Operational level of war

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In the field of military theory, the operational level of war (also called the operational art, as derived from Russian: оперативное искусство, or the operational warfare) represents the level of command that coordinates the minute details of tactics with the overarching goals of strategy.[1]

During the 18th and early 19th centuries the synonymous term grand tactics was often applied to describe the manoeuvring of troops not tactically engaged, while in the late 19th century and beyond the First World War the term minor strategy was also in use[2] through the Second World War by some military commentators.[3] The confusion over terminology was brought up in professional military publications that sought to identify "...slightly different shades of meaning, such as tactics, major tactics, minor tactics, grand strategy, major strategy, and minor strategy".[4]

Operational mobility, beginning as a concept during the period of the mechanisation of armed forces, became a method of managing the movement of forces by strategic commanders from the staging area to their Tactical Area of Responsibility.[5]


At first, the operational level of war was conceived by the military theorists to describe the movement and logistics necessary for the coordinated concentration of many units for an offensive. Operational warfare is considered on a large enough scale that the tactical factors, such as line-of-sight and the time of day, are not recognizable, but smaller than the strategic scale, where production, politics, and diplomacy come into play.

Formations are of the operational level if they are able to conduct operational movement on their own, that is operating independently, and are of sufficient size to be directly handled or have a significant impact[citation needed] on the enemy's decision-making at the strategic level of the military campaign or even the war. These methods of conducting operational mobility were pioneered[citation needed] by the German Army during the First World War and collaboratively developed with the Soviet Red Army in the late 1920s and 1930s by Mikhail Tukhachevsky who began to develop the concept between 1925 and 1929 as the basis of the Red Army's new field manual for the conduct of war. It was significantly tested and improved during the World War II by the Wehrmacht during the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa,[citation needed] and by the Red Army for much of the rest of the war after the Battle for Moscow.

What constitutes the operational level has changed with the size and function of armies. During the Second World War, an operational-level formation was typically a corps or army.

Curiously, the term was not widely used in the United States or Britain before 1980–1981,[6][7][8] when it became much discussed and started to enter military doctrines and officer combat training courses.[9] In part, it was popularised by its use in computer games, such as The Operational Art of War.[citation needed]

With the increase in combat power of individual units during the Cold War era, an operational-level formation became a mechanised division, and in the post-Cold War, the combat power of relatively small formations is today as great as that wielded by larger formations in the past. A brigade of some 6,000 personnel has emerged among many militaries (notably the United States Army) as an operational-level formation, replacing the division.

Role in battle

Operational mobility functions to implement the overall strategy of an armed force by giving direction to tactical forces and providing them with the support needed to reach their tactical objectives. Operational formations contain sufficient assets to perform most or all military roles, and the Operational Manoeuvre Group of the Soviet Army besides elements of the combat arms included logistic, medical, and often supporting air assets such as armed helicopters from the overall military force, and hence are fully capable of independent operation.

The tactical forces of the lowest level of operational units perform actual engagement of the enemy and the commanders of these units are responsible for determining how best to perform this combat task. Tactical decisions such as where entrenchments will be placed on defense, and the formations that attacking units will move in are determined at this level.

The lowest operational units define the immediate objectives of these tactical units within their zones of command coordinating the offensive and defensive actions of the units as well as planning and applying supporting artillery fire as needed to accomplish those actions. Higher level operational units such as divisions and corps will support the lower level operational units with logistics and medical supplies, and have more extensive artillery and air support assets at their disposal.

These supporting fires are concentrated at the higher level in order that their striking power can be used where it is needed most. In addition, these forces may order lower level fire support to be applied at particularly important targets, through the technique known as Time on Target.

Toward the end of the Cold War, the United States Army developed the doctrine known as AirLand Battle which formalized U.S. operational doctrine around the concept of mobile warfare. This doctrine sought to create a coherent and integrated practice of all aspects of operational warfare from logistics to maneuver and the use of artillery and air support.

See also



  1. p.24, Simpkin
  2. p.218, Jablonsky
  3. p.28, Whitman
  4. p.3, Bundel
  5. p.64, National Research Council Staff
  6. Zabecki, David T. "The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War": 21–22. ISBN 9781134252251. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. The Operational Level of War. DIANE Publishing. p. v. ISBN 9781428915749.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Luttwak, Edward (1985). "Strategy and History": 175. ISBN 9780887380655. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. p. 111, Stone


  • Bundel, C. M., Col. FA, "What is Strategy?", in Infantry Journal, v.34, United States Infantry Association, 1929
  • Glantz, D. M., Soviet military operational art: In pursuit of deep battle, Frank Cass, London, 1989
  • Jablonsky, David, Roots of Strategy: 4 Military Classics, Stackpole Books, 1999
  • National Research Council Staff, Reducing the Logistics Burden for the Army After Next: Doing More With Less, Committee to Perform a Technology Assessment Focused on Logistics Support Requirements for Future Army Combat Systems, National Research Council (U.S.), National Academies Press, 1999
  • Rogers, Clifford J. (2006). "Strategy, Operational Design, and Tactics". In Bradford, James C (ed.). International Encyclopedia of Military History. New York: Routledge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Simpkin, Richard E., Deep battle: The brainchild of Marshal Tuchachevskii, Brassey's Defence Publishers, London, 1987
  • Simpkin, Richard E, Race to the Swift: Thoughts on Twenty-First Century Warfare, Brassey's, 2000
  • Stone, John, The Tank Debate: Armour and the Anglo-American Military Tradition, Routledge, 2000
  • Whitman, J. E. A., How Wars are Fought: The Principles of Strategy and Tactics, Oxford University Press, 1941