The Origins of Operational Art
Harold W. Nelson
The U.S. fought its wars for more than 200 years without needing an “operational level.” Strategy and tactics were good enough for Clausewitz and Jomini - and for our fathers and grandfathers as they fought the biggest wars known to man. They learned how to plan and conduct campaigns without any special terminology, so why do we need a new term, an intermediate level, in our hierarchy of warfighting concepts? I believe the introduction of the new term reflects a revision in our view of war rather than recent changes in the nature of war. A quick look at some of the things our predecessors wrote and studied convinces me that there was a growing awareness of what we now call the operational level of war long before we introduced the term. Its application should, therefore, help us to understand the use of military force in twentieth-century wars while helping us plan for the future.
In fact, one of the biggest problems with the new term is that it is so old. In the broad sense of the Oxford English Dictionary, operations has long been a useful generic term in the language of the military professional. Napoleon and his best-known publicists, Jomini and Clausewitz, all used the term. When Joachim Stocqueler published his Military Encyclopedia in 1853, he defined operations as “the resolute application of preconcerted measures in secrecy, despatch; regular movements, occasional encampments, and desultory combats, or pitched battles.”2 An all-encompassing definition such as this does little to clarify the role of operations within the hierarchy of military endeavors, but it does capture some of the meaning we still hope to impart - the relationship between plan and execution. It covers as well the notion of simultaneous and sequential action.
When Col. Henry L. Scott published his Military Dictionary during our Civil War, he provided an uninspired, circular definition: “Operations. Field operations; offensive and defensive operations; underground operations; siege operations, etc.”3 This definition reveals the truly generic meaning of the term in its old sense: “operations” didn’t actually mean anything until an adjective was added, and then the noun tended to fade into the background, giving a certain ponderous elegance to the resulting phrase but adding little to its meaning. The insidious lexicological implications of this state of affairs is illustrated in Scott’s definition of strategy:
None of this gives us a clear notion of the scope of the theater or the operations to be conducted. It is vague as to space, time, and mass. While this definition reflects the Jominian influence so common in American theory of the day, clarity in the use of the term operations would not have been better served had Clausewitz held sway. When he moved up from tactics to strategy, he wrote: “At the strategic level the campaign replaces the engagement and the theater of operations takes the place of the position. At the next stage, the war as a whole replaces the campaign, and the whole country the theater of operations.”5 Clausewitz shared the common nineteenth-century tendency to define strategy in terms of operations and to think of campaigns as being strategic. Further search in On War only clouds the definitional issue: “No one starts a war - or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so - without being first clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose: the latter is its operational objective.”6
Why not use the word strategic, given Clausewitz’s definitional framework? The military dictionaries and encyclopedias published near the end of the nineteenth century reflect the continued broad meaning for operations. Thomas Wilhelm’s 1881 dictionary cribbed Stocqueler (quoted above) verbatim.7 Voyle introduced in English usage the broad formulation linked to strategy and tactics that endured for generals: “Operations, Military - General movements of troops or armies in the field during mimic or real warfare. They are of two kinds, strategic or tactical. The former are undertaken before being within reach of the enemy,
whilst the latter take place on the field of battle itself.”8 In fact, the last two sentences of this “definition” merely restate Jomini’s definition of strategy and tactics, so we are left with the impression that military operations means little more than the field evolutions of armies.
Before the turn of the century there were two noteworthy efforts to make better use of the general term “operations” to clarify thinking on the art of war. The first of these is in Junius B. Wheeler’s A Course of Instruction in the Elements of the Art and Science of War, designed for cadets at the U.S. Military Academy. In his preface, Wheeler states, “A correct knowledge of history is only acquired by systematic and methodical study: the study of that part relating to the operations of war should be preceded by a general knowledge of the theory of war.”9 In this formulation, operations are still undifferentiated as to levels of war, but they are separated from theory. This is the sense in which “operational history” has come down to us: We continue to use this term to describe our activity when we discuss the actions of small units or army groups.
