Research In A War Zone: Operational Variables & Civil Considerations

01APR2011. As mentioned in my previous posts, the Army is all about processes, detailed in a slew of publications ranging from administrative, technical and equipment, doctrine and training, to engineering and medical. (There’s an entire website should you wish to peruse.) Of the doctrine and training ones, the publication often referenced during my training was the 2010 version of Field Manual 5-0, The Operations Process (the latest version can be found hereyou’re welcome!). Doctrine, as it was defined in class by the trainer was “to follow procedures, codes or regulations so that everyone understands.” The Army definition was a bit more formal, “a body of thought on how the Army intends to operate as an integral part of the Joint Force.”

Field Manual 5-0 delineates the Army’s framework for maneuvering in the operational environment (OE), which encompasses the physical environment, governance, technology, local resources, the culture of the local population, and services. Our trainer emphasized the importance that OE conditions had on the commander’s decisions and how she or he employs resources. After this brief review, the trainer stomped his foot three times, which meant that this was definitely going to be on the exam (duly noted!).

He went on to discuss the changing nature of threats, which includes dynamics such as nation-states, organizations, people, groups, conditions or natural phenomena able to damage or destroy life, vital resources or institutions. As such, preparing for, and managing, these threats required employing all instruments of national power beyond military power. For the U.S., this means employing diplomatic, information, military, and economic (DIME) elements of power to meet national interests and goals. The OE also considers threat categories such as traditional (states employing the military), catastrophic (acquisition, possession, and use of weapons of mass destruction…WMDs), and disruptive (the enemy using new technologies).

The trainer reviewed the spectrum of conflict (which I discussed in a previous log entry), then he segued to counterinsurgency (COIN) (also discussed in previous log entries…here and here). He finally got to a topic that I found most interesting (at least for today’s training session): how the Army understands and solves problems by developing a plan of action guided by operational and mission variables, as well as civil considerations. These variables were ones that we would use to conduct our work as part of a Human Terrain System (HTS) team in the OE once deployed…at least that’s what we were told.

The military emphasizes linear models to make sense of the OE. In the mid-to-late 2000s, an integral part of understanding the OE included cross-walking the operational variables, which include political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, information, physical environment, and time (PMESII-PT) across the civil considerations, which include areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people, and events (ASCOPE) in what’s popularly known as the PMESII-PT/ASCOPE matrix. Instead of boring you with details, here’s what the matrix looks like when populated with district-level information in one of the provinces in Afghanistan (BTW, I found this on the internet…Googled it).

U.S. Army operational variables and civil considerations (PMESII-PT/ASCOPE)

In reviewing the PMESII-PT/ASCOPE matrix during training, I appreciated how structured it was and wondered about how – or whether – I’d be using it once deployed to Afghanistan. It definitely generates a lot of raw data, but does it work better in a specific area of operation (AO) than at the national level? Given that Afghanistan is an amalgam of ethnic groups that exist together as a consequence of geographical borders (okay, maybe it’s not that grim), I wasn’t sure it was an analysis tool that would’ve generated very useful information at the national level.

Even if the matrix was used to understand a specific district within a province, what could it reveal about the local population’s behaviors or reactions? What about the “hows” and “whys”? And how would you determine what information was important versus irrelevant? Was there another tool or matrix? The use of such linear models have been challenged and continues to be. For now, PMESII-PT/ASCOPE was the preferred tool being used across the country. For the sake of not pissing off the trainer, I kept my mouth shut, concluding that I’d broach these issues with my future team once I deployed.

For now, it was time for our first smoke break, which turned out to be another bitch session among some of my fellow grunts who’d served in the Army. They found the training boring, redundant, and joked about their ears bleeding. I just stood there, listening…feeling sorry for them, yet totally over the bitching. But I didn’t want to be rude by walking away. So I stayed put while my mind wondered about what I needed to take care of once I got back to my hotel room. Specifically, the classes I was teaching and the first online discussions that were approaching (if you’re curious about my dual-hatted responsibilities during this time, click here).

