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The Three Levels of War: Strategy, Operational Art, and Tactics

on Fri, 03/31/2017 - 15:19

War fighting has long been dominated by concepts of strategy and tactics. However, in the period between the World Wars a newer concept in military thought fully matured as it's own level of war: the operational art. This vital element of war making was perhaps been best described by one of the pioneers in bringing the operational art to life: Soviet military theorist and strategist Alexander Andreyevich Svechin who nearly a century ago wrote, "tactics makes the steps from which operational leaps are assembled; strategy points out the path" (quoted from David Glantz's book Soviet Military Operational Art: In Pursuit of Deep Battle). But what does that mean? To answer that question let's describe each level of warfare in isolation and then bring them together, starting with the strategic.

The strategic level of warfare, or strategy, really begins at the political level. In this regard Carl von Clausewitz, two centuries ago in his seminal work On War, most famously proclaimed war as being a continuation of politics with other means. To that end, diplomatic, economic, and military measures are decided at a national level. This is done toward setting the strategic priorities driving operations in all theaters of warfare -which must be approached in an integrated and systemic manner if a country is to accomplish its aims.

Strategy goes beyond mere military measures. It considers the totality of economic and political matters as well. Hence, strategic objectives range beyond such standard fare as destroying the enemy in the field to goals such as capturing key economic and political centers that will cause an enemy nation-state's collapse. This sets the table for determining what is in fact the primary factors underlying a potential enemy's center of gravity. From there, plans have to be made toward capturing or destroying the enemy's center of gravity and winning the struggle outright or so crippling the enemy's ability to effectively continue the struggle, restore the status quo ante, or even come back and defeat the initial victor. This is enormously important to understand. It explains much in regards to the failings of leading German officers during the Second World War. Men such as Halder, Rommel, Guderian, and Manstein often ignored the bigger strategic picture and myopically focused on their own theater wide military concerns. All of which was done at the expense of and even undermining the larger strategy driving the German war effort (without failing to overlook how genocidally heinous that strategy came to be). Thus, strategy (in setting the parameters of national decision making) also sets the military aims toward meeting those strategic goals.

Nevertheless, for much of modern military history strategy largely focused on defeating the enemy in the field, and often in a single campaign. With the rise of the nation-state and the industrial revolution however, leading powers became too strong to defeat in such an abbreviated manner. For instance, by the time of the nineteenth century Napoleonic wars and American Civil War it had become near impossible to defeat even a medium sized nation's armed forces in a single battle. Take for instance the American Confederate states. Even the much more heavily populous and industralized states of the American Union struggled to defeat the Confederacy, and did so only via flushing out incompetent commanders and replacing them with those directing multiple campaigns spread out over a period of years. There was no single battle that decided the war. Defeating the mass armies of the industrial age had become exceedingly difficult short of finding more efficient, faster, indirect methods of bringing about an enemy's collapse. Suffice it to say, having both the leaders capable of recognizing such strategies and the men capable of carrying them out is the exception rather than the norm in the historical record. 

As for the operations driving a campaign, this is where we get into what is known today as the Operational Art as described by A.A. Svechin and explored by the most creative of his world-wide peers struggling with the revolution in military affairs brought by the technological advances rolled out in the late nineteenth century, through the First World War, and further developed in an ongoing process that continues to this day. The operational level of war links strategic objectives to the tactical deployment of military assets toward winning the battles that can lead to success in campaigns that create the conditions for theater wide dominance allowing for the destruction of an enemy's center of gravity. The operational level thus is where military leaders must conceive and plan out when, where, and how to commit tactical assets toward effectively prosecuting campaigns.

