Operational Art's Origins1
Bruce W. Menning
Over the last decade, and especially since coalition victory in the Gulf War, the term operational art has achieved buzzword status within the Army and joint communities. However, despite growing acceptance, a good deal of confusion surrounds the meaning and significance of operational art. For some, the term merely signifies tactical arrows drawn larger. For others, it is a cumbersome transplant from foreign military usage. For still others, it remains a key to recent and future victories, but one whose origins are murky and whose nature and content are difficult to define.
The term operational art long antedates U.S. Army usage. Six decades before operational art gained currency in the West, it was used by the Soviets. A rough equivalent also had appeared among the Germans before World War I, but the term did not enter the U.S. military vernacular for two possible reasons. Before World War II and the Cold War, there was no persistent requirement in peacetime to prepare for the conduct of extended military operations on a vast scale; and during a less complex era it was possible-even comfortable-to remain firmly wedded to a nineteenth-century inheritance that taught that military art consisted of strategy and tactics.
For the Soviet military culture of the 1920s and 1930s, this was not the case. Fresh from the seemingly contradictory experiences of World War I (1914–1918) and the Russian Civil War (1918–1920), Soviet Army theorists and practitioners sought systematic explanations for the complexities underlying victory and defeat in modern war. Armed with an ideology that emphasized theory and scientific method in military affairs, they brought new perspective to the study of military history and refreshing rigor to views on the nature of possible future war, including the conduct of operations.2 By the late 1920s they had emerged with an altered view of the constituent components of military art, and it is to this period-a golden age of military thought-that we owe the origins of our basic understanding of operational art. To understand why the Soviets developed this concept when they did, the reader must understand their perspectives and preoccupations.
Military Art’s Changing Nature
A chief problem bedeviling all military theorists of the period was the changing nature of modern operations. Historically, the term operation had been in use at least since the end of the seventeenth century to describe what European armies did in the field. Initially, during the age of preindustrial warfare, generals and kings raised professional armies to fight limited wars for the dynastic state’s limited objectives. Within limited war’s framework, the conduct of operations formed an integral part of strategy, and strategy was conceived as simply “the tactics of theater-level operations.”3 By the eighteenth century’s end, Napoleon imparted new meaning to the traditional calculus when he raised larger armies to fight decisively for objectives that called for the annihilation of enemy forces and gave rise to empires.
Still, the basic technologies remained the same, and with room for alteration and even poetic license, the next generation of military thinkers, led by Henri Jomini and his disciples, redefined the traditional preindustrial paradigm to describe Napoleonic military art. Their view was that military strategy remained the domain of large-unit operations and that the essence of Napoleonic genius could be understood in his pursuit of “the strategy of the single point.” Napoleon’s columns march-maneuvered within theater to force convergence with the enemy at a single point-finite in time and space-for climactic battle to determine the outcome of a season’s campaign, perhaps even the outcome of an entire war. Strategy described a limited complex of actions, including approaches, marches, countermarches, and maneuvers, which took place within theater to leverage mass for decisive battle. Tactics described what happened within the limited confines of the battlefield.4
During the nineteenth century’s latter half, about the time when most military thinkers had grown comfortable with this understanding of strategy and tactics, the industrial revolution went to war, thereby altering the basic paradigm in ways not fully understood until after World War I:
These changes revolutionized the conduct of war and set the stage for an altered understanding of military art and its component parts. Except for the Prussians, few practitioners understood that strategy now had to account for movement of forces in theater and for their mobilization and movement to theater. In addition, something else was occurring that only a few obscure East European thinkers perceived: As modern conflict drew increasingly on the will and resources of entire populations, notions of strategy also had to take into account linkages between fighting front and deep supporting rear.
