Operational Level and Operational Art: Still Useful Today?

The operational level of war and the operational art are key concepts of Western military doctrine and consequently form important areas of study in staff colleges around the world. To stimulate discussion and debate about these important ideas, authors from the Defence Studies Department will explore the continued utility of these concepts in two posts. In this first post, Dr Robert T. Foley argues that these concepts are no longer relevant.


A recognition of the ‘operational’ level of war, and with this the concept of ‘operational art’ have become key components of Western military doctrine. The US Department of Defense defines the operational level as: ‘The level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas.’ It defines the related operational art much more broadly: ‘The cognitive approach by commanders and staffs – supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment – to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, and means.’

These two related concepts are comparatively new to Western armed forces. They only really entering US, and later NATO, doctrine in the 1980s in the wake of the soul-searching that followed the US defeat in Vietnam. In the 1980s, these concepts were very useful for NATO, which faced the possibility of a large-scale, high-intensity war across the entire European continent. Moreover, these concepts matched, and even copied, the rising operational focus of Soviet forces, which had developed their own ideas of campaign planning and the extensive use of ‘operational maneuver groups.’ Importantly as well, the concepts provided a glimmer of hope, however faint, that there could be a conventional military solution to a future NATO-Warsaw Pact war, rather than the old reliance, stated or not, on nuclear weapons.

The concepts of operational level of war and operation art drove the development of new military doctrines on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. They helped accelerate the integration of all arms and all services into ‘joint’ forces united by common mission goals. They helped free Western, and Soviet, military thinkers from single-service straitjackets and helped raise military planning to new levels. While they may have performed important functions in the 1980s and early 1990s, the concepts of operational level of war and operational art are no longer useful today. Political and strategic circumstances have changed radically how we use force in the world today, rendering the idea of a purely military sphere of operation risible.

In an earlier piece, Dr Huw Davies and I examined the origins of the concepts of operational level and operational art. The origins of these concepts provide important indicators of why these are not relevant today. The concepts developed in the mid-20th century as a means of dealing with the rise of mass armies. As conscription spread across Europe in the late 19th century, the size of armies increased exponentially. In the late 19th century, it had still been just about possible for Helmuth von Moltke the Elder or Robert E. Lee to stand in one place, to see, and importantly to direct the course of a battle. By the outbreak of the First World War, this was no longer so – multiple armies went to battle with opponents spread over vast distances and at different times. Indeed, the idea of ‘battle’ itself was stretched to its limits by engagements lasting months at a time, rather than hours or days. The Second World War took this trend even further, with states fighting in multiple theatres across the globe. Understandably, soldiers needed some way of tying together these disparate actions into something and some way of linking these to broader objectives. The concepts of operational level of war and operational art helped to fill this function.

Today, we do not live in the age of mass armies. The past few years have seen massive cuts in what were already, by 20th century standards at least, small armed forces. The British armed forces counted 194,570 at the start of 2015, 87, 540 of whom were serving in the army. The US Army is expected to fall to 450,000 by 2018, which is a 150,000 reduction from its peak in 2011. (Indeed, this itself is a far cry from 781,000 US soldiers serving in 1985.) Even China, which as traditionally relied on mass, has recently announced a 300,000-man cut from the Peoples Liberation Army. Thus, one of the key drivers of the development of the operational level and art is gone. It is far easier to coordinate and control the actions of small forces acting in discrete operations, particularly with modern communications technology, than the millions of men fighting across thousands of miles in the Second World War.

This precipitous reduction in the size of armed forces has also meant that contributions to recent military operations has varied enormously. Recent operations in Afghanistan are a good example of this. Many states contributed only a handful of troops to ISAF. These few troops were clearly not intended to make a difference to the campaign militarily – they were there as a political signal. In other words, their commitment performed a strategic role, rather than a purely military role. Indeed, the United Kingdom’s commitment of troops was driven more by politics and strategy than by operational (i.e., military) considerations – the desire to make a large contribution to a US-led NATO operation balanced by perceived constraints on the numbers of troops the UK populous would accept. Once in Afghanistan, this force operated within a wider ISAF campaign plan; in other words as a tactical force. Where was the operational level or the operational art for the UK commitment to Afghanistan?

This leads us to a wider problem with the concepts of operational level and art: These assume that there is a purely military sphere in war and conflict where politics and, importantly, politicians do not intrude. It is the space in which the armed forces convert strategic objectives into tasks and objectives that the armed forces can deliver. The concepts create the expectation that this is a space controlled by the armed forces. This idea of a purely military space is, however, an illusion. It ignores what Clausewitz pointed out almost two centuries ago: war, all war, is inherently a political act.

So where do we go from here? I believe that the utility of the concepts of the operational level and operational art have already questioned for some time now. Justin Kelly and Michael Brennan have recently subjected these ideas to a sustained critique in a thought-provoking paper. The recognition of the limited utility of these concepts is already implicit in the recent operational decisions, which as the decision by some states to send only handfuls of troops to participate in the NATO-ISAF mission in Afghanistan. It is also implied in Charles Krulak’s ideas of a ‘strategic corporal’ and ‘three-block war.’ Indeed, we can also see it at work in the recent formulation of the ‘comprehensive approach.’ In order to move on from the outdated concepts of the operational level and operational art, we need to explore and understand better the direct links between tactical actions and strategy and we need to stop trying to fool ourselves into thinking that there is a zone in which the military operates all on its own. Ultimately, we need to build the recognition of these facts into a new understanding of ‘campaign planning.’

Image: The German High Command conducting campaign planning in 1940 via Wikimedia Commons.

4 thoughts on “Operational Level and Operational Art: Still Useful Today?

  1. I understand the need to rethink the operational level according to the reduced volume of troops engaged in conflicts. But the complexity of todays engagements, the fact that they involve many different agencies, the major importance of timing due to the tempo of media and politics, all those factors advocate the relevance of operational level nowadays.


  2. I think the operational level is a fallacy as it is 90 degrees out to its linkages. If you pictured an operational thread linking tactical actions up to strategic intent then you wouldn’t have to artificially jam another planning level in there.


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