Setting the Theater: A Definition, Framework, and Rationale for Effective Resourcing at the Theater Army Level

By Shimerdla, Lt Col Joseph John; Kort, Maj Ryan | Military Review, May/June 2018 | Go to article overview

Setting the Theater: A Definition, Framework, and Rationale for Effective Resourcing at the Theater Army Level


Shimerdla, Lt Col Joseph John, Kort, Maj Ryan, Military Review


Setting the theater is an extraordinarily complex task often misunderstood by not only our military and intergovernmental partners but also by those responsible for its planning and execution. Such misunderstanding is largely due to a lack of a common definition of the concept among the services and our allies. Nevertheless, setting the theater is essential to the success of joint and combined operations around the globe. However, without a common doctrinal definition of what set the theater means, it is virtually impossible to determine the necessary resources and requirements to do it right.

A theater of operations is never truly set. Setting a theater is supposed to be a continuous, long-term process that creates situational understanding and helps to shape conditions for the success of Army, joint, and combined operations. This understanding, in turn, should facilitate the successful opening and closing of the joint operations area in support of activities across the range of military operations. However, the absence of a common definition and an associated conceptual framework results in recurring misperceptions of the numerous tasks, required resources, and amount of time needed to set the theater.

This article highlights the impact of a doctrinal definition gap while also exploring why setting the theater is such an important requirement for the Army and joint forces. It also discusses the various divergent and largely insufficient descriptions found in doctrine and proposes a common definition and systems approach to facilitate the creation of a framework that will enable the theater army to analyze, plan, and, perhaps most importantly, resource future requirements.

A Critical Joint and Army Requirement

The joint force must be able to execute a wide range of operations promptly and sustainably in support of national interests and the geographic combatant command (GCC) objectives.1 To do this, planners cannot wait until a crisis occurs to set the theater. It must be an ongoing process in which one ultimately ensures critical capabilities are already in place to respond to crises and support operations.

Setting the theater is a critical joint requirement that the Army, through its theater armies, executes in support of the GCC across the range of military operations. The theater army does this through its Title 10 responsibilities, Army support to other services, and other executive agent responsibilities.2 Just a few of the Army's historical set-the-theater tasks include command and control of joint reception, staging, onward movement, and integration of U.S. and coalition forces; establishment of forward support bases; and distribution of inland logistics.

Both contingency and steady-state operations underlie the requirement to set the theater. However, these become difficult without a firm grasp of the dynamics and complexities involved.

The Doctrinal Gap

In spite of its importance in joint and combined operations, a holistic definition of, and framework for, setting the theater does not exist in either Army or joint doctrine. Both currently take a piecemeal approach to describing slices of it, usually by warfighting or joint function. These descriptions are vague, disparate, and inadequate. Nowhere can a theater army planner find an integrated, comprehensive framework that examines all aspects of setting the theater; specifically, the critical requirements of protection, sustainment, intelligence, mission command, and partnership and access.

For example, Joint Publication (JP) 3-31, Command and Control for Joint Land Operations, describes setting the theater in terms of communications systems architecture; prepositioned logistics; maintenance of seaport and airport infrastructure; and reception, staging, and onward integration tasks.3 This list is far from comprehensive, focusing mostly on sustainment activities, and leaving out protection, intelligence, and mission-command capabilities that enable the land-component command to shape conditions prior to and during operations. …

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