Maneuver Self Study Program

Adversaries, Threats, and Enemies in the Operational Environment

"Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril."

(Sun Tzu, The Art of War)

Understanding Threats in the Operational Environment

Despite our best efforts and technological advances Army forces will never have perfect information concerning potential adversaries or threats. As a result, maneuver leaders must develop the ability to understand enemy organizations in the context of the complex operational environment (OE) and adapt their operations continuously to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. Leaders must think ahead and attempt to anticipate enemy actions and reactions. To develop and maintain situational understanding maneuver leaders must consider the capabilities of threat forces and how they affect the mission. The range of threats maneuver leaders may encounter can be categorized as regular threats, irregular threats, and/or hybrid threats.

Regular threats are part of a nation-state employing recognized military capabilities and forces in understood forms of military competition and conflict. Irregular threats employ unconventional, asymmetric methods to counter U.S. advantages. A weaker enemy often uses unconventional methods to exhaust the U.S. collective will through protracted conflict. Unconventional methods may include terrorism, insurgency, and guerrilla warfare.

Hybrid threats are the diverse and dynamic combination of regular and irregular threats, terrorist forces, or criminal elements unified (or allied) to achieve mutually benefitting effects. They may include nation-state actors that employ protracted forms of warfare, possibly using proxy forces to coerce and intimidate, or non-state actors employing capabilities traditionally associated with states. Additionally, in stability operations and counterinsurgency environments criminal networks and opportunists can often become stakeholders in state weakness, as it is the weakness of the host-nation’s institutions that provides the freedom of movement and the ability to divert state resources unchecked by law enforcement and the rule of law. Criminal networks will often ally other state and non-state organizations and engage in and facilitate a range of illicit activities.

The purpose of the MSSP topic “Adversaries, Threats, and Enemies in the Operational Environment” is to help maneuver leaders understand how to think about threats, enemies, and adversaries in the OE.

A leader’s ability to understand, visualize, describe, direct, lead, and assess operations is essential to winning in war. The maneuver leader must not become overwhelmed by the complexity of the OE but instead think clearly to reduce uncertainty while recognizing the need to develop the situation further in close contact with the enemy and civilian populations. Maneuver leaders integrate intelligence and operations to identify and act on opportunities.

Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) is a critical tool in military planning which informs leader decisions. It is the systematic, continuous process of analyzing the threat and effects of the OE on the unit. When combined with effective reconnaissance and security efforts, it helps the commander apply combat power at critical points in time and space (FM 2-01.3 IPB; Paragraph 1-1).

The Four Steps of IPB:

    1. Define the Operational Environment (FM 2-01.3 Chapter 2)
  • - PMESII-PT: Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure, Physical Environment and Time (Operational Variables).
  • - METT-TC: Mission, Enemy, Troops, Terrain, Time and Civil Considerations (Mission Variables).
  • - Area of Operations: Describe significant characteristics.
  • - Area of Interest. Identified by each Commander with focus on: Threat CAS, Artillery, Rotary Wing and Reserves (CARR).
    2. Describe Environmental Effects of Operations (FM 2-01.3 Chapter 3)
  • - Terrain Analysis: Obstacles, Avenues of Approach, Key Terrain, Observation and Fields of Fire, Cover and Concealment (OAKOC).
  • - OAKOC is depicted on the Modified Combined Obstacle Overlay (MCOO).
  • - Weather Analysis: Visibility, Winds, Precipitation, Cloud Cover, Temperature and Humidity.
  • - Civil Considerations: Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People and Events (ASCOPE).
  • - Analysis must focus on identifying significant risk to mission as opposed to producing an area study.
  • - Analysis must focus on OE impacts to both Friendly and Threat forces. Then, determine any advantage conferred by OE onto either force.
    3. Evaluate the Threat: Disposition/Composition (FM 2-01.3 Chapter 4)
  • - Always depict threat task organization two levels down from the friendly unit.
  • - Perform a War Fighting Function analysis: Focus on significant risks to Friendly mission.
  • - Generate a High Value Target List (Paragraph 4-43).
  • - Identify any preferred Threat strategy and tactics for specific missions (Paragraph 4-31).
    4. Determine Threat Course of Action (COA)
  • - Identify Threat objectives and end state.
  • - Describe all COAs (Time Available) using a Situation Template, COA Statement and HVTL.
  • - Organize Threat COA using doctrinal Disruption, Battle and Support Zones.
  • - Sync Threat COA using operational phases (Recon, Decisive Operation, Reconsolidation and Follow on mission), triggers for phases and Time Phase Lines to predict flow of operations.

