Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 7, Issue 3  /  

Grand Strategic Coherence and the Relevance of the Operational Level of War

Grand Strategic Coherence and the Relevance of the Operational Level of War Grand Strategic Coherence and the Relevance of the Operational Level of War
Photo 16607837 / American Soldiers Afghanistan © Andrius Vaitkevicius |
To cite this article: Spencer, Jason, “Grand Strategic Coherence and the Relevance of the Operational Level of War,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 3, summer 2021, pages 33-38.


The relevance of the operational level of war to modern warfare is generally evaluated in the context of the authority at the civil-military interface that exerts control over military action.[i] The operational level of war is conceptually situated as an arena between grand strategy and tactics, wherein military leaders arguably dominate the application of force without political interference.[ii] This conception of an impenetrable military dominion, however, neglects the theories of Carl von Clausewitz who espoused that “war springs from some political purpose,” so political control must “permeate all military operations” to ensure “the political aim remains the first consideration.”[iii] If war proceeds without civilian interference it tragically emerges as “untrammeled” in an “absolute manifestation of violence” that commandeers “the place of policy” and obstructs the political end.[iv] The modern literature on grand strategy, a concept for political dominion, comprises a framework to evaluate the relevance of the operational level of war on this Clausewitzian principle. As such, the means of statecraft, especially the military instrument, require restraint to ensure the purposeful application of ways can attain the politically chosen end—the essence of grand strategic coherence. This disciplining demands an imbalance at the civil-military interface that favors civilian authority, while appreciating the role of the military officer, in exercising restraint in the application of force.

An examination of the grand strategic literature—advanced by twentieth-century British military thought—establishes a framework to evaluate the relevance of the operational level of war toward the attainment of the political end. The conception of grand strategic coherence developed by this framework connects the necessity of a disciplined military instrument with a theory of civil-military relations that validates the need for political control over grand strategy to balance national means at the operational level of war, in a restrained way, to accomplish the objective set by policy. Furthermore, an analysis of the theoretical origins of the operational level of war—in British and American military theory—identifies it as a descendant of grand strategic thought that links the orchestration of military force and use of maneuver, in exodus from attrition, as the most measured way for battle to serve as a surrogate to achieve the political objective. The outcome of the U.S. misadventure in Vietnam arguably disconnected this link and precipitated the emergent irrelevance of the operational level of war, since post-war military dominion and civilian abdication threatened an unrestrained and fanatical pursuit of battlefield victory that detached warfare from Clausewitz’ political aim, the embodiment of grand strategic incoherence. The aforesaid framework applied to the First Gulf War reveals how this emergent irrelevance failed to develop through an analysis of American decision-making at the civil-military interface. Accordingly, the operational level of war will remain relevant to modern warfare if political authority at the civil-military interface restrains the military instrument to create grand strategic coherence in alignment with its theoretical origins.

Grand Strategic Coherence: A Restrained Military Instrument and Civil-Military Relations

Modern grand strategy is a conception of strategic studies with twentieth-century origins. Julian Corbett is arguably the chief progenitor of contemporary grand strategic thought, since he separated strategy into major and minor segments and validated the totality of statecraft in war.[v] Major strategy, considered tantamount with grand strategy, mobilized “the whole resources of the nation for war”—integrating its military, political, diplomatic, and financial instruments—to attain the political “object,” which minor strategy facilitated through the application of military force.[vi] J.F.C. Fuller contributed to the evolution of the grand strategic literature by elucidating that it also encompassed civilizational development for the peace, as attritional slaughter produced individual and societal degradation in warfare, an unrestrained way that signified a blow against civilization.[vii] Consequently, Fuller asserted that battle, an operationalized military facet of grand strategy in war, should commence and conclude in a way that advances a “continuation of prosperity in the peace.”[viii] Grand strategy endured as the “transmission of power in all its forms,” but it hence buttressed the obligation to control operations in war as “a link with the policy which will follow victory.”[ix] B.H. Liddell Hart similarly observed grand strategy as an effort that ensured prosperity following war.[x] His influence centered on a latent confliction between grand strategy and military operations, since the fanatic pursuit of “victory” without any “thought for the after-effect” disconnected operations from the political end and traded the ascent of a prosperous peace for the “germs of another war.”[xi] Restraint in the use of force, consequently, ensured grand strategic coherence for a fruitful peace.

Grand strategic coherence is the consequence of a balance between means, ways, and ends.[xii] The military instrument, a distinct means of national power, requires restraint to eschew permanent damage to the political end, and control is required to discipline its operationally violent ways.[xiii] Civilian politicians are responsible for this control in democracies, for a coherent grand strategy is unquestionably a politically oriented concept, since it handles the mobilization of national means for war, regulates the ways of the instruments in war, and defines the course for the political end.[xiv] Grand strategy, however, is sometimes contemplated as an insulated concept in an unlinked chain, whereby ways coalesce at the operational level of war in isolation from this higher-level strategy.[xv] The disconnection of grand strategy from the operational level of war accommodates the dominant theory of civil-military relations, in which politicians abdicate control to a professional military.[xvi] This abdication is contested by scholarship that contends such a civil-military cleavage diminishes the political control necessary to discipline the military instrument for grand strategic coherence.[xvii] Political non-interference in the conduct of military operations is arguably a “dereliction of duty” in grand strategy, as any confliction in ways compels explicit civilian influence to ensure balance.[xviii] The military officer that appreciates the authority of civilian control is positioned to help guard the relevance of the operational level of war, where military force ought to be applied for the purpose of achieving the Clausewitzian political aim and nothing further. Political authority disciplines the military instrument to ensure grand strategic coherence when it restrains the application of force at the operational level of war to attain the political end; a viable framework to evaluate relevance.

The Operational Level of War: Descendant of Grand Strategy and an Emergent Irrelevance

The modern origins of the operational level of war descend from grand strategic thought.[xix] This is captured by Hart’s “indirect approach,” which intended to discipline the military instrument to cohere the latent conflict between grand strategy and military operations by exploiting maneuver as a restrained way to avert a fanatic pursuit of victory in battle detached from the political end.[xx] This anti-attrition approach underpinned the operational level of war as an arena that strengthened the subordination of battle to the political objective, for maneuver stressed a more senseful manner for armed operations to balance “human and economic loss” with “the sake of preserving peace.”[xxi] Though Hart is also considered a forebearer of British operational thought, an explicit reference to an operational level of war in Western military doctrine did not materialize until the Cold War.[xxii] Edward Luttwak observed U.S. attritional warfare as a “profit-maximizing industrial enterprise” that lacked acumen and risked the political end, as it senselessly applied strength against strength.[xxiii] Luttwak, consequently, coalesced Hart’s indirect approach into the “need to follow the line of least expectation” and advocated relational maneuver, a “knowledge-dependent” modus that “promoted imaginative flair and operational paradox,” to exploit “physical or psychological” fragilities.[xxiv] He fashioned the operational level of war into “Anglo-Saxon military terminology” as an arena for relational maneuver to achieve the political end in a more restrained way that avoided attrition.[xxv] This linked the modern theoretical origins of the operational level of war—where the orchestration of military forces unfolded with imagination and resolve—as a descendant of modern British grand strategic thought that supported a restrained military instrument committed to the political object.

The U.S. misadventure in Vietnam exposed a toxic civil-military interface, which later risked severing this theoretical link and causing the emergent irrelevance of the operational level.[xxvi] The President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were each responsible, for a distrust of the armed forces incited political obstruction and the silence of the military officer.[xxvii] Tactical battlefield skirmishes came at a high overhead and failed to attain the political objective.[xxviii] American politicians and military officers emerged equally troubled after this tragic misadventure, yet “somehow the notion that the military got it more right in Vietnam than the civilians” reigned.[xxix] The American military institutionalized the operational level into its doctrine to salvage its “amour proper” and “professional self-worth” shortly after Luttwak identified that military operations in Vietnam endured absent an “operational dimension” connected to a higher-level grand strategy.[xxx] This institutionalization, however, endeavored to shield military force from political interference through a primary focus “on professional skill” in pursuit of “military excellence.”[xxxi] The insistence of the military, paired with a “subliminal” abdication of civilian control over the operational level, arguably supplanted political authority and fashioned “a way of battle rather than a way of war.”[xxxii] This “politics-free zone” risked inciting grand strategic incoherence, for an imbalance at the civil-military interface in favor of absolute military control and isolated from political authority would unbridle violence and enthuse the fanatic pursuit of battlefield victory detached from the political objective. If this circumstance was enabled by the civilian authority and not advised against by the military, the operational level of war would emerge irrelevant; detached from its theoretical origins as an integrated link in the chain for grand strategy to serve as surrogacy for the political object.[xxxiii]