Since I’d never taught classes online and wanted to ensure that the students were engaged beyond just reading the assigned chapters, submitting their writing assignments, and logging in to Blackboard to take exams, I added an online discussion component. I did this for all three of the courses with a total of eight discussions for each class. I’d open the discussion boards on Monday evenings, post the discussion question for the week, and give students until the following Monday to log in and participate.

This created a bit more work for me because I’d have to monitor the boards every night and provide feedback. But it was worth it because it gave me an opportunity to catch some of the students online and interact with them. Participation in the discussion boards also comprised a significant portion of their grade (15 points x 8 = 140 points), but I think I was pretty fair because it didn’t require a paper-length response and they had a week to log in and complete the assignment.


The word "PLAN" in scrabble letters on top of other scattered, blank wooden blocks.

Once again, training was chock-full of new information that, unlike my former Army fellow grunts, I didn’t find boring. In reviewing Field Manual 5-0 (The Operations Process) again, Design, MDMP, and TLP were listed as some of the Army’s planning methodologies. Design is the application of “critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe complex, ill-structured problems and develop approaches to solve them.” The military decision-making process (MDMP) culminates in an operation plan (O-PLAN) or operation order (OPORD), and is an iterative process that “integrates the activities of the commander, staff, subordinate headquarters, and other partners to understand the situation and mission; develop and compare courses of action [COAs] that best accomplishes the mission…” Troop leading procedures (TLP) are a “dynamic process used by small-unit leaders to analyze a mission, develop a plan, and prepare for an operation.”

That’s a lot of processes, I thought. All of them were further detailed in FM 5-0, and for a novice, just learning about the Army and its ways of operating was a lot to take in. The trainer told us to focus on MDMP, which helped. But I still had questions…like how did they go about trying to understand the situation and mission? Yes, I know. By using operational variables (PMESII-PT) and civil considerations (ASCOPE), but that wouldn’t provide a complete picture. And what about the comparison of various COAs, how were they devised? What if there wasn’t much time for a full assessment of COAs, which when you’re in a war zone, I’d suspect would always be the case. How would you know whether something was an “ill-structured” problem or a regular problem (necessitating the use of design methodology as opposed to MDMP)?

I hoped that during one of our training sessions I’d be able to ask these questions. Did others have similar questions? Or given that the military is such a structured, hierarchical organization, were people just supposed to view doctrine as gospel and not question it? That wasn’t going to sit well with me; I needed clarification, which required a diplomatic approach that prevented me from coming across as a know-it-all researcher. I really just wanted to understand. But maybe I was reading too much into the information we were being presented with during training (why couldn’t I just relax, and take it all in?!?!?).

As part of an HTS team, we had our own research methods template, which was anchored in the questions raised by the command (the unit we were assigned to downrange), often referred to as information requirements (IRs). Once the IRs were known, we were to identify the project duration, research objective(s), background information, research environment, assigned personnel, key resources needed, methods protocol, (surveys, in-depth interviews), limitations, expected deliverables, citations, and appendices. This was very similar to the research methods that had been ingrained in me as a student of the social sciences, which includes a statement of the research question(s), literature review, research design and methods (study design, sample), operationalization of concepts, data collection methods, and timetable.

Connecting puzzle pieces.

The major differences were the high tempo nature of operating in a war zone, the type of sample or population (college students versus military personnel and local nationals), human subjects’ approval, which entails approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at a university. In lieu of an IRB, we were supposed to send our research plan to the mothership and obtain approval from the Director of the HTS Social Science Directorate (did we have an HTS IRB?). We also had access to the Research Reachback Center (RRC), the entity charged with providing us with the background information (or literature review) that we might not have access to while operating in a war zone.

It sounded doable, but I was skeptical about how long it was actually going to take to obtain approval and the background information from RRC. But maybe I was getting ahead of myself since it was only the third week of training. For now, I needed to make sure I made note of all the information that was deemed important based on the trainer’s foot-stomping. I hadn’t taken an exam in years, so I was a bit nervous.

I was also waiting to see whether my transition from a contractor to an Army civilian would be approved at the senior-level, which would mean I’d be deploying as a senior social scientist as opposed to a junior one. If it was the former, then I’d need to reconcile the aforementioned issues. As a junior social scientist, I’d have to rely on the lead social scientist to take on these issues. But for now, it was a waiting game.

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