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DEF Australia Letters from HAMEL Part 3: The Operational Level of War. What is it Good For?

July 12th, 2016 by Tom McDermott

Photo: Exercise Hamel 2016, courtesy Australian Army

Photo: Exercise Hamel 2016, courtesy Australian Army

The Op HAMEL intervention is ending.  With the Kamarian Armed Forces in retreat and the International Boundary restored, peace is steadily returning to East Cultania.  Grateful Cultanians line the streets, thanking the ANZUS (and British) coalition for their help.  For another year the Australian Army has trained for what is probably the most technically complex role they might face; ‘three block’ war against a near peer enemy in a major coalition.  As this will be my last letter from HAMEL 16, I thought I’d think big, and go bold with my final observation.  It is this:

We need to, deliberately and with careful considerationsurgically remove the operational level of war from our conceptual thinking.

Now before staff officers (of which I am one) start thinking the game is up, pack their bags and dust off their CVs, I had better clarify.  I am not suggesting we shut up half of Russell, close the Joint Operations Command, or find VCDF Group alternate employment.  I am not talking about the operational level of command, which all of these groups represent. But 70% of you would have thought that was exactly what I was talking about.  This is a visible symptom of the problem.  We in the West have become all mixed up about concepts of strategy, and it has cost us dearly since 9/11.  It would probably cost us dearly if HAMEL was a reality.  To understand why, we need to dip a toe into the history of strategy.

Strategy, Schwerpunkts and the Operational Level of War

In the 19th century, strategy was simple. Or at least as simple as the nature of war was ever going to allow it to be.  It was principally a military activity.  National policy for war was formed by either a government or monarch, and then generals (i.e. military professionals) used a process called ‘strategy’ to blend endsways and means through the art of tactics.  As Clausewitz simply and artfully put it, strategy was the ‘use of the engagement for the purpose of the war’.

But then industrialisation happened, and two World Wars suddenly hove into view.  Force and will were unleashed without reservation or constraint.  Millions of men and women mobilised to fight wars on a scale unheard of in history.  Whole ‘theatres’ of conflict formed, spanning entire continents; contested by multiple armies, navies and airforces.  The resources of whole nations were bent to a grand duel for sheer national survival.

Two important things happened at this point.  Firstly, strategy became more complex.  It could no longer be just about the military. The involvement of whole societies in war led to the ideas of Grand Strategy, born by thinkers like J.F.C Fuller and Basil Liddel Hart, who believed that total war strategy was about directing all the resources of the nation towards the attainment of the political objective of the war.  Secondly, the sheer span and scale of conflict led to the birth of an ‘operational’ or ‘theatre’ level of command.  What had been a ‘General and his Army’ became ‘Fieldmarshals, Generals and Armies’ in multiple theatres, eventually with ‘Supreme Commanders’ at the top.  But despite this growth in scale, the role of strategy in linking policy and tactics remained pretty explicit.  If anything, it got closer; Churchill personally dictating the speeds of the Atlantic convoys always sticks in my mind.

Then two atomic bombs were dropped, and the nuclear age commenced.  The effect on strategy was dramatic.  Cold War ‘strategy’ (the matching of endsways and means) became purely about the release of nuclear weapons; the province of one man, the push of a metaphorical button, and about a six minute time delay.  The military suddenly found itself emasculated, robbed of its power and influence.  It had no role.  But it still had a heck of a lot of forces.  So, what did it do?  It used the expanded operational level of command to birth a new concept.  Suddenly in doctrine, slipped gently between national policy and tactics, was the conceptual ‘operational level of war’.  It was great.  It had its own ‘operational art’.  It had an enduring philosophy in ‘manoeuvre’.  It had an interesting (if slightly spurious) Russian / German genealogy, full of Schwerpunkts and Auftragstaktik.  Most importantly it gave militaries a raison d’etre and, for the time, it had value.

