Operational Art

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 and the Operational Level: The Case for the Defence

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 second post, Dr Stuart Griffin argues that these concepts are still relevant.


In the first of these posts on Monday, my friend and colleague Dr Robert Foley presented the case for the rejection of the concepts of operational art and the operational level of war. Robert discussed the origins of the concepts, their meaning, utility and the changes in the character of conflict that have made them obsolete. Here, in my reply defending the continued relevance of both, I will agree with his assessment of the shifting strategic context and the challenges it presents but will propose an alternative view of the implications. To me, there are significant problems with the current understanding of the operational level that have had a major impact on our perception of its utility but not on its actual utility. The operational level is as relevant today as it was when the Soviets first grappled with its formalisation nearly 100 years ago.

First, as you will have already noticed, I have taken the liberty of separating the concepts of level and art. This is because, as Robert also identifies, the two are not coterminous. If they were, my task today would be much more straightforward because operational art is relatively easy to defend. True, the concept only develops formally during the course of the intellectual debates about the future of warfare undertaken by the Soviet armed forces during the inter-war period and only enters our lexicon much later, alongside the related operational level, in the late 1980s. However, unlike the operational level, operational art is a constant in warfare; at least in any form of protracted warfare. For as long as human beings have waged war, they have relied on operational art to achieve strategic objectives. Put most simply, it is the art of campaigning; stitching together tactical battles for strategic purpose. Operational art is the ability of a commander to place the down (tactics) in the context of the up (strategy) and act accordingly. It always existed, there was just no need to codify it when wars were personally directed by kings, queens and emperors, or a relatively small group of trusted, often familial, lieutenants. When the vastness of empire precluded direct control we catch glimpses of why its formalisation was eventually required. The greatest Roman emperors could only maintain control of their sprawling empires if they gave their generals and consuls enough room to act effectively but enough guidance to do so in Rome’s wider interests. The greatest generals were those that did so in the most trying circumstances.

Relating this more directly to Robert’s previous blog, General Ulysses S. Grant was less fêted than his most famous Confederate counterparts, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but his impact on our understanding of campaigning was ultimately the greater: he was the more natural exponent of the operational art if not the more talented battlefield commander. While Lee could see the battlefield, and do so in political terms, Grant could better see the campaign as a politico-military whole. Through the expansion of warfare that the Napoleonic and American Civil Wars presaged to the global conflicts of the twentieth century, the importance of operational art grew and it remains crucial to twenty-first century warfare because, regardless of the scale or character of a given conflict, balancing ends, ways and means is always vital for successful strategy: operational art, as Robert’s US doctrine quote states, does that.

So if the continued relevance of operational art is a given, what of the operational level? Well, I could cheat and argue that you always need the latter to deliver the former but that would be untrue. It is perfectly plausible that a particular operation or a specific conflict could be conducted without recourse to the use of a formal operational level. If a focused intervention in, say, Libya or Syria remains small, discrete and time-limited, why would it need formal operational management? If, as Robert identifies, a state provides a small number of troops to a much larger coalition, why do they need a distinct operational level? Well, the answer to both is that they don’t. There is not always the need for a layer of command between the tactical and the strategic and this is one of the problems with the modern conception of the operational level. It has become so ingrained in our thinking and our military command hierarchies that it is often wrongly assumed to infuse everything. However, it would be ill-judged to declare the level defunct based on such examples. When I wrote that they didn’t need an operational level, I should have written that they didn’t necessarily need an operational level. Think of the consequences of an ill-fated intervention in Libya or Syria: even a small, discrete, time-limited one. Who should the tactical commanders turn to for guidance? Straight to No.10 or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Unlikely. Maybe to CDS or the Joint Chief? Perhaps, but hardly optimal. A suitably senior command team familiar with the intent and detail of the operation? Almost certainly. An operational level, in other words: just a more informal, flexible one.

As for that battalion in Helmand or those air controllers in Anbar or that ship off Somalia, they may only be small pieces in a much bigger jigsaw but there is a more complex picture that needs to be seen, understood and shaped. At their height in 2007-08, coalition forces in Iraq numbered over 180 000 and troop numbers never dropped below 100 000 from the invasion in 2003 until 2010. It is a similar story for ISAF so even a tiny contribution by a small state requires integration in a much larger operational plan. Smaller militaries may rarely practice operational art or require their own operational level HQs but they still need to understand both if they are to engage with coalition partners in any meaningful way. Interestingly, some ‘smaller’ states consciously study operational art and the operational level not because they believe they can undertake such operations in their own right but because they want to be able to operate within such multinational HQs: perceiving this as an excellent way of maximising their influence. The Irish Defence Forces are a great example of a small military that sets much stock in its ability to understand the fundamentals and thereby make a significant contribution to whatever operations they are involved in, regardless of the scale of that involvement.

