Much of modern strategic theory, including theory as taught to practitioners in war colleges, includes a number of intervening concepts between tactics and politics, such as the operational level of war and grand strategy. The concept of operational art, or the operational level of war, was first introduced into western strategic thought thirty-odd years ago, almost without reference to the pre-existing notion of strategy, which had once occupied the same conceptual space as operational art does now. How the introduction of operational art or the operational level of war has modified the nature of strategy is a question which has only recently been broached and a debate which has yet to run its course. Yet much of the discussion has centered on operational art itself, with relatively little reference to strategy. To some extent, the debate consists of strategists and operational artists talking at rather than with each other, with rival dogmas sailing past each other like ships in the night. Such dissection exclusively of operational art, whether one advocates or denigrates the concept, produces more heat than light. It now seems fruitful to approach the debate from the other side, that of strategy.
What is the nature of strategy? Contemporary strategic thought generally places it at the policy level. David Jablonsky is typical in suggesting that “[t]he strategic level is dominant in the continuum of war because, as we have noted, it is here that the war’s political goals are defined.”[i] This interpretation of strategy, a product of the Cold War and the advent of nuclear weapons, is a new one in the history of strategic thought. However, something has arguably been lost since strategy—our prime tool capable of enabling us to understand war—was redefined in this manner.[ii]
Classical strategic thought is characterized by very different interpretations of strategy and of its role in war and politics than those prevalent during and after the Cold War. Two perspectives on strategy stand out from this era: that of Antoine-Henri Jomini, and that of Carl von Clausewitz. Although both agreed on much in their attempts to describe and explain the same phenomenon of Napoleonic warfare, they did disagree on strategy, although not necessarily on its principles. The main difference in their respective interpretations of strategy rested on the role of battle.
For the needs of the general, Jomini divided his concept of strategy into thirteen considerations, ranging from “[t]he selection of the theater of war, and the discussion of the different combinations which it entails” and “[t]he determination of the decisive points in these combinations and the most favorable direction for operations” to “[f]or a given operation, the best strategic line, and the different maneuvers necessary to embrace all possible cases” and “[t]he marches of armies, considered as maneuvers.”[iii] Alongside strategy he placed grand tactics and logistics. “The maneuvering of an army upon the battle-field, and the different formations of troops for attack, constitute Grand Tactics. Logistics is the art of moving armies. It comprises the order and details of marches and camps, and of quartering and supplying troops; in a word, it is the execution of strategical and tactical enterprises…Strategy is the art of making war upon the map, and comprehends the whole theater of operations.”[iv] Jomini identified the first and most fundamental principle of war to be: “To throw by strategic movements the mass of an army, successfully, upon the decisive points of a theater of war, and also upon the communications of the enemy as much as possible without compromising one’s own.”[v]
It is apparent that Jomini’s concept of strategy existed to enable the battle. A successful battle is the reward of good strategy. Such an interpretation of strategy may well be the consequence of his experience as a staff member who worked in both Marshal Ney’s and Napoleon’s headquarters and eventually rose to become Ney’s chief of staff. He would have been well placed to perceive and understand the amount of work required simply to reach the battlefield in fighting shape.
Clausewitz defined strategy in a rather different manner, arguing that “[s]trategy is the use of the engagement for the purposes of the war.”[vi] This slightly abstract definition pulls into the core nature of strategy the political considerations which drive the war. (Jomini recognized these considerations as well, but did not integrate them into his conception of strategy as such.) Yet how does one use engagements for political consequence? Clausewitz was quite clear on this point: pursuit is the mechanism by which a battlefield victory takes on political consequences. “[W]hat remains true under all imaginable conditions is that no victory will be effective without pursuit; and no matter how brief the exploitation of victory, it must always go further than an immediate follow-up…Little positive advantage would be gained in the normal course of events unless victory were consummated by pursuit on the first day.”[vii]
For Clausewitz, strategy begins with the battle. Battle is the basis of strategy. Such an interpretation of strategy may well have developed from Prussia’s experience in 1805. Its armies were decisively defeated at Jena-Auerstedt, after which Napoleon relentlessly pursued its broken formations to the Baltic Sea and captured Berlin in the process. Clausewitz believed that Napoleon’s conduct of warfare meant that campaigns rarely lasted after the main battle, for a relentless pursuit would lead to peace on his terms.
