Where to for ‘The Operational’

Justin Kelly

Where to for ‘The Operational’
To cite this article: Kelly, Justin, “Where to for ‘The Operational’”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 3, Winter 2012, pages 8-11.

In the first edition of this Journal, William Owen presented a strong argument against the existence of an Operational Level of War.[i] On the basis of this conceptual dismemberment he went on to argue against the related idea of operational art. This kind of provocation is sure to stimulate fierce debate within the very small community concerned with such matters. Having tracked similar debates over a decade or so, it is possible to detect a drift towards disillusionment with ‘the operational’, but there remains a large and influential population dedicated to the understanding – or misunderstanding – currently embedded in the doctrine of the English-speaking armies.

This article seeks to build on Owen’s, but does so from a slightly different direction. Rather than a philosophical examination of whether we need an operational level, or operational art, this article is based on the proposition that we need to teach people how to fight. To do this we need doctrine – which is by definition ‘that which is taught’. To fight well we need good doctrine that is pertinent to the demands generated by the contemporary operating environment. It is here that ‘the operational’ is most inadequate.

So, while we might be theoretically justified in ditching the operational level of war and its associated art, do we need to identify a replacement and, if we do, what does it look like?

Why Operational Art?

Operational art grew out of a unique set of circumstance prevailing in Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries. These circumstances revolved around the emergence of the nation state, the spread of industrialisation and the resultant fielding of huge armies. In combination this created what were seen as new conditions in warfare.

The nation state was based on an expansion of the tribal proposition that the individual was bound to contribute to the advancement of the collective, and would benefit either directly or indirectly by doing so. Conscription and lengthy periods of reserve service are a natural result of this proposition. Industrialisation provided the means to equip, move and support large armies. The combination of the drive for individuals to serve the nation state and the industrial ability to accommodate it led to mass armies. Huge armies backed by industrialised economies were tough to beat. At Waterloo, for example, Napoleon suffered fewer than 50,000 casualties which was sufficient to bring down his regime. At the Somme in 1916, the Allies suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day, but the battle continued for a further four and half months and eventually produced over 600,000 casualties (the Germans suffered over 400,000). Despite the magnitude of these losses it was not decisive.

At the same time, the size of the armies presented by the belligerents in France and Belgium led to the existence of an intact and relatively stable front from Switzerland to the Channel. The problem of the stabilised front was a new one for military theory. Without assailable flanks and with the power of the defence being enhanced by technology, the positive purpose of the offence was effectively stymied by the negative one of the defence. Warfare had been rendered indecisive. It was the desire to return decisiveness to warfare that led to the Soviet distillation of operational art. In their usage it was a specific response to the challenges of defeating a nation state, via the annihilation of its mass army and despite the existence of a stabilised front. Because of the Soviet perspective, operational art at its inception was: continental; intent on overcoming a stabilised front; exclusively confined to industrial-age mechanised warfare; and entirely focused on the annihilation of the enemy army. Deep Battle was the doctrine which described the way that Soviet operational art would be applied within this specific and quite concrete context.

In Soviet thinking, the operational level of combat activity was directly connected to a level of command: that of fronts and armies.[ii] It was these levels that would follow Deep Battle doctrine to combine tactics and logistics to achieve intermediate objectives within a campaign. Above the operational was the strategic (national and theatre levels of command) and below it was the tactical, restricted to division and below.

Move now to 1982. The US Army is in the early stages of a professional renaissance. The focus of this renaissance is the defeat of the threat presented to Western Europe by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. It is anticipated that, in the event of a war, the Soviets will apply their operational art to annihilate the NATO defenders through Deep Battle. In response, the team assembled to write the US Army’s new doctrine produce FM100-5 Air-Land Battle. Air-Land Battle tells the US Army how it is going to counter the Russians and their allies. It also introduces the idea of an operational level of war. A couple of years later, the next edition added operational art to the lexicon.

Despite these startling inclusions, neither of the editions of FM100-5 actually describes how to fight at the operational level. Air-Land Battle describes tactics. The operational level of war is introduced and described in a single paragraph as ‘the theory of larger unit operations’ and is mentioned only once more in the entire publication.[iii] The reason for introducing the operational level of war is not explained or carried forward into the publication – it looks like an afterthought. It has been explained to this author by a member of the writing team of FM100-5 (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. This explanation would explain why there is no theoretical or other explanation proffered for the emergence of the entirely new idea of an operational level of war.

