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Posted on Aug 9, 2013 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 087: The Operational Art of War, Part 2 – What?

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


“The courage of the soldier is heightened by the knowledge of his profession”  

Flavius Vegetius Renatus

In our last article, we began our discussion on operational art.  We focused in two areas.  First, we defined operational art to provide a start point for the rest of the mini-series.  Second, to the best of our knowledge, we tried to address the evolution of operational art.  We hope that this initial article gave you a good basic foundation on operational art and answered the “why” of operational art.


In this article we are going to deconstruct the elements of operational art—the what.  We’ll start with the macro pieces to establish context then we’ll delve into the details; the concepts that commanders use to make war plans. Specifically, we will key on the following:

  • The Instruments of National Power
  • The Levels of War
  • The Elements of operational art

Instruments of National Power. 
An overarching concept of operational warfare has to include a discussion of the instruments of national power.  These are the tools the state brings to bear in global relations every day.  They include national culture, industry, technology, academia, political influence, and national will.  The ability of any state to advance its national interests depends on how well they employ their instruments of national power.  The shorthand version is dubbed the DIME:

  • Diplomacy—political discourse and influence
  • Information—communications and knowledge
  • Military—armed forces
  • Economics—goods, services, and finance

When a state is at relative peace; diplomacy and economics are normally in the lead — DimE.  During all-out war, the military is in the lead; diMe.  In the life of a counterinsurgency; you will find many shifts in focus.  These could include:

  • diMe when the military is stabilizing the environment
  • DiMe when political engagement with insurgents becomes possible
  • DIME when establishing security for the neutral majority
  • DimE when the conflict is winding down and transitioning to peace


Vicksburg Campaign

Major Operations and Campaigns.   Engagements and battles are the planning events at the tactical level while major operations and campaigns are the planning events at the operational level.  They connect the tactics to the strategy (national aim and objectives).

-       Major operations and campaigns are extended, large-scale, military activities that normally include combat.

-       A major operation is a series of related tactical actions that are executed independently or as part of a larger campaign.

-       Therefore, a campaign is a series of related military operations aimed at accomplishing a military strategic or operational objective within a given time and space.  A campaign is planned when the anticipated military actions exceed the scope of a single operation (i.e. The Vicksburg Campaign).  Campaigns are extensive in terms of time and resources and typically consider all instruments of national power and how they are integrated to achieve the strategic objective. Below are the three types of campaigns:

  • A global campaign is one that requires the accomplishment of military strategic objectives within multiple theaters such as was executed in WWII with the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) and the European Theater of Operations (ETO).
  • A theater campaign encompasses the activities designed to accomplish specific objectives within a theater of war or operations such as MacArthur’s island hopping campaign in the Pacific.
  • A subordinate campaign accomplishes or contributes to the objectives of a global or theater campaign such as Operation Torch—the seizure of North Africa in preparation for the invasion of Sicily and Ital

-       Both operations and campaigns are designed and executed in pursuit of operational or strategic goals and objectives.  Pearl Harbor was a major operation for the Japanese in WWII while China-Burma-India was a series of campaigns pursuant to the strategic objective of creating a Japanese-led Co-Prosperity Sphere.


CBI Theater

Levels of War. 
The discussion above introduces the concept of the three levels of war; strategic, operational, and tactical.  Strategy begins at the top where national leadership determines why we will go to war, what we will fight for, and how we will prepare—national strategic aim.  Tactics is where small unit commanders, usually division and below, close with the enemy and engage them by fire and maneuver.  Operations involve the detailed planning and selection of which battles to fight, when, and where.  There are no discreet boundaries between levels. A battle may become a campaign as happened in Stalingrad and at the end of every successful campaign; a battle will achieve a strategic objective like the seizure of Berlin.  The levels of war help national leaders and commanders visualize and arrange military actions, resources, and tasks at the appropriate unit level.  You wouldn’t assign a brigade to liberate Paris overnight or assign an Army to destroy the guns at Pointe du Hoc!  Let’s go into a little more detail on each below:

Strategic Level.   Strategy conceptualizes the integrated use of DIME to achieve national objectives.  The development and refinement of strategy outlines national objectives and leads to guidance to achieve them.  In the US, the President, with the National Security Staff, establishes policy and strategic objectives.  The Secretary of Defense, with the Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff, translates the strategic aim into strategic military objectives that drive theater strategic planning.  The Combatant Commander (CCDR) nests his theater strategy with the national strategy thus, providing the framework for operations.

