The Operational Level Of War Does Not Exist

William F. Owen

The Operational Level Of War Does Not Exist
To cite this article: Owen, William, “The Operational Level Of War Does Not Exist”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 1, Summer 2012, pages 17-20.

The premise of this article is laid out in the title. This article will assert that the ‘operational level of war’ is a fallacy built on a failure to understand historical teaching on strategy and tactics.[i]

The reason why the idea of an operational level of war is not fit for purpose is that it has attempted to create an artificial and flawed linkage between strategy and tactics. This has had two negative effects. First it has denigrated and marginalised tactics. Second, it has undermined the correct understanding of strategy.


The origins of the operational level of war are problematic, as is its definition. The two problems are closely related. The idea of an operational level asserts that there is a ‘level of war,’ between strategy and tactics. Prior to this, tactics was the conduct of battles and engagements, while strategy was the use of battles and engagements for the purposes of the war.[ii] In other words, while tactics won battles, strategy won the war by removing the enemies armed forces’ ability to counter or object to the political condition or behaviour which the opposing force sought. Defeat in battle or in war had two basic conceptions. The first was that the enemy suffered such harm or destruction that he was either unwilling or unable to continue. Secondly, he gave up the fight due to either physical, psychological or political exhaustion. This was, and is, the difference between annihilation and exhaustion.

Thus the definitions of strategy and tactics were and are simple, coherent and highly workable. While armies conducted ‘operations’, such activity did not impinge on the delineation of strategy and tactics. Conducting operations did not an operational level of war make!

The operational level of war is strongly associated with Soviet military thought. A.A. Svechin is often seen as the originator of the idea, when he discussed ‘Operational Art’ (operativnoe iskustvo) as conceptual connection between tactics and strategy.[iii] He defined an operation as ‘the effort of troops directed towards the achievement of a certain intermediate goal in a certain theatre of military operations without interruptions.’[iv] In the very next sentence he went on to explain that operations were designed to destroy or encircle a portion of the enemy forces to force a withdrawal of other forces, to capture or hold a ‘certain line or geographical area.’ Destroying a portion of the enemy’s armies is what battles traditionally sought to do. Svechin’s description equates strongly with battle and thus tactics, at least in terms of the outcome described.

Much Soviet and Russian writing (and Western analysis of it) on the Operational Level of War is, once subject to rigour, paper-thin and mostly a sophistry that arbitrarily creates a false and unneeded link between strategy and tactics. The extremely high losses suffered by Soviet Forces in WW2 are not symptomatic of anything other than bad tactics poorly executed. If the acme of operational art is encirclement operations, then at what level of command does this operational level of war take place? A platoon can encircle an enemy section, just as much as an army group can encircle an enemy army.

What Svechin struggled with seems to be what Lieutenant General Edward Hamley (and others) was able to articulate simply and clearly in his 1866 work ‘Operations of War’. Using recent historical examples, Hamley laid out the things it was advisable or essential to do to defeat an enemy force within a theatre. In his work, Hamley used the word ‘strategical’ to enunciate those actions that would lead to the enemy’s defeat within the theatre of operations.[v] ‘Strategical’ meant ‘Strategy.’ Strategical did not sit between strategy and tactics. In this sense, Hamley was merely concerned with defeating the enemy within a theatre, as in ‘winning campaigns’, because in general terms this is what won wars. Tactics were planned and executed as ‘Operations’. Strategies (a specific strategy) were planned and executed as ‘Campaigns’. Unlike Clausewitz, Hamley simply took it as read that the defeat of the enemy would achieve the desired policy. He assumed that the policy was always one that would succeed once the enemy was defeated. Clausewitz cautioned that only certain policies could succeed once the enemy was defeated, and that this realisation was critical. Regardless of this, the point is that Hamley’s, like Clausewitz’s, understanding of strategy is far superior to what we see today, in terms of clarity, accuracy and application. He knew that armed forces could only deliver military force against an enemy, whose defeat would deliver the political conditions required. How you destroyed or defeated the enemy within a theatre was the only thing armed forces were required to consider; albeit also having to deliver that defeat or destruction in ways and at a reasonable cost, in terms of what the government, public and wider international community would accept. The multi-national Crimean Campaign (October 1853 – February 1856), in which Hamley served, was a notable failure in that respect. What success was gained came at far too high a cost, certainly for the British public.

