Surrogate: Why Operational Art Adopted Strategy

Aaron Jackson

Surrogate: Why Operational Art Adopted Strategy
To cite this article: Jackson, Aaron, “Surrogate: Why Operational Art Adopted Strategy”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 2, Spring 2014, pages 8-11.

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


Since its first issue the pages of this journal have contained a lively debate about the relevance and place of operational art and the operational level of war. This debate was triggered by an earlier publication, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy, by Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan.[i] Thus far the debate has focused on whether operational art has ‘devoured’ strategy and on the proper place operational art should occupy relative to strategy and tactics. Participants have reached conclusions ranging from advocacy of an operational level of war as a useful intermediary between strategic and tactical levels, to its abandonment altogether.

This article offers an alternative perspective on that debate. Arguing convincingly within Alien that the scope of operational art has expanded to include formerly strategic functions such as campaign planning, Kelly and Brennan assert that this has occurred because of a mixture of bureaucratic reasons and a misunderstanding of the nature of the concept of ‘operational art’ itself. This article argues that this expansion has instead been largely due to attempts to implement what Eliot Cohen called ‘the ‘normal’ theory of civil-military relations’.[ii] This theory posits that statesmen should determine the desired strategic end state and then leave it up to military professionals to plan and conduct the military activities necessary to reach that end state.

Attempts to implement this theory have brought about an artificial distinction between the strategic and operational roles of statesmen and military practitioners. This in turn has necessitated an expanded conceptualisation of operational art that allows military practitioners to continue to legitimately discuss aspects of strategy (including campaign planning) that would otherwise be perceived as beyond their remit. Operational art is therefore not some kind of strategy-devouring alien, as Kelly and Brennan assert, but instead is akin to a surrogate that has kept these aspects of strategy alive by adopting them as its own. Until the prevailing understanding of civil-military relations changes to enable senior military professionals to openly influence national strategy and, inversely, to allow statesmen to legitimately reach down and influence operational and sometimes even tactical events when the strategic situation warrants, the academic debate about operational art and the operational level of war is likely to have little impact on practice.

The debate about operational art

In Alien Kelly and Brennan offer a history of the theoretical development of operational art from the 19th century to the present, which given the subject of this paper is worth summarising. The need for operational art arose in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, during which the size of armies grew to such a scale that they were no longer manageable by a single commander. Beginning in France with the Levee en Masse, conscription enabled European states to mobilise increasing numbers of personnel. Concurrently, the industrial revolution enabled these increasingly large armies to be equipped, sustained, supplied and manoeuvred.[iii]

This increase in scale created two major problems for military commanders. The first was the need to orchestrate the movement of military forces beyond the immediate geography and direct control of the commander. The second was that the increased size of military forces meant that defeating an enemy army in a single battle would no longer lead to the enemy’s overall defeat. To address these problems and ensure that strategic objectives could be met the need arose to link several tactical actions together as a campaign. This need for prolonged campaigns inevitably changed the relationship between politics, strategy and tactics. Both theoretical development and practical advances in this regard were most comprehensive in Germany and, from the early 20th century, the Soviet Union.

It was theorists in the latter that gave ‘operational art’ its name during the 1920s. They developed this concept in a very specific context: the need to defend the Soviet Union against external treats originating almost entirely from Europe. The Soviet conceptualisation of operational art was a narrow one, focused on the eventual annihilation of an enemy’s forces through a planned sequence of tactical actions aimed at their progressive attrition. Importantly, campaign planning remained a function of strategy, with operational art limited to the linking of tactical actions within the framework of the (strategic) campaign plan.[iv]

This understanding of ‘operations’ was not explicit within English speaking militaries until the publication of the 1982 edition of US Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5. According to Kelly and Brennan, discussion within this publication constituted a ‘perversion’ of the Soviet conceptualisation of operational art.[v] This is because FM 100-5 discussed ‘the operational level of war’ rather than ‘operational art’ (a term that was not introduced to English speaking militaries until the 1986 edition of FM 100-5). This difference in terminology was subtle but very important as it led to a conceptual separation of the operational from the strategic. The subsequent expansion of the newly delineated operational level within the doctrine of English-speaking militaries led to it encompassing campaign planning. This led in turn to it ‘reducing the political leadership to the role of ‘strategic sponsors’, [which] quite specifically widened the gap between politics and warfare’.[vi]

The core of Kelly’s and Brennan’s argument is that this expanded role for the operational level of war and operational art has not only dislocated military operations from strategy, but also from the original context in which Soviet theorists were writing about operational art. ‘The result’, they argue, ‘has been a well-demonstrated ability to win battles that have not always contributed to strategic success’. To remedy this, they suggest returning to the conceptual roots of operational art as limited to the sequencing of tactical actions. Campaign planning should be returned to the remit of strategic leadership and involve input from political as well as military strategic leaders.

A series of articles since published in The Journal of Military Operations has significantly expanded the scope of the debate about the role and place of operational art.[viii] In extremis, William F. Owen declared that ‘the operational level of war does not exist’ and made an argument for its removal from doctrine altogether. At the other end of the spectrum, John Kiszely advocated maintaining the status quo, concluding that because doctrine is flexibly applied at the discretion of the practitioner, the operational level is better off being included in doctrine and used, altered or set aside as circumstances dictate.

