Operational Art’s Origins
Bruce W. Menning
Over the last decade, and especially since coalition victory in the Gulf War, the term “operational
art” has achieved buzzword status within the Army and joint communities. However, despite
growing acceptance, a good deal of confusion surrounds the meaning and significance of
operational art. For some, it is merely tactical arrows drawn larger. For other, it is a cumbersome
transplant from foreign military usage. For still others, it remains a key to recent and future
victories, but one whose origins are murky and whose nature and content are difficult to define.
This article will attempt to increase the comfort level of those confronting operational art for the
first time, or those still harboring doubts about its meaning and significance for future war. The
discussion focuses on concept, with an emphasis on doctrinal evolution as the product of
interaction over time among combat experience, theory, technology and circumstance.
The term operational art long antedates US Army usage. Six decades before operational art
gained currency in the West, it was used by the Soviets. Arguably, a rough equivalent had also
appeared among the Germans, who before World War I coined something they called operativ.
However, neither term immediately entered the US military vernacular for two possible reasons:
Before World War II and the Cold War, there was no persistent requirement in peacetime to
prepare for the conduct of extended military operations on a vast scale; and during a less
complex era it was possible–even comfortable–to remain firmly wedded to a 19th-century
inheritance which taught that military art consisted of strategy and tactics.
For the Soviet military culture of the 1920s and 1930s, this was not the case. Fresh from the
seemingly contradictory experiences of World War I (1914 to 1918) and the Russian Civil War
(1918 to 1920), Soviet army theorists and practitioners sought systematic explanations for the
complexities underlying victory and defeat in modem war. Armed with an ideology that
emphasized theory and scientific method in military affairs, they brought new perspective to the
study of military history and refreshing rigor to views on the nature of possible future war,
including the conduct of operations.[ 1] By the late 1920s, they had emerged with an altered
view of the constituent components of military art, and it is to this period–a golden age of
military thought–that we owe the origins of our basic understanding of operational art. To
understand why the Soviets developed this concept when they did, the reader must understand
their perspectives and preoccupations.
Military Art’s Changing Nature
A chief problem bedeviling all military theorists of the period was the changing nature of modem
operations. Historically, the term “operation” had been in use at least since the end of the 17th
century to describe what European armies did in the field. Initially, during the age of preindustrial warfare, generals and kings raised professional armies to fight limited wars for the
dynastic state’s limited objectives. Within limited war’s framework, the conduct of operations
formed an integral part of strategy, and strategy was simply conceived as “the tactics of theaterlevel operations.”[ 2] By 18th century’s end, Napoleon imparted new meaning to the traditional
calculus when he raised larger armies to fight decisively for objectives that called for the
annihilation of enemy forces and gave rise to empires.
Still, the basic technologies remained the same, and with room for alteration and even poetic
license, the next generation of military thinkers, led by Henri Jomini and his disciples, redefined
the traditional pre-industrial paradigm to describe Napoleonic military art. Their view was that
military strategy remained the domain of large–unit operations and that the essence of
Napoleonic genius could be understood in his pursuit of “the strategy of the single point.” That
is, Napoleon’s columns march-maneuvered within theater to force convergence with the enemy
at a single point–finite in time and space–for climactic battle to determine the outcome of a
season’s campaign, perhaps even the outcome of an entire war. Strategy described a limited
complex of actions, including approaches, marches, countermarches and maneuvers, which took
place within theater to leverage mass for decisive battle. Tactics described what happened within
the limited confines of the battlefield.[ 3]
During the 19th century’s last half, about the time when most military thinkers had grown
comfortable with this understanding of strategy and tactics, the industrial revolution went to war,
thereby altering the basic paradigm in ways not fully understood until after World War I:
The evolution of the modem industrial state during the 19th century enabled governments
to tap vast manpower resources to produce truly mass armies based on the cadre and reserve
principle of recruitment and organization.
The application of steam and electricity to military ends enabled governments to mobilize
these armies and project them into potential theaters with unprecedented rapidity and
The size of these armies and their preparation for deployment in future conflict mandated
the application of industrial-style planning and directing methods.
The new firepower, based first on rifled, breech-loading weaponry, then on its magazinefed, smokeless powder variant, increased lethality and ranges, and with them, the scale of
These changes revolutionized the conduct of war and set the stage for an altered understanding
of military art and its component parts. Except for the Prussians, few practitioners understood
that strategy now had to account for movement of forces in-theater and for their mobilization and
movement to theater. In addition, something else was occurring that only a few obscure East
European thinkers perceived: as modem conflict drew increasingly on the will and resources of
entire populations, notions of strategy also had to take into account linkages between fighting
front and deep supporting rear.
