Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Jul 9, 2013 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 086 – Operational Art of War, Part 1: Why?

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


“It is a common mistake in going to war to begin at the wrong end, to act first, and wait for disasters to discuss the matter.”


 – Thucydides


In our last two articles, we examined the principles of war. Our first article defined the principles and focused on the evolution of the principles from a world perspective. In last month’s article, we keyed on the following: 1) We looked at the evolution of the principles of war within the US Army. 2) We provided some ways in which the principles of war are utilized today and how they may benefit you. 3) Finally, we provided some food for thought in regards to the relevancy of the principles today.

Our next few articles will focus on operational art. In our first article this month, we will key on two areas. First, we will define operational art to ensure we are all on the same starting point. Second, we will address the evolution of operational art. We believe this will set the conditions for our next article. This article will focus on the components of operational art. We are aware that for some of you this topic may be breaking some new ground. However, we believe an understanding of operational art will be a great asset in your study of military history and in your ability to fight on some of the battlefields you may be exposed to.

To begin, let’s define operational art. We will utilize the US Army’s latest definition from Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0 – Unified Land Operations. It states:

“Operational Art is the pursuit of strategic objectives, in whole or in part, through the arrangement of tactical actions in time, space, and purpose. This approach enables commanders and staffs to use skill, knowledge, experience, and judgment to overcome the ambiguity and intricacies of a complex, ever changing, and uncertain operational environment to better understand the problem or problems at hand. Operational art applies to all aspects of operations and integrates ends, ways, and means, while accounting for risk.”

The big takeaway here is it is the link between strategic objectives and tactical action.

The Way We Were—The KO. In ancient times war was pretty straight forward; seek the knock out. The strategy was to conquer someone else’s land and take control of their resources and labor—thus, empires grew. Armies were relatively small, 10-50k, and were roughly equivalent in capabilities, range, and tempo. The difference in war often came down to training, dedication, and fate. This is not to say that there weren’t exceptions like the occasional aberrations below:

  • Xerxes massive 300-500k Greek invasion army
  • Sparta’s Phalanx and bronze shields
  • Mongol mounted archers

Wars were relatively short and hinged on decisive clashes between the contending armies (Guagamela, Zama, and Alesia) or seizure of key cities (Troy, Constantinople, and Jerusalem). If you could trap and defeat the other guy’s army or seize his great cities, you won. The strategy was to arm, train, and equip the “right” army and use them against the “right” opponent while the tactics were to outmaneuver and out fight the enemy. As above, there were exceptions:

  • The lengthy Peloponnesian War
  • The three Punic Wars
  • The indecisive and drawn out Thirty Years War

Never the less, the link between Strategy and Tactics remained intact and dominate in the planning and conduct of war. Things began to change in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Paradigm Shift. From 1789 to 1812, the French Revolution rocked the world and changed everything. France was a major European Kingdom in the tradition of all European Kingdoms. It was ruled by an absolute monarch who’s authority to reign was believed to be granted by God thus, it came as a shock to all the Kings and Queens of Europe, friend or foe of France, when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were deposed and executed by their own subjects.

Europe’s Royals rallied to rescue Louis and preserve the monarchical order by attacking the French Republic from all sides. The goal was to kill the Republic in its infancy and prevent the contagion from spreading to their own subjects. France was under siege and the historically small dynastic armies that sought decisive battles and quick war termination were not adequate to the task. France managed to merge industrialization with a new force — nationalism. The people would rally to defend their nation and its new republic. They responded to Carnot’s levée en masse giving France the largest army in Europe. War just got more complicated!

Dilemma #1: Too Big to Fail. Europe’s armies grew in order to keep pace with the French and, correspondingly, the battlefield grew as well. The new 100k+ behemoth armies found it difficult to maneuver and to decisively defeat one another; the knockout punch was becoming a thing of the past. The quick win was replaced by the slugfest. That meant more large scale maneuver to gain a position of advantage. Napoleon quickly realized that his massive army couldn’t move and fight together the way the dynastic armies of Europe’s past had once done.

