Does Operational Art Exist? Space, Time, and a Theory of Operational Art

Nathan W. Toronto

Does Operational Art Exist? Space, Time, and a Theory of  Operational Art
To cite this article: Toronto, Nathan W., “Does Operational Art Exist? Space, Time, and a Theory of Operational Art”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 1, Winter 2014, pages 4-7.

What is the utility of operational art? Practitioners and theoreticians alike have argued that modern warfare requires the application of operational art.[ii] In fact, at the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, every academic course in the curriculum has the words “Operational Art” in its title. There is an ongoing discussion about whether it was Napoleon Bonaparte or Ulysses Grant who brought the operational level of war into being.[iii] Other students of military operations and strategy have argued that the operational level of war either does not exist or is not useful,[iv] or that operational art itself has consumed strategy.[v] Furthermore, many of the principles of strategy that Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz describes in On War are similar to ways of thinking that are taught as operational art. Even still, a number of military leaders have credited the U.S. Army’s application of operational art with notable successes, from Panama in 1989 to Afghanistan today.[vi] In short, there are some who accept operational art’s utility as a matter of incontrovertible fact, and others who suggest that it is not useful at all.

In the interest of clarity, it is worth noting that this debate sometimes does not distinguish between operational art and the operational level of war. Operational art is a way of thinking, and is distinct from the operational level of war, which is a military echelon intended to apply operational art. The operational level of war changes, presumably, from one conflict to another. However, since most who suggest that operational art has little utility also tend to suggest that the operational level of war does not exist, this argument puts the level and the way of thinking in the same category.

As for the debate on operational art’s utility, if, on one hand, there is no operational level of war, and if operational art bears little sway on conducting effective military operations, then what explains the U.S. and allied militaries’ commitment to the concept? If, on the other hand, operational art has existed since some point in the nineteenth century, then has all warfare since then required this changed way of thinking?

Operational art is neither an incontrovertible fact nor useless, but rather an idea whose utility varies across time and space. There may be times when it is better to believe that operational art simply does not exist, but other times when operational art is essential for strategic success. Put another way, the origin of operational art, as one theorist observes, is simple: “The first time a commander faced a type of problem that created the need to disperse his force’s tactical actions, and he responded by purposefully arranging those tactical actions in time, space, and purpose to pursue a strategic objective, he was practicing operational art.”[vii] Under what conditions, then, does a commander face these types of problems?

The answer to this question relies on what defines an engagement. Strategy, as Clausewitz avers, is “the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war,”[viii] and it behooves the strategist to define what constitutes an engagement in the conflict upon which he has embarked. Are the discrete, tactical engagements in a given war of the sort that require commanders to “purposefully [arrange] those tactical actions in time, space, and purpose”? Are there forces that influence whether some engagements have more meaning for strategy than others? In other words, the character of engagements—and thus the character of a war—help define the space between tactics and strategy, and can also help practitioners know when operational art is truly necessary and when it is merely nice to have around.


The typology of engagements can be characterized along two axes: space and time. The first axis, space, is familiar to students of operational art. The increasing scale of land warfare over the course of the nineteenth century, necessitated by the increasing lethality of the battlefield, also increased the space over which single engagements tended to occur. This emptying of the battlefield made it necessary for commanders to rely on staffs in order to organize and synchronize military efforts in pursuit of strategic aims; these aims became difficult to achieve unless tactical actions were organized into campaigns.[ix]

Thus, to decide tactical engagements required more space and more violence than commanders could physically see and control, and states—because of the size of armies—could no longer concentrate the mass necessary to make any tactical engagement truly decisive. This relationship between the violence available and the level of control necessary to fight led to a systematic expansion in the space required to conclude tactical engagements; this increase in the size of the engagement thus drove the need for campaigning. From a campaign planning perspective, the size of a potential battlefield is of crucial importance, since the available mass, reach, and control of violence in a given space informs the commander’s decision to organize tactical actions into a campaign. Other things equal, then, when military engagements are of a larger scale, they are more likely to require the application of operational art in order to achieve strategic aims.

Over time, technology and other factors have influenced the scale of the battlefield. The centralization of state control over resources beginning in the late Middle Ages contributed to the mobilization of unprecedented levels of military manpower. Increased manpower, in turn, required more space on the battlefield and contributed to such phenomena as the Napoleonic corps system, improved quartermastering, and the military profession. Following these trends, and connected to them, the industrial revolution precipitated an explosion in communications technology (telegraph and railways, in particular), the industrialization of warfare, and the rise of nationalism. These trends help explain why the battlefield has become so lethal, and why one observer calls the modern battlefield “empty.”[x]

There are factors that can contribute to the shrinking of the battlefield, as well. The lethality of the battlefield is based not only on the availability of firepower, but also on target acquisition and precision. So, combatants that can conceal and anonymize themselves—say, by fighting in and among the population [xi]—can in effect shrink the space that an engagement takes to resolve itself. This is one reason the troop surge was so successful in Baghdad—it forced insurgents to reveal themselves over a large swath of terrain, exposing them to the superior technology and firepower of Coalition forces.[xii] In addition to this, the proliferation of sensor technology can increase a commander’s scope of control over an engagement, essentially shrinking the battlefield in cognitive, as opposed to spatial, terms.

