Operational Art: Pinheads and Angels

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 third post, Dr Chris Tuck examines the distinction between the ‘operational level’ and ‘operation art’.


In his previous blog, Dr Stuart Griffin made a powerful case for the continued relevance of operational art and the operational level of war. One crucial point that he makes is the importance of understanding the difference between the two ideas of the art and the level. Often they are conflated, and, in consequence, debates about the relevance of one become comments also on the relevance of the other. Paradoxically, the origins of this problem lie in part in the very military doctrines that are supposed to aid in clarifying the topic.

The root of the difficulty lies in differing interpretations of which of the two concepts should take precedence. It was the Soviet Union that first developed a systemised concept of operational art (what they termed Operativnoye Iskusstvo): the theory and practice of preparing for and conducting combined and independent operations by large units (armies and groups of armies). As Alexander A. Svechin, one the key Soviet theorists, commented:

‘operational art governs tactical creativity and links together tactical actions into a campaign to achieve strategic goals.’

In consequence, operational art was for the Soviets associated generally with certain levels of command (army and army group commanders), but the Soviets had no formal concept of an operational level of war. For the Soviets, if there was an operational level, it was simply the level at which operational art was practiced. Because operational art would be practiced by army groups and also by subordinate armies, it followed that that there might, in effect, be more than one operational level and that operational art might apply to a whole theatre, or only to a portion of it. The operational art therefore preceded the development of a formal concept of the operational level of war.

The development of a formal doctrinal concept of an operational level of war did not emerge until the 1980s, and it emerged first in the US military. Developments in warfare since World War Two had seemed to reinforce the importance of theatre-level coordination of joint forces. The Soviet Union, for example, continued to refine its theory and practice of operational art, expressed through such developments as the Operational Manoeuvre Group. This, along with such other developments as the war in Vietnam, led the US army to formalise its approach to such operations in its doctrine of AirLand Battle. The 1982 edition of AirLand battle focused explicitly on the operational level of war. The operational level of war acquired then a specific meaning – it was tied to a geographic theatre; and it was tied to a specific level of command – the theatre commander. It was associated also with a specific function – the planning, conduct and sustainment of campaigns.

Interestingly, this formal codification of operational level approaches to warfare did not mention operational art at all: only in the revised edition of 1986 was the term operational art introduced, and then as ‘the employment of military forces to attain strategic goals in a theatre through the design, organisation, and conduct of campaigns and major operations.’ As Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan point out, however, this relationship has not been over time a stable one. US doctrine in 1986 was explicit that operational art was not associated with a particular level of command, asserting instead that ‘No particular echelon of command is solely or uniquely concerned with operational art.’ But subsequent iterations have sometimes been more rigid. In 2008, for example, US army doctrine asserted that operational art was only conducted at the operational level of war. Conceived of in this way, it was the operational level that took precedence – operational art was that which was done at the operational level of war, a level associated with the theatre commander. By 2011, however, US army doctrine had returned to the earlier conception that operational art ‘applies to any formation that must effectively arrange multiple tactical actions in time, space, and purpose to achieve a strategic objective, in whole or in part.’

As I explain more fully in Understanding Land Warfare there are contending perspectives on the relative value of both operational art and the operational level of war. But the starting point of any discussion needs to be clarity on what it is that we are talking about: is it the art or is it the level; and which conception and/or definition of each are we debating? It is possible, for example, to argue for the relevance of operational art, and to argue simultaneously for the redundancy, or even danger, of a formal concept of the operational level on the basis that, as Hew Strachan has noted, the latter might lock out political inputs from the strategic level, or that it might be forced to substitute for strategy. But it is also possible to argue for the relevance of the operational level as a responsibility, whilst still disagreeing with the notion that it should be associated rigidly with a particular level of command: someone has to be responsible for orchestrating tactical activities, but does this always need only to be a theatre-level responsibility or does it even need to be a theatre-level responsibility at all?

In reality, it might be better to see operational art and the operational level in terms of two things: function, and context. Operational art emerged because of functional demands driven by developments in warfare: the need, in particular to give greater coherence to tactical activity. But given wars multifarious contexts, performing that function might require different structures and approaches in different circumstances. In complex counterinsurgency or stabilisation scenarios, for example, the ‘theatre of operations’ might be defined as much by political relationships as it is by geography. The difficulty we seem often to face is that military doctrine has over-intellectualised the relationship between operational art and the operational level, and in doing so has introduced a formality that can often obscure as much as it illuminates.

Image: Joint service planning and briefing meeting for British senior naval, army and air force officers before the deployment of British forces to Iraq, probably at Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ), Northwood, Middlesex, 8 February 2003. Officers gather round the map table. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © Crown copyright. IWM (OP-TELIC 03-010-01-054).

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