Solution #1: An Army of Armies. The first step towards the development of operational art was reorganization of the armies. Napoleon’s military genius allowed him to overcome the challenges of size and distance, leaving him to unsuccessfully wrestle with the elusive ‘decisive battle’. Napoleon reorganized the French forces by creating the Grande Armée. The introduction of the corps system was his most important innovation. The Corps was commanded by a marshal and the corps consisted of two to four infantry divisions, supported by some cavalry, artillery, and support troops. The Corps was strong enough to defeat equal numbers and defend against superior forces until reinforced. Napoleon kept some formations under his control including; the Army Artillery Reserve, the Army Cavalry Reserve, and the Imperial Guard. Each Corps could march on its own and meet the “rest” of the army at the objective. They could forage on their own to sustain them on the march. The Grand Armee became an army of armies that overwhelmed all opposition. Napoleon’s genius for organization and command gave the French a brief tactical advantage.

France’s success was short lived. The massification of the army and expansion of the battlefield eventually overcame the master himself during his Russian campaign. The seizure of Moscow was not enough to win while the Long Retreat was more than enough to lose. The subsequent Battle of the Nations (Waterloo) reinforced the reality that all against one, at the same place and time, would overcome superior organization.

The Canary in the Coal Mine. The American Civil War started out as another search for the quick win; the tactical knock out that would decide the war. The 1st and 2nd Battle of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, all on the east coast, were attempts to win it all. None succeeded in that regard.

Things shaped up differently out west and the world got a glimpse of a new approach to war though no one realized it at the time. The Europeans were too busy looking down their noses at the neophyte Americans, while the Americans were too busy trying to end the Civil War to document the changes at hand. The western theater was low profile in comparison to the east. This meant less pressure from the press and Washington. This may have given a seemingly unimpressive commander, General Ulysses S. Grant, a chance to fight without “help”.

Abraham Lincoln famously observed that the war could not be won until “the Mississippi River flowed un-vexed to the sea”. This became Grants strategic goal. Grant accurately assessed that the river was dominated by the fort at Vicksburg. Even if the port of New Orleans was closed and the other forts along the river were taken, traffic would not be un-vexed as long as Vicksburg remained under Confederate control.

Grant’s problem was positioning. His army was northeast of the fortress and the ground between him and Vicksburg was thick with enemy troops. The west side of the river was unoccupied but was also an impassable quagmire most of the year. Grant would either have to force his way down the east side of the river or wait until he could attack from the west side of the river.

Grant embarked on what may be the world’s first deliberate operational campaign even though the doctrine and terminology did not yet exist. Grant took what the battlefield gave him. From December 1862 until April 1863, Grant launched a series of attacks from the northwest side of the river towards Vicksburg including; Sherman’s attack of Chickasaw Heights; Grant’s Canal; the Lake Providence Expedition; the Yazoo Pass Expedition; Steele’s Bayou Expedition; and Duckport Canal. Grant seems to have realized that none of these efforts were likely to succeed, but he also seemed to know that it didn’t matter. The activity wore down the Confederate Army by keeping them on the defensive and built up the Union Army by getting the troops in shape and making them expert bayou engineers. Grant was patient; he knew Vicksburg wasn’t going anywhere. He was also persistent; realizing that his losses weren’t relevant to the overall effort and, in fact, were preparing his troops to seize the advantage when it came.

The opportunity arrived when reports came stating that the west side of the river was finally drying up making it trafficable. Grant made his move. He prepared to cross the Mississippi River while launching two diversions; Sherman’s feint at Snyders Bluff and Grierson’s Cavalry Raid. Moving on corduroy through the wetlands, Grant crossed over to the west side of the Mississippi. He then headed south and crossed back over to the east side, beneath Vicksburg.

Grant’s shaping operations took nearly five months; his decisive operations took 18 days—he understood tempo. The campaign unfolded as follows; Bruinsburg Crossing and Port Gibson (May 1); the Raymond engagement (May 12); Jackson (May 14); the Battle of Champion Hill (May 16); seizure of the Big Black River Bridge (May 17); the assault on Vicksburg (May 18-22); and the Siege of Vicksburg (May 22 – Jul 4).

