Operational Terms and Symbols
Andrew G. Attar, Jr.
Although I find myself in almost complete disagreement with Major Larry Doane’s article entitled “It’s Just Tactics: Why the Operational Level of War is an Unhelpful Fiction and Impedes the Operational Art,” which appeared in Small Wars Journal on September 24, 2015, it is useful in that it exposes an existing lack of logical clarity of military operations at echelon. Modularity, BCT-centrism, and a decade+ of COIN have severely warped our common understanding of military operations at echelon. Maj. Doane references that "battalions can act strategically." This is a misunderstanding of important terms. (One the Army’s recently published field manual on leadership [FM 6-22] only has made worse.) When everything is strategic, nothing is strategic. Same for the term operational, which Maj. Doane implies is flexible, relative, and subjective.
Battalions become strategic only when the high commands where the strategic level of war should be planned and executed are for whatever reason silent or failing. This explains how senior field commanders could visit command posts in Iraq or Afghanistan and spend 95% of their time receiving information from the visited command. Compare this to other conflicts. Military history would suggest that senior commanders spent considerable time visiting subordinate headquarters to build shared understanding, to speak as well as listen, to level the bubble among the commands, to share the vision and way forward, to explain how that subordinate command fit into the overall battle, major operation or campaign. The fact that this didn't happen in Iraq and Afghanistan to any substantial degree shows that strategic and operational war was in fact not being conducted. And, in its place we had strategic battalions, or even the so-called strategic corporals.
Combine this lack of strategic and operational command with a modular force that has not worked out the DOTMLPF shortcomings in order to once again, someday, execute major land operations against a near-peer conventional threat (conducting operational sustainment, fires, IC, and protection to sustain high tempo operations and gain and maintain security, while the BCTs maneuver over very long distances) and it's a deadly combination. Understanding roles at echelon must occur before we will solve the DOTMLPF shortcomings. There are wide implications to this discussion all around. Engagements, Battles, Major Operations, Campaigns. These distinctions have become lost, or at best ignored. But they directly relate to our inability to successfully employ our functional and multifunctional brigades.
These distinctions of tactical, operational, and strategic, along with engagements, battles, major operations, and campaigns, are not arbitrary, nor ephemeral. They are logical realities, which must be addressed, or we end up existing outside of logical reality.
The end of Phase III and the start of Phase IV operations does not translate into a lower level of war. As V Corps experienced in 2003 and 2004, the battlefield remains multi-dimensional and complex - always. Force numbers may drawdown, but the multi-dimensional challenges remain. Not least of these multi-dimensional challenges is time. A given headquarters can only execute quality planning out to a limited time horizon. As we saw in 2003 and 2004, asking a Corps to take over the reins of a military campaign, during any phase, is highly problematic. Corps were designed for battles. Major operations were considered the very high end of what can be asked of a Corps. That Phase IV doesn’t have the fire and maneuver of traditionally understood battles and major operations is irrelevant. The terms campaign, major operation, battle and engagement still stand symbolically for the operational reach of resources and time required to successfully bring to conclusion a particular military problem.
This is not to say that Corps (or even lesser echelons) cannot act independently, as in the case of a Joint Task Force (JTF). It’s just that when they do so, the scope of the military problem must be much more limited. Such lesser military problems may be the equivalent of a discreet major operation, battle, or even engagement. Then, a lesser headquarters such as Corps and Divisions could be employed as independent JTFs.
The start point to fixing this problem of terminology (a problem which has severe reverberating effects throughout the force) would be to peg the term campaign squarely with the Combatant Commander. If Joint Doctrine stated that Combatant Commanders alone conduct campaigns, then a huge leap forward would be made in understanding the proper echelons of planning and execution throughout the force. Joint Doctrine calls for campaigns to unify all aspects of national power. Clearly only the Combatant Commander can approach proper execution of that very difficult task.
These problems must be addressed with a sense of urgency. The main engine for working out many of these DOTMLPF challenges should be the Army’s Warfighter Exercise (WFX) program. WFXs are our generation’s Louisiana Maneuvers; but do we take them as seriously? Are officers across the force discussing recent WFXs as they find local solutions to DOTMLPF challenges? When we overhear officers discussing the WFX successes and failures of a recent corps deep attack, or, when we see brigade leader development programs covering a particular units challenges at a contested river crossing, we can probably surmise that our WFX program has its proper place at this critical time in our Army’s history.
We need to also fight the hubris of our time. To suggest that the future is somehow more volatile or complex then experienced by prior generations only lays the philosophical groundwork for dismissing the hard learned lessons of the past. And, in the place of the legacy of those hard learned lessons received from the past we replace it with post-modern theorizing and, worse yet, a dangerously myopic focus on information operations and engagement. Traditionally, a hallmark of the military profession was precision, clarity and candor in language. Pragmatically, precision, clarity and candor in language were understood to best facilitate successful military operations. Too often, and to our own detriment, we now find ourselves instead adopting the language of other professions as we use terms like “branding.” Are our words revealing reality and purposed toward candor and understanding, or are they designed for savvy messaging? Beyond language, we have shifted our focus too much on the softer sciences within the domains of culture and information just as we simultaneously acknowledge lost proficiencies within the traditional battlefield domains. The time to right the ship back on correct course is now.