“See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket…We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg.”


 Abraham Lincoln

 Operational Level.  The operational level links tactical missions to national strategic objectives. This level focuses on the designing, planning, and executing of military operations using operational art.  Operational art is the convergence of imagination, knowledge, and experience to organize and employ military forces to carry out campaigns and major operations.  Operational art determines the deployment of forces and the arrangement of battlefield activities over time in order to attain operational and strategic objectives.

“I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

 General Ulysses S. Grant

Tactical Level.   Tactics includes the arrangement and use of forces in relation to each other and the enemy.  It is the planning and execution of engagements and battles to achieve discreet objectives.  Tactics includes moving, shooting, and communicating in order to close with the enemy.

An engagement is normally is short-duration combat between opposing forces.  Little Round Top and Pickets Charge were engagements.  A battle is of a series of related engagements that are longer in duration and usually involve larger forces.  Battles normally affect the course of a campaign.  Gettysburg was a battle that resulted in the cancellation of Lee’s campaign to invade the north and threaten the capital.

“Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”

General W.T. Sherman

Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.

Lieutenant General U.S. Grant

From the original painting On to Richmond by Mort Künstler, ©1991Mort Künstler, Inc., Used with permission.

Operational art requires a vision, anticipation, and skillful planning, preparation, and execution.  It provides a conceptual framework for the commander and his staff to organize their thoughts and define the conditions for victory sought through battle.  Lacking operational art, campaigns and operations would degenerate into a hyperactive series of disconnected and non-mutually reinforcing events – in other words, chaos.

Operational art provides a broader planning perspective that informs understanding and visualization. Commanders study the existing situation using their experience to distinguish the unique features that require innovative or adaptive solutions.  Operational art demands that each situation be viewed as unique, requiring a unique tailored solution.  Operational art integrates ends, ways, and means, while accounting for risk, across the levels of war. Operational art requires commanders to answer the following questions.

  • Ends–the objectives and desired end state.
  • Ways—the sequence of actions that will most likely achieve the ends.
  • Means—the resources needed to accomplish the ends.

Operational art includes operational design which is the conception and construction of the intellectual framework that informs planning and execution.  Operational design provides a general methodology for: defining the problem, visualizing a solution, and describing the campaign.

Linear vs NonLinear Operations
In linear operations,
commanders direct combat power in concert with adjacent units. Linear operations have clearly identified battle lines where emphasis is placed on maintaining the position of friendly forces in relation to each other. This relative positioning enhances security and the ability to mass.  In linear operations there are rear areas, lines of communication, logistical bases, and fighting forces at ‘the front’.  WWI is an excellent example of linear operations.

In nonlinear operations, forces orient on objectives without reference to adjacent forces. Nonlinear operations focus on creating specific effects on multiple decisive points and though simultaneous activities along multiple lines of operations. Situational awareness and precision fires allow the commander to pursue multiple objectives at one time.  Swift maneuver against several decisive points is used to induce shock and paralysis among enemy formations. Just Cause (Panama) was a non-linear operation.


Operation Just Cause

Elements of operational art
In order to plan, prepare and execute operational art; there is a group of elements to assist us.  These elements are:

  • End state and conditions
  • Center of gravity
  • Decisive points
  • Lines of operations and lines of effort
  • Operational reach
  • Basing
  • Tempo
  • Phasing and transitions
  • Culmination
  • Risk

Below we will dissect each and in many cases show the inter-relationship between them.

End state and conditions.  The end state describes the desired future conditions the commander seeks to create at the end of an operation—where he wants to be in terms of the enemy, terrain, friendly forces, and the civilian populace.  A well-defined end state creates unity of effort by providing a shared aiming point.  It facilitates synchronization and enables disciplined initiative.  Every operation contains an unambiguous end state that serves as a clearly defined and attainable goal that anticipates future operations and sets conditions for transitions.

