The Operational Level of War and the Operational Art


In recent years, particularly since difficulties have been encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq, military thinkers and practitioners have begun questioning the existence of the operational level of war. Some argue that the articulation of the concept was a distraction from adequate attention to the tactical and strategic levels of war.

Here, two historians, with interests in different periods of military history, outline the relevance of the concept to the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, and the Second World War.

The Operational Level During the Napoleonic Wars

The ‘operational level’ was first articulated as a level of war by Alexander Svechin, and conceptually employed by the Soviets during the war on the Eastern Front in 1944-5. This commonly leads to an assumption that the operational level didn’t exist before then. But that’s a bit like arguing the Earth really was at the centre of the Universe until Galileo and Copernicus theorised otherwise. The Earth always orbited the Sun, and the Operational Level of War has always existed.

As a nineteenth century military historian, the way in which Napoleon planned operations, utilising comparatively vast spaces, and articulating complex manoeuvres was a clear example of operational level planning: that is to say, planning that was somewhere between strategic and tactical in nature. Take the Ulm Campaign of 15-20 October 1805. Napoleon deployed his Grande Armée for the first time in a corps-level organisation.

Each Corps was able to operate independently, whilst a strong centralised General Staff orchestrated swift communications between each corps. When one of Napoleon’s corps found the Austrian Army near the southern German town of Ulm, it fixed the enemy in place, whilst the remaining corps manoeuvred to encircle the Austrians. In the subsequent battle on 19 October 1805, the Austrians were completely enveloped and forced to surrender.

Napoleon’s success lay at least in part in his ability to delegate command to his marshals and their ability to understand his intent. The operation itself saw nearly 120,000 French soldiers utilise both time (the campaign lasted six days) and space (Napoleon’s army was deployed across several hundred miles) to achieve a decisive tactical result.

Over the course of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria followed Napoleon’s lead and developed variants that played to national strengths. British operational art depended on its mastery of the seas and its superior ability to bring global resources to bear. When Wellington was fighting in the Iberian Peninsula, he was able to plan operations on multiple fronts, directing and redirecting naval assets as required.

Small wonder, that this period spawned two of the greatest military thinkers: Baron Antoine de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz, both of whom, in different ways described war in terms that were similar to what Svechin would later articulate as the ‘operational level of war’.

The Operational Level of War and German Military Thought, 1866-1918

As the previous section has mentioned, the ‘operational level’ and the ‘operational art’ as we understand the terms today did not exist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, this does not mean that military theorists of the period did not grapple to come to terms with the same problems that led to the articulation of operational art in the Interwar period, namely the rise of mass armies and the resultant geographical expansion of the ‘battlefield. In particular, German military writers and planners developed new concepts to address the challenges of modern war.

Indeed, the Imperial German army was the first to use the term ‘operativ’ in a military context, and some have argued that the Soviets derived much of their understanding of the concept from the works of Sigismund von Schlichting, which were used as textbooks in the Imperial Russian staff colleges. For the Germans of this time, however, the adjective operativ was used to denote movement off the battlefield. Increasingly, though, this movement off the battlefield was recognized as important to what happened on the battlefield. Authors, such as Rudoph von Caemmerer (a protégé of Schlichting), argued that the successes of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder in the German Wars of Unification (1864-1871) were the result of maneuvering German forces, usually by the new technology railways, to enable battle under the most favorable conditions for the German force and the least favorable conditions for the enemy force.

At the same time that there was a growing appreciation within the German army of the importance of maneuver in modern battle, there was also recognition that the size of modern armies created new problems in command. The largest army commanded by Moltke was about 550,000 men. By the early twentieth century, the German army was intending to deploy more than two million men across several hundred miles of separate fronts in the west and the east. Although emerging radio and telegraph technology might assist the ‘modern Alexander’ to conduct wars of the future, two new important concepts of warfare emerged to address the problems of the burgeoning size of armies and scale of combat.

The first of these put the army and the army corps at the heart of future battlefield action. Between 1892 and 1914, the German army trained extensively in what it termed Truppenführung, a new level of combat and command between the low-level tactics of division and below (Gefechtsführung) and the higher level of strategy (Kriegführung). They put this training to good use in the early stages of the First World War, particularly in the battles of Tannenberg and the Frontiers.

The second important concept to emerge in German military thought before 1914 was Alfred von Schlieffen’s idea of a Gesamtschlacht. While better known today for his eponymous plan, this plan was really designed to tie together a series of battles fought over different spaces and at different times, a point generally lost in recent analysis. These Teilschlachten, as Schlieffen termed them, would be welded together into something more than the sum of the parts by the commander’s plan. This plan would give meaning to the disparate battles sometimes fought by independent armies and victory in the war would be assured by victory in the Gesamtschlacht.

Although Schlieffen’s plan failed in 1914, the concepts of Truppenführung and Gesamtschlacht were at the heart of the much more successful German invasion of France in 1940 and Russia in 1941. Indeed, what later historians have termed ‘Blitzkrieg’ and have attributed to the Interwar Reichswehr or the Second World War Wehrmacht was, in fact, simply a mechanized and motorized version of what the Kaiserheer attempted over the same ground in 1914.

Operational Art and Russian/Soviet Military Thought, 1918-1945

It is perhaps unsurprising that what we understand today as the ‘operational level’ and the ‘operational art’ had their direct origins in Russia. In common with their western neighbours, Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union wrestled with the expansion of warfare driven by modern mass armies. The scale of the issue, however, was all the greater for this great eastern empire. In the big western powers – France and Germany – each mobilized around 4 million men at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Russia, on the other hand, mobilized some 9 million. On top of this, the Eastern Front stretched for some 1,000 miles from north to south.

