Operations, Operational Level, Operational Control: Confusion within an Army Service Component Command

By MAJ Jerry Drew


As an Army Service Component Command (ASCC), U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command (USASMDC/ARSTRAT) exists as an operational-level organization.[1] As such, it serves as the connective tissue between strategic-level organizations–both the Department of the Army and U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM)—and tactical-level units.[2] Despite the word “operational” in the command’s designation, however, there are many within in the command who insist that, as an ASCC, the organization does not “do operations.” This viewpoint is problematic because it misinterprets both doctrinal definitions and regulatory authorities in a way that devalues the operational missions of the command and inhibits an operational culture. A clear understanding of the nature and potential of ASCCs is essential both to progress the organization and to most effectively advise the Combatant Commander on options for its employment—some of which may involve an expanded operational mission set for the ASCC.

Those who argue that USASMDC/ARSTRAT does not conduct operations typically adhere to one of three arguments:

  1. The “Organize, Train & Equip” Argument: USASMDC/ARSTRAT does not conduct operations because the purpose of ASCCs, especially in functional combatant commands, is to provide administrative control (ADCON).
  2. The Army Corps Argument: USASMDC/ARSTRAT does not conduct operations because it does not sequence tactical actions.[3] The corollary to this statement is that operations require large formations constituting an operational-level force like a Corps.[4]
  3. The Operational Control Argument: USASMDC/ARSTRAT does not conduct operations because operations require operational control.

These arguments have roots in doctrine and regulation, and as a result, they may at first seem legitimate. However, upon examination of the roles and responsibilities of an ASCC, the doctrinal definitions of operations, and the types of command relationships, it becomes clear that not only does USASMDC/ARSTRAT “do operations,” but its forces conduct operational missions at multiple echelons and are essential to the Army’s role as a “globally engaged, regionally responsive force.”[5] To best employ an ASCC for both the benefit of the Army’s Multi-Domain Force objectives and for the success of the Joint Force Commander, clarity on the roles of an ASCC, operations, and command relationships are more important than ever.

Argument 1: The “Organize, Train, & Equip” Argument

The fallacy of the “Organize, Train, & Equip” argument stems from a misunderstanding of the roles and responsibilities of an ASCC. The purpose of an ASCC is two-fold. First, the ASCC commander executes ADCON of Army forces on behalf of the Secretary of the Army.[6] ADCON is not a command relationship but a service responsibility that includes administrative and support functions such as “organization of Service forces, control of resources and equipment, personnel management, unit logistics, individual and unit training, readiness, mobilization, demobilization, discipline, and other matters not included in the operational missions.”[7] The administrative functions of the ASCC are significant, but they are only part of the organization’s purpose. The second purpose of the ASCC is to aid the Combatant Command in the execution of its operational missions.[8] An ASCC may employ forces assigned to its own combatant command or allocated from another combatant command for operational missions. Furthermore, it may plan for the employment of apportioned forces, those forces earmarked for possible contingencies.[9]

Two factors combine to give the impression that USASMDC/ARSTRAT is solely an ADCON force. First, all subordinate elements within USASMDC/ARSTRAT are involved in the administrative functions of the command. The Tech Center, for example, conducts research and development, and the Future Warfare Center oversees space and missile defense training and education. Both of these efforts fulfill Army service responsibilities. The two subordinate brigades (the 1st Space Brigade and the 100th Missile Defense Brigade) also perform significant ADCON functions in their operational support roles.[10] The second contributing factor to the ADCON misunderstanding is that USASMDC/ARSTRAT forces are assigned to USSTRATCOM but often task organized to other commanders—the Joint Force Space Component Commander, for example. Through arrangements like these, USASMDC/ARSTRAT is a force provider to multiple combatant commands and their subordinate units. These ADCON responsibilities, however important, are only a portion of an ASCC’s mandate, and it is improper—and potentially risky—to overlook or undervalue the ASCC’s operational responsibilities.

Argument 2: The Army Corps Argument

Part of the confusion over the question of operations stems from the two different doctrinal definitions of operations in Joint Doctrine. While this essay addresses both definitions, it is important to note that, by either definition, USASMDC/ARSTRAT conducts operations. Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, defines operations as “a sequence of tactical actions with a common purpose or unifying theme,” and Field Manual 3-0, Operations, follows this definition and expounds upon it. This definition conforms to the traditional notion of large-scale combat operations but also, perhaps less obviously, it applies to operations to shape, operations to prevent, and operations to consolidate gains.

