Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 3  /  

The Post Operational Level Age: How to Properly Maintain the Interface between Policy, Strategy, and Tactics in Current Military Challenges

The Post Operational Level Age: How to Properly Maintain the Interface between Policy, Strategy, and Tactics in Current Military Challenges The Post Operational Level Age: How to Properly Maintain the Interface between Policy, Strategy, and Tactics in Current Military Challenges
To cite this article: Bengo, Yakov and Shabtai, Shay, “The Post Operational Level Age: How to Properly Maintain the Interface between Policy, Strategy, and Tactics in Current Military Challenges,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 3, spring 2015, pages 4-9.

© Northfoto | – ISRAEL LEBANON BORDER Photo


In this article we attempt to explain our opinion that the Operational Level is redundant in the response to current military challenges. By properly defining the problem and detailing the principles we can create the optimal connection in planning and action between strategy and tactics. We will base our concept on presenting the direct link between strategy and tactics, as described by Clausewitz, introducing the background for the development of the Operational Level in the 20th century and analyzing the new approaches and changes of recent years.

Clausewitz – Policy, Strategy, Tactics

Carl von Clausewitz began writing his book ‘On War’ in 1819 and by 1827 he had written six full volumes and the drafts for two more.[i] During this time his theory evolved. He gradually concluded that war was not only an absolute use of force to annihilate the enemy but also that there were wars for limited objectives.

This conclusion brought him to understand that war is merely the continuation of policy with other means. He therefore decided that he had to rewrite the six completed volumes. On July 1827 he noted that there was only one chapter in the book that he considered complete and that this chapter would point out the direction he wished to follow.[ii]

His return to active service, until his sudden death from cholera on November 16th 1831, and his focus on historical study of limited wars in order to properly establish his theory, stopped the process of rewriting. The posthumously published version of his work by his wife, therefore, contains a mix of older and newer ideas – some of them conflicting. This has led to mounds of interpretations that do not necessarily convey his ideas accurately.

The first chapter, which expresses his advanced thinking, creates the link between policy and strategy. He defines war as “an act of violence the purpose of which is to force the rival to do our will”. It follows that war would bring both sides to escalate their actions to the most extreme levels of violence to defeat the enemy. But war is not an independent act. It has a wider political and social context and therefore rivals do not exert maximum force only a sufficient one. Because war is plagued with uncertainty and luck and because defense is inherently stronger than offense, it is important that the statesman and the supreme military commander define accurately the objectives of the war they are initiating and that they adjust the objectives as the war proceeds.

So, “war is not only an act of policy, it is a political tool, a continuation of political dialogue conducted by other means… the political objective is the goal, war is the means of achieving it and means are never analyzed separately from their objectives”. It connects the emotions of the public (anger, hostility); risk and probability management of the military commander and it’s being a tool of the decision-maker. The object is to develop a theory that connects these three components.[iii]

Clausewitz left us the insight that war is a tool of policy. Further in the book, in the volumes not yet adapted to this new insight, he divides the conduct of war into two levels – strategy and tactics.

Strategy he defined as

“the exploitation of engagements for achieving the goals of the war. The strategist must define the objective for the operational side of the war – an objective that fits the political purpose of the war… He will design a war plan with the objective defining the series of actions intended to achieve it. He will in fact design the individual campaigns and within this framework decide on the individual engagements”.

Clausewitz adds that,

“since most of these plans will be based on assumptions that may likely be proven wrong, it is not possible to give detailed plans in advance and this requires the strategist to be personally involved in the campaign. Detailed commands will be given only in specific places and contexts, in a manner that enables amending the general plans as required by the evolving situation”.

He noted that this was not the accepted approach – “it was customary to decide on strategy in the capital-city rather than in the field”.[iv] Strategy, according to Clausewitz, is the art and science of the supreme commander as he conducts the war.

“The engagement is tactical” – “the means are the trained combat forces, and the objective is victory”.[v] For Clausewitz, tactics are the actual act of fighting. There are distinct links between strategy and tactics – “changes in the tactical characteristics will immediately impact on strategy”.[vi]

Thus, Clausewitz identified three levels – the political level which determines the objectives of the war; the strategic level which plans and manages the war to suit the policy; and the tactical level which is expressed in the combat itself and executes the strategy and which, therefore, also influences it.

