Operational art and modern American strategy

America's strategic ambiguity in Afghanistan and elsewhere has made understanding its operational doctrine all the more crucial.
Adam Elkus
11 December 2009

The operational level of war, once dominant in Cold War-era debates over conventional strategy in the 1980s, is the missing link in mainstream security analysis. By demonstrating how strategic aims are realized through the skillful linkage of tactical events in campaigns and major operations, operational art shows the real connection between lofty strategies of war and destructive battle.

Viewing recent American military doctrine through the lens of operational theory reveals some surprising continuity between the much-maligned high-tech doctrines of the 1990s and today’s emphasis on counterinsurgency. Growing strategic commitments, a lack of strategic guidance at the top, and limited military means have placed increasing demands on operational theory, resulting in theoretical innovation amidst strategic uncertainty.

Evolutions in operational affairs

The term operational art, military historian Milan Vego notes, has many different meanings (see Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare, Newport: Naval War College Press, 2009), and is often used interchangeably to describe any military action. The most recent Army field manual FM 3-0 Operations, however, supplies the most helpful definition. The operational level of war, according to FM 3-0, links together tactical forces to achieve a strategic end state. It consists largely of major operations (battles and engagements) and campaigns (a series of related major operations) coordinated in time and place to further strategic objectives set by national policy (See FM 3-0 Operations, Washington, D.C: Department of the Army, 2008)

As late as the 19th century, policy (the political objective), strategy (the military plan to achieve it), and tactics (the employment of troops on the battlefield) were concentrated in the body of the sovereign leading his troops on the battlefield. When the 19th century French military writer Antoine-Henri Jomini used the term strategy, he referred to the movement of troops in the theater of operations (See Justin Kelly and Michael Brennan, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy, Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, 2009). The social, political, and technological revolutions of the 19th century allowed for increasingly massive armies and removed the sovereign from the field. The importance of railroads in operational maneuver, the increasingly destructive power of new weapons, and the need to control ever larger formations in the field stimulated embryonic theories of operational warfare that would find maturity in the writings of military theorists and the employment of large units in combat. 

Though well-represented in European military writings, the idea of an operational level did not explicitly emerge in American doctrine until the 1980s with the pioneering FM 100-5 Operations, principally aimed at countering the massed Soviet/Warsaw Pact forces massed in the Fulda Gap. Coalition politics prevented the Army from conducting a more elastic defense against numerically superior Warsaw Pact massed forces, necessitating a long process of doctrinal debate about the proper military response. The resulting AirLand Battle doctrine that developed was conceived in a narrow context with limited applicability to conflicts after the Gulf War.

The dominant post-Gulf War doctrines focused primarily on the economical substitution of technology and standoff firepower for traditional massed bulk. While the theoretical infatuation with ideas such as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) provided an intellectual basis for these operational doctrines, the adoption of standoff firepower-based operations owes more to political and material constraints than love of technology or a supposed “post-heroic” fear of casualties. 

Military budgets shrank after the Cold War, but political demands and military commitments continued.  Instead of the Soviet threat, American forces were increasingly expected to rapidly deploy to a variety of locations against enemies ranging from the tinpot dictators such as Saddam Hussein to increasingly advanced Chinese forces. The usage of standoff firepower-based operations was both an economy of force measure and a means of preserving American freedom of action by dominating adversaries with the surgical application of decisive force.

A flatter, more synchronized military, able to utilize information power to leapfrog ahead of potential foes, provided an operational-level solution to strategic problems—as long as the enemy was willing to play along (See Williamson Murray, “Clausewitz Out, Computer In,” The National Interest, June 1997). The Serbs used basic operational deception measures to cover their forces during the 1999 Kosovo War, frustrating American sensors. Irregular forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon have also devised means of frustrating the technological superiority of Western militaries.

The much-maligned but often poorly understood book Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance coined the now-infamous term “Shock and Awe” in reference to a set of historical case studies that demonstrated how rapid, decisive, and surgically applied combat could create a strategic effect larger than the sum of its parts (See Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1996). Ullman and Wade were attempting to create a military doctrine consummate with the strategic problems of the 1990s, and the emphasis on shock operations and standoff firepower reflected strategic policies and assumptions of that era.

