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The Operational Environment Through the Eye of a Fly

The Operational Environment Through the Eye of a Fly

. 11 min read

Contemporary operational environments (OE) are increasingly complex. A capricious climate has created new corridors for strategic competition. Revisionist states and emerging economies are reallocating the world’s distribution of power; enter novel polarities and great power competition. We live in an era of acceleration. The rate of technological advances, and consequently the changing character of war, is occurring at an unprecedented pace. Overpopulation, resource scarcity, and internal conflicts are driving multitudes of peoples beyond their borders. Greater longevity, mass migration, and increased urbanization causes shifts in the world’s demography.

While global trends and strategic drivers exert a considerable influence on the OE, a broad strokes approach to attain complete comprehension is not enough. To achieve a thorough appreciation of an OE practitioners must not only conduct an analysis of the strategic environment but also consider elements such as time, multiple domains, operational variables, adversarial designs, and myriad actors.

It is within, and through, the analysis of a comprehensive construct OEs manifest themselves. As such, the combined contributing factors to the OE can be construed as independent variables, whereas the OE is the dependent variable.

This article seeks to offer a simplified explanation of how the operational environment can be analyzed and understood. Furthermore, the intention is to make practitioners aware of social and cognitive pitfalls one might fall victim to while considering the OE. The article begins by describing the OE, followed by a discussion on the basics of understanding as it pertains to the OE. Lastly, a process for analyzing and understanding the OE will be described.

Operational Environment

Defining the OE is no easy endeavor. Notwithstanding the OE’s multilayered complexity, it is not wholly indeterminate. The following section will offer a definition of the OE and its content.

The Norwegian Armed Forces Joint Operational Doctrine describes the OE as the aggregate of interconnected physical and non-physical elements; and conditions. These factors must be understood in order to employ the appropriate level of combat power, protection of a force, or to solve a mission. The physical domain of the OE consists of air, land, sea, and space; while the non-physical domain is comprised of the information environment, the electromagnetic spectrum, and the cyber domain. It is within these domains, or rather the OE, that you find the actors who affect joint operations.

NATO defines the OE in more succinct, yet similar terms as a “…composite of the conditions and circumstances and influences that affect the employment of capabilities and bear on the conditions of the commander.”

There are several ways extant doctrines visualize the OE. Unfortunately, many attempts to illustrate the OE tend to create more confusion than clarity. This is likely caused by the OE’s many interdependent and interconnected constituents. A model from a US Army TRADOC White Paper offers a compelling alternative. The model cogently conveys the OE and its components. What the framework lacks in elaborate expression, it makes up for in explanatory power.

The strategic environment (SE) is the global arena and is comprised of several OEs. Strategic drivers and global trends underpin the SE. In 2020 the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (NDRE) published an abridged version of a 2019 report on how five global trends will shape our future. The trends are within the realms of politics, environment, social considerations, economics, and technology. These trends have a direct effect on an OE.


The range of actors that saturate an OE range from conventional forces to hostile and fragile or failing states; hybrid threats, terrorist organizations, corporations, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, individuals, and private security firms.

Lastly, the adversarial designs constitute an integral part. “Emerging adversarial strategies, operational designs and tactical engagements” all have bearing on the OE.

In order to appreciate how the abovementioned elements affect the OE it is helpful to consider them through the optics of the operational variables. Operational variables “are categories of relevant information commanders and staffs use to help build their situational understanding. Commanders and staffs use the eight interrelated operational variables-political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, and time (…) to help understand an OE.” It is important to note that the variables are not one-dimensional. The eight variables have attendant sub-variables of interest.


The fewer optics with which you consider the world, the more one-sided your perspective tends to be. Peering through a spyglass will create a decidedly myopic viewpoint, comparable to admiring a work of pointillism up close—a jumble of disordered dots. Taking a step back and looking through several lenses provides clarity. In a sense, the multifaceted operational variables are analogous to the honeycomb-like eyes of a fly. The SE, adversarial designs, and range of actors enter and refract through each lens. Once in the occipital region, the individual images converge and coalesce into a complete picture of the OE. Knowing what the OE is, and what it consists of is the first step towards understanding.


Although awareness of the OE is important, understanding it is paramount. Understanding the OE is a prerequisite imperative to achieving strategic and operational goals. According to the NATO joint doctrine for intelligence “understanding is the perception and interpretation of a particular situation in order to provide the context, insight and foresight required for effective decision-making.” Understanding, at its very core, involves practitioners answering the primary questions, among many others, colloquially known as the 5Ws (who, when, what, where, and why), as well as how.

