The operational level of warfare (II)

From part I:

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.

With the definition done, let's look at the usefulness of the concept of the operational level of warfare.

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A typical accusation against the operational level of warfare is that it's merely grand tactics, tactics for corps or army commanders. Not that much different from tactics of battalion leaders and below.
There is actually a gradual change of how important certain tasks are at different levels. From every level to another from private to commander in chief certain tasks and aspects of the job become less important or even unimportant (such as taking cover in time is unimportant to most generals) while other aspects are added and grow in importance with every level gained. Allocation of resources, for example. I reject the aforementioned accusation because if accepted it would delegitimate the entire idea of levels of warfare, mixing both tactical and strategic into one mess. There's no more clear cut between "strategic" and "tactical" than between "enlisted" and "NCO". The accusation is thus not consistent with a preference for a tactical/strategic idea of levels of warfare without an operational level.

The idea of different levels of warfare makes sense. Let me give an example:
When studying a plant, a zoologist may look at certain characteristics used to classify the plant. A DNA expert would look at the DNA. A chemist may look at the organic compounds present. A painter may look at the colour palette. All of them focus on one angle, and ignore everything else even though it's still present. This allows them to gain clarity at least about one angle at a time. A DNA expert could wonder what would happen if a certain gene was replaced, and being burdened with thoughts about whether the plant has flat or deep roots would serve him no purpose.

The concept of different levels of warfare does exactly that: It allows us to look at the aspects of warfare that are the most interesting. Sure, a squad leader does a little resource management, but when we're talking about tactics we don't pay much attention to it. A corps commander is still concerned about whether the corps' anti-tank tactics are up to date, but when we talk of operational level of warfare we're more interested in movement of formations logistics, deception. A supreme headquarter is still be concerned about technical training schedule issues, but when we talk of strategic level of warfare we're rather interested in arms production, finance, manpower, convincing the other power to yield et cetera.

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So what's so interesting about the operational level of warfare?

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.
The best practice in warfare is no doubt to fight unfairly, in order to "win" in combat. This is not all about what you do in combat, but mostly about what you do before combat. The preparations for the specific fight by the involved forces themselves belong to the tactical level according to my definition. To set up an ambush is tactics, for example.

Preparations by other forces on the other hand belong to the operational level. The air force may have bombed a bridge, thus slowing hostile reserves so much that they don't reinforce the opposing forces in a battle. That's very different in nature from the tactics of the forces involved, but clearly not strategic either.

This level is of great interest because it appears to be neglected, despite the intense interest that has lasted for decades - and maybe in part because detractors deny its existence.

What we saw in 1991 wasn't so bad, though simple. The opposing forces weren't attacking much, and the one attempt was defeated by a concentrated effort. So one side spend about 20 days preparing for battles to come by softening the opposing forces mostly with air attacks. It would have been stupid to advance right away, seeking battles quickly. Army leaders first manoeuvred trying to gain an advantage before accepting or forcing battle in earlier ages as well. Suvorov was a notable exception; he trusted in having an advantage if and by striking very early.

Attempts to "win" wars by manoeuvre alone without any battle or siege were ridiculed, and likely so for good reason. Those who came the most close were defeated by armies that paid more attention to strength at battle, sought battles and got them. Mastery at the operational level does not mean much if you are much inferior at the tactical level. You need to differentiate between both to see this clearly, of course.

I do suspect the greatest potential for improvement for Western land forces at the operational-level. Have a look at current force structures in the West and you'll see that combat forces are a small minority, the vast majority of troops are support troops. Yet those boots on the ground that serve to prepare for battles that they are not supposed to take part in is still tiny, for most of those support forces are organic or "rear" support, not "forward", operational-level support.
Electronic warfare, armoured reconnaissance and long range scout units are a tiny minority in modern land forces. All-too often reconnaissance was replaced with what's rather forward observation assets. Long range scouts are confined to elitist "special forces". They lack the numbers for theatre-saturating rather than mere anecdotal employments.
We're looking at combat forces and their combat support (artillery, air defence, organic recce etc.) and non-combat support (workshops, signal, supply, military intelligence etc.). This looks fine from the perspective of the combat troops who may despair about their feeble numbers, but enjoy information, support fires, supplies, functioning equipment and receive messages from headquarters.
Indeed, the arsenal is awesome in quality from their point of view - that's the tactical point of view.
The strategic point of view looks rather disappointing at the strategic level, for all-too often strategic objectives are simply not met or met only after incredibly expensive efforts. We became used to our strengths on the strategic level (industrial capacity, plenty allies) and despair about our inability to translate resources allocation into the desired or at least desirable political outcomes. Again, from this perspective it's hard to arrive at the same conclusions as with acceptance of the third, the operational level of warfare. This is even more emphasised since the operational level of warfare becomes difficult to discern in occupation warfare or seemingly haphazard bombing campaigns.

