Small Wars Journal

It’s Just Tactics: Why the Operational Level of War is an Unhelpful Fiction and Impedes the Operational Art

Thu, 09/24/2015 - 1:23am

It’s Just Tactics: Why the Operational Level of War is an Unhelpful Fiction and Impedes the Operational Art

Lawrence M. Doane

From Saving Private Ryan – An example of operational art in the trenches.

Capt. Hamill: What've you heard? How's it all falling together?

Capt. Miller: Well, we've got the beachhead secure, problem is Monty's taking his time moving on Caen, we can't move out 'til he's ready.

Capt. Hamill: That guy's over-rated.

Capt. Miller: No argument here.

Capt. Hamill: We gotta take Caen to take St. Lo.

Capt. Miller: You gotta take St. Lo to take Valognes.

Capt. Hamill: Valognes, you got Cherbourg.

Capt. Miller: Cherbourg, you got Paris.

Capt. Hamill: Paris, you get Berlin.

Capt. Miller: And then that big boat home.

Dale Eikmeier, in his recent article in this journal, argued that the Army’s concept of the operational art as it pertains to the operational level of war is disharmonious with Joint doctrine.[1] Such a misunderstanding between doctrinal concepts is rightly dangerous and worthy of address. Carl von Clausewitz, in his discussion of theory, aptly noted that the weeds of misunderstanding always grow from ignorance.[2] In this circumstance, the metaphor is most appropriate as it describes the danger inherent from misunderstandings of theory and suggests the way forward upon their discovery. Misunderstandings, like weeds, crowd out space for healthy, more desirable ideas to take root; moreover, their existence is mutually exclusive to the development of a deeper understanding of a topic. Thus, misunderstandings, like weeds, demand attention and wholesale removal from the intellectual garden lest one ignore Clausewitz’s further dictum to keep the important and unimportant separate.[3] Colonel Eikmeier’s suggestion that the Army use the term ‘tactical art’ in lieu of ‘operational art’ may address the discrepancy in doctrine but it does little to address the underlying weed of misunderstanding.  Rather than semantic changes adjusting Army doctrine, resolving this dilemma requires a good herbicide aimed at Joint doctrine and the removal of the very concept of an operational level of war. 

Before the introduction of the operational level of war, US doctrine typically divided the study of warfare into either strategy or tactics. Changes in technology and society, embodied broadly by the industrial and French revolutions,  expanded the scale and complexity of planning and conducting war. While the fundamental division of kind between tactical and strategic actions remained valid, the changes brought through industrialization and the nation in arms necessitated a division of scale.  This broke these two broad categories into two further subsets, yielding a construct of grand strategy, strategy, grand tactics, and tactics. Grand strategy described the setting of national objectives and the surrounding statecraft while strategy concerned arranging the instruments of national power into supporting objectives, all aimed at the achievement of the national objectives. Tactics, on the other hand, concerns itself with employment of forces for immediate advantage on the field. Grand tactics expanded this concept to encompass the arrangement of larger forces, sometimes across multiple battlefields.[4]  Baron de Jomini’s explanation of the term foreshadows modern campaign design as he defined grand tactics as “…the art of well combining and well conducting battles.”[5]

Beyond mere categorization, understanding warfare using this construct shows the necessity of communication between not only strategic and tactical concerns but also between higher echelons of power and lower. More importantly, these two kinds of exchanges are not always linked and simply moving from a higher echelon to a lower one does not always correspond to a parallel movement from the strategic to the tactical. The size or power of an echelon does not equate to its categorization as a strategic or tactical element. A corps level formation can act tactically, as in World War II, just as a battalion can act strategically, demonstrated by much of the past decade.   

The creation of an intervening operational level of war between strategy and tactics in U.S. doctrine resulted from a misunderstanding of the operational art and its relationship to both strategy and tactics. Doctrine writers, when creating an operational level of war, conflated the art of command with the hierarchy of planning necessary for modern warfare. In its earliest days in U.S. doctrine, the operational level of war was born out of a need to develop the employment of large, fast moving formations on a rapidly changing battlefield, essentially tactics on a grand scale.[6] Linked to this perceived change in the character of modern war, operational art concurrently emerged in U.S. doctrine in the guise of campaign design.

Following the history of the development of these two terms, the comingling of the concepts becomes significant.  As Colonel Eikmeier astutely pointed out, such conflation of the concepts is not helpful.  Yet, the problem arises not from any change in the concept and definition of operational art, but in the increasingly assertive notion of an operational level of warfare.  The birth of the operational level of war in US doctrine is the 1982 version of FM 100-5, Operations, defining it as the level concerned with larger unit operations and the conduct of campaigns. The manual further indicates that the dividing line between the operational and tactical levels exists somewhere between the corps and division level. This arbitrary dividing line echoes to current Joint doctrine. Significantly, the 1982 definition contains no explicit link within the operational level of war between tactical action and strategic outcomes. As the manual puts it, the operational level of war is simply “the theory of larger unit operations.”[7] Had the development of an operational level of war stopped at this point it would have done no significant harm to US doctrine. However, over the years that followed, the gradual conflation of operational art and an operational level of war would both hinder the development of sound operational art while allowing the unhelpful concept of an operational level of war to insert itself between the creation of strategy and that strategy’s supporting tactics.

