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Misunderstanding operational level: Australian Army’s function in the Maritime Strategy

‘Operational level’ is a widely used military term, but here it will be argued that it is only loosely defined, and vastly misunderstood. Part of the problem is a reluctance to seek its original intent, and the acceptance of ‘received wisdom’. The suggestion is that the ‘operational level’ reframed, and replaced by Operational Reach, has a great significance for the development of strategic thinking within the ADF, and the Australian Army’s practice of Operational Art. The intention here is to reorient doctrinal development towards a more regionally relevant strategic thinking, a road not taken after the Cold War due to numerous tactical operations commitments, mostly outside Australia’s region.


The origin of ‘operation’ comes from Latin to mean both ‘work’ and ‘to be effective’, adopted by surgeons in 1590s when Medical Science first delivered solutions astounding its survivors with their ‘handiwork’, manoeuvre in French.

Schneider[1] suggests that the early modern military use of ‘operational’ originates with General Pierre de Bourcet dating from the 1780s. He notes that “Often regarded as the father of the general staff, Bourcet was one of the first to recognize that the lateral distribution of troops in theater would put a great burden on an army’s staff.” and, “In 1764, while director of the staff school at Grenoble, Bourcet began writing his Principles of Mountain Warfare...the book dealt with more than merely mountain warfare, but the problem that confronted Bourcet initially concerned the control of an army in mountainous terrain. Clearly an army in such terrain would have to advance in columns laterally distributed across several routes.” This paper was used by Bourcet to resolve an issue of transiting difficult terrain from the army’s staff perspective by coordinating simultaneous movement of isolated troops along parallel routes, in achieving concentration of forces.

The operation solution was executed at an altitude several thousand feet above sea level, but the French word describing command authority was ‘echelon’.


The 18th century staff work to execute complex terrain passage was considered an art given low quality maps, dependence of local guides, weather unpredictability, and ad hoc logistic infrastructure; art is the ability to understand something instinctively, embracing uncertainty of inductive reasoning, the outcome astounding the opponent with doing something not thought possible.

While the 18th century tempo lacked shock, and linear close order formation battle was fought, the element of awe was there. “The hallmark of operational art is the integration of temporally and spatially distributed operations into one coherent whole.” (Schneider, p.87) Discarding the ‘level’ as meaningless, ‘operational’ is nothing more, or less, than the planning staff work coordinating passage of terrain that separates the strategic base from the tactical field of battle.

Operational transit is reaching into the theatre of war’s geographic depth, intentioning at least securing strategic initiative, and even inflicting surprise on the unprepared foe. Surprise is always a product of manoeuvre, the better meaning is ‘sleight of hand’, cunning. In modern warfare, it is the commander’s need for situational awareness (ISTAR), or its denial, coupled to seeking asymmetric solutions to military problems in leveraging maximum effects from any conceivable advantage ‘up his or her sleeve’.


Schneider continues that “These two particular characteristics— simultaneous and successive operations—are in fact the heart of operational art. The first characteristic was the lateral distribution of forces across a generally continuous front in the theatre of [multiple terrain traversing] operations. This led to the need to synchronize the simultaneous but distributed actions of forces across the breadth of a theatre. The second characteristic of operational art, evolving virtually concurrently with the first one, was the deepening of the theatre of operations. This led to the conduct of successive operations through the depth of the entire theatre of operations. Thus, the expansion of the concentrated forces in a theatre, in length and in depth, meant that the campaign could no longer be decided by one decisive action [days-long battle]. Because of the tremendous burden placed upon staff planning, resources, and logistics, for the first time campaigns [restricted to ‘campaigning season’ months] had to be conducted in discrete [weeks-long] “chunks” of activity called operations. It fell to the post-Napoleonic commander to exercise a new style of military art that would enable him to integrate these operations, separated in space and time, into one coherent whole. Thus operational art and the operational campaign were born.”

Ironically the need for the operational command of divisions was forced on the French by “Superior Prussian tactical drill [that] gave them the advantage in rate of deployment. The French sought to negate this advantage by establishing their order of march in six pre-deployment packages or divisions. Since these divisions marched laterally dispersed from each other, they arrived on the battlefield virtually deployed in line of battle. The divisional system was developed to counter the battlefield agility of the Prussian army by speeding up the French army’s tactical deployment.” As such, the French Napoleonic armies learned to arrive and deploy inside the readiness envelope of their Coalition foes unwilling to abandon proven Prussian drill systems of the Seven Years War. Coalition commanders were forced to deploy lacking situational awareness, and subject to a lag imposed by higher French tempo.

Napoleon’s contribution to innovation in warfare was in integrating manoeuvre, i.e. surprise into operational reach, that unhinged the enemy’s centre of gravity, but in many ways he still sough the decisive battle of war. His deep directing of divisions and corps into, denying opportunity to concentrate, choosing ground or cutting logistic lines, was artistic, embracing uncertainty. He disrupted enemy strategy before dealing a tactical defeat in battle.

Vietnamese were influenced by the French as imperialists and combatants. North Vietnamese operations, later against US & coalition forces, invariably used multiple force elements advancing in on a broad front, on multiple routes in difficult terrain, in radio silence, to concentrate at some point deep in South Vietnam, conducting a tactical manoeuvre against ARVN or US coalition forces. The US solution was to compensate situational awareness lag with ‘fast movers’ and helicopters, but the war was still lost ‘by a thousand cuts’ of distributed operational reach penetrations coupled with tactical manoeuvres. The Vietnam War was lost to an 18th century conventional thinking, unconventionally applied.