The Problems with Operational Art

The potted history offered above is not new but it is important. In Soviet thinking operational art was a function that rested within a specific context, industrial-age mechanised warfare executed as Deep Battle, and a specific level of command. Soviet operational art did not concern itself with counter-insurgency, stabilisation, peace keeping or any of the other things that contemporary armies do. It was developed for a specific time, place and purpose. Presumably, as officers proceeded through the Soviet system of professional education, when the time came to be trained to fill roles on Army and Front headquarters, the translation of Deep Battle doctrine into missions for tactical formations would have been comprehensively covered and practised.

In the West, however, nothing was this well developed. Instead we had a new ‘level of war’ that was bereft of heritage or theoretical support and a new idea ‘operational art’; neither of which were described or otherwise supported by the manual which introduced them. In addition, in the act of translation, the Soviet connection of the campaign with the strategic conduct of the war was broken and the campaign became an artefact of the new operational level. The pedagogical vacuum created by the whimsy of the authors of FM100-5 has plagued us ever since.

To us, the operational level of war focused on ‘planning and conducting campaigns and major operations’ and was the (undescribed) theory of ‘larger unit operations’. Operational art was simply doing this well. From the point of view of doctrine – ‘what is taught’ – this is very bad.

Firstly, campaigns clearly belong to strategy. In any war strategy is executed as a collection of campaigns which enable resources to be distributed and actions sequenced. The objectives, resources, constraints, restraints and limitations for each campaign are decided as part of developing the strategy for the war. The objectives of the all the campaigns sum to produce the objectives of the war. How campaigns might be designed and planned is supported by a mountain of strategic theory and by our history. As well as an understanding of tactics and logistics, it draws on sociology, anthropology, political science and a range of other, mostly academic, disciplines. In addition, the decisions underpinning this framing rest as much on an understanding of our own political circumstances as they do on those of the enemy. Campaign design and planning intimately engages political and strategic leaders. Any doctrine that distances campaign design and planning from strategy is at least flawed – and may be dangerously wrong.

Secondly, 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. During the Cold War the principal military problem facing NATO was real. The details of the threat, the ground, the thrust lines, objectives and force groupings of the enemy and the character of Deep Battle and Soviet operational art were thought to be understood, as were the capabilities, constraints and limitations of NATO forces. In this context, it would have been possible to develop a theory of large unit operations that enabled a shared understanding and uniformity of approach. Air-Land Battle went some way along this path. However, the theory developed for such a context would have been entirely inappropriate during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the ensuing counter-insurgency and possibly only partially applicable in Iraq in 2003 but not thereafter. There are numerous other examples which collectively support the proposition that there is no single theory of larger unit operations and the idea is nonsense: there can only be theories of larger unit operations appropriate to specific circumstances. The same is true of the meaningless term ‘major operations’. There is nothing in this sense of ‘operational art’ that can be usefully translated into doctrine.

What about operational art defined as the function that links tactics with strategy? This is at least inferred by Isserson, who explained the transition from strategies of a single point to strategies that distributed combat actions over time and through space; with the corollary need to make more provision, to keep them yoked to the strategic direction of the war. Outwardly this is plausible but closer examination unhinges it. Strategic control of each tactical action is the Clausewitzian ideal. To support it, current Anglophone military planning processes include the idea of mission analysis. One of the things involved in this process is the consideration of the higher commander’s intent two levels up. One of the products of this analysis is a restated mission. In any hierarchical structure, the chain of understanding of intentions that emerges theoretically links the lowest level tactical actions with the highest strategic aspirations. At what level does this become operational art? If we really do live in the age of the strategic corporal, and we expect individuals to moderate their actions through a strategic perspective, is operational art a universal skill – a bit like rifle shooting? At the same time, 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 this without it.

The above points could be read as merely semantic attacks. The important thing is, though, that if the ideas we put forward are so empty and subjective – how do we teach the next generation to fight? Given that the paradigm we presently hold is empty and unrelated to any real world context, what is the paradigm the next generation must internalise in order to be accepted as a part of our profession?

Where to from here?

