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.

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).

Ball Bearings Innovation: The Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the Increments of Transformational Change

This is the fourth of several posts running on Defence-in-Depth over the next few weeks arising out of the Military Learning and Innovation Roundtable held at the Joint Services Command and Staff College on Wednesday 17 June 2015. The roundtable explored the various ways in which armed forces have learned, adapted, and innovated in times of war and peace, austerity, and pressure from the eighteenth century to the present day. You can read more about the aims and objectives, research outputs, and future events of the Military Innovation and Learning Research Group at Podcasts from the roundtable are available to download here.


Military innovation conjures in people’s minds the advent of iconic capabilities. The arrival of firearms, the shift from sail to steam at sea, and the conquest of the skies are the stuff of the common conception of the phenomenon. Mirroring the magnitude of the effect, the innovation itself is expected to be recognized as a major shift. To think this way, however, leaves off too many important advances. Where in fact some have only themselves effected minor change, in the repetition and scope of such societal endeavours as industrial war the revolutionary outcome is achieved. This type is what I am calling here Ball Bearings Innovation, based on a theme of German military industrial prowess in WWII. Apocryphal or otherwise, the ball bearing has been hailed as the lynchpin of their strength of arms. In this scenario the simplification of components according to fewer standardised parts created efficiencies that at scale advanced manufacturing capabilities significantly. Ball bearings become transformative, even revolutionary, when uncountable numbers are involved. Repeated at scale and across mass the irrelevant becomes mighty.

Where the Germans had ball bearings, the American military juggernaut in WWII had packaging and packing. Concerned with how individual and grouped items are contained, identified and wrapped for transport, storage and use, packing and packaging perfectly represent the materiel basis of American warfare. Improvements during the Interwar period in this seemingly irrelevant backwater of technological development would mean tremendous gains in logistics capabilities.

A key node of this effort resided in the newly established Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF). Opened in 1923, ICAF represented the next step in American Military education from the first rounds which had established the Command and Staff and War Colleges. Unlike these, ICAF depended significantly upon the intersection of government and civilian partners, as well as other services. The need for coordination across these many organizations was excellent preparation for the scale, complexity and terms of WWII operations. And the advances the school would help to usher along would manifest in the overwhelming margin of capacity the Allies brought to bear in the war against Germany and Japan.

The school’s mandate was to improve military capabilities in industrial warfare. Whether in planning or research, interaction with the private sector, or assisting th‎e demands of mobilisation planning, the curriculum across the period covered the spectrum of martial-industrial topics, to include consideration of requirements and needs of packing and packaging in war. Although many offices and actors were at work on this issue and others during this period, ICAF’s efforts were important for the interactions it created among the state, armed forces, and the economy. During the Interwar period the students benefited from practical military experience in WWI and other conflicts, business and research expertise, as well as the commitment of the government. Whether it was by reducing the transportation space needed per good or to replace losses, against the logistics demands of industrial war the incremental improvements in packing and packaging would exceed their minor scale. When it came to an American and Allied strategy dependent upon the weight of logistics in WWII, across the breadth of a global conflict at the apex of mass industrial warfare, the savings would accumulate to critical effect.


Navigating past events or the pace of contemporary change, we tend to focus on the large terrain features. As we come to grips with the transformative effect of 140 characters in the strategic capacity of political narratives in war, it is clear this focus cannot serve. Particularly with innovation, concern for the small details which can accumulate to shape events will improve our understanding, whether of history or the present.

Image: Aerial view of Mulberry harbour “B” (October 27, 1944)

The Doctrine of ‘Understanding’ and the Illusion of Control


In an era of supposedly unparalleled challenge and complexity (ignoring for one moment the fact that it isn’t in any way unparalleled), ‘Understanding’ appears to be the current doctrinal plat du jour for Britain’s armed forces. Particularly so for the Army, that service which by and large interacts most closely and personally with the kinds of political, social and cultural aspects of conflict that demand comprehension. The notion of ‘Understanding’ in this context then, as represented by 2010’s Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 04, is instrumental. It is the ability to effectively leverage varieties of information and knowledge open to those individuals and organisations (military and non-military) concerned with planning and prosecuting military operations at a number of levels, in such ways as to afford commanders (and thus their political leadership) the greatest chance of achieving their desired end state. ‘Understanding’ should reach across government, ‘so as to ensure the effective application of all elements of national power in support of UK national security policy’.

