Setting the Theater | The Challenge for America’s Theater Army

By Maj. Nathan DavisAugust 1, 2023

The northern lights glow behind a Patriot M903 launcher station assigned to 5th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, during Exercise Arctic Edge 2022 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, March 5, 2022.
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The northern lights glow behind a Patriot M903 launcher station assigned to 5th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, during Exercise Arctic Edge 2022 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, March 5, 2022. (Photo Credit: Senior Airman Joseph P. LeVeille) VIEW ORIGINAL
Soldiers and Marines load into CH-47F Chinook helicopters from B Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, Feb. 28, 2020, at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Soldiers and Marines load into CH-47F Chinook helicopters from B Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, Feb. 28, 2020, at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. (Photo Credit: John Pennell) VIEW ORIGINAL
Green Berets assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) use a snowmobile to exit the tarmac after loading equipment on a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules with the 731st Airlift Squadron for movement north of the Arctic Circle in support of...
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Green Berets assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) use a snowmobile to exit the tarmac after loading equipment on a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules with the 731st Airlift Squadron for movement north of the Arctic Circle in support of Exercise Arctic Edge 2022 at Fairbanks International Airport, Fairbanks, Alaska, March 2, 2022. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Anthony Bryant) VIEW ORIGINAL

The Army is experiencing a substantial change in its operating environment. The Army of the past 20 years has mainly operated unmolested with significant and consistent forward-deployed formations entrenched in theaters around the globe. It has been nested with allies and partners, able to move freely and essentially at will to respond quickly to contingencies or crises while predominantly focusing on counter-insurgency operations. The Army of tomorrow will have fewer forces deployed. It will be a challenge to maintain the ability to deploy rapidly at, or before, time of need in support of strategic competition, integrated deterrence, and large-scale combat operations (LSCO) as directed by the National Defense Strategy. Building and maintaining the flexibility and responsiveness essential to supporting this strategic shift and modernization requires re-energizing and retraining largely dormant organizational skill sets like setting the theater.

Setting the theater is a joint function tasked to the geographic combatant commands (GCCs) but primarily executed by the Army service component commands (ASCCs) or theater armies as one of their seven functions assigned in Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 3-93, Theater Army Operations, heavily supported by their assigned theater sustainment command (TSC) and Army Materiel Command (AMC). Setting the theater is key to maintaining dominance and overmatch across crisis, competition, and conflict. However, joint doctrine does not define the term or holistically describe what it entails, and Army doctrine provides at least six vague and disparate explanations that further confuse those ultimately responsible for executing this arduous responsibility. In general terms, the function of setting the theater is defined as a continuous shaping activity composed of the broad range of activities necessary to set the conditions within an area of responsibility (AOR) for the Army and joint forces to execute strategic plans or operations. The broad range of activities provides access to the ports, terminals, airfields, bases, infrastructure, and capabilities necessary to establish favorable conditions for Army and joint forces to rapidly execute GCC priorities across the full range of multidomain operations. The actions taken to set the theater determine the strategic options available to achieve our national objectives. But what tasks are required to provide that access, are they universal across GCCs, and who should be executing them specifically? Joint doctrine, as the linchpin between national-level guidance to tactical-level execution, needs to be revised to answer these questions.

In the Army, AMC leads setting the theater efforts at the strategic level and delineates these efforts into three bins: assuring the Army’s strategic power projection capability, forward positioning Army pre-positioned stock (APS), and building shared capabilities and capacity with allies and partners through foreign military sales. Power projection, also referred to as force projection, is defined in ATP 3-35, Army Deployment and Redeployment, as “the ability to project the military instrument of national power from the United States or another theater in response to requirements for military operations” and encompasses a range of processes including mobilization, deployment, employment, sustainment, and redeployment. Per Joint Publication (JP) 4-05, Joint Mobilization Planning, military departments provide trained and ready forces, prepare mobilization plans, and plan to sustain those forces while committed to a GCC’s AOR. Deploying forces conduct mobilization and movement to forward theaters in conjunction with and supported by military departments and functional combatant commands like Transportation Command. Then, per JP 3-35, Deployment and Redeployment Operations, supported GCCs, through their service component commands, execute joint reception, staging, onward movement, and integration activities in preparation for employment. Mobilization, deployment, and reception are well defined in joint and Army doctrine and have been well exercised and applied practically across the mature theaters we’ve been operating in for the last 20 years. However, is this framework clear, rehearsed, and executable across all GCC AORs?

One theater that stands out as significantly different is Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the GCC responsible for the North American theater encompassing Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. homeland, including the 48 contiguous states and Alaska. NORTHCOM and its subordinate commands are responsible for planning, organizing, and executing homeland defense and civil support missions. While the NORTHCOM AOR is home to the preponderance of U.S. military forces, defense infrastructure, and defense industry assets, unlike a forward GCC theater like European Command (EUCOM), Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), or Central Command (CENTCOM), the commander of NORTHCOM does not have operational control (OPCON) of forces in the AOR, does not own the installations, and cannot prioritize resource allocation in capability and infrastructure development.