Now that we have introduced the operational level of war into our lexicon, while retaining this older meaning, we must guard against occasional confusion. Shortly after Wheeler used operations as a term to help his students differentiate between theory and practice, an instructor at the Artillery School at Fort Monroe was using the term to bring theory up to date. William Kobbe was far more Clausewitzian than many of his contemporaries, and he was very well attuned to the situation in Europe at the turn of the century: “In modern war the opening of the campaign follows the declaration [of war] so closely that there is no time, as there was formerly, to mature plans: they must be established in peace. They will consist of ‘The Plan of War’ and the ‘Project of Operations.’”10
Kobbe saw the former as largely the province of government and the latter as the responsibility of the military. He defined the art of war as that of overthrowing an enemy by an armed force:
This use of the term operations is only loosely linked to levels of war and includes both planning and the execution of plans. It also begins to reflect the idea that operations form something of a continuum, not being merely a cycle of preparation, engagement, and pursuit. This notion that war might be tending away from the climactic battle of the Napoleonic era was difficult to support at the turn of the century. Battles
had expanded in space and time because of the evolution of mass armies and railroads. The evidence of the Civil War and the wars in Europe all seemed to point toward operations culminating in a single large battle. For example, Gettysburg, Sadowa, and Sedan suggested the principal feature of the military art. Siege operations (e.g., Vicksburg, Paris, and Plevna) also reflected changes flowing from the modifications of objective circumstances that had changed field operations, but these changes in scale and lethality seemed to bring nothing fundamentally new to the art of war. However, with the U.S. Army’s 1905 Field Service Regulations, we begin to see the changes in the attitude toward the decisive battle that would ultimately result in recognition of an operational level: “Engagements are usually preceded by operations the object of which is to locate the enemy without committing the main body to action. These preliminaries begin with the action of independent cavalry and culminate in the contact of the advance guard.”12 The image here is one of building toward a crescendo - the decisive battle - but the preliminaries have begun to expand in space and time and in importance because of the nature of modern weapons.
The 1910 Field Service Regulations contain virtually the same characterization of preliminaries and the decisive battle,13 but this later version discusses the implications of modern weapons in far more detail:
The Field Service Regulations did not work out the implications of this state of affairs as completely as some independent analysts did. Rudolph von Caemmerer’s insights merit attention:
While Caemmerer uses only the terms strategic and tactical to describe the levels of war, he has outlined an imperative of twentieth-century warfare - imposed by the range, rate of fire, and lethality of modern weapons - that would force professionals to think at the operational level as well. The strategic objective of destroying the enemy’s army required simultaneous tactical engagements to fix his forces frontally while enveloping them, and the distances involved would be much greater than in earlier wars. The sequential linking of preliminaries and the size and complexity of the engagements that comprised the decisive battle had now resulted in a new level of planning and execution in war.
I can find no evidence that the U.S. Army had grasped this change before 1914. Under General Bell’s leadership the manuals and schools were greatly improved, but the main doctrinal thrust was to standardize orders and procedures within a campaign framework that would be little changed from Civil War experience. Arthur Wagner’s work is illustrative:
Wagner knew there was a link between strategy and tactics, but his is the Napoleonic link - not fully suited to the requirements of contemporary warfare. Eben Swift suspected that demands of modern war were different from Napoleon’s day: “Brilliance of the old kind has little of
its old chance in these days of entrenchments and long range artillery.”17 But he devoted his efforts to teaching officers the relationship between tactics and terrain so they would be effective in the new environment. Wagner with his theory and Swift with his application were teaching officers sound, interactive, situational approaches to the use of military force. Their efforts inevitably focused on the tactical level: Their students had little professional education, the U.S. Army was small, and the sources they modified to American needs were cast in the “decisive battle” mold.