Pursuit was therefore seen as the essence of Napoleonic warfare. Clausewitz has been criticized for ignoring the importance of pre-battle maneuvers, not least by the French at the end of the nineteenth century.[viii] Clausewitz did indeed barely refer to maneuver. Book seven, The Attack, contains the only chapter on maneuver in On War, and it is all of two pages long. Moreover, it contains a somewhat bizarre treatment of maneuver, which probably stemmed from his opinions on the maneuver-heavy wars which preceded the French Revolution. “Maneuver must be distinguished, not only from aggressive conduct of the attack by means of major engagements, but from every operation that arises immediately out of such an attack…In its ordinary meaning the term maneuver carries the idea of an effect created out of nothing, so to speak—that is to say, out of a state of equilibrium—by using the mistakes into which the enemy can be lured.”[ix]
Unlike Jomini, Clausewitz ultimately gave very little thought actually to achieving battle in the first place. The integrity and utility of his definition therefore suffer in relation to Napoleon’s campaign of 1812 in Russia, when post-battle pursuit and pre-battle maneuvering merge together into a longer campaign not decided only by a single battle. It is telling that Clausewitz grumbled about the battle of Borodino and did not consider it a complete engagement because it did not fit his strategic ideal. “The battle of Borodino, like that of Bautzen, is therefore among those that were never completely fought out…at Borodino, the victor chose to content himself with only a partial victory—not because he thought the issue was still in doubt, but because a total victory would have cost him more than he was able to pay.”[x] Reality failed to live up to theory.
Set by the 1812 campaign in Russia, this trend of merging post-battle pursuit with pre-battle maneuver would only continue, due to the growth of armies in the nineteenth century. It was also significant to the evolution of strategic thought. First, it increased the difficulty of conducting a politically consequential pursuit, which reduces the apparent relevance of Clausewitz’s interpretation of how to implement strategy. Second, the increased size of armies also exacerbated the challenges of moving these armies across theaters of operations. This led to a greater emphasis on logistics and mastering this difficulty, which necessarily favored Jomini’s interpretation of strategy. Advantageously bringing the enemy to battle consequently also became more difficult, which therefore attracted ever greater attention as a strategic issue. Strategic thought before the First World War came to focus on bringing the enemy to battle rather than on exploiting battle. The advent of general staffs and codified war plans such as Germany’s Schlieffen Plan and France’s War Plan XVII attested to this shift of emphasis. The obsession, particularly in Germany, with the battle of Cannae also indicates this—the battle was a masterpiece of bringing one’s army to action advantageously and of battlefield tactics, but was strategically bankrupt. However, at the time this focus seemed reasonable and indeed had been effective in the more recent past—it had worked for Moltke the Elder at Königgrätz, despite the fact that his armies were left in too poor a state by the battle itself to effect the Clausewitzian pursuit.
These developments led to an apparent need for a new, middle concept between tactics and strategy. Aleksandr Svechin, now considered to be the original codifier of this new middle concept of operational art, introduced the concept to the Soviet army in the 1920s.
