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An Omnipotent Abstraction: What Lessons Does The Falklands War Have for the Operational Level of War?

Steve Hart

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Lieutenant Colonel Steve Hart, Royal Marines, is an instructor on the Initial Command and Staff Course (Land) at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom
Hart, Steve, “An Omnipotent Abstraction: What Lessons Does The Falklands War Have for the Operational Level of War?”, Military Operations, Volume 3, Issue No. 1, Spring 2015, pages 9-12.

By Camera Operator: PH2 DIDAS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The Falklands War demonstrates some characteristics of modern war that need to be accommodated in the further evolution of operational art.”[i]

Using the case study of the Falklands War, this article will argue that the operational level of war is a confusing concept that hinders rather than supports the link between strategy and tactics. While the operational level of war may have had utility for the specific character for which it was constructed, it is now time for British Defence Doctrine to discard the concept. British Defence Doctrine should instead recast discussions of war using a framework that accepts the totality of war rather than attempting to compartmentalise war into levels. The argument will begin with describing how the operational level is a poorly explained concept within British Defence Doctrine. It will then go on to outline what the operational purports to do and test those claims against the case of the Falklands War.

The operational level falls into a trap that Basil Liddell hart described: “The modern tendency has been to search for principles which can be expressed in a single word – and then need several thousand words to explain them… The longer one continues the search for such omnipotent abstractions, the more do they appear a mirage, neither attainable nor useful – except as an intellectual exercise.”[ii] At the outset a clear distinction must be drawn between operational level and operational art. The operational level is defined in British military doctrine as: “the level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted and sustained, within theatres or areas of operation, to achieve strategic objectives.”[iii] It is further described as providing “…the 2-way bridge between the strategic and tactical levels.” Operational art is defined as: “the orchestration of a campaign, in concert with other agencies, involved in converting strategic objectives into tactical activity in order to achieve a desired outcome.”[iv] Operational art is the skill required of the military, and the operational level is the enabling construct.

These definitions would suggest that there is clarity in what the operational level is, what its purpose is, and how this purpose should be realised. However, the operational level of war falls into the trap of superficial simplicity; masking a confusing and contradictory concept that is interpreted in different way by different groups. The loose doctrinal interpretation of the operational level is best shown using two diagrams, both drawn from current British Defence Doctrine:

The two diagrams, while sharing the same title, demonstrate a starkly different interpretation of the relationship between the three levels of war. The representation in JDP 01 (2011) suggests that the three levels of war each have areas of exclusivity. That is there are unique spheres of responsibility for each level. Conversely JDP 01: Campaigning draws the relationship in such a way as there are no areas of exclusive tactical or operational responsibility. Instead each subordinate level of war is nested within the strategic level. British Defence Doctrine therefore does not present a clear understanding of the levels of war.

Operational Art and The Emergence of the Operational Level.

A defined operational level was a late addition to the US Army doctrine publication FM100-5 published in 1982. The original purpose of the operational level was to enable three things: the command and control of the large scale land battles envisaged to defeat the Soviet threat; to delineate a sphere of responsibility for the profession of arms; and to enable the conversation between tactics and strategy.

Within Soviet military doctrine the concept of ‘operational art’ was coined between World War One and World War Two. For Soviet theory, operational art was the sequencing of a series of battles that enabled deep penetration into an enemy’s rear area leading to encirclement and subsequent physical destruction (annihilation) of the enemy force. This doctrinal concept was an effort to overcome the stagnation apparent in the First World War and to harness manoeuvre and mobility in order to achieve strategic objectives.[v] For the Soviets operational art was the bridge between tactics and strategy. In the Soviet construct, operational art was associated with a large scale of operations. There was no ‘level of war’ that was solely responsible for this function. While operational art is required, there is no requirement to construct a ‘level of war’ to carry out this artistic function.

The operational level did not therefore stem from Soviet military thought. The level came from American doctrine, and was subsequently adopted by the British. The American Doctrine FM100-5, where the operational level was first codified, compartmentalised the battles required to counter advancing and echeloning Soviet forces. Divisions, brigades and battalions had the responsibility for the ‘close battle’ with the Soviet first echelons; while, at Corps level, organic artillery and air assets would enable prosecution of a ‘deep battle’ focussed against subsequent echelons.[vi] The coordination of this campaign was to be achieved through an ‘operational level of war’. This then was the central purpose of the original operational level, as described in the original document: “most simply, it is the theory of larger unit operations.”[vii] It was doctrine designed to facilitate NATO operations against the Soviet Union in the European land environment.