1920s Soviet military theorists embraced operational art, but based it on studies of the American Civil War (ACW). Just as their Western First World War peers, they recognised the need to restore strategic mobility in escaping the trap of entrenchment and attritional warfare. Dynamism creates uncertainty, serving in achieving objectives and campaign aims. In the ACW large cavalry units, even divisions, were used for penetrating deep into enemy’s territory, unhinging logistic support of field forces. These raids-in-force constituted first systematic use of what became known as the ‘deep battle’, the penetration and exploitation of enemy’s operational depth to deny freedom of action by crippling logistic communications.[2]

Schneider identifies this emergent ‘American Experiment in Operational Art’ characteristics as “quasi-operational art” which “…closely parallel those of modern operational art” as:

  1. The employment of independent field armies distributed in the same theatre;
  2. The employment of quasi-army group headquarters to control them;
  3. A logistical structure to support distributed operations;
  4. The integrated design of a distributed campaign plan;
  5. The conduct of distributed operations;
  6. The strategic employment of cavalry;
  7. The deep strike;
  8. The conduct of joint operations;
  9. The execution of distributed free manoeuver;
  10. The continuous front;
  11. The distributed battlefield;
  12. The exercise of field command by officers of “operational” vision.


These characteristics are present in considering the Australian Primary Operating Environment. The Maritime Strategy is not a naval strategy (i.e. control of sea), but of securing lateral maritime trade lanes in the littoral. The lateral distribution of forces for example in the South China Sea theatre would necessitate employment of independent and widely distributed battlegroups, controlled by multiple higher echelon Joint HQs stretching from Singapore to Japan. Currently there is no doctrinal guidance that would point to how distributed operations in the archipelagic littorals would be supported logistically, never mind how Deep Strike and strategic employment of cavalry translates to a joint, distributed manoeuvre, seeking [is]land objectives on a front spanning thousands of nautical miles. The exercise of command with “operational” vision of such a distributed ‘battlefield’ (i.e. distributed manoeuvre) seems absent in Australian study of Land Warfare. Yet this is the strategic reality that will epitomise Indo-Asia-Pacific theatres of future military operations.


The above somewhat contradicts the Army’s definition and meaning of Operational Art given the Operational Reach context. Section 5-1 Operational art in the Land Warfare Doctrine 3-0 Operations, which lacks doctrinal mention of water, states that:

1.            Operational art is the intellectual ability to visualise and then orchestrate tactical actions to achieve a strategic objective. At its heart, operational art is the commander's ability to apply experience, creativity and vision to lead planning. It is not a process or trained skill. As described in ADDP 5.0, Joint Planning, it leads to the skilful employment of a joint force, to attain military goals through the design, organisation, sequencing and direction of operations.

Discussion above suggests Operational Art is a process - transiting terrain to the astonishment of the foe. It is a skill that will come easier to some, but cunning can be taught. Intellectual ability in exercising command is a given, but mostly this seems to be rooted in staff planning work. The skill though is to act intuitively.

2.            Operational art provides the link between strategy and tactics, translating intent into action. Operational art determines when, where, and for what purpose commanders employ military force to achieve missions. It defines the allocation, coordination and sustainment of resources to tactical units.

It is disputed that Operational Art “determines when, where, and for what purpose” a military force is used. This is only true if a mission (duration in hours) is a battle sub-component (days), itself an operation sub-component (weeks). But the linkage translating strategic intent into tactical action is from higher, usually political echelons as to the deployment’s when, where and whys. Allocation and coordination of forces are the who and how of the MAP, the remaining consideration being, what to achieve.

3.            It is the creative and innovative integration of tactics into an operational plan to achieve a strategic objective that defines operational art. Figure 5-1 shows the integrated and interwoven relationship between the capabilities (means) available to a commander and the tactics and tasks (ways) undertaken by the force to achieve the end state (ends).

Military officers may well have a creative streak, but for the majority ‘creative’ refers more to performing arts than operational art. Military cunning is the personal ‘creative’ asset that every operation echelon commander should bring to planning process for achieving expeditious and decisive manoeuvre. Only cunning manoeuvre interwoven into tactics will achieve desired end state.

Operational Art is the process of planning laterally distributed combat power operationally reaching from strategic basing to staging are at the edge of the tactical AO. The art of it is to do so as asymmetrically (cunningly) as time and resources permit. Military history is replete in examples of cunning, including from the formative Australian Army’s combat history, at Gallipoli, and in 1918 leading to what is today Combined Arms Doctrine, the tactics of manoeuvre.

In the Australian context, operational reach requires strategic and distributed land force combat power to transit complex archipelagic littoral terrain on a wide front, likely to secure archipelagic objectives. The operational art of this execution is largely about the degree of military cunning an officer brings to the planning process, a skill that can be taught at any echelon of command.


Written By: Greg Chalik

About the Author:

After starting his career in the IT industry operations and logistics, Greg completed a B.A. at University of Sydney's Department of Government (int'l rel. & economic history). After stints in the healthcare and finance industries, Greg set out to pursue lifelong interest in military history, technology and doctrinal experimentation (wargaming). In 2005 Greg embarked on an ambitious research project, seeking transforming warfare concepts in the littoral that affordably defeat anti-access measures. Since then, Greg achieved considerable innovation in strategic, operational reach, and tactical doctrinal designs coupled with armoured vehicle design and use in the context of the Australian POE. Greg argues that the Australian Army is the key element in an effective implementation of the Australian future Maritime Strategy.

[1] James J. Schneider, The Loose Marble and the Origins of Operational Art, Parameters, 1989

[2] See Robert W. Black, Cavalry Raids of the Civil War,  Stackpole Books, 2004

Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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