Operational Art of War I

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The operational art of war consists of the body of military activities that fall between tactics and strategy. The tactical and the strategic have long been recognized as distinct levels of warfare with their own peculiar requirements and dynamics. Recognition of the operational level of war only began to evolve slowly at the start of the 19th century and was not fully accepted by all militaries throughout the world until the final years of the 20th century. In the years following World War I, the Soviets fully embraced the concept of the operational art of war and for many years led the way in its theoretical development. The United States, in company with the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, accepted the operational level of war only in the early 1980s, and that marked one of the key military turning points of the Cold War.

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 military 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 of 1780-1781 during the War for American Independence is one example in which a general who lost 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 19th 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 19th and early 20th 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.

Soviet 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 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 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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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