Simply stated, tactics is the art of winning battles, while strategy is the art of winning wars. The operational art focuses on winning campaigns, which are made up of battles and contribute to the winning of wars. In the late 1980s, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College used the metaphor of a medieval flail to illustrate the relationship among the three levels of war. The handle of the flail represented strategy, the overall directing force of the weapon. The spiked ball represented tactics, the part of the weapon that delivered the actual blow. The flexible chain that connected the handle to the spiked ball represented operational art, the vital link between strategy and tactics.
The flail metaphor was a simple and effective model for introducing the concept of the operational art, but it came apart if pushed too far. The difficulty in the relationships among the three levels of warfare is that success on one level does not automatically translate into success on another level. Major General Nathanael Greene's Southern Campaign during the War for American Independence is one example where a general who lost all the battles still won the campaign. Nor does winning all the battles and even all the campaigns necessarily guarantee winning the war. The Vietnam War demonstrated that, if nothing else.
The origins of the operational level of war can be traced to the mass armies of Napoleon and his practice of marching his corps in separate approach columns and then massing his forces at the decisive point just prior to battle. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the German Army under Count Helmuth von Moltke recognized a body of activities it called Operativ, which involved all of the maneuvering and preparations prior to the initiation of a battle. The first forces to arrive fixed the enemy in position, while the follow-on forces maneuvered around the enemy's flank to gain decisive tactical advantage. The Germans did not, however, identify Operativ as a distinct level of war-fighting. Throughout World War I, the Germans had the most advanced understanding of the operational art, although it was deeply flawed by contemporary standards. The flaws in their operational thinking would cost the German Army dearly in World War II.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries some military writers, including J. F. C. Fuller, grouped operational-level activities under a concept they called Grand Tactics. But it was the Soviet military theorists who made the most significant contributions to advancing the concept of operational art as we know it today. As early as 1907, Russian military writers were debating a concept they called Opertika. Following the disastrous defeat of the Red Army in the 1920 Battle of Warsaw, two opposing schools of thought emerged in the Soviet military. Marshal Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky, the Red Army front commander at Warsaw, was the leader of the annihilation school of thought. Annihilation depended upon the ability to conduct large-scale, immediate, decisive operations. It required a war industry and a large standing army. Tukhachevsky's 1924 paper "Maneuver and Artillery" had a strong influence on the Frunze Military Academy reforms of 1924–1925, and those ideas were later formalized in the Red Army's Field Service Regulations of 1927. Major General Aleksandr A. Svechin led the opposing school of thought. In his influential 1926 book Strategy, he advocated the doctrine of attrition, which relied more on Russia's traditional deep resources of space, time, and manpower. He also formally posited for the first time the concept that operations were distinct from strategy and tactics. He argued that tactics made up the steps from which operational leaps were assembled, "with strategy pointing out the path." Within a year of Svechin introducing the concept, the Soviets established a chair on the Conduct of Operations within the Department of Strategy at the Military Academy of the Red Army.
Svechin and Tukhachevsky were both eliminated in Stalin's purges of the 1930s, but their opposing theories were synthesized by Vladimir K. Triandafillov in his book The Nature of the Operations of Modern Armies. Published in 1929, the book is now regarded as one of the seminal works in Soviet military thought. Triandafillov was the first to introduce the planning norms that became one of the benchmarks of Soviet operational art. He also laid out the theory of successive operations and deep operations ( glubokaia operatsiia), with the result that several successive operations were linked into a single continuous, deep operation. Thus, the point of Napoleon and line of Moltke gave way to the vector in depth, with its multiple effects—both sequentially and simultaneously—in three dimensions.
Although the operational art emerged during the interwar years in the Soviet Union as a vibrant new field of military study, many of the operational concepts associated with it were stillborn or only partially developed. The Red Army learned this hard truth and suffered accordingly during the Winter War with Finland in 1939–1940 and in 1941 during the opening months of the war with Germany. Soviet operational art only reached its highest level of development through trial and error in the crucible of World War II. Yet for all its final sophistication, the Soviets never fully developed the air and naval components of the operational art.
The widely held popular belief is that what the West called the German Blitzkrieg represented the most highly developed form of the operational art through the period of World War II. Many military analysts, however, have argued that Blitzkrieg was at best a deeply flawed expression of operational art. The keys to the operational level of war are depth and sequencing. Depth has both a temporal and a spatial component. Depth in terms of space meant that for the first time there was a recognition that the battle was not necessarily decided at the line of contact but could be carried deep into an enemy's rear area. Depth in time meant sequencing, which was the key to cumulative effects that built on the successes of one battle to the next. Unfortunately for the Germans, their military thinking from the time of Count Alfred von Schlieffen on was dominated by the concept of the battle of annihilation, what they called the Vernichtungsschlacht.