Finally, the most convincing critiques of operational art and the operational level, including Robert’s, focus on what has changed and how the concepts have become anachronisms because of their failure to adapt but I think this is a subtly different argument. It is not that operational art and the operational level are antiquated and irrelevant; it is that we have failed to continue to think creatively about their application in today’s world. Over time, unhelpful mantras such as ‘the operational level is a purely military space’ (it is not, nor should it ever have been) have become institutionalised and this has been detrimental to our ability to apply the concepts appropriately. Indeed, Justin Kelly, who Robert cites, is damning about the current state of operational thinking but stops short of declaring the concepts dead. Rather, he points out that we conceive of them in outdated ways and thus leaves the door open for advocates of operational art and the operational level even as he casts serious doubts upon them. So I end my defence of operational art and the operational level by agreeing with Robert’s analysis of the changes and challenges but disagreeing with his conclusions. Yes, we do need a new understanding of campaigning; of the relationships between tactics and strategy; of the very utility of military force: but we also need to acknowledge the possibility, even probability, that operational art and the operational level will be every bit as important to our brave new world as they were to the old one.

Image: Royal Marines of X-Ray Company, 45 Commando during a ground domination patrol in Afghanistan in 2009. Courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence.

Operational Level and Operational Art: Still Useful Today?

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 will explore the continued utility of these concepts in two posts. In this first post, Dr Robert T. Foley argues that these concepts are no longer relevant.


A recognition of the ‘operational’ level of war, and with this the concept of ‘operational art’ have become key components of Western military doctrine. The US Department of Defense defines the operational level as: ‘The level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas.’ It defines the related operational art much more broadly: ‘The cognitive approach by commanders and staffs – supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment – to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, and means.’

These two related concepts are comparatively new to Western armed forces. They only really entering US, and later NATO, doctrine in the 1980s in the wake of the soul-searching that followed the US defeat in Vietnam. In the 1980s, these concepts were very useful for NATO, which faced the possibility of a large-scale, high-intensity war across the entire European continent. Moreover, these concepts matched, and even copied, the rising operational focus of Soviet forces, which had developed their own ideas of campaign planning and the extensive use of ‘operational maneuver groups.’ Importantly as well, the concepts provided a glimmer of hope, however faint, that there could be a conventional military solution to a future NATO-Warsaw Pact war, rather than the old reliance, stated or not, on nuclear weapons.

The concepts of operational level of war and operation art drove the development of new military doctrines on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. They helped accelerate the integration of all arms and all services into ‘joint’ forces united by common mission goals. They helped free Western, and Soviet, military thinkers from single-service straitjackets and helped raise military planning to new levels. While they may have performed important functions in the 1980s and early 1990s, the concepts of operational level of war and operational art are no longer useful today. Political and strategic circumstances have changed radically how we use force in the world today, rendering the idea of a purely military sphere of operation risible.

In an earlier piece, Dr Huw Davies and I examined the origins of the concepts of operational level and operational art. The origins of these concepts provide important indicators of why these are not relevant today. The concepts developed in the mid-20th century as a means of dealing with the rise of mass armies. As conscription spread across Europe in the late 19th century, the size of armies increased exponentially. In the late 19th century, it had still been just about possible for Helmuth von Moltke the Elder or Robert E. Lee to stand in one place, to see, and importantly to direct the course of a battle. By the outbreak of the First World War, this was no longer so – multiple armies went to battle with opponents spread over vast distances and at different times. Indeed, the idea of ‘battle’ itself was stretched to its limits by engagements lasting months at a time, rather than hours or days. The Second World War took this trend even further, with states fighting in multiple theatres across the globe. Understandably, soldiers needed some way of tying together these disparate actions into something and some way of linking these to broader objectives. The concepts of operational level of war and operational art helped to fill this function.

