Brett Friedman holds a BA in history from Ohio State University, an MA in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College, and is currently enrolled in King’s College London studying the early U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) and naval strategy. He serves in the Marine Corps Reserve as a field artillery officer and is the author of On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle.
Friedman writes that the operational level of war blocks the grammar of tactics from interacting with the logic of strategy. Through blocking this tactical-strategic interaction, the ‘operational level of war cannot find solid purchase as an idea because there is simply no logical space for it’. In place of logic, the operational level of war is defined and distinguished by ‘levels of command, scale, size and complexity’.
Attending USMC Command and Staff College in 2000, I studied the Operational Level of War, or OLOW, commencing with Operation Cartwheel the reduction of Rabaul, June 1943 – January 1944. More than two decades later Friedman writes that the operational level of war as a fundamentally Western concept does not exist.
Instead, Friedman argues that an optimal warfighting system includes a calculated relationship of tactics interacting with strategy, supported and enabled by operational art, professionally educated planners, and appropriate organisational structures.
Verifying Friedman’s ideas, the-late Professor Colin S. Gray recognised that it is ‘inherently sensible’ to approach policy, strategy, operational art and tactics in a ‘descending hierarchy’. However, Gray argues that these ‘realms need to be viewed as mutually dependent partners, related essentially horizontally, as well as on a ladder of subordination’. The ‘hierarchal view, of levels of war, with its inevitable implication of a descent from matters of greater to lesser importance, can conceal the interdependencies giving integrity to the whole.’
The purpose of this review is to examine Friedman’s ideas on the operational level of war and operational art. In doing so, I am challenging more than 20 years of personal professional military education, experience and thinking. I am prepared to face this challenge because Friedman, and others, make a compelling argument. This argument should now elevate as professional reading, review, and reflection by Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel.
Is Friedman alone in his thinking?
Friedman’s thesis is supported by Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy, published in 2009 by Australian authors Dr Michael Brennan and Brigadier Justin Kelly. Brennan and Kelly argue that, ‘without historical or doctrinal reference’, the ‘operational level of war…was copied into US doctrine [from the Soviets] … which severed campaign planning from the concept of strategy’. In turn, the ‘American conception of war … magnified the importance of campaigns and tactics while minimising the importance of strategy’.
In 2010, Professor Hew Strachan, who acknowledges Brennan and Kelly, published Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War, arguing that ‘during the Cold War, the focus lay on the relationship between operations and tactics, not least because the Cold War itself defined the strategic context. After the end of the Cold War, the framework provided by strategy weakened, and the operational level of war assumed strategic significance, not least in the development of counter-insurgency theory’.
Strachan notes that in the 1980s, ‘the operational level of war and its bundle of associated ideas, including manoeuvre and then ‘manoeuvrism’, spread through NATO armies like wildfire, and remain present in their doctrines today’. Strachan observes that although the operational level of war was ‘presented as the bridge between strategy and tactics’, the ‘orientation of the operational level in the late 1980s was towards the interface with tactics, not strategy’.
After all, in the ‘late 1980s, with the Cold War still running, the political context, [including employment of nuclear weapons], was clear enough’. Strachan concludes that the ‘operational level of war…was developed in a policy-free zone, in which military expertise was unfettered and where armies reasserted their authority over war's conduct’.
Also in 2010, Gray published The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, warning that the ‘interpolation of an operational level of war, between strategy and tactics, far from being a link, may more often than not be a barrier between the two or, worse, an excuse to ignore one or the other’.
In 2012, William F. Owen, who also acknowledges Brennan and Kelly, published The Operational Level Of War Does Not Exist, stating that the ‘operational level of war is not fit for purpose … [and] has attempted to create an artificial and flawed linkage between strategy and tactics’. He continues, that ‘this has had two negative effects…first it has denigrated and marginalised tactics. Second, it has undermined the correct understanding of strategy’. Owen continues:
Popular military history (and especially regimental or unit histories) constantly fail to recognise that outstanding courage and sacrifice are not the same as good tactics. It could even be said that, if you have to resort to courage and sacrifice, tactical skill is lacking. More often than not, heroism gets advanced to cover up poor tactical conduct. Thus, the understanding of what creates successful tactics is largely absent from a lot of modern doctrine.
Owen observes that confusion in defining ‘good’ tactics makes something called the ‘operational level of war’ seem alluring. He concludes that it ‘might even be suggested that commanders are drawn to describing themselves as working at the operational level, because it allows them to avoid responsibility for bad tactics’.
In 2020, Dr Jonathan Schroden confirmed, in Why Special Operations? A Risk-Based Theory, the special operations community view that the operational level of war is a barrier between strategy and tactics:
At their essence, special operations aim to bypass the operational level of war and connect tactical actions by small groups of military individuals directly to strategic aims—namely, the solution of challenges at the level of policy.