Background to the Evolution of Operational Art

In his ground-breaking book, ‘In Pursuit of Military Excellence – The Evolution of Operational Theory’, Shimon Naveh characterizes the causes of the evolution of Operational Art in the Soviet military in the 1930s and 1940s and in the American military in the 1970s and 1980s. He begins by stating that

“the dramatic growth of armies through the 19th century reached monstrous proportions towards the end of that period and caused a no less dramatic growth of the spatial and temporal dimensions of military operations. This quantitative change created a new problem in the conduct of wars – especially in the middle-ground between the two traditional levels of military planning”.[vii]

The basic understanding is that the increased size of war in the industrial age necessitates the development of an intermediary level so that human cognition is able to encompass the phenomenon. According to Naveh, “the Operational Level is not an independent entity separate from the entire complex of the phenomenon of war. Quantitatively and qualitatively it is not different from the tactical level, and fundamentally it is not different from the strategic level”.[viii]

In his historical analysis, Naveh quoted the Chief of Staff of the Red Army, Tukhachevsky, who wrote in 1926, that “in modern operations fighting is dispersed over a series of battles and consequently, the tactics are much more intricate than those of Napoleon”.[ix]

Thus a tension exists between the abstract strategic objectives of the war and the mechanical tactical implementation of combat. Unlike Clausewitz, who identified a continuum of logic between policy, strategy and tactics, reality is more complex and translating correctly from level to level has proven difficult. The Operational Level is supposed to facilitate the translation of complex strategic issues (annihilation, Blitzkrieg) into mechanistic tactical solutions – between the mechanical context of the random activity and the context of abstract thinking. Campaigns are planned in a hierarchical three-level structure:

a) Formulation of objectives and political restrictions – the strategies – by the supreme national authority.

b) Clarifying the Operational Concept and definition of the main campaign objectives – by the appropriate strategic-operational authority.

c) Creation of a battle plan – by the tactical command level[xi].

Analysis of the definitions of the three levels shows that in creating the Operational Level in order to solve the tension between the abstract thinking of the higher levels and the mechanical thinking of the lower levels, we could just as easily have used Clausewitz’s three levels with some adjustments.

Based on his historical and conceptual analysis Naveh developed the thesis that Operational Art is uniquely connected to the General Systems Theory. Basing himself on the theory expounded by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Naveh characterizes this theory as follows: the system as a complex of interactive elements; interaction between a large number of variables; three parameters – quantity, material and quality; the interaction is characterized as multi-layered and repeating itself; supreme and total control of the system’s objective on its functioning; distinction between open and closed systems; and the afore-mentioned tension between the abstract cognitive generalities and the practical objectives and tasks given to the system’s components.[xii]

Without elaborating General Systems Theory, it can be easily seen that the characteristics described by Naveh are very relevant for thinking about strategic issues and complex tactical issues as well. Naveh does not explain why this theory is relevant only for the new intermediary level and cannot exist on the other levels as well. Also, chronologically, the link between General Systems Theory and Operational Art was done at a late stage in the latter’s development and cannot be regarded as one of the roots of that development.

Naveh elaborated a number of criteria, that in his opinion define the uniqueness of operational art – expression of the cognitive tension; creative maneuver; synergetic action; neutralizing rather than destroying the enemy system; articulation of the randomness; non-linear character; deliberate interaction between maneuver and attrition; independence of action within the boundaries of the mission; and linkage to a wide and universal theory.[xiii]

The historical analysis shows that Operational Art did indeed assist to create (sometimes only to emphasize) these fundamentals in military planning. They were especially prevalent in the conceptual contest that reached its height in the 1980s between the Soviet Deep Battle and the American Air-Land Battle in the context of war between two regular armies. It is probable that without the debate on the Operational Level these fundamentals would not have been assimilated into military doctrine. However, once they were integrated into military thinking – was there any more need for the “Operational Level inter-mediator”?

Naveh describes Operational Shock as the achievement of a fighting system[xiv] – in other words, the stripping of the rival system’s ability to achieve its objectives. He defines the main characteristics of the concept as: unity of objective; striving to disrupt and dissolute the enemy system rather than to destroy it; action in two dimensions – the horizontal, frontal and linear, and the vertical, from the rear to the depth and non-linear; simultaneity of efforts; integration of efforts especially in regards to maneuver and fire; inversion of the enemy system by creating a concentration of critical mass behind its center of mass; deception and surprise as a central component in dealing with the enemy’s center of gravity. Clearly this description is relevant the for the collision of industrial-age armies.

Thus, what are the roots of Operational Art? Based on Naveh’s research the answer might be that it expresses the search for creative solutions to complex operations at the height of the industrial age – facing a widespread and elaborate challenge composed of large masses, technologies and rapidly expanding military capabilities. Against these was needed a giant leap in existing military doctrines, that were mistakenly named Clausewitzian, tied to linear actions, annihilation and a faulty connection between policy and military action.