A further purpose of the operational level was to delineate a sphere of responsibility for military commanders. By dividing war into ‘levels’ each of these levels become the responsibility of a different group of decision makers. The strategic level is the responsibility of politicians, the operational level is the responsibility of Generals, Admirals and Air Marshalls and the tactical level is the responsibility of subordinate military commanders. With the errors of Vietnam fresh in their minds American doctrine writers in the early 1980s must have found appealing the idea of describing a sphere of responsibility for the military that effectively insulated military decisions from political ‘interference’.

Levels of war therefore provide an essential concept of not only what commanders are responsible for, but also for what they are not responsible. As long as strategy, operations and tactics are viewed as separate parts of the whole of war, there is no responsibility for the totality of war at any level. Each ‘level’ is compartmentalised from the whole, able to abdicate responsibility for decisions that lie outside their area of responsibility. This concept of military decision makers at the operational level shielding themselves from political strategy has resonance in the contemporary environment. As the former US commander of forces in Iraq, General Tommy Franks, said: “Keep Washington focused on policy and strategy. Leave me the hell alone to run the war.”[viii]

The third reason for an operational level is to link tactical action with strategic aims. The operational level describes a clear sphere of responsibility for the military, and also creates a single bridge between military activity and strategic decision-making. This ‘bridging’ between strategy and tactics is, by definition, the purpose of operational art. The operational level is therefore where operational art is practised. Imposing a ‘level of war’ between tactics and strategy, it is argued, enables the conversation between the two. The risk is clear: tactical victories which are not aligned to purpose are ‘strategically barren’. This is most clearly demonstrated in the anecdote of an American General speaking to the commander of the North Vietnamese Army: The American asserts to General Giap that the NVA had never defeated the US Army on the battlefield, General Giap’s response was: ‘That is true but also irrelevant.”[ix]

It is, however, a strange conceit to require a new level of war in order to enable the expression operational art. The military works, and indeed has always worked, through levels of command. Each level of command should understand the requirements of the levels of command above, and thereby ensure coherent action within the whole. One could reasonably ask at what stage does a level of command become a level of war? It is a mighty hubris on the part of any level of command that takes unto itself such authority that it not merely superior in terms of command, it is also superior in terms of fighting at a discrete level of war.

The Operational Level in the Falklands Campaign.

There are three clear purposes for an operational level of war: to address the challenges of large scale land operations; to delineate a sphere of military responsibility; and to bridge between tactics and strategy. Each of these justifications can be debunked using the case study of the Falklands War. While there is no argument that the Falklands is a perfect analogy for future war, the conflict has characteristics that make it a suitable allegory for discussion of the operational level. It was an expeditionary conflict carried out thousands of miles from the UK, it was a joint campaign requiring the coordination of all three services, and it was completely successful. It was also carried out without any doctrine that required the imposition of an operational level of war; yet nonetheless operational art was successfully practised.

Whilst there was no operational level in the Falklands War, there was an overall ‘operational commander’. This commander was Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse and the primary responsibility for planning and conducting the campaign fell to his headquarters.[x] One possible interpretation of this arrangement is that Admiral Fieldhouse’s command in Northwood was the de-facto ‘operational-level’. However the argument that the highest military commander is necessarily a commander at the ‘operational-level’ is one that misunderstands the nature of a level of war as opposed to a level of command. Admiral Fieldhouse had military command, but he did not preside over a ‘level’ of war that had autonomy for campaign planning and therefore operational art. Above him British political leadership were closely involved in campaign planning and execution, and below him his subordinate commanders at sea and on the land were equally responsible for the expression of operational art. Admiral Fieldhouse did not have autonomy over campaign planning: he facilitated the political-strategic control of it; therefore there was no ‘operational level’ in the Falklands campaign.