Kelly once again entered the fray, asserting ‘it is not possible to publish a theory of ‘larger unit operations’ or of planning ‘major operations’. These concepts are entirely subjective and do not lend themselves to objective analysis’.[ix] His thinking had clearly evolved since Alien and his article viewed operational art as a subjective response to a particular situation in which the Soviets found themselves, which is not suitable to any other situation. Finally, in the most recent contribution to the debate (so far) Nathan W. Toronto asserted that operational art is appropriate in situations where military engagements are relatively large in scale and where there is a relatively longer time delay between tactical action and strategic effect. In other situations it may not be suitable.

Why the scope of operational art expanded

Despite the ongoing academic debate, the status quo established by the 1982 and 1986 editions of FM 100-5 seems likely to remain extant within doctrine and practice. The collective understanding of operational art and the operational level of war is also likely to remain unchanged within Western militaries. Accordingly, the intent of this article is not to continue the debate about whether to retain or remove the operational level from doctrine and planning, although that debate is worth continuing and Kelly in particular has raised several points worthy of further development. Instead the intent here is to explain why the scope of operational art has expanded into areas such as campaign planning (leading Kelly and Brennan to assert that it has ‘devoured’ strategy), to offer an insight into the main barrier that will prevent the theoretical debate from transitioning into practice and to briefly examine how things might look if this barrier was removed.

In his article in The Journal of Military Operations Kelly explained the bureaucratic rationale for the operational level of war being included in the 1982 edition of FM 100-5:

It has been explained to this author by a member of the writing team of FM 100-5 (1982) that the final draft of the publication did not include mention of the operational level of war. However, the meeting held to consider the final draft included representatives from the US Army War College, Army Command and General Staff College and the branch schools. It was clear to this group that War College taught strategy and the branches taught tactics but this left the staff college without a defined jurisdiction. The operational level of war emerged as a consequence.[x]

This was different to the reason stated in Alien, where it was asserted that:

The US chain of command resulting from the Goldwater-Nichols Act had established the role of the combatant commanders-in-chief as joint war fighters…defining their role in the process of conducting a war necessarily involved defining their inputs and outputs. Thus the idea of an operational level of war charged with campaign planning met a bureaucratic need—establishment of jurisdictional definition among an influential group of senior officers.[xi]

Given the size of the US military bureaucracy and the sheer number of influential stakeholders involved, it is likely that both bureaucratic reasons cited by Kelly (and Brennan) hold a good deal of truth. This would by no means be the first time that bureaucratic compromise has resulted in conceptually sub-optimal doctrine!

A different bureaucratic reason helps to explain why an expanded conceptualisation of the operational level of war, which includes aspects traditionally constituting part of strategy, is likely to remain within doctrine now that it is there. This additional reason is perhaps best encapsulated in Sir Basil Liddell-Hart’s dictum that ‘the only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out’.[xii] Kelly and Brennan are right that the operational level of war has expanded and become thoroughly entrenched in Western military thought. Due to inertia alone it is likely to be very hard to get military practitioners to accept a radical change to their collective understanding of the operational level and what it encompasses, at least in the short term.

As encompassing as the bureaucratic rationale for retaining the operational level is, there is another more fundamental reason why the expanded conceptualisation is not going anywhere. This reason is the prevailing cultural norm of civil-military relations in Western democracies. The nature of this norm was famously laid out by Samuel Huntington in The Soldier and the State; however the more recent writing of Eliot Cohen offers a better summary. Describing ‘a simplified secondhand version’ of Huntington’s model as ‘the ‘normal’ theory of civil-military relations’, Cohen determined that this model calls for a sharp distinction between statesmen and military professionals. In line with this distinction, the former ought to be responsible for political matters, including the setting of the desired strategic end state, while the latter ought to be responsible for the execution of all military activities necessary to achieve this end state. Although Cohen offers an excellent critique of the normal theory, ultimately proving both that it does not function in practice and that it is undesirable that it should, he also concludes that it remains the system of civil-military relations that many Western political and military leaders strive towards achieving.[xiii]

It is not, as Kelly and Brennan assert, misconceptions of operational art as an operational level of war that have reduced ‘political leadership to the role of ‘strategic sponsors’’ and ‘widened the gap between politics and warfare’. Instead, perceptions of what constitutes the most desirable model of civil-military relations at the highest levels of Western democracies, and attempts to implement this model, have driven a wedge between politics and statesmen on one hand and military professionals and the conduct of warfare on the other. Operational art and the operational level of war entered Western military parlance in an environment where this gap already existed, and their expansion relative to strategy reflects and reinforces but does not create this gap.

So where to next?