Therefore, supported by ideas from at least six eminent writers, we can conclude that Friedman is not alone in his thinking that the operational level of war does not exist. Instead, Friedman argues, an optimal warfighting system includes a calculated relationship of tactics interacting with strategy, supported and enabled by operational art, professionally educated planners, and appropriate organisational structures.
On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines
This is a 200-page book, divided into 17 chapters and five case studies. The chapters examine military operations from Napoleon to Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Friedman also considers a Theory of Operational Art, enabled through educated planners synchronising six functions for tactical commanders, including: administration, information, operations (space, time and forces), fire support, logistics, and command and control. On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines concludes with reviewing five case studies: (1) Austerlitz Campaign, 1805, (2) Königgrätz Campaign, 1866, (3) Atlantic Campaign, 1914-18, (4) Battle of Britain, 1940, and (5) Operation Watchtower, Solomon Islands, 1942-1943.
Friedman emphasises that ‘there is no one route to victory … no guarantees, no certainties and no simple answers’. Instead, On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines advances a theory providing ‘a tool for greater clarity’, which ‘is at its best when it helps readers think through factors [on campaigning and operational art] without trying to prescribe solutions’. When Friedman does employ prescriptions, ‘they address organisational solutions’.
The Operational Level of War and Operational Art
Friedman supports Sir Michael Howard’s view on the Prussian general staff system, which spread throughout the world, as ‘perhaps the great military innovation of the nineteenth century’. These general staffs were ‘developed to cope with the expanding complexity and scale of modern war from the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15)’.
At the same time general staffs were developed, ‘another coping mechanism was the invention of the operational level of war’, which Friedman argues ‘amputates tactics from strategy’ and is ‘problematic at best and ruinous at worst’. In contrast to the operational level of war, Friedman’s view is that operational art more effectively defines ‘what military staffs do to support and sustain tactics in the pursuit of strategy’.
Reflecting the importance of operational art to realising strategy through campaigning and tactics, ADF doctrine defines operational art as the ability of skilled planners to translate, employ and require:
- Strategy into campaigns and ultimately tactical actions. The essence of campaigning is operational art, which imposes a governing logic on operations, tactics, and logistics to achieve intermediate objectives within a campaign.
- Strategy by means of operational design into tactical actions that are coherently arranged by a commander in time, space, and purpose. At its core, operational art is about the synchronisation of distributed operations conducted through manoeuvre in depth.
- Professional military education and training into the foundation of operational art. This education is attained through professional reading and study. Experience then grounds and reinforces this education.
- Military forces to attain strategic goals through the design, organisation, sequencing and direction of campaigns and major operations.
- Two methods: (1) operational design; and (2) the arrangement of military action. Through these two methods, plans identify the required ‘ends’ of the military action, the possible ‘ways’ of achieving that end, and the military ‘means’ necessary.
- Campaigning for the full spectrum of armed conflict, even in a permissive environment such as humanitarian operations. The joint military appreciation process provides a problem-solving framework for operational art.
- Six-steps of the campaign cycle: (1) gaining situational understanding, (2) planning, (3) preparation, (4) execution, (5) assessment, and (6) adaptation.
- Require a commander to:
- Identify the military conditions or end state that constitute the strategic objective.
- Decide campaign objectives to achieve for the desired end state.
- Order a sequence of actions that lead to fulfilment of campaign objectives.
- Apply the military resources allocated to sustain the desired sequence of actions.
Gray notes that military strategy is ‘done’ by tactics and operational art. Tactics are ‘the use of armed force’ and operational art is ‘the use of armed force in campaigns to achieve military and political results’. Strategic ‘performance in war … is generated by the strategic effect of the net costs and gains of the campaigns of which the war consists’. In other words, ‘strategy, no matter how apparently brilliant, is moot until somebody does it’.
Supporting Friedman’s thesis that the operational level of war as a fundamentally Western concept does not exist, Gray quotes Clausewitz stating: ‘war has a grammar, but not a policy logic, of its own’. Both Gray and Clausewitz posit that there remains an enduring requirement for policy and strategy to understand both the ‘grammar’ of war, ‘how war works as war… [as] physical conditions and tactical challenges … [and] action wherein people live and die in combat’, and the policy ‘logic’ of war’.
Through the concept of war’s grammar and policy’s logic, Gray emphasises that ‘the threat and use of force is not a self-validating exercise’. He notes that ‘military action has political meaning only through its strategic effect’. For Gray, ‘war is not what strategy is about, any more than is battle. Strategy is about achieving the policy goals that translate as peace with security, whatever those two contestable concepts may mean to particular communities.’
Tactical-strategic interdependencies exemplify the challenge in developing a logic for an operational level of war. Clausewitz wrote, ‘in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole’. Gray attests to the ‘pattern of multiple reciprocal dependencies that interconnect, indeed bind, strategy’s many vital dimensions’. Identifying ‘complex interdependencies underlies the emphatically non-hierarchical concept of strategy’.
Who invented the operational level of war?
