Where To For ‘The Operational’? An Answer.

John Kiszely

Where To For ‘The Operational’? An Answer.
To cite this article: Kiszely, John, “Where To For ‘The Operational’? An Answer.”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 4, Spring 2013, pages 4-7.

Military Operations Issue 3 (Winter 2012) contained an article by Justin Kelly entitled ‘Where To For ‘The Operational’?’[i] In it he questioned the utility of operational art and the operational level of war. This article provides a response.

In short, Justin Kelly argues that: the operational level detrimentally ‘distances campaign planning from strategy’; ‘modern communications have made connection with the strategic and tactical levels so intimate that the need for the connecting function during execution is no longer apparent’; the operational level exists in ‘the realm of pure abstraction’ and is ‘a jumble of loose language’; and operational art is ‘an empty abstraction that is impossible to teach.’ He concludes that if in some future war there is a perceived need for operational art, it will require a unique, situation-dependant approach, and that ‘Until then, we should probably simply let it go.’ In a previous article in Military Operations, William Owen contended in similar vein that the operational level is ‘’a false and unneeded link between strategy and tactics…a fallacy built on the failure to understand historical teaching on strategy and tactics…[and] utterly redundant’, concluding that ‘it would appear that the operational level of war is just an odd articulation of the need to be good at tactics.’[ii]

The two authors are not alone in their scepticism of the operational level and operational art. Nor should this really be surprising. Take ‘operational art’ – a term and concept almost unheard of in the West until the 1970s, and a literal translation of the Russian words, operativnoe iskustvo. In the English language there are at least nine dictionary definitions of each of the words ‘operation’ and ‘art’.[iii] ‘Operational’ has several completely different meanings. Hence, there is no shortage of scope for confusion and misunderstanding. ‘Operational art’ is not a helpful term. The understanding of the subject has also not been helped by the overblown evangelism of some protagonists. They suggest that operational art is something close to being the philosopher’s stone – able to turn base metal into gold – and that the operational level is the master of strategy rather than, as should be the case, its servant. And too often discussants have failed to define their terms, adding to the ‘jumble of loose language’.

So to avoid the latter charge, and to prevent debate becoming just the vacuous expenditure of much time and energy, it is necessary to start by defining our terms. For simplicity and consistency, I take the definitions from current British Defence Doctrine.[iv]

  • Operational Art is ‘the orchestration of a campaign in concert with other agencies, involved in converting strategic objectives into tactical activity in order to achieve a desired outcome.’
  • The Operational Level is ‘the level of warfare at which campaigns are planned, conducted and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives and synchronise action within theatres and areas of operations.’
  • A Campaign is ‘a set of military operations planned and conducted to achieve strategic objectives within a theatre of operations, which normally involves joint forces.’
  • Strategy is ‘the art of creating a desired pattern of events where the ends and the ways and the means of achieving them may be brought into balance within the prevailing environment.’[v]
  • The Strategic Level is ‘the level at which national resources are allocated to achieve the Government’s policy goals…’
  • Tactics is ‘the planning and execution of battles and engagements’

British Defence Doctrine further establishes the relationship between the levels. Within the strategic level it places military strategy, which ‘determines the military contribution, as part of an integrated approach, to the achievement of national policy goals’, emphasising that ‘it is an integral, not a separate aspect of strategic level planning’. Beneath the strategic level sits the operational level ‘linking military activity at the tactical level with its rationale established at the strategic level [and] providing a two-way bridge between the strategic and tactical levels’.[vi] The Doctrine emphasises, importantly, that although part of operational art is mechanistic – the coordination and synchronisation aspects of orchestration – the more significant part is conceptual: the intellectual, cerebral and, above all, creative business of design and execution. It is the latter part which really puts the ‘art’ into ‘operational art’. For Professor Sir Michael Howard, ‘strategy is about thinking and planning. Operations are about doing; hence the phrase ‘operational art’… Without operations, strategy remains so much hot air’ (emphasis in original).[vii]

British Defence Doctrine’s interpretation of operational art may have come a long way from its antecedents in Russian and German doctrine,[viii] but the term’s meaning and place, within UK doctrine at least, are clear. There is no ‘jumble of loose language’. But does operational art serve a useful purpose? In particular, does it provide a necessary link between strategy and tactics or, instead, act as an unwelcome wedge between them? Thus, does it contribute to, or detract from, the political utility of the use of force?