Once a framework is established, the maneuver leader can add detail to the framework based on the time available. The maneuver leader must also foresee countermoves by the threat and take action to defeat them. IPB is an ongoing, iterative process, one which saves time by providing focus for framing complex problems of the OE and of threats.

The maneuver leader must master the IPB process as it is an essential skill within the Profession of Arms and not exclusive to Military Intelligence. As a result of this mastery, the maneuver leader can direct subordinates regarding how to properly visualize the OE, identify threats, and take decisive action to achieve sustainable political outcomes consistent with national objectives.

For Army forces, the dynamic relationships among friendly forces, enemy forces, and the variables of an operational environment make land operations dynamic and complicated. Regardless of the location or threat, Army forces must synchronize actions to achieve unity of effort that ensures mission accomplishment. They do this as a vital partner in unified action.

Maneuver leaders can prepare themselves by studying the OE’s three dimensions: physical; psychological/informational; and political. While an OE is complex, visualizing it along each of these three dimensions enables a maneuver leader to break down complexity into individual components.

The physical dimension includes complex terrain in which threats will operate to evade the effects of U.S. weapons systems and of advanced combined arms, air-ground capabilities. They will operate in and among the population to evade detection, preserve their combat power, and retain their freedom of movement. They will attempt to evade detection through the use of deception, cover and concealment, smoke and obscuration, and move in small dispersed units, formations, groups, or cells to avoid detection.

The psychological/informational dimension includes threats’ recognition that public perception is important, and affects the conduct of their operations. Threats will attempt to influence the will of the American people, key allies, and the populations among whom conflicts are fought, through propaganda, disinformation, and attacks on U.S. and allies’ assets at home or abroad. They will conduct propaganda and disinformation operations to shape local and international public opinion and perception against U.S., host-nation, or coalition forces by undermining ongoing stability efforts, marginalizing successes, exploiting instances of friendly force mistakes, and fabricating or exaggerating friendly force cultural shortcomings

The political dimension involves the competition for power, resources, and survival, which both drives conflicts and is key to their resolution. In the case of irregular or hybrid conflict, understanding the political dynamics at the local level allows maneuver leaders to identify the enemy’s strategy, capabilities, and potential weaknesses within the political dimension.

Adversaries, Threats, and Enemies in the Operational Environment

Although we can identify some common characteristics of future OEs and the threats that may operate within them, each OE is different. These differences can be identified using the eight OE variables: political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, and time (PMESII-PT). While understanding cannot be defined by a checklist, the operational variables are a good in thinking about the OE.

The following is a brief description of each PMESII-PT variable. Also included are examples of questions a commander might ask about each variable.