Tactics and administration are the material of operational art and the success of the development of an operation depends on both the successful solution of individual tactical problems by the forces and the provision of all the material they need to conduct an operation without interruption until the ultimate goal is achieved. On the basis of the goal of an operation, operational art sets forth a whole series of tactical missions and a number of logistical requirements. Operational art also dictates the basic line of conduct of an operation, depending on the material available, the time which may be allotted to the handling of different tactical missions, the forces which may be deployed for battle on a certain front, and finally on the nature of the operation itself.[xi]
Having introduced the intervening concept between tactics and strategy, Svechin defined operational art in a Jominian manner. However, Svechin was a scholar of Clausewitz who wrote a study of the man and his work which has yet to be translated into English. He defined strategy in a reasonably, albeit not purely, Clausewitzian way. “Strategy is the art of combining preparations for war and the grouping of operations for achieving the goal set by the war for the armed forces. Strategy decides issues associated with the employment of the armed forces and all the resources of a country for achieving ultimate war aims…A strategist will be successful if he correctly evaluates the nature of a war, which depends on different economic, social, geographic, administrative and technical factors.”[xii]
Svechin attempted to solve the problem posed by the growth of armies and the challenges that growth brought by introducing operational art as an intervening concept, as applied to the particular circumstances of the Soviet Union. Others at the time also wrestled with these same issues, among them Basil Liddell Hart. He is commonly considered one of the progenitors of operational art in Britain but, while he certainly did theorize intervening concepts in strategy, operational art was not necessarily one of them. His approach differed from Svechin’s, in that he did not actually place a new concept between strategy and tactics—although he did propound a way of strategy which in today’s lexicon would be manoeuvrist. His solution was effectively to combine Jomini’s and Clausewitz’s definitions of strategy into one, although given his antipathy to Clausewitz he himself would probably never have considered his definition of strategy in that manner. Liddell Hart defined strategy as “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.”[xiii] Distributing military means is Jominian, whereas applying them is Clausewitzian. Liddell Hart thus avoided the need for a concept to intervene between strategy and tactics—although his biases in thinking and writing certainly privileged distribution over application wherever possible, in a manner consonant with the later concept of manoeuvrism.
These original responses to the challenge posed by enlarged armies, particularly as experienced during the First World War, maintained the abstract Clausewitzian notion of strategy as a relational endeavor (which Jomini also recognized but did not enshrine within strategy itself, seeing it rather as an aspect of statesmanship), but simultaneously eschewed its operationalization as pursuit after battle, which was specific to the Napoleonic context. Modern strategic theory maintains the basic structure introduced by Svechin, but the relational nature, which had been enshrined in strategy, has now become embedded in operational art. This shift in the meaning of strategy was not, however, caused by operational art, which only appeared in western military and strategic thought in the late 1970s. By the late 1960s Raymond Aron had already identified the shift in the meaning of strategy when he noted that “there is no difference between what was once called a policy and what one now calls a strategy. The substitution of the latter can probably be explained by the new awareness of the confrontation or dialogue of the actors.”[xiv] The British author Ken Booth confirmed this observation, remarking upon “the mid-twentieth-century situation in which ‘strategy’ and ‘policy’ became almost synonymous.”[xv]
This shift in the meaning of strategy stemmed from the influence of nuclear weapons upon strategy. Modern strategic studies emerged in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prioritized nuclear strategy, and caused the relative neglect of other forms of military force, particularly their actual use. Bernard Brodie in 1946 wrote one of the most influential foundational statements on strategy in a nuclear context.
Thus, the first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic bombs is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind. The writer in making that statement is not for the moment concerned about who will win the next war in which atomic bombs are used. Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.[xvi]
Strategic thought thereafter focused in large part upon the distribution of military forces, the core of Jomini’s concept of strategy in application, as well as the heart of Liddell Hart’s strategic bias, but at an even higher level of consideration. In certain theaters, this applied as much to conventional military forces as to nuclear forces. Due to the emphasis on deterrence and preventing a superpower nuclear war, strategy ascended to the level of policy, and lost large parts of its relational nature as codified by Clausewitz and maintained by Svechin and Liddell Hart. This is reflected in official definitions of strategy used by armed forces today. “The strategic level of warfare is the level at which national resources are allocated to achieve the Government’s policy goals (set against a backdrop of both national and international imperatives)…Military strategy…determines the military contribution, as part of an integrated approach, to the achievement of national policy goals; it is an integral, not a separate, aspect of strategic level planning.”[xvii]
Operational art entered the scene to find a ready niche waiting for it in actual military campaigns, which strategic studies had somewhat neglected. As Edward Luttwak complained, “[i]t is a peculiarity of Anglo-Saxon military terminology that it knows of tactics (unit, branch, and mixed) and of theater strategy as well as of grand strategy, but includes no adequate term for the operational level of warfare—precisely the level that is most salient in the modern tradition of military thought in continental Europe.”[xviii]
Once introduced into western strategic lexicon and thought, operational art swiftly gained popularity. Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan described its rise as devouring strategy – effectively supplanting strategy while failing to take on its relational responsibilities.[xix] Luttwak similarly describes operational art as an apolitical concern purely for military professionals. Yet others have ascribed to it some of the responsibilities of classical strategic thought: “The operational level of warfare is the level at which campaigns are planned, conducted and sustained, to accomplish strategic objectives and synchronise action, within theatres or areas of operation. It provides the 2-way bridge between the strategic and the tactical levels.”[xx] This definition sounds vaguely similar to Clausewitzian strategy, and indeed it is a common notion that what Clausewitz referred to as strategy we today label as operations. One recent commentator has described this transfer of responsibility as the consequence of civil-military relations.
Attempts to implement this theory have brought about an artificial distinction between the strategic and operational roles of statesmen and military practitioners. This in turn has necessitated an expanded conceptualisation of operational art that allows military practitioners to continue to legitimately discuss aspects of strategy (including campaign planning) that would otherwise be perceived as beyond their remit.[xxi]
One might wonder whether this is not actually reasonable. Not all interpretations of strategy enshrine at their core relations between the foreign considerations of force and politics, even in classical strategic thought. Jomini did not. Perhaps he assumed that such relationships would automatically be formed under the pressure of statecraft, making their codification in strategy unnecessary. Others, such as Clausewitz, Svechin, and Liddell Hart, perhaps in doubt about its automatic formation, did establish the relationship between force and politics as part of the conceptual core of strategy. Not consigning the relationship to any one specific level but emphasizing all the relationships among all the levels of strategy, Luttwak remains somewhere in the middle. Yet as long as understanding of the relationship resides somewhere, whether it be in strategy or in operational art or—perhaps more dubiously—in the space between discrete concepts, does it matter under which label that relationship falls?
To answer this question, one must consider a number of separate issues. First, are the relationships in question actually the same? Does strategy relate to the same phenomena as operational art? Strategy relates force to politics and policy. Operational art relates tactics to strategy, strategy which has effectively become a policy-level concept. At face value, the relationships are the same. Yet this would be a false impression. Politics is concerned with who gets what, when, how.[xxii] It is the distribution and employment of power. Strategy, as understood in the first relationship, therefore seeks to change—or to confirm, should the strategist be defending his polity and its interests—the particular distribution and specific manner of employment of power in a definite context through the application of military force. Practicing strategists seek to understand the basic political questions which are at stake, and then to act to produce the contribution force may make to resolve those questions.
Operational art, as understood in the second relationship, does not do this. The interpretation of strategy upon which it rests, and to which it must relate tactics, is not the relational activity described above. One cannot have a relationship to a relationship (i.e. relating tactics to strategy), nor can one cut a relationship into segments and study them in isolation. Instead, strategy has become a governmental bureaucratic process focused on resource allocation. As a result operational artists must identify operational-level objectives and tactically achieve those objectives within the limits of the military resources provided to them, but in practice frequently without the significant political guidance required to make the more fundamental strategy relationship work, which itself is the whole point of going to war. This situation is exacerbated when the operational level is not seen as a relationship, such as by Luttwak. In fact, the level of theater strategy, which he places above the operational level, is also wholly apolitical—or is meant to be.
While conditioning the interaction of the adversary forces in spatial terms, the logic of strategy at the theater level encompasses only factors of military significance: the length of fronts and the barrier-value of their terrain, the depth of territories, all aspects of access and transit, and so on. By contrast, it totally ignores the political, economic, and moral character of the territory in question, treating cherished homelands rich in resources or production exactly on the same footing as alien deserts. It is not surprising therefore that in the making of military policies, the logic of strategy at the theater level is often ignored, even if it is fully understood.[xxiii]
Purely military considerations are privileged above all others in such a theory, even though actual practice militates against such an exclusive emphasis. As a result, the operational level is frequently treated by practitioners and considered by commentators as a politics-free zone of activity purely for the military professional.
