Operational level of war

World War II operational planning map

In the field of military theory, the operational level of war (also called the operational art, as derived from Russian: оперативное искусство, or the operational warfare) represents the level of command that connects the details of tactics with the goals of strategy.[1]

In Joint U.S. military doctrine, operational art is "the cognitive approach by commanders and staffs—supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment—to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, and means."[2] It correlates political needs and military power. Operational art is defined by its military-political scope, not by force size, scale of operations or degree of effort. Likewise, operational art provides theory and skills, and the operational level permits doctrinal structure and process.[3]


During the 18th and early 19th centuries, the synonymous term grand tactics was often used to describe the manoeuvres of troops not tactically engaged, while in the late 19th century to the First World War and through the Second World War, the term minor strategy was used by some military commentators.[4][5] Confusion over terminology was brought up in professional military publications, that sought to identify "...slightly different shades of meaning, such as tactics, major tactics, minor tactics, grand strategy, major strategy, and minor strategy".[6] The term was not widely used in the United States or Britain before 1980–1981,[7][8][9] when it became much discussed and started to enter military doctrines and officer combat training courses.[10]


Operational art comprises four essential elements: time, space, means and purpose. Each element is found in greater complexity at the operational level than at the tactical or strategic level. This is true, in part, because operational art must consider and incorporate more of the strategic and tactical levels than those levels must absorb from the operational level. Although much can be gained by examining the four elements independently, it is only when they are viewed together that operational art reveals its intricate fabric.[3]

The challenge of operational art is to establish a four-element equilibrium that permits the optimal generation and application of military power in achieving the political goal. Viewing time, space, means and purpose as a whole requires great skill in organizing, weighing and envisioning masses of complex, often contradictory factors. These factors often exist for extended periods, over great distances and with shifting mixes of players, systems and beliefs, pursuing political goals which may or may not be clear, cogent or settled. Compounding factors, such as the opponent's actions, create further ambiguity.[3]

Mission analysis

The operational-level strategist possesses numerous tools to frame and guide their thinking, but chief among these are mission analysis and end state. Mission analysis answers the question "What is to be accomplished?" Through mission analysis, the operational-level planner fuses political aims and military objectives. In so doing, the planner determines what application of military force will create military power to achieve the political purpose. Subordinate processes here include defining objectives and centers of gravity, but excessive dependence on analytical mechanisms can create false security. The final test rewards success, not the quality of the argument. Conversely, the planner cannot hope to "feel" a way to victory—complexity demands an integration of thought and structure.[3]

End state

End state answers the question "What will constitute success?" The campaign end state is not merely a visualization of the military goal. It also establishes a touchstone for the tactical, operational and strategic levels. The end state crystallizes the intended results of military power and exposes any limitations. Indeed, an achievable end state may require employment of nonmilitary elements of national power. As such, it recognizes that military power alone may not be capable of attaining political success.[3]

Skills required

Operational-level strategy must continually inventory and weigh time, space, means and purpose, extrapolating from them outcomes and probabilities. To accomplish this, practitioners need both skill and theory, experience and knowledge. At the operational level, skills and experience must usually be developed indirectly, through formal training, military history and wargaming.[3]

Success at the tactical level is no guarantee of success at the operational level: mastery of operational art demands strategic skills. Without a strong grounding in the theory and application of operational art, a successful tactician has little hope of making the demanding leap from tactics. The operational level strategist must see clearly and expansively from the foxhole into the corridors of national or coalition authority. They must be aware of the plausibility and coherence of strategic aims, national will and the players who decide them. Successful operational art charts a clear, unbroken path from the individual soldier's efforts to the state or coalition's goals.[3]

Role in historiography

While the emerging corpus of operational art and the establishment of an operational level of war are relatively new, operational art has existed throughout recorded history. Nations have long pursued political goals through military actions, and campaigns of any period can be examined from the existential perspective of operational art. Current schools of thought on the operational art share the fundamental view that military success can be measured only in the attainment of political-strategic aims, and thus any war can be analyzed in the terms of operational art.[3]

In the case of World War II analysis, the Wehrmacht did not use the operational level as a formal doctrinal concept during the campaigns of 1939–1945. While operational art was known within the German forces, its awareness and practice was limited principally to general staff trained officers. Nevertheless, the existential nature of operational art means that examining a campaign or an operation against political aims is valid irrespective of the doctrine or structures of the period. In this, operational art's elements—time, space, means and purpose—illuminate thoughts and actions of any era, regardless of the prevailing doctrine or structure.[3]

See also



  1. p.24, Simpkin
  2. Department of the Army (May 2012). Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 5-0, The Operations Process (PDF). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. pp. 2–4.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Robinson 1997.
  4. p.218, Jablonsky
  5. p.28, Whitman
  6. p.3, Bundel
  7. Zabecki, David T. "The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War": 21–22. ISBN 9781134252251.
  8. The Operational Level of War. DIANE Publishing. p. v. ISBN 9781428915749.
  9. Luttwak, Edward (1985). "Strategy and History": 175. ISBN 9780887380655.
  10. p. 111, Stone


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