The Challenge of Operational Assessment in Contemporary Conflict

By: Noah Cooper

1990-91: General Norman Schwarzkopf talks with General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a press conference regarding the Gulf War.

The immutable nature of war suggests that despite the form of warfare undertaken by the belligerents, conflict is a duel between opponents vying to subdue the other. The type of war dictates the character of the conflict and is subject to the myriad variables that influence its dynamics. For instance, there are characteristics of counterinsurgency that are distinctive to this form of warfare not typically present in conventional or violent conflicts waged between states or state-like entities (e.g., the demonstration of movement and maneuver techniques by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] employing captured Iraqi military equipment demonstrates that the execution of conventional warfare is no longer the purview of states).

A particularly prominent difference among the aforementioned styles of warfare is the methodologies employed to assess the progression of the military campaign. Logically, the use of quantifiable metrics dominates the assessment practices by entities engaged in conventional war. Commencing from the estimated enemy order-of-battle, or the assessed organization, disposition, and strength of its fighting forces developed through the intelligence process, battlefield commanders simply subtract the number of enemy assets destroyed or rendered inoperable. The practice of assessment in this type of environment, though iterative, ultimately seeks an end state consisting of the attrition of the enemy fighting force to a point that the opposing force renders it combat ineffective. In this scenario, the force focuses operationally on the attainment of military objectives and thus, operates relatively independent of the political goals of the campaign. Operation Desert Storm – the military means designed to respond to Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait – illustrates this assertion. The well-defined purposes of the U.S. strategy to contend with Iraqi aggression facilitated an approach to attack the enemy’s military centers of gravity (i.e. leadership, infrastructure, and military forces) and to thus, focus on the military objectives of the campaign. The decisive victory of U.S. and Coalition Forces and the assessed attrition of Iraqi forces, particularly along the termed “Highway of Death,” contributed to the decision to declare a cease-fire, 100 hours following the initiation of the ground campaign. In this instance, the quantifiable assessment of military action was the principal element guiding the decision-making processes.

In contrast, the assessment of progress in counterinsurgency or “hybrid” warfare, such as the conflict waged against ISIL, is more challenging, as the intertwining of the desired political and military goals complicates the evaluative process. Commanders, in conjunction with their political counterparts, must contrive means to assess simultaneously the attrition of enemy forces, the population’s allegiance, and the overall stability of provinces, districts, cities, etc. This includes the appraisal of various measures of effectiveness that are criteria that an organization employs to assess changes in a system, or in the case of conflict, alterations to the operating environment. Indicators of changes in a counterinsurgency or hybrid setting, similar to those analyzed in conventional warfare, are often quantifiable and thus, defined and measured in a straightforward fashion. For instance, efforts to effect an insurgent organization’s sources of financing might include the targeted destruction of oil and gas facilities to degrade the enemy’s financial networks. In this scenario, a commander’s staff would fuse operational and intelligence information to include the number of facilities, equipment, and personnel successfully targeted; the total number of hours of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets levied to identify these targets; and the enemy’s estimated reaction, ascertained from intelligence analysis, to determine if such an effort is contributing to a stated objective.

Conversely, other indicators of change are not conveniently calculable, such as the enemy’s will to prolong the fight, the strength of the enemy’s narrative, and the level of entrenchment of the adversary’s ideology into the population, among others. These are challenging measures to determine, particularly in the current conflict waged against ISIL, in which the primary contributions of Coalition Forces are enabling assets (i.e., specialized military capabilities to include intelligence collection, precision artillery, and, most notably, aerial strikes), rather than ground forces to interact directly in the operating areas. Acquiring a knowledge of these elements will advance a commander’s knowledge of the effects of the campaign more effectively than transparent metrics.

Why then, do the assessments of progress reflect that of a conventional conflict (e.g., numbers of strikes conducted, enemy equipment destroyed, and territory regained)? Perhaps the obvious answer is the minimal presence of coalition ground troops, which marginalizes the coalition’s ability to develop a first-hand knowledge of the operating environment. However, this condition should not absolve those prosecuting the war from conducting a continuous and detailed analysis of the campaign’s progress that relies primarily on numeric facts. The appeal of employing quantifiable effects is the definitive nature of the data. For example, a quantity of enemy removed from the battlefield subtracted from the originally assessed number of fighters yields an amount that is easy to comprehend and thus, to incorporate in gauging the effectiveness of friendly force activities. Undeniably, the responsibilities of command are such that the availability of quantifiable metrics eases decision-making, as such, data, derived from mathematical calculations, acts to reduce ambiguity. However, the logic of such conclusions is not always concrete and metrics are often misleading. Were the fighters easily replaced foot soldiers or were they specialists (e.g., bomb-maker, sniper, financier, etc.), which are not replaced easily? Accurate assessments require the synthesis of such metrics with qualitative examinations of the enemy and friendly actions. Without such rigor, a commander and a war fighting staff will be unable to measure the mission accurately and that will undoubtedly affect the campaign’s outcome.


Noah Cooper is an MA candidate in the War in the Modern World Program at King’s College London. He received an MA from John’s Hopkins University and is an active duty U.S. Army officer. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Image source: http://www.achievement.org/achiever/general-h-norman-schwarzkopf/

1 thought on “The Challenge of Operational Assessment in Contemporary Conflict”

  1. Noah, thanks for this. Contact me. I do assessments for the Navy. We need to talk about the difference between measures of performance and measures of effectiveness and the role the commander plays in defining success.

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