The 1986 version of FM 100-5 firmly entrenched the operational level of war into the Army’s doctrine and its further inclusion into the emerging joint doctrine following the Goldwater-Nichols act. The 1986 version of the operational level of war further expanded upon the importance of coordinating large unit actions and the value of synchronizing close and deep operations. The 1986 FM 100-5 also defined the operational level as the realm of the corps and higher echelon with divisions “almost never direct(ing) actions at the operational level.”[8] In further definition of what echelons inhabited the operational level, FM 100-5 also placed the theater commanders in chief, the progenitors of the modern geographic combatant commander, squarely in an operational level of war concerned with the synchronization of large formations to achieve missions under the strategic guidance of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.[9]          

The 1986 FM 100-5 defined the operational art as the arranging of campaigns and military objectives to achieve a strategic end. While not explicitly naming operational art as the military skill linking tactical actions with strategic ends, the 1986 definition begins the process of developing the US military’s doctrinal understanding of the operational art and its practice.  Unfortunately, it also marks the beginning of the stratification of warfare into distinct, separate levels beyond strategy and tactics. In the manual’s summary of the structure of modern warfare, it divides all military activity into three areas: military strategy, operational art, and tactics. Military strategy achieves political aims, operational art creates campaigns to support those political aims, and tactics win the battles that make up the campaign.[10] Much like earlier definitions of the operational level of war, this definition of operational art, while simplistic, is not damaging to US doctrine on its own; however, over time, these definitions combined with the continued merging of operational art and an operational level of war formed a doctrinal wedge between the formation of strategy and its accomplishment on the battlefield.

The 1995 publication of JP 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations, pushed this merging of the operational art and the operational level of war towards its current unsatisfactory position. JP 3-0 defined the operational level as the link between strategic objectives and tactical employment of forces.  Furthermore, the publication states that the focus of the operational level is operational art, which it defined as the design of campaigns and major operations. Although the manual briefly mentions the possibility of subordinate commanders using operational art, further descriptions of operational art within the manual explicitly keep the JFC at the center of its execution.[11] This constraint, explicit or not, of operational art to the upper echelons of command is the principal flaw of the operational level of war. Current Joint doctrine reinforces this in its depiction of the operational level of war where it names JFCs or even Geographic Combatant Commanders as the commander focused on operational art.[12]

In the early 1980s, military theorists proposed the operational level of war to cope with the demands of modern, armored warfare and emerging concepts of close and deep battle. Because of these demands, doctrine writers necessarily defined the operational level of war by the size of the units it governed since, to accomplish the tasks assigned at the operational level, such as deep strike, units of sufficient size and reach were necessary. In an earlier time, the Baron Antoine de Jomini effectively described these matters as “Grand Tactics.”[13] This description is more helpful than the creation of an operational level of war as it sees the maneuver of these large units as different from smaller unit tactics as a difference of scale, rather than kind. While difficult in execution and requiring skill and experience far greater than a small unit commander, the basic theory behind division and corps level maneuver is not fundamentally different from that of smaller units. Good tactics, grand or not, enable commanders to find positional or temporal advantage on their adversaries to defeat or destroy an enemy force.

In contrast, operational art emerged from a growing interest in campaign planning in the wake of the events of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Definitions of operational art, such as in the 1995 JP 3-0, highlight the operational art a means to avoid disconnected battles and the use of relative attrition as the measure of success or failure.[14] At its core, operational art is what enables a military to adopt maneuver warfare, rather than simple attrition. Understanding the operational art as the key to successful campaign planning in this light implies that it is not simply the sequencing of successful battles that yields victory, but the synergistic, psychological effects of the campaign as a whole. If this is the true role of operational art, it appears to have far more to do with achieving broader strategic ends rather than the simple arrangement of battles. The strongest definitions of operational art underscore this facet through emphasizing the broad vision and overall understanding of the strategic situation required for its practice.

With this clearer understanding of the tactical nature of an operational level of war in contrast to the more strategically oriented operational art, the conflation of the two terms becomes more evidently detrimental. Yet, it is not the Army that has an “operational art” problem, but rather, that Joint doctrine has an “operational level” problem.  If the wars of the past decade and a half have demonstrated anything, it is that achieving strategic ends can and do happen at any echelon. The bridge metaphor Eikmeier references to explain the role of the operational level of war as the link between strategic goals and tactical action is particularly unhelpful in this case.  An intervening layer, bridge, or what-have-you is not necessary to link tactics to strategy and vice versa.  As many definitions, to include Joint doctrine, have pointed out, all this link needs is a commander well versed in operational art.

The Army appears to be convinced of the lack of utility of the operational level of war.  A review of both ADP 3-0 and ADRP 3-0 find only a single mention of the term, and that is to only point out that operational art is not constrained to an operational level.  Indeed, Army doctrine seems to be intent on replacing the function of the operational level of war with the operational art, an action long overdue.  This action does not create a “confusing mishmash,” as Eikmeier asserts, since there is no need to distinguish between operational art’s cognitive processes and the function of the operational level.  Good operational art performs the function of the operational level, rendering the concept and its constraint to a particular echelon obsolete.

Fundamentally, doctrine must continue to underscore that the operational art is the commander’s art as it is a unit commander, regardless of echelon, that will be ultimately responsible for the translation of strategic objectives into a tactical plan for their achievement. This translation of strategic objectives into military action occurs wherever strategy and tactics meet and does not occur at a separate level of warfare.  This ability to understand and communicate the exchange between the strategic and tactical realms is at the core of the military profession and, arguably, the key specialized skill the nation has come to expect from its military. The echelon that this translation point exists at will vary depending on the circumstances and character of the particular conflict in question. The commander of that echelon must be a master of the operational art if they are to be of use to the nation. This central function of the commander cannot be wholly delegated to a staff of “operational level staff planners” regardless of their education level.

Clausewitz saw the danger of divorcing the executor of an operation from its intellectual creator.  His dictums on the relational nature of war and politics aside, Clausewitz also contemplated the role military genius played in the accomplishment of strategic objectives. He noted, “When all is said and done, it is really the commander’s coup d’oeil, his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself that is the essence of good generalship.”[15] Essentially, Clausewitz is describing operational art. The ability to hold an entire conflict in one’s own mind is a prerequisite for understanding how a series of tactical actions might yield a desired strategic end. Development of this ability requires a command of the operational art. Staff officers specially trained in the operational art can assist a commander, but they are an inadequate substitute for the commander’s coup d’oeil.

