Operational Art Links Strategy, Tactics
U.S. Approach to Warfare Reflects Centuries-Old Influences
The practice of operational art is a central aspect of the U.S. Army’s approach to planning and executing unified land operations in expeditionary campaigns. Defined in Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 3-0: Unified Land Operations as the pursuit of strategic objectives through the arrangement of tactical actions in time, space and purpose, operational art translates broad policies and strategies set by national authorities into tangible tasks for military forces to implement.
While some scholars have argued that operational art occurs only in corps and divisions that typically bridge strategic and tactical divides, modern Army doctrine asserts it is applicable to all units, regardless of echelon, as they design and execute operations intended to achieve higher political purpose.
This approach has evolved throughout two centuries of American conflict. However, while numerous experiential influences have shaped Army operational art—even before the concept was officially introduced in 1986 in Field Manual 100-5: Operations—its philosophical foundations can be found in two Napoleonic-era treatises: Prussian Army officer Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, and French Army officer Antoine-Henri Jomini’s Summary of the Art of War. While the former emphasized national-strategic context by noting war is “only a branch of political activity,” the latter advocated prescriptive methods such as orienting on “decisive points” at the “proper times and with energy.” These two overlapping focuses, which are united in the Army’s current conception of operational art, ultimately align strategy and tactics to create actionable practices.
Beginning with higher implications about the unchanging and intrinsic nature of war, the Army seamlessly incorporates Clausewitz’s proposition that “war is an instrument of policy” as the underlying premise of operational art. The inclusion of strategic objectives in the concept’s current doctrinal definition captures the famous Prussian’s formulation that nation-state politics compel and restrain the shape and conduct of organized warfare.
By emphasizing the purpose of the combat instead of military action for its own sake, the Army acknowledges the primacy of national policy and strategy in all foreign affairs. This subordination of the tactical to the strategic parallels constitutional delineations between U.S. civilian and military leaders, and it underlies the service’s most basic philosophical approach to unified land operations.
First Gulf War
The First Gulf War offers a recent example of how Clausewitz’s theories influenced the application of Army operational art in a wartime environment. When the U.S. deployed a large joint task force to Saudi Arabia in response to Iraqi aggression against Kuwait, coalition commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf planned and commanded a robust air attack and a sweeping armored envelopment that rapidly achieved his assigned objective of liberating the occupied country.
Then, instead of pursuing the shattered Iraqi army deeper into Mesopotamia or seeking regime change in Baghdad, he postured coalition forces along the international border. The general’s nuanced appreciation of U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s strategic intent for the war ensured an effective, however imperfect, campaign that avoided the perils of foreign occupation.
This relatively disciplined operation in pursuit of limited objectives reflected how political agendas in Washington, D.C., and allied capitals framed the Army’s employment of operational art in the Persian Gulf. As Clausewitz described in On War, the higher governing principle for the campaign translated the abstraction of “absolute war”—which would have undermined the moral purpose of the intervention—into more limited “real war” as coalition forces acknowledged both domestic and international expectations of constrained military involvement.
The interpretation consequently transformed wanton destruction into purposeful violence. This restraint ensured unity of command across all echelons of national power, and perfectly illustrated the Army’s encompassing philosophy that demands subordination to presidential policy.
The second aspect of Army operational art centers on designing actionable warfighting tasks within appropriate contexts through doctrinal application. Taking form in forward theaters where combat occurs, it incorporates the spirit, if not archaic sciences, of Jomini’s “art of posting troops upon the battlefield” and “bringing them into action” to win engagements “according to the accidents of the ground.”
This focus on the artistic planning and execution of specific actions combines prescriptive methods and creativity within doctrinal concepts. While institutional guides can sometimes stifle ingenuity and initiative, they nevertheless remain indispensable for ensuring unity of effort and professionalized conduct across both Army and joint efforts.
Spirit Informs Application
The American intervention in Iraq from 2003–11, despite controversial outcomes, offers an example of how the spirit of Jomini’s Summary of the Art of War recently informed the tactical application of Army operational art. When a determined insurgency gained momentum and catalyzed a vicious ethnic civil war in 2004 and 2005, the Army, under the leadership of now-retired Gen. David Petraeus, responded the following year by creating doctrine to revitalize its flagging efforts in Mesopotamia. The resulting counterinsurgency manual, which The New York Times called “paradigm-shattering,” included planning considerations that reflected direct Jominian influence. According to the new doctrine, it combined prescriptive directives and creative inspiration to provide principles and guidelines for counterinsurgency that were grounded in historical studies to encourage population-centric methods.
The Army’s continued reliance on operational art to devise appropriate doctrine and tasks, as illustrated by its intellectual evolution during Operation Iraqi Freedom, continues to serve as a foundational aspect of how it arranges tactical actions in time, space and purpose to achieve strategic ends. The service’s primary operating manual, 3-0 Operations, conspicuously includes modernized conceptions of Jomini’s principles of war, lines of operation, decisive points, spatial frameworks and other warfighting fundamentals that reveal centuries of Napoleonic influence.
This amalgamation of past and present has resulted in an approach to warfare that balances prescriptive sciences with creative practices. Though reconceptualized to accommodate changing political, social and technological paradigms, Jomini’s ideas shape how the American Army fights in the 21st century.
Given the unmistakable parallels, it is clear the military philosophies articulated in On War and Summary of the Art of War have deeply informed the evolution and current definition of Army operational art. However, this focus on purposefully designing tactical actions to enable strategy has resulted in a mixed record for America’s primary land power institution.
As experienced in the Vietnam War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, combinations of organizational inertia, allied inadequacy and misguided national policies have periodically retarded success. However, when operating against more conventional opponents while part of strong coalitions, as in World War II and the First Gulf War, the Army has applied technological overmatch to achieve unambiguous victory. Regardless of conflict type, one lesson is clear: Creative operational art can address, and thus mitigate, potential challenges during complicated campaigns.
Moving forward, leaders across the Army will continue to refine operational art as they lead joint and multinational efforts on behalf of U.S. interests. This will demand repeated reconceptualization and modernization of Clausewitz’s timeless ideas and Jomini’s warfighting methods as commanders and staffs pursue their imperative to “envision how to establish conditions that accomplish their missions and achieve assigned objectives.”
While the Prussian’s writings underscore the importance of designing tactical actions within political and strategic contexts, his counterpart’s enduring influence encourages balancing of warfighting sciences and arts within flexible doctrinal frameworks. The fusion of these philosophies in expeditionary campaigns, building on centuries of development, will prove instrumental in achieving success in future unified land power operations.