The operational level of warfare (II)

From part I:

The operational level of warfare
encompasses actions that facilitate the defeat of the resources for the war effort of the opposing powers. This does not include preparations for a combat engagement by forces later engaged or meant to join it.

With the definition done, let's look at the usefulness of the concept of the operational level of warfare.

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A typical accusation against the operational level of warfare is that it's merely grand tactics, tactics for corps or army commanders. Not that much different from tactics of battalion leaders and below.
There is actually a gradual change of how important certain tasks are at different levels. From every level to another from private to commander in chief certain tasks and aspects of the job become less important or even unimportant (such as taking cover in time is unimportant to most generals) while other aspects are added and grow in importance with every level gained. Allocation of resources, for example. I reject the aforementioned accusation because if accepted it would delegitimate the entire idea of levels of warfare, mixing both tactical and strategic into one mess. There's no more clear cut between "strategic" and "tactical" than between "enlisted" and "NCO". The accusation is thus not consistent with a preference for a tactical/strategic idea of levels of warfare without an operational level.

The idea of different levels of warfare makes sense. Let me give an example:
When studying a plant, a zoologist may look at certain characteristics used to classify the plant. A DNA expert would look at the DNA. A chemist may look at the organic compounds present. A painter may look at the colour palette. All of them focus on one angle, and ignore everything else even though it's still present. This allows them to gain clarity at least about one angle at a time. A DNA expert could wonder what would happen if a certain gene was replaced, and being burdened with thoughts about whether the plant has flat or deep roots would serve him no purpose.

The concept of different levels of warfare does exactly that: It allows us to look at the aspects of warfare that are the most interesting. Sure, a squad leader does a little resource management, but when we're talking about tactics we don't pay much attention to it. A corps commander is still concerned about whether the corps' anti-tank tactics are up to date, but when we talk of operational level of warfare we're more interested in movement of formations logistics, deception. A supreme headquarter is still be concerned about technical training schedule issues, but when we talk of strategic level of warfare we're rather interested in arms production, finance, manpower, convincing the other power to yield et cetera.

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So what's so interesting about the operational level of warfare?

The operational level of warfare
encompasses actions that facilitate the defeat of the resources for the war effort of the opposing powers. This does not include preparations for a combat engagement by forces later engaged or meant to join it.
The best practice in warfare is no doubt to fight unfairly, in order to "win" in combat. This is not all about what you do in combat, but mostly about what you do before combat. The preparations for the specific fight by the involved forces themselves belong to the tactical level according to my definition. To set up an ambush is tactics, for example.

Preparations by other forces on the other hand belong to the operational level. The air force may have bombed a bridge, thus slowing hostile reserves so much that they don't reinforce the opposing forces in a battle. That's very different in nature from the tactics of the forces involved, but clearly not strategic either.

This level is of great interest because it appears to be neglected, despite the intense interest that has lasted for decades - and maybe in part because detractors deny its existence.

What we saw in 1991 wasn't so bad, though simple. The opposing forces weren't attacking much, and the one attempt was defeated by a concentrated effort. So one side spend about 20 days preparing for battles to come by softening the opposing forces mostly with air attacks. It would have been stupid to advance right away, seeking battles quickly. Army leaders first manoeuvred trying to gain an advantage before accepting or forcing battle in earlier ages as well. Suvorov was a notable exception; he trusted in having an advantage if and by striking very early.

Attempts to "win" wars by manoeuvre alone without any battle or siege were ridiculed, and likely so for good reason. Those who came the most close were defeated by armies that paid more attention to strength at battle, sought battles and got them. Mastery at the operational level does not mean much if you are much inferior at the tactical level. You need to differentiate between both to see this clearly, of course.

I do suspect the greatest potential for improvement for Western land forces at the operational-level. Have a look at current force structures in the West and you'll see that combat forces are a small minority, the vast majority of troops are support troops. Yet those boots on the ground that serve to prepare for battles that they are not supposed to take part in is still tiny, for most of those support forces are organic or "rear" support, not "forward", operational-level support.
Electronic warfare, armoured reconnaissance and long range scout units are a tiny minority in modern land forces. All-too often reconnaissance was replaced with what's rather forward observation assets. Long range scouts are confined to elitist "special forces". They lack the numbers for theatre-saturating rather than mere anecdotal employments.
We're looking at combat forces and their combat support (artillery, air defence, organic recce etc.) and non-combat support (workshops, signal, supply, military intelligence etc.). This looks fine from the perspective of the combat troops who may despair about their feeble numbers, but enjoy information, support fires, supplies, functioning equipment and receive messages from headquarters.
Indeed, the arsenal is awesome in quality from their point of view - that's the tactical point of view.
The strategic point of view looks rather disappointing at the strategic level, for all-too often strategic objectives are simply not met or met only after incredibly expensive efforts. We became used to our strengths on the strategic level (industrial capacity, plenty allies) and despair about our inability to translate resources allocation into the desired or at least desirable political outcomes. Again, from this perspective it's hard to arrive at the same conclusions as with acceptance of the third, the operational level of warfare. This is even more emphasised since the operational level of warfare becomes difficult to discern in occupation warfare or seemingly haphazard bombing campaigns.