  • • Political: Describes the distribution of responsibility and power at all levels of governance—formally constituted authorities, as well as informal or covert political powers. (Who are the tribal leaders in the village? Which political leaders have popular support? Is there a shadow government? Which political leaders’ interests align with ours?)
  • • Military: Explores the military and/or paramilitary capabilities of all relevant actors (enemy, friendly, and neutral) in a given OE. This includes all armed factions within the OE, to include hybrid threats (What is the force structure of the threat/enemy? What are the structure, equipment, and realistic strengths and weakness of host nation and allied forces? Which armed groups are supportive of, against, or neutral to our mission?)
  • • Economic: Encompasses individual and group behaviors related to producing, distributing, and consuming resources. (What is the unemployment rate? How do enemy organizations interact with the licit and illicit enemy? What basic needs are not being met? What type humanitarian assistance could be most helpful? Is there black-marketing or trafficking of any kind?)
  • • Social: Describes the cultural, religious, organizational, and ethnic makeup within an OE and the beliefs, values, customs, and behaviors of society members. (What is the ethnic composition of the OE? Are there unique cultural characteristics/considerations that will affect MILOPS? Is there social conflict among different groups? How do enemy organizations interact with these conflicts?)
  • • Information: Explains the nature, scope, characteristics, and effects of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information. (How much access does the local population have to outside news media or the Internet? Who controls the media coming into the OE? What is the enemy’s relationship to the media and how does the enemy use information operations?)
  • • Infrastructure: Details the composition of the basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society in the OE. (What are the key modes of transportation and principal communications nodes? Does the government control critical infrastructure?)
  • • Physical Environment: Depicts the geography and man-made structures as well as the climate and weather in the OE.
  • • Time: Describes the timing and duration of activities, events, or conditions within an OE, as well as how the timing and duration are perceived by various actors in the OE. (What is the cultural perception of time in this OE and how may this affect MILOPS?)

Use of Mission Variables to Refine Situational Awareness

Upon receipt of a warning order or mission, Army leaders filter relevant information categorized by the operational variables into the categories of the mission variables used during mission analysis. They use the mission variables to refine their understanding of the situation. The mission variables consist of mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops and support available, time available, and civil considerations (METT-TC). Incorporating the analysis of the operational variables with METT-TC ensures Army leaders consider the best available relevant information about conditions that pertain to the mission. (Covered in detail under step one of the IPB process.)

Countering Enemy Adaptations and Retaining the Initiative

Countering enemy adaptations and retaining the initiative in future armed conflict will require forces that can conduct effective reconnaissance operations, overcome increasingly sophisticated enemy anti-access/area denial technologies, integrate the complementary effects of combined arms, air-ground, and joint capabilities, and perform long-duration wide area security operations in a diverse range of complex OEs.

In summary, the OE is complex, characterized by a multitude of prospective actors—including regular, irregular, and hybrid threats—with diverse interests and motivations, who are carrying out many simultaneous operations along the physical, psychological/informational, and political dimensions. Adversaries, regular forces, irregular forces, criminals, refugees, NGOs and others intermingle in this environment and interact in many ways. Each of these actors has an agenda and may be a cause of instability in the OE. Social media enables even small groups to mobilize people and resources in ways that can quickly constrain or disrupt operations. The degree of success is determined by the individual actor’s ability to master their understanding of the OE and successfully leverage their resources effectively and expeditiously. Threats are adaptive in terms of using all available sources of power at their disposal. The U.S. Army must be operationally adaptive to defeat these challenges and threats operating within their environment.


  1. What are some threat tactics, techniques, and procedures that have not changed with the evolution of technology?
  2. How do threat actors use technology? How will they use technology in the future?
  3. What are the key questions to ask about the threat?
  4. How do enemy organizations attempt to avoid what they perceive as our strengths and attack what they perceive as weakness?
  5. What enemy TTPs and environmental conditions can we incorporate into our training to improve our understanding of the threat?
  6. What training can I implement into my unit to develop a better understanding of the threat?
  7. What are some enemy TTPs we can incorporate into our training to improve our combined arms proficiency?
  8. What role will UAS’s, WMD, cyber, and cyber and electronic warfare play in future conflict and how will they impact military operations?
  9. What can you do to prepare for threats in future operations?
  10. How do threats differ and what should we do differently to prepare to defeat them?
  11. How do threat organizations interact with the OE and what are implications for our operations?

Potential Adversaries Threats and Enemies Discussion Linkedin Page