The size of forces mobilized combined with the vast scale of the area over which the war was fought pushed the Russian army to develop a new level of command – the army group or front, as it was known to the Imperial and later Red armies – comprised of numerous distinct armies. Each front was expected to fight within its own resources battles that were usually distant from each other in space and time.

The experience of the First World War and the subsequent wars of the Russian revolution heavily influenced Red Army theorists in the Interwar period. Indeed, the Soviet theorists of the Interwar period were drawing upon their own considerable practical experience of warfare between 1914 and 1939. Alexander Svechin has already been mentioned, but other experienced officers, such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Vladimir Triandafilov, and Nikolai Varfolomeev, devised a workable doctrine for combat at the operational level.

Indeed, by the early 1930s, the concept of glubokaya operatsiya, or deep operations, had become enshrined in Soviet doctrine and training. Tying new emerging technologies of aircraft, tanks, and motorization together with the idea of using large-scale mobile forces (Fronts) on separate axes of operations in the enemy’s rear, deep operations looked to disrupt rather than simply destroy the enemy’s defence. The Soviets put this doctrine to good use, particularly in 1944 and 1945. Faced with large-scale offensives on widely separated fronts, the Germans were unable to be strong at every point, and the cohesion of the overall German defence broke down.

The Operational Level in the Age of Mass Armies

What ties these different periods of history together is the nature of their armies. With the levée en masse of the August 1793, Revolutionary France began a period in which armies increasingly drew upon the growing populations of their nation states to form large armies comprised of citizen soldiers. These mass armies created problems of size and scale unseen by previous generations of military commanders. How would these large armies be commanded and controlled? How could the results of disparate battles be combined to achieve political goals?

The answers to these questions were found in the creation of new levels of command (army corps, armies, and army groups); in creating a plan that gave focus to battles separated in space and time; in the increasing importance of disruption of an enemy’s cohesion over his physical destruction; and in operating independently over even greater areas. In other words, this period of mass armies gave rise to the development of the ‘operational level’ and the ‘operational art.’

5 thoughts on “The Operational Level of War and the Operational Art

  1. […] We have been pleased that Defence-in-Depth has been reaching a relatively wide and certainly disparate readership. We have over 1,000 followers now and have had visits from 91 different countries. Posts that have garnered considerable attention on the day of their release include Dr Chris Tuck’s ‘Land Power and the Islamic State Crisis,’ Dr Ellen Hallam’s ‘NATO at Newport: Back to Basics,’ and Dr Huw J. Davies and Dr Robert T. Foley’s ‘The Operational Level of War and the Operational Art.’ […]


  2. There’s a whole like to take issue with in the comments:

    “namely the conceptual gap between the operational planning doctrine our armed forces are taught at their military academies and the type of operations they are asked to undertake in practice.

    The core argument of this article is that operational planning doctrine has remained focussed on conventional high-intensity warfare whereas Western armed forces have been employed to confront an altogether different set of tasks.”

    We can start with the fact that military academies do not teach operations. They focus on accession of officers, who then get tactical training in their branch and speciality schools. Officers really do not start thinking about operations till they reach field grade rank, and then they go to schools to focus on that. Those schools are various “staff colleges,” because it’s the staff who develops operational plans and pushes them down to the tactical-level users. But we can give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume something like the US staff colleges are military academies. No blood, no foul.

    I’d like to suggest that the US military, at least, has become obsessed with other than high-intensity conflict. I don’t think it’s fair to suggest at all that the US has ignored “low intensity conflict.” True, it defunded the CLIC, Center for Low Intensity Conflict, at probably the worst time possible (late 90s), but who could predict the CIA and DoS would lie for the POTUS so he could and pull the nation into a war in IRQ, and a SecDef obsessed on “transformation” would rather sack commanders than give them the troops all their campaign and operational plans said they needed to supress a potential insurgency or deal with “Phase IV” operations?

    I find it really interesting that the author has returned to the “old” spectrum of conflict construct that the US military tried for years to get away from. The buzz phrase was and is multi-spetrum operations … simultaneously waging war in multiple dimensions with different types of resources. With that in mind, the US armed forces have spent billions of dollars, trillions of electrons and words, and sadly way too many lives trying come to grasp with COIN while having to remain focused on what it perceives as the main threats to the national security of the USA. If the US Army and USMC do any one thing good, it is wage battle at the operational and tactical levels, which frees the two other services, the USAF and USN, to focus on their primary strategic missions (deterrence and power projection … More of that multi-spectrum dominance thing).

    The “problem” isn’t that the US military operational planning doctrine (JP 5-0, etc.) is focused solely on high-intensity conflict. There are a ton of OPlans (not all of them classified out of this universe) that work through the problem of LIC, tho’, again, it’s not called that. Lots of really good and productive training and prep for the LIC/COIN/small war/unconvetional warfare/irregular warfare mission is done in JCETs, for example. The fundamental problem in not looking down the hill, but up it. Where the US military has failed miserably is at the strategic level of war, in using proportional force to meet ill-defined and constantly changing policies. It’s not that it hasn’t ignored the right (low) end of the spectrum, but has camped out there and can’t articulate what it should do at the left (high) end. Please pardon iPad typos.


  3. Defense in depth cannot rightly be discussed without discussing the counterattack. The operational art of war should be compared to the mobile battle. I’m sorry the German translation eludes me right now. Hitlers orders of not one step back hamstrung the Mobile Battle and reduced the German Army to a War of Attrition, of which the Allies could only win. It was Hitlers experience with WW 1 which limited it.


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