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Volume 3 / Issue 2 / Winter 2016 Military Operations

Page 12

The Operational is thus not a panacea to the complexity of military

activity or a magic formula. Some would have us believe that you

need only dial in the factors to The Operational and out pops some

pret-ty effective PowerPoint (on us if not the enemy). It is fairly clear

however that there is strategy and there are tactics. Somehow the

two need to be linked for military activity to be both meaningful and

effective. That does not in itself require new ideas, levels, structures,

commanders or doctrine. What matters is making an effective

linkage. Steve Hart’s first thought is true: The Operational is not

omnipo-tent.[i] However arguing further that this makes it impotent

or invalid risks going too far and misses out on what could be

gleaned from it.

Where do the criticisms risk going too far?

The fundamental truths behind an ‘old’ idea can still be useful if they

can be divined. There is also very little out there which is purely a

function of an era’s character. Most likely every concept bears some-

thing of the nature of war, however small, and is thus useful in some

way to our thinking now. Forming squares to protect musket-armed

infantry against sword-wielding cavalry is no longer a valid tactic,

but the truth of strong defences based on maximising weapons’ effect

and unit cohesion is a useful lesson to bear in mind. Furthermore, if

war is an activity full of stresses, some caused by the nature of war

and some by its current character, this does not mean that those

character-caused stresses and their responses are irrelevant later on.

The Operational recognises some of those strains and attempts to

mitigate them. Most crucially it recognises that strategy and tactics

are linked but that a successful linkage is not a giv-en; it must be

forged and maintained. The challenges of doing this are magnified if

tactical action is oc-curring in widespread locations against possibly

differing opponents to meet a variety of goals. This might be a large

scale conventional war (e.g. WW2) or multiple small scale civil-

military conflicts (e.g. the struggle against jihadist franchises).

The need to apply concepts to past eras with care applies to both

those who support or oppose them. I agree that the Falklands case

study has uses. It highlights how an abstraction, if rigidly described

and applied, is probably dangerous in application. This is because

the situation, the abstraction, or both, are bent to make them fit

together. We thus risk the faulty assessment of command structures

and more im-portantly command activity through a lens that was

not recognized nor used at the time. In this case, the Falklands War

of 1982 came before the operational level was really in the British

mind-set and it was certainly not doctrine.

Linking strategy and tactics requires thought to achieve. Using

abstractions is a valid way for someone to be introduced to a

requirement, be assisted to understand the requirement and to

support their in-sights in meeting it. The Operational is no different.

War and its strains are hugely complex and attempt-ing to understand

these strains requires some sort of abstraction and simplification.

Over-simplified ab-stractions pose a risk but that does not mean

attempting to create these abstractions is invalid. Nathan Toronto’s

article[ii] points towards the chasm we are seeking to bridge: a time

and space challenge that if ignored risks pointless tactical violence

and death, ineffectual strategic desires and direction, or both. The

Operational has to be seen as a good thing at least to some degree,

even to those who wish to see it debunked. It is an honest attempt

to address a challenge that has existed since the Napoleonic Wars

where armies became too large to be within the sight and personal

direction of the overall combatant commander.

Where might we go?

We might consider dropping ‘operational’ as a label. It is now a

loaded term and to some it is poison-ous; to others it is yet another

use of an over-employed word. Hopefully it can be agreed that

there are battles and engagements, there are campaigns and there

are wars. Might we just call the effort to link strategy and tactics

‘campaigning’? These campaigns are sub-sets of a wider conflict

probably differen-tiated by separations in time, space, context and

goals. The Operational is like all ideas; we cannot de-lete or un-

think it, indeed it has shaped modern military command. Whatever

your view, the focus should be on ensuring we gain insight from it,

regardless of whether it continues to major in military thinking or

whether it becomes an overused idea past its period of immediate


It should also be recognized that The Operational has grown

well beyond its original logic and form. Delineation between the

abstraction and the raft of other operational terms and procedures

is needed. As Kizeley offers, using the term Operational Art with,

in my opinion, its connotation that it is some new form of command

and control paradigm, may be unhelpful.[iii]

Most importantly, the rigid application of a concept – that oft-

repeated military passion – is not useful. Linking strategy and

tactics is needed, and how someone arrives at an understanding

of it matters. Armed forces should recognize that abstractions are

tools, not answers. If that tool to link strategy and tactics is ‘The

Operational’ or ‘campaigning’ so be it. If it is some other abstraction

or method, that is just as valid.

Finally, I am struck by the perceived need of many to offer firm

prescriptions. My view is that this de-sire is part of the problem

and we now have sides busily entrenching themselves around a

number of conclusions without a desire to simply think about the

issue - linking strategy and tactics. We are reach-ing for the answers

without due consideration of the problem. For example, it may be

that The Opera-tional is simply what the senior HQ in theatre does

that others with a purely tactical role do not.[iv] This seems to be

sensible and resonates with some recent experience. However, we

are again reaching for a real-life response, rather than considering

what we may want that link to achieve or do.

Someone, somewhere,


needs to link strategy and tactics. The primary question I

think that needs to be resolved is not the form but what functions we

want that linkage to carry out? This is a big question and beyond the

scope of this article. However, this should be a priority for discussion

as we need to avoid the lack of strategic success the West has seen

in recent campaigns, however that shortfall may have come about.

The Operational: As Valid And As Dangerous As Any Other Abstraction

Steve Cornell