New Concepts – Not Necessarily Operational Art

During the 1990s, in the days after the end of the Cold War and the impressive performance of the Air-Land Battle in the first Gulf War, challenges of a different type escalated. First, the peace-making and humanitarian aid efforts, such as in former Yugoslavia and Somalia and after September 11 the takeover and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Israel the expanding fighting against Hizbullah in Lebanon until the withdrawal in 2000 and immediately afterwards ‘Ebb and Flow’ against the Palestinians (the second intifada).

The frustration of the large advanced armies fighting ostensibly inferior opponents using guerrilla tactics aroused a wave of military thinking aimed at developing updated concepts for military operations that are not total wars. The process of adaptation included a redefining of the discourse between the strategic and the tactical that practically abandoned the medium of the Operational Level. We shall describe three of the new approaches to this discourse as developed by an Israeli, a Briton and an American.

Competition of Learning

In chronological order the first theoretician was IDF Reserves Colonel Shmuel Nir (Semo). Prior. Up until his untimely death in July 2003, Semo focused his thinking and writing on the conduct of Low Intensity Wars (called by the IDF – Limited Conflict).[xv] The foundation of his thinking was that because of its weakness, dearth of reserves and lack of ability to maneuver, the inferior side had little room for error. Therefore, its entire mode of operation is to seek out and attack only enemy weaknesses.

The strong side, in this case the IDF, must engage in a continuous effort to study the situation from all angles, so as to increasingly close ranks on the enemy’s weaknesses and impede their ability to act, and over time gradually exhaust him and cause him to lose his will to fight. In Semo’s view, Limited Conflict was a constant competition – which side could learn faster. The relevant concepts for military action were ‘learning cycles’, ‘a culture of asking questions’ and ‘knowledge management’. The core of the military response to an enemy based on guerrilla tactics was to focus on constantly developing new knowledge, questioning existing knowledge and rapidly disseminating new insights in order to eliminate weaknesses.

The next theoretician is the British general Rupert Smith. Among his assignments was to command the UN forces in Bosnia – an experience that influenced him greatly. In 2005, he published a book – ‘Utility of Force’. His main thesis was that the character of war had changed and that today it was being conducted among the people, rather than between armies, and is therefore influenced by the opinions of the public and in turn influences those opinions.

To conduct war in this situation Smith proposes a number of principles. The first requirement is to change the method being used to analyze all political and military actions to enable a deeper and detailed understanding of the nature of the strategic result on the political, the military and the economic planes and the right context and means to achieve it. Better understanding the desired political result will lead the military planner to ask the right questions and to choose a relevant military objective that will properly describe the result of the military action.

Smith defines four types of relevant strategy – improving the situation, containing the situation, deterrence or the forcing of our political will on the enemy. Choosing one is the result of properly analyzing our will against the enemy’s.

Another principle is the adherence to an action based on international law. This, because if we differ from our enemy by the fact that our political goal is according to international law, whereas he is attempting to subvert that law, then our tactical actions must also be legal in order to uphold that law. By adhering to the law in tactics we create a direct link between the strategic and tactical levels.

The next principle is the manner of planning military actions. Planning must be founded on two series of questions – one series on the context of the operation and one on the conduct of the operation. The first series require integrated, trans-organizational and even international thinking on the overall political and strategic context of the problem and the manner in which use of force is relevant to aid in solving it. The second series focuses on the tactical means relevant to serving this solution.

Other principles are: Intergovernmental Thinking – the harnessing of all the relevant functionaries and efforts to the thinking and implementation processes; Media – marketing the desired narrative of what is happening to the public; War Among the People – clearly showing the population within whom we are fighting that we are fighting for them against the enemy.

The utility of military force in a war among the people requires a different organization; creating a technological superiority relevant to this kind of war; emphasis on raids rather than on conquest; multi-capability staffs; knowledge management; avoiding over-simplifying complex problems; constant consideration of the wider context; and, in order to implement the principle of simplicity, the reduction of layers in the command hierarchy and delegation of decision-making authority.[xvi]

Towards the end of 2005 General David Petraeus was transferred from Iraq to become deputy commander of TRADOC, commander of the Command and General Staff College and commander of the Combined Arms Center (CAC) at Fort Leavenworth. In 2006, an extremely bad year for the Americans in Iraq, he led a group of military and other experts in the formation of Field Manual 3-24 – Counter Insurgency (COIN) Operations. When the manual was published in December 2006, he was already designated to command American forces in Iraq. In 2007 – 2008, as commander during the ‘Surge’, he implemented the principles he had designed so as to reduce the violence in Iraq and stabilize the country. The assessment of COIN success in Iraq and Afghanistan is an ongoing heated debate, which is not relevant to this article.