Operational art must exist at the border between strategy and tactics, facilitate the exchange between the two, and, ultimately, provide an operational approach that achieves strategic objectives within the constraints of the tactical situation. This ability is at the heart of the art of command. Operational art is not simply campaign planning or the maneuver of large units. It is the fundamental military art behind winning wars. Elimination of the operational level of war would create a clearer, more concise American concept of war.  Military problems consist of strategy and tactics, regardless of scale, and the principal contribution of the military professional is the operational art linking the two.  The creation of an intervening operational level is simply a distraction.  The Army should stick to its guns here and, instead of changing its doctrine, continue to chip away at Joint doctrine’s insistence on an operational level of war.

End Notes

[1] Dale C. Eikmeir, “Operational Art and the Operational Level of War, are they Synonymous? Well It Depends.”, Small Wars Journal,

[2] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 578.

[3] Clausewitz, 578. 

[4] These divisions begin to arise during the Napoleonic era. The most notable work on the subject at the time is Jacques-Antoin-Hippolyte Guibert’s Essai General de Tactique, published 1772.

[5] Antoine Baron de Jomini, The Art of War, translated by CPT G.H. Mendell, USA and LT W.P. Craighill, USA, trans. (Kingston, Ontario: Legacy Press, 2008), 47.  

[6] FM 100-5, Operations, 1982. 2-3. 

[7] Ibid. 2-3.

[8] FM 100-5, Operations, 1986, 185. 

[9] Ibid. 163,

[10] Ibid. 9. 

[11] JP 3-0, 1995 II-3.  

[12] JP 3-0, I-13,14

[13] Jomini, 47.  

[14] JP 3-0, 1993, II-3.

[15] Clausewitz, 698.


About the Author(s)

Larry Doane is a U.S. Army Major currently serving as a Congressional Fellow in Washington, DC where he is pursuing a Master's degree in Legislative Affairs from George Washington University. MAJ Doane's assignments include combat tours as a platoon leader in Iraq and cavalry troop commander in Afghanistan as well as assignments to Headquarters, Department of the Army and National Guard Bureau.  He is a distinguished graduate of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and holds a Master's degree in Military Studies from the Marine Corps University. These views are strictly his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.



Wed, 10/14/2015 - 12:36pm

I'm just catching up on all these various comments.

The Army would do well to reject postmodernism and all its children: disruptive thinking, chaos theory, and all the rest. It’s nothing more than Shamanism for polite society.

It wraps itself in philosophe nouvelle terminology, but it’s a faith – not a science. In fact it is an explicit rejection of science, and the Enlightenment, and Rationalism, and Empiricism. And in rich irony claims to be against dogmas and shibboleths, while itself is a rejection of Rationalism. It preaches in fact unquestionable dogma. (Try being a non-disruptive thinker in a room of disruptive-trained Jedi Knights. You’ll soon find out that toleration for disruption ends when you threaten disruptive thinking. The disruptors will not be disrupted.)

It’s intellectual nonsense and has not place in any sane organization. Can you imagine a VP at GE Capital interviewing a newly minted MBA who tells the VP “I’m a disruptive thinker! Please let me inside your company!” The Army’s business is immensely more important than GE Capital’s but for some reason we tolerate the disruptives.

Clausewitz, standing on the shoulders of 3,000 years of Western intellectual history, observed human warfare and created terms of reference related to his observations: terms which categorized and organized the world around him. This is called taxonomy. Rejecting and replacing tactical-operational-strategic without the due diligence of testing and evaluating (i.e. scientific method), is little different from rejecting biological taxonomy (remember King Philip Came Over For Good Soup). The biology profession wouldn’t deign to recognize such criticism as remotely valid without proper testing and analysis. But in the Army without even a pretext of falsification, we allow the wholesale scuttling of generations of refined doctrine.


Fri, 10/09/2015 - 8:00pm


BZ on your attempt to slice into doctrine to extract the nuances of application of conceptual ideas. I think you're spot on. I agree but happen to think that the root of this problem come from HOW the Services adopted (or circumvented) Goldwater-Nichols -Service self-preservation vs. Joint self-preservation. I don't believe the time frame in your analysis, enactment/adoption of GNA and its elements, and the solidification of Operational Art and Operational Level of War to be happenstance. We are living with the structure we created to serve our purposes. What is the incentive to change?

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 10/08/2015 - 9:34am

As Einstein noted, Good theory cannot be proven by any number of experiments, but can be disproven by a single experiment. Much to the chagrin of modern US academia that believes a bad idea backed with 100 citations of those who share that bad idea trumps a good idea that dares to stand apart from their comfortable position shared, and therefore "proven" ignorance. Some must touch the wounds in the hands, when faith is what is really needed.

Knowledge is a double-edged sword, serving as both the path and the obstacle to greater understanding.

Bill M.

Fri, 10/09/2015 - 1:49pm

In reply to by G Martin

Grant, at the end of the day you still national level strategic aims for executers to aims their means and ways at. You seem to be saying we just need to jump in the pool and start swimming? In practice it seems you are promoting letting every ODA, every Inf Bn, every SOCFWD, develop its own strategic goals and then do what they want to pursue them? I think policy and strategy fell short, and that had a big impact on how we got to where we are today. However, I agree, the military must learn to operate more effectively in a weak policy/strategy environment. At the end of the day you have to work for the boss you have, not the boss you want. We tried your approach in early years of OIF and OEF-A. Bns would frequently swap out, and each Bn would then take an entirely differently approach to pursue a different end based on their personal philosophy, not what was happening in the environment, and in the end we got where using this approach?

Design thinking and operational design isn't new. The only reason it seems new is that the Army, including SF, went down a rigid doctrinal path in the 90s where MDMP was hyped as the Holy Grail. Planning processes are not necessarily flawed, but they do promote flawed thinking. An experienced operator understands how to use the process as guide, not a checklist, but in reality that doesn't happen often. Before MDMP was shoved down our throats, I argue SF actually did a good deal of design thinking to inform their planning. It wasn't called design thinking, but the intent of the area studies and continuous area assessments were all about seeking understanding of how various variables in the environment interact and change over time. We had a plan going in, but based on the continuous assessment we would adapt as required. The new crop of design thinkers have convoluted the idea of design thinking beyond recognition. They seem to be impressed with their shallow knowledge of ancient philosophy, and seldom demonstrate in clear terms how design thinking would benefit the force. Clausewitz's ideas were far from simple, and they were not abstract, but his thinking in book 1 was clear. It takes a lot of effort to get from complex to simple explanations. Simple explanations do not equate to simplicity, though that is often the counter argument to this statement.