In sum, when it comes to space, the size of the engagement is determined by both longer-term, historical trends like the diffusion of technology, and shorter-term choices such as the disposition of forces and the use of technology. The fact of the matter is, though, that the size of the engagement varies from conflict to conflict. There is no guarantee that the historical conditions that initially led theoreticians to consider the relevance of operational art will, in fact, replicate themselves in the future.


The second axis along which engagements can be characterized is time, more specifically the delay between tactical outcomes and the strategic effects these outcomes aim to achieve. Deciding some engagements has a more rapid strategic effect than other types of engagements. On one end of the spectrum, if a war is characterized by a large number of engagements that, individually, have little effect on accomplishing national policy goals, then this tends to increase the time delay between tactical outcomes and strategic effects. Large-scale counterinsurgency and combined-arms continental land warfare are examples of these types of engagements. On the other end of the spectrum, if a war is characterized by a few engagements that are highly significant strategically, then this tends to decrease the delay between tactical outcomes and strategic effects. A nuclear holocaust would be an example of this type of engagement. A longer strategic time delay heightens the need to arrange tactical actions in a strategically coherent way. Other things equal, then, military engagements with a longer strategic time delay are more likely to require the application of operational art in order to achieve national policy goals.

One crucial caveat is in order: not all engagements are created equal. Some engagements have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of wars than others, even if they could all be considered part of the same class of engagement. Gettysburg, in hindsight, had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the American Civil War due to its timing, location, and political ramifications, even though it was similar to other Civil War engagements in terms of the tactical violence employed. What is more, this “tipping point” effect is often hard to anticipate, as with the Battle for Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006 and 2007.[xiii] So, the delay between tactical and strategic outcomes can be a function of strategic forces as much as it is of tactical conditions; the strategic time delay is sometimes hard to predict.

That said, there are some factors that do tend to influence the length of the strategic time delay systematically, and they are just as varied as those that influence the size of the battlefield. One factor is the resilience of the enemy, or the enemy’s ability to continue operating in the face of adverse tactical outcomes. An enemy’s resilience might result from forces such as access to funding or knowledge of the terrain, but it could also result from ideological commitment to a cause. This suggests that the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century and the explosion of Islamist extremism in the twentieth have contributed to a general expansion of the strategic time delay.

Another factor influencing the length of the strategic time delay is civil-military relations. When civilian control over the military is less direct—when the military has the cognitive space to consider and manage the potential uses of military violence—then the strategic time delay is longer and the application of operational art is more likely to be useful in attaining national policy goals. Such has been the case, for example, in the post-Vietnam US military and the interwar Soviet military, which generally received the cognitive space to manage military operations as they saw fit. It need not be the case, however, that every operation conducted by a military force be governed by the same directness of civilian control. For example, the US military of today has much less freedom of thought in the conduct of covert direct action missions, such as those to capture or kill top al-Qaeda targets, than it does over the conduct of large-scale counterinsurgency operations, such as those in Iraq from 2003–2011. In addition, the directness of civilian control over the military can be tied to the individuals involved—few American Secretaries of Defense have been as directly involved in military decision-making as Donald Rumsfeld was in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. So, while different countries’ civil-military relations may exhibit general tendencies, this is still contingent on the character of the military engagements and personalities in question.

Technological and other factors can also influence the strategic time delay. Media penetration of the battlefield increases the likelihood that an engagement will have a rapid political effect, so social media and other web publication technologies have tended to make individual engagements more salient strategically. At the same time, some military forces have demonstrated an ability to insulate the battlefield from media penetration—such as the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank. Some battlefields are decidedly more hostile that others to media penetration—such as many naval engagements and Syria from late 2011 on. Another important factor in establishing the strategic time delay is the extent of national will that a state devotes to it. The crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973, for example, represented a tremendous investment of Egyptian national resources relative to the country’s overall ability to apply violence. This helps explain why the Egyptian national narrative focuses on the successful crossing, rather than on the Egyptian Army being largely surrounded and unable to conduct operations at the cessation of hostilities.[xiv] Had the crossing failed, the strategic effect would have been immediate and devastating, so the strategic time delay was very short in that case.

In sum, as with an engagement’s size, the delay between an engagement’s tactical outcome and its strategic effect is contingent on a number of factors. To be sure, though, some engagements have had a shorter strategic time delay than others, so it is worthwhile to think about how this variation matters for the utility of operational art.

