The Operational: As Valid And As Dangerous As Any Other Abstraction

Steve Cornell

The Operational: As Valid And As Dangerous As Any Other Abstraction
To cite this article: Cornell, Steve, “The Operational: As Valid And As Dangerous As Any Other Abstraction”, Military Operations, Volume 3, Issue No. 2, Winter 2016, pages 11-13.

The Journal has seen a steady drumbeat of debate regarding ‘The Operational’ (be it the level, the art or both), addressing what it might be and its utility. Those who sound the clarion call of the dangers of an expansionist concept have some valid warnings, but they also may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Those who oppose The Operational, from differing perspectives, provide criticisms that are focused on three main areas. First, that it is a poorly expressed and confusing idea and that by imposing itself as an intermediate (and ever-growing) level of warfare, it hinders rather than supports the linking of strategy and tactics. Second, that The Operational’s utility depends upon the context in which is conceived and that context is no longer relevant. Finally, that it offers superficial clarity and simplicity but is actually a confused logic that has been misapplied and has spawned a host of processes and approaches.

An over-weaning but not invalid concept?

These criticisms are either true or they suggest an area of risk we need to consider. So from the perspec-tive of someone who has no fundamental issue with The Operational, where does the concept risk being unhelpful to the prosecution of effective military activity? I suggest that they centre on two areas: the military mind and the worship of the past.

Military mindsets seem to favour taking an idea or abstraction, turning it into very detailed doctrine and then requiring a dogmatic approach to utilizing it. We have taken The Operational and made it a rigid set of mental (and for staffs, physical) hoops to jump though. We also demand that abstractions are ap-plied; in this case it is a desire to force a separate operational level of command into our structures be-cause the doctrine says so in a diagram or definition rather than a need. This is unwarranted and possi-bly dangerous. There is also potentially no end to how far a military mind is willing to take this dogmat-ic approach, going as far as the replacement of basic building blocks of activity with shining new edi-fices. Operational Art and Operational Design are just normal military command and staff activity but you would not know that from the reams written on these alleged bespoke activities. While it may be true that every commander and HQ will have a particular set of nuances, context and procedures, mak-ing up new terms for age-old activity strikes of empire-building.

The study of history is an important tool in learning but we should be inspired by the past, not become its prisoners. When we do, it shows in two ways: we re-prove that ‘preparing to fight the last war’ is more than a hackneyed phrase or instead, we clad our supposedly new idea in the armour of historical legitimacy by linking it to past success. For example, operational thinking on the Eastern Front of WW2 does not in itself justify its use now. An idea born of any era is likely to age and lose some rele-vance. The Operational, as the West knows it, is a child of the 1980s and in some ways this shows. It struggles in the light of 24-hour media influence, civil-military integration, the scale and reach of global communications and societal demands to be involved in military decision-making. These would have been a struggle to comprehend or forecast thirty years ago but all of these point to a close linkage of the strategic and tactical levels.

The Operational is thus not a panacea to the complexity of military activity or a magic formula. Some would have us believe that you need only dial in the factors to The Operational and out pops some pret-ty effective PowerPoint (on us if not the enemy). It is fairly clear however that there is strategy and there are tactics. Somehow the two need to be linked for military activity to be both meaningful and effective. That does not in itself require new ideas, levels, structures, commanders or doctrine. What matters is making an effective linkage. Steve Hart’s first thought is true: The Operational is not omnipo-tent.[i] However arguing further that this makes it impotent or invalid risks going too far and misses out on what could be gleaned from it.

Where do the criticisms risk going too far?

The fundamental truths behind an ‘old’ idea can still be useful if they can be divined. There is also very little out there which is purely a function of an era’s character. Most likely every concept bears some-thing of the nature of war, however small, and is thus useful in some way to our thinking now. Forming squares to protect musket-armed infantry against sword-wielding cavalry is no longer a valid tactic, but the truth of strong defences based on maximising weapons’ effect and unit cohesion is a useful lesson to bear in mind. Furthermore, if war is an activity full of stresses, some caused by the nature of war and some by its current character, this does not mean that those character-caused stresses and their responses are irrelevant later on. The Operational recognises some of those strains and attempts to mitigate them. Most crucially it recognises that strategy and tactics are linked but that a successful linkage is not a giv-en; it must be forged and maintained. The challenges of doing this are magnified if tactical action is oc-curring in widespread locations against possibly differing opponents to meet a variety of goals. This might be a large scale conventional war (e.g. WW2) or multiple small scale civil-military conflicts (e.g. the struggle against jihadist franchises).

