The unfortunate operational level: Five good reasons to review our operational level processes.


Jonathan is a French officer on the Advanced Command and Staff Course and a KCL MRes student.

The Statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy, but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Let us learn our lessons.

Winston Churchill

As part of a master’s degree by research with King’s College London, I have been focusing in recent months on the operational level and particularly on its validity as a purely military concept. To do this, I have combined traditional documentary research with several interviews conducted both in France and the United Kingdom, two powers with comparable military situations and ambitions to global influence. In the United Kingdom, I have notably met with Professor Keith Grint, General Sir Richard Barrons, General Sir Graeme Lamb and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, who all had the very gracious courtesy of welcoming me and sharing their extensive experience of operations and problem-solving with me.

Some of the conclusions I have drawn as a result of my research point to serious challenges to the existing planning practices which both militaries employ at the operational level. My point here is neither to carelessly condemn our entire methodology nor to arrogantly replace it with a procedure of my design. However, I am coming to the conclusion that our current processes, because of over-rigid normative intentions and a somewhat ‘Byzantine’ character, are not very suitable to make sense of the complexity that we have had to deal with in contemporary operations. Here are, in my opinion, five reasons to re-examine them.

  1. The instability of war objectives is not an anomaly.

Defining a desired end state in any given conflict is the result of a combination of circumstances which together are taken to define an expected exit point from a military operation. Supposedly a result of political orientations, the concept of an ‘end state’ is essential in our planning methodology, since it is from there that the entire conception of the operation is derived, backwards, as it were. However, on closer examination, this understanding of war aims is deeply problematic to the point of being almost completely artificial. Indeed, by seeking to set oneself, in the face of a complex problem, such a distant objective in such detail, one is almost sure not to hit the nail on the head. It is therefore understandable that this planning tool is not well received by politicians, who often prove reluctant to commit themselves to firm objectives in advance of military action. Its formulation according to current precepts is indeed a political gamble in its own right. In reality, it is only natural that war aims will evolve throughout the operation itself, as the environment changes, the operational problem is clarified, henceforth revealing its underlying causes, the stakeholders react to the actions undertaken, etc. This does neither mean that war aims are dispensable, nor that the political authority should feel free to disengage itself from providing them. But our methods of operational level planning should not rely so heavily on them to build an entire operation, from beginning to end.

  1. Operations are not industrial projects.

In the world of complex problems, to which operations arguably belong, there is no strictly predictable cause-and-effect relationship between the actions undertaken and their consequences in practice. This relationship is at best a matter of probability; it follows a dispositional logic. However, this self-evident phenomenon is not reflected in our current planning processes. These assume a degree of predictability that is never achieved in contemporary conflicts, where a significant degree of socio-cultural diversity within the operational environment and a highly volatile public opinion is often added to the usual fog of war. Therefore, by engaging from the outset in an essentially deductive planning endeavour, we do not take into account the fact that uncertainty will inevitably intensify over time. This planning effort is built on bold or strongly biased assumptions which are likely to be swept away by reality. Unfortunately, because of the utmost priority given to effects in these processes, the actions to be taken in the early moments of the operation are often deduced from the effects expected in the end. This mentality, which is typical of ‘Taylorist’ project management, hampers our operational effectiveness. It leads to considering the plan as a blueprint and not as a platform designed to navigate through the inevitable uncertainties of war.

  1. Intuition is not the enemy of analysis.

It is somewhat amusing to see how our current planning processes praise intuition while suffocating it under the doctrinal pillow. Indeed, because of its collective and reassuring nature, analysis unequivocally dominates our planning endeavours. This preference is particularly evident in the artificial features of some “understanding” tools which try to dissect reality in double entry tables or to bend it to filters that suppress its subtlety. Moreover, by usurping intuition in critical moments, through bizarre positivist rituals in decision-making situations, our current processes offer blind confidence in the staff’s intellectual flow, which, because of human dynamics, is subject to all kinds of bias and temptations. Yet intuition is an essential element of thinking. If by intuition we mean the sediment of a man’s entire experience, knowledge and skills, what De Gaulle refers to as ‘general culture’ and what Aristotle calls ‘practical wisdom’, then it is a powerful instrument of leadership. It is a fecund spring for authentic operational art. This observation, of course, is not about promoting `wet finger planning,’ yet somehow the conditions should be created for analysis and intuition to cooperate more harmoniously in our methodology. Complexity requires them both, first to safeguard each other, second to generate a true praxeology for our time.

  1. Planning is not a specialist’s business.

Our planning manuals are one inch thick. They use a specific and dense vernacular as well as numerous obtuse concepts, not to mention countless acronyms, the need for which is often debatable. The convoluted and confusing character of our approaches to planning is counter-productive. It makes the staff an esoteric organisation and makes teaching its associated norms resemble initiation rites, where even the most experienced ‘planners’ clash on the exegesis of this or that Clausewitzian concept. Endless discussions on the lexicon slow down and burden the process, while staffs too often spend precious time arguing over the procedural thread they are supposed to follow. This deification of the process is very damaging. It leads to an ethereal and abstract vision of strategy, which, at the operational level, is intended to be applicable through clear tactical orders. Operational level planning has become too much of a specialist’s activity. This excessive technicality undoubtedly prevents one from focusing on elaborating orders rather than on the procedural thread. These outputs, as a raison d’etre, would strongly benefit from being written with a greater emphasis on clarity and brevity. It hinders the integration of staff who are not familiar with its machinery but who may be essential to the planning effort, therefore being a substantial barrier to the diversity of thought and expertise.

  1. Operations do not comply with ready-made processes.

Our planning processes are far too standardised. It is partly understandable, particularly given the collective choice that NATO member nations have been made to adopt an effects-based-operations-type methodology. A common process should foster a sufficient degree of interoperability. However, it can be argued that this standardised approach has gone too far: to claim that peacekeeping, disaster relief or high-intensity warfare missions, regardless of the enemy, can all be approached according to the same process is  unreasonable. This claim is oblivious of the very nature of strategy, which consists of expedients and adaptability. An overly standardised approach may address a range of relatively simple problems, but certainly not those tricky ones where the power of the state is challenged. Operational art should not consist in twisting reality to one’s method, but on the contrary in adopting the bespoke approach that “distinguishes in the bowels of the present the ferment of the future” and thus sets the wisest path on which action must embark. Our current methods at the operational level are not flexible enough to allow this adaptability to flourish. By making them more flexible, we would perhaps find that synchronising our political goals with on-the-ground realities is a bit more within reach.


The above considerations, while harsh in tone, are not intended to destroy our current procedures altogether, but to indicate that they may have gone too far. In many ways, our approach to operational planning amounts to the proclamation of having cracked the phenomenon of war. This is hubris at best. It is also a very ineffective approach. To recover a more balanced approach, which would presumably be supported by EBO’s original designers, it would be wise to take a critical look at our strategic culture, recognising that it is now somewhat out of touch with reality.

Image via the US Army.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s