You do need the theoretical construct, the idea, of an operational level of warfare to see the room for improvement and the need for improvement regarding the preparation for battle by forces that do not and shall not engage in said battle.

Sadly, those who do not see an operational level of warfare and prefer to excuse away everything that goes beyond tactics but isn't quite strategy as "operational art" only do show the need for that third, intermediate level. Only once you look from its perspective do you see its usefulness. They can't see it because they refuse (or failed) to assume this point of view. This goes a long way explaining why the critique of the operational level of warfare as an idea is so persistent. No doubt, the non-believers will see circular reasoning in this, but you don't understand what you don't understand.

I will go on seek insights on the operational level of warfare, though I must admit there are strongly diminishing returns from studying more military history examples and analogies as well as from trying to be creative.



The operational level of warfare (I)

There are two schools of thought about how to divide military theory.
One distinguishes the tactical level of combat and the strategic level, at which everything else happens.
The other school distinguishes another level, the operational level of warfare.

The operational level of warfare offers a framework for thinking about campaigns, that is a series of tactical-level events, even if said campaign stands no chance of winning a war (against at least one power) in itself. The English campaign in the Iberian peninsula during the Napoleonic wars, for example. Or the German Afrikafeldzug, which wouldn't have the won against the British Empire even if it had reached and blocked the Suez Canal.

I have brought forward some ideas that are standing way outside of these two schools of thought (such as this one). I'm still -unlike some people I am or was in contact with - a supporter of the concept of an operational level of warfare.

It seems one needs to convince in two steps to support the concept against sceptics:
  1. Define the levels
  2. Show that separating them like this provides a net benefit
Step One shall be the topic of this article. Ignore my earlier attempt at doing step two.
Step One the much easier and smaller step, but irritatingly there doesn't seem to be a concise, generally accepted definition for the operational level of warfare. So I feel free to contribute my own proposal for a definition:

The tactical level of warfare
encompasses the actions during a combat engagement and the preparations for the specific fight by the forces who are or are meant to become involved.

The strategic level of warfare
encompasses the warring powers' bolstering and maintaining of the political will to fight and the provision of resources (including manpower) for the war effort. It also encompasses actions that seek to reduce the opposing powers' ability to provide these resources, but it does not include efforts to move the provided resources to battle or to interfere with this movement.

Finally, what's in between the two:

The operational level of warfare
encompasses actions that facilitate the defeat of the resources for the war effort of the opposing powers. This does not include preparations for a combat engagement by forces later engaged or meant to join it.
As far as I can tell my main accomplishment here are to define the upper border with a look at resources and the lower border without insisting on the existence of relevant campaign plans.
I also avoided talking of battles or series thereof, so these definitions fit for small, low intensity conflicts as well. My definitions that work as stand-alone (as definitions always should), not defining any level as "everything else in warfare" or dependent on further definitions. Finally, I paid attention to using the more accurate word "warfare" instead of "war".

I did not really change the meaning of the levels by trying to define them. What I defined here is what I observed as the meaning of the terms as used in literature. The use of the term "operational level of wear(fare)" is much more homogeneous than one would expect from a term that lacks a widely accepted definition.

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Hardly any definition outside of nature's sciences is perfect.
What, for example is the level of war of an air attack on a munitions factory that doesn't only destroy machinery, but also some finished munitions (resources of war)? Is it a strategic or operational in nature? I suppose in such cases one should judge oneself; I would consider such an attack strategic in nature because the effect is almost certainly greater regarding the provision of resources than defeat thereof. It would be different if a shipyard was hit and an almost-finished supercarrier was turned to crap in the process. That would be an operational level attack (at least ex post), as the production capacity lost is a much less severe loss than that of the almost finished ship.

Another clarification, this time regarding "manpower for the war effort". This includes both workers and combatants. An attack on workers is a strategic attack, while an attack on combatants is a tactical one.** Again, in mixed cases the more severe aspect is the dominant one.