As we have been reminded so often, the material realities that made decisive battle so difficult to achieve on the major fronts in World War I surprised the military professionals of all combatant nations. Once there were no flanks to envelop the lethality of modern weapons combined with massive industrial production and manpower resources to produce formidable defenses in depth that could be penetrated but proved highly resistant to breakthroughs. After the war, American officers adjusted their thinking to reflect the larger organizations necessary to fight in this type of warfare, but they were slow to develop new concepts to deal with the larger battlefields:
Before the war ended, the U.S. Army translated the French Army’s Instruction on the Offensive Action of Large Units in Battle.19 This volume provided detailed discussion on force requirements and planning imperatives associated with the complex combined-arms action required to launch a penetration of sufficient size to carry through deep defensive belts with adequate residual power to roll up the flanks and exploit in the rear. The need for higher-echelon commands and staffs - armies and army groups - to deal with the masses of men, materiel, and planning details was explicit, but the battlefield function performed by these large units was perceived as tactical. Thinking in terms of decisive battle, these practitioners of the military art merely perceived higher stakes, not a new game.
After the war, the U.S. Army’s doctrine and higher-level professional instruction tried to place the apparent lessons of the war on the Western Front into a larger context. The 1923 Field Service Regulations stressed concentrating superior force at the decisive place and time so that successful offensive operations - even when outnumbered - could destroy the enemy’s armed forces. In the decisive attack, an infantry division
might cover a frontage of only 2,400 to 4,000 yards, and extensive depth would be required, but penetration on a “stabilized front” was possible if the situation demanded. However, moving the army from its area of concentration through the meeting engagement to the decisive battle presented a more palatable scenario.20
The Army War College’s early postwar effort at doctrine for large units presented the same optimistic picture of future decisive offensive battle, with one important difference. It explicitly noted:
Unfortunately, this statement in a provisional draft was not incorporated into subsequent doctrinal manuals and was soon forgotten.
The schools at Fort Leavenworth and the Army War College continued to use map problems in their applicatory method. By concentrating on situations set, however improbably, in the United States, they managed to present problems with armies and army groups similar to those used in World War. I, but spread over longer lines with greater opportunity for maneuver, envelopment, and short, decisive battle.
By 1922 Hugh Drum had been instrumental in producing a volume of Tactical and Strategic Studies for use at Fort Leavenworth. It portrayed a series of problems facing an army operating along a Harrisburg-Washington, D.C., front employed as part of an army group headquartered in Pittsburgh that was attempting to defeat a Red force in Baltimore. The “plan of campaign” for this army was the basic conceptual tool underlying the studies.22 In a related problem students were faced with a “Scarlet Coalition,” Canada and Great Britain, occupying the northeastern United States and required to develop a concept of operations for a corps-level amphibious operation against Nova Scotia.23 In both cases, the situation required bold maneuver and the relatively low density of troops in the active theater made it possible for students to think in terms of decisive battles rather than protracted conflict.
In 1923 Leavenworth raised its sights to the army group, noting that even though U.S. forces in World War I had needed no such organization, its use might be indicated in the future. Causes for such innovation were thought to include span of control imperatives when general headquarters was engaged in extremely large and disparate strategic endeavors, coordination requirements when two or more armies were operating with a common end, the need to optimally position and use mobile reserves
along a single extensive front, or to provide centralized direction on a single line of operations within a large complex theater.24 Since most of these situations could not have been derived directly from the historical record of World War I, the theoreticians were clearly using their classroom exercise with large units to derive insights into the organizational implications of the extended operations possible in industrialized warfare. By 1926 Leavenworth’s treatment of the functions of larger units - army, corps, and division - had surfaced the difficulties associated with thinking at that level:
Could that last assertion be correct? If so, what were the implications for commanders of larger units? They were encouraged to impede the tendency for the tactical tail to wag the strategic dog:
When we consider the phases of this plan of operations, we can clearly see that it has little to do with what we now call the operational level of war. Mobilization and concentration of forces are clearly strategic actions reflecting plans, decisions, and priorities at the highest levels - today we would associate these activities with the National Command Authority. The advance of the armies and occupation of initial positions probably match our concepts of the operational level, but combat - unless aggregated into theater-level results - is the tactical concern of divisions and corps. Confusion caused by lack of clarity in terminology is seen most clearly in the Manual for Commanders of Large Units (Provisional) published in 1930. This manual envisioned the commander in chief in his general headquarters commanding a theater of war with army groups and armies as his subordinate headquarters:
