It was also applied to the disposition of ships in the line of battle during the age of sail. In the later transformation of its meaning during the European period of Early Modern warfare the order of battle came to mean the order in which the units maneuvered or deployed onto the battlefield to form battle-lines, with the positioning on the right considered the place of greatest honour. This need to reflect the unit seniority led to the keeping of military staff records, in tabular form reflecting the compilation of units an army, their commanders, equipment, and locations on the battlefield.
During the Napoleonic wars the meaning of the order of battle changed yet again to reflect the changes in the composition of opposing forces during the battle owing to use of larger formations than in the previous century. With standardisation in organisation of field forces as part of regiments, brigades, divisions and Corps, the order of battle often became associated and confused with table of organisation which is a permanent composition of a given unit or formation according to army doctrine and to suit its staff administration operations. Napoleon also instituted the staff procedure of maintaining accurate information about the composition of the enemy order of battle, and tables of organisation, and this later evolved into an important function and an organisational tool used by military intelligence to analyse enemy capability for combat.
In its modern use the order of battle signifies the identification, command structure, strength, and disposition of personnel, equipment, and units of an armed force during field operations. Various abbreviations are in use, including OOB, O/B, or OB, while ORBAT remains the most common.
The United States Army divides an order of battle entry on an intelligence status report by the following factors:
The collection of order-of-battle data is the responsibility of the unit commander, through the G-2/J-2 (intelligence) section. A U.S. Army military intelligence group maintains an Order of Battle Section as part of brigade HQ.
The rule of thumb used by American military intelligence is that each unit should keep track of enemy subunits two echelons below its own: that is, a division should monitor enemy units confronting it down to battalion, a brigade should monitor enemy units down to companies, and a battalion should monitor enemy forces down to platoons. General George S. Patton was one of the first to recommend this practice.
The United States military's intelligence capabilities in the 21st century have allowed for monitoring even further than two echelons down the chain of command. It is quite common for a US battalion-group to be able to identify the location and activities of not only squad level enemy forces but even individual vehicles. This "situational awareness" provides a more complete picture of the battlefield for US forces.
Up until the end of the Cold War, order of battle was generally an orderly but extremely frustrating process for NATO because although Warsaw Pact nations had well known order of battle, tactics, techniques and procedures, that of the Soviet Army fluctuated often, significantly, and changes were often undetected for years at below-division levels. The situation has been exacerbated today when the US Army is engaged in operations against a non-traditional enemy (insurgents, guerrillas, etc.) and no order of battle can be compiled, the equivalent military intelligence output requiring an increase in acquired data and analysis effort to provide an accurate and timely picture to the combat commander.