The second major question concerning operational art is that of practicability and responsibility for practice. Justin Kelly resurrects Jomini’s old structure of strategy as pre-battle maneuvering to secure the battle and suggests an adaptation wherein lie battlefield tactics; grand tactics/operational art involving maneuvering to secure advantage prior to battle; and “the operational level of strategy, which is about breaking up strategic propositions into executable campaigns that accommodate the full dynamism and complexity of the strategic situation that provides their context…Operationalising strategies is a higher order activity than merely conceiving them” due to the level and breadth of knowledge and experience demanded.[xxiv] Defenders of operational art argue that this conceptual structure is unacceptable, since “splitting the responsibility for campaign orchestration between design and execution is not a happy recipe for success, nor would it provide the firm link needed between strategy and tactics.”[xxv]
Yet specifically because operational art is an intervening concept between tactics and strategy, responsibility for practice must be split no matter how any of the involved concepts are defined. As Antulio Echevarria has suggested, “the operational level of war may have inadvertently created an excuse for tacticians to avoid thinking strategically, and for strategists to avoid considering military problems from a tactical perspective.”[xxvi] Official British usage describes strategy as the process of allocation of military force, and the operational level as the actual employment of that force. Yet it is counterproductive to attempt to divorce the two. While the basis of what sort of strategic effect may be achievable does stem from the particular character of the means chosen and employed, it is the actual performance in the theater of operations that determines whether or not that effect is actually to be achieved.[xxvii] For strategy to be successful, allocation of forces cannot be anything other than intimately related to their actual employment. A concept of operational art or an operational layer separate from strategy interrupts this intimacy even if it was not the interruption’s original cause.
One recent suggestion for restoring this intimacy has been to fold operational art into tactics, for both emphasize the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces. “Armies are destroyed or defeated by tactics. Wars are won and lost by strategy…At best, it would appear that the operational level of war is just an odd articulation of the need to be good at tactics”.[xviii] Yet operational artists do claim, with some justice, that the operational level is distinct from tactics. If tactics and strategy were distinct in classical thought, then tactics and operational art can only be distinct today because the operational level now occupies the conceptual space once taken by classical interpretations of strategy. The major difference between classical strategy and operational art is the question of strategy’s relational nature. Operational artists and classical strategists even make the same or similar points. John Kiszely argues that “[w]ithout consideration of the operational level, it is easy to see the achievement of strategic success as merely the sum of tactical victories, and but a small step from there to believing that every successful battle fought leads to strategic success.”[xxix] Clausewitz likewise argued that
[i]f Paris had been taken in 1792 the war against the Revolution would almost certainly for the time being have been brought to an end. There was no need even for the French armies to have been defeated first, for they were not in those days particularly powerful. In 1814, on the other hand, even the capture of Paris would not have ended matters if Bonaparte had still had a sizable army behind him. But as in fact his army had been largely eliminated, the capture of Paris settled everything in 1814 and again in 1815.[xxx]
Clausewitz’s argument was that not all tactical successes, nor conquests of politically important cities, even capitals, necessarily lead to strategic success. Both authors argue for a nuanced understanding of any strategic situation and come to approximately the same conclusions, merely using different labels.
Operational art has not changed the nature and understanding of strategy, which arguably had already changed before operational art entered the west’s lexicon and framework of strategy. If one accepts the premise that the relationship between force and politics should be embodied within strategy, as posited by Clausewitz, Svechin, and Liddell Hart, however one may imagine the practice of that relationship, then the advent of nuclear weapons was decisive in shifting the direction of strategic thought, as noted by Raymond Aron and others. Instead, strategy emphasized, at the policy-level, Jominian concerns of (not) bringing the enemy to “battle” i.e. nuclear engagement. In mainstream, frequently official, understanding strategy now generally inhabits a range of meaning from force allocation on one end to setting the political objectives of the war on the other. No definition within this mainstream spectrum embodies the necessary relationship between force and politics as do Clausewitzian and some other succeeding definitions of strategy. It is the prevalence of the mainstream definitions which created the niche now occupied by operational art.