So far so good. But, ignoring for the moment the most elementary epistemological challenges regarding the nature of knowledge and understanding – as well as the fairly worrying implication that people have to be reminded by doctrine to understand things – it is obvious that in doctrine, as well as life in general, you don’t always get what you wish for, for a variety of reasons. And when you do then sometimes you realise you should have wished for something else. And while the doctrine of understanding espouses the sort of call-to-intellectual-arms that can only be applauded, the fact remains that any effective drive for such a valuable if intangible commodity is potentially flawed at all levels of war, as well as being open to some serious abuses.

‘Understanding’ and strategic level actors

The intersection between ‘understanding’ and strategic level decision making is always a fragile one for a variety of reasons. Firstly there is the common problem of ‘understanding’ becoming hostage to contrary ideological pressures or psychological defects on the part of strategic level decision makers. Those decisions can take place in a sort of intellectual/information vacuum, and those involved don’t like being told that their ideas are idiotic or unfeasible. Secondly there is the problem of strategic level actors applying developed and reasoned understanding to a chosen course of policy but still cocking it up because that understanding leads to the wrong conclusion and a subsequent chain of mistaken actions. Thirdly there is the problem of correctly understanding matters at all levels, and being right in choosing one’s course of action, but still being unable to engineer a satisfactory resolution.

The first point is well illustrated by interventions in Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011. In both cases these were prompted by powerful yet broad ideological considerations (and humanitarian in the case of Libya) that brooked no interference from those with a more nuanced understanding of conditions at ground level and the potentially even more serious negative effects of intervention, which are now playing out in both instances. In these cases, and numerous others before them, the only ‘understanding’ that political leaders wished to hear was that which reinforced their own chosen course of action. But even if political leaders appear to know exactly what they are doing, ‘understanding’ remains a pretty fragile commodity. Anthony Eden was the foremost Arabist of his time in Government. But his experience of the rise of fascism in the 1930’s, combined with his belief in his own inherent understanding of the Arab psyche, shaped his understanding of the threat posed by Nasser in such a way that he overreacted and made an unholy mess of the ‘56 Suez crisis. The understanding was there but it was mishandled, with disastrous results. And ultimately, even if everyone from top to bottom has got their ducks in a row, the potential for mayhem still exists. On British India’s NW Frontier during the 19th and early-mid 20th Century, political officers with decades of experience and remarkable language skills were distributed among the tribes. From there they delivered the kind of tactical and operational level ‘understanding’ that strategic level actors crave. The result, however, was decades of constant and unending violence. The understanding was there, but it fell foul of the wider strategic perspective held by policymakers which dictated that considerations in relation to the tribal areas mattered to some extent but were far less important than what might be happening elsewhere in India or the Empire as a whole. The correct decision of course, but one that was of no comfort to British forces on the frontier, locked as they were in an endless round of inconclusive, costly and reputationally damaging military escapades and which it appeared no amount of ‘understanding the human terrain’ could ever counter.

‘Operationalising’ understanding: The problem with doctrine

JDP 0-4 is an intelligent piece of work but it falls foul of the basic problem with doctrine, which is that once elevated above the level where it essentially comprises a set of relatively basic instructions, it tends to become inherently reductive in the sense that it seeks to reduce matters of great complexity and nuance to a series of seductively simple principles, observations and recommendations. The problem of course is that simple doesn’t mean easy, or even feasible. It’s simple enough in principle to define the concept of a cross-governmental approach, for example. It’s simple enough to recommend that one goes about seeking to conjoin and coordinate multiple and simultaneous lines of political, economic, military and diplomatic activity in theatre that seek to deliver the same ends. Whether you are actually able do any of that is, however, a matter of blind fortune. Indeed, this problem could be said to apply to large parts of JDP-04, dealing as it does with obscure matters of culture, anthropology, ethos and philosophy. And consider too the fact that the multiple facets of modern conflict theoretically require additional multiple doctrines to be read, considered, and digested. Indeed, the authors of JDP 0-4 recommend that it be consulted in conjunction with JDP 2-00 (Understanding and Intelligence in Support of Joint Operations), NATO’s AJP-2 (Joint Intelligence, Counter Intelligence and Security Doctrine), JDPs 01 (Campaigning), 3-00 (Campaign Execution), and 5-00 (Campaign Planning), JDP 6-00 (Communications and Information Systems Support to Joint Operations) and JDP 3-40 (Security and Stabilisation: the Military Contribution). Presumably AFM Vol 1 Part 10 (Counter Insurgency) should be in the mix somewhere too. That’s a total of some 1800 pages of doctrine. It’s just not going to happen, is it?