Today, we do not live in the age of mass armies. The past few years have seen massive cuts in what were already, by 20th century standards at least, small armed forces. The British armed forces counted 194,570 at the start of 2015, 87, 540 of whom were serving in the army. The US Army is expected to fall to 450,000 by 2018, which is a 150,000 reduction from its peak in 2011. (Indeed, this itself is a far cry from 781,000 US soldiers serving in 1985.) Even China, which as traditionally relied on mass, has recently announced a 300,000-man cut from the Peoples Liberation Army. Thus, one of the key drivers of the development of the operational level and art is gone. It is far easier to coordinate and control the actions of small forces acting in discrete operations, particularly with modern communications technology, than the millions of men fighting across thousands of miles in the Second World War.

This precipitous reduction in the size of armed forces has also meant that contributions to recent military operations has varied enormously. Recent operations in Afghanistan are a good example of this. Many states contributed only a handful of troops to ISAF. These few troops were clearly not intended to make a difference to the campaign militarily – they were there as a political signal. In other words, their commitment performed a strategic role, rather than a purely military role. Indeed, the United Kingdom’s commitment of troops was driven more by politics and strategy than by operational (i.e., military) considerations – the desire to make a large contribution to a US-led NATO operation balanced by perceived constraints on the numbers of troops the UK populous would accept. Once in Afghanistan, this force operated within a wider ISAF campaign plan; in other words as a tactical force. Where was the operational level or the operational art for the UK commitment to Afghanistan?

This leads us to a wider problem with the concepts of operational level and art: These assume that there is a purely military sphere in war and conflict where politics and, importantly, politicians do not intrude. It is the space in which the armed forces convert strategic objectives into tasks and objectives that the armed forces can deliver. The concepts create the expectation that this is a space controlled by the armed forces. This idea of a purely military space is, however, an illusion. It ignores what Clausewitz pointed out almost two centuries ago: war, all war, is inherently a political act.

So where do we go from here? I believe that the utility of the concepts of the operational level and operational art have already questioned for some time now. Justin Kelly and Michael Brennan have recently subjected these ideas to a sustained critique in a thought-provoking paper. The recognition of the limited utility of these concepts is already implicit in the recent operational decisions, which as the decision by some states to send only handfuls of troops to participate in the NATO-ISAF mission in Afghanistan. It is also implied in Charles Krulak’s ideas of a ‘strategic corporal’ and ‘three-block war.’ Indeed, we can also see it at work in the recent formulation of the ‘comprehensive approach.’ In order to move on from the outdated concepts of the operational level and operational art, we need to explore and understand better the direct links between tactical actions and strategy and we need to stop trying to fool ourselves into thinking that there is a zone in which the military operates all on its own. Ultimately, we need to build the recognition of these facts into a new understanding of ‘campaign planning.’

Image: The German High Command conducting campaign planning in 1940 via Wikimedia Commons.

What did officers read before Clausewitz?


A few weeks ago, I visited Stratfield Saye, the Berkshire country estate of the Duke of Wellington. Acquired in 1817 as a reward for the decisive victory he gained at Waterloo two years earlier, grand plans were drawn up to knock down the old house and erect an enormous palace on the scale of Blenheim. As ever, Wellington refused to let good money go to waste, and insisted on retaining the beautiful old house, and with it a beautiful library.

My purpose in visiting was to access the Duke’s personal library. My question: was there anything among these dusty old tomes that might have sparked the genius he demonstrated in India, the Peninsula and finally and decisively at Waterloo? In advance, I had found a considerable quantity of early eighteenth century treatises on the art of war and military operations, usually written in peacetime by officers on half-pay kicking their heels and looking for something to supplement their income. None of these were apparent (although I only got as far as D in the immense two volume catalogue).

Unexpectedly, I found possible new dimensions being added to a man about whom I had only investigated the military side. Was he really that interested in birds? And fishing? Amongst the volumes of non-military material I did find several books on military operations, army field regulations and the like, but the earliest was dated 1811, and most originated after Wellington retired from active military service. I did find ‘Military Instructions for Young Officers Detached in the Field’ dating from 1774, and a ‘A Treatise on Military Discipline’ dating from 1759.

However, what caught my eye was a clear interest in military history. There was ‘The Commentaries of Julius Caesar’ published in 1677; a ‘Military History of Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough’ published in 1736, and ‘Reveries, or Memoirs Concerning the Art of War’ by Maurice, Comte de Saxe.

The latter is particularly interesting. It’s not the first time I have encountered Saxe whilst researching where British Army officers got their ideas about tactical and operational innovation in the eighteenth century. One explanation is the new and challenging terrain and means of fighting that the British encountered between the 1750s and the 1790s. The other is previous experience, and reading about the experience of others.

