The Operational Art

by William S. Lind

Among the challenges facing Marines is understanding the operational level of war. The Corps’ adoption of maneuver warfare as doctrine, announced in the 1988 edition of OH 6-1, Ground Combat Operations, means that the operational level is also Marine Corps doctrine since it is central to maneuver warfare.

Neither the term nor the concept are new. Both were introduced by the Germans in the 19th century. The Soviets make frequent reference to theoperational art,” and their approach to war is focused on the operational level. The term was officially introduced into the American military vocabulary by the 1982 edition of the Army’s field manual FM 100-5.

What is the operational level of war? It is sometimes defined as actions taken at or above corps level. However, that is not a very useful definition since it really does not tell us much. It has little relevance to the Marine Corps, which normally deploys units smaller than corps. It is also partially incorrect because small units may at times undertake operational actions. We call those actions “special operations.” What makes them “special” is not so much their technical or tactical characteristics, which may differ little from a standard infantry raid, but the fact that they have operational or strategic significance. In fact, a good definition of special operations might be, “tactical actions that in and of themselves have direct operational or strategic significance.”

Another common definition is to say that the operational art is the art of the campaign as distinguished from tactics, which is the art of battle. The 1986 edition of FM 100-5 defines operational art as “. . . the employment of military forces to attain strategic goals in a theater of war or theater of operations through the design, organization, and conduct of campaigns and major operations.” Unfortunately, this definition is also somewhat unsatisfactory. It implies that any employment of forces in a theater to attain strategic goals is operational art if it manifests itself in “major operations.” Yet such “operations” may be little but floundering from one battle to another, and the linkage to strategic goals may not go beyond the notion that if one wins enough battles one must win strategically. Yet in such a situation-historically, not an uncommon one-the operational art is simply absent.

I would propose a third definition, one I think gets to the heart of the matter:

The operational art is the art of using tactical events-battles and refusals to give battle-to strike directly at an enemy’s strategic center of gravity. In other words, it is the an of deciding when and where to fight battles, and when and where not to, on a strategic basis. It includes the idea that a goal is to win strategically with the fewest possible battles.

FM 100-5 gets at this in the discussion of operational art that follows its definition. It states:

Operational art thus involves fundamental decisions about when and where to fight and whether to accept or decline battle. Its essence is the identification of the enemy’s operational center-of-gravity-his source of strength or balance-and the concentration of superior combat power against that point to achieve a decisive success.

This, not simply the notion of “the art of the campaign,” is the heart of the operational art.

Two questions can be raised about the wording in FM 100-5 (as good a document as it generally is). The first concerns the phrase, “concentration of superior combat power against that point.” This could be taken to mean massing large forces directly against some point on a map. Sometimes that will be the case, but not always. As noted, special operations are “operational,” but do not involve large forces. And the enemy center of gravity may not be a geographic “point.” For example, in the current Iran-Iraq war, one of Iran’s centers of gravity is its ability to export oil.

The second objection is more serious. By saying that the operational art involves striking the enemy’s operational center of gravity, FM 100-5 misses its essence. Rather, the goal should be to hit the enemy’s strategic center of gravity. The focus is not winning the campaign, but winning the war. FM 100-5’s error here is missing one of its own most important words, a word central to understanding the operational art. The word is “decisive.” The operational art focuses on achieving a decision, achieving it on the highest possible level-the war-winning, strategic level-and achieving it as quickly as possible with the minimum number of battles. Of course, circumstances affect how closely one can approach this ideal. In some cases, it may require a series of campaigns, in which case it is correct to say the operational art in each campaign is focused on the operational (campaign) level. But the goal of seeking a decision requires the campaign planner to aim as high as possible, which is to say, to aim at a strategic center of gravity. The lower aim is a fallback, only adopted when circumstances compel it.

As noted earlier, the operational art is central to maneuver warfare. As important as maneuver is at the tactical level, it is even more important at the operational level. Why is this the case? There are two basic reasons: tempo and economy of force.

In maneuver warfare, tempo is a weapon, often the most powerful weapon. Maneuver tactics both use tempo in battle and permit operational tempo to be sustained through the course of battle. However, almost all battles, even those which go as well as one could expect, slow operational tempo to some extent. A lost battle can slow it considerably or even stop it. It is, therefore, highly important in sustaining tempo to avoid unnecessary battles, battles where victory really does not do much beyond causing some attrition. Operational art is the art of determining beforehand which battles are worth fighting.

Equally important to the Marine Corps is the macro-level economy of force provided by the operational art. Every battle involves friendly casualties. The smaller force-and a Marine expeditionary force will often be out-numbered by its opponent-can win a series of battles, only to find itself reduced to the point where it cannot win the war because of the casualties each victory entailed. The smaller force must use battle sparingly, because it must economize its forces on a theater basis. The operational art permits you to use battle sparingly. It is thus the basis of theater-wide economy of force.

