The operational level of war does not exist.

To some this may seem a heretical thought, strange or just ignorant of military doctrine and military history. However, as will be explored by Major Jeremy Barraclough in this CoveTalk, it might not be as incorrect as you think.

The operational level of war was introduced into Western doctrine via the US Army in their 1982 version of ‘FM 100-5, Operations’ [1]. It described that level of war as using military resources to achieve strategic goals within a theatre and that the operational level of war is fought at the corps and division level. It also describes the Air-Land battle, including electronic warfare amongst other things. Therefore, the operational level of war was initially defined by geography, i.e. the theatre, size of the force at the division and above, and the desired outcome, being achievement of strategic goals.

The 2019 updated and current version of that doctrine ‘ADP 3-0 Operations’ is more vague on what is the operational level of war [2]. Reading this doctrine, it could be argued that the operational and strategic levels are conflated. The doctrine still alludes to the operational level of war achieving strategic goals, however, the term is only mentioned four times and twice as “the strategic-operational level of war”. Furthermore, while the “operational level of war” is only mentioned four times, the term “operational art” is given far more attention with over 25 references. This arguably points to more consideration and weighting importance on the operational art as a function rather than the operational level or place.

In 2021 some more thought was offered in On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines [3]. The book has developed and contributed to some debate on this topic and if there is any utility in the operational level of war. A very useful summary was written by Major General Chris Field [4]. He points out arguments in the book that use of the operational level of war as a concept is unhelpful because it amputates strategy from tactics rather than connecting them. A very academic review was offered by Professor Michael Evans [5]. He defends the concept of the operational level of war and attempts to contextualise it for the reader as to when it was written during the Cold War. He also argues it may be useful when considering the threat of large-scale conventional conflict such as that in Ukraine or more global operations.

More recently in 2022 Major General Hocking wrote a well-considered appraisal of key organisational lessons learnt from Afghanistan [6]. This is document perhaps points to use of the term "operational level" that could also describe “operational art". Major General Hocking describes this level of war as the bridge connecting strategic objectives with tactical means, of arraying resources to campaigns and establishing bounds and command architecture. Perhaps this report covering the Australian experience in a limited war of choice has some lessons for us; however, it is vital to remember that we must learn from past wars, rather than attempt to re-fight the last war in the next one.

The Australian Army, like others, should be reconsidering this concept. Perhaps considering warfare in hierarchical layers still has some utility. Perhaps we should instead invest more into developing our operational art. In doing so, understanding how campaigning connects strategic military-political outcomes and desired conditions.

This is the topic of the 2 DIV PME Series professional military education for March, hosted by The Cove.

This CoveTalk asks the question, 'Does the Operational Level of War exist?'. It consists of a presentation by Major Jeremy Barraclough, HQ 2 Div, followed by a Q&A session. It was livestreamed from Randwick Barracs Officers Mess at 1600 AEDT on Tuesday, 28 March 2023. Thank you to all who attended in-person and online. Check out the entire CoveTalk below.

For more CoveTalks, check out The Cove’s Features.