The recurrent debate over whether or not the operational level of war exists can sometimes feel like the land component talking to itself. The vast majority of what is written about the operational level, and operational art, focusses predominantly on land operations. It is rare to find an acknowledgement of the significance of the other components or other government agencies, let alone a systematic consideration of how they might view or fit into the operational level. Yet one of the strongest arguments for the reality of the operational level – and for its continuing utility despite the changing character of conflict – is that this is where the different components come together, along with tools of government policy other than military power, for the design and implementation of a campaign plan to achieve political objectives. This approach to understanding the operational level is rather different to that envisaged by Soviet thinkers in the interwar period, German panzer commanders in 1940 or even NATO in the 1980s. Yet this formulation – which reflects modern British and NATO doctrine – is not a twisting of the original concept but rather a pragmatic up-dating of it, an evolution to allow it to fit contemporary circumstances.
The point remains, however, that the literature on the operational level and operational art is dominated to an unhealthy degree by land power. It was for this reason that I wrote an article for the RUSI Journal that considered the operational level from the maritime perspective. I argued that the operational level does apply to the maritime environment, albeit in ways that to some extent differ from the land. These differences matter because maritime forces contribute to operational and strategic goals in distinctive ways; a maritime commander needs to understand these differences in order to provide the best support to a joint campaign, while a joint commander needs to understand them in order to get the most utility out of the maritime component, as well as to appreciate that it might have its own requirements to enable it to make this contribution.
The key differences in the operational level for maritime forces are that the relationship between attack and defence is more fluid than on land; that the levels of war are more often short-circuited (the current understanding of the operational level is sufficiently flexible to acknowledge that the strategic and the tactical can sometimes be directed linked); and, in particular, that distance and time apply in different ways. Frequently, when those from the land (and even to some extent air) component are seeking to understand how or why a maritime campaign or contribution to a joint campaign differs, the answer lies in them considering a bigger map or a broader timescale.
For the land component, maritime forces might be acting in close conjunction with them at the tactical level, for example when conducting an amphibious landing, or providing fire support or surveillance over the battlefield. The Iraq invasion of 2003, in particular the landings and subsequent operations in the Al Faw peninsula, provide a case of this.
More often, maritime forces will be acting out of sight of the land but as part of a coordinated joint campaign, where the effects of the activities of the different components (and other government agencies) come together at the operational level. The Mediterranean theatre in the Second World War offers several fine examples of this; others might include the US amphibious feint during the 1991 Gulf War, which helped to fix and divert a significant proportion of the Iraqi ground forces away from the intended advance of the coalition. In both of these cases, of course, maritime forces provided broader support to ground-based land and air forces over a prolonged period before, during and after specific operations from initial deployment to post-war recovery.
Sometimes, the activities of maritime forces might be conducted quite separately from those of land forces, in campaigns which complement those ashore with their combined effect coming together at the strategic level. The misnamed ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ in both world wars had to be won to further a range of military and broader strategic objectives – not least to allow other campaigns to be fought (including, in the Second World War, the strategic bombing offensive). Both of these campaigns were strikingly joint, as well as requiring the carefully tailored input of other arms of government, from intelligence to diplomacy.
Another fascinating example of operational thinking in the maritime environment is the US forward maritime strategy of the mid-1980s. This represented an imaginative attempt to apply the US and NATO advantage in naval power to gain leverage over the Soviet Union in a crisis or to put significant military pressure on it in the event of war. Rather than sit back defensively behind the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap and fight to protect Atlantic shipping from there, this new approach envisaged pushing carrier battle groups well to the north (primarily, though also into the eastern Mediterranean and in the Far East to threaten the Pacific coast of the USSR). By threatening Soviet territory and the bastions for their nuclear missile-armed submarines, this action would compel the USSR to pull its naval and maritime air forces out of the Atlantic (thereby achieving a defensive aim of protecting shipping that was carrying allied reinforcements for the land campaign) and also to divert air and even land forces from the battle on the Central Front, thereby indirectly supporting NATO land forces – in addition to any direct support that US carriers could subsequently provide with air and missile strikes. The concept was, to say the least, not without its critics yet two points stand out. First, it was without doubt taken very seriously by the USSR. Second, it represented thinking at the operational level, aiming to use maritime forces in a creative way to achieve campaign and wider strategic objectives at sea while also supporting activities on land from the sea. In passing, of course, it also provides a useful pointer as to how the West might make creative use of its maritime power to put pressure on an aggressive Russia or an assertive China, not least in threatening to spread any conflict to areas other than those in which they would ideally prefer to fight.
The debate over the operational level could therefore usefully raise its gaze from land warfare alone. Doing so could clarify the existence and utility of the operational level, while also improving the coordination of military and non-military instruments of policy that is needed for a successful campaign.
Image: US Navy (USN) F-14A Tomcat, Fighter Squadron 211 (VF-211), Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana, Virginia Beach, Virginia (VA), in flight over burning Kuwaiti oil wells during Operation DESERT STORM, via wikimedia commons.