The notion of using battle sparingly, of refusing battle where a victory will not mean much strategically, is a new and probably somewhat uncomfortable idea for Marines. (Sometimes you will have little choice as a competent enemy may force you to fight where you would rather not.) In the past, American forces have generally attempted to win strategically by accumulating tactical victories, accepting battle wherever and whenever offered. There have been exceptions, such as the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific in World War II, which was based on avoiding battle wherever possible. But accumulation was the rule, and it was essentially a replacement for the operational art (of which, institutionally, we had little or no concept).

Vietnam shows the weakness of the accumulation approach. We kept accumulating tactical victories, but they brought us no closer to our strategic goal. With no concept of the operational art, we could not link our tactics and our strategy. Our ability to win battles was ultimately meaningless. Unfortunately, our opponent did understand the operational art. The Tet Offensive, although it resulted in a tactical defeat, was a major operational victory. It struck a decisive blow at our center of gravity, the home front’s support for the war.

The operational art has direct relevance to the Marine Corps’ principal mission, expeditionary warfare. In most cases, expeditionary warfare is likely to mean military intervention in the Third World. Because of the political reaction in the United States to such interventions, it is of the highest importance that they achieve decisive results quickly. The American people are unlikely to support a lengthy limited war, and no administration is likely to be able to continue such a conflict in the face of widespread public opposition. The operational art is central to obtaining a quick decision, and therefore it is also central to the Marine Corps’ utility to the Nation as an expeditionary force.

The Marine Corps’ seaborne amphibious mobility is also operationally important. In fact, it offers a capability we often overlook, one that can only be exploited through the operational art. We normally think of the Corps’ amphibious capability as providing two advantages: one strategic-strategic mobility; and one tactical-forcible entry. But there is a third in many expeditionary situations: an operational mobility advantage.

In many Third World areas, a seaborne force is more mobile than even a mechanized land-based force, which must contend with few roads, most of them bad. The seaborne force can shift its operational point of main effort faster than can the land-based force. Operational mobility advantages can be decisive. The defender had that advantage in World War I. He could shift reserves laterally by rail faster than the attacker could advance on foot. In World War II, mechanization reversed the operational mobility advantage, giving it to the attacker. The result was shown in France in 1940.

In many expeditionary situations, the advantage in operational mobility the Marine Corps has from being seabased may be more important than the forcible entry capability. In other words, the amphibious campaign may be of more value than the amphibious assault. In this sense, the future of the Marine Corps may be seen better in Wellington in Spain than on Tarawa or Okinawa.

A third way the operational art is of direct relevance to the Marine Corps is in special operations. The Corps has been a late entry into the special operations sweepstakes, and this may be to the good. It may give the Corps the opportunity to get it right. So far, our national record in special operations has been less than impressive. Much of the reason has been a failure to grasp the essence of special operations. It has been defined largely as a set of techniques, techniques for storming airplanes, jumping out of helicopters in wet suits, eating snakes, etc. That conception misses the point. As noted earlier, the essence of special operations is that they must be operational. They must be thought through in such a way that a tactical success has direct operational or strategic significance. Sometimes specialized techniques may be needed, and as in all combat, competence in techniques is necessary; but a well-trained infantry unit may often have techniques adequate to the task.

The key here is the phrase, “thought through.” The quality of thought must be high, both in planning and in executing the operation. That means we want people like T.E. Lawrence, not Conan the Barbarian. The Marine Corps can put such people at the core of its special operations forces.

Understanding operational art is one thing, putting it into practice is another. How does one learn how to do it? As in maneuver warfare generally, there is no method or process by which you can do it. Process-type thinking leads to methodical battle, which is the antithesis of maneuver warfare.

For the individual Marine who wants to study operational art, the best route is probably study of past campaigns. He must look not just at what happened, but why it happened. Memoirs of accomplished practitioners of the operational art are also valuable. One of the best is Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Lost Victories. You could do worse than taking the advice one Army general gave the officers of his division: “Read this book once a year for 30 years.”

There are several institutional steps the Marine Corps could take to develop expertise in the operational art. One, which is currently under discussion, is to establish a small second-year course at the Command and Staff College at Quantico, modeled on the Army’s excellent second-year course at Fort Leavenworth. That course is focused on the operational art.*

Second, it could put out an Operational Handbook on the operalional art, one that would include some good case studies.

Third, it could game the operational art in developing scenarios for major exercises. By developing those scenarios in wargames instead of just concocting something arbitrarily, staff officers could be exposed to operational level thinking.

None of this will make the operational art easy or something anyone can do with a little “common sense.” No military has a lot of von Mansteins floating around. But if the Marine Corps wants genuine excellence in expeditionary warfare, it must come to grips with the challenge. The potential reward for the Corps and for the country is enormous. Excellence in the operational art is the ultimate force multiplier.