But things have changed.  Most nations do not have millions of men and women under arms.  Our factories now produce the latest iPhone or gadget, not the newest tanks. Grand Strategy has declined (although it may return).  The Cold War is over.  And yet the conceptual ‘operational level of war’ is still firmly with us, dominating our thinking.  But so what?  This is what I think …

The operational level of war has been the catastrophic influence on strategy since 9/11.  I really believe this.  The major problem is that this pseudo-concept has provided, and continues to provide, the perfect excuse for not engaging politics and tactics through true strategy.  It divorces the civilian / military interface, on both sides.  For politicians and policy makers, an inability to articulate realistic policy ends for war is no longer a concern.  Instead, as in the GWOT, they can hand vague ideas to an ‘operational level’ that will use inherent optimism and a form of ‘chinese whispers’ to turn these ideas into seemingly coherent military activity.  On the other side, military commanders can use the ‘operational level’ as a professional comfort zone (as Hew Strachan calls it); an excuse to focus on ways that might make operational sense, but may be wholly counterproductive in terms of strategy.  This comfort zone was exactly what General Tommy Franks was seeking in 2003 when he told Paul Wolfowitz ‘keep Washington focussed on policy and strategy.  Leave me the hell alone to run the war’.  Iraq and Afghanistan both reek of this problem; as President Obama discovered in 2009.

What Now? The Rise of the Tacticians

This is a stranglehold which must be broken.  I am not saying that we need to remove the operational level of command; modern wars have global reach, and we need such hierarchies to deal with complexity.  But, in my eyes, our current character of conflict demands a far simpler concept of strategy.  We must rediscover the direct linkages between national policy and tactics, and then build and train a force to leverage this.  The start point is the removal of the concept of the ‘operational level of war’, which has hopelessly muddled our thinking.  Look at our language.  We call bombers ‘strategic’ as if the value is inherent just because they are expensive and carry big bombs a long way.  But they are only of ‘strategic’ value if their tactical use helps meet national policy.  We call headquarters ‘strategic’ because they are high in the hierarchy, and closer to government.  But unless they are developing strategy they are pointless.  In the end a single tactical action, even a single shot, can have far greater ‘strategic’ value than both … if it has a dramatic input on the attainment of national policy.  Imagine, if you will, a sniper shot that killed Hitler.

The people who need to understand this best are tacticians.  Those who will fight the HAMELs of the future.  That’s us.  We need to understand that all our actions and decisions in war have a reciprocal interaction with strategy, whether we like it or not.  The impact may be big, it may be small.  It may be highly positive (capture of an Enigma machine), but it can be overwhelmingly destructive (Abu Ghraib).  But we can’t abrogate ourselves of this responsibility to some higher, faceless ‘operational level’.  The moral buck stops here.  For the last fifteen years, as Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan have said, the ‘operational level’ has devoured strategy.  If we allow it to continue to do so, we face an endless cycle of frustration.  The tacticians must rise up, take back what is ours, and persuade everyone else along for the ride.  Given we mostly write the concepts and doctrine, this shouldn’t be too hard.  All we need are the right #DEFIdeas.


With thanks to Professors Hew Strachan and Colin Gray, whose ideas I have drawn upon deeply for this blog.


About the author

Tom McDermott is the Director of Activities for DEF Australia. An Australian Army officer who also served for 15 years in the British Army, he is a passionate advocate of the Profession of Arms. He believes that rapid innovation and adaptation is the key to the future success of Western militaries. Tom is studying a PhD in strategy at ANU, and is a Fellow of both UNSW’s Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society, and KCL’s Centre for Military Ethics. He can be followed on Twitter via @helmandproject.


Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here

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3 Comments on "DEF Australia Letters from HAMEL Part 3: The Operational Level of War. What is it Good For?"

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Mark O'Neill

Tom,
You may be right about the operational ‘level’ . But in doing so you allow an abrogation of strategy for the polity … And ultimately, it is up to ‘them’ to tell the operational / tactician level what the ends are. If they fail, it isn’t , conceptually , in a liberal Democracy, an excuse for a putsch by tactician(s) .,..

Tom McDermott
Thanks Mark. In broad, I agree. I think it’s worth remembering, though, that decisions on military action is but one facet of government (even if we would say it should be preeminent). They are not experts on the relationship between force and will. However it is everything we do. As the experts on this, we need to support government is developing their own decision making skills and processes. We also need to ensure that our advice is honest, unbiased … and not coloured by military self interest! I would argue that we have also failed in this in the last… Read more »
Tom, Great and timely piece on the “Leavenworth Heresy”. I think the Americans would fairly point out scale as the first line of defence of the Operational Level concept. This is something that we Brits and Aussies understandably struggle to grapple with as our collective corporate memory of echelons above reality recedes. However, I think you offer up something to think about by retaining Operational command. Yet any commander worth his salt seeks autonomy to be able to design and execute within intent and free from micro managing. (I’m sure Dudley Pound was delighted when Churchill dictated the rate of… Read more »
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