Even more perplexing for the practitioner, the novel combination of mass and firepower meant that the strategy of the “single point” within theater had lost relevance. To avoid lethal frontal confrontation and to avail themselves of mass and speed of deployment, commanders now sought to stretch Napoleon’s “single point” of troop confrontation laterally in pursuit of an extended line. The idea was to pin frontally, then extend to the soft flank, with an eye toward either the envelopment or the turning movement. Thus, the Napoleonic strategy of the single point gave way within theater to the strategy of the “extended line.” This development, which was already evident in the American Civil War’s later stages, found its tragic culmination with the extended trench lines of World War I on the Western Front.5
If these changes were not challenging enough, traditional notions of tactical-level battle also underwent fundamental alteration. As ranges extended, battlefield limits increased geometrically and the commander’s ability to control his troops diminished dramatically. Although more troops than ever before inhabited the battlefield, they now became invisible as they went to ground to avoid lethal firepower. Battles began to lose whatever internal logic and coherence they once had: From a mixture of controlled mayhem and chaos within a limited area mercifully lasting only hours or perhaps several days, they had now evolved to rattle across time and space to produce an outcome from which even the triumphant might emerge without final victory. As the slaughter of World War I–style positional warfare indicated, the sum of tactical successes was no sure predictor of larger strategic success.6
Though not fully apparent until after 1918, a key to understanding what had occurred was a perception of how the nature of military operations had changed over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In traditional Napoleonic-style strategic perspective, operations described what occurred within theater as armies, already assembled and deployed, were concentrated and maneuvered against each other to force a single, climactic battle. Logistics had always been a significant, but subsidiary part of the calculus: Troops got by on what had been stockpiled before the onset of a season’s campaign or on what they could scrounge from a grudging population within theater.
However, the overall picture had changed by the beginning of the twentieth century. Campaigns were no longer governed by the seasons. The nature of operations was increasingly dictated by the thrust of higher-level preparation and planning, and operations themselves were no longer finite affairs leading to a single decisive battle. Operations, a complex of military actions and battles linked by time, place, and intent, might extend for several weeks or longer. An operation’s course might witness a major regroupment of forces and require changed command, control, and logistic arrangements, all within the altered limits of greatly expanded space and time. The growing realization was that the preparation for and conduct of operations had expanded beyond the limits of traditional military strategy to incorporate new content, methods, and concerns. The most important issue was one of linkages, and within a conceptual framework for the conduct of operations, how to fashion linkages to contend with changes in time, timing, duration, support, scale, range, and distance.
World War I simply reinforced and added more wrinkles to these and related considerations. Combat experience demonstrated conclusively that single operations no longer dictated the outcome of a campaign or war. Decision came only as a result of successive operations linked by intent, location, allocation of resources, and concerted action. Combat experience also demonstrated the bankruptcy of the extended-line strategy- once flanks were denied, adversaries were left with two unpalatable options: Effect a penetration or attack in another theater. Penetrations presented formidable challenges because the hard school of experience taught that defending forces could fall back on a combination of deep reserves, a relatively undamaged rail net and a coherent rear area to reconstitute a viable defense in what later was called operational depths. Consequently, after only limited tactical gains at great cost, the attackers would have to pause and prepare for follow-on offensive operations.
World War I also suggested solutions for the bloody impasse from outside the theater. One was to have a potential ally available with vast manpower reserves to tip the scales at the eleventh hour. Another was to attack the enemy’s deep supporting rear, either indirectly through surface blockade or a submarine guerre de course. Still another came from technological innovation: Aircraft could fly over trench lines, while armored vehicles could crush and shoot their way through. But before any of these innovations could be applied with any degree of consistent success in future war, practitioners had to understand what had happened and why and what the implications were for the future. In the course of pondering these variables, theorists and practitioners would begin to fashion not only a common vocabulary, including a rudimentary understanding of operational art, but also a common conceptual framework for the conduct of operations.
New Vocabulary and Solutions
I have described a world of complex military realities that Soviet thinkers confronted during the 1920s and 1930s. To be sure, other military cultures and thinkers, including Giulio Douhet, William “Billy” Mitchell, J. F. C. Fuller, and Basil H. Liddell Hart, also contributed to intellectual ferment and “new thinking” during the same era. The Soviets were distinctive for the following reasons:
Soviet Army theorists emerged from this quest with what they felt were fundamental keys to understanding change: the shifting content of military strategy, the evolving nature of operations themselves, and the disaggregation of military structures. An important underlying assumption was that these developments owed much of their significance to the impact of changing technology over time.
