Military History Operational Art
Michael Matheny
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0114


The art of warfare is practiced in three levels: the strategic, operational, and tactical. Operational art refers to the military commander’s employment of force in a theater of operations to achieve strategic objectives. Operational art is inextricably linked to the planning and conduct of military campaigns in specific theaters of war, which distinguishes it from tactics and strategy. Strategy and tactics have long been studied and described, but the third level of war, the operational level, began to emerge only in the 19th century as nations began to field ever-larger armies. The maneuver of large armies or multiple armies required commanders to orchestrate large-scale maneuvers in the theater of war. During the Napoleonic Wars the aim of this maneuver was the pursuit of the decisive battle, such as Austerlitz and Waterloo. By World War I, it was clear that single battles could not yield strategic results. The armies were simply too large for single decisive battles to provide political results, and so campaigns designed to arrange a series of battles became necessary. During the interwar years, practitioners and theorists from several countries began to formalize theories of operational art. The roots of modern operational art can be traced back to World War I in which the conduct of operations in three dimensions became necessary. Historians have largely overlooked the operational level of war, but to the extent it has been studied, there is a good deal of debate on when, how, and why operational art developed. Scholarship on operational art generally falls into several categories that include current military theorists, schools of thought on the development of operational art, and campaign studies. Some historians assert that the roots of operational art lay with the development of the Prusso-German school in the 19th century. Other historians emphasize the Soviet interwar theorists as the preeminent authors of the concept. A much smaller number of scholars point to the United States contribution to operational art. In general, the study of operational art may be divided into the various schools of thought on the development of operational art, theory, and practice. Although the origins and practice of operational art have long been linked to large-scale conventional military operations, the advent of irregular warfare since 1945 has sparked a debate about the role of operational art in irregular warfare. Theorists, practitioners, and historians have wrestled with the concept of operational art in small wars and counterinsurgency. This recent interest peaked due to US counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reference Works

Researchers looking for the primary sources establishing the origin and evolution of operational art will find the following works essential. Scholars frequently begin their study of operational art by discussing 19th century theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz and Jomini (see Clausewitz 1976 and Jomini 1971), but the specific mention of operations and operational theory begins with the rapid increase in the size of armies in the last half of the 19th century. Although some scholars of the Prusso-German school begin their discussion of German operational art as early as Frederick the Great, all highlight Helmuth von Moltke as the preeminent operational artist of the 19th century. The Hughes 1993 edited volume of von Moltke’s views provides an introduction and description of his thinking on the conduct of operations in a theater of war. The Soviet school of operational art begins in the interwar years with the publication of works by A. A. Svechin, G. S. Isserson, and M. N. Tuchachevsky. Svechin 2004 is the most recent reprint of a translation of Svechin’s groundbreaking 1927 treatise that first specifically identified the operational level of war. Of particular note in this edition are the introductory essays by Soviet authors on the rehabilitation and contemporary relevance of Svechin as a theorist. Jacob Kipp’s introductory essay is particularly useful. Orenstein 1995 is a translation of the most important works of the primary Soviet theorists and the single collection that best explains Soviet military thinking. This collection is particularly valuable for the Cold War period covered in the second volume. The United States Army officially recognized the operational level of war in 1982 with the publication of Field Manual 100-5 Operations. In 1993 the Department of Defense adopted the Army’s view of operational art for all services. Current American thinking on operational art can be found in joint doctrine with the expanded discussion of operational art in campaign planning in Joint Chiefs of Staff 2011. The development of American military thinking on operational art can be seen and documented by an examination of this series of manuals that can be accessed online through the Combined Arms Research Library (also referred to as the CARL Digital Library). Jones 1988 represents a collection of student papers that describe the evolution of American operational thought. These papers can also be accessed online through either CARL or the US Army War College Library.

  • Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

    See Books I, III, and VIII. The author clearly establishes the theoretical basis for operational art by describing three levels of war. Although he discusses operational art as strategy, he presents many of the theoretical elements of current operational design such as center of gravity, culmination, and concentration.

  • Combined Arms Research Library. Command and General Staff College.

    Also referred to as the CARL Digital Library, this online resource contains the student monographs produced at the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). This is the greatest repository of studies on the various aspects and case studies dealing with operational art. The monographs vary in quality, but researchers can locate specific topics of interest on operational art.

  • Department of the Army. Field Manual 100-5 Operations. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1982.

    The Army’s FM 100-5 manuals beginning in 1982 officially recognized the operational level of war. The evolution of the Army’s doctrine on operational art can be traced through this series of manuals, which can be accessed electronically through the Combined Arms Research Digital Library.

  • Hughes, Daniel J., ed. Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings. Translated by Daniel J. Hughes and Harry Bell. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1993.

    The Prusso-German school cites Helmuth von Molkte as the preeminent operational artist who is largely responsible for the development of German operational art. This annotated volume provides an introduction and description of the development of Moltke’s thinking on the conduct of operations in a theater of war.

  • Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Operation Planning. JP 5-0. Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2011.

    Doctrine for operational art was extended to all US services in 1993. The evolution of American doctrine on joint operational art can be documented through this series of manuals. Current doctrine on operational art can be found in chapter 3 of this publication.

  • Jomini, Antoine Henri. The Art of War. Translated by George H. Mendell and William P. Craighill. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1971.

    Originally published by J. P. Lippencott, Philadelphia, 1862. Author specifically discusses waging war in a theater of operations in chapter 3. Jomini provides many of the current elements of operational design, including lines of operation and communication, decisive points, and logistics. Very influential in the 19th as well as 20th centuries in the education of officers in the art of campaigning.

  • Jones, Michael G. The Operational Level of War: A Primer. Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College, 1988.

    This general overview is part of a large database of student papers, available at both the Army War College and the Command and General Staff College, that provides the researcher the evolution and current military thinking on operational art in the American military. These papers can be accessed through the US Army War College Library.

  • Orenstein, Harold S., trans. The Evolution of Soviet Operational Art, 1927–1991: The Documentary Basis in Two Volumes. London: Frank Cass, 1995.

    Best single source for primary material on the development of Soviet operational art. This two-volume collection of translated works of Soviet authors is particularly useful in tracing Cold War military thinking. Unfortunately, it does not include important contributions from M. N. Tuchachevsky and V. Triandafilov during the interwar period.

  • Svechin, Aleksandr A. Strategy. Edited by Kent D. Lee. Minneapolis: East View, 2004.

    Foundational work for Soviet operational theory, was originally published in 1927. This is the fourth edition with useful introductory essays assessing the author’s rehabilitation and current relevance. Available as an e-book.

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