A similar doctrine called Effects-Based Operations (EBO) and later the Effects-Based Approach (EBA) combined Rapid Dominance’s emphasis on economy of force with more ambitious aims to coordinate all strategic elements of national power together and bring them to play on the operational level. EBA eschewed the classical view of warfare for a systems approach, viewing opponents as organic systems whose actions could be guided through the integrated and holistic concentration of military and nonmilitary “effects.”

The danger with systemic doctrines, former American general Paul K. van Riper argued, was that they misunderstood the amount of knowledge needed to push a open system to a given state (See Paul K. Van Riper, “EBO: There was No Baby in the Bathwater,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 52, 1st quarter 2009, p. 82). Israeli analyst Ron Tira leveled a far more devastating criticism: EBO and its intellectual cousins sought to jump from purely tactical and operational levels to strategic effect through sleight of hand. The strategic choice to fight until the German Army was destroyed and its cities lay in ruins convinced the Germans to give up. True material desperation induced cognitive collapse and acceptance of defeat. In contrast, operational doctrines rooted in the usage of standoff firepower sought to achieve strategic objectives without a bloody fight or threatening the enemy with the prospect of destruction (See Ron Tira, The Limitations of Standoff Firepower-Based Operations, Institute for National Security Studies, 2007).

Though EBO has been repudiated, the search for an operational doctrine that can effectively operationalize strategic nonmilitary sources of power and leverage them on the operational realm is a major intellectual pursuit of the counterinsurgency era.  America, as an expeditionary power, lacks the political commitment, density of troops, and local political-cultural authority to apply the level of military control necessary to truly exert decisive strategic landpower in the counterinsurgency fight. The result was a revival not only of classical counterinsurgency theory, but an expansion of operational planning methodologies and innovations. The problem, however, lies in the integration of sources of national power in the context of a divided political system and a balkanized and unevenly funded federal government.

The perpetually underfunded State Department, for example, is ill placed to provide the kind of civilian power on the ground required by doctrines such as NATO’s Comprehensive Approach. Army War College professor Steven Metz noted with dissatisfaction that even a fully funded Civilian Response Corps (CRC) would theoretically consist of 250 full-time members, and approximately 4,000 “standby” and “reserve” elements drawn from other agencies and the private sector. Assuming that the standby and reserve elements could all be wrenched from their parent agencies and corporations, it is unlikely that this capability could be sustained for the long haul. Moreover, even 4,250 civilians would be, in Metz’s words, a “drop in the bucket” when measured against development and governance needs in Third World states (See Steven Metz, “The Civilian Surge Myth,” The New Republic, October 15, 2009). This is to say nothing of the problem of coalition warfare and the strains NATO is currently enduring as a result of the Afghan war.

Moreover, Tira’s basic criticism still applies. The defeat or at least suppression of the opponent matters, and achievement of strategic objectives even in counterinsurgency still requires a credible “hard power” means of convincing the opponent to back down—a sad truth often ignored in talk of hearts and minds.

Future operational development

Beyond Kabul, the United States faces rising a mixture of both state and non-state geopolitical challenges and suffers from a lack of effective strategic guidance. The Army has understandably opted to emphasize adaptation and holism in its operational concepts, most specifically its newest concept of Operational Design. There are risks to holism, as well as the problem of a lack of recent conventional operational maneuver experience and training emphasis due to the need to win two land-based counterinsurgency conflicts. Yet in the present context, holism, along with adaptation, can serve as a means of dealing with the operational challenges created by political uncertainty and strategic incoherence.

The achievement of American strategic objectives in Afghanistan will depend principally on the ability of American forces to unify different sources of power and realize them operationally. This of course assumes that underlying strategic objectives are sound to begin with and consummate with the means available to achieve them. The expansive nature of American strategic aims and the lack of coherent planning to realize them has placed greater burdens on operational doctrine and forces. While operational doctrine is necessary to maintain military readiness, create new military advantages, and accomplish strategic goals, its growth will remain stunted as long as the strategic aims it is yoked to remain uncertain.


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