October 21, 2021

Improving Joint Operational Concept Development within the U.S. Department of Defense

Executive Summary

For the first time in nearly four decades, the DoD is developing joint warfighting concepts designed to counter advanced military rivals—specifically China and Russia. The last such effort took place at the height of the Cold War in the late 1970s and early 1980s to address the strategic and operational challenges posed by the Soviet Union’s conventional advantage on Europe’s Central Front. Now, as the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) emphasizes, the joint force must “prioritize preparedness for war” which includes developing “innovative operational concepts” for military advantage. As operational concepts are fundamentally visions of future war that guide future force design and development, the joint force first must answer the question of how it intends to fight future wars before it tries to answer questions of what it needs to fight with.

Yet, if the DoD is going to move to “joint concept driven, threat informed capability development,” it faces a considerable challenge in that its joint concept development and experimentation process is fundamentally broken. While the post–Cold War era has witnessed repeated efforts to develop joint operational concepts, the process fails to yield innovative warfighting approaches to guide future force and capability development. Instead, the process produces concepts that seem almost intentionally designed not to drive significant change. These concepts are not truly “joint,” but rather lowest-common-denominator assemblages of existing service concepts that privilege service priorities. Any innovative joint ideas that make it through the development process are so watered-down and vague that they fail to provoke change (and thus threaten the interests of key stakeholders). In this environment, individual service concepts win out over joint concepts and drive investment priorities.

However, warfighting concepts and critical investments must be joint because the services have become increasingly interdependent at the operational level. Moreover, current wargaming and analysis suggest that this operational interdependence will be a critical aspect of future conflict with a highly-capable peer adversary such as China or Russia—whether as a strength or a weakness remains to be seen. One can expect an advanced, adaptive adversary to seek out any gaps and seams presented by the U.S. military and exploit those to its advantage. In this regard, the current joint force is not “joint” enough for a high-end war against a peer adversary that has developed counters to critical, long-standing U.S. operational advantages such as air, maritime, and information dominance. As this paper discusses, successfully waging war at the scale and intensity that a conflict with a peer rival would entail will demand entirely new ways of warfighting that in turn will require a forcing function that integrates individual service capabilities into an actual “joint” fighting force. Recent efforts to develop threat-focused joint warfighting concepts—if successful—represents the best chance for that result actually to occur.

This paper briefly discusses three past attempts by the DoD to develop joint concepts, including AirLand Battle, Air-Sea Battle, and a more recent effort, the Advanced Capabilities and Deterrence Panel (ACDP). It uses these examples to showcase the challenges of overcoming stovepiped and parochial service-led efforts and to illustrate the drawbacks of building service-centric concepts and covering them with a patina of jointness. These cases highlight how the persistent pathologies of the joint concept development process have rendered post–Cold War joint concepts useless for encouraging operational innovation or driving change in service investment priorities.

Ongoing work to develop new joint warfighting concepts provides the DoD with a long-overdue opportunity to focus its concept development on tangible threats and consequent operational objectives. The current effort is the first time in decades that the DoD is organizing concept development around countering a specific threat instead of supporting idealized notions of how the joint force preferred to operate against vague or undefined groups of adversaries. However, without major changes to what is widely viewed as a consensus process that does not foster a competition of ideas, the DoD risks repeating the same concept development mistakes it has made in the past. Additionally, new joint concepts must be rigorously tested and refined through a campaign of experimentation to validate their viability for future force design. That experimentation piece is currently missing.

The Joint Staff is trying to rebuild its joint concept development capability after years of neither prioritizing nor adequately resourcing that work. Generating truly new ways of warfighting with the potential to transform future force design will require the sustained attention of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS and VCJCS) to push new joint concepts through the system. The DoD’s senior leadership must overcome the tendency of each service to drive toward consensus products that are aimed more at protecting existing priorities and longstanding prerogatives than generating creative ideas.

The paper makes the following recommendations to improve the joint concept development process:

  • Focus joint concept development on priority challenges in a future operational environment.
  • Empower the combatant commands to drive joint concept development.
  • Explore alternative visions of future war and validate joint concepts through extensive wargaming and experimentation—not by consensus.
  • Expand experimentation in field and fleet exercises.
  • Increase the competition of ideas by fostering a departmental culture of “thinking red.”
  • Promote tighter integration between concept developers and technologists.
  • Establish a focused, high-level concept and capability development organization.

Fixing the process is a critical first step to developing useful joint operational concepts, but the DoD also must ensure that joint concept development starts from the proper perspective and focuses on the correct set of issues while also remaining forward looking. To date, the DoD’s thinking on China and Russia has focused on maintaining or regaining the level of operational dominance the joint force possessed during the post–Cold War “unipolar moment.” Then, concepts generated by the Joint Staff, such as “Joint Vision: 2010,” were premised upon assumptions of “information superiority” that would facilitate the stated objective of “full spectrum dominance.” Pursuit of such operational chimeras results in the DoD devoting too many of its scarce resources to solving intractable operational problems created by Chinese and Russian efforts to undermine U.S. military advantages. Rather than chase minuscule marginal returns to its extant way of doing business, DoD concept and capability development instead should focus on creating operational dilemmas for China and Russia.