Reviewing JP-5 yesterday as a reference (a sin, I know), it states every objective must be tied to a center of gravity. This is complete nonsense, and once planners start down this road a lot of other options will never even be explored. The center of gravity concept has limited utility, it mostly useful to some extent for conventional battles. Conventional battles are not war, they are a subset of war and strategy.

Design thinking doesn't replace planning, it informs it, in theory it should free us from center of gravity concept, and give us the ability to achieve desired effects via multiple approaches. It should most importantly provide an initial understanding of the environment that facilitates learning and adaptation. Our current doctrinal planning process does not; however, the answer isn't simply discarding all doctrine. The answer is fixing it. JP 5-0 is apparently out for staffing now, but I haven't seen the tasker. I doubt those reviewing it are looking to create extra work for themselves, so they'll just submit happy to glad changes and no one will seriously challenge a planning process designed for very narrow mission set, which is principally conventional battles (which it confuses with war). It discusses other operations, but attempts to force the same planning construct (= mindset) upon those other operations.


Fri, 10/09/2015 - 9:11am

In reply to by G Martin


If at the get-go our doctrine prompted our tactical, operational and strategic leaders to apply their Operational Philosophy rather than their Operational Art we might establish the notion that a linear solution was the last thing we had in mind. A white lie that the correct title for Sun Tzu’s treatise was actually Philosophy of War, might help avoiding ridicule from the hell-yeah charges and help identify the cognitive environment we seek to inhabit so as to cultivate Operational effectiveness.

If you want an example of how this approach can boost your warfighting look no further than our opponents of the last 15 years. The enemy embrace this Operational approach at all levels and at all times. The title for their Operational Philosophy is Islam and their Mission Command is labelled Jihad.

Unfortunately we are obsessed by the written word and character of their Operational philosophy and as such the Operational lessons they adhere to ghost straight by us. We continually fail to recognize the religious character of their doctrine holds very little military value to them. It is just provides a intellectual vassal which every individual carries to the fight.

IMO the method born out of this Operational approach is why a badly trained, poorly funded and numerically tiny enemy has fought us to a standstill. If you are trained in any Western military school and you find yourself in a Jihadi HQ, the complete lack of order and the conscious effort to ensure it remains that way will drive you bananas.

This approach intuitively connects people up and down the chain of command. It is impossible to function in this environment if you do not have an intuitive understanding of what you are expected to do. We call that connectedness Mission Command and it sustains our opponents when their situation is beyond hopeless.

We fixate on the ridiculous characteristics such as the promise of eternal life, 21 virgins etc. etc. to explain away their futile efforts at the tactical level. We fail to understand that the cognitive network that the corpse lying at our feet has just been severed from, marches on.

The fact that the intention of those maintaining this Operational philosophy may be nefarious, duplicitous, corrupt and as far from a religious ideal as you can possibly get, merely testifies to the power of this Operational approach and what it brings to the fight – good or bad.

Speaking of philosophy and MC :

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
every man is a piece of Mission Command ,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

John Donne (slightly abridged). Who knew?


Geoffrey Demarest

Thu, 10/08/2015 - 7:40pm

In reply to by G Martin

This is a solid comment; you're on a role. Makes me want to plagiarize. I know you have a more optimistic side as well, however. Prob just need dinner.

G Martin

Wed, 10/07/2015 - 7:43pm

In reply to by L. Doane

<em>The operational level of war, like any other doctrinal term, is simply a mental construct to focus our thinking and share an understanding between users</em>

But, didn't you read Andy Attar's article? He has proven, through sheer dent of statement, that the operational level is objective reality- and if you don't believe in it, then you are not living in objective reality. Sort of like what the door-to-door missionaries try to tell me: "hey, either you believe our religion- or you're going to Hell."

Seriously, you are going up against an institution that reifies (makes real) its own metaphors. Center of Gravity is real. There really is a CoG- and if you are having problems in war, then most likely you've gotten the CoG analysis wrong...

Some people say there are real pockets of strategic energy during conflict and all we have to do is get rid of the negative energy. "Real" meaning- there really are pockets of energy that are negative and strategic. It's, like, proven, dude. You can't question it.

We are an institution with ZERO intellectual energy (okay- I meant to say "effort", but couldn't help myself...) spent on a "Theory of Military Administration." By not understanding ourselves and how we think- we cannot break free from our flawed metaphorical reasoning and obsession with linear logic constructions.

We quote Clausewitz, not because he birthed a Military Theory of Everything from which we can explain the Universe, but because he was sufficiently abstract to be able to be translated in multiple ways and thus fit future situations as needed (good religious books do the same...). One can constantly update one's doctrinal beliefs with new interpretations of the Holy Grail of Dead Carl. His use of metaphors was brilliant- but instead of understanding them as brilliant metaphors, we have taken them to mean literal things (we are like Fundamentalist religious types in that way) and constructed huge linear tools around them to help us with "operationalizing" his metaphors.

I wish you luck- the one flaw I see in your arguments is that they rely (much like the military's) on Strategic Theory being correct- and I would say this is a bad assumption. Outside of situations wherein our objectives are clear, the population's will is pretty much homogenous, and/or there is an existential threat- the military will not enjoy the luxury of "a strategy." If that assertion is true- then strategic-tactical and operational art constructs fail just as other linearly-nested constructs fail. Right now there is no strategy- grand or otherwise.

So, besides endlessly complaining like the Strategy community does, that all we need is for the politicians to give us clear objectives and Grand Strategy- what else can we do? I think if we fail to answer that question, we will not give our military much help in the foreseeable future...

L. Doane

Fri, 10/02/2015 - 6:00pm

I’m gratified by the thoughtful responses to this article. Please allow me to clarify myself about a few things I see in the comments.