Even more perplexing for the practitioner, the novel combination of mass and firepower meant
that the strategy of the “single point” within theater had lost relevance. To avoid lethal frontal
confrontation and to avail themselves of mass and speed of deployment, commanders now
sought to stretch Napoleon’s “single point” of troop confrontation laterally in pursuit of an
extended line. The idea was to pin frontally, then extend to the soft flank, with an eye toward
either the envelopment or the turning movement. Thus, the Napoleonic strategy of the single
point gave way within theater to the strategy of the “extended line.” This development, which
was already evident in the American Civil War’s later stages found its tragic culmination with the
extended trench lines of World War I on the Western Front.[ 4]
If these changes were not challenging enough, traditional notions of tactical-level battle also
underwent fundamental alteration. As ranges extended, battlefield limits increased geometrically
and the commander’s ability to control his troops diminished dramatically. Although more troops
than ever before inhabited the battlefield, they now became invisible as they went to ground to
avoid lethal firepower. Battles began to lose whatever internal logic and coherence they once
had: From a mixture of controlled mayhem and chaos within a limited area mercifully lasting
only hours or perhaps several days, they had now evolved to rattle across time and space to
produce an outcome from which even the triumphant might emerge without final victory. As the
slaughter of World War I-style positional warfare indicated, the sum of tactical successes was no
sure predictor of larger strategic success.[ 5]
Though not fully apparent until after 1918, a key to understanding what had occurred was a
perception of how the nature of military operations had changed over the course of the late 19th
and early 20th centuries. In traditional Napoleonic–style strategic perspective, operations
described what occurred within theater as armies, which had already been assembled and
deployed, were concentrated and maneuvered against each other to force a single, climactic
battle. Logistics had always been a significant, but subsidiary part of the calculus: Troops got by
on what had been stockpiled before the onset of a season’s campaign or on what they could
scrounge from a grudging population within theater.
However, the overall picture had changed by the beginning of the 20th century. Campaigns were
no longer governed by the seasons. The nature of operations was increasingly dictated by the
thrust of higher-level preparation and planning, and operations themselves were no longer finite
affairs leading to a single decisive battle. Operations, a complex of military actions and battles
linked by time, place and intent, might extend for several weeks or longer. An operation’s course
might witness a major regroupment of forces and require changed command, control and logistic
arrangements, all within the altered limits of greatly expanded space and time. The growing
realization was that the preparation for and conduct of operations had expanded beyond the
limits of traditional military strategy to incorporate new content, methods and concerns. The
most important issue was one of linkages, and within a conceptual framework for the conduct of
operations, how to fashion linkages to contend with changes in time, timing, duration, support,
scale, range and distance.
World War I simply reinforced and added more wrinkles to these and related considerations.
Combat experience demonstrated conclusively that single operations no longer dictated the
outcome of a campaign or war. Decision came only as a result of successive operations linked by
intent, location, allocation of resources and concerted action. Combat experience also
demonstrated the bankruptcy of the extended-line strategy–once flanks were denied, adversaries
were left with two unpalatable options: Effect a penetration or attack in another theater.
Penetrations presented formidable challenges because the hard school of experience taught that
defending forces could fall back on a combination of deep reserves, a relatively undamaged rail
net and a coherent rear area to reconstitute a viable defense in what later was called “operational
depths.” Consequently, after only limited tactical gains at great cost, the attackers would have to
pause and prepare for follow-on offensive operations.
World War I also suggested solutions from outside theater for the bloody impasse. One was to
have a potential ally available with vast manpower reserves to tip the scales at the 11th hour.
Another was to attack the enemy’s deep supporting rear either indirectly through surface
blockade or a submarine “guerre de course.” Still another came from technological innovation:
Aircraft could fly over trench lines, while armored vehicles could crash and shoot their way
through. But before any of these innovations could be applied with any degree of consistent
success in future war, practitioners had to understand what had happened and why and what the
implications were for the future. In the course of pondering these variables, theorists and
practitioners would begin to fashion not only a common vocabulary, including a rudimentary
understanding of operational art, but also a common conceptual framework for the conduct of
New Vocabulary and Solutions
I have described a world of complex military realities that Soviet thinkers confronted during the
1920s and 1930s. To be sure other military cultures and thinkers, including Giulio Douhet,
William “Billy” Mitchell, J.F.C. Fuller and B.H. Liddell Hart, also contributed to intellectual
ferment and “new thinking” during the same era. The Soviets were distinctive for the following
They maintained a consistent focus on the conduct of large-scale, ground-oriented
They worried obsessively about linking separate aspects of their thought about the changing
nature of operations to larger and smaller military realities.
They produced an entire school of thinkers, not just individuals laboring in isolation from
one another and their military cultures.
They undertook a systematic historical study of operations since Napoleon’s time to
understand what had changed and why.
Soviet army theorists emerged from this quest with what they felt were fundamental keys to
understanding change: The shifting content of military strategy, the evolving nature of operations
themselves and the disaggregation of military structures. An important underlying assumption
was that these developments owed much of their significance to the impact of changing
technology over time.