Saxe had a long and distinguished career in the French Army, eventually receiving his marshal’s baton in 1743. Among his many military exploits, he fought the Ottoman Empire in his early twenties. This exposed him to irregular warfare and the use of loose and light troop formations. He adapted these ideas and deployed them in combination with regular infantry formations against the British at the Battle of Fontenoy on 11 May 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession.

Saxe’s enemy at Fontenoy was the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II. Cumberland observed the innovative use of varying troop deployments and adapted the technique for use against the Scottish Highlanders in the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745/6.

In an interesting book entitled Rebellion and Savagery: The Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the British Empire published in 2005, Geoffrey Plank analyses how following the suppression of the rebellion, Cumberland’s subordinates were appointed to key positions across the British Empire. They took with them the knowledge and experience of fighting the Highlanders. Among them was John Campbell, the Third Earl of Loudoun. He was appointed in 1756 to succeed Edward Braddock as Commander-in-Chief of British forces in America, following Braddock’s death during a catastrophic defeat against a joint Franco-Indian force on the river Monongahela in 1755. Out of the defeat, new ideas emerged about how to fight in the dense terrain in America. These closely resembled the approach favoured by Cumberland in Scotland and Saxe in Germany. Small wonder that Loudoun helped foster these reforms.

Unfortunately, Loudoun’s reforms did not take effect swiftly enough to prevent a series of further British defeats in 1756 and 1757. Loudoun was relieved of his command and succeeded first by his second, James Abercromby, and then Jeffrey Amherst. In 1758, the reforms instituted by Loudoun began to have their effect, leading to the year of victories in 1759, which saw the capture of Ticonderoga, and other lake forts on the American-Canadian border, and eventually the capture of Quebec, the capital of New France.

This swift canter through British and French military history serves to illustrate, at least in part, how ideas were transmitted. Saxe, arguably the progenitor of these ideas, also committed his thoughts on war to paper, and it is this book that once resided on Wellington’s book shelves. We’ll likely never know if Wellington read the book – although I am inclined to speculate that he did.

Let’s take a look at what Saxe had to say about fighting in enclosed countries:

It must be laid down down as one invariable maxim on all marches, to have parties, consisting of 100 men, always advanced in front, and upon the flanks, which must be sustained by others of double the same force … in order to be effectually guarded against all attempts whatever of the enemy… A partisan of enterprise and spirit, with 3 or 400 men, will find means to attack an army on its march, and to occasion a great deal of disorder and inconvenience. If he seizes an opportunity, at the close of the day, to cut off your baggage, he will be able to carry away a considerable part of it, without exposing himself to much danger; because, if he retreats between two passes, and makes a vigorous opposition in his rear, he will thereby check your pursuit… A stratagem of this nature must be attended with dreadful confusion. It is for these reasons therefore that advanced parties ought to cover all the avenues of your march; but they must never be too weak in numbers; for unless they are sufficient to oppose any attack, nothing less than ruin and disgrace can be the consequence…

In 1800, when he was just thirty years old, Arthur Wellesley fought an insurgency in Mysore, India. The way in which Wellesley configured his 8000-man force bears a striking resemblance to that described above by Saxe. You can read more about Wellesley’s counterinsurgency – his first independent command – in an article I wrote for Modern Asian Studies in 2010, as well as in my book Wellington’s Wars: The Making of a Military Genius.

Wellesley might not have read Saxe prior to his encounter with Indian insurgents. But the parallels are striking, whilst small but important pieces of evidence are starting to come to light that suggest military knowledge was passed from generation to generation, across continents and wars. Books, then, as now, were one way in which these ideas, experience and knowledge were transmitted.

The Instrumentalisation of History


History is a dangerous thing. Parallels between contemporary events and history are all too easy to arrive at. In unskilled hands, historical events can be manhandled to seemingly deliver lessons and solutions to apparently intractable contemporary problems. This is ‘instrumentalising’ history. In reality, history can be misleading, its so-called ‘lessons’ proving counter-productive if their context is not properly understood.

In the last decade, numerous such ‘lessons’ have been bandied around as a means of resolving some of the more stubborn issues facing the West. Historians, armchair strategists and soldiers alike have looked to Britain’s long and turbulent history in Afghanistan as a means of suggesting solutions to the ongoing Taliban insurgency.

