What Is an Operational Environment?

Operational Environment Explained

Silhouette Army Soldiers Standing On Field During Sunset
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The operational environment (OE) is the land, sea, air, space, and cyber networks where the military operates. It includes any adversaries, allies, neutrals, systems, and subsystems. All relationships and dependencies relevant to an operation are also part of the OE.

Learn what the operational environment is, how it works, and what the different types are.

What Is a Military Operational Environment?

The operational environment is commonly believed to be the place where the military fights. It is, but it is much more than that. The Department of Defense defines it as:

"A composite of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of capabilities and bear on the decisions of the commander."

The military operates in a geographical area that might be in space, air, land, or sea. While an operation is unfolding in an area, there is an informational environment that is being engaged at the same time.

The informational environment encompasses "individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information."

Modern militaries rely on cyberspace for information exchange and situation building. This reliance makes cyberspace part of the operational environment because the information travels to and from all of the physical domains through cyberspace.

Areas and factors of the operational environment
Department of Defense/Joint Chiefs of Staff

The systems within the operational environment provide influences that can work for or against a military. Forces attempt to take advantage of existing political influences, economic factors, or infrastructure to shape the battle.

Other actors, such as socio-cultural factors within the operational environment, are generally outside of military forces' control unless the force can win them over.

Weather and oceanic conditions also play a significant role in an operational environment and can influence outcomes.

How the Operational Environment Works

Each of the different domains has defined functions, designed to accomplish tasks that support the commander's mission intent. Each of the various functions has specialists that have their own perspective of the OE.

Command and Control

From the top, command and control (command elements) exercise authority and direction by assigning and controlling resources to accomplish tasks given in missions throughout the different functional areas.


From an informational perspective (information gathering and analyzing elements), the operational environment is collecting and disseminating information to the right people at the right time. The proper analysis and distribution of information lets decisions be made and influences the flow of fires, movement, and maneuver.

Information is a driving factor within an operating environment. It shapes the actions of all of the functions.

Supporting Fires

From the fires perspective (the elements that provide supporting fires such as artillery or air support), the environment is influenced by the needs of those maneuvering or moving and the information they provide.

Movement and Maneuver

Maneuvering units are the elements that work to achieve strategic objectives by presence and force. This is achieved through combat operations that consist of movement, indirect fire, and direct fire engagements and maneuvers to force a defined victory.

Maneuver units are what are typically thought of as operational forces or the fighting elements. However, all personnel are part of the operating forces.

Force Protection

The forces within the OE must be protected in their functional areas. The protection perspective is one where the environment consists of ensuring people and resources are protected. Control procedures are developed to provide emergency response units, and fires are controlled to prevent fratricide.


Forces must remain provisioned to sustain a fight over the operation. Logistics capabilities, like delivery of food, water, parts, and ammunition must be extended as much as possible. Services such as maintenance or medical care are essential to the sustainment of modern fighting forces.

Types of Operational Environments

There are three physical environments that military forces operate in—permissive, uncertain, and hostile. Modern militaries and technologically advanced countries are also engaged in cyber environments that can be categorized similarly.

Permissive environments are ones where host nations allow another country's military forces in to conduct operations that assist the host to

"defeat subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security..."

A hostile environment is where the host country does not have control of the population or the territory. An uncertain environment is similar to the hostile environment, but the host nation has limited control over the territory and population.

In the simplest possible terms, the operational environment is the physical and virtual space where a military conducts a wide array of humanitarian, combat, support, and protective actions.

Key Takeaways

  • The operational environment is both physical and virtual.
  • The OE is more than just the place where the military is physically present. It is an area that is both tangible and intangible.
  • All military personnel are part of the operational environment.
  • The operational environment encompasses land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace.