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Operational Art and the Operational Level of War, are they Synonymous? Well It Depends.

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Operational Art and the Operational Level of War, are they Synonymous? Well It Depends.

Dale C. Eikmeier

Which paragraph below do you agree with?

Paragraph 1: “The operational level of war spans a continuum-from comprehensive strategic direction to concrete tactical actions. Bridging this continuum requires operational art which is creative vision coupled with broad experience and knowledge. Without the operational level of war, tactical actions devolve into a series of disconnected engagements that do not accomplish the mission or objectives of the joint force.”

Paragraph 2: “Operational art spans a continuum-from comprehensive strategic direction to concrete tactical actions. Bridging this continuum requires creative vision coupled with broad experience and knowledge. Without operational art, tactical actions devolve into a series of disconnected engagements that do not accomplish the mission or objectives of the joint force.”[i]

A critical reader will notice the only difference between the two is the use of the terms operational art and the operational level of war. The first paragraph uses both terms and makes a distinction between them. The second paragraph makes no distinction and only uses the term operational art. One suggests a difference between the terms; the other does not.

If you picked paragraph one, you probably agree with joint doctrine’s use of the terms. You might argue that paragraph two is flat out wrong. However, if you picked paragraph two, you recognized the Army’s ADRP 3-0 discussion of operational art. Can they both be right or must one be wrong? I will argue that ADRP 3-0 is and wrong and incorrectly merges operational art and the operational level of war. 

No one argues that, art and level are synonyms. The former is a creative process, the latter, is a location. They are clearly distinct. However, when we add the modifier, ‘operational’ to them, U.S. Army doctrine[ii], turns them into synonyms without any distinction. This blurring introduces a difference and friction between Army and joint doctrine, and this reduces precision in the application of operational art.

My argument is, if you are thinking about solving strategic, operational, or tactical problems, you are applying operational art, regardless of your level. However, if you receive strategic objectives and must determine what arrangement of tactical actions will achieve those objectives, you are at the operational level of war, regardless of echelon. The distinction should be obvious. One is thinking about solving problems, and the other is a function that bridges the gap between strategic objectives and tactical actions.

However, it isn’t obvious, and unfortunately, service versus joint agendas, and faulty logic, enabled by compromises[iii], made its way into both U.S. Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 3-0 Unified Land Operations and its companion piece, Army Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0 Unified Land Operations.[iv] They both comingle the concepts in a confusing soup full of faulty semantics and contradictions. However, we can fix it, and the first step is to understand what operational art and the operational level are, and more importantly, how they differ.

Joint doctrine defines operational art as, “The cognitive approach by commanders and staffs — supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment — to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations [operations include actions at the tactical level] to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, and means…”.[v] More simply JP 3-0 Joint Operations, says, “Operational art is the use of creative thinking by commanders….”[vi] JP 3-0’s discussion of operational art is full of cognitive phrases such as, “broad vision,” “order their thoughts,” “understand conditions,” and “judgement and decisions.”[vii] A critical reading of JP 3-0 makes it clear that operational art is about thinking – at any level. It is a cognitive and creative process that produces, “…innovative, adaptive options to solve complex problems.”[viii] It is the artistic creative process applied to military operations.

Since operational art is a cognitive process, it exists wherever one thinks about solving problems of military operations. Operational art does not confine itself to any level or war, echelon, or type of objective.

The operational level of war is not operational art. Joint doctrine defines the operational level of war as, “The level of war [a location] at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas.”[ix] The definition ties the operational level directly to campaigns and major operations. Its purpose is to link strategic objectives with tactical actions [x], which is what campaigns and major operations do. A ‘bridge metaphor’ explains the linkage. Strategic planning, done at one location, and tactical planning at another, are at risk of de-synchronization and, “…devolve into a series of disconnected engagements that do not accomplish the mission or objectives of the joint force.”[xi] The commanders and planners at the operational level bridge the gap, and synchronizes tactical actions with strategic objectives. Planning at the operational level uses operational art, but operational art is not limited to the operational level.[xii]

Here is the problem. ADP 3-0 defines operational art as, “…the pursuit of strategic objectives, in whole or in part, through the arrangement of tactical actions in time, space, and purpose.”[xiii] Pursuing strategic objectives by arranging tactical actions sounds a lot like the function of the operational level. ADRP 3-0, in the chapter on ‘Operational Art’, cites the joint definition of operational art – but only because the Army doctrine writers were told to[xiv], but adds the “Army discussion” qualifier from ADP 3-0.”[xv] With one sentence, Army doctrine mixes two dissimilar ideas: operational art’s broad thinking about solving problems, and operational level planning to arrange tactical actions that achieve strategic objectives. But it gets worse.