The critical point here is that prior to Svechin seeking to arbitrarily construct ‘the operational level of war,’ operations were normally conducted as part of a campaign, to defeat the enemy within a theatre, without any recognition this was somehow linking strategy with tactics. Strategy and tactics required no linkage, because both were inextricably linked by virtue of their nature. There was no ambiguity in the clear and simple guidance which that delivered. Based on that, there is simply no need to talk about an operational level of war, because all military action required the skilful planning and conduct of operations; being essential to tactical victory creating strategic success.


One of the real problems with the operational level of war is tying down exactly what it means. In this regard it is worth asking where tactics, as in fighting, ends and the ‘operational level of war’ begins. Tactics is usually taught and practised in relation to a level of command. Thus, there are manuals and doctrine on platoon, company, battle group and formation tactics. Though more rare, publications for divisional tactics have existed. How divisions co-operate to defeat the enemy is also the realm of tactics, though almost never committed to paper, by virtue of their very limited readership. If some wish to supposed that ‘Grand Tactics’ is synonymous with the ‘operational level’ then this would further associate tactics with a level of command, thus tactics. Tactics covers every form of joint activity as well. If someone wants to re-label tactics above or below Division as ‘the operational level’ then this is merely re-naming something for the sake of fashion. There should be a clear logical flow from platoon to division and even beyond, as to how any level of command employs its subordinate levels to win battles and engagements. Eventually the level of command becomes strategic, as in ‘those actions that defeat the enemy within the theatre’.

However, regardless of the level of command it is entirely possible to win battles and lose wars. Supposedly the ‘operational level of war’ is the key to avoiding this. Again this misunderstands the correct use and meaning of the words ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’. For example, much writing on the ‘operational level of war’ concerns ‘sequencing battles and engagements.’ This is to ensure that success in one engagement contributes to success in the next. The idea is to keep winning battles until you have won the war, and/or defeated the enemy within the theatre. While sequencing battles and engagements requires commanders to plan and conduct operations, this is actually the realm of tactics.

Napoleon and Hannibal were both extremely good at winning battles. That required both commanders to plan and conduct operations. None of those things saved them from being very bad at strategy. Hannibal could simply not defeat Roman legions quicker than Rome could generate new legions, and not at a cost of his own forces that was likely to see the Roman will to fight break before that of his own forces. Thus he was defeated. Napoleon consistently failed to turn winning battles into sustainable strategic success. Greater skill in the conduct of operations would not and did not help, because it is impossible to divide operations from tactics. For example, Marshal D’Erlon’s failure to destroy Blucher’s Army at Ligny was a failure of tactics, in that he failed to destroy the Prussian Army as the outcome of the battle. Had the French planned and executed a pursuit, they would have been more likely to attain the level of tactical outcome required. Destruction of the Prussian Army was strategically essential. Good tactics is what sequences battles and engagements, and strategy can only be done as tactics. Armies are destroyed or defeat by tactics. Wars are won and lost by strategy.

History does not show us that operational art, or even the operational level of war, is a necessary linking mechanism between tactical victory and strategic success. For example, the failure of the German ‘Operation Michael’ in March 1918 saw initially high levels of tactical success fail miserably once the attacking infantry advanced out of the range of their own guns and beyond their own logistic support. Advancing too fast and failing to sustain an advance is a failure of tactics. Going beyond the range of your supporting artillery and being unable to move the artillery is a failure of knowing how to fight battles and engagements. Clearly, the operation was both badly planned and badly conducted. Operations cannot succeed without tactical success. Nor can tactics succeed if operations are badly planned and conducted. Decisive tactical victory requires good planning and conduct. The fact that the Germans never clearly defined what the tactics were supposed to achieve as concerns the conduct of the campaign was another obvious failing. It is useful to understand that to Clausewitz ‘victory’ was only ever a tactical concept. You used victories to win wars. In terms of victory being ‘decisive’, this meant not only that the enemy’s will to persist had been broken, but that yours had not. For example, while Blucher ‘broke contact’ at Ligny, he and the Prussian Army remained ready to fight.

