Operational Art

By Maj Romeo P Cubas

The American military’s painful Vietnam War experience and the doctrinal and technological revelations of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War drew attention to its demoralized and unprepared state. It became evident that the U.S. Armed Forces required a complete overhaul in order to contend with future potential adversaries.1 As a result, the military underwent a dramatic transformation that went hand-in-hand with a revolution in operational art. The interpretation and implementation of intellectual concepts, innovative doctrine, and novel approaches to overcoming military challenges dictated how the United States approached conflicts in the post–Vietnam War era.2

The evolving nature of war mandates that the American concept of operational art account for an assortment of enemies that will seek innovative ways to frustrate American interests. Today’s adversaries are achieving shocking levels of barbarity that challenge the traditional Western notions of war.3 Understanding the operational art renaissance of the post–Vietnam war period should prepare U.S. officials to judiciously address contemporary threats and resist the temptation to adhere to an operational art concept that is highly reliant on overwhelming force and technological dominance.

A Rebirth of Operational Art: The Immediate Aftermath of the Vietnam War

During the 1970s, operational art underwent a Clausewitzian renaissance of sorts that focused on linking successes in battle with an overall strategic purpose.4 This military art form has its foundations in a collection of institutional beliefs and experiences known as “doctrine.” Until the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, the Armed Forces developed doctrine in a unilateral manner, concentrating on individual Service interests. These myopic views prevented the Services from coalescing and developing a joint campaign plan; instead, the focus was on ground combat and how to support it. Cold War doctrine limited the traditional conduct of war and restricted doctrinal innovation. The operational failures of the Vietnam War and Arab-Israeli War prompted many changes in the U.S. Armed Forces such as a doctrinal reawakening, the emergence of performance standards, institutional integration, and organizational discipline.5

In October 1973, Egypt and Syria conducted a surprise attack on Israel from the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights with thousands of Soviet-provided armored vehicles, air-delivered precision guided munitions, and antitank guided missiles. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) was eventually able to counterattack and overcome the Arab two-prong assault, its heavy artillery, aerial bombardment, and advanced air defense system; however, the results of the evolving nature of combat were quite evident to Western powers.6 The Yom Kippur War illustrated the effectiveness of modern weapons and the gap in American warfare capabilities. As the Services downsized and refocused internally, the United States realized it needed to quickly gain parity with Soviet Union. GEN Creighton Abrams’ creation of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TraDoc), his appointment of GEN William DePuy as its commander, and the contributions of GEN Donn Starry as TraDoc’s Armor Center Commandant and TraDoc’s second commander were instrumental to the ensuing revolutionary changes in doctrine, organization, equipment, and training.7 One of these changes was the 1976 edition of the U.S. Army operations Field Manual 100–5, Operations (FM 100–5).8

The “active defense” concept of the new doctrine accepted the Soviet’s overwhelming manpower and countered it with a system of linear defenses-in-depth and offensive flanking movements focused on destroying command and control networks and supply lines of communications.9 “Active defense” advocated moving forces along the battle line to prevent a breakthrough while simultaneously conducting deep envelopments to attrite the enemy. Confronting a high-tempo assault required commanders to embrace the German model of Auftragstaktik, which encouraged decentralized command, the flexibility provided by mission-type orders, and having the initiative to meet a commander’s intent.10 However, the new manual received immediate resistance due to its unsettling realities of battlefield lethality, a reliance on analytical information, and formulaic approach to war reminiscent of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s obsession with quantitative data.11 After 10 years of development and transformation, the doctrine evolved to the Air-Land Battle concept, which eventually evolved into the modern and joint conventional form of fighting known as maneuver warfare.12

The new operational concepts in FM 100–5 relied on the expert use of terrain, demanded rapid movement, required quick strikes, and demanded that the defender achieve target identification overmatch. The Army wanted to avoid the pitfalls of focusing on the last war and embraced its renewed doctrine by investing heavily in highly advanced acquisition programs such as the Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Apache attack helicopter, and the TOW missile.13 Desiring to further break from the Vietnam era, TraDoc also set about restoring the Army’s warfighting tradecraft by identifying individual tactical tasks and associating compliance criteria to them. Within a few years, the military evaluated and enhanced tactical tasks via the National Training Center (Fort Irwin, CA) with force-on-force exercises and through the use of simulation and laser technologies.14 These initiatives improved military standards and elevated the proficiency of the U.S. military.