With its geographic position in Europe and relatively defensiveless borders east and west, Germany's worst strategic nightmare was always the two-front war. To avoid this trap, German military thinking focused on conducting short wars that would be won by a single decisive battle. Thus, sequential effects and extended operations in time carried a low priority in German thinking. And since logistics is the critical enabler of any extended period of operations, the Germans never developed the robust logistics structure or the adequate logistics doctrine needed to carry them through a long war. But a long war on even more than two fronts is exactly what the Germans ended up fighting twice in a thirty-year period.
Despite their rapid movements and deep armored thrusts, the German Blitzkrieg battles of World War II were not true operational campaigns but rather were tactical maneuvers on a grand scale. Blitzkrieg did feature the innovative use of combined arms tactics aimed at achieving rupture through the depth of an enemy's tactical deployment, and it did exhibit many of the features we now associate with the operational art. But it focused far too heavily on annihilation and rapid decision by a single bold stroke.
On the tactical level of war the German army was superior to the Red Army on almost every count, yet the Soviets still beat the Germans in the end. German tactics were innovative and flexible, and their leaders and soldiers were well trained and exhibited initiative down to the lowest levels. Soviet tactics were largely rigid, cookbook battle drills, with the soldiers and the lower-level leaders functioning as mere automatons. But the Soviets had developed a far superior concept of the operational art and especially the principles of depth and sequential effects. The Soviets became masters of striking deep into the German rear to disrupt command and control systems and the all-too-fragile German logistics system. In the end, Blitzkrieg was little more than the German Army's tactical response to Adolf Hitler's totally incoherent strategy.
Despite the flaws in what eventually became Blitzkrieg, the post–World War I German Army did have a clear, albeit imperfect, understanding of a level of war between the tactical and the strategic. Writing in 1920, General Hugo Freiherr von Freytag-Loringhoven noted that among German General Staff officers, the term Operativ was increasingly replacing the term Strategisch to "define more simply and clearly the difference from everything tactical." The 1933 edition of Truppenführung, the primary German war-fighting manual of World War II, distinguished clearly between tactical and operational functions. Truppenführung's principal author, General Ludwig Beck, considered Operativ as a subdivision of strategy. Its sphere was the conduct of battle at the higher levels, in accordance with the tasks presented by strategic planning. Tellingly, when U.S. Army intelligence made a rough English translation of Truppenführung just prior to World War II, the term Operativ was translated throughout as "strategic."
Post–World War II American military doctrine focused almost exclusively on the tactical level. Although the U.S. Army and its British allies had planned and executed large and complex operational campaigns during the war, the mechanics of those efforts were largely forgotten by the early 1950s. Nuclear weapons cast a long retarding shadow over American ground combat doctrine, and the later appearance of battlefield nuclear weapons seemed to render irrelevant any serious consideration of maneuver by large-scale ground units. The Soviets, meanwhile, continued to study and write about the operational art and the operational level of war. While the U.S. military intelligence community closely monitored and analyzed the trends in Soviet doctrine, American theorists ignored or completely rejected these concepts. Because of its dominant role in NATO, America's operational blinders were adopted for the most part by its coalition allies.
In the early–to mid-1970s, American thinking began to change. The three major spurs to this transformation were the loss in Vietnam, the stunning new weapons effects demonstrated in the 1973 Middle East War, and the need to fight and win against the superior numbers of the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact. The concept of the operational level of war entered the debate when the influential defense analyst Edward Luttwak published the article "The Operational Level of War" in the winter 1980–1981 issue of the journal International Security. About the same time, Colonel Harry Summers' book On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context sparked a parallel renaissance in strategic thinking and the rediscovery of Clausewitz by the American military. The U.S. Army formally recognized the operational level of war with the publication of the 1982 edition of FM 100–5, Operations, which also introduced the concepts of AirLand Battle and Deep Battle. The operational art was first defined in the 1986 edition of FM 100–5, along with the concept that commanders had to fight and synchronize three simultaneous battles: close, deep, and rear. The idea was that one's own deep battle would be the enemy's rear battle, and vice versa. The close battle would always be strictly tactical, but the deep and rear battles would have operational significance.
David T. Zabecki
Naveh, Shimon. In Pursuit of Military Excellence: The Evolution of Operational Theory. London: Frank Cass, 1997.; Newell, Clayton, and Michael D. Krause, eds. On Operational Art. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994.; Zabecki, David T., and Bruce Condell, eds. and trans. Truppenführung: On the German Art of War. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001.