Vicksburg contained all the hallmarks of, as of yet non-existent, operational art. Grant was focused on a strategic objective. He didn’t fret over individual battles, but sought to exploit their cumulative effect. He knew he wasn’t going to win quickly or in a single engagement so he built a series of related and mutually reinforcing engagements designed to incrementally get him where he needed to go.

The late 19th Century Prussian successes resurrected the decisive battle on a grand scale. ‘Grand Tactics’ seemed to have filled the void between strategy and tactics. The Battle of Mukden during the Russo-Japanese War foreshadowed a different conclusion.

Dilemma #2: The Trenches. WWI saw all armies from all nations entering the war with the notion of “being home by Christmas”. The French had Plan XVII and the Germans had the Schlieffen Plan. The Germans struck first on the Western Front, advancing to the outskirts of Paris only to be halted on the Marne. The rock ran into the immovable object and both sides sought to outflank each other. The result was a race to the sea that transformed the battlefield into an unending system of trench works ala Petersburg and Mukden. There was no way around.

Solution #2: Auftragstaktik. The next step in the evolution of operational art was the design of tactics that created the potential for deep maneuver. The stalemate of the trenches was driven by the firepower of the machinegun coupled with the strength of defensive works and the inadequacy of the tactics of the day. The result was a depressing series of bloody stalemates; the Marne, Ypres, Verdun and the Somme… Morale plummeted; the French army mutinied on the Western Front and the Russia revolted on the Eastern Front and no one went anywhere on either front.

The stalemate was broken in the east by the Hindenberg – Ludendorf – Bruckmueller team and their new infiltration tactics. Although first proposed by the French, infiltration tactics were first practiced by the Germans. They reorganized their formations to create assault battalions of storm troops. Weapons once kept at the regimental level were now pushed down to companies and battalions. Sergeants would now lead where Generals and Colonels once led. Artillery would be focused and phased to correspond with a rapid advance on a narrow front—the weeks of barrage were gone. The storm troops probed the line, found weak spots, penetrated them and pulled the larger formations behind them.

Germany’s 1918 offensive, Operation Michael, was a huge success, but it was too little too late. For the first time since 1914 there was a major breach of the line followed by major movement, but the Germans lacked the capacity to exploit their success.

Dilemma #3: Who’s on First? The Russian Civil War presented the nascent Red Army with multiple fronts and simultaneous engagement from all directions. The Bolshevik Regime in Moscow was beset by enemies in all directions. The Red Army’s main nemesis were the Nationalist White Armies of; Iudenich threatening Petersburg from the West; Kolchak threatening Moscow from the Northeast; and Denikin threatening Moscow from the South. There were the Czech Legions heading for Vladivostok; the Ukrainian Nationalist Green Army; the anarchist Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine; the Anarchist Black Army, the Crimean Cossacks, and the Allied interventions throughout Russia. The Red Army had too many enemies coming at them from too many directions to allow for a focused effort.

Solution #3: Know when to Hold ‘em. The final step in the emergence of operational art was the formalization of the operational level of war. The crises of multiple enemies on multiple fronts; internal and external, created the problem of how to fight everywhere at once.

The Russian Civil War was fought on three fronts: Eastern; Southern and Northwestern. The Cossacks rejected the new Communist government and assumed authority in the Don region with the backing of a Volunteer Army. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty between the Bolsheviks and the Germans provoked direct Allied intervention to include the arming of opposition forces and even some German commanders backed the opposition. On top of this were the loyalist Russian Armies forming all over Russia.

Initially the fighting was sporadic and fluid given the chaotic environment. The early threats were the Czechoslovak Legion, the Polish 5th Rifle Division, and the pro-Bolshevik Red Latvian riflemen. The war then shifted to the three-sided threat from the White armies. General Denikin, Admiral Kolchak, and General Yudenich had all successfully pushed the Red Army back on all three fronts. In July 1919, the Red Army suffered a mass defection in the Crimea to the anarchist Black Army allowing them to consolidate their hold on the Ukraine.

