‘The Operational’ in the Information Age

Phillip Jones

‘The Operational’ in the Information Age
To cite this article: Jones, Phillip, “‘The Operational’ in the Information Age”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 2, Spring 2014, pages 13-16.

This journal has hosted an intriguing discussion on the operational level of war. This conversation has focused on whether an operational level exists and the subsequent question of what is its nature. This article hopes to contribute to that discussion. The article’s bottom line is that there is a level of war between the tactical and strategic, a so-called operational level. This article derives this conclusion through an examination of changes in the nature of war over ages and the effect of those changes on war’s practice. The article concludes with a suggestion for an approach to the operational level, one befitting the Information Age and intendedto foster further discussion.

The levels of war

An operational level of war exists within an ontology that also includes strategic and tactical levels of war. The existence of strategic and tactical levels is widely accepted, though we continue to debate their nature. The reason for this debate is that the levels of war are human constructs created to help us understand and act in order to achieve our goals. They are patterns or structures of thought and action or, in other words, are schema for understanding and reacting to war. Strategy and tactics are distinct schemas because we recognize that different concepts and practices are required at these two levels of activity. Likewise, a third construct or schema, positioned between strategy and tactics, should exist if there is a gap in understanding and practicing war between strategy and tactics. It has been the growing recognition of that gap that has driven the conceptualization and development of the operational level.

The gap between strategy and tactics

Discussion of an operational level of war normally starts with the Napoleonic Era, when human advances allowed the production of large, national armies. Although it is dangerous to generalize, prior to the Napoleonic period, wars were often small, almost one-act affairs fought by single armies in a solitary campaign consisting of an approach to a decisive, culminating battle followed by subsequent actions to secure or exploit the results of that battle. The opposing armies were relatively similar , homogenous and small enough that their resultant battle could be managed by single individuals, often the sovereign or warlord protagonists who were to benefit from the results of the war. A prime example is the Norman conquest of England in 1066. This war consisted of the gathering of a limited variety and quantity of resources into two similar armies, a mutual approach and the culminating Battle of Hastings which occurred over such a small space that William and Harold could personally control each army. Once William won the battle, the remainder of the war consisted of marching through England to secure the various parts of the country. These wars were restricted to this model by the limited capabilities available to collect and sustain combat power over time and distance. Industrial constraints limited the quantity and type of arms available. Agricultural and transportation constraints limited the ability to sustain armies over time and distance. Manpower was limited by the necessity of leaders to manage and conduct agriculture.

Under these conditions, strategy and tactics, as they existed, were tied tightly together. Strategy generated the resources and brought them to the field. Tactics won or lost the battle that ensured or denied the strategic outcome.

War remained relatively unchanged up to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. At that time, social changes such as nationalism and class identity made available the manpower to create much larger armies. Additional social and technical advances facilitated the translation ofthis greater manpower into actual, functional armies as well as allowing their sustainment over greater distances and periods of time. These same advances also provided greater differentiation and specialization within those armies, such as the various forms of cavalry and infantry as well as effective artillery. These advances cascaded into changes in the deployment of these forces, including such novelties as the corps system, mixed unit formations, and multiple avenues of approach. The overarching effect was to create much more resilient armies; ones that could march over multiple routes before massing to fight but beyond the ability of just one man to control. Napoleon’s Ulm campaign consisted of independent French columns making wide approach marches. It also saw Napoleon destroy an Austrian army and occupy Vienna, the enemy’s capital, but still having to continue the war to eventually fight a major winter battle at Austerlitz. Furthermore, Napoleon lost in Russia exactly because he could not translate tactical successes at Borodino and occupation of Moscow into a strategic victory.

As stated above, it was operations such as these that initiated consideration of a possible level of war or schema between tactics and strategy. Students of war saw that protagonists had to tie multiple tactical actions together to achieve strategic outcomes. Those students also saw commanders needing to synchronize the actions and contributions of increasingly differing capabilities. They saw the opening of cracks between tactical results and strategic outcomes.

Napoleon fought his wars just prior to the cusp between the Agricultural Age and Industrial. As the world accelerated into the industrial age, those cracks would widen to inescapable gaps. The Industrial Age saw an explosion in human advancement with subsequent effects on war. Armies continued to grow. Existing capabilities improved and new ones emerged. Technical enablers included railroad, internal combustion engine, agricultural tractor, steam ship, torpedo, airplane, recoilless artillery, smokeless powder, machinegun, dynamite, barbwire, telegraph, and thousands more. These changes further complicated war, ensuring greater resilience, creating greater challenges and, ultimately, widening the gap between tactics and strategy.