The Soviets perceived that evolving military theory and practice had led to a situation in which
the strategy of an entire nation at war had become a kind of intellectual and organizational
continuum linking broad fighting front with large supporting rear. That is, strategy was what
guided a nation in preparing for and waging contemporary and future war, while the conduct of
operations was rapidly assuming sufficient identity to warrant attention in itself, albeit not in
isolation from strategy and tactics. The conscious understanding was that strategy–more
precisely, military strategy–had ballooned to encompass a host of activities, including higherlevel planning and preparation, resource orchestration and priority and objective identification,
all of which culminated in the direct application of military power for the state’s goals.[ 6] In
short, strategy had come to mean something akin to what Colonel Arthur F. Lykke Jr. would
later define as orchestrating and linking “ends, ways and means” to the attain national security
This development, when coupled with the increasing complexity of operations, caused a gap to
open between the traditional understanding of strategy and tactics. Some commentators filled
this gap with the term “grand tactics” while others searched for analogous terms, including
“applied strategy” and operatika (Russian circa 1907), to define what the more traditional
understanding of strategy had once described as happening within theater.[ 8] For a time, under
military theorist Sigismund W. yon Schlichting’s influence, the Germans toyed with operativ, but
they do not appear to have elaborated it with any degree of persistence and consistency.[ 9]
Under the influence of varied perspectives and preoccupations, other commentators saw no gap
and therefore found little reason to worry about it, continuing to regard tactics and strategy as
In contrast, by 1922 the Soviets were beginning to fill the “terminological gap” with something
they called “operational art,” and they would spend much of the 1920s and 1930s developing a
more complete understanding of this concept and its implications.[ 10] At first, it was a term
Soviet army thinkers used to bridge the gap between strategy and tactics and to describe more
precisely the discipline that governed the preparation for and conduct of operations. In 1926, a
Soviet theorist and former Imperial Russian General Staff officer, Aleksandr A. Svechin,
captured the essence of linkages among the new three–part understanding of military art when
he wrote, “Tactics makes up the steps from which operational leaps are assembled. Strategy
points out the path.”[ 11] Not surprisingly, a new department, Conduct of Operations, appeared
alongside the conventional Departments of Strategy and Tactics at the Soviet Staff Academy.
The new understanding of the relationship among the three components of military art provided
impulse for a second factor–steady focus on the evolving nature of operations, with implications
for future war. In accordance with the foregoing discussion, the Soviets understood that the
industrial revolution had changed the face of modem operations. They knew that operations now
had to be consciously differentiated from battles, which were shorter in duration, more limited in
scope and outcome and more episodic in nature. Moreover, World War I had driven home the
realization that single operations in themselves rarely produced strategic decision. Decision now
came as the result of a whole complex of successive, simultaneous and related operations. The
Soviets also perceived that operations as diverse as those of World War I and their own civil war
had much in common. This realization came primarily from an understanding that logistics and
rail and road nets played a key role in determining the scale, scope and depth of modem military
operations.[ 12] During the mid-1920s, Soviet army Staff Chief Mikhail N. Tukhachevskiy
ordered the faculty that taught the conduct of operations at the staff academy to incorporate
logistics into their operational-level exercises. Some Russian commentators later asserted that
consideration of support in tandem with operations actually gave birth to the concept of Soviet
operational art.[ 13]
Soviet theorist Georgiy S. Isserson provided the necessary insight: That armies since the onset of
World War I had witnessed a “disaggregation of forces.” That is, between 1914 and the early
1930s, the steady march of technology had resulted in the structural evolution of armed forces
whose organizations now reflected greater diversity and whose weaponry had become
increasingly differentiated by range and combat effect. For continental-style armies, these forces
bore only superficial resemblance to their past counterparts. In 1914, for example, despite
differences in movement and combat technique, infantry and cavalry represented two aspects of
a fairly homogeneous force moved by muscle on the battlefield and supported by similar kinds of
artillery. The operational radius and combat effects of these forces were still relatively limited in
depth and scope. However, by the 1930s, new structures and weapons had evolved to accompany
the introduction of aircraft, armor and long-range artillery into battles and operations. What
resulted was a more heterogeneous force, but more important, a force whose qualities and
attributes required a new order of thought and preparation before they could be systematically
applied to military ends.
Isserson saw that a primary purpose of operational art was to reaggregate the diverse effects and
operational characteristics of these forces either simultaneously or sequentially across a much
larger theater of combat operations.[ 14]
These and related impulses came together during the 1930s to produce the Soviet concept of
deep operations. With the massive application of new technologies, the Soviets swept away the
older geometries of point and line to settle on the advantages of extending a force vector in
depth. The requirement was to mobilize a diverse combat array, including infantry, armor,
airborne, long–range artillery and air power, then orchestrate this array’s multiple effects through
an operation both sequentially and simultaneously in three dimensions. The object in the
offensive was to attack an enemy’s defenses as near simultaneously as possible throughout their
depth to effect a catastrophic disintegration of their entire defense system. The concept was to
accomplish a penetration by blasting and crashing a path through the tactical zone; then insert a
powerful mobile group for exploitation into the operational depths. For maximum decisive
effect, the Soviets envisioned these operations as driven from the top down, starting at front
(army group) and proceeding down through army and corps levels.[ 15]
Although the Soviets did not ignore other operational issues, the theory and practice of deep
operations occupied center stage for Soviet operational art during the 1930s. Operational art
required the practitioner to:
Identify strategic objectives within theater.
Visualize a theater in three dimensions.
Determine what sequence of military actions–preparation, organization, support, battles
and command arrangements–would bring the attainment of those objectives.
After analyzing previous operations, and assuming massive injections of armor and airpower, the
Soviets calculated that future operations might occupy up to 300 kilometers of frontage, extend
to a depth of about 250 kilometers and have a duration of 30 to 45 days. Consequently, these
operations would be closely tied to the attainment of objectives determined by larger strategic
requirements, while overall success would rest on the ability to integrate logistics and tactics into
the larger design.