Only inherently joint concepts can effectively constrain an enemy’s decision space and present them with dilemmas by confronting them with a range of potential threats generated by the entire joint force from every operating domain.

It was evident that the DoD remains tied to its traditional ways of warfighting when General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said an initial effort at developing a new joint warfighting concept based largely on how the U.S. military has operated for the past 30 years proved an utter failure when tested in a series of wargames in late 2020. That result, Hyten said, has spurred efforts to develop alternative warfighting approaches in follow-on iterations.

That an initial effort at developing a new joint warfighting concept relied so heavily on traditional ways of warfighting, even though it intended to counter new adversaries and new operational challenges, betrays a rushed product. A successful, threat-focused operating concept requires a thorough depth of analysis—both about adversary capabilities and concepts, as well as those of the joint force for the time period envisioned and the time needed to synthesize inputs before delving into concept shaping and refining. Trends in previous joint concept development, which prioritized churning out product and working out consensus over the more mundane, but necessary, deep analysis work, do not bode well for how this current effort will turn out.

It has been well over three years since the NDS called for new warfighting concepts. The DoD needs entirely new warfighting approaches. It will be impossible to remain competitive against a peer adversary if the U.S. military continues to operate the way it does today. It would be nothing short of a tragedy if the process gets bogged down in bureaucratic disputes or produces only marginal change in an effort to achieve service consensus.

Finally, proposed conceptual solutions to warfighting challenges, no matter how sound, will only drive programmatic change if they are endorsed and empowered by the most senior civilian and uniformed leaders. While the department’s post–Cold War track record is not altogether reassuring, the political and bureaucratic momentum behind efforts to develop new joint warfighting concepts are considerable, and the strategic and operational challenges China and Russia pose are far more urgent and serious than those from Iran, North Korea, or terrorist groups. If—and it’s a big if—the DoD can get the process right and focus on creating dilemmas for China and Russia, the positive impacts in terms of transforming the joint force could be profound.


Operational concepts are fundamentally about ideas, and ideas matter. As former U.S. Army General David Fastabend aptly put it: “The operational concept is the ‘Aha!’ idea that answers the question ‘What is the current problem of warfare, and how do we solve it?’” They provide a vision of how the force intends to operate in the future and adapt to expected changes in the future operating environment. When done right, concept development and experimentation can spur creative thinking about how to address the military’s most intractable challenges at the theater or campaign level of war. Concepts also describe the capabilities the future force will require to execute that conceptual vision.

While serving as commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), Marine Corps General James Mattis emphasized the centrality of operational concepts. “Concepts can transform organizations,” he wrote, pointing to innovative operational concepts as the driving force behind the Army’s AirLand Battle doctrine and the Marine Corps’ embrace of maneuver warfare and the “dramatic institutional changes” that resulted. Concepts “guide change by motivating experimentation in and exploration of new operating methods,” leading to new ways of warfighting. “Done properly,” he said, “they propose solutions to challenges for which no doctrine exists or they propose alternatives to existing doctrine.” Concepts “provide the basis for experimentation” and are “at the heart of future force and capability development.”

In an unusually candid assessment, Mattis went on to declare the joint concept development process a failure. “New concepts are often initiated by bureaucratic fiat vice conceptual need,” he wrote, “and have proliferated to the point that their sheer number confound meaningful analysis.” In his telling, the joint concept development process “seems to exist primarily to perpetuate itself,” and the output generated has had little if any impact on future force development. The process lacked focus, he said, and, “Many of the concepts have little if anything new to contribute and merely rehash established ideas with new terminology.” Mattis clearly viewed JFCOM’s role in the process as peripheral and advised then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to disband it, which the DoD subsequently did in 2011.

As with most contemporary DoD “joint” integration efforts, joint concept development stems from the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. This seminal piece of legislation aimed to address the DoD’s long-standing lack of interservice cooperation and coordination that had hindered unity of effort in Operation Eagle Claw (the failed rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980) and Operation Urgent Fury (the invasion of Grenada in 1983). It assigned the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff responsibility for developing joint concepts and doctrine with the hope that an illuminating vision would emerge to guide future force and capability development. That hoped-for result never materialized.

To fully address its gaps in thinking about the future of warfare and reverse the erosion of its warfighting advantages, the DoD must develop not just new operational concepts, but new ways of developing operational concepts.