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My super-shortened version of the definitions would be like
tactical level - facing deployed and employed military power
operational level - trying to deploy military power better
strategic level - trying to be able to deploy and employ more military power

That's not all-unhelpful for understanding and clarity, but I suppose it's too concise for most interested people.

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Still, there are definitions of the operational level of war (fare), and I will link to some:

Most unhelpful are Wikipedia

Instead of defining what the  article's headline is (operational level of war) wikipedia quotes a U.S. DoD definition for operational art.

The current U.S. DoD definition for "operational level of war" is
"The level of war at which campaigns and major operations are  planned, conducted, and sustained  to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas."
They kept changing the definition. Earlier versions were in FM 100-5.

The Free Dictionary has an unnecessarily bloated and detailed definition that distracts from the essence:

An article that mentions an Australian official definition that's IMO unhelpful as well*:

Another article, rather with descriptions than concise definitions:

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None of this has the power to convince those who prefer the tactical/strategic division to adopt the operational level of war concept. That requires also part two, the (2nd) attempt to show the usefulness of the concept. This isn't in draft stage yet, so don't expect it this month.


* Luttwak gets mentioned there. IIRC he added a technical and a grand strategy level. The technical level has some relevance as it should educate armed forces leaders about how to exploit temporary technical superiority before the countermeasures reduce or eliminate them. Grand strategy is IMO for policy and peacetime, not for armed forces.
**: This could include a propaganda campaign that makes workers flee the country or be demotivated, as well as motivate soldiers to desert.



Stating the obvious about Russia's economy and military

Russia's economic and thus fiscal strength of the past years was ludicrously based on the oil price. A look at their exports shows that Russia's economy is competitive in exports of natural resources, refined natural resources and, apparently, gas turbines. This infographic shows the composition of Russian exports in 2014:

source: oec
A low oil price means a weak Russia, thus a tight Russian government budget and thus not enough money for ambitious military modernisation or expansion plans. Russia is in a recession right now and both the crude oil price and the Western reactions to the Crimea aggression are the most likely reasons for this recession.

The oil price is rising again (for now), but it's still at a somewhat normal level as opposed to the unusually high levels of 2014.

source: trading economics

The fiscal effects are delayed, of course. Russia has annual budgets like all countries, so there's about one of lag from that interval + many expenses are for orders that are to be fulfilled over several years, which smooths military spending over time. There's also the option of using deficit spending. The effect of the recent moderate oil prices have certainly not yet had their full impact on the Russian military.

The dependence on the oil price does have an irresistible effect on the Russian military in the long term, though. Putin's economic policy incompetence (or outright preference for kleptocracy over a strong economy) maintains a ceiling beyond which Russian military power cannot grow without some form of mobilisation.

This is on the one hand reassuring, for it means that Russia stands no chance against the EU in terms of military spending capability, and on the other hand it points at a possible grand strategy for containment of Russia: Keep their power small by keeping the oil price low. This is nothing like the map-painting nonsense of classical geostrategy, but it's bound to be effective if pulled off.

The problem - and ultimately the reason why Russia had a military power spring recently - is that despite all our other, even move pressing, reasons that make us Westerners prefer low oil prices (well, maybe save for Norwegians,  Scotsmen and Texans), we still experienced the recent crude oil price high.

We truly could reap many parallel benefits if only we get the crude oil issue under control. 
Now how very much tree-hugging do all the electrical car fans look again?*


*: I'm not really a big electric car proponent. Personally I hope for a mix of battery- and hydrogen internal combustion engine-powered motor vehicles in 2030's motor vehicle production. What matters in the context of this blog post is that all those counter-climate change and counter-fossil fuel burning emissions activists may actually do more for Western defence on the really grand scale than for example marines.


Russian hacking; still not proved

The U.S. government released a report to prove that the Russian government was hacking, and apparently (I'm no IT security expert, so I rely on others) this is no more convincing than the infamous Iraqi WMD claims.

The attribution of hacking is almost impossible if the hacker isn't careless or incompetent. Nowadays you can use open wifi to access the internet. You can disrupt tracebacks by transmitting data in part through a 'private' directional radio communication to another computer that's connected to the hacker only by one time pad encrypted messages routed to various countries whose governments are not really cooperating with traceback requests.

So essentially you need multiple defectors or whistleblowers - insiders who give away the secret identity of the hacker.