To arrive at something that can be understood and taught we need to unpack our existing ideas into more digestible gobbets. If this unpacking discloses a need for operational art that is fine, but it should be a new definition of operational art which brings it from the realm of pure abstraction to something real – and teachable – rather than the existing jumble of loose language.

To be masters of war we need to first understand war as a whole. The German school of military theorists that emerged around the end of the 18th Century saw war as a ‘giant demonic force, a huge spiritual entity, surcharged with brutal energy.’[iv] For those responsible for the management of this beast it was clear that to be understood and properly directed, war needed to be seen in the round. As Scharnhorst said ‘one must habitually consider the whole of war before its components.’[v] Michael Handel expands on this proposition arguing that war needs to be viewed as a Gestalt, or complex whole comprising concrete and abstract elements, and explaining that ‘because of its infinite complexity and non-linear nature, war can only be understood as an organic whole not as a mere compendium of various separate elements.’[vi] To accommodate this understanding we should start professional education with strategy rather than finishing with it.

We then need to understand tactics. Tactics is not, however, a monolithic idea. The tactics of counter-insurgency are fundamentally different, even at the section / squad level, from those that were appropriate during the Cold War or those that will be appropriate in the future. We need to isolate and develop those aspects of cognition that make for good tactics, things like an appreciation of ground and fires, a systems view, the ability to identify the essentials of a situation and to make and communicate quick decisions. These are the foundations of tactics and are universals; providing as they do the fundamental tools for combat actions at larger aggregations.

The next stage of development is a little more problematic. Colonel G.F.R. Henderson encapsulated the need when he explained grand tactics that, in his view, were to minor tactics what the latter were to drill. They involve adapting the power of combination to the requirements of battle. Henderson notes that Grand Tactics ‘deal principally with moral factors; and their chief end is the concentration of superior force, moral and physical, at the decisive point’ and are ‘the art of generalship [and] include those stratagems, manoeuvres, and devices by which victories are won, and concern only those officers who may find themselves in independent command.’[vii] If we want to call grand tactics operational art, or vice versa, that is fine. The key point is, if we confine it to this space it is able to be translated into useful doctrine, taught in our schools and practiced in exercises.

Above this level there is the operational level of strategy which is about breaking up strategic propositions into executable campaigns that accommodate the full dynamism and complexity of the strategic system that provides their context. Current approaches to ‘Design’ emerging from the US are a good beginning to meeting this need. Operationalising strategies is a higher order activity than merely conceiving them. To design a campaign requires all of the knowledge of war as a whole acquired over a career of learning and experience including a mastery of tactics, grand tactics / operational art and logistics; and the ability to synthesize knowledge from many other disciplines.


The idea of an operational level of war is a result of bureaucratic whimsy rather than a response to any real need. It is without theoretical support or historical precedent and arose out of the ether in 1982. In the article introduced above, William Owen described in compelling detail the implications of accommodating this nonsense in our understanding of war. Since we did, as a profession, we have been grappling with one of the consequences – the notion of operational art.

At is inception operational art was not an abstraction. It was the Soviet approach to mechanised conventional operations at the front and army levels of command. This was simple, understandable and good. In its stead we arrived at an empty abstraction that is impossible to teach (because the English interpretation doesn’t actually exist) and for which there is no clear need – it is an ersatz response to an undefined demand.

As professionals, it behoves us to cease grappling with this chimera and begin to address the real problems that face us. We need to be better at strategy, better at framing campaigns, and better at tactics; because we can never be good enough at any of these things. 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 a 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.


[i] Owen, William. There is no Operational Level of War, Journal of Military Operations, July 2012.
[ii] Soviet fronts and armies roughly equated to NATO armies and corps respectively.
[iii] FM100-5 Operations 1982 p.3-2. The other mention of the operational level is to note that ‘the object of manoeuvre at the operational level is to focus maximum strength at the enemy’s weakest point thereby gaining strategic advantage’. This is possibly true but entirely unenlightening.
[iv] Rosinski, Herbert. ‘Scharnhorst to Schlieffen: “The Rise and Decline of German Military Thought” Naval War College Review, (US Naval War College, Newport RI), Summer 1976, p.85.
[v] Ibid. p.103.
[vi] Handel, Michael I. Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, Frank Cass, London 2001, p.345.
[vii] Henderson, G.F.R. Strategy and its Teaching, Journal of the RUSI No 42 July 1898 p.767.