You do need the theoretical construct, the idea, of an operational level of warfare to see the room for improvement and the need for improvement regarding the preparation for battle by forces that do not and shall not engage in said battle.

Sadly, those who do not see an operational level of warfare and prefer to excuse away everything that goes beyond tactics but isn't quite strategy as "operational art" only do show the need for that third, intermediate level. Only once you look from its perspective do you see its usefulness. They can't see it because they refuse (or failed) to assume this point of view. This goes a long way explaining why the critique of the operational level of warfare as an idea is so persistent. No doubt, the non-believers will see circular reasoning in this, but you don't understand what you don't understand.

I will go on seek insights on the operational level of warfare, though I must admit there are strongly diminishing returns from studying more military history examples and analogies as well as from trying to be creative.



  1. Excellent article thank you so much for your clarity and obvious research.

  2. Excellent.

    The gradual shift in the importance of specific tasks and qualities is also obvious in business with many a brilliant executive failing as CEO the allocation of capital. If this shift is huge as it is from tactics to strategy an intermediate level looks like an intelligent way to frame a particular combination of challenges and priorities.

    Without framing and defining that part of the spectrum it's much harder and confusing to work within this particular field. It will often suffer from a lack of attention and communication which in turn means that the rewards for the armed forces getting it right might be especially high.


    1. There's a saying that a good colonel may become a bad general. It's a widespread problem in personnel affairs, and related to the Peter principle.

      I've seen a couple descriptions on how the tasks structure changes as an officer rises through the ranks, but none of those was blunt enough to state the obvious:
      A major part of the job is to please the superior. Men who excel at that, get good reviews and promoted risk failing at the higher level. Well, unless they mastered the art of harnessing the efforts of skipped-over, more competent yet now subordinated officers to their own benefit.

      I was rather aiming at theory rather than personnel affairs, though.

    2. Wasn't the German General Staff among other aspects set up to create better chances for high potential officers to go around the usual old-boy, networked Army way of promotion?

      Instead of directly reforming that fairly rotten way of doing it a time of dire need was used to create a small new institution which offered a fairly structured, intellectual and meritoractic environment for young officers.

      Stimulation, novel teaching, repeated testing and overall high standards made it quite hard to promote unsuited ones and omit smart introverts.*

      Such a small tight-knit elite working on many different fields connected to warfare seems also especially well suited to explore the operational level.°


      *Of course institutions tend to degrade with time if not much effort, instilled by need is exercised. Still very valid today.

      °Overall the cost-benefit ratio of the Prussian General Stuff before and during the Franco-Prussian war must have been stunning. A genius like Suvarov offered also a surprising ratio but such men are per defintion very few.

    3. There are efforts and methods to keep the problem in check, of course.
      On the other hand, I've seen officers who shouldn't have made it into any kind of leadership position; examples of Hammerstein-Equard's "stupid and industrious" category.

    4. "We became used to our strengths on the strategic level (industrial capacity, plenty allies) and despair about our inability to translate resources allocation into the desired or at least desirable political outcomes."


      I cannot find this conection of desired endstate to the use of Military power in your terminology.

    5. The definition of strategy is in part I, not here. I don't think that the endstate/objective needs to be in the definition directly. It belongs into the definition of "war" or "warfare". The objective is a most tricky issue in itself. What was the German objective of war in 1914 or 1915? Historians cannot figure it out. There were no German demands, so the opponents could not have yielded to demands as by CvC's theory.

      The actual German original has (in Buch II, Kapitel 12, not Ch.1):
      "Es ist also nach unserer Einteilung die Taktik die Lehre vom Gebrauch der Streitkräfte im Gefecht, die Strategie die Lehre vom Gebrauch der Gefechte zum Zweck des Krieges."

      And that's state of the art as of 1830 or so. In fact, by CvC's own words ("nach unserer Einteilung") it's but his own way of dividing the theory of war.

      CvC actually went on to mention what we understand as "strategic" nowadays, pointing out that he's only interested in the use of force. So essentially CvC's idea of strategy is largely the modern idea of operational art, and what he left out is largely the modern idea of strategic efforts.

      Besides, I'm not a devout high priest of a man who died almost two centuries ago. His book draft is not binding to me, but merely a collection of interesting thoughts. CvC's book is only binding when he actually introduced a term - then his definition should be used and different concepts should be named differently. He did not introduce the terms strategic or tactical.

      Last but not least, CvC's definition of strategy and tactics is a very poor one, even if one denies the existence of an operational level. There's no recce, no deception and no logistics in there.