Similarly, Lawrence of Arabia has been held up as a panacea of how to resolve the newly emerged threat from Islamic State. Imperfect parallels have been drawn between the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic era and the rise of IS. Hawkish politicians cannot help but draw ill-fitting analogies between the actions of Hitler toward Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s, and Vladimir Putin and Russia’s recent entanglements in Georgia and Ukraine.

In part, this is a media-generated hyperbole, as seemingly easy parallels lend themselves to sensational stories. But used as a means of detecting a way forward, as an influence on policy-making, history incorrectly understood is very dangerous.

The first casualty of instrumentalising history is almost invariably the context in which that history occurred.

Comparison of Revolutionary France with the rise of the Islamic State is an interesting proposition. Sure, it is fascinating to note the rise of a revolutionary organisation bent on the transformation and subjugation not just of one country but an entire continent, and which uses gruesome public beheadings as a means of creating terror and provoking war.

But the extended argument is basically a call to arms, in favour of the use of Western ground forces in the developing campaign against IS militants. I find this a difficult thesis to agree with, and one that reflects the instrumentalisation of history for subjective ends.

Britain’s strategy in the war against Revolutionary France and then Napoleon, so the argument goes, saw the British initially try to defeat France by means of seapower alone. But although British command of the sea was virtually unassailable after 1805, Britain was eventually forced to deploy ground troops in a war in the Iberian Peninsula. Britain also assembled no fewer than seven coalitions of the Great Powers of Europe in order to defeat Napoleon.

The parallel invoked here is that the United States is the only power capable of, or willing to, assemble an international coalition to defeat IS. That coalition would lack moral backbone if the US, and by extension her western allies, did not deploy ground forces to Iraq and Syria.

The only way to defeat a land-power, whether Napoleonic France or the Islamic State, is on land. The truth of this assertion is unchallengeable, but the context in which these decisions were taken is.

But the parallel, and therefore the lesson, falls apart when the context in which Britain fought the Napoleonic War is understood. Until 1807, Britain hoped to contain Napoleonic France – hence the use of maritime power to isolate France economically.

But in 1807, it became apparent to the British government that Napoleonic France represented an existential threat to the British monarchy. The serious deployment of troops to the continent was not really an effort to defeat Napoleon directly – the British Army was no where near big enough or capable enough to do that. Rather, the use of ground troops was a political tool to enable to construction of an international coalition, and to give Britain sufficient diplomatic weight for forthcoming peace negotiations.

More generally, however, this was a European war, that required a European solution. The eventually peace negotiations – the famous Congress of Vienna – was not imposed by outside powers, but the coming together of the Great Powers of Europe in a settlement that would also see the creation of the Concert of Europe – the first attempt at international governance, and one that would essentially keep global peace for a century.

So, when compared with the situation in Iraq and Syria, the parallels now seem threadbare. First, the Islamic State do not represent an existential threat to either the United States or her Western allies. Secondly, by leading an intervention in Iraq and Syria, the United States is not mirroring the British role of building an international coalition in the war against France, which was, in essence, a Western solution to a Western problem. Instead, the US is intervening in a socio-political conflict with a strong religious dimension – a Western attempted solution to a Middle Eastern/Islamic problem. A better (although still imperfect) historical parallel is the Peace of Westphalia, which saw the war-torn countries of Europe agreeing the principles of the nation-state that still persist to this day.

Similarly, the actions of Lawrence of Arabia are usually spoken of with little regard for the context in which they occur. Lawrence was able to raise an Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire because of widespread discontent with Ottoman rule, set within the wider context of the global schism that was the Great War.

Moreover, by focussing on Lawrence alone – and his famous Pillars of Wisdom – the contribution of other, less media savvy – and Hollywood friendly – characters are overlooked. Indeed, Lawrence was not being particularly original. Similar pithy expressions have been uttered down the ages, from Sun Tzu to Maurice de Saxe, both of whom faced irregular threats during extensive military careers, and thought long and hard about how to capture their ideas for posterity.

This issue speaks to a second problem with the instrumentalisation of history: namely the role and value of the great men of history. The two examples discussed here focus on the fame or infamy of two great historical figures: Napoleon Bonaparte and T. E. Lawrence.

