The operational level of warfare is useful

There are some people and articles claiming that no such thing as an operational level of war(fare) exists. I won't link examples, for you really didn't miss anything useful if you didn't see those articles.

The question shouldn't be whether it exists. The tactical and strategic levels don't exist either. Or can you grab them? It's all made-up stuff.

The question is whether it's useful to use such levels as mental constructs, and I say yes, it is useful.

A great example is the development of European-style land warfare from1914-1940.
In 1914 land forces knew about the enormous strength of fires and about the resulting superiority of defence over offence. They just didn't develop a better answer than to bypass defensive positions, and this ceased to work when the continuous front lines reached from Switzerland to the seas.

Approaches for penetrating such defences were found by 1916 and widely known by 1917 (tanks, trained small unit manoeuvre infantry, sophisticated artillery employment), but this didn't help much at first. The army which launched an offensive was able to penetrate the defences, but its opponents were so quick at moving reserve divisions to the location by rail and foot march that all such offensives got stuck after a few kilometres.
Even the late 1917 and 1918 offensives which achieved greater successes due to war fatigue weren't satisfactory. The tactical challenges were mastered (at high prices), but their exploitation was lacking.

It was a distinctly different challenge to exploit breakthroughs and thus make them worthwhile. The attacker had to beat the defender in the race against the reserves. The re-establishment of the tactically so powerful front-lines needed to be delayed, the culminating point of attack had to be observed and to be pushed forward. The challenges were entirely different from the breakthrough challenges, and one would misunderstand the Inter-War Years' military progress if one had no concept of the difference between the breakthrough (a tactical challenge) and the purpose-giving breakthrough exploitation phase, the operational level challenge.

We could call this "breakthrough" and "exploitation" instead of "tactical" and "operational" in this specific case, but there are many such examples*, and it is the words "tactical" and "operational" which have assumed a meaning for use across very many examples.

It makes sense to use the mental construct of an operational level of warfare.


*: Napoleon's corps converging and the joint battle. Athen's expedition to Syracuse as a whole and its two specific battles. (Notice how pre-front lines there was first manoeuvres, then battle, then exploitation while in the age of front lines the first phase was rather a logistical build-up of the force concentration and of local stocks).


  1. I dont get it. Most of tactics is about getting from A to B by using wits and force. So how again is The Operational different? Interdiction of reserves? If you isolate a battlefield using long range artillery fires this seems clearly tactical to me. How does it change into something conceptionally different if the air corps does the job?

    All WW1 and some of its prequels were about was the impossibility of outrunning train-mobile reserves with footmobile assaults. What operational magic would have changed this?

    Do not misunderstande me, I am not jet decided on the issue, but your suggestion looks like cannibalizing tactics for the sake of it.

    1. Think about it this way:

      A low level manager you need to supervise workers much and meet bankers rarely. Once promoted to top management he needs to supervise workers rarely and meet bankers often.
      The difference between low level and top management clearly exists. The exact definitions are arbitrary, but one would have a much more fuzzy view on management if one didn't have the idea that top and low level management are clearly different and require different answers to the same challenge by a competitor.

      Btw, the operational management that changed the equation was the use of fully motorised forces. A purely tactical lens would not have revealed their value because all those soft-skinned trucks look very wrong on a bullet and fragments-ridden battlefield.

      Compare Liddell-Hart's expanding torrent (tactical employment of fast, mechanised forces) and Guderian's operational-level concept of pushing real deep real quick largely ignoring threats to the flanks.

    2. "Think about it this way"

      No, I wont ;) Analogies work for Jesus, not us mortals trying to define something. You are being lazy.

      "difference between low level and top management clearly exists"

      Yes, but the difference between strategy (ends and means) and tactics (actions and procedures) seem much more profund than the difference between corps- and bataillon-level of command. An Example: The concept of a flank works for conceptualising the action of platoons, bataillons, corps and army groups even theatres of war, but for strategy ... not so much.

      "soft-skinned trucks"

      Tactics only start with a certain concentration of airborne lead?

      Trucks bring forces to a point of your choosing at a certain speed given certain preconditions are met. You leave them at a staging area, break the enemy and hop on again. What is not tactical about this?

      What is helpful about putting the concepts of engagement and exploitation into two different books? Their Interaction seem so important, that they amount to likely a starting point of any discussion of military actions from a lowly platoon to a theatre of war.

      Stormcrows creed seems a much more usefull starting point. But then, is there realy a aquivalent set of distinct concepts "between" tactics and strategy? Or is The Operational only a principle: never to forget the two dimensional character of war (the tactical and strategic facettes)? To operationalize strategy and to contextualize tactics?

    3. Corps level is operational level, and flanking attacks play a huge role on this level.

      You don't pay attention to my point, and it seems I cannot change this.

      Still, one last try:
      There is no distinction between tactics, operational level and strategy by nature's law or math. They were all once invented arbitrarily. Their legitimacy stems from the fact that it's useful to handle these areas differently. Even fuzzy distinctions don't change this.

      The quest for some well-defined definition leads nowhere, as all such definitions are arbitrary and thus indefensible. Look at the utility of thinking about tactics, operations and strategy separately instead.

    4. "Corps level is operational level, and flanking attacks play a huge role on this level."

      That was the whole point. The Operational seems to differ from tactics only in matters of scale. It certainly is usefull to distinguish by scale but the dualism of strategy and tactics isnt about scale but delineations of areas of knowledge about war itself. Thinking about them separately defies all systematic aspects of the "Levels of warfare" (more like facettes to my mind).

      Such concepts are not or should not be arbitrary. You dont become a superior military thinker by adding meaningless terms to your inventory. They should be distinctive and telling in maping out a holistic concept of war. If you divide up pets you are not going to go for pup, dog and cat as your primary categories.

      The definition of The Operational you are presenting isnt fuzzy it is nonexistent. All one can deduce so far is, that it is something about moving, enemy reserves and everything a corps does, but if shooting is involved it is tactics somehow. Not a hard job to show that It is important, when nobody realy knows what It is. The more abstract a concept is, the more it needs proper definition.

    5. ... and thus mankind ceased to talk about infantry, armour and artillery, since after all they kinda do the same thing.

      Live with it. Some arbitrary definitions are still useful. In fact, almost all definitions are arbitrary.

      The problem you're having with this appears to be the same as Wilf et al appear to have with the Operational level of warfare. Feel free to think about warfare without this construct. I am certain it's useful to have by arbitrary decision three instead of two drawers in the desk. It allows for a better order and a more clear thinking about what I have in my desk. The third drawer is useful, even though you don't like something about it.

    6. At least I would like to know whats in this drawer :)

  2. This is an oversimplification, but I have always heard of this triad:
    The Tactical Level, that is, he way that armies fight, the Strategic Level, the goals for which armies fight, and between those the Operational Level.

    The Strategic Level of warfare includes much more than mere grand operations; economic and, most importantly, political factors, among others.
    The aforementioned grand operations of corps and armies are the realm of the operational art - the military component of a nation's strategy. Tactics win battles, strategies win wars, and the Operational Level wins battles to win wars. I hope this does not sound too confused.

  3. I think I'll agree with anon (Name) in that it is not clear where you define the meaning of the term "operational level", nor where you describe its defining features.

    You seem to be talking about a level of planning that is distinguished primarily by its (rather big) scale in both space and time (exploitation of a breakthrough being somewhat far into the future at the time of planning an attack), but I can't say this is clearly expressed as a central idea. I suppose you just assumed everyone knew what "operational level" means.