June 4, 2014 | 10 Comments

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 FM 5-0 was updated and replaced by Army Doctrine Reference Publication 5-0 in May 2012, but the references to design methodology were retained.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.

Is the use of design thinking by the U.S. military morally significant?

  1. June 7, 2014, 12:15 am

    […] to the Museum of Modern Art for pointing out a new emphasis on design  in U.S. Army Field Manual 5-0, MoMA supplies a link to […]

  2. June 20, 2014, 9:47 pm



    ´e indispensavel

  3. June 20, 2014, 9:50 pm



    sao positivos

  4. December 25, 2014, 8:43 pm

    Andrea Morales

    Fighting fire with fire

    It seems almost absurd to me to have to say this, but the thought alone of American military forces claiming that war is a step towards peace, especially in the context of “design thinking”, is laughable.

    The first part of this that worries me has to do with the idea of “peace” in the context of military invasions to other countries. The idea of upholding peace has actually been an excuse for unwanted (or difficult to prove that they are wanted) intrusions in countries that might not even define “peace” in the same way that the USA defines it. So, even before we can talk about “violence for peace”, I believe the concept of “peace” itself presents a challenge to the messianic complex of most of the United States’ interventions in other countries throughout history.

    If the US military can be defined as a force “for obtaining better peace”, then, the nature of its acts would rely not on violence itself, but on the pre-definition and building of consensus surrounding a systematic state of well-being. This is where I think the use of “design thinking” is misguided.

    Design thinking should, in theory, not only guide possible interventions, but also frame issues. In that sense, even before violence is chosen as the instrument to create change, the application of military force should be called into question by all people claiming to be exercising design thinking. It seems, from the article, that this is not the case in the Army Field Manual, as design thinking becomes an after thought to be applied DURING field tactics and specifically in the context of enacted violence.

    In a nutshell, though I support the inclusion of design thinking as a possible step towards creating a conscience amongst the military of the systematic problems that are created and reproduced by applying violence to violent issues, it seems as though the design methodologies being applied by them right now are limited to tactical scenarios. Is it really design thinking if the possible solutions to the design challenges are already framed inside violence? My guess would be no.

    And, for that matter, is design thinking more suitable for certain areas of knowledge than for others? Are we, designers, proposing “design thinking” as the be-all-and-end all of “thinking” in general? The fact that it can be easily taken by the military and shaped to their own specific needs without questioning makes design sound more like hype than as a systematic way of seamlessly approaching the world’s problems. Perhaps it behooves us as designers to determine what our methodologies are suitable for, what they’re not for, and how they must be applied ethically. Even if that “limits” us. Creation arises from constrain, in my opinion.

  5. December 30, 2014, 9:30 pm

    Luke Baker

    Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

    This is such an interesting document, on a variety of levels. So much photojournalistic documentation or cinematic exploration of war (specifically of combat) makes the act seem completely chaotic, with actions driven by fear or instinct, and often subject to environmental or topographical variables, chance, and the unknown actions of the enemy. In truth, it would seem, military operations have been highly choreographed and strategized since long before the days of Machiavelli, even. In prescriptive military fashion, this field guide codifies the very processes by which we identify problems, plan solutions, and effect actions for the most preferable outcome. It comes as a surprise that best practices drawn from design methodology have not been explicitly employed by military campaigns prior to this moment, even as they were being identified by design theorists and practitioners. After all, the designer’s tenets of efficiency, suitability, and solution-oriented creative thinking seem tantamount when it comes to protecting and preserving Earth’s most valuable resource, that is, human life itself.

    As a grave act, it is my feeling that human violence should be meted out sparingly, and only when truly required to uphold the greater good for all. If design thinking aids universal military operations in running better campaigns with the aim of mitigating violence and destruction in the long term (particularly as if affects civilians and our environment), than I think design’s positive contribution to the art of war cannot be overlooked.

  6. March 4, 2015, 9:48 pm

    […] Credits: Design and Violence […]

  7. August 13, 2015, 12:30 pm


    Yes, but

    As the old, evil SOB said, “you may not be interested in war, but sometimes war is interested in you.”
    Leon Trotsky — Russian Marxist, intellectual, and revolutionary. In the early Soviet Union, he founded the Politburo, served as People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, and created and led the Red Army.

    Andrea, “you are living in a dream world.” Morpheus to Neo Anderson

  8. October 9, 2015, 10:28 pm

    Kathy Barker

    No decision about who should live or die- war, slow violence, poverty, racism- is going to be moral. But rationalizing war?
    Luke and Andrea, I am horrified by your conclusion that design can make a positive contribution to war. What will make a stronger contribution is that all designers, if asked for help in murder, refuse to help.

    Scientists go through similar rationalizations to excuse their complicity with the military.

    War will never bring peace.

  9. August 4, 2016, 8:53 pm


    Well, it is significant. Inclusion of design thinking in war no means, for pundits, requiring military people to think. Period. To require personal agency (involvement, ownership, responsibility, etc.) to kill people and destroy things. (No more “just following instructions,” one must actively make the individual decision– they own it.) Either it’s right or they can’t. Can folk commit to it or not?

  10. September 28, 2016, 2:15 am


    Design Discourses

    Design thinking isn’t about rationalizing war. Design thinking is about strategy that leads to more educated decision making that results in more peaceful action. It is a positive contribution to war. Without design thinking, decisions are reductionist and outdated. Reactive warfare leads to mistakes and consequences, but design thinking prepares, understands, and hopefully avoids those consequences. By considering the context of the situation in its entirety war is educated, not emotional. Outright peace, unfortunately, that is an ideal. There will always be a struggle for power, unrest, and diversity until we learn to put empathy before our opinion.