The First Gulf War: Guarding the Operational Level of War at the Civil-Military Interface

The instance of the First Gulf War demonstrates how an appropriate imbalance at the civil-military interface—whereby American decision-making favored political control and disciplined the application of force at the operational level of war, while the highest-ranking military officer advised restraint in pursuit of the political object—ensured grand strategic coherence by guarding the link between political direction and military operations. This validation for the relevance of the operational level of war began on 2 August 1990, when Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait without incitement or admonition.[xxxiv] President George H.W. Bush led the diplomatic development of a 39-nation coalition to achieve the political objective accepted by the United Nations: the departure of Iraq from Kuwait and reinstatement of the latter’s sovereignty.[xxxv] International economic sanctions and a naval embargo were levied against Iraq, and the American Strategic Petroleum Reserve was readied to assuage the economic and political effect of a disruption in energy flow.[xxxvi]

The United States deployed military forces to the Middle East to enforce sanctions and “deter further Iraqi aggression” against America’s energy rich regional partners.[xxxvii] President Bush convened a National Security Council review of the operational plan designed by the theater commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, should the coalition shift to the offensive.[xxxviii] Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Advisor, expressed distaste with the plan, for an attritional “frontal assault through the heart of the Iraqi strength to Kuwait” lacked maneuver and purpose.[xxxix] Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney concurred and directed planners back to the “drawing board.”[xl] General Colin Powell, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and self-described “ghost of Vietnam,” pressed civilian leadership for a wartime objective if sanctions waned and the coalition vacillated.[xli] The political objective remained Iraq’s ejection from, and the restoration of, Kuwait, but an ulterior military objective emerged to diminish Saddam’s offensive capabilities throughout the liberation process, without “trespassing” in Iraq, to foster an amicable balance of power in the Middle East.[xlii]

General Powell presented his “political masters” with a revised operational plan, developed in concert with General Schwarzkopf, that included a phased campaign orchestrated to destroy the war-making capacity of Iraq through air and naval attacks against its command and control systems and Republican Guard, Saddam’s “praetorian protectors.”[xliii] The bombing campaign would then transition to Kuwait—with Iraqi forces fixed from an amphibious feint and ground preparations—to physically destroy and psychologically fragment the occupation. The final phase encompassed a ground offensive, with a combined arms attack in Kuwait to deceive the main effort, that avoided strength and exploited the orchestrated Iraqi weakness with a “deep flanking maneuver” to destroy the Republican Guard and channel dislodged Iraqi forces from Kuwait “into a large killing zone.”[xliv] President Bush agreed to resource the national means necessary to execute this operational plan to first and foremost eject Iraq from Kuwait and then to foster a delicate favorable balance of power.[xlv]

The United Nations authorized force against Iraq if it failed to depart Kuwait by 15 January 1991.[xlvi] Saddam maintained his forces and signaled that Iraq would remain despite this ultimatum. The American-led coalition executed the operational plan, with the political and military objectives for the application of force codified in policy guidance, after the deadline for withdrawal elapsed.[xlvii] The imaginative and paradoxical maneuverist ways of “the pre-war debates” bloomed in execution with relatively minimal coalition resources exhausted, though the operation did not unfold entirely in the phased manner intended.[xlviii] Decisions at the civil-military interface, however, were sufficient.

