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The Practice of Operational Art by Small Militaries: Why and How

Aaron Jackson

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Dr Aaron P. Jackson is a Doctrine Desk Officer at the Australian Defence Force Joint Doctrine Centre and an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy
Jackson, Aaron, “‘The Practice of Operational Art by Small Militaries: Why and How”, Military Operations, Volume 3, Issue No. 1, Spring 2015, pages 14-17.

By ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office from Kabul, Afghanistan, via Wikimedia Commons

During development of the next edition of Australian Defence Force Publication 5.0.1—Joint Military Appreciation Process (Australia’s equivalent to the US’ Joint Operations Planning Process), questions arose about whether or not Australia is able to practice operational art. The issue underlying these questions is one of scale: operational art, traditionally understood, is the sequencing of tactical actions to form a campaign in pursuit of overarching strategic objectives. The term itself has its origins in inter-war Soviet military theory and it was developed to cope with very large scale military activities.[i]

Small militaries such as the Australian Defence Force (ADF) are unlikely to ever be able to muster large enough forces to employ operational art the way it has traditionally been conceived. Yet the concept remains in ADF doctrine, and for that matter it can also be found in the doctrine of several other small militaries. This situation prompts two questions. First, why has operational art been adopted for use by militaries that are unlikely to ever deploy the scale of forces for which the concept was designed? And second, how has this adoption occurred? This article addresses these questions using Australia as a case study, and concludes that overall the adoption of operational art by small militaries has been beneficial despite the awkward conceptual fit.

Small militaries

One thing this article does not attempt to do is define precisely what constitutes a small military—something that could easily comprise an article in itself. Suffice to say, there are several possible criteria that could be used to assess whether or not a military is small, including:

  • active duty personnel numbers, or totalling the numbers of active duty, reserve and paramilitary personnel;
  • including not just personnel but also the amount of materiel (tanks, planes, ships, etc) in the total force size;
  • measuring the percentage of a state’s population serving in the military, or the number of people serving per 1,000 of the overall population;
  • measuring the amount spent annually on the armed forces, either overall, per capita, relative to government expenditure in other areas (health, welfare, education, etc.), or in terms of gross domestic product;
  • making an assessment of ‘military effectiveness’, or in other words a combination of personnel and equipment numbers plus the ability to effectively employ them together[ii]; or
  • taking some kind of combination of the above.

Each of these possible methods of measurement has pros and cons, and none negates the need to ultimately make a subjective assessment about where exactly to draw the lines between small, medium and large militaries once the measurement has been made.

Whichever measure is used, several militaries are likely to be categorised as small. For example, an arbitrary examination reveals that there are 115 national militaries with less than 100,000 active duty personnel. All of these militaries might justifiably be considered small—and it must be noted that this number only takes into account the militaries of states (it excludes non-state military forces).[iii] Applying this number again only to NATO militaries, the bulk of alliance member states (20 out of 28) would be considered as having small militaries. The point of this brief comparison is not to offer a definitive judgement of which militaries are small and which are not. But the comparison nevertheless reveals that there are potentially several small militaries with similar problems to Australia, assuming that they attempt to apply operational art.

In the case of the ADF, it is considered small for the purposes of discussion herein. The ADF’s total personnel number 84,750, of which 56,200 are active duty and the remaining 28,550 are reserves. Of the active duty component, 28,600 are Army, 13,550 are Navy and 14,050 are Air Force; of the reserve component, 16,200 are Army, 8,200 are Navy and 4,150 are Air Force. Australia maintains limited numbers of technologically advanced platforms, for instance the Army includes 59 M1A1 Abrams tanks and the Air Force two squadrons of F/A-18F Super Hornets.[iv] As a result, the ADF is able to deploy a technologically capable military force but only of very limited size. For example, it maintained a national contingent as part of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan continuously from 2005 to 2015, which varied between 400 and 1,550 personnel in strength, while concurrently conducting several much smaller operations elsewhere.[v] Thus, for the purposes of this article the ADF qualifies as a small military.

Why operational art?

If the question of motive had to be answered in one word, that word would be interoperability. ‘It should be clear that, in any military alliance, interoperability is primarily an issue for the lesser powers’, note Danford Middlemiss and Denis Stairs:

‘This is because it is the lesser powers that must deal with the military equivalent of ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ Nowhere has this been more starkly revealed than in NATO, where all the members, save in some degree the United Kingdom and France, have found it a perennially daunting challenge to maintain military forces that can operate effectively with the vastly superior military establishment of the United States.[vi]

To a large degree Australia’s adoption of operational art (and for that matter its adoption by several NATO members that also possess small militaries) has been driven by the need to remain interoperable with the US military.