Core Functions and Strategical Movements

How to win battles and not lose wars were something which 19th and early 20th century military theorists gave a great deal of thought to. Pre-eminent amongst them was Clausewitz, whose book ‘On War’ was substantially concerned with just that question. Sadly, while an outstanding work in many ways, and arguably one that has yet to be improved upon, Clausewitz was not always able to articulate himself as clearly as we might wish for today’s reader. Luckily, Clausewitz had at least two very able disciples. Hamley has already been mentioned, but not Foch.

Although Ferdinand Foch ended the First World War as the Supreme Allied Commander, his 1918 book ‘The Principles of War’ was based on his Staff College lectures of 1903 written as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Foch cites Frederick the Great in articulating the need for all tactical actions and engagements to gain a decision, or else be fruitless. ‘In war, so long as something remains to be done, nothing is done.’[vi] Thus if anyone talked about ‘sequencing battles and engagements’, the Prussians would have dismissed such a statement as banal and obvious.

In his chapter ‘The Battle: Decisive Attack,’ Foch lays out the simple truth that tactical victory is meaningless unless it contributes to strategic success. Thus tactical victory is defined by its contribution to strategic success, thus strategy. Given that, the operational level of war’s function of providing a means to connect strategy with tactics is utterly redundant and based on fallacious understanding of tactics. Svechin was clearly poorly read on this subject.

Today, UK and most US or Commonwealth army doctrine contains the Core Functions of Find, Fix, Strike and Exploit.[vii] These can be traced to Foch’s guidance as to campaign planning when he laid out the methodology using those functions.[viii] The critical part, missed by most, is the contribution of ‘Exploitation’. Without it, all else is meaningless; since it is the act of exploitation that logically sequences or connects tactical success in one engagement with another. The Core Functions exist to ensure that tactical victory leads to strategic success, and can be applied by every level of command within the theatre. Again, there is no need for an operational level of war.

Hamley also formulated some complimentary guidance for campaign planning where he suggests:

‘strategical movements will be considered as having the following objectives,

1st To menace or assail the enemy’s communications with his base;

2nd To destroy the coherence and concerted actions of his army, by breaking the communications which connect the parts;

3rd To effect superior concentrations on particular parts.’[ix]

It would seem likely that if you can do those things, and do them at acceptable cost, you may well defeat the enemy within the theatre of operations. Rigorous historical research tends to confirm this. Of note, Hamley’s book ‘Operations of War’ was specifically about the planning, execution and sustaining of ‘strategical movements’; as being those actions which defeated the enemy within a theatre. Again, given sound understanding of strategy and tactics, the operational level of war is utterly redundant.[x]

It should also be noted that Clausewitz, Foch, Hamley and many others were, unlike Svechin, not seeking to be original or radical. They were merely recording what history showed to be true. To them, military history was evidence of an objective truth as to what created success and failure in war. In contrast, Svechin was seeking to radically reform the new Red Army, which had notably failed to defeat the Polish Army in 1920. He probably viewed the idea of the operational level of war as a suitable glove puppet with which to create some form of campaign planning.

Modern History?

Why is the operational level of war so alluring? Many modern military theorists and historians still seem to struggle with strategy and tactics to a degree where even if the operational level of war had merit, it would still fail to provide the function it claimed.

For example, the US withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 as a result of the ‘Blackhawk Down’ battle was a strategic failure caused by bad tactics, which accumulated losses which were too high for US policy to sustain. Greater tactical skill or better decisions would have resulted in fewer casualties, for such success as there was. Yet amazingly, many writers continue to assert this was a ‘US tactical victory.’ Where was the operational level in Somalia? Somali militias just had to kill enough Americans for the Americans to give up the fight. That number turned out to be surprisingly low.