While the OE is a composite of elements, circumstances, conditions, and influences—it is the ever-present human component that invariably influences, as well as “defines the nature and characteristics of the operational environment. An OE is a complex system driven by human behavior, founded in human needs and desires, and framed by culture.” Therefore, simply observing the OE is not enough. Military operations are a human endeavor and as such filled with random chance, danger, friction, and uncertainty. Understanding the OE is therefor of chief importance. That’s not to say that physical variables have little bearing on the OE, but when it comes to appreciating the OE “One might say that the physical seem little more than the wooden hilt, while the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely-honed blade.” Just like the Delphic aphorism Temet Nosce, outward understanding begins with introspection.

Understanding can be placed within three distinct categories—individual, collective, and common. At the individual level there exists as many different perceptions as there are people. Separate interpretations depend on experiences, values, culture and other influences. “Individual understanding is (…) the personal interpretation of the facts held by a person within their own mind.”

The collective category is similar to institutionalization. Within this level of understanding members understand the world and their surroundings relative to the institution or profession they are a part of. “Collective understanding is the shared perspective held by members of distinct groups that have their own ethos, creed and identity.” Within a military organization culture, command philosophy, and rites of passages will influence the collective understanding.

When different groups come together for purposes of cooperation, common understanding can be realized. Common understanding requires compromise for divergent collective views to converge. “Common understanding (…) is the ability to comprehend perceptions of groups other than our own and to establish a common baseline for communication, interpretation and action.”

Our understanding depends upon the social structures we belong to. Peer pressure at the individual level can affect our personal understanding. At the collective level groupthink and conformity presents itself. This doesn’t mean that conforming to norms, mores and folkways leads to drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid. It does, however, mean that blindly following social convention or succumbing to peer-pressure can preclude a rational understanding. Applying a healthy degree of skepticism, embracing critical thinking skills, and welcoming diverse views can counter socially constructed pitfalls. In a military setting it can be particularly easy to forget that, despite being armed with rational decision-making processes, we too are vulnerable to socially constructed biases. While understanding has clear social aspects, there is a cognitive component as well.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman teaches us that there are two systems of thinking. These two systems are instructive when it comes to understanding. System 1 works effortlessly, in a swift manner, and almost by its own volition. It is a system based on instinct, experience, and pattern recognition, sometimes called intuition. The system helps us make sense of a complex world. But the system can also work against us through biases and heuristics. This is where System 2 can help. System 2 processes our surroundings through a deliberate effort. It requires concentration and time. System 2 is a great countermeasure to mitigate cognitive pitfalls, but it also has the disadvantage of blurring out the greater picture for the sake of its focal point. In other words, not being able to see the forest for the trees.

There are several heuristics we can fall victim to. This discussion is limited to the availability heuristic and how it can deteriorate our understanding of the OE. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut where certain issues become prominent, while others are ignored. “People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease which they are retrieved from memory—and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.”

According to Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, President Trump received more negative press compared to other presidents. In his first year alone, only five percent of the stories were positive. “News reports have been more focused on his personality than his policy, and are more likely to carry negative assessments of his actions.”

In NDRE’s 2020 abovementioned report the author claims that the so-called “Trump-Effect” has accelerated an already inevitable weakening of the liberal world’s rules-based order. The NDRE acknowledges that the US has increased its presence in Europe and that NATO has improved its burden-sharing. Despite of this, it can be argued that NDRE’s assessment has fallen victim to availability heuristics. Indeed, trump withdrew from multilateral treaties and organizations but it’s a stretch to suggest that this has depreciated the rules-based order. In most cases, Trump left treaties deemed unfavorable to the US. Others, for instance in the case of the WHO, were abandoned due to claims of ineptitude, cover-ups, and dysfunctional leadership linked to COVID-19.  Furthermore, to assert that Trump flirted with authoritarian regimes is tabloid verbiage and unbecoming of a venerable research establishment. So is declaring that Trump sowed doubt regarding commitments to alliances. It sounds like echoes of the media and buying into a businessman’s hyperbole. NDRE would have done better objectively reporting policy and facts. Contrary to NDRE’s position, one could instead argue that the pressure Trump applied compelled NATO-members to take their security more seriously. Robert Gates attempted similar plain speech in 2011, but to no avail. Trump, on the other hand, is a politician sans tact. He left niceties wanting and applied a sort of perverted brinkmanship toward his allies. Trump’s approach gave impetus to change and his technique could be coined Tough Love Diplomacy.

