Both the operational level and operational art are inherently abstract theoretical constructs. This is despite the fact that numerous doctrinal manuals and other products have very definitive-looking diagrams. In some respects, they are what we define them to be as long as our definitions are consistent and appear to match reality. Operational art has developed in the U.S. Army over the last few decades primarily because it matches the high-tech, precision fires, rapid maneuver warfare that the service prefers.
But this is not the whole of the story; the U.S. Army did not originate operational concepts. Napoleon “created” the operational level of war by executing warfare in a distributed manner, tied closely to a unified campaign plan that pursued concrete strategic aims, in such a way that opponents were forced to either not fight him or fight him in a corresponding way. The resulting clashes became parts of an operational whole made possible by the social and technological advancements of the mid- to late-eighteenth century. Grant, with his 1864 and 1865 campaigns as overall Union commander, continued to expand on the operational foundation laid by Napoleon, but technological changes, railroads, telegraph, and expanded civilian war production capability, made the operational level of war even more distinct and prominent. Without the benefit of any printed operational doctrine Grant devised a surprisingly modern campaign plan (in 1864) with commander’s intent, concept of operation, branches and sequels, goals and objectives.
Grant also represents an advancement in operational art over Napoleon because he deliberately planned his coordinated operations across multiple theaters of war with the express purpose of denying the CSA the opportunity to transfer forces--deny the ability to mass at all--and carried out this campaign plan with surprising rigor. Napoleon, who originated no coherent military theory, was operating opportunistically according to what he found possible with the national armies of France, improved social conditions of western and central Europe, and improved army organization in the corps system.
The levels of war are codified in our military lexicon but not without any theoretical discrepancy. The tactical level, where discrete military forces are employed in battles and other engagements to destroy, defeat, or repel the enemy is rather straightforward. The strategic level of war is unique because it interfaces directly with policy and the political dimension of war. However, the general expanse between campaign plans executed in specific theaters of war, and the level of national security and defense policy, has been seen as vast enough to necessitate at least one more division: national-strategic level and theater-strategic level. I do not see this as a function of different kinds of strategy but only different levels of strategy making (levels of the strategic process). The national-strategic level is most associated with Clausewitz’s formulation of war as a continuation of politics by other means. The theater-strategic level bridges the highest national strategy level with the specific objectives in a theater of war. In the U.S. military, the geographic Combatant Commander is directly involved in shaping national military strategy and producing the intent, estimates, and plans for a theater of war, which fuels planning at the operational level.
The operational level refers to the level where commanding, planning, supporting, and sustaining takes places to ensure the attainment of strategic objectives. It involves the sequencing, directing, and exploiting of tactical actions and results. It implies a larger area of operations and a longer duration than the tactical level.
The obvious question arises: is the operational level of war really just a grand tactical level? Same as the tactical level just a little bigger? Experience and historical analysis has shown that this is not the case. The operational level sets the framework for tactical actions and integrates with the strategic level.
The idea of levels implies a static position which is misleading when considering the whole of war. Hence talking about operational art--an activity--is easier than defining exactly the operational level of war.
It is hard for me to ignore the fact that the emergence of the operational level of war--then operational art as the actions performed at the operational level--was propelled on several occasions by the grand criterion in all of war: decisiveness. Napoleon was blindingly decisive in warfare, especially from 1805 until 1809--his opponents could not help but want to isolate the secret to his success--which through the interpretations of Jomini and Clausewitz, became the operational level of war. Grant strangled the South with a country-wide strategic-operational plan to coordinate all Union armies, and achieved what was in fact a dramatic victory--by imposing complete defeat. U.S. military writers in the late 1970s and early 1980s analyzed the Vietnam War and found a disconnect between the strategic and tactical levels. To fill that gap they integrated operational concepts into U.S. Army doctrine in 1982 and 1986. The defining role for operational art came in the 1991 Gulf War when a generation of leaders schooled and trained in operational art trounced a modern, mechanized army.
- “A nation is only as strong as its people. To ensure national strength there must be adequate military forces, properly equipped to repel any attacks upon our sovereignty, and such forces must be backed up by a well organized civilian population of high morale which can produce all the necessities for carrying on modern warfare. This unity of military and civilian strength will be only as strong as its weakest component, therefore, we must ensure that all parts of this combination are equally strong.” --- Admiral Chester W. Nimitz quoted in Military Review 27, no. 10 (January 1948): 11.