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Personally, I don't doubt that teh Russian government is doing espionage, sabotage and manipulation through the internet.
it is a matter of principle to not believe a liar without solid evidence, though. The U.S. govenrment and in particular its intelligence services were exposed as liars too many times to be considered reliable sources. I don't hold the bar up very high; I don't believe the German government in regard to Russian hacking either. I believe the Russian overnment does hack, but I do not trust Western intelligence services' allegations.
These intelligence services serve first and foremost themselves, second they serve the political leadership. To serve the citizens is an odd idea to them. No doubt their personnel would disagree, but I think that's a problem of lacking self-awareness.

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Now what should we (Western countries) do in this affair?

  • We could simply defend and endure whatever attacks bypass our defences. This is in itself a highly unsatisfactory (and politically unsustainable ) option.
  • We could retaliate and be lucky enough to hit the right address. How could this possibly succeed? We cannot attribute attacks properly, so we wouldn't even learn if and when retaliation had convinced the offending government to cease its attacks. Much more likely we would enter a spiral of escalations.
  • We could retaliate and be unlucky enough to hit the wrong address. Oops. Sadly, we wouldn't even notice our mistake.

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Maybe there is a way out. We could "retaliate" with something that's not offensive in itself, but rather something we could and may should do anyway. A government in Moscow lost a cultural war before*; we could defeat one such government again in a competition of quality of life.
That would happen to benefit us directly.


*: The Soviet Union lost the Cold War much more sdue to economic reasons and a long-hidden political brittleness than to the appeal of Jeans and McDonalds, but the attractiveness of Western life was most disconcerting to the East german governemnt. Nowadays most Russians are exposed to seeing how life is in the West as the East Germans whoe were able to receive West German TV stations.


No carrier at sea?


"For the next week, not only will there be no U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the Middle East, but there will be no American aircraft carriers deployed at sea anywhere else in the world, despite a host of worldwide threats facing the United States."

This quote is from a large (though not exactly well-reputed) media source that I won't link to. 

The quote is remarkable as a demonstration of a particular school of thought. It shows the utter confusion about what constitutes defence and about what provides security.

A U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf or around Taiwan doesn't reduce ANY threats to the United States. To have a battlefleet thousands of nautical miles away from your mainland is not about defence, ever. It's not necessarily helping to win a war that could not be deterred, either.

"Influence" ( a nicer word for bullying) has become the new meaning of "defense", for these days hardly any "defense expenditures" are about actual defence. The U.S. and the former colonial powers France, UK and even to some degree Belgium have paid much attention and devoted many resources to meddling in distant continents' internal affairs for decades. Much of this was excused as the global part of the confrontation between "communism" and "the free world".
This meddling has become self-evident, even institutionalised and the bureaucracies tasked with it have even spawned new branches.

German politicians have given to the seduction of playing such great power games as well, and through NATO and U.S.-led coalitions even small countries such as Lithuania have joined these games.

I am convinced that the warping of terminology and the associated warping of the idea of normalcy are misleading people (especially) in the Western World to tolerate spending of much of their purchasing power on actions that don't serve them, and may actually endanger them.

Politicians get away with playing pointless yet costly games and deceiving voters in part because they are good at deception, but even more so because great many people not only fall for the deception, but actually side with the playign team.

It's like football; a spectator-fan doesn't gain money from "his" team's success like the players do with their boni. Instead, the spectator-fan does even pay for the entertainment. The fans adopt the cause and make it their own, though they cannot possibly benefit materially even from successes.

Gret power games are no doubt entertainment, with few being in control, a couple more people benefitting economically, great many mildly suffering economically but enjoying teh entertainment and great many others suffering economically without enjoying the spectacle.
And then there are the people in the countries hosting those 'games' ... they suffer terribly, and may even die in droves.

I suppose an ethical person would reject such a form of entertainment and demand that the own government stops playing such games and focuses on actual deterrence for peace, and as plan B a quick white peace (status quo ante) in the event of war.

Hat tip to War News Update for pointing this out (though the WNU editor has a very different interpretation).



2016 blog stats


I have no particular idea why the blog visitor stats went up after long stagnation, but the website host insists they did. Statcounter (traditionally) doesn't agree at all, but it had an obvious, trust-destroying glitch:

So what may ahev caused this wave of additional visits?
November saw 19 posts, December a mere 10 - that's rather slow blogging. I skipped a couple military, errorism and civil liberties topics that I would have blogged about without the holidays.

Maybe it was the light AT defences series that drove up visitor stats? Doubtful, since the lightweight equipment and MEADS/TLVS alternatives articles are the only November articles still ranking in the top ten most read articles of December.
The website host's stats  didn't point out any huge spikes in referring links, so that's not the reason either. 

Maybe it's simply that confrontational foreign policy and thus concerns about future wars among developed nations made more people interested in a non-hawkish blog on military affairs. From that angle I wish I had less visitors.



