Paper #52. Beyond Doctrinal Plug-Ins: Integrate IO to Win Complex Wars

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Security, Strategy
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Winning complex wars requires setting more than military end states.
Information-heavy complex problems (ICP’s) in hyper-connected environments can persist for generations (Ehlers and Blannin, Campaigning for Complex Problems). These problem sets require enduring social efforts and information-led operations such as narrative warfare. As in Ukraine and Taiwan, the perpetual fight is to get an adversary to accept one’s narrative. An effective military understands such broad problems and provides civilian leadership recommendations for potential solutions. Without that, we lose broad wars even if we win narrower battles.


To illustrate how commanders, analysts, strategists and planners can adapt doctrinal practices to these problem sets, consider one US Army rubric in Information Operations: Effect, Target, Action, and Purpose (ETAP). Per FM 3-13, The Conduct of Information Operations, the ETAP tool helps develop and assess “objective statements.” Statements of objectives shape the way commanders evaluate operations in the information environment (IE).
How can we broaden and specify the ETAP rubric for more diverse conditions than military end states? Our Information Environment Advanced Analysis (IEAA) Course provides methods to do this by characterizing, forecasting, targeting, wargaming, and assessing the IE to gain and maintain advantage. IEAA concepts draw from and build upon doctrine to encourage best practices for any situation at the strategic level of significance.
IEAA concepts place military doctrine into complex threat contexts that challenge the class participants to compete “left of lethal” and, if warranted, recommend combinations of lethal and non-lethal effects. Four of these concepts are crucial to developing synergistic strategies. The concepts are (1) combined effect strategy, (2) the IE framework, (3) concepts of influence, and (4) the hierarchy of effort. We’ll start with “effect” in ETAP.


The ETAP rubric is limited to an effect that’s described in military doctrine, such as a military interpretation of “disrupt.” As shown in ICSL Paper #51 (Expand Our Strategy Language to Compete and Wage Information Warfare), combined effect strategy can help specify and broaden our understanding of this effect and others. We do this by defining eight basic effects. The eight basic effects are defined conceptually and practically by the intersection of three spectra: preventative—causative; cooperation—confrontation; and psychological—physical.

Together, the key questions are:

  • What do we intend to prevent and/or cause?
  • Do we cooperate and/or confront?
  • Do we use psychological and/or physical ends, ways, and means?
The eight basic effects describe types of desired influence: coerce, compel, persuade, induce, defend, secure, deter, and dissuade.
These effects are combinable synergies, such as the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) “induced dilemma” strategy on Taiwan consisting of Persuasion, Deterrence, and Inducement. See this “PDI effect” in ICSL Paper #14, a combined effect strategy in the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis.
China’s current military demonstrations in response to Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is the CPC’s latest attempt to induce a persuade-deter dilemma. As the PLA’s capabilities increase and the CPC uses physical force, China’s strategy will have expanded to a coerced dilemma, not just an induced dilemma.
Authoritarians are waging many other combinations of effects, some of which are highlighted in other ICSL papers.
The basic effects in the combined effect framework provide a general approach to the many types of influence taught in specialized communities of interest and school houses. They don’t replace more specific effects, but they do enable us to speak a language of strategic combined effects. In this, Chinese authoritarians have been fluent for millennia.
Authoritarians such as present-day China, Russia, and Iran are able to combine asymmetric, DIMES-wide effects across all domains. Democracies, however, wage a narrower form of “when deterrence fails” warfare (brute force, coercive deterrence, and coercive compellence). Back to FM 3-13.


The FM’s example of a target is a particular commander. The IEAA course mentors participants to analyze targets with components of will and capability that interact. Targets for influence are diverse, such as emerging aggregates and artificial intelligence.
We also use human factor profiles where appropriate. The profiles include historical background, styles of thinking, and opportunities to influence. The IE framework’s components of will and capability are diverse enough to explore a wide array of potential influences such as ideology, institutions, resources, and even learning. Depending on circumstances, a strategy can influence these components.
These factors and components are not exhaustive. Instead, they provide a starting point to think about how to break down targets into elements that interact in complex ways. A deeper understanding of the IE includes what FM 3-13 refers to as logic or theories of change. IEAA subjects these to the social scientific criterion of falsifiability and standards of critical thinking.


FM 3-14 defines an action as the target’s desired behavior, in this case getting the commander to decide when and where to commit reserve forces. This doctrinal definition enhances the IEAA approach in an important way. IEAA features the IE framework and “activities” to influence aspects of will and capability for desired effects. Activities can be any action or even a deliberate non-action to influence the will or capability of any relevant target.

ETAP’s “action” can help specify “concepts of influence” (see ICSL Paper #41, Concepts of Influence: Critical to Strategy and Human Control of Artificial Intelligence) as we think through how to influence will and capability.This consideration is critical to effectiveness in narrative warfare. How so?

Combined effect strategy becomes Combined Effect Strategy and Influence (CESI) with 16 concepts of influence designed to produce the eight basic effects. There are sixteen because each effect can result from influencing will or capability. Recall that the eight basic effects are the desired behaviors expressed in terms of prevent—cause, cooperation—confrontation, and psychological—physical. In narrative warfare, we need to carefully consider the target’s desired beliefs and attitudes, not jump to the target’s desired behavior.  

Without concepts of influence, we often assume, rather than scrutinize, how activities can produce desired actions or effects. Delving into this level of strategy is vital to discerning unintended and nth-order effects that become causes in their own right.


FM 3-14 defines “purpose” as an operational benefit—an advantage that’s relevant to the commander’s mission or intent. The IEAA course also includes informational benefits because operations are processes that rely on, moreover consist of, information. IEAA aligns levels of purpose in a broad hierarchy of effort, from activities to effects to objectives to end state to strategic priorities.
This tiered approach uses the language of joint military doctrine to increase awareness of the hierarchy of effort at all levels, not just a military commander’s level. That level of awareness is vital to building broader understanding of the problem and potential all-domain, all-effects solutions. The idea is to be an integral part of strategic efforts to out-compete adversaries.
Purposes placed into a hierarchy of effort help determine and reflect relative priorities. This context enables a commander’s purpose to be weighed and compared with other purposes in complex warfare. The purposes may be shared as in an alliance based on a common threat. Or, purposes may be more complex, exchanged in a bargain of differentiated interests. We need to determine supported and supporting relationships to organize a holistic effort over the long term.

Integrate to Win Wars

Analyzing, strategizing, and planning to compete and win complex wars demands professionals who integrate military doctrine into diverse contexts and whole-of-government-plus efforts. This attitude and skill set require more than plugging in doctrine to achieve a military end state. Subjecting one’s practices and principles to alternative concepts is key to overall improvement. The strategic challenge is to proactively adapt military doctrine into a broader integrated effort.
Concepts in the IEAA approach are designed to achieve a broad understanding of complex problems by building on joint military doctrine. This paper highlighted: (a) combined effects aligned in a hierarchy of effort and (b) concepts of influence embedded in an IE framework of will and capability.
These concepts are broader than combined arms and concepts of operations, but include those doctrinal concepts. ETAP is an excellent example of how doctrine and broader concepts inform one another. This approach to learning can integrate diverse teams, task forces, inter-agencies, partnerships, and alliances for competitive strategic effects over the long-term.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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