The need to apply concepts to past eras with care applies to both those who support or oppose them. I agree that the Falklands case study has uses. It highlights how an abstraction, if rigidly described and applied, is probably dangerous in application. This is because the situation, the abstraction, or both, are bent to make them fit together. We thus risk the faulty assessment of command structures and more im-portantly command activity through a lens that was not recognized nor used at the time. In this case, the Falklands War of 1982 came before the operational level was really in the British mind-set and it was certainly not doctrine.

Linking strategy and tactics requires thought to achieve. Using abstractions is a valid way for someone to be introduced to a requirement, be assisted to understand the requirement and to support their in-sights in meeting it. The Operational is no different. War and its strains are hugely complex and attempt-ing to understand these strains requires some sort of abstraction and simplification. Over-simplified ab-stractions pose a risk but that does not mean attempting to create these abstractions is invalid. Nathan Toronto’s article[ii] points towards the chasm we are seeking to bridge: a time and space challenge that if ignored risks pointless tactical violence and death, ineffectual strategic desires and direction, or both. The Operational has to be seen as a good thing at least to some degree, even to those who wish to see it debunked. It is an honest attempt to address a challenge that has existed since the Napoleonic Wars where armies became too large to be within the sight and personal direction of the overall combatant commander.

Where might we go?

We might consider dropping ‘operational’ as a label. It is now a loaded term and to some it is poison-ous; to others it is yet another use of an over-employed word. Hopefully it can be agreed that there are battles and engagements, there are campaigns and there are wars. Might we just call the effort to link strategy and tactics ‘campaigning’? These campaigns are sub-sets of a wider conflict probably differen-tiated by separations in time, space, context and goals. The Operational is like all ideas; we cannot de-lete or un-think it, indeed it has shaped modern military command. Whatever your view, the focus should be on ensuring we gain insight from it, regardless of whether it continues to major in military thinking or whether it becomes an overused idea past its period of immediate use.

It should also be recognized that The Operational has grown well beyond its original logic and form. Delineation between the abstraction and the raft of other operational terms and procedures is needed. As Kizeley offers, using the term Operational Art with, in my opinion, its connotation that it is some new form of command and control paradigm, may be unhelpful.[iii]

Most importantly, the rigid application of a concept – that oft-repeated military passion – is not useful. Linking strategy and tactics is needed, and how someone arrives at an understanding of it matters. Armed forces should recognize that abstractions are tools, not answers. If that tool to link strategy and tactics is ‘The Operational’ or ‘campaigning’ so be it. If it is some other abstraction or method, that is just as valid.

Finally, I am struck by the perceived need of many to offer firm prescriptions. My view is that this de-sire is part of the problem and we now have sides busily entrenching themselves around a number of conclusions without a desire to simply think about the issue – linking strategy and tactics. We are reach-ing for the answers without due consideration of the problem. For example, it may be that The Opera-tional is simply what the senior HQ in theatre does that others with a purely tactical role do not.[iv] This seems to be sensible and resonates with some recent experience. However, we are again reaching for a real-life response, rather than considering what we may want that link to achieve or do. Someone, somewhere, somehow needs to link strategy and tactics. The primary question I think that needs to be resolved is not the form but what functions we want that linkage to carry out? This is a big question and beyond the scope of this article. However, this should be a priority for discussion as we need to avoid the lack of strategic success the West has seen in recent campaigns, however that shortfall may have come about.

Being comfortable with the imperfect and amorphous

We need abstractions to make sense of the world. The Operational is but one abstraction. It will proba-bly always be controversial. This is because identifying what happens (if anything) between soldiers on the ground and our home capitals is always likely to be amorphous and ever-changing. Rigidly apply-ing such an abstraction as the answer is a harmful approach; rigidly rejecting it is probably equally as harmful. That means that this abstraction is as valid or as dangerous as any other. We may wish to spend less time worrying about abstractions and more about how we develop, teach and use them. Unfortu-nately rigid approaches to viewing abstractions seem to be favoured.


[i] Hart, Steve, “An Omnipotent Abstraction: What Lessons Does the Falklands War Have For The Operational Level of War?”, Military Opera-tions, Volume 3, Issue No.1, Spring 2015, Pages 9-12.
[ii] Toronto, Nathan W. “Does Operational Art Exist? Space, Time and a Theory of Operational Ar.” Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No 1, Winter 2014, Pages 4-7.
[iii] Kiszely, John, “Where To For ‘The Operational’? An Answer.”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 4, Spring 2013, pages 4-7.
[iv] My personal view but more usefully a prescription offered by Christopher Elliott several times in High Command: British Military Leadership in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. London: Hurst & Co, 2015.