The Argentinean enemy faced by the British in the Falklands campaign did not match either the scale or the doctrinal sophistication of the Soviet threat. The British did, however, still have to manage scale and complexity. Contemporary justifications of the operational level have moved away from justifications that rest on scale, and towards explanations that lean on complexity. The planning and conduct of the Falklands Campaign, however, demonstrates that management of scale and complexity does not require a separate ‘level of war’: it requires clearly delineated levels of command. An operational level commander was not required in order to enable the British Task Force to counter the enemy threat or manage the scale and complexity of the Task Force. Indeed such a level would have interfered with the ad-hoc, systems that were in place during the campaign. After the campaign, British military commanders reflected that a deployed ‘Joint Task Force Commander’ would have assisted in coordinating the activities of the disparate elements. That is not to suggest they wanted an operational level, just that they wanted an additional level of command.

During the Falklands campaign there was no delineated sphere of exclusive military responsibility; indeed, at times British strategic leadership directed the actions of individual planes, single ships and individual battle groups in order to achieve strategic purpose.[xi] Throughout the campaign, strategy and tactics were free to mix; with the former being the master of the latter. There was a clear and constant conversation between tactics and strategy unencumbered by the doctrinal construct of levels.

The attack on Goose Green provides a clear example of the fluid relationship between strategy and tactics in the Falklands Campaign. Max Hastings observed: “After four days of almost unbroken bad news, London needed a tangible victory. If ever there was a politicians’ battle then Goose Green was to be it.”[xii] London needed a victory on land soon after the landing force had been put-ashore to bolster the popular support in the UK. At the tactical level, Brigadier Julian Thompson did not want to be distracted from the main objective of Port Stanley by fighting battles on his flanks. It was, quite rightly, the strategic purpose that took primacy. There is some confusion over who initiated the direction to 3 Cdo Bde to make the attack. There is, however, no doubt that such direction reflected the will of the War Cabinet. Despite the resistance of Brigadier Julian Thompson to launching the attack, the fact that he was directed to, indicates the way that during the Falklands Campaign tactical action was subordinated to strategy and there was no sphere of military autonomy. It is this ‘level-free’ nature of war that modern British doctrine must seek to ape.

The third reason for the creation of an operational level was that it is required in order to act as a bridge between tactics and strategy. Superficial consideration of the strategic purpose of the Falklands campaign could suggest that the aim was repossession of those lands that had been conquered by Argentina. However there was a more significant issue at play than the ownership of rocks in the Southern Atlantic. It was Admiral Sir Henry Leach who put his finger most clearly on the British strategic end-state. In a meeting with the Prime Minister and her Defence Secretary – a meeting to which Admiral Leech had not been invited but through happenstance found himself attending – he stated: “If we do not [recapture the Falkland Islands], if we muck about, if we pussyfoot, if we don’t move very fast and are not entirely successful, in a very few months’ time we shall be living in a different country whose word will count for little.”[xiv] For her part, the Prime Minister: “cracked into a grin, because it was exactly… what she wanted to hear.”[xv] Despite being the First Sea Lord at the time and not a politician, Admiral Leach’s understanding of Britain’s strategic reality was prescient. He understood that Britain was a dwindling force in the world. A series of major economic and social challenges during the 1970s had left the British lion far from the roaring colonial power she had been in the first half of the century. The strategic aim was therefore not simply taking back possession of the Islands, but doing so emphatically; and in doing so going some way to restoring Britain’s reputation as a continuing world power.

At the tactical level the limitations of the Task Force were considerable. Despite the expressed confidence of the Royal Navy Service in their ability to defend a Task Force against a modern, capable surface, sub-surface and air threat in the Southern Ocean, that fact was far from certain. As Max Hastings states: ‘The Royal Navy in 1982 was overwhelmingly an anti-submarine force designed for war in the [North] Atlantic against the Soviet Union.’[xvi] They were not trained or equipped for an out of area operation. However, the Royal Navy of the early eighties retained a ‘Nelsonian’ bellicose streak;[xvii] so when pressed by the Prime Minister on what his reaction would be to the arrival of a Royal Naval Task Force; Admiral Leach responded that if he had been in command of the Argentinean forces: “I would return to harbour immediately.”[xviii] A clear line of communication between tactics and strategy was established at the outset. The key strategic, and tactical message, was that British political leadership and the British military had the will to fight.