While USASMDC/ARSTRAT forces employ different means than an Army Corps, they sequence tactical actions nonetheless. Different elements of the command employ assets to conduct satellite communications (SATCOM), execute strategic deployments to operational theaters, or reposition units to ensure continuous mission accomplishment. All of these events require planning, preparing, executing, and assessing—the activities of the operations process.[11] These events are not traditional tactical actions like battles or engagements, but they do constitute tactics, “the employment and ordered arrangement of forces in relation to each other.”[12] Under normal operating conditions, most USASMDC/ARSTRAT activities fall under the umbrella of “operations to shape” because they contribute to deterrence, assurance, and regional stability.[13]

The sequencing of these tactical actions generally remains within mission-specific lanes. SATCOM missions, for example, may be sequenced with other SATCOM missions but not necessarily with missile warning missions. This disconnect does not negate the reality of the command’s operational missions, but it does speak to how the command’s disparate elements conduct operational missions at different echelons. For example, at the USASMDC/ARSTRAT echelon, USASMDC/ARSTRAT conducts two operational missions, SATCOM and force tracking. The SATCOM mission involves down-trace echelons, but the force tracking mission does not. At the lowest echelon, Joint Tactical Ground Stations (JTAGS) conduct an operational mission continuously. The echelons above the detachment are conducting operations to support the JTAGS detachment, but they are not the ones actually doing the operational mission.

The second definition of operations originates from Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, and appears in Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 1-02, Terms and Military Symbols.[14] This definition is considerably broader than the first definition and is particularly useful because it speaks directly to the service functions: “a military action or the carrying out of a strategic, operational, tactical, service, training, or administrative military mission.” By this definition, the conduct of ADCON responsibilities is, in fact, an operation. In other words, staffs conduct operations, training is an operation, research and development are operations, and maintenance and sustainment are operations. Even though this definition differs from the definition put forth in FM 3-0, the above interpretation is consistent with the discussion contained in FM 3-0, particularly when considering operations to shape and prevent. As an ASCC, then, USASMDC/ARSTRAT conducts operations to accomplish its service responsibilities on behalf of the Secretary of the Army just as it conducts operations in support of the USSTRATCOM Commander’s operational missions.

By either definition of operation, the size of the unit performing the functions is irrelevant. Operations exist at the strategic level of warfare as surely as they exist at the operational and tactical levels of warfare. In other words, operations are not just for operational-level organizations, nor are they dependent on the size or the type of the force engaged. The First Infantry Division’s “Breaching of the Berm” in Operation Desert Storm—a named operation—is, by definition, every bit as much an operation as the delivery of mail by a postal company. As an operational-level command, USASMDC/ARSTRAT conducts operations just as its subordinate tactical-level commands, the 1st Space Brigade and the 100th MDB, conduct operations by supporting operational missions around the world.

Argument 3: The Operational Control Argument[15]

This argument is particularly troubling because it combines a misunderstanding of the command relationships within USASMDC/ARSTRAT and a misinterpretation of doctrine. To be clear, the Combatant Commander designates command relationships, including OPCON, within the combatant command. Combatant Commanders normally delegate OPCON of Army forces to the ASCC, but this is not always the case.[16] As previously mentioned, USASMDC/ARSTRAT not only conducts operational missions in support of USSTRATCOM, but it also provides forces to USSTRATCOM and other commands in support of their operational missions. As such, USASMDC/ARSTRAT retains operational control over most, but not all, of its forces. OPCON, however, is not necessary for the conduct of operations or to control the conduct of an operational mission.

Army command relationships include organic, assigned, attached, OPCON, and tactical control (TACON).[17] Thus, OPCON is only one type of command relationship used to control operations or operational missions. A commander with OPCON authority over a unit has broader authorities than a commander who only exercises TACON, but a commander may conduct operations or operational missions with any combination of command relationships. He may have OPCON of organic and assigned forces and only have TACON of attached forces for a given operation. To continue the maneuver force analogy, a brigade commander within a corps may execute OPCON over three maneuver battalions and TACON over an attached engineer company. Since brigades are tactical-level units, the example contradicts the misconception that only operational-level headquarters exercise OPCON.

Within the context of USASMDC/ARSTRAT, the examples of SATCOM and missile warning are again helpful. The SATCOM Directorate, currently a subordinate element of the G6 Staff, consists of organic forces that conduct their operational mission largely through general support relationships.[18] The JTAGS detachments, on the other hand, have an OPCON relationship with the 1st Space Company, but they conduct their operational mission through separate TACON relationships. First Space Company operations focus on training and maintenance (ADCON responsibilities), and, if necessary, task organizing the force or relocating portions of it to support the operational mission (OPCON responsibilities).