Yet the notion that individuals wield sufficient power to alter the course of history has been widely discredited. Rather their actions have greater impact because of the historical accident of living in interesting times. Napoleon took advantage of enormous socio-political currents that were transforming society and politics, as well as warfare, across Europe. The impact he had was certainly not all his own making, whilst many of the adaptations and innovations in warfare that Napoleon allegedly introduced were in fact devised by others, such as Lazare Carnot and Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, Comte de Guibert.

Having illustrated the problems with instrumentalising history, how can history be of use in understanding contemporary events?

The first victim of the instrumentalisation of history is also its first lesson. Historical study can provide valuable context.

One does not really understand the strong-arm tactics of Vladimir Putin and his desire for a secure and strong buffer between Russia and the West without understanding Russia’s long and turbulent history.

The societal and religious divisions that are coming to the fore now in Iraq and Syria are themselves products of a bygone colonial era.

The nature of the international system, and the history of the norms and behaviours between Western states and the international community is the product of the West’s own turbulent history: from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to the Concert of Europe in 1814.

Contextualising events helps to unpack their causes and potential consequences. History provides the tools to understand properly contemporary events. Deploying poorly understood historical parallels in order to justify or argue for a certain course of action only degrades the value of history.

The Operational Level of War and the Operational Art


In recent years, particularly since difficulties have been encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq, military thinkers and practitioners have begun questioning the existence of the operational level of war. Some argue that the articulation of the concept was a distraction from adequate attention to the tactical and strategic levels of war.

Here, two historians, with interests in different periods of military history, outline the relevance of the concept to the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, and the Second World War.

The Operational Level During the Napoleonic Wars

The ‘operational level’ was first articulated as a level of war by Alexander Svechin, and conceptually employed by the Soviets during the war on the Eastern Front in 1944-5. This commonly leads to an assumption that the operational level didn’t exist before then. But that’s a bit like arguing the Earth really was at the centre of the Universe until Galileo and Copernicus theorised otherwise. The Earth always orbited the Sun, and the Operational Level of War has always existed.

As a nineteenth century military historian, the way in which Napoleon planned operations, utilising comparatively vast spaces, and articulating complex manoeuvres was a clear example of operational level planning: that is to say, planning that was somewhere between strategic and tactical in nature. Take the Ulm Campaign of 15-20 October 1805. Napoleon deployed his Grande Armée for the first time in a corps-level organisation.

Each Corps was able to operate independently, whilst a strong centralised General Staff orchestrated swift communications between each corps. When one of Napoleon’s corps found the Austrian Army near the southern German town of Ulm, it fixed the enemy in place, whilst the remaining corps manoeuvred to encircle the Austrians. In the subsequent battle on 19 October 1805, the Austrians were completely enveloped and forced to surrender.

Napoleon’s success lay at least in part in his ability to delegate command to his marshals and their ability to understand his intent. The operation itself saw nearly 120,000 French soldiers utilise both time (the campaign lasted six days) and space (Napoleon’s army was deployed across several hundred miles) to achieve a decisive tactical result.

Over the course of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria followed Napoleon’s lead and developed variants that played to national strengths. British operational art depended on its mastery of the seas and its superior ability to bring global resources to bear. When Wellington was fighting in the Iberian Peninsula, he was able to plan operations on multiple fronts, directing and redirecting naval assets as required.

Small wonder, that this period spawned two of the greatest military thinkers: Baron Antoine de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz, both of whom, in different ways described war in terms that were similar to what Svechin would later articulate as the ‘operational level of war’.

The Operational Level of War and German Military Thought, 1866-1918

As the previous section has mentioned, the ‘operational level’ and the ‘operational art’ as we understand the terms today did not exist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, this does not mean that military theorists of the period did not grapple to come to terms with the same problems that led to the articulation of operational art in the Interwar period, namely the rise of mass armies and the resultant geographical expansion of the ‘battlefield. In particular, German military writers and planners developed new concepts to address the challenges of modern war.

Indeed, the Imperial German army was the first to use the term ‘operativ’ in a military context, and some have argued that the Soviets derived much of their understanding of the concept from the works of Sigismund von Schlichting, which were used as textbooks in the Imperial Russian staff colleges. For the Germans of this time, however, the adjective operativ was used to denote movement off the battlefield. Increasingly, though, this movement off the battlefield was recognized as important to what happened on the battlefield. Authors, such as Rudoph von Caemmerer (a protégé of Schlichting), argued that the successes of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder in the German Wars of Unification (1864-1871) were the result of maneuvering German forces, usually by the new technology railways, to enable battle under the most favorable conditions for the German force and the least favorable conditions for the enemy force.