Figure 1. Space, Time, and Operational Art

Figure 1. Space, Time, and Operational Art

A Theory of Operational Art

Plotted on a Cartesian plane, the two axes of space and time suggest one way to think about the utility of operational art. At one extreme—the upper-right corner of Figure 1—where the strategic time delay and the size of the battlefield are at their theoretical maxima, operational art is the most useful. This is where the character of warfare fairly begs the military commander to arrange tactical actions in a strategically coherent manner, for if he does not then disaster is the likely result. At the other extreme—the lower-left corner—where the strategic time delay and the size of the battlefield are at their theoretical minima, operational art is the least useful. Here, the conditions of the battlefield are decidedly indifferent to the application of operational art. The tactician may apply operational art, but it might not matter a whit.

In between these two theoretical extremes lies the reality of warfare. The types of operations represented in Figure 1 certainly do not constitute an exhaustive list, but two implications of this figure are worth mentioning. The first implication is that, in the last two hundred years, the character of warfare has drifted towards the upper-right corner, coinciding with a prolific expansion in military literature on the application of operational art, as well as the salience of large-scale counterinsurgency and major combat operations. The reasons for this drift are manifold, but have mainly to do with the historical trends already mentioned. It may even be that the technology of warfare has changed so fundamentally that physical space no longer matters on the battlefield; in essence, only one of the two axes—time—may be relevant anymore. This implication might be worth investigating further.

The second implication is that we have no guarantee that future warfare will hang around in the upper-right corner of Figure 1. Major combat operations and large-scale counterinsurgency may have been the province of the last two hundred years, but there are indications that this trend is changing.[xv] Not the least of them is an ever-greater reliance on direct-action capture-kill missions and standoff precision strike using unmanned aerial systems.[xvi] This trend, combined with a general weariness for both large-scale counterinsurgency and major combat operations, suggests that the future soldier could operate in an environment where operational art does not really matter very much.


If this paper has one contribution, it is in specifying conditions under which the application of operational art is likely to be useful. It is not enough to say that the operational level of war does not exist simply because it is a construct created for a different time and place; of course the operational level of war does not exist in and of itself—it changes based on battlefield conditions. At the same time, it is also not enough to defend the inculcation of operational art simply because it has been useful for a specific type of warfare in the past—a past that seems less and less likely to repeat itself—and then use that same anachronistic language to defend operational art’s utility. However, since the conditions that originally led military theoreticians to postulate the existence of operational art have receded in importance, it is worth considering which side of this debate is less wrong than the other.

The truth of the matter lies squarely in between these two extremes. There are conditions under which it is much more useful to think of operational art as existing, rather than not. It is for the military theoretician and practitioner to determine what those conditions are, and hopefully thinking about operational art in terms of both time and space will make a positive contribution to this debate.


[i] I am grateful to Tom Bruscino, Robert Davis, Jeff Kubiak, Chris Marsh, Matthew Schmidt, Barry Stentiford, and seminar participants at the School of Advanced Military Studies for helpful written and verbal comments on earlier versions of this project. The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of any agency or government.
[ii] See, for example, John Kiszely, “Where to for ‘The Operational’? An Answer,” Military Operations 1, no. 4 (Spring 2013): 4–7.
[iii] Robert M. Epstein, Napoleon’s Last Victory and the Emergence of Modern War (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994); James J. Schneider, “Vulcan’s Anvil: The American Civil War and the Foundations of Operational Art,” Theoretical Paper No. 4 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, 1992).
[iv] William F. Owen, “The Operational Level of War Does Not Exist,” Military Operations 1, no. 1 (Summer 2012): 17–20; Justin Kelly, “Where to for ‘The Operational’,” Military Operations 1, no. 3 (Winter 2012): 8–11.
[v] Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan, “Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy,” Strategic Studies Institute monograph (September 2009); Justin Kelly and Michael J. Brennan, “The Leavenworth Heresy and the Perversion of Operational Art,” Joint Force Quarterly 56 (1st quarter 2010): 109–16.
[vi] School of Advanced Military Studies, “The School of Advanced Military Studies Mini Documentary” (24 April 2012), (accessed 18 January 2013).
[vii] Thomas Bruscino, “The Theory of Operational Art and Unified Land Operations,” School of Advanced Military Studies Theoretical Paper (Summer 2012), 14.
[viii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 177.
[ix] John Andreas Olsen and Martin van Creveld, eds., “Conclusion,” in The Evolution of Operational Art: From Napoleon to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 222–5; see also Michael D. Krause and R. Cody Phillips, eds., Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2007).
[x] Schneider, “Vulcan’s Anvil”; see also Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 28–35.
[xi] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Vintage, 2008).
[xii] Dale Andrade, Surging South of Baghdad: The 3d Infantry Division and Task Force Marne in Iraq, 2007–2008 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2010).
[xiii] Niel Smith and Sean MacFarland, “Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point,” Military Review (March–April 2008): 41–52.
[xiv] Saad el-Shazly, The Crossing of the Suez (San Francisco, CA: American Mideast Research, 2003).
[xv] John Mueller, “War Has Almost Ceased to Exist: An Assessment,” Political Science Quarterly 124, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 297–321.
[xvi] Micah Zenko, Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World (Stanford, CA: Council on Foreign Relations, 2010).