Armed Conflict

Military Reference: Multi-Service & Specialty

Military Reference: Service-level

Joint, Strategic, Interagency, & National Security

Threat, OPFOR, Regional & Cultural

Homeland Defense, DSCA, & Disaster Response


Books in Development


Joint doctrine describes the strategic environment in terms of a competition continuum. Rather than a world either at peace or at war, the competition continuum describes three broad categories of strategic relationships—cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict. Although combatant commands and theater armies campaign across the competition continuum, Army tactical formations typically conduct operations within a context dominated by one strategic relationship at a time. Therefore, Army doctrine describes the strategic situation through three strategic contexts in which Army forces conduct operations:

Army Strategic Contexts

The Army strategic contexts generally correspond to the joint competition continuum and the requirements of joint campaigns. Because cooperation is generally conducted with an ally or partner to counter an adversary or enemy, Army doctrine considers it part of competition. Army doctrine adds crisis to account for the unique challenges facing ground forces that often characterize transition between competition and armed conflict.

Armed Conflict

Armed conflict occurs when a state or non-state actor uses lethal force as the primary means to satisfy its interests. Armed conflict can range from irregular warfare to conventional warfare and combinations of both. Entering into and terminating armed conflict is a political decision. Army forces may enter conflict with some advanced warning during a prolonged crisis or with little warning during competition. How well Army forces are prepared to enter into an armed conflict ultimately depends upon decisions and preparations made during competition and crisis. At the onset of armed conflict, forward-positioned Army forces may defend key terrain or infrastructure while seeking opportunities to gain the initiative or reposition to more favorable locations with partner forces. Army forces help JFCs gain and maintain the initiative, defeat enemy forces on the ground, control territory and populations, and consolidate gains to establish conditions for a political settlement favorable to U.S. interests. Army forces provide landpower to the joint force and conduct limited contingency or large-scale combat operations to ensure enduring political outcomes favorable to U.S. interests. (See pp. 1-87 to 1-126.)

Armed conflict encompasses the conditions of a strategic relationship in which opponents use lethal force as the primary means for achieving objectives and imposing their will on the other. The employment of lethal force is the defining characteristic of armed conflict, and it is the primary function of the Army. Lethality’s immediate effect is in the physical dimension—reducing the enemy’s capability and capacity to fight. However, the utility of lethal force extends into the information and human dimensions where it, along with the other instruments of national power, influence enemy behavior, decision making, and will to fight.
During armed conflict, operations usually reflect combinations of conventional and irregular warfare approaches. Leaders apply doctrine for large-scale combat operations during limited contingencies that require conventional warfare approaches. Irregular warfare includes counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare, which other publications specifically address. The initial actions of large-scale combat operations will likely overlap with actions initiated during competition and crisis. For example, while some units are engaged in offensive or defensive operations, other units may be completing non-combat evacuations while in contact with enemy forces.

Large-Scale Combat Operations

Large-scale combat operations are extensive joint combat operations in terms of scope and size of forces committed, conducted as campaigns aimed at achieving operational and strategic objectives through the application of force. Large-scale combat on land occurs within the framework of a larger joint campaign, usually with an Army headquarters forming the base of a joint force headquarters. These operations typically entail high tempo, high resource consumption, and high casualty rates. Large-scale combat introduces levels of complexity, lethality, ambiguity, and speed to military activities not common in other operations.
Large-scale combat operations occur in circumstances usually associated with state-on-state conflict, and they encompass divisions and corps employing joint and Army capabilities from multiple domains in a combined arms manner. Irregular warfare activities often complement large-scale combat operations, with conventional, irregular, and special operations forces conducting operations close to each other. This proximity requires cooperation between friendly forces of all types to ensure success. In other cases, irregular warfare occurs largely in a secondary joint operations area (JOA) or another theater of operations. When this occurs, the combatant commander (CCDR) ensures sufficient coordination of operations to support unity of purpose at the national level.

Successful large-scale combat operations defeat enemy armed forces while establishing control over land and populations to achieve operational and strategic objectives. They may capitalize on superior military capability to quickly overwhelm a weaker enemy and consolidate gains as part of a rapid campaign. Large scale combat operations against more capable enemy forces are likely to be of longer duration, lasting months or longer.
Army forces may execute large-scale combat operations in a supporting, enabling, or advisory role, instead of constituting the bulk of ground maneuver forces. One example was OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE, beginning in 2014, during which a U.S.-led combined joint task force supported Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces in defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In these cases, U.S. forces applied large-scale combat operations tactics in support of a partner force.

The characteristics of large-scale combat operations vary based on many factors, including the enemy. When fighting against a less capable enemy, the U.S. joint force may have significant advantages in most domains. The principal concerns during such operations include how to win rapidly at minimal cost, consolidate gains, and transition responsibility for an area to legitimate authorities. When fighting against a peer enemy, able to contest the joint force in all domains, the operational environment becomes much more difficult. Integrated air defense and long-range fires systems; cyberspace and electronic warfare capabilities; chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear capabilities (CBRN); and global reconnaissance and surveillance networks can create parity or significant enemy advantages in one or more domains, particularly early during a conflict and when operating close to its own borders. To succeed, the U.S. joint force must create its own relative advantages, preserve combat power, and rapidly exploit what opportunities it creates. Commanders must assume risk to create opportunity and sequence their operations because they cannot defeat enemy forces in a single decisive battle.

AODS7: The Army Operations & Doctrine SMARTbook, 7th Ed. (Multidomain Operations)This article is an extract from "AODS7: The Army Operations & Doctrine SMARTbook, 7th Ed. (Multidomain Operations)" by The Lightning Press. Download a free PDF sample and learn more at:  AODS7: The Army Operations & Doctrine SMARTbook, 7th Ed. (Multidomain Operations).

Browse additional military doctrine articles in our SMARTnews Blog & Resource Center.

About The Lightning Press SMARTbooks. Recognized as a “whole of government” doctrinal reference standard by military, national security and government professionals around the world, SMARTbooks comprise a comprehensive professional library. SMARTbooks can be used as quick reference guides during operations, as study guides at education and professional development courses, and as lesson plans and checklists in support of training. Browse our collection of Military Reference SMARTbooks to learn more.

Subscribe to the SMARTnews mailing list!

* indicates required