The operational level of war, like any other doctrinal term, is simply a mental construct to focus our thinking and share an understanding between users. Elimination of the concept from our doctrine wouldn’t result in changes in organizational structure. I certainly do not advocate for elimination of the GCCs. Instead, I recommend that we do not tie levels of warfare to particular echelons and, instead, understand that the dividing line between strategy and tactics is fluid and moves between echelons based on the character of the conflict.

Campaign planning cannot solely belong to a single echelon either. We cannot unilaterally pin the rose on the GCC as the sole translator of national strategic goals into tactical actions. Instead, the core argument I seek to make is, crudely, this: strategy is formation of political goals, tactics is achieving battlefield success. The bridge, if you wish to use the term, between the two is not a level or war or an echelon, but a cognitive process: operational art. Where this cognitive process occurs is not fixed. I have seen battalion commanders shoulder this responsibility and I’ve seen GCCs do so. It all depends on the situation.

What’s the point? Operational art is the defining skill of our profession. Military officers may participate at all levels of strategy formulation and tactical excellence is the sine qua non of any military leader. But the skill to translate military action into political goals is a uniquely military skill, and one we must better develop. As I allude to in the article, Clausewitz called it ‘good generalship.’

So, operational art should become the foundation of our professional education. We should expect leaders at every echelon, not just at an ephemeral operational level of war, to be able to execute it. Certainly, more complex, wide-ranging problems might require more senior leaders with larger staffs to tackle. But that does not excuse, nor eliminate, the need for operational art at echelons all the way down to the battalion. The current concept of an operational level of war gets in the way of this.

Bill C.

Fri, 10/09/2015 - 1:45pm

In reply to by G Martin


In order to address "what it takes to do all that cultural/societal/fundamental change" stuff, I suggest -- as "a theoretical underpinning from which to derive approaches" -- that we adopt my exceptionally humble, and indeed humbling, "God's gift complex = failure" concept suggested by my analogy below.

Thus to suggest -- as a foundation for our approaches -- that we embrace the idea that our unusual way of life, our unusual way of governance and our unusual ideas underpinning same; these such unusual ideas and correspondingly unusual ways of life/ways of governance, etc, are more likely to:

a. Confuse, threaten, alienate and/or repel many/most native populations, than they are to

b. Bringing these native populations immediately over to our side.

Thus, to consider the task of favorable state and societal transformation as an extremely delicate, time-consuming, difficult and entailed "uphill" battle.

(And not as we conceived of this task in the recent past, and due to our erroneous "God's gift/universal values" thinking, as an easy, simple, short-term and "downhill" task; one requiring that we only [1] do "regime change" and [2] a little "nation-building" so as to [3] see immediate, comprehensive, complete and long-lasting favorable results.)

Thus, if we adopt this "oh crap, this is going to be extremely hard and take a long time" approach; this, because "we," in fact, as so very different from "them,"

Only then, I believe, will both our soldiers -- and indeed our statesmen -- be able to (a) move our smartly to (b) design their plans and (c) provide the resources needed for moving this project forward.

Realistic -- but appropriately humble/humbling "mantra" for this approach -- that may get everyone's head, ass, etc., going in the right direction?:

"We are not the welcomed 'same,' we are in fact the alien 'other;' this being the matter that we must overcome."

Thus, hard work ahead girls and boys -- and often "in the weeds" -- with innovative ideas being both needed and appreciated by all concerned.

Q: Where to look for examples of success and failures, "lessons," etc., re: overcoming the challenges presented by these such transformational requirements?

A. To the Soviets/the communists during the Old Cold War, as our problems today (resisting regimes, resisting populations, inept populations, rival great nations); these appear to be the exact same problems that our Soviet/communist faced, back in-the-day, when they then, much as we today, sought/seek to (a) "modernize" other states and societies along (b) very alien -- and often profane -- political, economic and social lines.

Bill C.

Thu, 10/08/2015 - 6:44pm

In reply to by G Martin

Grant: An analogy, inspired by a Bill M. comment, to your thoughts above:

Two young gentlemen get off a train in a far away town -- both looking to win the young women contained therein.

One of the young men thinks that he is fantastically handsome and, indeed, "God's gift" to women. He believes that this is both (a) true and (b) extremely obvious.

The other young man -- also seeking to win the young women of the town -- is under no such illusions.

The first young man, the one thinking that he is "God's gift," places himself prominently at the local gathering place, flashes and spends his money (of which he has much) and patiently waits for the women of the town to come to him.

The second young man, the one with no "God's gift" illusions, does (a) everything in his power, (b) everything in his imagination and (c) everything in his meager budget to "woo" -- not so much with money and/or material things but with ideas -- the young women of the town.

About a year after the two young gentlemen arrived in the far away town, it is determined that a number of the young women of the town have recently given birth.

It is soon learned that ALL of the new children resemble the second young man -- the one not having the "God's gift"/"I do not need to work hard at wooing" complex.

Both young men now get on the train to go back to their home locations.

One young man with a great smile on his face and a clear sense of satisfaction re: a job well done.

The other young man with a frown -- and an appearance of being totally puzzled by, in his case, his clear lack of success/the adverse turn of events now before him.

(Your guess as to which one represents the U.S./the West in the state and societal transformation matters we are discussing here.)

Grant: As per your thoughts, does the first young man above (the "God's gift" complex = failure guy), upon returning home, does he learn from his mistakes? The answer here may be "no." This because, facing the fact that he IS NOT, in fact, "God's gift" to women; this truth may be more than he can bear and more than he can deal with at this particular time.

(But deal with it, of course, he must -- and sooner rather than later -- if he wishes to be successful with the women -- in the far away towns -- in the future.)

G Martin

Wed, 10/07/2015 - 7:48pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill, agree. Where I see this as a problem is that the military is woefully lacking in its critical look at what it takes to do all that cultural/societal/fundamental change. We don't even have an attempt at a theoretical underpinning from which to derive approaches with which to either test, use, learn from, etc.--- it is all conjecture, lessons supposedly learned from cherry picking history, or concepts that are ultimately justifications for resources and nothing else.