It is possible to suggest, however, that by diverting it from properly considering the relationship between force and politics and providing the suggestion of a relationship, operational art currently prolongs the misuse of strategy. If the theoretical structure of mainstream strategy assumes that operational art approximates Clausewitz’s or Liddell Hart’s definitions of strategy, and strategy itself provides the political goals which guide operational art, then a proper and workable relationship effectively exists. Yet changing all the labels (i.e., strategy to operational art and policy to strategy) appears gratuitous and unnecessary, although now that it has been effected it may well be gratuitous and unnecessarily confusing to try to change them back. Frequently, the relationship operational art embodies is not the relationship necessary to navigate the challenges of war—that between force and politics—but is rather that between tactics and bureaucratic process, frequently concerning force allocation.
Does the nature of strategy accommodate intervening concepts? Operational art, for all the good it did early on in enabling a reemphasis on the actual and skillful conduct of war, has perhaps run its course and should be folded back into those concepts which existed prior to its development. Yet the classical home of operational art is not tactics, but strategy. Indeed, the most accommodating generic definition of strategy into which operational art may be folded may well be that proffered, despite his operational style biases, by Liddell Hart: “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.”
[i] David Jablonsky. “Strategy and the Operational Level of War: Part I”, Parameters 27/1 (Spring 1987), 73.
[ii] Hew Strachan, “The lost meaning of strategy”, Survival 47/3 (July 2005), 33-54.
[iii] Baron de Jomini. The Art of War. G.H. Mendell & W.P. Craighill, trans. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co 1862), 68.
[iv] Ibid, 69.
[v] Ibid, 70.
[vi] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton UP 1984), 177.
[vii] Ibid, 263.
[viii] Azar Gat. A History of Military Thought. (Oxford: Oxford UP 2001), 395.
[ix] Clausewitz, On War, 541.
[x] Ibid, 267.
[xi] Aleksandr A. Svechin. Strategy. Kent D. Lee ed. (Minneapolis: East View Information Services 1991), 69.
[xiii] Basil Liddell Hart. Strategy. (New York, NY: Meridian 1991), 321.
[xiv] Raymond Aron. “The Evolution of Modern Strategic Thought” in Alastair Buchan (ed). Problems of Modern Strategy: Part One, Adelphi Paper 54. (London: IISS 1969), 2.
[xv] Ken Booth. “The Evolution of Strategic Thinking” in John Baylis, Ken Booth, John Garnett, & Phil Williams. Contemporary Strategy: Theories and Policies. (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers 1975), 28.
[xvi] Bernard Brodie. “Implications for Military Policy” in Bernard Brodie (ed). The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company 1946), 76.
[xvii] British Defence Doctrine. JDP 0-01, 4th Edition. (UK MoD: November 2011), 2-8.
[xviii] Edward N. Luttwak. “The Operational Level of War”, International Security 5/3 (Winter 1980-81), 61.
[xix] Justin Kelly & Mike Brennan. Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy. (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute 2009).
[xx] British Defence Doctrine, 2-9.
[xxi] Aaron Jackson. “Surrogate: Why Operational Art Adopted Strategy”, The Journal of Military Operations 2/2 (Spring 2014), 7.
[xxii] Harold D. Lasswell. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. (New York: Meridian 1972).
[xxiii] Edward N. Luttwak. Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP 2001), 138.
[xxiv] Justin Kelly. “Where To For ‘The Operational’”, The Journal of Military Operations 1/3 (Winter 2012), 10.
[xxv] John Kiszely. “Where To For ‘The Operational’? An Answer”, The Journal of Military Operations 1/4 (Spring 2013), 7.
[xxvi] Antulio J. Echevarria II. Clausewitz and Contemporary War. (Oxford: Oxford UP 2007), 140.
[xxvii] Lukas Milevski. “Whence Derives Predictability in Strategy?”, Infinity Journal 2/4 (Autumn 2012), 4-7.
[xxviii] William F. Owen. “The Operational Level of War Does Not Exist”, The Journal of Military Operations 1/1 (Summer 2012), 18, 20.
[xxix] John Kiszely. “Thinking about the Operational Level”, RUSI Journal 150/6 (2005), 38.
[xxx] Clausewitz, On War, 595.