The Soviets perceived that evolving military theory and practice had led to a situation in which the strategy of an entire nation at war had become a kind of intellectual and organizational continuum, linking broad fighting front with large supporting rear. That is, strategy was what guided a nation in preparing for and waging contemporary and future war, while the conduct of operations was rapidly assuming sufficient identity to warrant attention in itself, albeit not in isolation from strategy and tactics. The conscious understanding was that strategy-more precisely, military strategy-had ballooned to encompass a host of activities, including higher-level planning and preparation, resource orchestration and priority, and objective identification, all of which culminated in the direct application of military power for the state’s goals.7 In short, strategy had come to mean something akin to what Col. Arthur F. Lykke, Jr., would later define as orchestrating and linking “ends, ways and means” to attain national security objectives.8
This development, when coupled with the increasing complexity of operations, caused a gap to open between the traditional understanding of strategy and tactics. Some commentators filled this gap with the term “grand tactics,” while others searched for analogous terms, including “applied strategy” and operarika (Russia, circa 1907), to define what the more traditional understanding of strategy had once described as
historical perspectives of the operational art operational art’s origins happening within theater.9 For a time, under military theorist Sigismund W. von Schlichting’s influence, the Germans toyed with operativ, but they do not appear to have elaborated it with any degree of persistence and consistency.10 Under the influence of varied perspectives and preoccupations, other commentators saw no gap and therefore found little reason to worry about it, continuing to regard tactics and strategy as directly linked.
In contrast, by 1922 the Soviets were beginning to fill the “terminological gap” with something they called operational art, and they would spend much of the 1920s and 1930s developing a more complete understanding of this concept and its implications.11 At first, Soviet Army thinkers used the term to bridge the gap between strategy and tactics and to describe more precisely the discipline that governed the preparation for and conduct of operations. In 1926 a Soviet theorist and former Imperial Russian General Staff officer, Aleksandr A. Svechin, captured the essence of linkages among the new three-part understanding of military art when he wrote, “Tactics makes up the steps from which operational leaps are assembled. Strategy points out the path.”12 Not surprisingly, a new department, Conduct of Operations, appeared alongside the conventional Departments of Strategy and Tactics at the Soviet Staff Academy.
The new understanding of the relationship among the three components of military art provided the impetus for a second factor-steady focus on the evolving nature of operations, with implications for future war. In accordance with the foregoing discussion, the Soviets understood that the industrial revolution had changed the face of modern operations. They knew that operations now had to be consciously differentiated from battles, which were shorter in duration, more limited in scope and outcome, and more episodic in nature. Moreover, World War I had driven home the realization that single operations in themselves rarely produced strategic decision. Decision now came as the result of a whole complex of successive, simultaneous, and related operations. The Soviets also perceived that operations as diverse as those of World War I and their own civil war had much in common. This realization came primarily from an understanding that logistics and rail and road nets played a key role in determining the scale, scope, and depth of modern military operations.13 During the mid-1920s Soviet Army Staff Chief Mikhail N. Tukhachevskiy ordered the faculty that taught the conduct of operations at the staff academy to incorporate logistics into their operational-level exercises. Some Russian commentators later asserted that consideration of support in tandem with operations actually gave birth to the concept of Soviet operational art.14
Soviet theorist Georgiy S. Isserson provided the necessary insight: that armies since the onset of World War I had witnessed a “disaggre-
gation of forces.” Between 1914 and the early 1930s, the steady march of technology had resulted in the structural evolution of armed forces whose organizations now reflected greater diversity and whose weaponry had become increasingly differentiated by range and combat effect. For continental-style armies, these forces bore only superficial resemblance to their past counterparts. In 1914, for example, despite differences in movement and combat technique, infantry and cavalry represented two aspects of a fairly homogeneous force moved by muscle on the battlefield and supported by similar kinds of artillery. The operational radius and combat effects of these forces were still relatively limited in depth and scope. However, by the 1930s new structures and weapons had evolved to accompany the introduction of aircraft, armor, and long-range artillery into battles and operations. What resulted was a more heterogeneous force, but, more important, a force whose qualities and attributes required a new order of thought and preparation before they could be systematically applied to military ends.