The interface between strategy and tactics should not, in theory, be problematic; in theory, the one slides seamlessly into the other: ‘strategy proposes and tactics disposes’. But, in practice, history shows us that the two have an awful habit of disconnecting – sometimes with catastrophic consequences. For without adequate oversight and direction of the linkage between strategy and tactics (and vice versa), it is easy to assume that the connection is in place and functioning when it is not, and easy to see the achievement of strategic success as merely the sum of tactical victories. It is but a small step from there to believing that every battle fought and won is taking you closer to your strategic goal when the opposite may be the case. For, as Bernard Brodie famously pointed out, ‘War is a question not of winning battles, but of winning campaigns.’ Masterly operational art is thus a key contributor to success in war and conflict.

An example, in reverse, is the US experience in Vietnam, and well illustrated by a verbal exchange after the war between an American colonel, and a North Vietnamese colonel. “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,” said the American colonel. The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. “That may be so”, he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”[ix] US tactics had developed a logic of their own – the link between tactics and strategy had been lost and it had become a ‘strategy of tactics’.[x] In theory, of course, the in-theatre commander (from 1964-68, General William Westmoreland) should have defined successful tactics as those that contributed to strategic success, and realized that the tactics in use, which for a time appeared to be so successful, were actually directly contributing to strategic failure. But like so many commanders in history (although unlike his successor, General Creighton Abrams), Westmoreland misunderstood the war he was fighting and defined successful tactics as those that won battles. And winning battles is what soldiers like to do. An alternative view is that the main responsibility for the disconnect of strategy and tactics in Vietnam lay with the strategic level back in Washington, in particular with the top military strategists, who should have seen what was happening, realized that their strategy was deficient and the theatre commander incompetent, and taken action. Again, this is correct; but a combination of geographical separation, limited communications, a myriad of competing strategic responsibilities, intrigue and friction at the strategy/policy interface, plus some major errors of judgment,[xi] prevented this from happening. The result, for whatever reason, was that the vital link between strategy and tactics was missing. Effective and intelligent campaign orchestration – operational art – was absent, significantly contributing to strategic failure.

Justin Kelly contends that the connection function between strategy and tactics is no longer necessary:

‘Modern communications have made connection with the strategic and tactical levels so intimate that the need for the connecting function during execution is no longer apparent. We don’t need operational art to connect strategy and tactics – we can do without it.’

There is certainly some truth to the first sentence. Modern communications allow strategic leaders in capitals, including the head of government, to communicate directly with not only the deployed commander, but all of his or her subordinates as well. The need for a connecting function may, thus, not be immediately apparent. But, in practice, the technical ability of the strategic level to communicate directly with tactical level commanders is no substitute either for a proper chain of command with clearly defined responsibility and accountability, or for the close and continuous professional oversight of the link between strategy and tactics. It was not just limited communications that caused the link to fail in Vietnam. The above argument should not, however, be taken as justification or encouragement for the operational level being, as some have suggested it is [xii], a sort of ‘politics-free zone’ – an area in which politicians have no business, and into which they should not trespass. Some militaries, or elements of them, have indeed sought to suggest as much to their political leaders. For example, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the commanding general, General Tommy Franks, told Under Secretary for Defense Paul Wolfowitz, ‘Leave me the hell alone to run the war’, and commenting in his memoirs, ‘While we at CENTCOM were executing the plan, Washington should focus on ‘policy level issues.’‘[xiii] There should, of course, be no such thing as a ‘politics-free zone’; as Eliot Cohen has argued, those responsible for policy would be wise to challenge any suggestion of one.[xiv] But they would also be wise to understand that the more restrictions they place, directly or indirectly, on an operational level commander, the less scope that commander will have for creative operational art.

Justin Kelly also contends that the link between tactics and strategy is provided in the Anglophone military planning process by the application of mission analysis – the doctrine that demands that in determining his or her mission, a commander considers and follows the intent of the commander ‘two-up’. This, he claims, ‘theoretically links the lowest level tactical actions with the highest strategic aspirations.’ And he is absolutely right – theoretically. In practice, things are not so simple; friction intervenes. Firstly, this relies on every commander at every level getting it completely right. Would that this could be relied upon! Some commanders will get it spot-on; others, especially in complex environments and under pressure, even in the best trained armed forces, will not. And errors at one level are multiplied as they proceed. A particular weak spot is the interface of tactics and strategy. Here, without an operational level, the senior tactical level commander in theatre, and, indeed, those one level below him or her, would be expected to fully understand the complex world of strategy, to be in the mind of the strategic-level commander (the Chief of Defense, or in some systems, a political leader), comprehend the intricacies of policy and politics, and keep abreast of the constantly changing dynamics at the policy/strategy interface. This is not something to thrust upon a tactical-level commander who has not been properly trained and, importantly, educated, in the subjects of operational art and strategy. The vital link between strategy and tactics is not adequately provided by mission analysis.

