Operational Art and the Operational Level: The Case for the Defence

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 are exploring the continued utility of these concepts. In this second post, Dr Stuart Griffin argues that these concepts are still relevant.


In the first of these posts on Monday, my friend and colleague Dr Robert Foley presented the case for the rejection of the concepts of operational art and the operational level of war. Robert discussed the origins of the concepts, their meaning, utility and the changes in the character of conflict that have made them obsolete. Here, in my reply defending the continued relevance of both, I will agree with his assessment of the shifting strategic context and the challenges it presents but will propose an alternative view of the implications. To me, there are significant problems with the current understanding of the operational level that have had a major impact on our perception of its utility but not on its actual utility. The operational level is as relevant today as it was when the Soviets first grappled with its formalisation nearly 100 years ago.

First, as you will have already noticed, I have taken the liberty of separating the concepts of level and art. This is because, as Robert also identifies, the two are not coterminous. If they were, my task today would be much more straightforward because operational art is relatively easy to defend. True, the concept only develops formally during the course of the intellectual debates about the future of warfare undertaken by the Soviet armed forces during the inter-war period and only enters our lexicon much later, alongside the related operational level, in the late 1980s. However, unlike the operational level, operational art is a constant in warfare; at least in any form of protracted warfare. For as long as human beings have waged war, they have relied on operational art to achieve strategic objectives. Put most simply, it is the art of campaigning; stitching together tactical battles for strategic purpose. Operational art is the ability of a commander to place the down (tactics) in the context of the up (strategy) and act accordingly. It always existed, there was just no need to codify it when wars were personally directed by kings, queens and emperors, or a relatively small group of trusted, often familial, lieutenants. When the vastness of empire precluded direct control we catch glimpses of why its formalisation was eventually required. The greatest Roman emperors could only maintain control of their sprawling empires if they gave their generals and consuls enough room to act effectively but enough guidance to do so in Rome’s wider interests. The greatest generals were those that did so in the most trying circumstances.

Relating this more directly to Robert’s previous blog, General Ulysses S. Grant was less fêted than his most famous Confederate counterparts, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but his impact on our understanding of campaigning was ultimately the greater: he was the more natural exponent of the operational art if not the more talented battlefield commander. While Lee could see the battlefield, and do so in political terms, Grant could better see the campaign as a politico-military whole. Through the expansion of warfare that the Napoleonic and American Civil Wars presaged to the global conflicts of the twentieth century, the importance of operational art grew and it remains crucial to twenty-first century warfare because, regardless of the scale or character of a given conflict, balancing ends, ways and means is always vital for successful strategy: operational art, as Robert’s US doctrine quote states, does that.

So if the continued relevance of operational art is a given, what of the operational level? Well, I could cheat and argue that you always need the latter to deliver the former but that would be untrue. It is perfectly plausible that a particular operation or a specific conflict could be conducted without recourse to the use of a formal operational level. If a focused intervention in, say, Libya or Syria remains small, discrete and time-limited, why would it need formal operational management? If, as Robert identifies, a state provides a small number of troops to a much larger coalition, why do they need a distinct operational level? Well, the answer to both is that they don’t. There is not always the need for a layer of command between the tactical and the strategic and this is one of the problems with the modern conception of the operational level. It has become so ingrained in our thinking and our military command hierarchies that it is often wrongly assumed to infuse everything. However, it would be ill-judged to declare the level defunct based on such examples. When I wrote that they didn’t need an operational level, I should have written that they didn’t necessarily need an operational level. Think of the consequences of an ill-fated intervention in Libya or Syria: even a small, discrete, time-limited one. Who should the tactical commanders turn to for guidance? Straight to No.10 or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Unlikely. Maybe to CDS or the Joint Chief? Perhaps, but hardly optimal. A suitably senior command team familiar with the intent and detail of the operation? Almost certainly. An operational level, in other words: just a more informal, flexible one.

As for that battalion in Helmand or those air controllers in Anbar or that ship off Somalia, they may only be small pieces in a much bigger jigsaw but there is a more complex picture that needs to be seen, understood and shaped. At their height in 2007-08, coalition forces in Iraq numbered over 180 000 and troop numbers never dropped below 100 000 from the invasion in 2003 until 2010. It is a similar story for ISAF so even a tiny contribution by a small state requires integration in a much larger operational plan. Smaller militaries may rarely practice operational art or require their own operational level HQs but they still need to understand both if they are to engage with coalition partners in any meaningful way. Interestingly, some ‘smaller’ states consciously study operational art and the operational level not because they believe they can undertake such operations in their own right but because they want to be able to operate within such multinational HQs: perceiving this as an excellent way of maximising their influence. The Irish Defence Forces are a great example of a small military that sets much stock in its ability to understand the fundamentals and thereby make a significant contribution to whatever operations they are involved in, regardless of the scale of that involvement.

Finally, the most convincing critiques of operational art and the operational level, including Robert’s, focus on what has changed and how the concepts have become anachronisms because of their failure to adapt but I think this is a subtly different argument. It is not that operational art and the operational level are antiquated and irrelevant; it is that we have failed to continue to think creatively about their application in today’s world. Over time, unhelpful mantras such as ‘the operational level is a purely military space’ (it is not, nor should it ever have been) have become institutionalised and this has been detrimental to our ability to apply the concepts appropriately. Indeed, Justin Kelly, who Robert cites, is damning about the current state of operational thinking but stops short of declaring the concepts dead. Rather, he points out that we conceive of them in outdated ways and thus leaves the door open for advocates of operational art and the operational level even as he casts serious doubts upon them. So I end my defence of operational art and the operational level by agreeing with Robert’s analysis of the changes and challenges but disagreeing with his conclusions. Yes, we do need a new understanding of campaigning; of the relationships between tactics and strategy; of the very utility of military force: but we also need to acknowledge the possibility, even probability, that operational art and the operational level will be every bit as important to our brave new world as they were to the old one.

Image: Royal Marines of X-Ray Company, 45 Commando during a ground domination patrol in Afghanistan in 2009. Courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence.


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