Isserson saw that a primary purpose of operational art was to reaggregate the diverse effects and operational characteristics of these forces either simultaneously or sequentially across a much larger theater of combat operations.15
These and related impulses came together during the 1930s to produce the Soviet concept of deep operations. With the massive application of new technologies, the Soviets swept away the older geometry of point and line to settle on the advantages of extending a force vector in depth. The requirement was to mobilize a diverse combat array, including infantry, armor, airborne, long-range artillery, and air power, then orchestrate this array’s multiple effects through an operation both sequentially and simultaneously in three dimensions. The object in the offensive was to attack an enemy’s defenses as near simultaneously as possible throughout their depth to effect a catastrophic disintegration of their entire defense system. The concept was to accomplish a penetration by blasting and crushing a path through the tactical zone then inserting a powerful mobile group for exploitation into the operational depths. For maximum decisive effect, the Soviets envisioned these operations as driven from the top down, starting at front (army group) and proceeding down through army and corps levels.16
Although the Soviets did not ignore other operational issues, the theory and practice of deep operations occupied center stage for Soviet operational art during the 1930s. Operational art required the practitioner to:
After analyzing previous operations, and assuming massive injections of armor and air power, the Soviets calculated that future operations might occupy up to 300 kilometers of frontage, extend to a depth of about 250 kilometers, and have a duration of thirty to forty-five days. Consequently, these operations would be closely tied to the attainment of objectives determined by larger strategic requirements, while overall success would rest on the ability to integrate logistics and tactics into the larger design.
Linkages between fighting front and large supporting rear were also clear. For various reasons, including a close reading of Carl von Clausewitz’s work, the digestion of lessons from the home front in World War I and a growing sense that victory in future war would depend on the state’s total resources, the Soviets gravitated to a view that future conflict would be systemic and protracted. During the 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s policies of agricultural collectivization and massive industrialization amounted to a peacetime mobilization of Soviet society. A succession of five-year plans built infrastructure for future war and produced much of the military hardware required for deep operations. The transformation-even militarization-of Soviet society stood as grim testimony to linkages between strategic vision and operational-level capability.17
Stalin’s potential German adversaries inherited a different military legacy and worked from a different philosophical base. After lightning victories over the French in 1870 and 1871, much of the rationale behind German military planning had been to devise initial operations of sufficient scope and speed that they would bring about the enemy’s capitulation during a single brief campaign of annihilation. The Germans assumed that modern society had become too fragile to withstand the dislocations of extended military conflict. The World War I experience seemed to confirm earlier apprehensions: Protractedness had brought the “Hydra-headed” dangers of attrition, domestic exhaustion, and political instability-even revolution.
As the German Reichswehr emerged from the Versailles-imposed 1920s cocoon to become Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the late 1930s, emphasis once again fell upon avoidance. From a near-intuitive grasp of the military potential resident in the same technologies the Soviets were developing, the Germans fashioned Blitzkrieg, a stunning response to the challenges, including protractedness, inherent in positional warfare. The marriage of air power and armor with combat technique gave birth to a combined arms concept with immediate tactical application and important operational implications. Once again the siren-like calls of annihilation and rapid decision summoned the Germans to rocky military shores.18
In retrospect, the new German vision for “lightning war” had at least two major shortcomings, one of which was accepted as self-imposed.