Over three decades of repeated efforts to develop joint operational concepts, none has resulted in any real changes to the way the U.S. military fights or how the joint force is designed. During the post–Cold War period of unrivaled U.S. military advantage and uncontested dominance across operating domains, these failings had little warfighting impact, particularly within the context of competition with lesser regional powers and conflict with irregular foes. That is no longer the case. As the 2018 NDS makes clear, the re-emergence of military competition with China and Russia, combined with decades of deferred or misspent investments in the future, has eroded the joint force’s relative military advantage until now “every domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.”

While individual service efforts to develop new, multidomain concepts have made some headway, “they are hardly joint and provide insufficient decision space to geographical combatant commanders.” The current strategic environment demands deeper integration than can be achieved by stitching together extant service ideas. Only inherently joint concepts can effectively constrain an enemy’s decision space and present them with dilemmas by confronting them with a range of potential threats generated by the entire joint force from every operating domain. While Goldwater-Nichols arguably succeeded in inculcating greater jointness, it could not have predicted 1) the overlap and integration of previously siloed warfighting domains, or 2) the rise of multiple military competitors that could match, or exceed, U.S. military dominance in key domains. As the joint concept development process goes forward, it is important to identify the gaps and seams the joint force must address as it seeks to develop new and innovative concepts.

Developing inherently joint concepts has been made all the more challenging as what capacity the department had for joint concept development largely dissolved with the disbandment of JFCOM. Since 2011, the DoD has not prioritized or adequately resourced joint concept development and experimentation, and ultimate responsibility for concept work has been vague. That changed with the release of the 2018 NDS that called for new joint concepts to provide advantage against peer rivals. Now, the Joint Staff is trying to rebuild that capability within the J-7 Directorate for Joint Force Development while simultaneously developing new joint concepts.

To fully address its gaps in thinking about the future of warfare and reverse the erosion of its warfighting advantages, the DoD must develop not just new operational concepts, but new ways of developing operational concepts. Doing so requires the DoD to overcome its legacy concept development processes and foibles. Failing to foster a competition of ideas across services, functions, and combatant commands will result in more of the same watered-down, consensus answers that provide little added value. That will not be good enough, because the U.S. military must change the way it fights future wars or risk defeat to either of its great-power rivals—an increasingly capable China and a resurgent Russia. Trying to secure military advantage over two forces that are either at or very near parity will require entirely new ways of warfighting—innovative ideas, in the form of concepts, are central to this effort.

This paper makes a case for why the current joint concept development process produces suboptimal results and why a new approach is needed to spur innovative ways of warfighting and spur new capability development in order to generate advantages against rival peer military powers China and Russia. Specifically, it discusses why the U.S. military’s traditional warfighting approach will not suffice against rival military peers with qualitative parity and a marked advantage in the correlation of forces because any potential conflict against either rival would be fought on their doorstep and far from the United States. It examines case studies of joint concept development that highlight failings in the process that hinder truly joint concept work. Finally, it makes a number of process and organizational recommendations on how to improve joint concept development and its influence on force design and capability development.

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  1. Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States: Sharpening the Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2018), 7.
  2. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction, Implementing Joint Force Development and Design, Department of Defense Memorandum, CJCS 3030.01, December 3, 2019, C-1.
  3. “Defense Science Board Summer Study on Transformation: A Progress Assessment,” Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, February 2006, 137, https://dsb.cto.mil/reports/2000s/ADA444738.pdf.
  4. Robert G. Angevine, “Time to Revive Joint Concept Development and Experimentation,” War on the Rocks, January 23, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/01/time-to-revive-joint-concept-development-and-experimentation/.
  5. Eric V. Larson, “Force Planning Scenarios, 1945–2016: Their Origins and Use in Defense Strategic Planning,” RR-2173/1-A, RAND Corporation, 2019, 181, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2173z1.html.
  6. Tara Copp, “It Failed Miserably: After Wargaming Loss, Joint Chiefs Are Overhauling How The US Military Will Fight, Defense One, July 26, 2011. https://www.defenseone.com/policy/2021/07/it-failed-miserably-after-wargaming-loss-joint-chiefs-are-overhauling-how-us-military-will-fight/184050/.
  7. David A. Fastabend, “That Elusive Operational Concept,” Army, June 2001, 40.
  8. James N. Mattis, “Vision for Joint Concept Development,” attachment to Memorandum for U.S. Joint Forces Command, Subject: Joint Concept Development Vision, Norfolk, VA , 2009, 2–3.
  9. Mattis, “Vision for Joint Concept Development.”
  10. James N. Mattis and Bing West, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (New York: Random House, 2019), 186. It should be noted, however, that while the DoD disestablished JFCOM, many of the offices and personnel remained intact and transferred to the Joint Staff J7 directorate.
  11. James R. Locher III, Victory on the Potomac: The Goldwater-Nichols Act Unifies the Pentagon (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2002), 445.
  12. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (2018), https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.
  13. Tom Greenwood and Pat Savage, “In Search of a 21st-Century Joint Warfighting Concept,” War on the Rocks, September 12, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/09/in-search-of-a-21st-century-joint-warfighting-concept/.


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