‘Operationalising’ Understanding: The problem with (British?) military culture.

The lack of attention to doctrine is partly practical one (it’s dull, and no-one has the time to read it) and partly a cultural one. The oft quoted remark by Rommel that the British write the best doctrine in the world and then fail to read it has more than a grain of truth, still. Many outside the military prefer to scoff at the lack of intellectual sophistication of those within. That snobbery is badly misplaced. But whether the plentiful and powerful intellectual resources that exist within the services are ever able to be properly utilised in the never-ending quest for ‘understanding’ is another matter entirely. The military inculcates in its people certain behaviours and preferences; boldness, decisiveness, action, speed of decision making, (so as to better get inside the enemy’s own decision making cycle) and a broad understanding of the deeply complex phenomenon that is war. And ultimately there is a focus upon common conceptual processes to aid these designs. What there is not is a culture of patient thought, of intellectual cross-fertilization, and of deep reflection. There remains a mistrust and lack of respect for the proper intellectualisation of subject matter. This anti-intellectualism is a consequence of the military’s peculiar role rather than any lack of intellectual competence but the highly varied and unpredictable nature of operations, the crippling time-pressures therein and a general culture of ‘add water for instant expertise’ quite naturally promote superficial levels of knowledge and militate against a culture of deep study, contemplation and consideration. And if the required knowledge or expertise is instead to be bought in from outside when required, as JDP 0-4 recommends, then the military ought to be prepared for the fact that certain sectors of the academic community for example might not be willing to lend their expertise, and that those that do may well offer completely contrary or potentially useless advice, further clouding the issue.

The utility of pre-knowledge

The problem with military operations is that they are generally transformative in nature. The application of military force in the context of expeditionary operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, for example, shattered existing political structures, completely re-ordered certain social hierarchies, and delivered highly unpredictable criminal and political elements into the equation, elements whose dynamics were and are often subject to constant change. Any existing pre-knowledge becomes incredibly precarious, perhaps even completely redundant, requiring the time consuming accumulation of new insights that may well not be delivered in the appropriate timescale. ‘Understanding’ in this context becomes less a matter of judgement and more a matter of just crossing one’s fingers and trying one’s best, as the experience of British forces in post-Baathist Basra 2003-5 illustrated. ‘Understanding’ what was going on at a political level was difficult enough. Understanding what to do about it simply wasn’t an option at that point in time. And then when you do understand, negative consequences can follow (see below).


Linked to this last point is the fact the fundamental point that the acquiring of ‘understanding’ may well deliver perverse results. After a rather rocky start 2003-2006 Coalition forces in Iraq began to properly comprehend the social and political complexities of their surroundings. This led to two distinct approaches by US and British forces respectively. The former, with its cabal of PhD educated senior leadership, engineered a relationship with the powerful Sunni tribes of Anbar Province in order to defeat AQI, while the latter pragmatically manoeuvred their way through the byzantine politics of Shi’te Basra and eventually withdrew from the city in order to aid the delivery of a lasting political settlement among the various competing interests there. In both cases their understanding was sophisticated and nuanced and in both cases albeit in different ways the results have been negative. For the Americans the tribal focus simply reinforced sectarian divides, contributed to the inability of Iraq to function as a unitary state, and encouraged Obama to believe that the country could function effectively without a continued US presence, all of which have contributed to the deeply unpleasant consequences we see unfolding now. For the British, the correct decision to withdraw from Basra city and thus allow the Shia militias to focus on combating a menacing Iranian influence was simply portrayed as weakness, leading onward to a powerful impression of defeat on the part of friends and enemies alike and resulting in a hangover that still casts a dark shadow over the Army. In other words, ‘understanding’ led on the one hand to a narrative of victory that was nothing of the sort, and on the other an unjustified narrative of defeat that has overshadowed British foreign policy ever since.


The American academic (and former US Army officer) Andrew Bacevich stated that once a statesman chooses war, they are in effect simply rolling the dice; their ability to control and direct subsequent events to their liking becomes extremely precarious. The same principle applies to our requirement for understanding. The doctrine reminds us how important it is, and even aims to show us how to achieve it but the most important people in the equation, those at the very top, will continue to roll the dice regardless. And often, as a consequence, those charged with acquiring and providing ‘understanding’ will remain hostages to fortune.

Image: Photo by Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Duran, U.S. Army ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.