I'd say our last 13 years has proven the emptiness of our current institutional capacity for learning- at the institutional level- and I see nothing on the horizon that is looking at fixing that. In fact- I see that only getting worse...

Bill C.

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 12:14pm

In reply to by Bill C.


If we come to embrace the idea of a New Cold War, one in which:

a. The roles of the U.S./the West -- and its contemporary great nation enemies -- are now (in consideration of the Old Cold War) reversed.

(Herein, the U.S./the West now doing "expansion;" while Russia, China, etc., for their part today, are now doing -- much as we did in the Old Cold War -- "prevention," "containment," "roll back".)

If we embrace this reality of a reverse "Cold War," then one can easily come to understand such thing as:

a. Why the problems of the former USSR/the communists -- re: their expansionist efforts during the Old Cold War (resistant rulers, resistant populations, inept populations, great nation rivals) -- have now become our problems. And

b. Why the following guidance (which might be viewed under the heading of the "softer sciences?") rings true today -- much as it did during the Old Cold War:

"The requirements of Cold War are based on the nature and character of the conflict -- and on objectives which differ greatly from hot wars ... The political, psychological, civil and economic operations become inseparable from military operations and are, thus, a primary requirement of success." (See page 80 of the reference/link offered below.)

"The success of revolutionaries can be primarily assigned to two extraordinarily powerful factors; namely, their closeness and appeal to the people -- that is, their ability to win over the population -- and their ideological conviction." (See page 79 of the below-offered reference/link.)

Thus, while the "unforgiving F=MA paradigm of the traditional battlefield" would certainly seem to have application in both our Old and New Cold War realities, should we not acknowledge that likewise -- re: this overall and general paradigm of a Cold War -- the "softer sciences" also play a major (if not a dominant?) role?

Bill C.

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 12:57pm

In reply to by G Martin

"The focus on the softer sciences is in direct relation to the tasks we've been asked to do ... "

From my point of view, of course, the tasks that we have been asked to do (in an era which may soon come to be known as the "New Cold War") is to transform outlying states and societies more along "modern" (in our case: "western") political, economic and social lines.

This, in the face of:

a. The resistance offered by various regimes.

b. The resistance offered by indigenous personnel.

c.. The simple inability of such indigenous personnel to make the radical, rapid and often profane changes that we require. And

d. The "prevention," "containment," "roll back," etc., efforts -- offered by other great nations (such as Russia, China and Iran) -- who do not wish to see the U.S./the West (a) gain greater power, influence and control (b) in various regions of the world (c) via these such favorable transformations.

Thus, our task today being exceptionally similar to the task (and, accordingly, the related problems) of the former Soviet Union/the communists in the previous era of the Old Cold War.

Given this similarity (but with roles reversed; the "expansionist" shoe now being on "our" rather than "their" foot), how then does this New Cold War concept effect this argument: re:

a. The military usefulness and application of either, or both, the softer and/or harder sciences

b. To assist in/help facilitate the transformation of outlying states and societies more along "modern" (in our case "western") political, economic and social lines

c. This, in the face of such resistance -- from both state and non-state actors -- as I have described above?

G Martin

Tue, 09/29/2015 - 9:55pm

In reply to by andy_attar

The focus on the softer sciences is in direct relation to the tasks we've been asked to do as well as the tasks we've said we were capable of doing. I think if we don't like the softer sciences, then we should go back to conventional ops and let SOF handle the "softer sciences" (although they are doing a terrible job of them as well...). The "softer sciences" use different tools than the harder ones- for a reason. Math can't do for social subjects what it can for physics...

If we aren't willing to use different tools- then we should stay in the conventional ops box...


Sat, 09/26/2015 - 10:06am

Thanks, Bill.

I'm deeply suspicious of recent changes.

Our focus on the softer sciences within the domains of culture and information have unfortunately come at the cost of our dominance within the traditional battlefield domains - ruled not by savvy cultural understanding, but by sheer Newtonian physics. When our senior leaders speak of skills acquired over the last decade+, I'm never sure what that means exactly. GEN Petraeus had success in 2003 without the decade long learning curve, and operating out of our older doctrine.

My largest concern in this area of lexicon is actually the dominant role of IO. Are our words revealing reality and purposed toward candor and understanding, or are they designed for messaging purposes? I frequently don't know for sure. And fear most don't care about the distinction anyway. Appearance is reality.... that is until truth is revealed under that unforgiving F=MA paradigm of the traditional battlefield.

G Martin

Tue, 09/29/2015 - 9:51pm

In reply to by andy_attar

<em>"The fact that this didn't happen in Iraq and Afghanistan to any substantial degree shows that strategic and operational war was in fact not being conducted"</em>

Would love a reference to this assertion. Although I would agree it didn't happen a lot- I would be very curious for proof it didn't happen "to a substantial degree". I have seen very few studies that convinced me any of our studies could conclude anything "to a substantial degree" simply by the way they were conducted...

<em>"These distinctions of tactical, operational, and strategic, along with engagements, battles, major operations, and campaigns, are not arbitrary, nor ephemeral. They are logical realities, which must be addressed, or we end up existing outside of logical reality."</em>

I addressed this on your article- but, really- to state these concepts are reality -- objective realities- defies any kind of critical thinking in my mind. Are they "reality" because you say they are? Or because you learned they were in a military school? I am really curious as to your statement, "existing outside of logical reality." You mean, like in the movie, The Matrix?? I only half say that in humor- do you not see these are abstractions meant to categorize warfare-- abstractions that may or may not be useful in some times and places?

Warfare, as much as our conventional minds would like it to be, is not made up of levels- in an objective sense- at least not until we build structure, history, action, and thinking around them - and thus reify them (speak as if they are real).

I sometimes think military "science" is back in the bloodletting days wherein we just sling around assertions as facts and refuse to critically think about anything. "Ugh- Ranger getting old- tired of dragging knuckles, think I'll go to HQs and think operationally..."

Bill M.