The Evolution of Operational Art: Focusing on the Right Threat

Nowadays, the United States continues to heavily invest in technology such as the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Zumwalt-class destroyer (DDG 1000), advanced air-to-air munitions, and the next amphibious vehicle (even though its current capabilities are more than sufficient to maintain its status as the sole superpower).15 The United States can ill afford to train, equip, and sustain a military solely focused on conventional warfare like it did for Operations JUST CAUSE, DESERT STORM, and IRAQI FREEDOM, where overwhelming aerial attacks were followed by superior ground forces outfitted with the most modern technology.16 Instead of entirely new systems, investments should be made to extend the service life of perfectly acceptable and sustainable aircraft, ships, munitions, and weapons platforms. Furthermore, today’s leaders need to understand that unconventional conflict is the most likely and enduring threat.17 This does not imply that the operational concepts of the 1970s and 1980s should be neglected or that conventional threats should be ignored. Doing so would lead to a loss of institutional knowledge and result in fatal consequences.

Failure to prepare for irregular threats could repeat the failures of the Vietnam War, the Lebanon interventions of 198283, and the Somalia operation of 1992. In these examples, technological and military superiority were effectively offset by unsophisticated means. Guerrilla warfare, suicide bombers, and warlord-led militias understood American operational art and avoided its strengths, conducted surprise attacks, and patiently waited to exploit a moment of weakness.18 The actions of present-day radical Islamic extremists mirror those of irregular adversaries of the past 50 years. Terrorists and nonstate actors are proving that the traditional American way of war based on overwhelming force and industrial might is vulnerable to rudimentary tactics, primitive arms, and an unwavering ideology.19 The 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the 1998 car bomb attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 strike on the USS Cole (DDG 67) foreshadow a dangerous future that cannot be solved with a traditional mindset. Conventional responses like cruise missile attacks or awe-inspiring air campaigns are very expensive and arguably ineffective against autonomous, resilient, and illusive opponents who blend in with the population.20

Unconventional adversaries are also able to thoroughly study Western militaries and combat their weaknesses with modern state–like capabilities. In 2006, Hezbollah attacked Israel from southern Lebanon with thousands of rockets and missiles of short and intermediate range.21 The IDF was confronted by a highly disciplined, decentralized, and adaptive enemy that was willing to inflict and absorb attacks. As a well-organized political and paramilitary movement, Hezbollah merged its anti-Zionist ideology with guerrilla tactics and state-of-the-art technology such as encrypted communications equipment and fiber optic networks, eavesdropping and antijamming devices, human intelligence sources, armor-defeating weapons, and unmanned aerial vehicles to control ungoverned urban areas.22 Hezbollah’s successes against the IDF revealed the vulnerabilities of a superior conventional force and the dangers of a hybrid form of warfare. American civilian and military leaders should learn from recent history and realize that opponents willing to employ irregular methods can significantly threaten the Nation’s domestic and international security interests. The first step in countering today’s adversaries lies in reflecting on the very nature of operational art and accepting, as GEN DePuy did, that its associated doctrine is an evolving and fluid document, much like a French pot of soup that gets better as ingredients are added over time.23


The Vietnam War, the defense of Europe, and the lessons of the Yom Kippur War heavily influenced an American renaissance in operational art. As a result of an aggressive doctrinal reformation, changes in warfighting concepts soon led to transformations in equipment, manpower, and training.24 Although initially controversial, FM 100–5 was the result of an intellectual rediscovery that promoted the concept of active defense to counter potential Soviet encroachment in Europe. Subsequent versions in the early and mid–1980s espoused a more aggressive model known as Air-Land Battle, and became the foundation of the contemporary theory of maneuver warfare.25 In order for this operational concept to be effective, commanders were empowered to seize opportunities, force the enemy to adapt to their own terms, and maximize their troops’ abilities.26 Another critical aspect of this new style of warfare depended on units having the ability to quickly move forces to the right location and dominate the battlefield. Commanders needed their vehicles to have exceptional speed, outstanding mobility, and superior firepower.27 Technological investments of the early 1970s prepared the military for a future war with investments in billions of dollars and a great deal of time and effort toward research and development.28