It should therefore be unsurprising that operational art entered the Australian military vernacular via Army doctrine during the 1980s—the same way it entered the US military vernacular and at about the same time. Specifically the term ‘operational level of war’, defined as ‘the planning and conduct of campaigns’, was included in the 1985 edition of the Australian Army’s keystone doctrine The Fundamentals of Land Force Operations. Just as there was a time-lag between the introduction of the terms ‘operational level of war’ into US Army doctrine in 1982 and ‘operational art’ in 1986, so too was there a time lag in the case of Australia, where the term ‘operational art’ was not introduced until the 1992 edition of the re-named Fundamentals of Land Warfare.[vii]

Operational art subsequently filtered into the doctrine of the other Services—Air Force in the 1990 edition of the Air Power Manual and Navy in the 2000 edition of Australian Maritime Doctrine. The concept also appeared in various joint doctrine publications beginning around 1993. This paralleled developments in the US services, which also adopted the concepts of operational art and/or the operational level of war during the late 1980s and early 1990s.[viii] In the case of Australian joint doctrine it is more likely that a mixture of interoperability concerns and input from the three services was responsible for the concepts inclusion.[ix] Regardless of this, interoperability with Australia’s US ally was clearly a significant issue for each of the Australian services and for the ADF jointly.

Despite interoperability concerns being the primary motivator, another more subtle influence is also likely to have been at work. This influence is primarily one of culture. Discussing the Canadian Forces’ reasons for adopting the operational level of war within its own doctrine, Howard Coombs applied Ludwig Fleck’s concept of ‘thought collectives’ to explain why this ‘paradigm shift’, which generated intense intellectual debate in the US, was virtually unquestioned in Canada. Describing a thought collective as ‘participants in a definable and collective structure of thought generated by an esoteric circle of authorities, or experts’, Coombs observed that:

‘One must situate the paradigm shift within the context of a single group of military professionals defined by a common purpose rather than locating it in two distinct groups separated by nationality…The experts within the larger collective were the doctrine writers and then the practitioners of the United States Army…None of the hallmarks of the paradigm shift [that could be] attributed to professional discourse took place in Canada because it had already occurred in the United States; the Canadian military implicitly viewed itself as part of a single community of practice that extended across the continent and followed the paradigm shift that had taken place.[x]

In other words, the two militaries shared a common cultural bond that resulted in members of the smaller perceiving themselves as being in the same professional community as the larger. Hence when the US military changed the content of its doctrine, Canada followed suit by default. To an extent a similar observation could be made about most other US allies. This should come as no surprise to students of military history: Azar Gat, for example, examined military thought in Europe over a four-hundred year period and determined that ‘the centre of military thought has normally tended to follow the centre of military power’.[xi] It is likely that a similar cultural linkage to that which Coombs identified between the US and Canada also subtlety influenced the ADF’s decision to embrace operational art (and the operational level of war).

Conceiving operational art: a functionalist understanding

Having decided to include operational art in their doctrine, small militaries face a serious challenge of scale. Regarding operational art, Philip Jones rightly highlights that ‘what the Soviets handed down was an approach that mirrored tactics but on a larger scale’.[xii] Operational art was originally considered to be the realm of the front or theatre commander and is often linked to the activities of army groups, armies or perhaps sometimes divisions. Yet in places like Afghanistan modern small militaries have not fielded units of this size—on the contrary, even brigade-sized deployments have been relatively rare; battalion groups or even smaller national contingents have been common. So how do small militaries apply operational art without meeting the scale requirements that are central to traditional understandings of the concept?

The ADF’s answer to this question has been to take an alternative conceptual approach that emphasises functionality over scale. In this approach, what makes an action operational art is the linking of strategic aims with tactical actions, the synchronisation of operations in depth and the linking of multiple tactical engagements to form a campaign, regardless of scale.[xiii] Two comparatively recent Australian examples are illustrative: the peace enforcement campaign undertaken by the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) from August 1999 to February 2000; and ADF operations in the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) since the early 2000s.