President Bush suspected Saddam would “withdraw from Kuwait before” the coalition could “grind down his armor and heavy equipment” without invading Iraq.[xlix] General Schwarzkopf arguably failed to bait the trap as the Republican Guard and Iraqi forces retreated, and U.S. field commanders—fanatically fixated on battle—advocated the pursuit and wanton annihilation of a withdrawing force, which meant elevating the ulterior military objective above the political end.[l] General Powell, contrariwise, advised an eschewal of pursuit and annihilation to avert purposeless battle and loss, for military operations already achieved the political objective of ejecting Iraq from Kuwait, and President Bush concurred and ordered the sudden termination of military operations.[li] Saddam’s capabilities arguably required further diminishment to guarantee a longer-term balance of power amicable to U.S. interests in the Middle East, but this ulterior military objective and action at the operational level of war emerged subordinate to the higher political objective.


Clausewitz theorized politics “is the womb in which war develops,” and an examination of the grand strategic literature establishes a framework to evaluate the relevance of the operational level of war on this premise.[lii] The theoretical development of the operational level did not scheme to detach politics from warfare but it, instead, descended from grand strategic thought and intended to fashion an arena for the disciplined application of battle indispensable to the political objective. Nevertheless, this theoretical connection arguably emerged severed after the U.S. misadventure in Vietnam, when the military exerted, and civilian politicians abdicated, control over the operational level of war; risking war’s very relevance as a political activity. The First Gulf War—a particular case of modern warfare—invalidated this irrelevance, for American decision-making at the civil-military interface favored political control, which restrained the military instrument to achieve the political end as it advanced undisciplined in the planning, execution, and termination of operations. This imbalance, wherein political leadership refused to abdicate authority while military leadership counseled restraint and adhered to civilian guidance, enabled military operations to serve as the integrated link in a grand strategic chain committed to the political objective, which its theoretical origins portended. Consequently, for the operational level of war to remain relevant in the future, the civil-military interface must remain imbalanced in favor of political authority with a military officer corps that also recognizes the centrality of civilian interference in the employment of force and the utility of restraint in its counsel; a surefire way to ensure grand strategic coherence and the achievement of the political end without excessively damaging the peace that might follow victory.