Sat, 09/26/2015 - 3:13am

In reply to by andy_attar


You made a coherent argument, one I mostly agree with. I also think you miss some points. Our struggle with lexicon is as old as the military. In some regards, it is healthy, and in others, it is toxic. Logically enough a profession's lexicon evolves over time as adapts to changing world. When you choose to use words to communicate, then those transmitting and those receiving need to understand what was said for the communication to be effective. We’re clearly paddling in muddy waters today.

Recently words and phrases frequently used in military circles today that have multiple meanings include the indirect approach, asymmetrical operations, irregular warfare, war, confrontation, conflict, strategy, Phase 0, the operational level of war, and so forth. The world is always changing and the legacy doctrine in many cases doesn’t quite fit the current situations we’re facing. In response, we habitually stretch traditional definitions (for example, calling information operations non-lethal fires to make IO fit into our concept of proper military operation). We also injected new terms such as the gray space, hybrid warfare, netwar, etc. as an attempt to explain what we see. Some argue we’re seeing nothing new, while others disagree. Eventually, as it has been throughout history, some new terms will be accepted and others rejected.

Not too long ago I read Mike Matheny's book "Carrying the War to Enemy," which provided a historical view of U.S. operational art up to 1945. In the book, he notes that the popularity of Jomini and Clausewitz was largely due to their ability to help others understand and deal with the growing complexity of war, but the military needed to come to terms (pun intended) with new realities presented by industrialization and the associated technologies. The character of war had changed. It is interesting to read about the debates amongst military professionals between WWI and WWII, which reinforces what we all know and that is change has always been the norm in our military. It shouldn’t scare us; in fact, it should scare us if we don’t change.
Today the problem is different; it isn't mass armies enabled by the great production capacity of the industrial age. It is dispersed adversary networks enabled by the information age and the associated technology. Of course, the risk of conventional is far from over, the new has simply overlaid the old. This why the Chairman advocates protecting our warfighting doctrine, because there will be a need for it. Certainly, the Army needs to continue to train to execute its warfighting doctrine, but it also must be prepared to do more. We can’t make the world conform to outdated concepts. The army knows warfighting, but not everything we do that is important falls into that category.

Back to the joint level, I heard and agree with the argument that joint doctrine is focused at the JTF level, leaving a significant doctrinal void at the Combatant Command level where higher (sometimes grand) strategy and operational level planning fuse. I agree that Combatant Commands should be the first step, or highest level, at the operational level of war. Yet do we educate, train, and staff them to be effective as operational level commands?

Other issues and questions may include, if we're waging a so called global war on terror where is the operational level HQs? If we get into a nuclear exchange with another country, does the operational level of war even exist? If the Air Force bombs a strategic level target (e.g. opposing nation's capital), are they operating at the strategic, operational, or tactical level? These debates have existed for decades in our school houses and various HQs. They are needed debates, but at the end of the day we can still move forward without answers to these questions. Yet we must recognize the risk when we do so, as you pointed out: "Battalions become strategic only when the high commands where the strategic level of war should be planned and executed are silent or failing." We're too often adrift strategically and operationally, because no one is steering the ship. That is what makes this debate important.


Fri, 09/25/2015 - 3:15pm

In reply to by andy_attar

I'll see your quote from Chesterton and raise you an equally relevant <A HREF="">quotation from C.S. Lewis</A>:

<BLOCKQUOTE>The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone "a gentleman" you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not "a gentleman" you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said - so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully - "Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?" They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man "a gentleman" in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is "a gentleman" becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object. (A 'nice' meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I've become fond of citing this passage in relation to "strategy", but it could be applied to many words in the military vernacular. While I also disagree with Major Doane's ultimate argument, one of the indirect points he seems to make with which I agree is that the haphazard use of that vernacular has led to more confusion than clarity in the wider military enterprise.


Fri, 09/25/2015 - 12:55pm

Although I find myself in almost complete disagreement with Doane, his article is useful in that it exposes the lack of logical clarity of military operations at echelon. Modularity, BCT-centrism, and a decade+ of COIN has severely warped our common understanding of military operations at echelon. Doane references that "battalions can act strategically." This is a misunderstanding of important terms. (One that FM 6-22 only has made worse.) When everything is strategic, nothing is strategic. Same for the term "operational," which Doane tragically implies is flexible, relative, and subjective. Battalions become strategic only when the high commands where the strategic level of war should be planned and executed are silent or failing. This explains how senior field commanders could visit command posts in Iraq or Afghanistan and spend 95% of their time receiving information from the visited command. Compare this to other conflicts. Military history suggests that senior commanders spent considerable time visiting subordinate headquarters to share understanding, to speak as well as listen, to level the bubble among the commands, to share the vision and way forward, to explain how that subordinate command fit into the overall effort or campaign. The fact that this didn't happen in Iraq and Afghanistan to any substantial degree shows that strategic and operational war was in fact not being conducted. And, in its place we have strategic battalions, or even the so-called strategic corporals. Combine this lack of strategic and operational command with a modular force that has not worked out the DOTMLPF shortcomings in order to once again, someday, execute major land operations against a near-peer conventional threat: conducting operational level sustainment, fires, IC, and protection to sustain high tempo operations and gain and maintain security, while the BCTs maneuver over very long distances. It's a deadly combination. Understanding roles at echelon must occur before we will solve the DOTMLPF shortcomings. Wide implications all around. Engagements, Battles, Major Operations, Campaigns. These distinctions have become lost, or at best ignored. But they directly relate to our inability to successfully employ our functional and multifunctional brigades.

These distinctions of tactical, operational, and strategic, along with engagements, battles, major operations, and campaigns, are not arbitrary, nor ephemeral. They are logical realities, which must be addressed, or we end up existing outside of logical reality. The end of Phase III and the start of Phase IV operations does not translate into a lower level of war. As V Corps experienced in 2003 and 2004, the battlefield remains multi-dimensional and complex. Force numbers may drawdown, but the multi-dimensional challenges remain. Not least of these multi-dimensional challenges is time. A given headquarters can only execute quality planning out to a limited time horizon. As we saw in 2003 and 2004, asking a Corps to take over the reins of a military campaign, during any phase, is highly problematic. Corps were designed for battles. Major operations were considered the very high end of what can be asked of a Corps. That Phase IV doesn’t have the fire and maneuver of traditionally understood battles and major operations is irrelevant. The terms campaign or major operation or battle still stand symbolically for the operational tempo, resources, and time required to successfully bring to conclusion that particular military problem.