Although earlier wars hinted at this gap—von Moltke and the Prussians achieved absolute tactical victory in the Franco-Prussian War but still practically stumbled for months longer trying to achieve strategic ends—it was World War I, and especially the Western Front, where the gap became most evident. Through four years of war, neither the Allies nor the Entente were able to translate major battles into strategic success. The Germans demonstrated this most clearly in the last year of the war when they were unable to translate the tremendous tactical successes of their 1918 Offensive into any strategic outcome. The gap between tactical results and strategic outcomes has continued long after World War I. Witness the difficulties of the Wehrmacht in Russia to turn tactical success into strategic victory and the oft-mentioned spectacle of the US Army in Vietnam winning every battle yet losing the war.

Several post-World War I thinkers recognized this gap and the need for a schema to address it. An example is JFC Fuller, who discussed “design” in his 1925 book, The Foundations of the Science of War.[i] However, perhaps due to their revolutionary perspective freeing them from preconceived biases or due to their maneuver-focused experiences of the Eastern Front in WWI, the Russian Civil War and the Russo-Polish War, Soviet theorists took the inter-war lead in exploring the nature of this gap and proposing a schema for resolving its challenges. Their work had two unfortunate consequences. The first is that they provided the accepted name for this new schema, the operational level, thus forever forcing authors to juggle the term “operational level” and the broader term “operations”. The more significant consequence was to make the operational level synonymous with a specific scale of operations and a new, associated organizational echelon. Although early Soviet operational level theorists emphasized the necessity of expanding operations beyond the battlefield and including such factors as logistics, management and morale, what the Soviets handed down was an approach that mirrored tactics but on a larger scale. This perspective has stuck to much of the conventional perspectives of the operational level of war and has rightfully led to questions as to whether a new level of war is truly required. Making the operational level interchangeable with a scale and organizational echelon has also limited its conceptual development as the world has progressed from the Industrial Age and into the Information Age.

The impact of the Information Age

Human advancement has continued to accelerate. While in the Industrial Age, advances focused on magnifying human physical abilities, in the Information Age advancement has concentrated on cognitive abilities, flowing into improvements in physical capabilities. This has included the free flow of information across the globe, initially through such means as radio, movies and television and now through the internet. This information flow has had tremendous impact upon war. As with the Industrial Age, advances comprising the Information Age have provided new and improved capabilities. More significantly, these advances have blurred the definition of those who prosecute war.

Clausewitz defined war as an “…act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”[ii] Will is an envisioned end state with a path to reach that end state. Will is a common condition; all individuals and groups possess will. In a resource constrained environment, i.e. the real world, conflicting individual and group wills are inevitable. For this reason, the use of force to achieve will has been and will continue to be a constant element of the human condition.

The Information Age has had a tremendous impact upon human will, expanding our ability to envision end states and our ability to plan and execute paths to those end states. The Information Age is global. Its reaches the most remote parts of humanity. Witness the profusion of cell phones across the Third World. Newly available information allows new and expanded end state visions; no longer are we restricted to envisioning within our limited, geographical or experiential confines. The new age allows us to find and interact with others who share our vision. This provides greater opportunities for individuals and groups to combine resources in pursuit of will. Conversely, free flowing information also allows us to find and interact with others who possess conflicting wills, actual or perceived, increasing the opportunity for conflict. The Information Age has reduced the costs of traditional tools of conflict to the point where individuals and groups can easily acquire them. It has provided new tools to impact others, such as the World Wide Web. The new age has reduced traditional protections such as borders, walls, and physical distance, making populations more vulnerable to conflict. This vulnerability could take the nature of physical attack managed and resourced via international, information pathways as occurred on 9/11, or via information campaigns such those as conducted by the North Vietnamese via the international press.

What does this mean for today’s practitioners of war? This question is already being explored through numerous perspectives. A contributor to this journal, retired General Rupert Smith, contributed one of the earliest perspectives in his book The Utility of War.[iii] Others have proposed theories such as Fourth Generation War, New Wars, NetWars, Hybrid War, Revolutionary War, and others. The general affect is that the Information Age has caused a blurring of boundaries and a democratization of conflict. Where traditionally wars, to be successful, had to be prosecuted by armies organized by states, today informal groups and even individuals can prosecute conflict across the global stage. Where traditionally, the military generally assumed sole responsibility for prosecuting wars, today success requires broad governmental and non-governmental participation and synchronization. Where traditionally, war consisted of protagonists facing each other across a defined front line, today operations and resulting effects may occur anywhere, brought not just by a fifth column but also via a Wi-Fi. Where traditionally, wars had distinct beginnings and ends, today they may exist over protracted periods and be barely perceptible. Where traditionally, wars involved relatively monolithic protagonists, today protagonists may contain within themselves many groups and individuals possessing their own wills and having the means to effectively and independently pursue those wills, even in opposition to their overarching protagonist and making these internal groups and individuals a necessary concern, to be attacked when they belong to the enemy or defended when they belong to us.