What is the challenge?

There are three main challenges with setting the theater in the homeland. First is access in terms of legal authority to conduct coordination and the command-and-control structure within the Army to enable deliberate planning. Second is force structure since Army North (ARNORTH) needs more organic assigned subordinate forces capable of completing necessary tasks. Third is resourcing, including acquiring the necessary equipment, developing infrastructure, and building resiliency.

Even within the Department of the Army, ARNORTH, ASCC to NORTHCOM, and its theater Army does not have OPCON of Army forces in the homeland and does not retain authority over installations or facilities. ARNORTH is sourced with tailorable forces to meet emerging requirements as the needs arise. However, a lack of assigned forces stymies their ability to exercise foresight and facilitate preparatory action to build capacity or develop capabilities. The currently assigned TSC is a predominantly reserve component force and is not operationally available until mobilized, preventing the planning and execution of the GCC’s daily operational requirements to set the theater. Moreover, while forces in the contiguous 48 states are largely service retained and managed by the Army’s Forces Command, forces in Alaska are not. This further complicates integration and collaboration efforts to build consensus on priorities for resource allocation and capacity and capability development. This leaves responsibility for integration across GCCs and even across elements within the Army service component to adjudication by the joint and Army staffs at the time of need, an arduously slow and politically sensitive process.

Additionally, where EUCOM, INDOPACOM, and CENTCOM have executed LSCO, enabling them to refine their theater requirements, allocate resources, and build capacity and capability while maturing their theater, NORTHCOM has primarily executed defense support of civil authorities (DSCA). Per JP 3-28, Defense Support of Civil Authorities, DSCA is support provided by federal military forces in response to a request for assistance from civil authorities for domestic emergencies and chiefly encompasses localized crisis response operations in a community, state, or region. While DSCA helps build our nation’s resiliency and collaboration on crisis-level events, homeland defense requires significantly larger applications of military capabilities and operations. Furthermore, exercises to tease out true requirements for resources and capability development in the homeland have not occurred at the level they have been employed in forward theaters. Moreover, forward GCCs have existing relationships with allies and partners enabled by the Department of State (DOS) and bolstered by bilateral and multilateral agreements further reinforced through decades of military training exercises and cooperation. Unlike overseas, where GCCs rely on DOS to serve as an integrator, in the homeland, NORTHCOM must integrate with Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas, and with 52 different state and territorial governments, tribal governments, and federal agencies, each with multiple state and local derivatives.

While much of the homeland, particularly the lower 48 contiguous states, can be said to be mature, developed, and capable of adapting and responding to support contingency requirements at times of need, even with the administrative challenges already discussed, Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, Commander of NORTHCOM, recently pointed out that more than half of his AOR lies in the Arctic. The challenges with setting the theater in the Arctic are significantly more complex as there is a noteworthy lack of infrastructure and clear policies to encourage collaboration and afford access. Historically the military has mitigated capability and capacity constraints by outsourcing to commercial and industrial solutions, but the Arctic does not have a mature and robust commercial or industrial base. Policies need to be implemented to better build consensus among key stakeholders and prioritize development to overcome the tyranny of distance, extreme environmental constraints, and capacity limitations.

Challenges Compounded by a Contested Environment

The DOD and each subordinate service have conducted significant research to analyze threats and vulnerabilities to the defense industrial base and sustainment operations in a forward theater out to the tactical edge. The Joint Concept for Logistics, published in 2015, considers how an evolving joint logistics enterprise could better support joint operations in a future characterized by the challenge of meeting continuous strategic requirements with constrained military resources while simultaneously exploring how to adjudicate those resources dynamically and responsively on a global scale. The Joint Concept for Logistics codifies 24 capability requirements and specifies four related to protecting from or responding to attacks on the logistics information network. Still, they focus on supply chain management activities and need to address the requirement for the same level of awareness, protection, and response in transportation or mobility. The Center for Strategic Leadership’s Integrated Research Project on Contested Deployment in April 2022 states external support and increased coordination with local, state, and federal authorities will ensure fort-to-port mobility.

These studies are just a couple of the substantial research efforts conducted in recent years to analyze threats and vulnerabilities to elements of the defense industrial base and the conduct of sustainment operations in a forward theater. They pay particular attention to the increased risk of experiencing contested environments in forward operating areas and the traditional global commons between the strategic support area and those forward areas of operation. However, very little analysis has been conducted on the threats and specific vulnerabilities to tertiary nodes and networks linked to critical sustainment dependencies capabilities like shipping and transportation here in the homeland.

The Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command currently contract with more than 700 commercial carriers for highway shipping requirements alone. While they have made headway in placing contract obligations requiring those vendors to increase their cybersecurity posture, they may not extend to externalities like shipping scheduling software, third-party vendor applications, or commodities, assets, and capabilities that enable vendor services. The National Military Strategy identifies that a key adversarial objective is delaying the U.S. military’s ability to respond through mobilization, deployment, and follow-on sustainment. Historical vulnerability analysis and threat assessments have focused on kinetic threats against critical infrastructure and cyber-related threats and vulnerabilities to defense networks and the defense industrial base. However, suppose the objective is no longer defeating U.S. action but simply delaying response capabilities long enough to allow adversaries to execute initial objectives or to achieve quick strategic gains. In that case, the vulnerabilities to these additional supply chain components need to be analyzed and mitigated.

Proposed Solutions

Overseas initiatives include establishing bilateral or multilateral diplomatic agreements that grant U.S. forces access to the ports, terminals, airfields, bases, and capabilities within an AOR. This same whole-of-government approach is needed to address the ever-evolving complexity of planning for the defense of the homeland in the North American theater. Advantages created by setting the theater include understanding and leveraging unified action partner capacity, maximizing the use of APS, leveraging multinational capacity, and establishing the conditions for operational contract support. While this effort is largely enabled in forward theaters by collaboration between the DOD, DOS, and partners and allies across the globe, here at home, there must be a central integrator not only identified and tasked but empowered and resourced with the appropriate forces, resources, and authorities to enable success. The Department of Homeland Security cannot work independently of the DOD, nor can it succeed when working independently of state and local authorities.

NORTHCOM, already identified as the lead integrator for DOD support to homeland defense, should be empowered and resourced. The nebulous command and authority arrangements particular to the Arctic should be resolved and streamlined to enable a more agile and flexible response to the growing capabilities of strategic pacing threats. This will reinforce unity of effort and increase capabilities to anticipate and adapt to conventional, unconventional, and hybrid threats across all domains to shape the security environment better.

ARNORTH should be empowered through authorities and command-and-control to have access to serve as the ground force integrator across the entire theater and fully resourced with requisite forces, equipment, and infrastructure designed to perform setting the theater’s core competency tasks. The Army is open to current force structure design methodology and should take this opportunity to design new, tailorable formations with essential capabilities maximizing the ability to meet requirements while minimizing excess or waste across headquarters and commands. Fully acknowledging that maintaining OPCON of all forces and capabilities necessary to defend the homeland is untenable, minimum engagement packages already designed and requested should be sourced and assigned in future force management decisions. Lastly, just as setting the theater in forward AORs is substantially augmented and enabled by pre-positioning critical equipment and supplies, the Army should ensure the right types of pre-positioned stocks dedicated to homeland defense. For example, the Arctic imposes unique challenges to individual survivability. Forces mobilized from the lower 48 states may not have appropriate cold weather gear organically provided, and having a pre-positioned stock will enable rapid issue during reception operations.

Additionally, the Arctic imposes durability and resiliency challenges to energy storage and distribution equipment. Things as simple as vehicle batteries or electrical harnesses will have different durability than in warmer climates. Having a stock of parts or components designed to winterize common equipment will significantly contribute to the speed and efficiency at which the Army can deploy and become operational in this harsh environment.


The Army Operating Concept, Win in a Complex World, asserts the Army must be able to set the theater, provide strategic agility, and maintain freedom of movement and action during sustained high-tempo operations in austere environments. Planning and conducting operations to defend the homeland requires global integration and a layered approach. Still, it must involve a concerted and collaborative effort across the governments, agencies, departments, and services operating in the homeland. While specific exercises and training events such as annual regional certification exercises test our ability to respond quickly in times of crisis, we can do more by integrating shaping operations specific to setting the theater requirements into future exercise training objectives. It can no longer be assumed integration and collaboration forced by necessity at the time of need after a crisis or conflict begins will suffice. Collaboration must be nested across federal, state, territorial, and local entities operating in partnership with private industry to refine the threat picture, identify capability gaps, mitigate through coordination in capability development, and build and enhance interoperability. This will ultimately enable NORTHCOM and the joint force to achieve the objectives of the National Military Strategy to enable NORTHCOM and the joint force to deter adversaries and deny and defeat threats across all domains. ARNORTH, as America’s theater army, must have the access, force structure, and resources to meet the complexities of our changing global environment.


Maj. Nathan Davis currently serves as chief of plans in the U.S. Army North G-4, Joint Base San Antonio, Texas. He received his commission as an ordnance officer from Stetson University, Florida, with a bachelor’s degree in business management. He is pursuing a Master of Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


This article was published in the Summer 2023 issue of Army Sustainment.


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