The first was that operators and planners failed to embed Blitzkrieg in a coherent vision for the conduct of operations, something that might have come about if the Germans had bothered with developing their own legacy of operativ.19 Experience could overcome this problem. The second and more important shortcoming was that the Germans failed beyond the obvious and superficial to consider important systemic linkages between fighting front and supporting domestic rear. Nevertheless, Hitler found the new vision congenial with his own grasp of strategy, while the successes of 1939 to 1942 obscured the more profound difficulties of mobilizing the home front.20
In contrast, the Soviet vision possessed impressive coherence, but it is important to note that Moscow did not initially have all the answers. The very nature of Soviet military culture, coupled with the requirements of continental-style warfare, meant that the Soviets retained a very limited view of operational art’s air and naval components. The chief purpose of air power was to serve the ground operation, while the primary role of naval forces was to defend the coastline and to extend the geographical limits of conventional land-oriented theaters of military action. In addition, other circumstances peculiar to the Soviet situation prevented the Soviet Army from drawing timely benefit from an understanding of operational art. Thanks to a series of circumstances, including Stalin’s purge of the officer corps in 1937 and 1938, misinterpretation of lessons learned from the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), the necessity to assimilate huge quantities of troops and new technology and Hitler’s ability to effect surprise in 1941, the Soviets did poorly in World War II ’s opening stages on the Eastern Front.21 Not until 1943 did they emerge from the hard school of experience to return to a more perfect version of operational art-with devastating consequences for the Wehrmacht.
From Stalingrad to Berlin during 1943 to 1945, the Soviets perfected front and multifront sequential and simultaneous operations. Stalin’s marshals learned to command and control these operations in depth and breadth while coordinating air support with armored thrusts. From 1944 on, mobility and maneuver assumed increasing significance, in part because the Germans could no longer replace losses and because lend-lease trucks enabled the Soviets to stretch the limits of logistic support. Doctrine and practice gradually evolved to emphasize the most complex of modern ground operations, the encirclement, which the Soviets successfully executed about fifty times on the Eastern Front. The Soviets decisively turned the tables on the Germans and in so doing demonstrated a mastery of the military art that compared favorably with earlier German successes.22
The World War II and Cold War Legacies
World War II also left the U.S. armed forces with considerable experience in conducting modern operations. However, operational mastery had come neither easily nor quickly, in part because the period between the world wars offered scant intellectual, doctrinal, and organizational precedent. At the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School (USAC - GSC) during the 1930s, theater operations were taught according to nineteenth-century precedent as “military strategy.” The Army’s capstone field manual, FM 100–5, Operations, appeared in draft form in 1939, but its focus, as befitting a small, peacetime ground force, was primarily tactical. The Louisiana Maneuvers of 1940 and 1941 offered only belated and limited practical experience with large-unit operations.23 For its part, the Army Air Corps had to support ground operations, but much of its attention was riveted on acquiring the expertise and hardware to conduct strategic bombing campaigns.24
To its credit, the U.S. Navy, drawing from its experience in World War I and anticipating the possibility of a protracted two-ocean war, seriously considered the planning challenges inherent in conducting multidimensional operations over time and across large expanses.25 Yet, the overall U.S. picture was one of Isserson’s disaggregated forces translated into American terms. Unfortunately, the services and their offspring remained largely preoccupied with their own perspectives, problems, and self-interests. For these and other reasons, the background for preparing and conducting operations constituted at best a mixed bag. The result was that U.S. military forces during World War II had to learn on the job from the hard school of experience. To their credit, commanders and their staffs gradually perfected the art of conducting massive combined and joint operations across vast distances to reach strategic objectives. It would be difficult, in retrospect, to argue that major operations by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz in the Central Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific, General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Europe, and General George S. Patton, Jr., across northern France did not match the majesty and significance of Soviet World War II operations.
Despite the richness of experience in conducting World War II operations, the United States and the Soviet Union followed different paths of postwar doctrinal and organizational evolution. For a time, neither former ally focused consistently on large-scale operations. The Cold War precluded doctrinal interchange, while demobilization and the advent of nuclear weaponry produced varying responses that affected the way the two armed powers viewed their roles and the nature of possible military operations.