Over the longer term military professionals should take subtle actions aimed at eventually creating a more ideal state of civil-military relations. This will require much tact, to ensure that efforts to ‘educate up’ (which are likely to be necessary to bring about such a change) have the desired effect rather than being an unwanted nuisance. Furthermore, exactly how to achieve the desired change will most likely require a unique approach dependant upon national circumstances and the personalities of key leaders on both sides of the fence. But such efforts are likely to be worthwhile because, as history shows, better strategy development accompanies a more ideal state of civil-military relations. What may constitute a more ideal state of civil-military relations is therefore worth elaborating before discussing the effect that this would likely have on the practice of operational art.

In an ideal world statesmen and senior military commanders would each play a role in both strategy and operational art, with statesmen heavily involved in the former and only selectively intervening in the latter. Military professionals would be involved in all aspects of both strategy and operational art—including establishing the strategic end state, a function currently reserved for statesmen. Applying an ideal model of civil-military relations would therefore mean accepting that the division of responsibility between statesmen and senior military professionals is necessarily blurred. Although the civilian statesman must always have the final say, it would be legitimate—indeed desirable—for senior military professionals to contribute to all aspects of strategy development, bluntly and especially so if the professional’s view conflicts with the statesman’s. In such an atmosphere operational art would once again be able to play the more limited (and tactically-focused) role that the Soviets originally conceived for it. This would be because operational art would no longer need to incorporate aspects of strategy (e.g. campaign planning) to allow senior military professionals to legitimately address them.

In the short term, however, attempts to ‘walk the line’ between theoretical desires and the practical requirements of civil-military relations are likely to persist. An expanded operational level of war that includes campaign planning may indeed be a theoretically perverted model; but it is also a pragmatic necessity given this situation. Military practitioners need to be able to plan and conduct military activities regardless of the prevailing state of civil-military relations, which means accepting a lack of input by statesmen beyond the expression of a desired end state. This necessitates doing what Kiszely proposed: keeping the current (expanded) conceptualisation of operational art in doctrine and selectively applying it as necessary to suit individual circumstances. This is not the first time that Western militaries have had to adapt and overcome using a sub-optimal but nevertheless workable solution; no doubt it will not be the last.


A debate about the relevance of operational art and the operational level of war to contemporary Western militaries is worth having. But the outcome of this debate is only likely to lead to an improvement in military conduct if it first leads to changes in military doctrine. As things stand this is unlikely to happen, not because of anything inherent to the debate itself, but because of the prevailing Western cultural norm of civil-military relations, in which the separation of politics from military conduct is seen as both normal and desirable. According to this norm, civilian political leaders should stay away from the military aspects of campaign planning, and military leaders should steer clear of political issues, including those that relate directly to the establishment of national strategy. It is this norm, not the development of an operational ‘level of war’, that has driven a wedge between strategy and tactics. Something more than tactics is certainly required of military officers, but in the current system discussing the most fundamental elements of national strategy remains all but off limits.

In light of this wedge operational art should not be viewed as some kind of strategy-devouring alien, as Kelly and Brennan imagine it. Instead operational art should be imagined as a surrogate that has kept certain aspects of military strategy—campaign planning in particular—alive by adopting them as its own. Before the academic debate over the rightful role and place of operational art can have any meaningful result, the prevailing understanding of civil-military relations and the respective roles of statesmen and senior military leaders needs to change. It must be better understood that civil-military relations are inherently messy. Senior military leaders need to be able to influence national strategy just as, inversely, statesmen are well within their remit to reach down and influence operational and sometimes even tactical events when the strategic situation warrants it. Only once the prevailing norm of civil-military relations has been changed will operational art be able to give up its surrogate role and return the aspects of strategy it has allegedly ‘devoured’ back to their rightful parent.


[i] Justin Kelly & Mike Brennan, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy, Carlisle, PA: US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, September 2009.
[ii] Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime (London: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p. 263
[iii] Kelly & Brennan, Alien, pp. 11-25.
[iv] Ibid, pp. 40-48.
[v] This term was used in a journal article based on the monograph Alien and making the same overall argument. Justin Kelly & Michael J. Brennan, ‘The Leavenworth Heresy and the Perversion of Operational Art’, Joint Force Quarterly, No. 56 (1st Quarter 2010), pp. 109-116.
[vi] Kelly & Brennan, Alien, p. 93.
[vii] Ibid, p. viii.
[viii] These articles include: William F. Owen, ‘The Operational Level of War Does Not Exist’, The Journal of Military Operations, Vol. 1, No. 1 ( Summer 2012), pp. 17-20; Justin Kelly, ‘Where to for ‘The Operational’’, The Journal of Military Operations, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Winter 2012), pp. 8-11; John Kiszely, ‘Where to for ‘The Operational’? An Answer’, The Journal of Military Operations, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Spring 2013), pp. 4-7; Nathan W. Toronto, ‘Does Operational Art Exist? Space, Time and a Theory of Operational Art’, The Journal of Military Operations, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter 2014), pp. 4-7.
[ix] Kelly, ‘Where to for ‘The Operational’’, p. 9.
[x] Ibid, p. 9.
[xi] Kelly & Brennan, Alien, pp. 62-63.
[xii] B.H. Liddell-Hart, Thoughts on War (London: Faber & Faber, 1944), p. v.
[xiii] Cohen, Supreme Command, pp. 1-16 & 262-289, quotes p. 263.