These quotes show that most of the elements we now associate with the operational level of war were present in these doctrinal statements, though badly obscured by the nomenclature. Given that situation, it appears that the War College faculty sidestepped the swamp of ill-defined doctrinal nomenclature when they divided their course of instruction into “Preparation for War” and “Conduct of War” phases in the early 1930s. This approach allowed them to teach much of what our generation would call national security policy, strategy, and management in the first phase and then devote the remainder of the curriculum to campaign considerations. There may have been some question as to the boundary between strategy and tactics in developing and executing war plans, but this approach cut through the confusion and gave every student a thorough grounding in what we now call the operational level.30 Throughout the “Conduct of War” phase of the course, students were required to study at least two historical campaigns (beginning with Napoleonic warfare and ending with the Russo-Polish campaign of 1920), comment on trends, and then: “After a consideration of the present trend in development of weapons and other means of warfare, the study will culminate in a statement of the important lessons drawn from each campaign studied that may be of assistance in planning for and in the conduct of war.”31 Students were organized into subcommittees of twenty-five participants to study and present evidence on specific campaigns. A broad range of operational-level topics was covered: objectives of campaigns in furtherance of national aims, means for combat, command at the theater level, plans for war and initial operations of wars, plans, and their execution in joint operations.32
After honing their thinking with these analyses of historical trends, students conducted what we would call a transition-to-war command post exercise at the army level and then a map exercise based on a student version of an actual war plan - usually Plan Orange. The map exercise emphasized command decisions, and the class was reorganized as command groups to study and report on each map problem.33
This combination of analysis of historical trends and conduct of map exercises gave the War College graduates sound insights into the opera-
tional level of war, even though contemporary doctrine may have been confused. By looking at trends rather than merely reviewing the events on the Western Front, they continued to consider maneuver as well as administration and firepower and developed great mental flexibility. By contemplating the enormous mobilization base and force structure necessary to project power to the Philippines, they kept the mobilization and logistics requirements of global warfare firmly fixed in their minds, even though they came to the War College from a small army weakened by Depression- era budgets. We can attribute the graduates’ successes in every theater of World War II at least partially to this educational experience.
Military victory in 1945 seems to have provided little impetus for revising U.S. doctrinal views to make room for an operational level of military thinking. The Army struggled for survival in a period of rapid demobilization in which many theoreticians saw the long-range bomber and the atomic bomb as instruments that would make large-scale ground operations obsolete. The situation was different in the Soviet Union, so it was natural for Soviet military thinkers to develop their thoughts on the operational art, their term for what we have now come to call the operational level of war. In their discussions, Soviet authors analyzed the military lessons of twentieth-century war and in a smug, heavy-handed, Stalinist way, congratulated themselves on having a military theory with room for the operational art. In doing so, they defined and outlined the utility of this new theoretical tool with some care. Their early postwar articles, as translated by the U.S. Army at the time, still make interesting reading. A few highlights from these articles should clarify some familiar points:
The Soviet doctrine writers observed our own writings on the subject:
In accordance with our own debate on the workings of airpower in the conduct of war and the practice of campaigns, the Soviets observed:
When we recall that these Soviet thoughts have been around for nearly forty years and have been updated and perfected in a large, dedicated body of military leaders throughout that period, we have a tendency to become a bit alarmed. Before throwing up our hands in despair or surrender, two thoughts merit consideration. With the exception of the central region in Europe, the massive prolonged combat stretched over immense space and time that gave birth to the operational level cannot really flourish. As an Army with global commitments, we are wise to view operational- level thinking in a broader context than did our Soviet brethren. How much good did their forty years of thinking about the operational art really do them in five to ten years in Afghanistan? Did the absence of an operational level in our military theory really make that much difference in Vietnam? In Korea?
This situation before World War II that I have outlined above seems to indicate that our knowledge sometimes transcends our doctrinal terminology. The work done in service schools and at major command headquarters since World War II may not have been uniformly aimed at solving problems at the campaign level, but many problems have been solved and many problem-solving techniques learned. This gives us a very firm foundation for making imaginative and productive use of the operational level as we analyze the products of that work, the lessons of twentieth-century war, and our preparations to meet the challenges across the spectrum of conflict.
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