In the U.S. Army, theater armies and support commands atrophied or disappeared in the rush to demobilize, leaving the Army to seek parochial
comfort in tactical-level concerns. During the Cold War’s first decade, the United States increasingly sought military capital in reliance on strategic and battlefield-level nuclear devices, which further dampened doctrinal interest in large-unit operations.26
When the Korean War intervened, a mixture of improvisation and difficulties associated with theater geography at first precluded serious thought about sweeping operations on a vast scale. The one subsequent bright spot, MacArthur’s landing at Inch’on and advance to the Yalu River, was soon forgotten as tactical stalemate set in along the 38th Parallel. Meanwhile, the Soviets began to reconsider their own hasty post–World War II demobilization. Because Stalin initially did not have the atom bomb, the best he could do was to modernize Soviet forces to field a better variant of what had brought them victory on the Eastern Front. Until 1953, Stalin’s presence clouded analysis of lessons learned from World War II. Subsequently, Nikita S. Khrushchev’s rush to downsize the Soviet military through reliance on nuclear weapons also deemphasized operational art’s importance.27
For the U.S. Army, three important circumstances prompted a doctrinal evolution that culminated in the adoption of operational art as a doctrinal concept. The first was the Vietnam War, in which field forces scored a series of tactical triumphs but were unable to transform them into strategic outcomes. Debate over the reasons for this failure, along with the necessity to rebuild the U.S. Army, eventually prompted a far-reaching series of doctrinal and organizational changes that cut to the core of how the Army expected to do business in future war. As the Army resurrected itself and peered into the future, some officers looked to the military classics, especially those by Clausewitz, both to afford insight into recent failure and to provide inspiration and vocabulary for what needed to be done. Meanwhile, threat analysis identified the task’s magnitude- major confrontation with Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe assumed overriding significance as the most challenging version of possible future war. The very nature and scale of this threat led naturally to a rebirth of interest in the conduct of large-unit operations.28
A second important factor in the Army’s doctrinal evolution was the technological content of possible future war. The Vietnam War had witnessed the limited introduction of sophisticated precision-guided weaponry, but there was little coherent sense of the overall implications the new gadgetry and related technologies might hold for conventional war. Much of that sense came from the 1973 Middle East War, during which the massive application of new munitions appeared to revise conventional wisdom about the calculus for air superiority, the role of armor in ground combat, and the relationships among various components within the conduct of operations. Meanwhile, a new organization, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, attempted to digest the lessons of the
Middle East War and respond to the challenge of possible conflict with Warsaw Pact hordes on the northern European plain. The result was the 1976 version of FM 100–5, which emphasized “active defense.”29
Dissatisfaction with this concept and the search for alternatives was a third major factor in the Army’s post-Vietnam doctrinal evolution. On one hand, the geopolitical realities of NATO dictated both a forward defense and national contributions of corps-size formations, both of which lobbied strongly for a continuing tactical-level focus. The 1976 FM 100–5 accurately reflected this focus. On the other hand, increasingly obvious considerations, including the necessity for defense in depth and the requirement to apply and integrate sophisticated technologies at higher levels, argued for new departures in thought and organization. As critics and writers of doctrine turned to the promise inherent in conducting a future war of maneuver with large-scale units, they sought historical and doctrinal precedent. Earlier, advocates of active defense had seized upon the dogged German defense against the Soviet onslaught from 1943 to 1945 as key to the doctrinal secret of “fighting outnumbered and winning.” The belated realization was that the Germans had fought outnumbered and lost.
Now, the advocates of maneuver war seized upon Blitzkrieg and initial German successes in World War II to advance doctrinal departures that would emphasize the marriage of technology and technique while conducting modern mobile operations. Almost as an afterthought, other thinkers began seriously to examine the doctrine and military art of the Soviet adversary that had inflicted defeat on “the devil’s disciples.” From Soviet military history there gradually emerged a mature understanding of the three-part nature of Soviet military art, along with notions about why the Soviets chose to place separate emphasis on operational art as the theory and practice of conducting operations. The term found immediate resonance among U.S. Army doctrine writers, who were now more attuned to the nuances and complexities of modern operations.30
Meanwhile, the Soviets themselves emerged from the doctrinal torpor induced by Stalinist and early nuclear-era rigidities. From the mid-1960s on into the 1970s, as the Soviets slowly clawed their way to nuclear parity with the United States, military art theorists filled the pages of the serious Soviet military press with works that amounted to a renaissance of operational art and its contemporary legacy. Under conditions of nuclear parity, a major assumption was that in a future European war, the nature of operations might remain conventional, either initially or for an extended period. Consequently, it was necessary once again to focus singlemindedly on the preparation and conduct of large-scale conventional operations-albeit under conditions that might witness a rapid escalation to nuclear war.31 During the late 1970s and early 1980s, this train of thought lay at the heart of the conceptual evolution of the theater strategic offensive operation. This series of integrated operations envi-
sioned a massive offensive built around the echeloned introduction of forces that would develop attacks to facilitate the insertion of operational maneuver groups for exploitation within the shallow NATO rear area.
