Army Field Manual 5-0: The Operations Process (U.S. Military)
From the curators: The United States Military’s Army Publishing Directorate has been producing combined field manuals since 1905, and branch manuals since even earlier. Many hundreds are in use at any one time as guidebooks on everything from ordnance to operations for military personnel serving in the field. FM 5-0 (Army Field Manual 5-0: The Operations Process) was approved by the Training and Doctrine Command, the branch of the military that oversees recruitment and leadership, and published in March 2010. It is a set of guidelines to be adhered to by military commanders when planning and decision-making for the battlefield. FM 5-0 is unique, as it is the first time that design—and specifically “design thinking,” the iterative process of problem-solving that is considered by some typical of design—was introduced into the vocabulary of the military field manual. FM 5-0 devotes an entire chapter to using design methodologies to frame, engage with, and provide solutions for “operational environments” like Iraq. As the Design Observer noted, this co-option of design thinking was foreshadowed by a series of articles that also suggested design thinking could enhance military strategy. (The series appeared between 2008 and 2010 in the academic journal Military Review.) As FM 5-0 notes, “Design enables commanders to view a situation from multiple perspectives…[and] requires agile, versatile leaders who foster continuous organizational learning while actively engaging in collaboration and dialog to enhance decision making.” FM 5-0 was updated and replaced by Army Doctrine Reference Publication 5-0 in May 2012, but the references to design methodology were retained.
The U.S. Army applies violence with the goal of obtaining a better peace. Doing this well is difficult. Until recently, Army thinking has been convergent, with the general assumption that we recognized the problem when we saw it and, reactively, that we had the means to solve it. In March 2010, the Army introduced design thinking into doctrine with the release of Field Manual (FM) 5-0, “The Operations Process,” which serves as a guide for planning and implementing military campaigns. As General Martin Dempsey, now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, points out in the foreword to FM 5-0, the introduction of design into the Army planning process “highlights the importance of understanding complex problems more fully before we seek to solve them.” The endorsement of design as a desirable approach to problem-solving in the Army is not merely useful or smart; it is a morally significant step toward obtaining a better peace.
The current operational environment is more complex and uncertain than ever before. Planning for such uncertainties becomes increasingly difficult. Enter design, which might seem like a minor addition to the Army’s suite of planning tools. However, as design-thinking expert Roger Martin has said, it is “quite a leap forward.” And, if it sticks, it will have positive ramifications far beyond military campaign planning as we seek to accomplish our missions under substantial fiscal constrains and with a smaller force. But those ancillary good outcomes are not my focus here.
I want to argue that the FM 5-0 represents, perhaps inadvertently, an important moral step forward in our thinking about how to apply violence well when required. The very idea of applying violence well may seem perverse at best, irreconcilable at worst. But the Army has to apply violence well for at least two reasons.
First, just war theorists have always maintained that non-combatants in a war zone retain the right not to be harmed. When the Army fights at its best, it takes great care to avoid harming those who are immune from attack. Design, when applied to war planning, creates possibilities for better application of violence (or, even better, the avoidance of violence) that might not have emerged under a more convergent approach. In this way, we better fulfill our duties of care.
Second, design, by nature, forces us to look harder and more deliberately at all stakeholders involved in any given problem. It forces us to work harder at better understanding those who will be affected by whatever course of action the commander ultimately chooses. It requires that we first question our understanding of the problem. Rather than applying an old solution to a perceived problem, the effort to see from the perspective of all those who are involved pushes us toward understanding what the real problem is. If the Army is in the business of applying violence in service to America, and we must do so with utmost care, then we have a duty to understand exactly what violence is required. This is much more difficult than the indiscriminate application of violence. The upshot, however, is that we are more likely to solve the right problem, to better fulfill our duties of competence, and to better align the effective and the ethical.
The addition of design to FM 5-0 is more than a cosmetic update. It has already been superseded by Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 5-0, which refined what is now referred to as the Army design methodology. Design thinking is a crucial tool for enabling the U.S. Army to fulfill its duty to serve the American people by applying violence when required. It requires that violence be imposed smartly, proportional to the specific context, and with a view to the human rights of all relevant stakeholders. Accomplishing the mission under these constraints is difficult for sure. But design, if understood and implemented well, gives us a powerful tool to function successfully and ethically.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.