Justin Kelly further argues that the operational level acts detrimentally in distancing campaign design and planning from strategy and policy.[xv] While political and strategic leaders (particularly military strategists) are clearly responsible for providing direction for a campaign, including setting objectives and laying down limitations, it is highly contestable that it is also their role to produce and maintain the detailed design of the campaign and campaign plan – particularly since this is not, as some people seem to think, a ‘one-off’ task, but is ongoing throughout the campaign. Assuming a military system where senior officers are educated and trained in operational art, this is a task for the subordinate who is going to be responsible for the plan’s execution. Taking the UK as an example, the person responsible for military strategy, the Chief of the Defense Staff (CDS), acting within the strategic level, will produce a directive to a Joint Commander or Joint Task Force Commander in order that the recipient can design his or her campaign, produce a plan, manage it, and, importantly, be held accountable for it. This does not, surely, ‘distance campaign design from strategy’; the two are directly connected. The idea that the CDS should personally orchestrate the campaign underestimates both the breadth of responsibilities of a CDS and the demands of campaign orchestration. Furthermore, for the Joint Commander/Joint Task Force Commander (or, for that matter, any commander) to be presented with a plan and be responsible only for its execution, undesirably blurs accountability when things go wrong (‘Don’t blame me for the plan, I’m just responsible for its execution!’). It also flies in the face of mission command (‘Tell a subordinate what to do and why, but not how.’)

Perhaps the greatest contemporary challenge for ‘the operational’ is one not mentioned in their articles by either Kelly or Owen, but addressed elsewhere by Kelly and others.[xvi] This relates to the place of operational art in campaigns of stabilization and counterinsurgency. Since these campaigns demand action over a number of lines of operation (LOOs) – for example, diplomatic, economic, military, social, information – they involve the participation of a number of government departments and external agencies. Campaign success depends on the close integration of the contributions and efforts of all these organizations in what is sometimes described as a ‘comprehensive approach’. The integration of national assets may best be achieved at national level in the national capital by an ad hoc group or by a committee of a national security council. Thus, the operational and strategic levels would temporarily coincide – not that that breaks any immutable law – with the requirement for an individual, either from the military or, more likely, a civilian, to orchestrate the campaign in theatre. This requirement appears harder to fulfill in practice than in theory, especially the provision of an individual with sufficient authority over all LOOs. Usually, a compromise results, sometimes significantly detracting from unity of effort and the chances of campaign success. All of this underlines the degree of challenge not so much for the theory of the operational level per se, as that inherent in the management of stabilization and COIN operations.

In coalition campaigns, the operational level has a clearer role to play, if an even more challenging one. Although force generation will take place at national level, detailed campaign planning is likely to be conducted at a subordinate coalition level, an example being the successful planning and execution of Operation Desert Storm by General Norman Schwarzkopf and his headquarters in the 1991 Gulf War. In the exceptionally complex and challenging arena of multinational stabilization and COIN campaigns, the operational level commander has an even more central role to play in campaign orchestration. Such campaigns often have a large number of participating nations – over 30 in Iraq, over 50 at one time in Afghanistan – with varying sizes of national contingents, deployed into national areas of operation. Although each nation is at least nominally committed to the coalition’s goals, their efforts and resources tend, in practice, to be concentrated on – sometimes, restricted to – the achievement of their own national strategies within their own areas of operation, sometimes characterized by critics as ‘national cantonments’. Yet overall campaign success almost invariably requires more than just the sum of the parts. The coalition theatre commander, at the operational level, plays the key role in orchestrating the coalition security campaign, designing and executing theatre-level operations, ‘raising the sights’ of subordinates from the tactical to the operational level, and maximizing unity of effort, thereby achieving synergy and maintaining the link between tactical activity and coalition strategy. This is not easy, in practice, for a number of reasons: coalition strategic direction is likely to be less clear and more Delphic than is desirable; the commander is most unlikely to have responsibility for non-military lines of operation; there may be, as in Afghanistan, more than one military chain of command; and even the commander’s responsibility across his or her military chain of command is seldom matched with commensurate authority. But it is in theatre, and only in theatre, that all the LOOs and all the key players come together, and therefore where coalition campaign orchestration takes place, either in the guise of a single individual with authority over all the LOOs, or, more likely, a group of LOO leaders, one of whom will be the military theatre commander. The latter will therefore be at the operational level and exercising operational art. In the words of one recent NATO commander in Afghanistan, ‘The operational level has never been more important in achieving campaign success.’[xvii]

