What is the Operational Level of War?

I’m interested in operational level wargames for World War II. But my definition of “operational level” has been pretty vague. Something about campaigns and major offensives. So I thought I’d explore operational level war in more detail … and it turns out I was right. It is all about campaigns and major offensives.

Wikipedia explains that the operational level of war is also called operational art and operational warfare, and defines it as “the level of command that connects the details of tactics with the goals of strategy”.

The operational level of war is always discussed in terms of the other levels. Different authorities have different numbers of levels of war, but most folk seem to have settled on three levels: Strategic, Operational, and Tactical.

Three Levels of War - Strategic, Operational, Tactical

Three Levels of War – Strategic, Operational, Tactical

Note: My diagram was influenced by Figure 1.4 in FM 9-6 (U.S. Army, 1998) and the Canadian version Figure 1 in Coombs (2010).

The Australian Defence Force Glossary (Australian Defence Force, 1994; quoted in Dunn, 1996) defines the three levels of war as:

Strategic Level of War
The strategic level of war is concerned with the art and science of employing national power.
Operational Level of War
The operational level of war is concerned with the planning and conduct of campaigns. It is at this level that military strategy is implemented by assigning missions, tasks and resources to tactical operations. See also campaign.
A controlled series of simultaneous or sequential operations designed to achieve an operational commander’s objective, normally within a given time or space. See also operational level of war.
Tactical Level of War
The tactical level of war is concerned with the planning and conduct of battle and is characterised by the application of concentrated force and offensive action to gain objectives.

As you can see there is a tight link between operational war and campaigns. Operational level war is “the planning and conduct of campaigns” according to the Australians. “In the military sciences, the term military campaign applies to large scale, long duration, significant military strategy plan incorporating a series of inter-related military operations or battles forming a distinct part of a larger conflict often called a war” (Wikipedia: Military Campaign). Bateman (2015) expands on this:

Operational level plans are known as “campaigns,” and by design each consists of a series of battles and engagements (ie. the ‘tactical level’) designed to win some larger objective. The operational level of warfare is the realm of generals. Plans begin with the intent that they will start a few days or weeks in the future and may stretch out to cover months of time and thousands of square miles. This level of war deals with the movements of entire corps, armies and army groups, or whole fleets at sea

The concept of the operational level of war originated with Helmuth von Moltke, who led the Prussian, and eventual German, army in a series of successful wars in the 1860s and 1870s (Krause, 1990). The Soviet Union had adopted the operational level of war terminology in the 1920s (Dunn, 1996). So, both the Germans and Soviets were thinking about operational warfare during the fighting on the Eastern Front. The west was much slower to adopt this terminology, although similar concepts such as “grand tactics” and “theatre strategy” existed. [I suspect the Israeli’s thought about the operational level during the Arab-Israeli Wars.]

The US Army first adopted the operational level of war terminology in the 1982 edition of FM 100-5 Operations (U.S. Army, 1982). This manual has a rather racy description of operational war that, perhaps not coincidentally, summarises the conduct of major German and Soviet offensives:

OFFENSIVE operations are characterized by the aggressive initiative on the part of subordinate commanders, by rapid shifts in the main effort to take advantage of opportunities, by momentum, and by the deepest, most rapid destruction of enemy defenses possible. The ideal attack should resemble Liddell Hart’s concept of the expanding torrent. It should move fast, follow reconnaissance units or successful probes through gaps in the enemy defenses, and shift its strength quickly to widen penetrations and to reinforce its successes, thereby carrying the battle deep into the enemy rear. It should destroy or bring under control the forces or areas critical to the enemy’s overall – defensive organization before the enemy can react. (FM 100-5: Operations, p. 9-1)

Only some military situations demand all three levels of war (tactical, operational, strategy) (Dunn, 1996). All participants in WW2 required the operational level, even if they didn’t use that term, because of the widely dispersed theatres and large armies deployed. For a small nation, New Zealand for example, the operational level is simply a theoretical concept. In WW2 the military operations of New Zealand were primarily limited to tactical level involving the 2 New Zealand (NZ) Division. New Zealand strategy during WW2 was to ally with bigger military players. The only time where operational level thinking came into play were the two occasions that Lt Gen Freyberg, the NZ divisional commander, commanded at Corps level (at Crete and Monte Cassino); unfortunately, although a great divisional commander, Freyberg wasn’t so hot at the operational level. Similarly, Spain’s involvement in WW2 was purely tactical with its contribution of the Blue Division. Officially a neutral during WW2, although unofficially aligned with the Axis, all Spanish operational and strategic thinking was done by the Germans. The Blue Division was, after all, just the 250th Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht.

So my definition of the operational level of war:

Operational level of war is the planning and conduct of campaigns, involving large numbers of men (entire corps, armies, or army groups, or whole fleets at sea), covering a thousands of square kilometres, and taking a long time (days, weeks or months).

I’ve leave the last word to Doane (2015). Doane is not a fan of the concept of an operational level between the strategy and tactical levels, calling it an “Unhelpful Fiction”. However, Doane does believe operational art is vital: “Operational art is not simply campaign planning or the maneuver of large units. It is the fundamental military art behind winning wars.”


Australian Defence Force. (1994). “ADFP 101 Glossary”. Canberra : Australian Department of Defence.

Bateman, R. (2015, 25 November). Understanding Military Strategy and the Four Levels of War. Esquire.

Bateman’s four levels are: Tactics, Operational, Strategy, Political.

Coombs, H. G. (2010). In the Wake of a Paradigm Shift: The Canadian Forces College and the Operational Level of War (1987-1995). Canadian Military Journal, 10:2, 19-27.

Dunn, M. (1996, October). Levels of War: Just a Set of Labels? Research and Analysis: Newsletter of the Directorate of Army Research and Analysis, 10. Available on-line.

Doane, L. M. (2015, 24 September). It’s Just Tactics: Why the Operational Level of War is an Unhelpful Fiction and Impedes the Operational Art. Small Wars Journal.

Krause, M. D. (1990, September). “Moltke and the Origins of the Operational Art”. Military Review, LXX:9, pp 28-44.

U.S. Army. (1982). “FM 100-5: Operations, 1982”. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army.

U.S. Army. (1998, 20 March). Chapter 1: Introduction to Munitions Support. FM 9-6 Munitions Support in the Theater of Operations. Washington: Headquarters Department of the Army.

Wikipedia: Operational level of War

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