The number of US dead in the Vietnam War was substantially higher, and enough to break the will of the US Government and Congress to persist in military action. Tactical victories failed to deliver at a low enough cost in dead to be relevant to strategic success as relevant to the policy. Of particular note in Vietnam, the US failed to successfully implement Hamley’s guidance to ‘menace or assail the enemy’s communications with his base’!

Popular military history (and especially regimental or unit histories) constantly fail to recognise that outstanding courage and sacrifice are not the same as good tactics. It could even be said that, if you have to resort to courage and sacrifice, tactical skill is lacking. More often than not, heroism gets advanced to cover up poor tactical conduct. Thus the understanding of what creates successful tactics is largely absent from a lot of modern doctrine. With confusion as to tactics, something called the ‘operational level of war’ seems alluring. It might even be suggested that commanders are drawn to describing themselves as working at the operational level, because it allows them to avoid responsibility for bad tactics.

The US success in Desert Storm in 1991 was achieved by employing the planning and ideas inherent in centuries of strategy and tactics and which would have seemed obvious to commanders such as Sherman, Foch and Allenby. An ‘operational level of war’ is meaningless in terms of the tactical successes which caused the strategic collapse of the Iraqi Army in 1991. Being able to move from one decisive battle or engagement to the next, or move armies and formations in mutual support of each other, is the realm of strategy and tactics.[xi] That movement and conduct has to be planned, sustained and executed, and may be done so as an operation or plan. If you win a battle, having run out of fuel or ammunition and having sustained too many casualties, you did so due to bad tactics and you are probably failing more than succeeding.

This is evident in irregular warfare or when fighting insurgents engaging in armed rebellion, where the defeat of a rebel force usually requires the killing and capture of the rebels. The same campaign planning tools that enable the defeat of regular armed forces deliver the same in fighting irregulars.[xii] It is thus not surprising that many theorists have failed to find or explain an operational level of war in counter-insurgency when, as this article has shown, the existence of an operational level of war is highly contestable.

Good tactics are those that advance you towards strategic success. Bad tactics lose too many lives, fail to gain a decision (that is, be decisive) and thus do not make a contribution to strategic success.

At best, it would appear that the operational level of war is just an odd articulation of the need to be good at tactics; something Svechin and those who chose to promote his ideas failed to understand. Sadly, it seems more likely that those who advanced the idea of the operational level of war have done so while being ignorant as to what the terms ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ really mean. Tactics are planned and executed as operations. If those tactics remove the enemy as the armed objector to the political condition or behaviour sought, at reasonable cost, then the strategy is successful. Why make it more complicated?


[i] The author is indebted to Justin Kelly and James Brennan for the insights contained in their work, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy.
[ii] These are the definitions that Clausewitz suggested.
[iii] Strategy, A.A Svechin (1927), 1997 East View Publications, Page 68.
[iv] More famously Svechin is often quoted as saying ‘‘Tactics make the steps from which operational leaps are assembled; strategy points out the path’. It seems entirely fair to point out that leaps and steps are strongly related as in being degrees of basically the same activity, while strategy is described as something utterly distinct.
[v] Operations of War, Hamley, 1909 edition, Page 65.
[vi] Principles of War, Foch, 1918 English Edition, Page 282.
[vii] In 2010, UK Doctrine re-labelled the Core Functions as the ‘Tactical Framework’, demonstrating ignorance of their use and intent.
[viii] Page 46-47 Foch ibid
[ix] Page 66 Hamley ibid
[x] On Page 399 of the 1909 edition of ‘Operations of War’, Hamley makes it clear that strategy and tactics are so closely related as to be inextricable, and then goes on to use Clausewitz’s definitions as to why.
[xi] ‘Marching and Reconnaissance are as much a part of strategy as tactics.’ Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book Five, Chapter 18.
[xii] For a wider discussion of this issue, see:
Owen, William F., ‘Killing Your Way to Control’, British Army Review, Spring 2011;
Owen, William F., ‘Seek and Destroy: The Forgotten Strategy for Countering Armed Rebellion’, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 2, Spring 2011, pages 12-15.