Chapter 4 of the manual discusses the Design of Campaigns and Operations against insurgencies.[xvii] The manual defines ‘Design’ as deepening the understanding, analysis of possible solutions to the problem and the basis for learning and adaptation. Design, unlike Planning, is intended to analyze in depth an unknown problem, to define its characteristics (Problem Setting) and to create concepts and hypothesis that enable finding a solution. Design exists also on the tactical level, in what American doctrine calls ‘Commander’s Visualization’.

Design is a broad dialogue that includes, in addition to military participants, also intergovernmental inputs and connections with local representatives in order to create Situational Understanding. It focuses on framing the problem and breaking it down from complexity to simple components in a continuous repetitive iterative process.

The components of the Design process are: the existence of Critical Discussion; Use of System Approach; Creation of Models, common terminology and principles. It creates the ability for Intuitive Decision Making, serving as a base for Continuous Assessment, the object of which is Structured Learning.

The Design Phase bridges between strategy and tactics and consolidates the commander’s understanding of the situation. It begins by defining the desired military end-states as distilled from the political goals, and then defines the operational concept – the Commander’s Intent – and guidance for planning. It is based on an intergovernmental holistic discourse with experts and instills the commander’s insights of the situation among his subordinates in order to empower them, give them an area of initiative and flexibility and enable every component in the military effort to implement the essence of the concept of operations.

Design creates an initial awareness of the environment based on working assumptions. However, the operational environment is extremely complex and friction deepens and enriches this awareness. On the one hand, it requires a deep understanding and flexibility of action of subordinate commanders and on the other hand it requires transfer of accurate and qualitative information to the commander in order to enable him to adjust his perceptions as the campaign progresses.

Thus the updated concepts of military operations in complex environments – as seen in Semo, Smith and Petraeus’ approaches – do not consolidate the existence of an Operational Level. They advance the dialogue between the strategic and the tactical levels in content and quality, on the basis of concepts and principles of learning, analysis, understanding the policy and the broader context; transforming complexity into simplicity without falling into shallowness; framing the problem with the design process; the commander as a key component in developing a discourse of experts; instilling his insights among his subordinates to enable them flexible responses to the tactical problems they face; continuity of the learning and analysis via friction with the changing situation; and reduction of the clumsiness of hierarchical command structures in order to strengthen the intuitive link between the strategic principles and the tactical actions.

Defining the problem in the post-Operational Level age

In the present environment and with the military problems it currently faces, conceptualizing of the Operational Level as a central component in methods of command, the structure of headquarters and processes of operational planning, creates more difficulties and failures than it does advantages. This is because of a number of problems created by the Operational Level.

Firstly the Operational Level was developed to deal with the size and complexity of the military challenge in the 20th century wars of the industrial age. Facing the challenges of the 21st century, most of which are characterized by terror and guerrilla warfare, in which there is immediate connection between tactical action and policy consequences, some of the methods of the Operational Level are relevant, but the paradigm as a whole does not fit the needs. Strategy and tactics no longer need a conceptual bridge to connect them.

If the political level is characterized by thinking that combines abstract (strategic) and practical (political and diplomatic) whereas the tactical level is characterized by mechanistic thinking (doctrine, drills), thus, today it is better that these two levels meet directly. This direct encounter to strengthen the gain from the exchange of thinking modes rather than to create mediators (the Operational Level commanders), who are not professional at either level and might mistranslate the concepts and terminology of each level to the operators of the other.

To claim that the thinking methodology of design, learning and analysis according to the concepts of General Systems Theory does not allow them to be used in the strategic or tactical levels is erroneous. These thought patterns are relevant and even crucial for analyzing and solving the problems at both these levels.

The Operational Level has over-complicated the structure of the command hierarchy and the headquarters. Everybody, from the political heads of state down to the most junior tactical commanders should think, or thinks, politics, strategy and tactics. The difference is in the proportions. This can be illustrated by the ‘Human Brain Model’.


The Human Brain ModelThe politician and the tactician operate directly within the real world. If they do not then they are increasing the abstract at the expense of the real world. The politician is directly involved in the dialogue with other international leaders, sometimes also those of the enemy, and with the public. The tactician meets the enemy directly on the battlefield. Strategic headquarters are already dealing mostly with impressions of the strategic and tactical level engagements with the real world. Rather than coming into direct contact with reality they attempt to conceptualize the situation, the problem and possible solutions.