Centers of gravity.   According to Clausewitz, a center of gravity (COG) is “the hub of all power and movement upon which everything depends.”  The COG provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or the will to act.  The loss of a COG ultimately leads to defeat making it a vital planning tool.  COG’s provide a planning focal point based on the identification of enemy (and friendly) strength and weakness.  We attack enemy COG’s directly or through critical vulnerabilities while protecting our own COG’s.


Carl “COG” Clausewitz

COG’s can be physical or moral. A physical COG might be a capital city (Washington) or a specific military force (Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia).  Moral COG’s are less tangible and are harder to influence.  A moral COG might be a charismatic leader (Hannibal), ruling elite (the Romanov dynasty), a religious tradition (Barbary pirates), tribal influence (Al Anbar), or a strong-willed populace (the Poles of Warsaw).  Moral centers of gravity are usually attacked by all of the instruments of national power (i.e. diplomatic negotiation, aerial bombing, propaganda leaflets, and economic blockades).

Failure to analyze COG’s thoroughly can lead to faulty conclusions that squander resources while increasing risk.  Tojo thought that the destruction of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor would cripple the US and allow Japan to complete its conquest of the Co-Prosperity Sphere — he was wrong.  America’s industrial capacity allowed it to regenerate the fleet faster than any other nation could have at the time.

Decisive points.  A decisive point (DP) is a time, place, or action that allows the friendly force to gain a marked advantage over the enemy and begin to win.  They are clearly defined, attainable and they force a decision.  Decisive points apply at the operational and tactical levels. Friendly control of these DP’s lead to success.  They may disrupt momentum, may lead to culmination, or may precipitate an enemy counterattack.

DP Bruinsburg (river crossing point) to DP Raymond (isolates Vicksburg from reinforcements) to DP Champion Hill (last defensible terrain before Vicksburg)
= Operational Objective Vicksburg


Decisive points can be stepping stones to an operational objective and, ultimately, to a COG.  Success at the decisive point weakens the enemy COG and exposes other decisive points. DPs are not COGs; they guard COGs or lead to COGs.  In operational art, commanders seek to identify the DPs that expose paths towards the center of gravity.

Lines of operations and lines of effort.   Lines of operations and lines of effort link objectives to the end state.  Commanders use lines of operations (LOO), lines of effort (LOE), or both to describe the flow of a campaign and illustrate a proposed sequence of actions designed to create mutually supporting effects.  Often, a specific LOO is identified as the decisive operation with others supporting through shaping.


Lines of Operations.  A line of operation defines the directional orientation of the friendly force in time and space relative to the enemy.  It also links the friendly force to its base of operations and its objectives. LOO’s connect decisive points that lead to a terrain or enemy oriented objective.  LOO’s lay out a series of operations executed in a defined sequence. A force uses interior lines when operations diverge from a central point and uses exterior lines when operations converge on the enemy.

Two major LOO’s under Gen Grant
The Decisive LOO in the east focused on maintaining pressure on Gen Lee’s Army
The shaping LOO in the south was Gen Sherman’s march to the sea that severed Lee’s logistics

Lines of Effort.    Lines of effort link a series of tasks by purpose rather than terrain, thus focusing on the establishment of the conditions for success.  Lines of effort are essential to long-term planning when positional references to an enemy is largely irrelevant such as in often the case in counterinsurgency (COIN).  In operations involving nonmilitary factors, LOE’s may be the best way to link tasks to the end state.  Lines of effort visualize how military capabilities support the other instruments of national power by showing how actions relate to each other and the end state.  LOE’s are commonly used in security, stability, and civil support missions.


Typical COIN Lines of Effort
Secure the neutral population by protecting major population centers
Train and equip host nation internal security forces
Support the establishment of rule of law and host nation government legitimacy
Isolate insurgents

Operational reach.   Operational reach defines the distance and duration across which a force can successfully employ its military capabilities.  Operational reach is the unit tether and is a function of intelligence, protection, sustainment, endurance, and relative combat power.  The limit of a unit’s operational reach is its culminating point.  Operational reach defines the tension between endurance and momentum.

Endurance is the ability to employ combat power in a specified area for a protracted period of time.  It is based on the ability to create, protect, and sustain a force, regardless of the distance from its base and the austerity of the battlefield.   Momentum is a result of seizing the initiative and maintaining high-tempo operations to overwhelm the enemy.  Commanders control momentum through focus and pressure and by anticipating and rapidly transitioning between any combination of offensive and defensive missions.  Commanders push the force to its culminating point to take maximum advantage emergent opportunities.