One further assertion of Justin Kelly’s that needs to be addressed is his proposition that operational level responsibilities should be split, with ‘grand tactics’[xviii] being the responsibility of the tactical level, and what he calls the ‘operational level of strategy’[xix] – ‘operationalizing strategies’ – belonging to the strategic level. This has more going for it in theory than in practice. For the reasons already given, splitting the responsibility for campaign orchestration between design and execution is not a happy recipe for success, nor would it provide the firm link needed between strategy and tactics. He further proposes that:

‘If in some future war there is a need for grand tactics or operational art then it will be a unique context that will require a unique approach. At that time there will be need to develop a theory of larger unit operations that accommodates the capabilities, needs and context. Until then we should probably simply let it go.’[xx]

Leaving aside the already contested implication that operational art is not required at present, it is fully accepted that the application of operational art – or indeed any doctrine – is situation-dependent and requires a unique approach; but this is not true of the concept as a whole, nor of the intellectual approach that underpins it. The skill required for excellence in campaign orchestration, and the necessary expertise in the subject, cannot be created overnight when some future war suddenly demands it. Indeed, building a cadre of officers with the necessary skill and expertise in operational art takes generations, and can only be acquired through specific education and training such as that provided at the US Army`s School for Advanced Military Studies and the UK`s Higher Command and Staff Course, plus much sustained, individual self-education.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing in the application of the concept of operational art and the operational level is, as with any doctrine, that it is taken as guidance and applied flexibly with common sense and good judgment. The UK doctrine on ‘Campaigning’ offers sound advice in this respect:

‘The levels of warfare … provide a general framework for the planning and execution of operations, and a useful tool for organising and considering political/military activity. This framework does not imply hard and fast rules as to where decisions must be made, nor that events at one level can be isolated from those at another. There is invariably compression and blurring and the framework should be applied with judgment.’[xxi]


[i] Justin Kelly, ‘Where to for ‘The Operational”?’, Military Operations, Volume 1 Issue 3, Winter 2012, pp. 17-20.
[ii] William Owen, `The Operational Level of War Does Not Exist`, Military Operations, Volume 1 Issue 1, Summer 2012, pp. 17-20.
[iii] ‘Shorter Oxford English Dictionary’, Oxford University Press, 2006.
[iv] ‘British Defence Doctrine’, JDP 00-1, 4th edition, UK MOD, 2011, pp 2-11 to 2-13.
[v] Ibid
[vi] Ibid, pp. 2-9.
[vii] Michael Howard, ‘Prologue’ in John Andreas Olsen and Martin van Creveld (eds.), ‘The Evolution of Operational Art: From Napoleon to the Present’, Oxford University Press, 2011, p.ix.
[viii] For the development of thinking on the subject within UK, see John Kiszely ‘Thinking About The Operational Level’, RUSI Journal, Volume 150, Number 6, December 2005.
[ix] Harry Summers, ‘On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War’, Random House, 1982, p.1.
[x] Andrew F. Krepinevich, ‘The Army and Vietnam’, Johns Hopkins, 1986, pp.164-94.
[xi] See HR McMaster, ‘Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam’, HarperCollins, 1997.
[xii] Hew Strachan, ‘The Lost Meaning of Strategy’, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Volume 47, Issue 3, p.47.
[xiii] 13 Hew Strachan, ‘Making Strategy: Civil-Military Relations After Iraq’, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Volume 48, Issue 3, p.63.
[xiv] See Eliot Cohen, ‘Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leaders in Wartime’, Simon and Schuster, 2002, especially pp 239-241.
[xv] Kelly, p.9.
[xvi] Justin Kelly and Michael Brennan, ‘Alien. How Operational Art Devoured Strategy’, SSSI, 2009. See also Robert Leonhard, ‘From Operational Art to Grand Strategy’ in Anthony D. McIvor (ed.), ‘Rethinking the Principles of War, Navy Institute Press, 2005, pp.208-222.
[xvii] Lieutenant General Sir James Bucknall (DCOM ISAF 2011), interview 3 April 2013.
[xviii] Kelly, p.10.
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] ‘The operational level of strategy…is about breaking up strategic propositions into executable campaigns that accommodate the full dynamism and complexity of the strategic system that provides their context.” ‘Operationalizing strategies is a higher order than merely conceiving them.” Ibid.
[xxi] ‘British Defence Doctrine’, JDP 00-1, 4th edition, UK MOD, 2011, pp 2-2.