The ability to execute at the operational level is an art, albeit one at its most effective grounded in a set of almost scientifically formulated and tested rules known as doctrine. What also makes planning at the operational level so difficult is first that it requires the synchronization of an entire spectrum of command levels (from the army group to the army to the corps to at times the division) toward a goal that can be realistically accomplished given the means and support at the commander's disposal. This also means strategic decisions are ideally grounded in operational realities. In such a manner it is crucial to concentrate one's efforts in ways that produce decisive outcomes, and not dissipate limited assets on smaller tasks or secondary theaters of combat. The operational level gets more complicated yet in that a commander must synchronize means to objectives across multiple levels of command. Furthermore, he must also leverage intelligence reports, logistical resources, practice effective deception and surprise measures, plus, and once operations commence, be comfortable with directing tens or hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of machines across time and space - all while responding to the ever changing nature of combat that renders most planning obsolete within short time frames; and thus demands orchestrating battles with a level of flexibility, deciseveness, and talent beyond the means of most people.

That leaves us with tactics. The line between operations and tactics in terms of the structure of Second World War era formations is often defined as that which occurs at the divisional down to the squad level. Once a plan is formulated tactics are what happens at every point where the combatants meet. Each of these hundreds and thousands of daily clashes together decide the course of battles, and whether or not a given operation or campaign meets its goals. Though the tactical level leverages many of the same methods and cooperative efforts found at the operational level (and in the best of cases result in these methodologies being freely decided upon by the tactical level commander) - they still must achieve synergy with the larger operational goals that set the framework within which the tactical level commander operates.

That said, it would be wrong to describe tactics as scaled down operations. Even though time, space, fire, maneuver, and mass are important at each level - the sheer size and complexity of these factors at the operational level is at a different scale. As mentioned earlier two key developments drove the interest in developing the operational level as the bridge between the strategic and tactical. That being the rise of mass armies and technological developments. Aircraft, radio's, tanks, and widespread motorization dramatically increased the mobility, firepower, and lethality of large armies previously constrained by rail, horse, or the speed of men on foot. However, with wheeled and tracked mobility along with wireless communications armies previously locked into largely attritional battles could instead use speed, tempo, and mobility to concentrate firepower in unprecendented means and use mobility against an enemy's most vulnerable points (command and control, lines of communication) to achieve the shock effect neccessary to defeat large armies. Instead of victory being predicated on which side could out-bleed the other faster a whole new range of options developed.

Those adept at bringing together concentrated force in a surprising manner, supported by the vast increases in firepower possible from air delivered close support could bypass the strongest concentrations of enemy soldiers and via attacking weakness, penetrate into the enemy's operational depth, demoralize his ranks, break down command and control, and cut enemy formations from the vulnerable logistical chains upon which they were reliant. In this way, creating pockets of cut off enemy soldiers willing to surrender proved better than engaging in the arduos task of attempting to kill the enemy into submission.

This isn't to say attrition had no role; in many ways it remained a vital prerequisite of engaging in mobile operations on a broad scale. Nevertheless, if speed and tempo could do what blunt brute force previously accomplished - then all the better. This gave a huge edge to armies seeking qualitative measures of superiority where it may not have been feasible to rely upon the quantitative. The Germans and Russians, with their centuries old traditions of fighting a war of maneuver (in the former case via mounted cavalry, in the latter case by embracing what the technological revolution in military affairs brought to a long standing practice of seeking to fight a war of maneuver). Destroying the enemy could ideally now be done via exploiting holes created in the enemy lines and fluidly moving around pockets of resistance to drive into and through the depth of the enemy's defenses. This also meant it behooved armies to assemble the reserves ready to exploit opportunities.

Momentum, speed, and tempo are crucial elements of the operational art, all are aimed toward avoiding any delays that would give the enemy time to respond. Time itself is perhaps the most important element in this regard. Pauses can prove fatal to offensives. Conversely, in effectively manipulating time to one's advantage during the pursuit and exploitation phases following a successful breakthrough and breakout it is possible for qualitatively inferior forces to defeat larger opponents. However, to imbue military leaders with the ability to manage large armies across vast spaces, and do so in the timely and responsive manner required of waging war at the operational level, there needs to be a set of principles uniting commanders with a common foundation as to how the army is to fight. In a follow up post I shall discuss doctrine as such, and the elements of generalship capable of producing operational level victory.

 


 

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