Understanding that the two-way dialogue between tactics and strategy was effective in the Falklands campaign is clearly only part of the issue. An understanding of why it was so effective is essential in taking the lessons forward. Sir John Nott has stated that it was the presence of Admiral Lewin, the British CDS, in the war cabinet that enabled strategic leadership to understand tactical limitations, and communicate strategic purpose: “It was Lewin’s presence in the War Cabinet that was the most important thing about the whole affair. He understood the political pressures we were under and Lewin was the man who discussed it with Fieldhouse.”[xix] Another member of the War Cabinet, Cecil Parkinson, similarly recalls the military focus in the War Cabinet: “One of the features of the way the War Cabinet worked was that the military did make the pace … it was the military members of the War Cabinet who set the pace and told us what was possible.”[xx] The cohesion between tactics and strategy was driven, therefore, not by separating out the levels of war, but by the reverse: by including the military in strategic discussions and politicians in tactical ones. There was no single bridge between tactics and strategy; instead the link between the two was formed through the proper cascade of levels of command.


Current British doctrine hypothesises a ‘strategically barren victory’ in the absence of an effective operational level.[xi] The planning and conduct of the Falklands campaign refutes that assertion. There was no defined operational level; the military did not have autonomy over campaign planning or campaign prosecution; yet despite this, the tactical actions were effectively fused into a strategically coherent whole. The influence of the strategic level of command was present in the actions of battalions, of ships and of individual aircraft; and, throughout, the limitations of tactical actions were understood by the strategists who adjusted their decisions based on that advice. The link was formed not by the creation and resourcing of a giant ‘operational level headquarters’, but rather by the normal progression of a chain of command. No link in the chain was more important than any other, and every link had its part to play in understanding the intentions of the links above, and the capabilities of the links below. Even without an operational level, victory in the Falklands campaign was not strategically barren. Quite the reverse; it was a victory that achieved not only the immediate military objective of recapturing the Islands, but also the wider strategic purpose of retaining Britain’s global status.


[i] Kelly, Justin and Brennan, Mike, ‘Alien: How operational art devoured strategy.’ (Strategic Studies Institute of the United States Army War College, 2009). Accessed on Jan 23 2014. P73.
[ii] Liddell-Hart, Basil ‘Strategy’ (London, Meridian, 1954, second revised edition) P334.
[iii] British Defence Doctrine Joint Doctrine Publication 01, ‘Campaigning’ second edition, Lexicon-11.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Glantz, David M ‘The Intellectual Dimension of Soviet (Russian) Operational Art’ in McKercher and Hennessy [eds] ‘The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War’ (Royal Military College Canada, 1996) p128.
[vi] Swain, Richard M ‘Filling the void: The operational art and the US Army’ in McKercher and Hennesy, op cit, p157.
[vii] FM100-5 (1983) P2-3.
[viii] Franks, Tommy R ‘American Soldier’ (New York, Harper Collins, 2004), P440.
[ix] Griffin, Stuart, ‘Joint Operations: A short History’ (Defence Academy Library, 2005) P16.
[x] Griffin. P139.
[xi] 2 PARA at Goose Green, HMS CONQUEROR sinking the Belgrano and a Vulcan bomber on the BLACKBUCK raids.
[xii] Hastings, Max, P231
[xiii] For a detail on the process for ordering the attack on Goose Green see the discussions in the ‘The Falklands Witness Seminar’ (The Occasional, Number 46.) P39-50.
[xiv] Leach, Admiral Sir Henry, as quoted in Ibid, P19.
[xv] Ibid, P19.
[xvi] Hastings, Max and Jenkins, Simon, ‘The Battle for the Falklands’ (Michael Joseph Ltd, London, 1983), P83.
[xvii] See Griffin for further discussion of the Royal Navy’s ‘offensive’ spirit.
[xviii] ‘The Falklands Witness Seminar’ (The Occasional, Number 46.) P67.
[xix] Nott, Sir John as quoted in Ibid, P44.
[xx] Lord Parkinson of Carnforth, as quoted in Ibid. P44.
[xxi] British Defence Doctrine, JDP 01, “Campaigning”, P2-3.