This is not to say that Corps (or even lesser echelons) cannot act independently, as in the case of JTFs. It’s just that when they do so, the scope of the military problem must be much more limited. Such lesser military problems may be the equivalent of a discreet major operation, battle, or even engagement. Then lesser headquarters such as Corps and Divisions could be employed as independent JTFs.

The start point to fixing this problem of terminology (a problem which has severe reverberating effects throughout the force) would be to peg the term campaign squarely with the Combatant Commander. If Joint Doctrine stated that Combatant Commanders alone conduct campaigns, then a huge leap forward would be made in understanding the proper echelons of planning and execution throughout the force. Joint Doctrine calls for campaigns to unify all aspects of national power. Clearly only the Combatant Commander can approach proper execution of that very difficult task.

This whole discussion about adopting new terms or dismissing old terms brings to mind this quote from G.K. Chesterton:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

We all need to “go away and think” and then “come back” and readdress these very important issues.

Bill M.

Fri, 09/25/2015 - 11:22am

I read the article twice and overall find the logic flawed. Simply because the Army created strategic effects at the tactical level over the last 15 years doesn't eliminate the operational level of war. I have no quibble with the author's view of operational art, but eliminating the operational level of war under our current organizational construct seems a bit on the impractical side. I also see little value in doing so when you consider the cost benefit ratio. What exactly would we gain?

The operational level of war is not only a theoretical level between tactics and strategy, but it is also an organizational level. The Geographical Combat Commands (GCCs)generally, but not always, own the operational level of war. They interface with national leadership to develop operational approaches or campaigns (using operational art) to achieve the strategic level ends. Once these are approved the operational "level" commander assigns responsibilities/objectives to subordinates who conduct a tactical operation, or series of tactical operations, to achieve objectives that ultimately, at least in theory, contribute to the collective whole over time and space to achieve our strategic ends.

Is the Army simply wishing away our current organizational structure and the associated joint doctrine? If so, to what end? What replaces it? Alternative structures and systems have been discussed in the past, to include disbanding the GCCs and assigning the responsibility to the Joint Staff and services. Our current system may have very well outlived its usefulness. A debate on whether we need an operational level of war may trigger some interesting alternatives to our current approach, but simply wishing it away without explaining how that impacts doctrine falls short in my opinion.


Thu, 09/24/2015 - 8:22pm

This is a great article that raises many important issues. Many thanks to Major Doane for contributing it. A few thoughts.

First, this reminds me of the debate in the early church over whether the Father and Christ were <A HREF="">homoousious</A&gt; or <A HREF="">heteroousious</A&gt;, e.g., being of the same or different "substance" or "essence". I agree with the author that while tactics and strategy are "heteroousious", or fundamentally different, tactics and operations are, for all intents and purposes, "homoousious". I have opined on many occasions here at SWJ that one of the most egregious confusions this spectrum fosters is not elevating operations to the level of strategy, but rather, demoting strategy to the level of operations, e.g., tactics. Most American PME institutions teach something they call "strategy", but which is really what the author describes as "operational art", or what has traditionally been called "campaigning". That is to say, field grade officers on the command and/or flag/general officer track (particularly those in the Army and Air Force) learn to plan and execute campaigns, rather than how to consolidate accomplishments of a tactical "essence" into the achievement of strategic goals.

That said, I'm personally of the mind that the conceptual "bridge" between strategy and tactics is useful. An intermediate "level" is, I think, appropriate to conceptualize the complexity of warfare between the level of a platoon assaulting an enemy position on the one hand, and a joint or coalition force of tens of thousands engaged in a multi-theater conflict designed to achieve specific political goals. This level of war may accurately be described as "grand tactics", but another term might be useful for the sake of clarity - as noted, I'm fond of "campaign level", but "operational level" is also appropriate. I'm reminded of discussions with my master's degree advisor about what some might call "military strategy", and what he called "operational strategy": short of grand strategy, but high level campaign planning. I think that simplifying these concepts to three levels, as opposed to the additional sub-categories, is most productive. (I will acknowledge that I was indoctrinated into these concepts after 2000, so there may be some confirmation bias on my part that wouldn't have been present had I been studying prior to 1982.)

Where I think the author makes both his strongest and weakest arguments is in his identification of a disconnect between an "operational level" and "operational art", wherein he praises "operational art" and criticizes the "operational level" as a doctrinal heresy perpetrated by the joint force and only tentatively adopted by the Army. I would suggest that both Army and joint doctrine, neither of which were transcribed atop Mount Sinai, can and should be updated to synergize these two concepts. (In fact, I differ with the author's apparent praise for Army doctrine - if Army doctrine told me that the sky was blue, I'd look for a Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication for a second opinion.) One such example that the author rightly notes would be the understandable but erroneous definition of specific echelons, ranks, and to a lesser degree billets as "strategic", "operational", and "tactical". There are plenty of general officers whose functions and training are not strategic, and there are plenty of lower echelon formations that are inherently strategic, particularly given the SOF community's increasingly ambitious operational tempo.

All of this being said, I ultimately disagree with the author's assessment that "it is not the Army that has an 'operational art' problem, but rather, that Joint doctrine has an 'operational level' problem". I would suggest, instead, that the problem is that U.S. Army TRADOC and the joint doctrine community share a problem, in that they have failed to adequately link "operational art" to a conceptually useful "operational level" of warfare. Doing so - and by extension, teaching field grade officers that tactics and strategy are homoousious, then teaching them strategy with a seasoning of campaigning/operations - would go a long way toward improving both senior officers' capacity to plan and execute wars, and advice civilian policy-makers who don't know the first thing about either.