Linkages between fighting front and large supporting rear were also clear. For various reasons,
including a close reading of Carl yon Clausewitz’s work, the digestion of lessons from the home
front in World War I and a growing sense that victory in future war would depend on the state’s
total resources, the Soviets gravitated to a view that future conflict would be systemic and
protracted. During the 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s policies of agricultural collectivization and massive
industrialization amounted to a peacetime mobilization of Soviet society. A succession of fiveyear plans built infrastructure for future war and produced much of the military hardware
required for deep operations. The transformation–even militarization–of Soviet society stood as
grim testimony to linkages between strategic vision and operational-level capability.[ 16]
Stalin’s potential German adversaries inherited a different military legacy and worked from a
different philosophical base. After lightning victories over the French in 1870 and 1871, much of
the rationale behind German military planning had been to devise initial operations of sufficient
scope and speed that they would bring about the enemy’s capitulation during a single brief
campaign of annihilation. The assumption was that modem society had become too fragile to
withstand the dislocations of extended military conflict. The Word War I experience seemed to
confirm earlier apprehensions: Protractedness had brought the “Hydra-headed” dangers of
attrition, domestic exhaustion and political instability, even revolution.
As the German Reichswehr emerged from the Versailles-imposed 1920s’ cocoon to become
Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the late 1930s, emphasis once again fell upon avoidance. From a nearintuitive grasp of the military potential resident in the same technologies the Soviets were
developing, the Germans fashioned blitzkrieg, a stunning response to the challenges, including
protractedness, inherent in positional warfare. The marriage of air power and armor with combat
technique gave birth to a combined arms concept with immediate tactical application and
important operational implications. Once again the siren-like calls of annihilation and rapid
decision summoned the Germans to rocky military shores.[ 17]
In retrospect, the new German vision for “lightning war” had at least two major shortcomings,
one of which was accepted as self-imposed. The first was that operators and planners failed to
embed blitzkrieg in a coherent vision for the conduct of operations, something which might have
come about if the Germans had bothered with developing their own legacy of operativ.[ 18]
Experience could overcome this problem. The second and more important shortcoming was that
the Germans failed beyond the obvious and superficial to consider important systemic linkages
between fighting front and supporting domestic rear. Nevertheless, Hitler found the new vision
congenial with his own grasp of strategy, while the successes of 1939 to 1942 obscured the more
profound difficulties of mobilizing the home front.[ 19]
In contrast, the Soviet vision possessed impressive coherence, but it is important to note that
Moscow did not initially have all the answers. The very nature of Soviet military culture,
coupled with the requirements of continental-style warfare, meant that the Soviets retained a very
limited view of operational arts’ air and naval components. The chief purpose of air power was to
serve the ground operation, while the primary role of naval forces was to defend the coastline
and to extend the geographical limits of conventional land-oriented theaters of military actions.
In addition, other circumstances peculiar to the Soviet situation prevented the Soviet army from
drawing timely benefit from an understanding of operational art. Thanks to a series of
circumstances, including Stalin’s officer corps’ purge in 1937 and 1938, misinterpretation of
lessons learned from the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939), the necessity to assimilate huge
quantities of troops and new technology and Hitler’s ability to effect surprise in 1941, the Soviets
did poorly in World War II’s opening stages on the Eastern Front.[ 20] Not until 1943 did they
emerge from the hard school of experience to return to a more perfect version of operational art–
with devastating consequences for the Wehrmacht.
From Stalingrad to Berlin during 1943 to 1945, the Soviets perfected front and multi-front
sequential and simultaneous operations. Stalin’s marshals learned to command and control these
operations in depth and breadth while coordinating air support with armored thrusts. From 1944
on, mobility and maneuver assumed increasing significance, in part because the Germans could
no longer replace losses, and because the Soviets to stretch the limits
of logistic support. Doctrine and practice gradually evolved to emphasize the most complex of
modem ground operations–the encirclement–which the Soviets successfully executed about 50
times on the Eastern Front. The Soviets decisively turned the tables on the Germans and, in so
doing, demonstrated a mastery of the military art that compared favorably with earlier German
The World War II and Cold War Legacy
World War II also left the US Armed Forces with considerable experience in conducting modem
operations. However, operational mastery had come neither easily nor quickly, in part because
the period between the world wars offered scant intellectual, doctrinal and organizational
precedent. At the US Army Command and General Staff School (USACGSC) during the 1930s,
theater operations were taught according to 19th-century precedent as “military strategy.” The
Army’s capstone field manual, FM 100-5 Operations, appeared in draft form in 1939, but its
focus, as befitting a small, peacetime ground force, was primarily tactical. The Louisiana
Maneuvers of 1940 and 1941 offered only belated and limited practical experience with largeunit operations.[ 22] For its part, the Army Air Corps had to support ground operations, but
much of its attention was riveted on acquiring the expertise and hardware to conduct strategic
bombing campaigns.[ 23]
To its credit, the US Navy, drawing from its experience in World War I and anticipating the
possibility of a protracted two-ocean war, seriously considered the planning challenges inherent
in conducting multidimensional operations over time and across large expanses.[ 24] Yet, the
overall US picture was one of Isserson’s disaggregated forces translated into American terms.
Unfortunately, the services and their offspring remained largely preoccupied with their own
perspectives, problems and self-interests. For these and other reasons, the background for
preparing and conducting operations constituted at best a mixed bag. The result was that US
military forces during World War II had to learn on the job from the hard school of experience.
