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Volume 3 / Issue 2 / Winter 2016 Military Operations

Page 11

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


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.

Steve Cornell

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 Operational: As Valid And As Dangerous As

Any Other Abstraction