U.S. Operational Art
When open-source materials on Soviet operational art and scattered intelligence about the theater strategic operation reached U.S. and NATO audiences, they added fuel to the fire of doctrinal and technologically inspired innovation. Already in the early 1980s, NATO leaders had begun to adopt the follow-on forces attack (FOFA ) concept as a way of striking at highly echeloned Warsaw Pact formations in depth by employing new and more powerful long-range precision weaponry.
The promise of new technology, along with a NATO-oriented military buildup and the emerging emphasis on maneuver war, prompted doctrine writers to alter their focus, examine linkages, and contend with the thorny issues of scale, content, scope, and duration.32 As a result, the U.S. Army doctrinal community conceded operational art was necessary within theater to link new concepts and technologies with higher (strategic) and lower (tactical) level concerns.
Not surprisingly, when the 1982 FM 100–5 appeared, it recognized three levels of war and asserted “the operational level of war uses available military resources to attain strategic goals within a theater of war.” The new field manual emphasized agility, initiative, depth, and synchronization. It also addressed the problem of reaggregation by acknowledging the necessity for close cooperation with the U.S. Air Force in waging AirLand Battle. Despite the tactical overtones implicit in the word “battle,” the 1982 FM 100–5 clearly encouraged a focus on the operational level of war, which involved planning and conducting campaigns. For their part, campaigns were conceived as “sustained operations designed to defeat an enemy force in a specified space and time with simultaneous and sequential battles.”33
Four years later the 1986 FM 100–5 deepened and extended the Army’s understanding of contemporary operations; and for the first time in U.S. military usage, the Army capstone manual actually defined operational art. Under the U.S. rubric, operational art was “the employment of military forces to attain strategic goals in a theater of war or theater of operations through the design, organization, and conduct of campaigns and major operations.” This definition was no mere copying of Soviet precedent but rather an attempt to apply the concept to future U.S. operations from the perspective of an informed and updated understanding.
The elaboration of operational art in the United States’ view reflected many of the preoccupations and intellectual growing pains with which Army doctrine writers had contended since the Vietnam War. From a
curious mixture of modified Clausewitz and Jomini doctrines came the concepts of operational design, including center of gravity, lines of operation, decisive points, and culmination, which underlay operational art and its application to campaign planning.34 From a sense that technology and circumstance were changing the nature and content of operations flowed a generic understanding of operational-level functions-intelligence, fires, maneuver, logistics, protection, and command and control-which entered either sequentially or simultaneously into planning for major operations and campaigns. From a realization that operational art would remain an enemy concept unless closely tied to education and application came a gradual introduction of campaign planning into the curricula of the U.S. Army War College and the USAC GSC.35
Although the Army had dealt convincingly with issues of concept, vocabulary, and application, there was no immediate guarantee that the joint community would pick up on one service’s fixation with operational art. Of the other services, only the U.S. Air Force had increasingly become a party to the Army’s doctrinal evolution, thanks to the explicit and implicit implications of FOFA and AirLand Battle. Indeed, doctrinal evolution might have stopped in the mid-1980s had it not been for several subsequent, near-simultaneous developments.
The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act had several important and at first almost unnoticeable consequences for the U.S. defense establishment. The new congressional legislation enhanced the stature and functions of the warfighting commanders in chief (CINCs), who now exercised increased responsibility in planning for and conducting future joint and combined military operations.