Friedman asserts that it is a ‘myth’ the ‘Red Army of the Soviet Union’ invented the operational level of war in the first decades of the twentieth century. Instead, Friedman explains that in response to Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, as self-proclaimed ‘master strategists’ articulating the ‘class character of war’, ‘operational art became a safe place in which Soviet officers could discuss their trade. Sometime thereafter, when [operational art] spread to other military forces, the concept morphed into the idea of the operational level [of war]’.
Once morphed from operational art to the operational level of war, the concept began to separate tactics from strategy. This separation included defining the operational level of war as a:
- ‘Politics-free zone’.
- Level of command, such as corps level and above.
- Measure of scale, including numbers of people and amount of material involved.
- Linking of tactics across time, ‘sequenced into cumulative effects’.
- Distance over which military forces could travel.
- Function, including ‘sequencing, resourcing and conducting a series of battles within a theatre’.
- Doctrine, defining common operational methods.
With the exception of Napoleon’s corps level of command, Friedman’s analysis is that examples of the ‘operational level of war’ were all employed prior to the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). As evidence, Friedman traces attributes and aspects of the operational level of war throughout history, including the: Peloponnesian Wars (431-405 BC), Second Punic War (218-202 BC), Gallic Wars (58-50 BC), Roman Civil War (49-45 BC), early rise of Islam (AD 632-700), Mongol Conquests (AD 1205-92), French and Indian War (AD 1754-63), Seven Years’ War (AD 1756-63), and American War of Independence (AD 1775-83).
Operational art is a supporting effort to both tactics and strategy. Removing operational art from ‘the requirements of its own level’ eliminates the ‘operational level of war’ as a block to the interaction between strategy and tactics. Operational art focussed on ‘planning, preparing, conducting and sustaining military actions’ enables activities ‘distinct from both tactics and strategy’.
This means that operational art continues to ‘require a foundation in tactics … and a connection to strategy, but it no longer encroaches on or interposes itself between them’. Importantly, operational art ‘comprises the disciplines required to place military forces in an advantageous position to employ tactics to achieve strategic effect’.
Enabling operational art is a system of professional practice for military staff ‘extending from high command to frontline units like a military nervous system’. The origins of this system followed Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon at Jena-Auerstedt 14 October 1806. In the aftermath, in 1807, Prussian General Gerhard von Scharnhorst initiated reforms seeking to ‘replicate Napoleon’s personal military genius’ through merit-based professionally trained, educated and practiced military staffs.
The general staff ‘took shape in 1816’, and at ‘corps and division levels comprised four sections: tactics and strategy, administration, logistics, and fire support’. For optimal development, the general staff undertook rigorous entry examinations, academy-based education, assignments to fighting units, and service as headquarters staff. Optimal development of general staff ‘institutionalised military excellence’ enabling personal habits of initiative, responsibility, technical-tactical proficiency, objectivity in analysis, and historical study.
Outstanding general staff were selected as the Ia or ‘first general staff officer’. The Ia was staff to a Lieutenant Colonel or Major serving on a Prussian division, or higher. The Ia led the unit’s staff coordination of logistics, movement and tactics; communicated to senior and flanking headquarters; nurtured subject matter expertise; served as a mentor-teacher; and was the primary advisor to the unit commander. The Ia’s relationship to the unit commander ‘was so close that a commander and an Ia would sometimes progress up the ranks as a pair, always assigned to the same unit together’.
In a contemporary staff system, Friedman recommends that operational art is realised through:
- Enabling people to share their talents with the world to reach their personal, professional, and cultural potential. If a person demonstrates a proclivity for staff work, then we must enable that talent through a competitive, and then prioritised, staff-career pathway including tailored staff testing, training, education, development and experience. The ADF should also cease the practice of ‘using staffs as mere waiting rooms for officers until command positions are available’.
- Doctrine recognising that commanders, supported by organisational theory and practice, continually organise, re-organise and re-orient their staff to achieve policy and strategic objectives through tactical actions.
- Training decision-making processes, always with a commander and/or mentor intimately involved in the process.
- Education studying staffs and organisational theory, including key staff experiences, historical case studies, methods of collaboration, and commanders’ perspectives. Education includes training people to serve as chiefs of staff who, next to a commander, are the most important leaders on a headquarters. This education seeks to create chiefs of staff equivalent in capability, capacity and influence to the Ia or ‘first general staff officer’.
- Facilities assuring staff access to accurate information, relevant data, secure communications, analytical tools, subject-matter expertise and ergonomically appropriate workspaces.
This review examined Brett Friedman’s ideas on the operational level of war and operational art. As noted at the introduction, this reviewer is challenging more than 20 years of personal professional military education, experience and thinking.
Friedman writes that the operational level of war blocks the grammar of tactics interacting with the logic of strategy. As an alternative, Friedman argues, an optimal warfighting system includes a calculated relationship of tactics interacting with strategy, supported and enabled by operational art, professionally educated planners, and appropriate organisational structures.
Friedman, and others, make a compelling argument. This argument should now elevate as professional reading, review and reflection by ADF personnel.