At the same time that there was a growing appreciation within the German army of the importance of maneuver in modern battle, there was also recognition that the size of modern armies created new problems in command. The largest army commanded by Moltke was about 550,000 men. By the early twentieth century, the German army was intending to deploy more than two million men across several hundred miles of separate fronts in the west and the east. Although emerging radio and telegraph technology might assist the ‘modern Alexander’ to conduct wars of the future, two new important concepts of warfare emerged to address the problems of the burgeoning size of armies and scale of combat.

The first of these put the army and the army corps at the heart of future battlefield action. Between 1892 and 1914, the German army trained extensively in what it termed Truppenführung, a new level of combat and command between the low-level tactics of division and below (Gefechtsführung) and the higher level of strategy (Kriegführung). They put this training to good use in the early stages of the First World War, particularly in the battles of Tannenberg and the Frontiers.

The second important concept to emerge in German military thought before 1914 was Alfred von Schlieffen’s idea of a Gesamtschlacht. While better known today for his eponymous plan, this plan was really designed to tie together a series of battles fought over different spaces and at different times, a point generally lost in recent analysis. These Teilschlachten, as Schlieffen termed them, would be welded together into something more than the sum of the parts by the commander’s plan. This plan would give meaning to the disparate battles sometimes fought by independent armies and victory in the war would be assured by victory in the Gesamtschlacht.

Although Schlieffen’s plan failed in 1914, the concepts of Truppenführung and Gesamtschlacht were at the heart of the much more successful German invasion of France in 1940 and Russia in 1941. Indeed, what later historians have termed ‘Blitzkrieg’ and have attributed to the Interwar Reichswehr or the Second World War Wehrmacht was, in fact, simply a mechanized and motorized version of what the Kaiserheer attempted over the same ground in 1914.

Operational Art and Russian/Soviet Military Thought, 1918-1945

It is perhaps unsurprising that what we understand today as the ‘operational level’ and the ‘operational art’ had their direct origins in Russia. In common with their western neighbours, Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union wrestled with the expansion of warfare driven by modern mass armies. The scale of the issue, however, was all the greater for this great eastern empire. In the big western powers – France and Germany – each mobilized around 4 million men at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Russia, on the other hand, mobilized some 9 million. On top of this, the Eastern Front stretched for some 1,000 miles from north to south.

The size of forces mobilized combined with the vast scale of the area over which the war was fought pushed the Russian army to develop a new level of command – the army group or front, as it was known to the Imperial and later Red armies – comprised of numerous distinct armies. Each front was expected to fight within its own resources battles that were usually distant from each other in space and time.

The experience of the First World War and the subsequent wars of the Russian revolution heavily influenced Red Army theorists in the Interwar period. Indeed, the Soviet theorists of the Interwar period were drawing upon their own considerable practical experience of warfare between 1914 and 1939. Alexander Svechin has already been mentioned, but other experienced officers, such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Vladimir Triandafilov, and Nikolai Varfolomeev, devised a workable doctrine for combat at the operational level.

Indeed, by the early 1930s, the concept of glubokaya operatsiya, or deep operations, had become enshrined in Soviet doctrine and training. Tying new emerging technologies of aircraft, tanks, and motorization together with the idea of using large-scale mobile forces (Fronts) on separate axes of operations in the enemy’s rear, deep operations looked to disrupt rather than simply destroy the enemy’s defence. The Soviets put this doctrine to good use, particularly in 1944 and 1945. Faced with large-scale offensives on widely separated fronts, the Germans were unable to be strong at every point, and the cohesion of the overall German defence broke down.

The Operational Level in the Age of Mass Armies

What ties these different periods of history together is the nature of their armies. With the levée en masse of the August 1793, Revolutionary France began a period in which armies increasingly drew upon the growing populations of their nation states to form large armies comprised of citizen soldiers. These mass armies created problems of size and scale unseen by previous generations of military commanders. How would these large armies be commanded and controlled? How could the results of disparate battles be combined to achieve political goals?

The answers to these questions were found in the creation of new levels of command (army corps, armies, and army groups); in creating a plan that gave focus to battles separated in space and time; in the increasing importance of disruption of an enemy’s cohesion over his physical destruction; and in operating independently over even greater areas. In other words, this period of mass armies gave rise to the development of the ‘operational level’ and the ‘operational art.’