Adding another level of headquarters created solely for mediating between the existing levels is superfluous, except in cases where there is a physical reason to do so – solving issues of size and span of control, dealing with a specific discipline of action that requires focus on this medium or as a response to a unique geographic area (unique topographically or demographically).

In armies that operate in theaters far-removed from their homeland, such as the American armed forces, the military commander and the senior civilian representative (usually the ambassador) in that theater are directly subordinate to the political leader and serve as his executors. Because of this they are often involved also at the political level. In contrast, in Israel for example, because of its size and the structure of the political system and government, the political level is concentrated directly in the hands of the government and the military commander is focused only on the strategic level.

Principles of the solution

The best response to the current military challenges is direct contact between the political, the strategic and the tactical by conducting a discourse of experts, utilizing thinking practices that transform complexities into simple definitions of the problem, and assimilate the outcome of the discourse into the principles of planning and the common language between commanders.

We propose to base the thinking processes on the following ideas:

There needs to be a return to a three-level hierarchy of thinking and conceptualization – policy, strategy and tactics. These three levels of thinking exist at all levels of the command structure – from the Prime Minister who thinks mostly about policy but also considers strategy and tactics, down to the junior commander who focuses on the tactics of actual combat but also considers the political and strategic ramifications of the situation he is facing.

The senior level of the command structure – between the Chief of Staff and the Division commander – is the area where the significant friction between considerations of policy, principles of strategy and practice of tactics takes place. This friction occurs only in the mind of the commander. However, it is based on brainstorming between experts of policy, strategy and tactics. In this process the participants create simple insights (not simplistic or shallow) of the complex environment through learning, analysis and conceptual design.

When structuring the process it is better to define working methods such as groups of experts, knowledge networks and study groups led by the commander, rather than organizational structures. So long as the commander facilitates the meeting of experts, the process can be based on a variety of methods consistent with the personal command method of the commander, the character of the problems facing him and the character of the action and the organizations participating in the action. One of the possible tools in this process is analyzing the strategic and tactical contexts via the Systems Approach.

The result should be the creation of a common understanding between the senior commander and his tactical subordinates in all that pertains to his intentions for achieving the political goals, the central strategic concept and the principles defining the tactical actions. This understanding will be the foundation for the operational plan and expressed in the operational order.

It is a mistake to create new functions and add headquarters and levels to the command hierarchy because these prevent free exchange of thoughts and knowledge between the senior commander, the junior commanders and the experts. Action in a complex environment, lacking in certainty, especially when using military force, requires constant study and brain-storming between senior and junior commanders and between the commanders and the experts.

Within this framework, the process is intended to provide the subordinate commanders with sufficient freedom of action and flexibility to respond, according to the spirit of the commander’s intent, to any rapid change in the situation even before its implications have been fully explored in the study and brain-storming process.

The process and its products must be expressed in simple terms – clear unambiguous terminology; structured expressions; maintaining differentiated professionalism and expertise; filtering of data relevant for drawing the situation; and creation of correct contexts between the various levels.

Thus the actual need for an operational level no longer serves the purpose it was designed to. It may actually be said to have become an impediment to the process required.


[i] Clausewitz, C. von, On War, Howard, M. & Paret, P, (ed. and trans.), Priceton University Press, 1976, pp xxxvi – xxxvii. All following references are to this version.
[ii] Clausewitz, “Two Notes by the Author on His Plans for Revising On War”, OnWar, pp 77 – 79.
[iii] Clausewitz, OnWar, pp 83 - 101.
[iv] Clausewitz, OnWar, pg 207.
[v] Clausewitz, OnWar, pp 164, 265.
[vi] Clausewitz, OnWar, pg 266.
[vii] Naveh, S., In Pursuit of Military Excellence – The Evolution of Operational Theory, Routledge, 1997, pg 1.
[viii] Naveh, In Pursuit of Military Excellence, pg 3.
[ix] Naveh, In Pursuit of Military Excellence, pg 10 - 11.
[x] Naveh, In Pursuit of Military Excellence, pp 6 - 7.
[xi] Naveh, In Pursuit of Military Excellence, pp 14
[xii] Naveh, In Pursuit of Military Excellence, pp 4 - 6.
[xiii] Naveh, In Pursuit of Military Excellence, pp 13 – 14.
[xiv] Naveh, In Pursuit of Military Excellence, pp. 16 - 19.
[xv] Nir, Shmuel (“Semo”), Limited Conflict – Collection of Articles (Hebrew), IDF Doctrine and Training Division, 2004.
[xvi] Smith, R., The Utility of Force – The Art of War in the Modern World, Vintage, 2007, pp 371 – 404
[xvii] The US Army and Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 137 - 150.