The Operational Level as Military Innovation: Past, Present and Future


As Defence-in-Depth once again spends time exploring the concepts of the operational level and operational art, it seems an appropriate time to relate my previous contribution on the subject to the other research strand that I have previously blogged about: military innovation. Though the popular focus of military innovation tends to be on new technologies and weaponry, much of the theorising about the causes of military innovation takes evolutions in doctrine as its starting point. I will return to the different theoretical approaches to military innovation in a future post but, for now, the important point is that the operational level is, first and foremost, a doctrinal innovation and that this is crucial to any debate about its current and future worth. As discontent with the current form of the operational level grows, placing the debate in appropriate context becomes ever more important.

Before exploring the history of the operational level, we need to understand why doctrine has often been the source of scholar-practitioner theorising about the causes of innovation. First, a critical practical issue for any academic is the quality of primary source material on a subject. For historians trying to understand the dynamics of military reform in a given era, shifts in doctrine offer concrete evidence of change being enacted by the armed force in question. One can trace a doctrine’s origins back through the system and glean invaluable insights into how and why it came into being because, most obviously, it is written. Further, the formal character of its codification increases the likelihood of this traceable genealogy. Second, though the exact purpose of doctrine varies from military to military, its basic function is to provide authoritative guidance that helps militaries fulfil their raison d’être: usually, to be prepared to successfully wage war. Certainly, ‘field manuals’ and ‘warfighting doctrine’ has that purpose (the clue being in the titles) and so it is a reasonable assumption that it should also reflect the most current, institutionally agreed, thinking on how to actually conduct warfare. Inevitably, the more rapidly the character of conflict is changing, the harder it is for doctrine to keep pace but, sooner or later, it either reflects successful innovation or fails. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Barry Posen chose inter-war doctrine in Britain, Germany and France to analyse the drivers of innovation and that studies of doctrine formulation have been an integral part of military innovation theory ever since.

This is relevant here because the operational level, now integral to how we think about warfare, is, at its heart, doctrine. It makes its way into our consciousness because it takes hold as a concept that relates to bigger issues of strategy and campaigning but it formally originates in a specific piece of doctrine: US FM 100 from 1982. The distinction between the operational level and operational art was subsequently made in the 1986 variant. Ok, fine, so what? Well, though the formalisation of the operational level originates in the United States Army in 1982, thinking about ‘operational art’ long pre-dates it and, in each of its guises, is also a doctrinal response to specific circumstances. Taking three highly influential moments in turn; first, the Prussian General Staff seeking to apply the enduring lessons of Clausewitz and their practical experiences in the Austro-Prussian (Seven Weeks) War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 to a highly innovative intellectual debate about the future of war. This debate encompassed several related innovations in warfare including the physical expansion of armies and of the battlespace and the impact of related technological advances in firepower, mobility and communications. Emphasis on decisive battle remained in the thinking of Moltke the Elder and the officer class but appreciation of the inter-connected nature of the battlespace grows; presaging modern thinking about operational art. We see these developments in the writings of key thinkers, in the Prussian Staff College, in ‘doctrine’ (such as it was) and, of course, in practice.

Second, after the First World War, the Germans and Soviets in particular respond to their own very specific experiences by developing cutting-edge combined arms and armoured manoeuvre concepts. Their shared experience of defeat and the Soviet experience of a subsequent civil war fought over huge distances encouraged radical experimentation and boldness when thinking about future war. In both countries, doctrine again reflected this innovation and though the Germans remained resistant to any formalisation of an operational level they pushed the technological boundaries and skill at campaigning to far greater effect. The Soviets, by contrast, fell behind in technological terms once Stalin imposed his own brutal control on the military but their doctrinal innovations of the 1920s and early 1930s advanced thinking about the link between strategy and tactics, operational art in other words, in a profoundly important manner. I would argue that they are actually more important in this respect than the Germans. Again, both eventually test their theories in the crucible of war and while German combined arms brilliance influences the physical component (how to conduct high-intensity warfare) to this day, Soviet thinking has had the greater impact on the conceptual (how to conceive of warfare).

Nowhere is this more evident than in the final snapshot: the US formalisation of an operational level. Partly in response to defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s and to the Soviet creation of Operational Manoeuvre Groups (OMGs) in the 1980s, the US military formalises the operational level. The concept spreads into NATO and then more broadly . Again, this innovation is doctrinal in origin and conceived in response to very specific challenges. Further, despite recent caricatures of the US military debate as founded on fundamental misunderstandings of the historical evolution of operational thinking, closer study of the genealogy of the doctrine actually reveals an open, intellectual and sophisticated analysis of what had gone before that is much more in-keeping with the traditions of the Prussians and Soviets. True, there are misunderstandings in US application of the concepts but, arguably, they served a very practical purpose in the context of the 1970s and 1980s. It, too, has been tested in battle with great success in the first Gulf War, 1991, and Iraq, 2003, but has proved increasingly problematic in dealing with the kinds of complex conflicts presented by Iraq and Afghanistan. These problems have inevitably led to the current debate about its current and future utility.

What are the implications of all of this for academics and modern militaries trying to think critically about operational art and the operational level? Well, there are lots of interesting lessons about the drivers of military innovation but a more profound lesson perhaps relates to the point that the concept is, first and foremost, doctrinal. The operational level does not have any intrinsic right to remain at the heart of how we conceive of modern warfare. I have argued in the past that only operational art, in its various guises, is a constant in campaigning. Thinking about a ‘level’ evolves in response to very particular threats in very specific circumstances and only becomes formal in the 1980s. It changes in form throughout history and is not a constant in warfare: you don’t necessarily need an operational level to enable operational art. Critics of the ‘level’ therefore have a point but, as an advocate of its continued utility, I would argue that its failings are not evidence of its redundancy and inevitable demise but rather the consequence of far too little time in recent decades spent on genuinely innovative thinking about its current and future form. Reminding ourselves that the operational level is an example of innovation in military thinking, of purposeful doctrine, should also serve as a reminder that good doctrine requires constant critical engagement to remain relevant. Time, perhaps, to stop bashing the concept and start thinking innovatively about it once again?

Image: Soviet stamp depicting Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky (wikicommons). Tukhachevsky was executed during Stalin’s Purges but rehabilitated as a national hero along with several other key military thinkers during the 1960s.

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