In the current era, advanced weapons coupled with irregular forms of warfare are adding complexity to the modern battlefield.29 Maintaining proficiency across the range of military operations with a large and technologically advanced force is economically unfeasible; therefore, the Department of Defense must continue evolving its operational art concepts.30 However, the military must reform in a judicious manner while not jeopardizing its ability to fight and win against a near-peer conventional competitor. Contemporary threats will be adequately addressed when U.S. leaders begin to understand the operational art renaissance of the post–Vietnam era and how concepts need to evolve in order to avoid the pitfalls of past military failures.


1. Wineman, B.A., “Rebuilding After Defeat: Air-Land Battle and the U.S. Military,” course card, Marine Corps University, 5 April, 2013.

2. Van Riper, LtGen Paul K, USMC(Ret), “Operational Art and its Study,” course card, Marine Corps University, 8 August, 2012.

3. Strong, Mark A., “US Government Responses to Irregular Threats,” course card, Marine Corps University, March 22, 2013. See also Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, VA, December 2007, pp. 1516; and Romeo Cubas, “Focusing on the Right Threats While Bound to Traditional Forms of Dominance: An Analysis of Irregular Warfare and the 2010 National Security Strategy,” unpublished manuscript, 15 April 2013.

4. Swain, Richard M., “Filling the Void: The Operational Art and the U.S. Army in The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War,” edited by B.J.C. McKercher and Michael A. Hennessy, Praeger Press, Westport, CT, 1996, p. 148.

5. Ibid., p. 148.

6. Ibid., p. 150.

7. Ibid., p. 149.

8. Ibid., p. 153.

9. Ibid., p. 151.

10. Swain, p. 152. See also Donn A. Starry, “A Tactical Evolution: FM 1005,” Military Review, Fort Leavenworth, KS, August 1978, p. 11.

11. Swain, p. 151; Starry, p. 10.

12. Swain, p. 153.

13. Starry, pp. 23.

14. Swain, p. 152.

15. Cubas, Romeo, “Focusing on the Right Threats While Bound to Traditional Forms of Dominance: An Analysis of Irregular Warfare and the 2010 National Security Strategy,” unpublished manuscript, 15 April 2013.

16. Cassman, Joel F., and David Lai, “Football vs. Soccer: American Warfare in an Era of Unconventional Threats,” Armed Forces Journal, Washington, DC, 17 October 2003, p. 51; Cubas, “Focusing on the Right Threats.”

17. Cassman, p. 51; Cubas, “Focusing on the Right Threats.”

18. Cassman, p. 52; see Maj Romeo Cubas article cited in Footnote 3.

19. Cassman, p. 52; Cubas, “Focusing on the Right Threats.”

20. Cassman, p. 52, 54; Cubas, “Focusing on the Right Threats.”

21. Hoffman, p. 35; Cubas, “Focusing on the Right Threats.”

22. Eschel, David, “Hezbollah’s Intelligence War,” Defense Update, 2007, accessed at defense-update.com. See also Hoffman, p. 36; Cubas, “Focusing on the Right Threats.”

23. Swain, p. 150.

24. Starry, p. 3.

25. Wineman, p. 7.

26. Herbert, Paul, Deciding What Has to be Done: General William E. DePuy and the 1976 Edition of FM 100–5, Operations, Combat Studies Institute, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 1988, p. 34.

27. Ibid.

28. Starry, p. 4.

29. U.S. Department of Defense, 2008 National Defense Strategy, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington, DC, June 2008, p. 11. See also Romeo Cubas, “The United States Military’s Ability to Meet the National Security Strategy (NSS),” unpublished manuscript, 4 October 2012.

30. Cubas, “The United States Military’s Ability to Meet the National Security Strategy (NSS).”