A mandated emphasis on jointness forced the services to write doctrine with an eye toward a common understanding of the conduct of operations, both jointly and separately. With the creation of J–7, a new Joint Staff directorate, joint-level doctrinal stress fell increasingly on the development of common joint-level vocabulary and concepts. Under these circumstances, it was no accident that the U.S. Navy began to talk about operational art in maritime theaters. It was also no accident that Joint Publication 3–0, Doctrine for Joint Operations, and Joint Publication 5–0, Doctrine for Planning Joint Operations, focused more clearly and consistently on operational art.36
Another factor in contemporary doctrinal development was the end of the Cold War. One major result of vanishing bipolarity was a renewed effort to integrate regional perspectives and priorities into the crafting of U.S. national security and military strategies. These concepts provided guidance and a sense of larger context. The same concepts reinforced the
impact of Goldwater-Nichols, causing CINCs to focus more distinctly on the development of theater-level strategies with an attendant but sometimes unspoken emphasis on operational art concerns. Campaign planning also had a role to play. It incorporated elements of operational art and theater-level strategy but also gradually evolved to contend with regional threats. Thus, another Cold War consequence had figured into the development of doctrine and concept: the emergence, or perhaps rediscovery, of major regional threats outside the context of traditional ideological conflict. Still another consequence was a deemphasis on the likelihood of nuclear war, a realization that forced all the U.S. services to ponder the challenges inherent in conducting extended conventional operations within the context of regional military conflict.
The post–Cold War era brought force reductions, force projection, and a scarcity of resources, all of which argued that future conflict would leave little room for service parochialism and little time for World War II–style on-the-job training. Key components of modern operations, especially logistics and sustainment, suddenly assumed greater significance. If during the 1970s and 1980s the Army worried about “first battles” in future war, now the joint community had to worry about “first operations” in future campaigns and wars.37
To prove this point, the 1990–1991 Gulf War erupted to provide an important impulse for a doctrinal reincarnation of operational art in joint guise. Operations in DESERT SHIELD/STORM reinforced the evolutionary flow in several ways. First, they unconsciously revisited Isserson’s legacy by drawing attention to the complexities of planning and action required to bring about a reaggregation of combat effects within theater over time by disparate armed forces with disparate capabilities.38 This realization lay at the heart of modern joint warfare and continues to provide fertile ground for continued doctrinal growth. Second, the conceptual tools inherent in the U.S. understanding of operational art, including center of gravity, played an important part in the calculus that brought allied victory. And third, with all the attention devoted to “high-tech” weaponry, the Gulf War reminded both the military and the public at large that a revolution in military affairs (RMA) was continuing apace, with important implications for the future.39 One way of placing the RMA within context for theater application would be to view it within the intellectual and doctrinal perspective of operational art. After all, operational art was born in an era when the advent of air power and ground mechanization contributed to a specific theater-level focus, and there is no reason to believe that operational art as it has entered U.S. usage cannot again serve as a doctrinal catalyst for new ways to envision the conduct of future operations.
This operational art evolution overview demonstrates some of the verities and ironies inherent in the history of a concept. Concepts are
based on ideas, and ideas over time can be picked up, dropped, and either reborn or refashioned to suit fresh circumstances and changed situations. In general, operational art first appeared during the 1920s in response to the shifting content of strategy, the changing nature of operations, and the evolving nature of military structures. The larger context included the appearance of major new elements within the international order and the constant intrusion of new technology into military conflict. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, all these conditions were once again present; and in one of the ironies of intellectual and military history, they elicited a rebirth of interest in operational art under different circumstances. The productive elaboration of this concept in contemporary context supports the contention that military thinkers and doctrine writers should always draw inspiration from the past but should not be bound by it. Indeed, the term’s potential for retaining future significance argues that theorists should seek to expand and refine the limits of operational art. It and related concepts remain dynamic, and dynamism, while sometimes a source of confusion, is also an important sign of vitality and growth.
Return to Table of Contents