Not without a hint of irony, the first example has been chosen for its scale. The INTERFET deployment remains the largest ADF operation since the Vietnam War, peaking at the deployment of over 7,500 personnel (including 5,300 Army personnel). It is also the only operation since Vietnam wherein the Australian Army deployed a brigade-sized force, and it is one of the few ADF deployments wherein Australia has been the lead nation. The operation was short (after five months it transitioned to a UN-led peacekeeping operation), but it nevertheless involved the sequencing of multiple tactical actions. The largest of these was a brigade-level sweep of East Timor’s capital, Dili. Multiple sequenced and coordinated battalion-sized activities took place thereafter along the East/West Timorese border. During the entire operation naval and air components supported activities on land, including by conducting amphibious lodgements, adding an additional element of required coordination.[xiv]

The ADF deployed to the MEAO following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, in support of the American military response to those attacks. Since then ADF force elements have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq; have contributed to multinational maritime security operations in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean; and have maintained significant supporting forces in various Gulf states, including Air Force elements that have flown multiple missions over Afghanistan and Iraq. These force elements have conducted several discrete but mutually-supporting operations, including Operation Slipper, Bastille, Falconer, Catalyst, Accordion and Manitou.[xv] Forces deployed on each of these longer-duration operations have also conducted shorter, localised operations within their own areas. For example, elements of the combined Australian and Dutch task force in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province conducted Operation Spin Ghar in 2007 to gain the initiative and clear key areas of the province of Taliban.[xvi]

If campaigning is the linking of discrete tactical actions to form an operation (or operations) in pursuit of strategic objectives, then ADF activities in the MEAO are easily recognisable as a campaign. The strategic objectives of this campaign are to reinvigorate the alliance relationship with America and to enhance the resulting benefits to Australia.[xvii] Interestingly, these strategic objectives can be achieved through a politically-prominent presence in the area of operations, regardless of tactical outcomes. Hence tactical actions as varied as quick impact construction projects in Afghanistan and anti-piracy interdiction of shipping off the African coast are all linked to Australia’s strategic goals. This link is at best indirect, however, and ultimately visible tactical presence has been more valuable to achieving Australian strategic objectives than has been tactical success.

The practice of operational art by the ADF is therefore clearly evident, providing that a functionalist understanding of operational art is employed. This understanding has enabled ADF personnel to become familiar with the terminology used by Australia’s larger US ally—hence enabling interoperability—while the ADF nevertheless conducts operations on a scale that this larger ally may well regard as tactical or perhaps logistical. This phenomenon has been described by Richard Dickenson as ‘the tactification of operational ideas’, although it is important to note that Dickenson, writing a decade ago, was criticising an attempt by the Canadian Army to apply the manoeuvrist approach, which he argued is ill-suited to Canada’s national circumstances. The remedy he suggested was essentially to take a functionalist approach to operational art instead—because this is the closest small militaries are likely to come to being able to think operationally (rather than tactically) about the employment of their limited forces.[xviii]

The ADF’s structure is also worth highlighting, as it is quite different to the structure of most large militaries, yet it is similar to that of other small militaries such as Canada and New Zealand.[xix] First, all ADF operations are joint. The three services raise, train and sustain forces. Deployment, force elements are assigned under command of Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC), which is Australia’s only theatre-level headquarters. Joint task forces may campaign within a theatre, but it is HQJOC that plans and directs all ADF theatre-level campaigns.[xx] Hence HQJOC is generally regarded as the primary ADF organisation responsible for practicing operational art. Second, the ADF regards operational art as applying to both opposed and unopposed operations. The functionalist approach emphasises the linkages between tactics and strategy and the synchronisation of operations in depth, and according to ADF doctrine there need not be an adversary present in an area of operations for these aspects of operational art to be employed.[xxi]


This article has briefly addressed why small militaries adopt operational art, which traditionally focuses on large-scale military activities. It has also examined the ADF as a case study of how one small military has adapted the concept to suit its own limited size and means. Although the ADF is not necessarily representative of all small militaries, there is a good deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is at least similar enough to several small NATO militaries to be useful as a case study. In summary, the ADF has adopted operational art due to a mix of interoperability concerns and strong cultural similarities to its larger US ally, which itself began employing the concept shortly before Australia did. The ADF has conceived of operational art functionally, emphasising the linking of strategic aims with tactical actions, the synchronisation of operations in depth and the linking of multiple tactical engagements to form a campaign, while conveniently ignoring any conceptual linkages between operational art and the scale of military activities.

There will always be a trade-off for small militaries when they adopt operational concepts and ideas initially designed by and for their larger counterparts, but this is only one part of a larger dilemma they face. The dilemma is that when small militaries work to achieve interoperability with larger allies, to some extent they must replicate these allies, becoming analogous to the character ‘Mini Me’ from the Austin Powers movies (to paraphrase: ‘he’s identical to you in every way, except one eighth the size’). This replication yields interoperability benefits but at a cost to sovereignty, as small militaries optimised for interoperability are often sub-optimal for pursuing independent national interests on occasions when these diverge from those of their larger allies.[xxii] In the case of operational art, its application by several small militaries (including the ADF) occurred after they had already determined to optimise their forces for interoperability. It has therefore made sense for them to go one step further down the same road, even though they cannot achieve the same scale of operations as their larger allies.

