The operational level of warfare (I)

There are two schools of thought about how to divide military theory.
One distinguishes the tactical level of combat and the strategic level, at which everything else happens.
The other school distinguishes another level, the operational level of warfare.

The operational level of warfare offers a framework for thinking about campaigns, that is a series of tactical-level events, even if said campaign stands no chance of winning a war (against at least one power) in itself. The English campaign in the Iberian peninsula during the Napoleonic wars, for example. Or the German Afrikafeldzug, which wouldn't have the won against the British Empire even if it had reached and blocked the Suez Canal.

I have brought forward some ideas that are standing way outside of these two schools of thought (such as this one). I'm still -unlike some people I am or was in contact with - a supporter of the concept of an operational level of warfare.

It seems one needs to convince in two steps to support the concept against sceptics:
  1. Define the levels
  2. Show that separating them like this provides a net benefit
Step One shall be the topic of this article. Ignore my earlier attempt at doing step two.
Step One the much easier and smaller step, but irritatingly there doesn't seem to be a concise, generally accepted definition for the operational level of warfare. So I feel free to contribute my own proposal for a definition:

The tactical level of warfare
encompasses the actions during a combat engagement and the preparations for the specific fight by the forces who are or are meant to become involved.

The strategic level of warfare
encompasses the warring powers' bolstering and maintaining of the political will to fight and the provision of resources (including manpower) for the war effort. It also encompasses actions that seek to reduce the opposing powers' ability to provide these resources, but it does not include efforts to move the provided resources to battle or to interfere with this movement.

Finally, what's in between the two:

The operational level of warfare
encompasses actions that facilitate the defeat of the resources for the war effort of the opposing powers. This does not include preparations for a combat engagement by forces later engaged or meant to join it.
As far as I can tell my main accomplishment here are to define the upper border with a look at resources and the lower border without insisting on the existence of relevant campaign plans.
I also avoided talking of battles or series thereof, so these definitions fit for small, low intensity conflicts as well. My definitions that work as stand-alone (as definitions always should), not defining any level as "everything else in warfare" or dependent on further definitions. Finally, I paid attention to using the more accurate word "warfare" instead of "war".

I did not really change the meaning of the levels by trying to define them. What I defined here is what I observed as the meaning of the terms as used in literature. The use of the term "operational level of wear(fare)" is much more homogeneous than one would expect from a term that lacks a widely accepted definition.

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Hardly any definition outside of nature's sciences is perfect.
What, for example is the level of war of an air attack on a munitions factory that doesn't only destroy machinery, but also some finished munitions (resources of war)? Is it a strategic or operational in nature? I suppose in such cases one should judge oneself; I would consider such an attack strategic in nature because the effect is almost certainly greater regarding the provision of resources than defeat thereof. It would be different if a shipyard was hit and an almost-finished supercarrier was turned to crap in the process. That would be an operational level attack (at least ex post), as the production capacity lost is a much less severe loss than that of the almost finished ship.

Another clarification, this time regarding "manpower for the war effort". This includes both workers and combatants. An attack on workers is a strategic attack, while an attack on combatants is a tactical one.** Again, in mixed cases the more severe aspect is the dominant one.

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My super-shortened version of the definitions would be like
tactical level - facing deployed and employed military power
operational level - trying to deploy military power better
strategic level - trying to be able to deploy and employ more military power

That's not all-unhelpful for understanding and clarity, but I suppose it's too concise for most interested people.

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Still, there are definitions of the operational level of war (fare), and I will link to some:

Most unhelpful are Wikipedia

Instead of defining what the  article's headline is (operational level of war) wikipedia quotes a U.S. DoD definition for operational art.

The current U.S. DoD definition for "operational level of war" is
"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."
They kept changing the definition. Earlier versions were in FM 100-5.

The Free Dictionary has an unnecessarily bloated and detailed definition that distracts from the essence:

An article that mentions an Australian official definition that's IMO unhelpful as well*:

Another article, rather with descriptions than concise definitions:

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None of this has the power to convince those who prefer the tactical/strategic division to adopt the operational level of war concept. That requires also part two, the (2nd) attempt to show the usefulness of the concept. This isn't in draft stage yet, so don't expect it this month.


* Luttwak gets mentioned there. IIRC he added a technical and a grand strategy level. The technical level has some relevance as it should educate armed forces leaders about how to exploit temporary technical superiority before the countermeasures reduce or eliminate them. Grand strategy is IMO for policy and peacetime, not for armed forces.
**: This could include a propaganda campaign that makes workers flee the country or be demotivated, as well as motivate soldiers to desert.


1 comment:

  1. I don't see anything strange with an air raid existing at more levels than one at the same time, but I do view it as suspect to not distinguish between the intent of an action during the planning stages and the later outcome of the action.

    For example, the air force might choose to time their bombing to be just before a large delivery goes out so that many completed munitions will be destroyed along with the factory, intending to score both operational and strategic benefits. Then on the actual day, ground support efforts elsewhere makes the airport so congested that by the time the attack happens most of the munitions have already left, so the attack fails at the operational level but still succeeds on the strategic one.