The steady reverses prompted Trotsky to reform the Red Army while forming alliances with the anarchists. In June, the Red Army checked Kolchak in the Northeast. Next, they defeated Denikin in October and Yudenich in November having learned to focus on one threat at a time. The Civil War culminated with the siege on the last remaining remnants of the White forces in the Crimea under the command of Pyotr Wrangel who were eventually forced to evacuate to Constantinople in November 1920.

The Red Army was forced to deal with multiple threats emanating from multiple directions. The standard solutions didn’t work. The requirement to create something of an overarching plan with sub-plans for each individual threat prompted a great deal of military theorizing that resulted in the first formal recognition of the operational level of war and operational art. Leading thinkers included: Alexander Svechin, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Vladimir Triandafillov, and Mikhail Frunze.

Alexander Svechin joined the Bolsheviks in March 1918 and was appointed the military commander of the Smolensk region, then head of the General Staff, and finally professor of the Academy of General Staff of the Red Army. His book Strategy was the first to introduce the concepts of the operational level of war and operational art. Stalin had him arrested in 1931 in a purge of former Tsarist officers, but he was reinstated in 1932 only to be re-arrested in the Great Terror of 1937. Svechin was shot in 1938 on charges of participating in a counter-revolutionary organization and training terrorists.

Mikhail Tukhachevsky served as a Second Lieutenant in the Tsar’s army during WWI. He was taken prisoner in 1915 and escaped four times. He finally got away on his fifth attempt and returned to Russia in 1917. After the Revolution, he joined the Bolshevik Party and the Red Army. During the Civil War he was responsible for the defense of Moscow and, in 1919, was given command of the 5th Army fighting Kolchak’s White Army. He also helped defeat Denikin’s White Army and went on to command the 7th Army for the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion and the assault on the Tambov Republic.

Tukhachevsky’s contribution to operational art was the theory of deep operations and his support for army mechanization. Deep operations proposed the use of combined arms formations to strike behind enemy lines to cause defeat through disruption rather than destruction. It was codified as Deep Battle in the 1936 Field Regulations manual. Tukhachevsky became a Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1935 at the age of 42. Like Svechin, he was arrested in 1937 and was tortured under the supervision of Stalin’s NKVD Chief, Nikolai Yezhov. He was forced to confess to being a German agent. On June 11, 1937, Tukhachevsky and eight other Generals were tried for treason and found guilty. An hour later, Tukhachevsky was shot in the back of the head as Yezhov watched.

Vladimir Triandafillov also served as a captain in the Russian Army during World War I. During the Civil War, he rose in rank to brigade commander. In 1923, he was appointed chief of the Operations Directions of the Soviet General Staff and Deputy Chief of the General Staff.

Triandafillov authored two fundamental doctrinal books: Scale of the Operations of Modern Armies and Characteristics of the Operations of the Modern Armies. He elaborated on deep operations theory and future warfare. He believed that the objective of a “deep operation” was to attack the enemy simultaneously throughout the depth of his formation to induce the catastrophic failure of his defensive system. He also backed the creation of highly mobile armored formations that could exploit this failure by breaking into the deep rear of the enemy. Triandafillov was killed in an plane crash on July 12, 1931 and was buried in the Kremlin Wall. Georgy Zhukov credited his success in WWII to Triandafyllov’s deep operation doctrine.

Finally, Mikhail Frunze, a lifelong Bolshevik supporter and activist, became Military Commissar of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk Province in 1918. During the early days of the Civil War he led the Southern Army Group that defeated Kolchak’s White Army. He went from there to command the entire Eastern Front. Frunze retook the Crimea in 1920 and pushed the remaining White forces out of Russia. He then led the southern front in the destruction of anarchist in the Ukraine. In 1921, he established Turkish – Soviet relations and was so valued as an ally by the Ataturk that they placed a statue of Frunze in Taksim Square, Istanbul. He was elected to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party the same year and went on to be a candidate member of the Politburo. In 1925, he was chosen as the Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council. He fell in 1925 and was hospitalized. Stalin visited him and insisted that he needed an operation. Frunze told his wife that he felt healthy and that he thought it was ridiculous to undergo an operation, but Stalin had insisted. He died of chloroform poisoning during surgery even though the operation was considered routine. It is speculated that Stalin was behind his death since he had backed a Bolshevik rival earlier in the year. Frunze wrote extensively on operational art and advocated the development of a unified military doctrine that merged political and military considerations. The Frunze Military Academy became the premier Soviet military school.