Tempo.    Tempo is the rate and rhythm of military action over time.  It is not necessarily about speed.  You’ll recall that Grant, at Vicksburg, had to proceed slowly until the west side of the Mississippi River dried up at which time he adopted a very rapid rate of operations.  Controlling tempo helps friendly forces to gain and maintain the initiative.  During combined arms maneuver, the commander seeks to achieve a level of tempo that exceeds the enemy’s in order to overwhelm them.  High tempo in conventional combat allows the friendly force to set the conditions and dictate the terms of battle to the enemy.  There is more to tempo than speed. While speed can be important, commanders mitigate speed with endurance.

To control tempo, commanders plan operations that exploit the reinforcing effects of simultaneous and sequential operations synchronized in time and space.  They also avoid unnecessary engagements—a key factor in operational art.  (The confederate commander at Vicksburg responded to Grant’s cavalry raid by shifting forces, thus wasting resources and wearing out troops even though the raid did not threaten his defense.)  Commanders bypass resistance that is not decisive and enable subordinates to use their initiative to act independently to increase tempo.  Forces expend more energy and resources when operating at a high tempo.

Phasing  and transitions.   A phase is a conceptual planning and execution tool that divides an operation in duration or activity.  A change in phase usually involves a change of mission or task organization.  Phasing aids in planning and controlling operations and may be delineated by time, distance, terrain, or event.  Phasing arranges tasks that cannot be executed simultaneously. Phases describe how an operation should unfold.   Achieving a specified condition or set of conditions typically marks the end of a phase.  Operations are phased when the force cannot accomplish its mission in a single action.  Each phase strives to: focus effort, concentrate combat power at a decisive point, and accomplish objectives deliberately and logically.

Phases at Vicksburg
Attack from the Northeast
Cross the Mississippi River
Isolate Vicksburg
Assault Vicksburg

Transitions mark a change of focus between phases or the execution of a branch (contingency plan) or sequel (the next mission).  Transitions require planning and preparation before execution in order to maintain tempo.  Forces are vulnerable during transitions so commanders must establish clear conditions for their execution.  Commanders identify potential transitions during planning and anticipate them during execution.

  • Forecasting in advance when and how to transition.
  • Arranging tasks to facilitate transitions.
  • Creating a task organization that anticipates transitions.
  • Rehearsing certain transitions such as from defense to counterattack or offense to defense to support of civil authorities and restoration of essential services.
  • Ensuring the force understands different rules of engagement during transitions.

When Grant’s initial assaults on Vicksburg failed to penetrate the Forts
defenses, he transitioned to Siege Operations

Culmination.   The culminating point is that point in time and space at which a force no longer possesses the capability to continue its current operation.  Culmination represents a critical shift in relative combat power.  Both attackers and defenders at each level of war have culminating points.  Culmination during offensive operations occurs when the attacker cannot continue the attack and must assume a defensive posture or execute an operational pause.  Culmination during defensive operations occurs when the force can no longer defend itself and must withdraw or face destruction or surrender.  Failure to anticipate culmination leads to an inability to transition to a form of operations that preserves combat power. This failure to anticipate is all too common place.

Operational Art allows the commander and staff to visualize, plan, and execute large scale military actions over time and space.  It acknowledges that victory will not likely emanate from a single event and that we need shouldn’t engage the enemy everywhere we find him.  Operational art provides us with a disciplined approach for planning these large scale missions.  It prevents us from blindly wandering from one tactical event to another in the hopes of ‘finding’ victory or from succumbing to tactical hyperactivity—chasing every engagement as if all are decisive.

Our next article will begin a two article series on the ambush.  Our first article will provide the foundation for the next article.  In this foundation, we will answer the following: 1) What is the definition of an ambush?  2) Why do you conduct ambushes?  3) What is the terminology of the ambush 4) What are the critical actions of an ambush?  5) What are the fundamentals of conducting an ambush?  6) What are the categories of ambushes?  7) What are the types of ambushes?  8) What kinds of ambush formations can a commander utilize in the conduct of an ambush?  Following our initial article, we will dissect the planning, preparation, and execution of the ambush.



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