To their credit, commanders and their staffs gradually perfected the art of conducting massive
combined and joint operations across vast distances to reach strategic objectives. It would be
difficult, in retrospect, to argue that major operations by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz in the
Central Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific, General Dwight D.
Eisenhower in Europe and General George S. Patton Jr. across northern France, did not match
the majesty and significance of Soviet World War II operations.
Despite the richness of experience in conducting World War II operations, the United States and
the Soviet Union followed different paths of postwar doctrinal and organizational evolution. For
a time, neither former ally focused consistently on large–scale operations. The Cold War
precluded doctrinal interchange, while demobilization and the advent of nuclear weaponry
produced varying responses which affected the way the two armed powers viewed their roles and
the nature of possible military operations.
In the US Army, theater armies and support commands atrophied or disappeared in the rash to
demobilize, leaving the Army to seek parochial comfort in tactical-level concerns. During the
Cold War’s first decade, the United States increasingly sought military capital in reliance on
strategic and battlefield-level nuclear devices, which further dampened doctrinal interest in largeunit operations.[ 25]
When the Korean War intervened, a mixture of improvisation and difficulties associated with
theater geography at first precluded serious thought about sweeping operations on a vast scale.
The one subsequent bright spot, MacArthur’s landing at Inchon and advance to the Yalu River,
was soon forgotten as tactical stalemate set in along the 38th parallel. Meanwhile, the Soviets
began to reconsider their own hasty post-World War II demobilization. Because Stalin initially
did not have the atom bomb, the best he could do was to modernize Soviet forces to field a better
variant of what had brought them victory on the Eastern Front. Until 1953, Stalin’s presence
clouded analysis of lessons learned from World War II. Subsequently, Nikita S. Khrushchev’s
rash to downsize the Soviet military through reliance on nuclear weapons also de-emphasized
operational art’s importance.[ 26]
For the US Army, three important circumstances prompted a doctrinal evolution that culminated
in the adoption of operational art as a doctrinal concept. The first was the Vietnam War, in which
field forces scored a series of tactical triumphs but were unable to transform them into strategic
outcomes. Debate over the reasons for this failure, along with the necessity to rebuild the US
Army, eventually prompted a far–reaching series of doctrinal and organizational changes that
cut to the core of how the Army expected to do business in future war. As the Army resurrected
itself and peered into the future, some officers looked to the military classics, especially those by
Clausewitz, both to afford insight into recent failure and to provide inspiration and vocabulary
for what needed to be done. Meanwhile, threat analysis identified the task’s magnitude–major
confrontation with Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe assumed overriding significance as
the most challenging version of possible future war. The very nature and scale of this threat led
naturally to a rebirth of interest in the conduct of large-unit operations.[ 27]
A second important factor in the Army’s doctrinal evolution was the technological content of
possible future war. The Vietnam War had witnessed the limited introduction of sophisticated
precision-guided weaponry, but there was little coherent sense of the overall implications the
new gadgetry and related technologies might hold for conventional war. Much of that sense
came from the 1973 Middle East War, during which the massive application of new munitions
appeared to revise conventional wisdom about the calculus for air superiority, the role of armor
in ground combat and the relationships among various components within the conduct of
operations. Meanwhile, a new organization, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command,
attempted to digest the lessons of the Middle East War and respond to the challenge of possible
conflict with Warsaw Pact hordes on the northern European plain. The result was the 1976
version of FM 100-5 which emphasized “active defense.”[ 28]
Dissatisfaction with this concept and the search for alternatives was a third major factor in the
Army’s post-Vietnam doctrinal evolution. On one hand, the geopolitical realities of NATO
dictated both a forward defense and national contributions of corps-size formations, both of
which lobbied strongly for a continuing tactical-level focus. The 1976 FM 100-5 accurately
reflected this focus. On the other hand, increasingly obvious considerations, including the
necessity for defense in depth and the requirement to apply and integrate sophisticated
technologies at higher levels, argued for new departures in thought and organization. As critics
and writers of doctrine turned to the promise inherent in conducting a future war of maneuver
with large-scale units, they sought historical and doctrinal precedent. Earlier, advocates of
“active defense” had seized upon dogged German defense against the Soviet onslaught from
1943 to 1945 as key to the doctrinal secret of “fighting outnumbered and winning.” The belated
realization was that the Germans had fought outnumbered and lost.
Now, the advocates of maneuver war seized upon blitzkrieg and initial German successes in
World War II to advance doctrinal departures that would emphasize the marriage of technology
and technique while conducting modem mobile operations. Almost as an afterthought, other
thinkers began seriously to examine the doctrine and military art of the Soviet adversary which
had inflicted defeat on “the devil’s disciples.” From Soviet military history there gradually
emerged a mature understanding of the three–part nature of Soviet military art, along with
notions about why the Soviets chose to place separate emphasis on “operational art” as the theory
and practice of conducting operations. The term found immediate resonance among US Army
doctrine writers, who were now more attuned to the nuances and complexities of modem
Meanwhile, the Soviets themselves emerged from the doctrinal torpor induced by Stalinist and
early nuclear-era rigidities. From the mid-1960s on into the 1970s, as the Soviets slowly clawed
their way to nuclear parity with the United States, military art theorists filled the pages of the
serious Soviet military press with works that amounted to a renaissance of operational art and its
contemporary legacy. Under conditions of nuclear parity, a major assumption was that in a future
European war, the nature of operations might remain conventional, either initially or for an
extended period. Consequently, it was necessary once again to focus single-mindedly on the
preparation and conduct of large-scale conventional operations–albeit under conditions which
might witness a rapid escalation to nuclear war.[ 30] During the late 1970s and early 1980s, this
train of thought lay at the heart of the conceptual evolution of the theater strategic offensive
operation. This series of integrated operations envisioned a massive offensive built around the
echeloned introduction of forces that would develop attacks facilitating the insertion of
operational maneuver groups for exploitation within the shallow NATO rear area.