On a topical level, the arguments against USASMDC/ARSTRAT as an operational force seem reasonable; they are, however, all incorrect for various reasons. They either misunderstand the missions and authorities of the command, or they confuse related but distinct doctrinal terms. Specifically, the first argument misrepresents the roles, responsibilities, and authorities of an ASCC, while the second and third arguments risk equivocation through loose application of the defined doctrinal terms “operations,” “operational level of war,” and “operational control.” The not-doctrinally-defined but widely used (within doctrine) term “operational mission” adds clarity to the conversation by providing a contrast to administrative missions not provided by the definition of operations itself. As the command continues to evolve, an understanding of ASCC roles and responsibilities, the distinction between related terms (operations, operational missions, support to operational missions), and precision on command relationships require careful consideration through the lenses of doctrine and Army regulation. Without this clear understanding and without the ability to express this understanding in doctrinal terms, the command will struggle to explain its purpose to the Army, to the Combatant Command, and to itself.

[1] Headquarters Department of the Army, Army Regulation (AR) 10-87, Army Commands, Army Service Component Commands, and Direct Reporting Units (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017). 13.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, the doctrinal definitions within the footnotes come from US Department of Defense, DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2018).

 operational level of warfare — The level of warfare at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas. DOD Dictionary,175.

strategic level of warfare — The level of warfare at which a nation, often as a member of a group of nations, determines national or multinational (alliance or coalition) strategic security objectives and guidance, then develops and uses national resources to achieve those objectives. DOD Dictionary, 223.

 tactical level of warfare — The level of warfare at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to achieve military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces. DOD Dictionary, 230.

[3] operation — 1. A sequence of tactical actions with a common purpose or unifying theme. 2. A military action or the carrying out of a strategic, operational, tactical, service, training, or administrative military mission. DOD Dictionary, 173.

[4] Whether a corps is a tactical-level or operational-level organization is another subject of perennial debate. By doctrine, it can be either, depending on how it is used. Per FM 3-94, Corps headquarters are “the Army’s primary operational-level headquarters.” Per FM 3-0, “combat operations may require a corps headquarters to function as a tactical land headquarters under a joint or multinational land component commander. For the purposes of this essay, I consider the Corps, like an ASCC, an operational-level organization. Headquarters Department of the Army, Field Manual (FM) 3-94, Theater Army, Corps, and Division Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2014), 1-2; Headquarters Department of the Army, Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017), 2-11.

[5] Headquarters Department of the Army, FM 3-0, Operations, 2017, 1-38.

 [6] It is possible for an Army Command (ACOM), a Direct Reporting Unit (DRU), or another Army force to share in ADCON responsibilities. This arrangement is often referred to as “split ADCON.” See AR 10-87, Army Commands, Army Service Component Commands, and Direct Reporting Units, 2017, 2. Deployed or forward-stationed forces, for example, frequently receive ADCON support from the Theater Army in whose operational area they reside.

[7] Headquarters Department of the Army, AR 10-87, Army Commands, Army Service Component Commands, and Direct Reporting Units, 2017, 2; Headquarters Department of the Army, FM 3-0, Operations, 2017, A-7.

[8] Note that “operational mission” is not a defined doctrinal term, but it appears quite frequently in doctrinal literature. While the term “operations,” in the joint sense, clearly applies to administrative functions like training, “operational mission” provides a distinction from administrative missions.

[9] For further discussion on assignment, apportionment, and allocation, U.S. Army War College, How the Army Runs: A Senior Leader Reference Handbook, 2017-2018 (Carlisle, PA: 2018), 2-5.

[10] It is worth noting that the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense (JFCC-IMD) is not a component of the ASCC. JFCC-IMD is an organization subordinate to USSTRATCOM that shares a commander with USASMDC/ARSTRAT. Similarly, the commanding general of USASMDC/ARSTRAT bears the responsibilities of Senior Commander of Fort Greeley, Alaska and Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands, but these installations are not a part of the ASCC either. See Headquarters Department of the Army, AR 600-20, Army Command Policy (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2014).

[11] Headquarters Department of the Army, Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 5-0, The Operations Process (Washington, DC: Government Printing  Office, 2012), 1-3.

[12] DOD, DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 2016, 174.

[13] Headquarters Department of the Army, FM 3-0, Operations, 2017, 3-1.

[14] Headquarters Department of the Army, ADRP 1-02, Terms and Military Symbols (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2015), 1-69.

[15] operational control – (DOD) The authority to perform those functions of command over subordinate forces involving organizing and employing commands and forces, assigning tasks, designating objectives, and giving authoritative direction necessary to accomplish the mission. Also called OPCON. DOD Dictionary, 174.

[16] Headquarters Department of the Army, AR 10-87, Army Commands, Army Service Component Commands, and Direct Reporting Units, 2017, 2.

[17] Headquarters Department of the Army, FM 3-0, Operations, 2017, A-3.

[18] Joint doctrine considers support relationships such as General Support a command relationship. By Army doctrine, however, support relationships are not command relationships. Furthermore, the interpretation of the General Support (and other) relationships vary between service and joint force doctrine. It is important for ASCCs, then, to be cognizant of these definitional differences when dealing with Joint and Army forces. Headquarters Department of the Army, FM 3-0, Operations, 2017, Appendix A.