8]  It is designated in ADRP 4-0 as the responsibility of the theater sustainment command (TSC).[9]  This somewhat narrow and sustainment-focused definition fails to account for the required actions performed by other warfighting functions during the initial flow of forces into an underdeveloped theater.  No amount of broad regional conditions setting will prevent the need to rapidly expand force flow capabilities into an emerging operational theater, meaning that regardless of success in broader theater setting tasks, theater opening will still be required.
A better definition of theater opening for the non-sustainment warfighting functions, including intelligence, would be “the establishment and operation of processes, systems, and facilities that facilitate RSOI of forces within a theater of operations.”  Under this definition MIB(T)s help to meet intelligence requirements in several ways.
Early during a potential conflict or other contingency operation a MIB(T) will likely deploy an intelligence support element, potentially in conjunction with the ASCC’s combat command post (CCP).  This element will not only provide a better understanding of the operational environment to CCP leaders, but it will also serve as one of the, if not the first intelligence organization(s) in a new operational theater.  As such they will provide an integration point for intelligence organizations first arriving in a new area of operations.  As more robust force levels are established the MIB(T) will need to synchronize with the ASCC G2 staff to help receive arriving intelligence organizations and to ensure they are appropriately connected to theater intelligence databases and other architecture.  Depending on operational requirements this reception and integration will involve pulling units not only into theater intelligence systems and processes but also incorporating a wide range of potential augmentation directly into the brigade itself.

The Way Forward

INSCOM organizations work to set operational theaters every day and we continue to improve how we do it.  Support to theater exercises in every GCC allows intelligence professionals to improve our condition-setting operations.  Specific set the theater exercises further allow INSCOM brigades to uncover capability gaps and establish solutions that draw on the capabilities and expertise of the entire intelligence community.  Additionally, examinations of essential tasks and functions to account for unique theater setting requirements will help ensure units remain ready to perform these functions in the future.
There is still more that can be done.  Use of Army Prepositioned Stocks (APS) and other prepositioned unit sets allow for the rapid deployment of units into potential conflict zones.  The presence of these stocks also serves as a credible deterrent for adversaries considering actions that might provoke a U.S. military response.  APS and other prepositioned unit sets should continue to maintain intelligence and other warfighting function systems that would allow INSCOM and other intelligence organizations to rapidly deploy into a range of potential theaters.
Further integration with our sustainment counterparts is also required.  Subject matter experts from both warfighting functions must work closely together across echelons to evaluate and improve intelligence operations while shaping the operational environment and deterring conflict.  INSCOM, ASCC G2, and GCC J2 personnel must also strive to ensure that intelligence organizations are exercised and evaluated during theater exercises for their ability to set the conditions necessary to enable further mission accomplishment, including their ability to perform RSOI functions during a theater opening.


Our adversaries are watching, assessing, and responding to both our actions and our inaction.  Readiness in setting a theater through effective performance of and support to ongoing operations and effective preparation for potential contingency operations can help to deter conflict.  If this deterrence fails or if circumstances require a military response short of armed conflict then INSCOM’s ability to set an operational theater will play a significant role in the success or failure of arriving forces in supporting combatant commander missions in the land domain.  By understanding and executing the tasks we must perform now while also being ready for likely future missions INSCOM will continue to ensure that we can set the theater in ways that enable mission accomplishment.

End Notes

[1] Army Sustainment, “Setting the Theater: Planning Today Provides Options for Tomorrow,” NOV-DEC 2015,

[2] GEN Robert B. Brown and GEN David G. Perkins, “Multi-Domain Battle: Tonight, Tomorrow, and the Future Fight,” Aug. 18, 2017,

[3] ADRP 4-0, Sustainment, Jul. 31, 2012, para 2-5

[4] Kenneth R. Gaines and Dr. Reginald L. Snell, “Setting and Supporting the Theater,” Nov. 2, 2015,

[5] JP 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, Aug. 11, 2011, fig III-16

[6] FM 3-94, Theater Army, Corps, and Division Operations, Apr 2014, para 2-12

[7] The Military Intelligence Brigade (Theater) (MIB(T) as an Intelligence Anchor Point for Regionally Aligned (RAF) and Global Response Forces (GRF)

[8] ADP 4-0, Sustainment, Jul. 2012, para 64

[9] ADRP 4-0, para 2-6

Categories: intelligence

About the Author(s)

Major James Chester currently serves as the plans and exercises officer for the 470th Military Intelligence Brigade (Theater).  Previous assignments include service as an assignment officer and account manager at U.S. Army Human Resources Command, as a tactical MI company commander in Korea, and as a Battalion S2 in Germany and Operation Iraqi Freedom.  He holds a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and a master’s degree in public policy and management from the University of Pittsburgh.