And the bottom line for practitioners? All of these and additional changes lead to increased difficulty in linking strategy to tactics and tactics to strategy, widening the gap between tactical results and strategic outcomes, and increasing the need for a new schema; the need for an operational level of war.

A proposed approach to the Operational Level

There is a huge difference between recognizing the necessity of something and subsequently describing that something. Furthermore, the effects of an improper definition may have serious, negative consequences on further attempts at understanding and definition. Perhaps, if the Soviets had developed a more functional concept for the operational level, there would not today be the amount of debate over whether there is one.

In hopes of catalyzing further discussion, this article will provide a hypothetical approach to the operational level. I will start by stating what a schema, called the operational level, should accomplish. It should cross the gap between strategy and tactics. In other words, it should provide the cognitive structure and processes for translating strategic goals into tactical plans and tactical results into strategic assessments and outcomes. The operational level should perform this translation taking into consideration the new myriad of friendly, foe and neutral participants.

To continue with our Clausewitzian definition of war, policy and resulting strategy, at a very esoteric level, involve the will. Each deal with questions of: What are our wills? How important are they? What groups and individuals are we dependent upon to achieve our wills and what are their wills? Whose wills may conflict with ours? What resources would we want to commit to promulgating that conflict, to achieving our will or denying the will of our antagonist? Tactics are the actions we perform within space and time to progress towards our will. Tactics may be a battle that leads to the occupation of an enemy’s capitol or the publication of information over the internet designed to weaken an opponent’s morale.

The wills that drive policy and strategy have a common trait. As visions, they exist within the minds of the protagonists. Therefore, forcing a will requires changing the mind, whether of an individual or of a group. Even in the only war where nuclear weapons have been used, those weapons were used as a message to change the minds or will of the targeted country. The message was that further fighting would lead to unacceptable destruction. When the first message failed, a second was dropped and shortly thereafter, the desired outcome was achieved; the warring country modified its will and surrendered

In the information age, this analogy of war as an exchange of information through tactical actions, including combat, is very apt. It leads us to conclude that the schema that closes the gap between strategy and tactics should support the most effective and efficient creation and transmittal of appropriate and synergistic messages necessary to impact the many wills—enemy, friendly, and neutral—associated with the war or conflict. Another word to describe this schema is “narrative”.

Narrative is not a new term within military operations and is particularly associated with information operations within counterinsurgency operations. Additionally, it is similar to the concept of design mentioned above. This hypothetical approach elevates the narrative into the centralizing organizer that serves to coordinate the actions, lethal and non-lethal, of all actors. Narrative is different from design in that a narrative recognizes that in this age it is no longer possible to exercise sufficient, top-down control over all the elements contributing to strategic outcomes. Rather, a narrative approach implies drawing internal and external elements to itself, enabling and animating them to contribute to strategic outcomes. Finally, despite its inherently non-violent connotation, a narrative does not exclude combat. It may be a narrative exclusively of combat, but it will logically link planned combat though to strategic outcomes.

The narrative approach comprises the threads that project from the current strategic state to the intended state. This may be divided into sequential or simultaneous chapters/campaigns logically building upon the results of previous efforts. An operational art built from the concept of a narrative would prepare commanders, staffs and others responsible for the operational level to think through the depth of the operation as opposed to becoming engrossed in the first battle. The art would prepare operational level practitioners to create effective, encompassing, continuous, synchronized, understandable, measurable, complete and convincing progressions to strategic ends. Additionally, practitioners would be trained to monitor tactical results in regards to their intended and actual support to the progression of the narrative and make subsequent decisions to continue or modify the narrative.

Policy drives the narrative, which then provides harmonized guidance for choosing and executing tactical actions. The results of those actions then inform where in the narrative one is and whether that narrative remains viable or must change. That, in turn, informs the sustainment or modification of the original policy.


Human advancement continues to makes war more complicated. As a result of this increased complexity, a gap between the accepted schemas of strategy and tactics has formed, making it more difficult to link strategic goals with tactical plans and tactical results to strategic outcomes. This widening gap implies the need for a new schema that bridges strategy and tactics, the operational level. It is logical for us to create an operational level but its shape is very much open to exploration. It does not have to consist of a new, organizational echelon. Another approach to defining the operational level, especially apt in today’s Information Age and presented to foster discussion, is to define it as the narrative that links strategic level achievement of will with tactical level actions.


[i] Fuller, J.F.C. 1925. The Foundations of the Science of War. London: Hutchinson & Co, Ltd.
[ii] Clausewitz, Carl Von. 1976. On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
[iii] Smith, Rupert. 2007. The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.