It is not this author’s intent to prove NDRE’s predictions wrong. The intention is to exemplify a way to counteract availability heuristics. There are facts available that suggest that Trump galvanized European allies into action, fortified transatlantic ties, and reinforced the rules-based order. While it is certain that the NDRE included the following facts in their assessment, relevant realities are omitted in their report. The following facts evidence that the US has maintained and strengthened her commitment to allies and a rules-based order.

During Trump’s presidency the 2nd Fleet declared full operational capability and the defense budget increased significantly. While the US is not part of the initiative, Trump attended the Three Seas Initiative summit in 2017. In 2018 the US deployed the carrier USS Harry S. Truman during the Trident Juncture Exercise. Carriers have not navigated this far north since the 1980s. NATO initiated the Four Thirties initiative, spearheaded by Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis. The US has maintained its reassurance to Europe and NATO through Operation Atlantic Resolve—including eFPand rotation of an armored brigade combat team. The Norwegian ambassador to the US asserted in an interview in 2020 that the bilateral relationship was as strong, or even stronger during Trump compared to Obama. It is particularly peculiar that the NDRE posits that the rules-based order is withering, while the DoD Arctic Strategy of 2019 clearly states that among its three “desired Arctic end-states” is “Strengthening the rules-based order in the Arctic”.

Few would deny that President Trump was a bully, a narcissist and political galoot. He was devoid of statesmanship and his behavior stirred uncertainty. Despite his tone, the abovementioned policies were his--the Department of Defense is not detached from the President of the United States. As we strive towards understanding the OE, we must be cognizant of possible pitfalls. Availability heuristics can result in the introduction of unsubstantiated variables and yield a faulty understanding.

A Process for Analyzing and Understanding the OE

War is a human enterprise. As such, military decision-making processes (MDMP) accept that circumstances and conditions are in constant flux. War is a violent and visceral interplay between actors who attempt to impose their will on each other. It is within this uncertain context that MDMP offers inertia to counteract friction, including cognitive and social pitfalls. Rational processes help contain chaos.

Common for all MDMPs are four distinct and sequential steps. The first step is understanding, or as Colonel John Boyd would have it, observe. Concomitant and closely coupled with this step is the Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (JIPOE). The JIPOE affords practitioners with an understanding of the OE and is a prerequisite for planning. NATO’s JIPOE includes three steps. The first step is an evaluation of the area, to be followed by an assessment of an actor’s doctrinal templates, and thirdly a threat integration to assess how the OE will influence an adversary’s course of action. The operational variables are considered throughout. It is through the JIPOE, as part of the MDMP, commanders can appropriately observe, orient, decide, and act.


Maurice de Saxe stressed the importance of a good spy service, and by his time’s standards acknowledged the conduct of a JIPOE: “…operations are exceedingly difficult, knowledge of the country is absolutely necessary and an ability to comprehend the situation at a glance and an audacious spirit are everything”. Knowledge of the country can be likened to the JIPOE, while comprehending the situation at a glance is similar to Clausewitz’ coup d’oeil. There are few among us endowed with the gift of strategic intuition. Not many can realize checkmate based on the pattern of the pieces on the board. Most mortals require the assistance of a staff and spy service to set conditions for understanding. When all conditions, circumstances, and influences of the OE are laid bare (System 2), commanders can decide and act resolutely (System 1) on how to employ military capabilities.


This article has offered a definition of the OE and its contents. Furthermore, the reader has been introduced to how social constructs, preconceived notions, biases, and heuristics can cause a turbid understanding of the OE. As practitioners of operational art, we must apply cognitive countermeasures to ensure that the independent variables we introduce are reliable. This is the only way that the dependent variable, the OE, attains validity. Analyzing the OE through systematic processes, e.g. MDMP and JIPOE, helps us compartmentalize uncertainty and chaos, while mitigating biases and heuristics. Understanding and analyzing the OE lies at the heart of what practitioners must master in order to successfully employ “forces to attain strategic and/or operational objectives.”

Foto: Telemark bataljon gjennomfører operasjoner i Irak sammen med koalisjonsstyrker (Camilla Brevik / Forsvaret)

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