[i] Robert Foley, “Operational Level and Operational Art,” Defence-in-Depth, September 14, 2015.
[ii] Stuart Griffin, “Operational Art and the Operational Level,” Defence-in-Depth, September 15, 2015.
[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton, 1989), 86-87.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Lukas Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (Oxford, 2016), 14-44.
[vi] Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Gutenberg, 2005), 305-309.
[vii] J.F.C. Fuller, The Dragon’s Teeth (Constable, 1932), 74-110, 136-159, 160-179, 300-316. J.F.C. Fuller, War and Western Civilization (Duckworth, 1932), 209-217, 224-240.
[viii] Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought, 47-52.
[ix] J.F.C. Fuller, The Reformation of War (Hutchinson, 1923), 75-101, 211-228. J.F.C. Fuller, Grant and Lee (Indiana, 1982), 126, 250-285. J.F.C. Fuller, The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant (Mead, 1929), 1-6, 182-183, 412.
[x] B.H. Liddell Hart, When Britain Goes to War (Faber, 1932), 78-86. B.H. Liddell Hart, Scipio Africanus (Perseus, 1926), 109, 130, 141-152. Paul Kennedy, Grand Strategies in War and Peace (Yale, 1991), 1-10.
[xi] B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (Plume, 1991), 319-360.
[xii] John Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (Penguin, 2018), 1-28.
[xiii] B.H. Liddell Hart, The Strategy of the Indirect Approach (Faber, 1967), 184-192, 202-211, 297-309.
[xiv] Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge (Oxford, 2011), 3-28, 99, 197-221.
[xv] Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine (Cornell, 1986), 33, 220. Lukas Milevski, “Grand Strategy and Operational Art,” Comparative Strategy 33, no. 4 (2014): 350-352.
[xvi] Samuel Huntington, The Soldier and the State (Harvard, 1981), 7-18, 80-97, 315-344.
[xvii] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command (Anchor, 2003), 1-14, 208-264.
[xviii] Ibid., 205-207. Lawrence Freedman, “Calling the Shots,” Foreign Affairs 81, no. 5 (2002): 188-194.
[xix] Milevski, “Grand Strategy and Operational Art,” 343-347. Hew Strachan, “Operational Art and Britain,” in The Evolution of Operational Art, ed. Martin van Creveld (Oxford, 2011), 96-136.
[xx] Hart, The Strategy of the Indirect Approach, 178-182, 297-298.
[xxi] Lawrence Freedman, “The Meaning of Strategy Part II,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 2 (2018): 52-55. Alex Danchev, “Liddell Hart’s Big Idea,” Review of International Studies 25, no. 1 (1999): 32-36.
[xxii] Milevski, “Grand Strategy and Operational Art,” 343. Bruce Menning, “Operational Art’s Origins,” Military Review 77, no. 5 (1997): 32-47.
[xxiii] Edward Luttwak, Strategy (Belknap, 2002), 4.
[xxiv] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy (Oxford, 2013), 203, 211. Edward Luttwak, “The Operational Level of War,” International Security 5, no. 3 (1980): 64.
[xxv] Ibid., 61. Luttwak, Strategy, 112-113.
[xxvi] David Jablonsky, “Strategy and the Operational Level of War,” Parameters 17, no. 1 (1987): 65-74.
[xxvii] H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty (Harper, 1997), 328-329.
[xxviii] Robert McNamara, In Retrospect (Vintage, 1996), 319-335.
[xxix] Freedman, “Calling the Shots,” 192.
[xxx] U.S. Army, Field Manual 100-5, Operations (GPO, 1986), i-ii, 4, 9-26. Hew Strachan, “Strategy or Alibi?,” Survival 52, no. 5 (2010): 157-161. Luttwak, “The Operational Level of War,” 62.
[xxxi] Shimon Naveh, In Pursuit of Military Excellence (Cass, 1997), xiii-xxi, 1-23.
[xxxii] Strachan, “Strategy or Alibi?,” 164. Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy (Carlisle, 2009), 85-98.
[xxxiii] Hew Strachan, “Making Strategy,” Survival 48, no. 3 (2006): 60, 93.
[xxxiv] Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh, The Gulf Conflict (Princeton, 1993), 1-64.
[xxxv] United Nations, Security Council Resolution 660, August 2, 1990.
[xxxvi] Freedman and Karsh, The Gulf Conflict, 65-128, 143-153. U.S. National Security Council, Minutes of NSC Meeting on Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait (NSC, 1990), 1-6.
[xxxvii] U.S. National Security Council, NSD-45: U.S. Policy in Response to the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait (NSC, 1990), 3.
[xxxviii] Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero (Bantam, 1993), 419-420.
[xxxix] George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (Knopf, 1998), 380-384.
[xl] Ibid., 381. Dick Cheney, In My Time (Threshold, 2013), 197-200.
[xli] Colin Powell, My American Journey (Random, 1995), 459-506.
[xlii] Bartholomew Sparrow, The Strategist (Perseus, 2015), 385-427.
[xliii] Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh, “Strategy in the Gulf War,” International Security 16, no. 2 (1991): 13.
[xliv] Freedman and Karsh, The Gulf Conflict, 301.
[xlv] Bush and Scowcroft, A World Transformed, 383-396, 432-433, 462-482.
[xlvi] United Nations, Security Council Resolution 678, November 29, 1990.
[xlvii] U.S. National Security Council, NSD-54: Responding to Iraqi Aggression in the Gulf (NSC, 1991), 1-3.
[xlviii] Freedman and Karsh, “Strategy in the Gulf War,” 33.
[xlix] Bush and Scowcroft, A World Transformed, 464, 482.
[l] Robert Divine, “The Persian Gulf War Revisited,” Diplomatic History 24, no. 1 (2000): 130-136.
[li] Michael Gordon, The General’s War (Hachette, 1995), vii-xii, 440-515.
[lii] Clausewitz, On War, 149.

Copy link