A fine New Year's pledge for the EU

We're inflicting 150 9/11-scale strikes on ourselves per year. Maybe we should stop this (or at least reduce this quantity) instead of getting distracted by squirrels errorists.

Air pollution - by many believed to be a solved problem - is still killing more Europeans per day than any non-World War war ever.

ESA's 2004 graphic based on ENVISAT satellite data: NO2 pollution world-wide
European NO2 hot spots

The biggest tragedies and political failures aren't necessarily the ones that attract the most attention. Errorists threats and strikes are spectacular by definition, reports about them are kind of entertaining. So is in a way the Aleppo tragedy. The REAL top tier problems are in entirely different areas.
The REAL top tier problems are the ones which we didn't solve yet because by their very nature they kind of 'fly under our radar'. They're the high-hanging fruits. You need to pay attention and mobilise some rational thinking in order to get exasperated about such issues - while all you need to do to get terribly angry about some errorist asswipes is to sit on your couch and use the TV remote.

Problems that easily arouse anger and frustration amongst many people are by their very nature provoking countermeasures and are thus bound to cause little harm after a while.  Meanwhile, big and small problems that do not provoke such intense reactions may linger on - politicians may know of them, but have little incentive to address them forcefully, for there's not public pressure. Solving such issues wouldn't necessarily yield rewards for political action either, since the problem was below the 
attention threshold anyway, and its absence would not be noted.

This is actually an analogy to Luttwak's description of how spectacular technological advance by a military provokes quick and effective countermeasures, while many small barely noticed innovations may provide lasting advantages 

So how about a New Year's pledge for the EU: In 2018 we should address the REAL top tier issues insteaSQUIRREL!



How to harm your people and mankind as a whole by starting a war

"Natürlich, das einfache Volk will keinen Krieg […] Aber schließlich sind es die Führer eines Landes, die die Politik bestimmen, und es ist immer leicht, das Volk zum Mitmachen zu bringen, ob es sich nun um eine Demokratie, eine faschistische Diktatur, um ein Parlament oder eine kommunistische Diktatur handelt. […] Das ist ganz einfach. Man braucht nichts zu tun, als dem Volk zu sagen, es würde angegriffen, und den Pazifisten ihren Mangel an Patriotismus vorzuwerfen und zu behaupten, sie brächten das Land in Gefahr. Diese Methode funktioniert in jedem Land." 
Interview mit Gustave Gilbert in der Gefängniszelle, 18. April 1946, Nürnberger Tagebuch (1962; Originalausgabe: "Nuremberg Diary" 1947)

"Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America nor, for that matter, in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. [...] That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Interview with Gustave Gilbert in jail, 18 April 1946, "Nurembourg Diary" (1962, 1st edition: 1947)

(This quote confirmed, albeit by a single source.)

Parental advisory: Don't try this at home!

Nor should you ever be played like that (again)!



How to deter errorism

Asswipes who want to provoke us with violence cannot be deterred with good reliability by the threat of primitive retaliation. All-too often retaliation is what they want to provoke, after all.

Years ago I proposed a schedule for withdrawal from a war of occupation which featured a deterrence element against violence; the troops would be scheduled to withdraw piecemeal over time, but for every one soldier killed or wounded in action a fixed quantity of soldiers would be sent as reinforcements. Any 'freedom fighters' claiming to fight against occupation would face the dilemma that fighting against occupation would actually prolong or even greatly grow the occupation.

I think something similar could be done against errorists, particularly errorists who are linked to a non-elusive party like daesh:

We could simply pass a law (effective for 10 years) which compels us to send aid to the enemies of the errorists for every of our citizens killed by errorists abroad or anyone killed by errorists in our country.

For one killed person:
1,000 small arms with munitions and accessories
100 4wd cars
100 missiles and one missile launcher
10 mortars with a thousand rounds (and more auxiliary charges) each
10 instructors who train the new users for six months

For one severely injured person:
500 small arms with munitions and accessories
50 4wd cars
50 missiles and one missile launcher
5 mortars with a thousand rounds (and more auxiliary charges) each
5 instructors who train the new users for six months

Both would be to be delivered (very publicly) within two months. Stocks would be purchased from other countries if the own stocks would otherwise drop below a defined minimum level for collective defence. Such purchases could be pre-arranged just in case, in order to meet the two-month deadline.

Additionally, the law could include a lump sum delivery as answer for failed every errorist strike.

I suppose we could skip many "counter-terrorism security" expenses and would still be safer than with the status quo policies.