Operational art evolved from the late 1790’s through the mid 1920’s. The French Revolution caused the massification of the armies making decisive battle less and less possible. Napoleon temporarily overcame this setback by reorganizing his forces into and Army of Armies. The combination of machineguns and trench warfare made the tactical realm almost irrelevant during WWI until 1918. The Germans introduced theater- wide infiltration tactics during Operation Michael. Decentralized groups of storm troopers found gaps in the lines, opened them, and pulled follow on forces through. Although they lacked the mobility to exploit their penetrations; this was the first whiff of operational maneuver. It all came to a head in the Russian Civil War where the Red Army had to face mass and maneuver on multiple fronts against multiple threats, simultaneously. The resulting Red Army victory gave impetus to the formal recognition of the operational level of war and the development of operational art.

In our next article, we will break down the basic elements of operational art and take a closer look at them. The goal will be to see how we stitch together an aggregate series of battles under an overarching plan spanning time and space in order to accomplish an operational or strategic objective. That’s operational art.


  1. I’m a new reader and am really amazed with this article–several battles referenced as illustrations and I realize I’m unfamiliar with all of them! lol…I’ve always loved History, but haven’t gotten into Military history, as such, before, so there’s lots to research!

    Thanks for making these articles available online!

  2. It is interesting that you guys see Grant’s campaigning/fighting around Vicksburg as a “deliberate operational campaign”, while the folks over at Civil count it all as “months of frustration and failure”.

    Is there a good way to determine which it was?

  3. The main evidence that the eight months prior to the final siege were
    operational is the attitude. Prior to Grant, Union Generals retreated when met with setbacks. It was all or nothing. Grant knew that he had time and combat power on his side; he didn’t need to win every engagement. Of course he hoped one of the interim missions would succeed but he wasn’t going to be stopped if they fell short. Grant seems to have known what he wanted to do all along but was not going to sit by idly awaiting a change in the weather to dry up the western side of the river. By remaining active he was conditioning his troops, making them master swamp engineers, and was preventing Pemberton from resting and improving his fortifications. Once the opening was there, Grant moved rapidly and decisively to close in on and around Vicksburg.

    In short…it was months of frustration. It took patience, which Grant had, and it took the ability to weather repeated setback, which Grant did, while waiting for the right conditions to strike hard and fast, which Grant did! Operational art was not yet formally defined during the Civil War but Grant’s conduct at Vicksburg indicates that it was emerging within his command conscience.

    I have seen it argued that either Napoleon or Grant was first to execute an operational campaign. I found the argument for Grant to be much more convincing and Vicksburg was cited as the first example of this new way of thinking about war.

    • Right ontih-s helped me sort things right out.

    • but it’s something that most people don’t…think about.another important aspect of learning how to write a good article for affiliate marketing is the conclusion of the article. you never really want to end the article. you want to lead them to another page and you do that…

    • This series is great, John. Can you explain the parameters a bit more, please. How did you know about the replytocom parameter? Where did you find it? I am using Standard. Are there others? How would I know? Thank you.

  4. Ahhh, I see. Thanks for the clarification!

    I’ve started reading “The Art of Indirect Approach” by B.H. Liddell Hart, and it now appears (or I now see) that Grant’s actions around, and leading up to, Vicksburg was a good example of this. He still ended up in a direct assault and siege, but by arriving at the siege indirectly he was able to put it strongly in his favor.

  5. I think you’re reading far too much deliberation and forethought into Grant’s “epic of mud” at Vicksbug (the morasses were on both sides of the river, BTW): It represents far more his obstinacy and pugnacity than operational finesse.

    The real political, strategic and operational masterpiece of the war was Sherman’s March to the Sea (backed by Thomas at Franklin and Nashville), as witness its vilification at the time and since.