US Operational Art
When open-source materials on Soviet operational art and scattered intelligence about the theater
strategic operation reached US and NATO audiences, they added fuel to the fire of doctrinal and
technologically inspired innovation. Already in the early 1980s, NATO leaders had begun to
adopt the follow-on forces attack (FOFA) concept as a way of striking at highly echeloned
Warsaw Pact formations in depth by employing new and more powerful long-range precision
The promise of new technology, along with a NATO–oriented military buildup and the
emerging emphasis on maneuver war, prompted doctrine writers to alter their focus, examine
linkages and contend with the thorny issues of scale, content, scope and duration.[ 31] As a
result, the US Army doctrinal community conceded operational art was necessary within theater
to link new concepts and technologies with higher (strategic) and lower (tactical) level concerns.
Not surprisingly, when the 1982 FM 100-5 appeared, it recognized three levels of war and
asserted that “the operational level of war uses available military resources to attain strategic
goals within a theater of war.” The new FM emphasized agility, initiative, depth and
synchronization. It also addressed the problem of reaggregation by acknowledging the necessity
for close cooperation with the US Air Force in waging AirLand Battle. Despite the tactical
overtones implicit in the word “battle,” the 1982 FM-100-5 clearly encouraged a focus on the
operational level of war, which involved planning and conducting campaigns. For their part,
campaigns were conceived as “sustained operations designed to defeat an enemy force in a
specified space and time with simultaneous and sequential battles.”[ 32]
Four years later, the 1986 FM 100-5 deepened and extended the Army’s understanding of
contemporary operations, and for the first time in US military usage, the Army capstone manual
actually defined operational art. Under US rubric, operational art was “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.” This definition was no
mere copying of Soviet precedent, but rather an attempt to apply the concept to future US
operations from the perspective of an informed and updated understanding.
The elaboration of operational art in US view reflected many of the preoccupations and
intellectual growing pains with which Army doctrine writers had contended since the Vietnam
War. From a curious mixture of modified Clausewitz and Jomini came the concepts of
operational design, including center of gravity, lines of operation, decisive points and
culmination, which underlay operational art and its application to campaign planning.[ 33] From
a sense that technology and circumstance were changing the nature and content of operations,
there flowed a genetic understanding of operational-level functions–intelligence, rites,
maneuver, logistics, protection and command and control-which entered either sequentially or
simultaneously into planning for major operations and campaigns. From a realization that
operational art would remain an empty concept unless closely tied to education and application,
there came gradual introduction of campaign planning into the curricula of the US Army War
College and the USACGSC.[ 34]
Although the Army bad dealt convincingly with issues of concept, vocabulary and application,
there was no immediate guarantee that the joint community would pick up on one service’s
fixation with operational art. Of the other services, only the US Air Force had become
increasingly a party to the Army’s doctrinal evolution, thanks to the explicit and implicit
implications of FOFA and AirLand Battle. Indeed, doctrinal evolution might have stopped in the
mid-1980s, had it not been for several subsequent, near-simultaneous developments.
The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act. This legislation had
several important and, at first, almost unnoticeable consequences for the US defense
establishment. The new congressional legislation enhanced the stature and functions of the
warfighting commanders in chief (CINCs), who now wielded increased responsibility in
planning for and conducting future joint and combined military operations.
Mandated emphasis on jointness. “Jointness” forced the services to write doctrine with an eye
toward a common understanding of the conduct of operations, both jointly and separately. With
the creation of J7, a new Joint Staff directorate, joint-level doctrinal stress fell increasingly on
the development of common joint-level vocabulary and concepts. Under these circumstances, it
was no accident that the US Navy began to talk about operational art in maritime theaters. It was
also no accident that Joint Publication 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations and Joint Publication 5-
0, Doctrine for Planning Joint Operations focused more clearly and consistently on operational
The Cold War’s End. Another factor in contemporary doctrinal development was the Cold War’s
end. One major result of vanishing bipolarity was a renewed effort to integrate regional
perspectives and priorities into the crafting of US national security and military strategies. These
concepts provided guidance and a sense of larger context. The same concepts reinforced the
impact of Goldwater-Nichols, causing CINCs to focus more distinctly on the development of
theater-level strategies with an attendant but sometimes unspoken emphasis on operational art
concerns. Campaign planning also had a role to play. It incorporated elements of operational art
and theater-level strategy, but also gradually evolved to contend with regional threats. Thus,
another Cold War consequence had figured into the development of doctrine and concept: The
emergence, or perhaps rediscovery, of major regional threats outside the context of traditional
ideological conflict. Still another consequence was a de-emphasis on the likelihood of nuclear
war, a realization which forced all the US services to ponder the challenges inherent in
conducting extended conventional operations within the context of regional military conflict.