Because of the unfortunate mixing of art and level, Army doctrine ends up contradicting itself. For example, ADRP 3-0 rightly states, “Operational art is applicable at all levels of war, not just the operational level of war.”[xvi] This is true, but only if you subscribe to the joint definition of operational art as a cognitive process to solve problems and leave out the bridging function of the operational level. However, both ADP 3-0 and ADRP 3-0 include the bridging function in operational art’s definition and discussion. This raises a question. Is a tactical commander thinking about his or her problem, planning operations for subordinates to achieve a higher echelon’s tactical or operational objective practicing operational art? The joint concept of operational art says, yes, because it is problem solving. The Army definition wants to say yes, by claiming it is applicable to all levels of war, but can’t, because the commander is just linking operational/tactical objectives to tactical actions, not to strategic objectives.

ADRP 3-0 reinforces the operational art and operational level comingling by stating:

“Operational art spans a continuum-from comprehensive strategic direction to concrete tactical actions. Bridging this continuum requires creative vision coupled with broad experience and knowledge. Without operational art, tactical actions devolve into a series of disconnected engagements that do not accomplish the mission or objectives of the joint force.”[xvii]   

The first sentence is correct because there is agreement that operational art applies to all levels of war, because it is about thinking. The issue is the use of the bridging idea, which suggests linking the continuum’s ends, which is a function of the operational level, not art. The last sentence is ambiguous. It is a clear warning of what happens if operational art, used at the operational level, does not fulfill its function.

The Army has four options to fix its “operational art” problem.

First, drop any reference to the joint definition and delete the claim that it is applicable at all levels of war. This would end the confusing mishmash of art and levels of war. This option has a low probably of success since the J7 told the Army to use the joint definition of operational art.[xviii]

Second, since the Army wasn’t happy with the joint definition, it should just invent a new term to suit the Army’s needs. It could drop the term “operational art,” leaving it to the realm of joint doctrine and joint force commanders. Then invent ‘tactical art’ to account for Army thinking and visualizing at the tactical level. This would end the conflict with joint doctrine.

Third, they could get on board with the joint definitions of both operational art and the operational level of war and drop any claim to Army unique requirements. This would also end the confusing mishmash by clearly distinguishing between operational art’s cognitive processes and the function of the operational level.

Lastly, the Army could combine options two and three by accepting the joint definitions of operational art and the operational level of war while creating its own definition of ‘tactical art.’

It is unlikely the Army can successfully change the joint definition of operational art or wants to drop its unique “Army forces” requirements. Therefore, it should accept the joint definitions of operational art and the operational level and recognize that the functions at the operational level are inherently joint in nature, not service specific. If the Army needs a term that better suits its unique requirements, it should invent “tactical art,” or at least discuss operational art at the tactical level. Here is an example how ADRP 3-0 could describe tactical art:

“Tactical art is the cognitive approach by commanders and staffs – using the Army Design Methodology and supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgement to develop tactical operations to organize and employ Army forces by integrating ends, ways, and means.”

This removes any conflict with the joint definitions of operational art or the operational level of war. It also serves the perception of unique Army requirements to link ‘art’ to the Army’s Design Methodology.

Some might argue that, ‘tactical art’ leaves out any role for the Army to bridge the gap and link strategic objectives to tactical operations. The counter argument is that if Army commanders and staffs are bridging the gap they are functioning at the operational level, not the tactical level and most likely are serving as a joint force headquarters planning campaigns and major operations where joint doctrine reigns.  

So back to the original question, which paragraph correctly describes operational art and the operational level of war. I argue that paragraph 1 does, since it is more logical, precise and contains no contradictions. Paragraph 2 is deficient since it lacks the qualities of paragraph 2. The good news is Army doctrine writers can easily fix it by removing one word, ‘operational’, and replacing it with ‘tactical.’

End Notes

[i] Headquarters, Department of the Army,  Army Doctrinal  Publication (ADP) 3-0 Unified Land Operations, Department of the Army Washington DC October 2011, 9 and Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0 Unified Land Operations, Department of the Army Washington DC May 2012, 4-1

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Email, from Mr. Michael Scully, Combined Arms Doctrine Division, (CADD) Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, subject Problem with Operational Art, 25 Nov 2014

[iv] ADRP 3-0, 4-1

[v]  Department of Defense (DOD), Joint Publication (JP)  1-02 Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms,  US Department of Defense  Washington DC 8 November 2010, Amended through 15 June 2015, 176

[vi] Department of Defense (DOD), Joint Publication (JP)  3-0 Joint Operations,  US Department of Defense  Washington DC 11 August 2011, II-3

[vii] Ibid II-3, II-4

[viii] Ibid II-4

[ix] JP 1-02, 178

[x] Ibid

[xi] ADRP 3-0, 4-1

[xii] JP 3-0 I-13

[xiii] ADP 3-0, 9

[xiv] Email, from Mr. Michael Scully

[xv] ADRP 3-0, 4-1

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Email, from Mr. Michael Scully

 

About the Author(s)

Colonel Dale C. Eikmeier retired from the Army after 30 years of service as an air defense artilleryman, joint planner, and strategist. Assignments include duty in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East. Campaigns include Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He has taught at the School of Advanced Military Studies, the US Army War College, and the Army Command and General Staff College. He holds a Masters in Military Arts and Sciences, a Masters in Management and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.