Systems Engineering

Concept of Operations (CONOPS)

A Concept of Operations (CONOPS) is a document that describes a proposed system concept and how that concept would be operated in an intended environment.  The user community develops the CONOPS to communicate the vision for the operational system to the acquisition and developer community with quantitative and qualitative system metrics. A CONOPS can also be written by the buyer, developer, or acquirer to communicate their understanding of the user’s needs and how a system will fulfill them. A CONOPS is frequently utilized in the military, government, and other fields.

Definition: A ConOps is a user-oriented document that describes system characteristics for a proposed system from the users’ viewpoint. [3]

Definition: A Concept of Operations (CONOPS) is a verbal or graphic statement of a commander’s assumptions or intent in regard to an operation or series of operations. [4]

Purpose of the Concept of Operations (CONOPS)

The primary purpose of the CONOPS is to facilitate a shared understanding of a future system to help develop operational and system-level requirements. It’s designed to give an overall picture of an operation.

Concept of Operations (CONOPS) Objective

The main objective of a CONOPS is to “communicate with the end-user of the system during the early specification stages to assure the operational needs are clearly understood and incorporated into the design decisions for later inclusion in the system and segment specifications.”[1]

Concept of Operations (CONOPS) Capabilities

In Defense Acquisitions, a CONOPS examines current, new, and/or proposed capabilities required to solve a current or emerging problem.  It describes how a system will be used from the viewpoints of its various stakeholders. It should contain a conceptual view of the system (i.e., a preliminary functional flow block diagram or operational architecture) that illustrates the top-level functional threads in the proposed system or situation. This bridges the often vague capabilities that a project begins with and the specific technical requirements needed to succeed.

Concept of Operations (CONOPS) Requirements

A CONOPS should define any critical, top-level performance requirements or objectives either qualitatively or quantitatively (including system rationale for these objectives).  It is a useful tool that helps the user community write/refine their Initial Capabilities Documents (ICD), System Requirements Document (SRD), and Capabilities Development Documents (CDD).

Benefits of a Concept of Operations (CONOPS)

Besides the main objective of communication, a CONOPS also helps in:

  • Communication with stakeholders
  • Developing operational and system requirements
  • Provide requirements traceability
  • Help in developing test procedures
  • Help develop used cases
  • Validate requirements

Why Develop a Concept of Operations (CONOPS)

There are several reasons for developing a Concept of Operations:

  • Get stakeholder agreement identifying how the system is to be operated, who is responsible for what, and what the lines of communication;
  • Define the high-level system concept and justify that it is superior to the other alternatives;
  • Define the environment in which the system will operate;
  • Derive high-level requirements in the ICD and CDD;
  • Provide the criteria to be used for validation of the completed system

Concept of Operations (CONOP) Development

A CONOPS should include all the factors needed to define the system’s objectives utilizing DOTLMPF-P Analysis (doctrine, organization, training, leadership, materiel, personnel, facilities, and resources).  The CONOPS must provide enough information to help with future activities such as sustainment, training, fielding, support, and disposal.

How to Develop a Concept of Operations (CONOPS)

The best way to develop a CONOPS is to use a template. A template will ensure you address the main components of a CONOPS. A CONOPS should not be complex and should describe a proposed system simply and without confusion.  A concept should communicate the needs of the acquisition and development communities clearly. The CONOPS should be developed by an Integrated Product Team (IPT) to utilize the expertise of multiple stakeholders and program personnel.

Template: Concept of Operations (CONOPS) Template

Main Concept of Operations (ConOps) Components [3]

According to IEEE Standard 1362-1998, the main components should always include:

  • The existing system (manual or automated) the user wants to replace.
  • Justification for a new or modified system (including restrictions on that system).
  • A description of the proposed system.
  • Scenarios highlighting the use of the system in the user’s environment, including internal and external factors.

Concept of Operations (CONOPS) Properties

A CONOPS can be developed in many different ways but usually share the same properties. In general, it will include the following:

  • Statement of the goals and objectives of the system
  • Strategies, tactics, policies, and constraints affecting the system
  • Organizations, activities, and interactions among participants and stakeholders
  • A clear statement of responsibilities and authorities delegated
  • Specific operational processes for fielding the system
  • Processes for initiating, developing, maintaining, and retiring the system

Concept of Operations (CONOPS) Checklist

The checklist below gives the CONOPS developer a good tool to determine if the document is complete or needs more work.

  • Is the reason for developing the system clearly stated?
  • Are all the stakeholders identified, and their anticipated roles described?
  • Are alternative operational approaches described and the selected approach justified?
  • Is the external environment described?
    • Does it include required interfaces to existing systems?
  • Is the support environment described?
    • Does it include maintenance?
  • Is the operational environment described?

Concept of Operations (CONOPS) Development Best Practices

  • Use tools and/or techniques that best describe the proposed system from the user’s perspective and how it should operate.
  • Describe the system clearly so that all intended readers can fully understand it.
  • Write the CONOPS in the user’s language. Avoid technical jargon. If user jargon is employed, provide a glossary that translates it for non-users.
  • Use graphics and pictorial tools as much as possible since a CONOPS should be understandable to different types of stakeholders. (Useful graphical tools include, but are not limited to, node-to-node charts, use cases, sequence or activity charts, functional flow block diagrams, structure charts, allocation charts, data flow diagrams, object diagrams, storyboards, and entity-relationship diagrams.)
  • Describe the operational environment in detail to give the readers an understanding of the assumptions, constraints, numbers, versions, capacity, etc., of the operational capability to be used.
  • Describe those aspects of the physical environment, safety, security, and privacy that influence the proposed system’s operation or operational environment.
  • Include voluminous descriptions, such as a data dictionary, in an appendix, or incorporate them by reference.

Concept of Operations (CONOPS) Capabilities-Based Assessment

Sponsors wishing to base a Capabilities-Based Assessment (CBA) on a CONOPS must first get approval from the sponsoring DoD component, combatant command, or Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC). In order for reviewers to comprehend the context utilized to identify and assess the indicated capabilities, CONOPS that are not staffed through the JROC for endorsement must be submitted as an appendix to the Initial Capabilities Document (ICD) or joint DOTmLPF-P Change Request (DCR). The problem being addressed, the mission, the commander’s aim, an operational overview, functions or effects to be carried out/achieved, and the roles and duties of affected organizations should all be covered in a CONOPS, however there is no set formula for them.


Concept of Operations (CONOPS) Regulatory Requirements

Component-approved acquisition document derived from and consistent with the validated/approved capability requirements document. This will be provided to the Milestone Decision Authority (MDA) at the specified decision events and normally provided to the industry as part of the Request for Proposal (RFP). [2]

AcqNotes Tutorial


  • The CONOPS is also called a commander’s concept

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Updated: 2/6/2024

Rank: G3.6

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