Downsizing. The post-Cold War era brought force reductions, force projection and a scarcity of
resources, all of which argued that future conflict would leave little room for service
parochialism and little time for World War II-style on-the-job training. Key components of
modem operations, especially logistics and sustainment, suddenly assumed greater significance.
If during the 1970s and 1980s the Army worried about “first battles” in future war, now the joint
community had to worry about “first operations” in future campaigns and wars.[ 36]
To prove this point, the 1990 to 1991 Gulf War erupted to provide an important impulse for a
doctrinal reincarnation of operational art in joint guise. Operations in Desert Shield/Storm
reinforced the evolutionary flow in several ways. First, they unconsciously revisited Isserson’s
legacy by drawing attention to the complexities of planning and action required to bring about a
reaggregation of combat effects within theater over time by disparate armed forces with disparate
capabilities.[ 37] This realization lay at the heart of modem joint warfare and continues to
provide fertile ground for continued doctrinal growth. Second, the conceptual tools inherent in
the US understanding of operational art, including center of gravity, played an important part in
the calculus that brought allied victory. And third, with all the attention devoted to “high-tech”
weaponry, the Gulf War reminded both the military and the public at large that a revolution in
military affairs (RMA) was continuing apace, with important implications for the future.[ 38]
One way of placing the RMA within context for theater application would be to view it within
the intellectual and doctrinal perspective of operational art. After all, operational art was born in
an era when the advent of air power and ground mechanization contributed to a specific theaterlevel focus, and there is no reason to believe that operational art as it has entered US usage
cannot again serve as a doctrinal catalyst for new ways to envision the conduct of future
This operational art evolution overview demonstrates some of the verifies and ironies inherent in
the history of a concept. Concepts are based on ideas, and ideas over time can be picked up,
dropped and either reborn or refashioned to suit fresh circumstances and changed situations. In
general, operational art first appeared during the 1920s in response to the shifting content of
strategy, the changing nature of operations and the evolving nature of military structures. Larger
context included the appearance of major new elements within the international order and the
constant intrusion of new technology into military conflict. During the late 1980s and early
1990s, all of these conditions were once again present, and in one of the ironies of intellectual
and military history, they elicited a rebirth of interest in operational art under different
circumstances. The productive elaboration of this concept in contemporary context supports the
contention that military thinkers and doctrine writers should always draw inspiration from the
past but not be bound by it. Indeed, the term’s potential for retaining future significance argues
that theorists should seek to expand and refine the limits of operational art. It and related
concepts remain dynamic, and dynamism, while sometimes a source of confusion, is also an
important sign of vitality and growth.
1. The developments of the 1920s are summarized in James J. Schneider, The Structure
of Strategic Revolution Total War and the Rocks of the Soviet Warfare State (Novato, CA:
Presidio Press, 1994), chapters 5 and 6.
2. R.A. Savushkin, “K voprosu o zarozhdenii teorii posledovatel’nykh operatsiy” (Toward
the Question of the Origin of the Theory of Successive Operations), Voyenno-istoricheskiy
zhumal (Military-Historical Journal) (May 1983), 49-81.
3. A superb analysis of the changing nature of strategy within a theater is Georgiy S.
Isserson, Evolyutsiya operativnogo iskusstva [The Evolution of Operational Art], 2d ed.
(Moscow: Gosvoyenizdat, 1937), 18-28.
4. Ibid., 34-37.
5. The acute perceptions of contemporary appear in Freiherr Hugo F.P. von FreytagLoringhoven, Deductions from the World War (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1918), 101-6.
6. The classic example of this trend was Aleksandr A. Svechin’s textbook Strategiya
[Strategy], 2d ed. (Moscow: Voyennyy Vestnik, 1927), which has been edited by Kent D. Lee
and translated into English as Aleksandr A. Svechin, Strategy (Minneapolis, MN: East View
Publications, 1992); the first chapter describes “strategy in a number of military disciplines.”
7. Arthur F. Lykke Jr., “Toward an Understanding of Military Strategy,” in COL Arthur
F. Lykke Jr., editor, Military Strategy: Theory and Application (Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army
War College, 1989), 3-7.
8. A.A. Kersnovskiy, Filosofiya voyny [The Philosophy of War] (Belgrade: Izd.
Tsarkogo Vestnika, 1939), 31.
9. See the commentary in Freiherr Hugo FP von Freytag-Loringhoven, Heerfuenhrung im
Weltkriege, 2 vols. (Berlin: E.S. Mittler, 1920-1921), I, iii, 41, 45 and 46; cf. John English, “The
Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War,” in B.J.C. McKercher and Michael
Hennessy, editors, The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War (Westport, CT:
Praeger, 1996), 13.
10. The origin of the term is categorically ascribed to Svechin by N. Varfolomeyev, an
early student of operational art, in “Strategiya v akademicheskoy postanovke” [Strategy in an
Academic Setting], Voyna i revolyutsiya [War and Revolution] (November 1928), 84n.
11. Svechin, Strategy, 269; see also, Jacob Kipp, “Two Views of Warsaw: The Russian
Civil War and Soviet Operational Art,” in McKercher and Hennessy, editors, The Operational
12. The officer most frequently associated with the comparative analysis of operations
was V.K. Triandafillov, whose ground-breaking Kharakter operatsiy sovremennykh armiy [The
Nature of the Operations of Modern Armies], 3d ed. (Moscow: Voyenizdat, 1936), has been
edited by Jacob W. Kipp and translated into English as The Nature of the Operations of Modern
Armies (Ilford, Essex, UK: Frank Class and Co., Ltd., 1994); see especially part two.