Ultimately the size of small militaries will always be a limitation, even if their conceptual rigour far exceeds that of larger adversaries. Theoretically there is likely to be a threshold of relative size beyond which functionality in operational art no longer matters. As Stalin famously put it, ‘quantity has a quality all of its own’. Even if their practice of operational art is brilliant, small militaries facing much larger adversaries will ultimately have to choose between annihilation, surrender, or resorting to unconventional means (such as waging an insurgency). Up to the point where they reach this threshold, however, it makes sense for small militaries seeking to enhance their interoperability with larger allies to embrace a functionalist conceptualisation of operational art, due to the interoperability benefits they derive by doing so.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and are not necessarily those of the Australian Defence Organisation or any part thereof.


[i] Justin Kelly & Mike Brennan, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, September 2009), pp. 11-71.
[ii] Pollack concisely defined military effectiveness as: ‘the ability of an armed service to prosecute military operations and employ weaponry in military operations’. Kenneth M. Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (USA: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), p. 3.
[iii] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, Vol. 114 (2014), pp. 486-92.
[iv] Ibid, pp. 223-6.
[v] Maryanne Kelton & Aaron P. Jackson, ‘Australia: Terrorism, Regional Security and the US Alliance’ in: Stephen Grenier & Gale Mattox (Eds.), The Politics of Alliance: Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan (Stamford: Stamford University Press, forthcoming).
[vi] Danford W. Middlemiss & Denis Stairs, ‘The Canadian Forces and the Doctrine of Interoperability: The Issues’, Policy Matters, Vol. 3, No. 7, June 2002, p. 14.
[vii] Michael Evans, Forward from the Past: The Development of Australian Army Doctrine 1972-Present (Canberra: Australian Army Land Warfare Studies Centre, 1999), pp. 24 & 43. Regarding the US experience, see: Kelly & Brennan, op cit, pp. 59-71.
[viii] Aaron P. Jackson, The Roots of Military Doctrine: Change and Continuity in Understanding the Practice of Warfare (Fort Leavenworth: US Army Combat Studies Institute Press, 2013), pp. 19-24.
[ix] Aaron P. Jackson, Doctrine, Strategy and Military Culture: Military-Strategic Doctrine Development in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, 1987-2007 (Trenton: Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre, 2013), pp. 156-60.
[x] Original emphasis. Howard G. Coombs, ‘In the Wake of a Paradigm Shift: The Canadian Forces College and the Operational Level of War (1987-1995)’, Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 10 No. 2, 2010, p. 25.
[xi] Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 107.
[xii] Philip Jones, ‘“The Operational” in the Information Age’, Military Operations, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 2014), p. 14.
[xiii] Australian Defence Doctrine Publication (ADDP) 5.0—Joint Planning, 2nd ed. (Canberra: Australian Defence Publishing Service, 2014), chap. 2.
[xiv] John Blaxland, The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 143-168.
[xv] For details see: Australian Department of Defence, Global Operations (available online,, accessed 10 September 2014).
[xvi] Matt Dupee, ‘Operation Spin Ghar: Uruzgan Gets Ugly’, The Long War Journal, 16 November 2007 (available online:, accessed 10 September 2014).
[xvii] Albert Palazzo, ‘The Making of Strategy and the Junior Coalition Partner: Australia and the 2003 Iraq War’, Infinity Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Fall 2012), pp. 27-30; see also Blaxland, op cit, chap. 7-9.
[xviii] Richard N. H. Dickson, Operational Art in a Middle-Power Context: A Canadian Perspective (US Army School of Advanced Military Studies, unpublished monograph, academic year 2003-4), quote p. 12.
[xix] Jackson, Doctrine, Strategy and Military Culture, op cit, pp. 136-47.
[xx] David Horner, ‘The Higher Command Structure for Joint ADF Operations’ in: Ron Huisken & Meredith Thatcher (eds.), History as Policy: Framing the Debate on the Future of Australia’s Defence Policy, Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence No. 167 (Canberra: Australian National University EPress, 2007), pp. 158-9.
[xxi] ADDP 5.0, op cit, chap. 2.
[xxii] A good example is discussed in: Sebastian Langvad, ‘Norwegian Swarm: How Unique National Doctrines Contribute to a More Flexible NATO’, Military Operations, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Summer 2014), pp. 13-15.