13. Varfolomeyev, “Strategiya v akademicheskoy pstanovke,” 84-85.
14. The argument is clearly enunciated in Georgiy S. Isserson, “Osnovy glubokoy
operatsii” [Fundamentals of the Deep Operation], as cited by Cynthia A. Roberts, “Planning for
War: The Red Army and the Catastrophe of 1941,” Europe-Asia Studies (December 1995),
15. R.A. Savushkin, Razvitiye sovetskikh vooruzhyennykh sil voyennogo iskusstva v
mezhvoyenyy period (1921-1941 gg.) [The Development of the Soviet Armed Forces and
Military Art during the Inter-War Period (1921 to 1941)] (Moscow: VPA, 1989), 90-100.
16. Schneider, The Structure of Strategic Revolution, 231-65.
17. A comprehensive and provocative account of these and other continuities in modern
German military development is Jehuda L. Wallach’s The Dogma of the Battle of Annihilation:
The Theories of Clausewitz and Schlieffen and Their Impact on the German Conduct of Two
World Wars (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), especially 229-81.
18. See the discussion, for example, in John Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy (New
York: Viking Press, 1982), 243.
19. The most recent critique of blitzkrieg in operational-strategic perspective is KarlHeinz Frieser, Blitzkrieg-Legende, 2d ed. (Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1996), chapters 1 and
2; for the Soviet-German comparative perspective, see Shimon Naveh, In Pursuit of Military
Excellence: The Evolution of Operational Theory (London: Frank Class, 1997), 221-238.
20. The attainments and difficulties of the pre-war era are summarized in Georgiy S.
Isserson, “Razvitiye teorii sovetskogo operativnogo iskusstva v 30-ye gody” [The Development
of the Theory of Soviet Operational Art during the 1930s], Voyenno-istoricheskiey zhurnal
(March 1965), especially 54-59.
21. The most recent treatment of the Eastern Front in World War II is David M. Glantz
and Jonathan M. House, When Titans Clashed (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas,
1995); the classic account of 1943 to 1945 in English remains John Erickson’s The Road to
Berlin (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983).
22. Christopher R. Gabel, The U.S. Army GHQ Maneuvers of 1941 (Washington, DC:
US Army Center of Military History, 1992), 185-94.
23. An eloquent summary with an emphasis on military geography is John Keegan,
Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 325-33.
24. See the overview in James J. Schneider, “War Plan RAINBOW 5,” Defense Analysis
(December 1994), 289-92.
25. LTG L.D. Holder, “Educating and Training for Theater Warfare,” in Clayton R.
Newell and Michael D. Krause, editors, On Operational Art (Washington, DC: US Army Center
of Military History, 1994), 171-72.
26. Thomas W. Wolfe, Soviet Power and Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press,
1970), 32-49 and 128-56.
27. The most recent account is Roger J. Spiller, “In the Shadow of the Dragon: Doctrine
and the U.S. Army after Vietnam,” typescript to be published in RUSI Journal (December 1997).
28. MAJ Paul H. Herbert, Deciding What Has to be Done: General William E. DePuy
and the 1976 Edition of FM 100-5 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, 1988), 25-
29. An engaging survey of doctrinal development between 1976 and 1982 is Richard
Swain’s “Filling the Void: The Operational Art and the U.S. Army,” In Mckercher and Hennessy,
editors, The Operational Art, 154-65.
30. For an indication of the renewed emphasis on operational art, see then Chief of the
Soviet General Staff M.V. Zakhasrov’s “O teorii glubokoy operatsii” [On the Theory of the Deep
Operation], Voyenno-istoricheskiy zhumal (October 1970), 10,20; overall context is provided by
David M. Glatz, “The Intellectual Dimension of Soviet (Russian) Operational Art,” in
McKercher and Hennessy, editors, The Operational Art, 134-39.
31. English, “The Operational Art,” 17-18.
32. For an overview, see John L. Romjue, From Active Defense to AirLand Battle: The
Development of Army Doctrine 1973-1982 (Fort Monroe, VA: US Army Training and Doctrine
Command, 1984), 66-73.
33. GEN William R. Richardson, “FM 100-5: The AirLand Battle in 1986,” Military
Review (March 1986), 4-11.
34. See, for example, COL William W. Mendel and LTC Floyd T. Banks Jr., Campaign
Planning (Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College, 1988), 5-15.
35. David A. Sawyer, “The Joint Doctrine Development System,” Joint Force Quarterly
(Winter 1996-97), 36-39.
36. See chapter 5, “Doctrine for a New Time,” in John L. Romjue, American Army
Doctrine for the Post-Cold War (Fort Monroe, VA: US Army Training and Doctrine Command,
37. On the legacy of Isserson, see Frederick Kagan, “Army Doctrine and Modern War:
Notes Toward a New Edition of FM 100-5,” Parameters (Spring 1997), 139-40.
38. See for example, James K. Morningstar, “Technologies, Doctrine, and Organization
for RMA,” Joint Force Quarterly (Spring 1997), 37-43.
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