At the Munich Security Conference in February, US President Joe Biden confidently declared, “We are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together.” Yet, even as he foretold a better future, he invoked the ghosts of the country’s Cold War past: “We must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition.” Great power competition, largely now a distant memory of America’s past, was roaring back.

Unlike halcyon days bygone, however, the competition to shape the international order is focused mainly on the United States and China, with Russia often left lurking in the shadows. The competitive norms of the old Cold War have been replaced with those of the new Cold War: the nine-dash line and the South China Sea, conflict across the cyber domain, and widespread diffusion of military technology. Understandably, debate has raged over the inevitability of military conflict, defense budgets are rising in response, and emergent concepts are framed around a vision of large-scale conflict unimaginable since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Whither Operational Art?

Largely missing from that conceptual visualization, though, is the idea of operational art. Deeply rooted in Soviet military theory and long a mainstay of the grand campaigns envisioned on the plains of Europe, operational art is an inescapable component of large-scale military operations, especially those at the center of any discussion of a potential conflict with another great power. Operational art connects tactical capabilities with strategic goals. It is conceptual, in that it involves framing and understanding the problem to which military power is being applied. It is concerned with coordination, in that activities removed from each other in time and space support each other. And it is concerned with execution, not only of the tactical actions needed to achieve strategic goals but of the supporting activities on which they depend, including logistics, command and control, and force flow.

While the tacit coordination of tactical activities toward strategic goals has existed since warfare expanded beyond a single battle fought on a single day, most military historians consider the origins of operational art to be in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. The term “operational art” was coined in the early twentieth century by Russian staff officer Alexander Svechin, who analogized operational art to a path connecting the steps of tactics to the ultimate goal set by strategy. While the scale of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan did not lend itself to operational art as it has traditionally been understood, if the United States and its allies are to prepare for large-scale combat operations, more rigorous thinking about the discipline at echelons above the brigade level, as in the AirLand Battle concept that emerged in the 1980s and the Soviet schools of operational art, will be necessary.

One way of framing the importance of operational art is that properly connecting tactics to strategy is one way to avoid doing the wrong things extremely well. Harry Summers reports the (possibly apocryphal) exchange during negotiations after the Vietnam War, when an American officer said to his North Vietnamese counterpart that US forces had never been defeated in combat by the North Vietnamese. The response: “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” Without a clear understanding of how tactical engagements relate to theater strategic goals, a series of tactical victories can amount to little, or in fact to failure. The German spring offensives in 1918 are another example, in which the German army made significant territorial gains in France while exhausting itself and becoming less able to fight the incoming American Expeditionary Forces. There are also clear parallels with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the twenty-first century, in which despite having almost every conceivable material advantage, the US-led coalitions achieved few or none of the goals for which they first went to war almost two decades ago.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviets developed Deep Battle, an approach to operational art built on the lessons of World War I and the Russian Civil War. Deep Battle prioritized the destruction of enemy forces and resources throughout the battlefield, not only at the front line. It also relied upon deception, and both drove and took advantage of the industrialization of the Soviet economy and the mechanization of the Russian army in the years before World War II. Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944 was the most effective example of its implementation. Over two months, the Soviet Union destroyed twenty-eight of the thirty-four divisions that made up the German Army Group Center and took not only the territory Soviet forces had lost in previous operations but also eastern Poland.

American historian Michael Matheny identifies US operational art in World War II as the product of deliberate study and education in the Army and Navy in the 1930s. The United States fought so effectively, he argues, because it developed a joint and expeditionary approach to warfighting that took advantage of the country’s tremendous resources and industrial capacity. In the postwar period, as the focus shifted to nuclear war and the conflicts that accompanied decolonization, US operational art waned. The setbacks of the Vietnam War, among others, prompted the reinvigoration of operational art.

AirLand Battle, associated most closely with the first two directors of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, General William DePuy and General Donn Starry, was driven both by the need to reform the Army and how it fought after Vietnam, and the vulnerabilities in previous doctrine exposed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It was codified in the 1982 edition of Field Manual 100-5, Operations, and became the basis for NATO plans for a war in Europe. Alongside upgrading command-and-control technologies to exploit the increased lethality of conventional munitions, AirLand Battle included two significant conceptual shifts.

The first was the idea of the extended battlefield. Destroying the Soviet reserves would be crucial to any active conflict in the European theater. Coordinating movements at the brigade and division level in time and space could enable the destruction of these forces, while avoiding crossing the nuclear threshold. In this sense, AirLand Battle was similar to deep battle. The second was the true integration of ground and air forces. AirLand Battle was the first doctrine explicitly to define the relationship between the Army and the Air Force in supporting each other, and in coordinating to attrit the Soviet reserve while directly counterattacking.

Operation Desert Storm was the first episode in which US forces fought as imagined in AirLand Battle. The war was considered a stunning victory, despite the military failure to destroy the Republican Guard and the political decision not to topple the Iraqi government. The latter was not an objective of the campaign, but the survival of the dictator and his praetorian guard both had dire consequences for Operation Iraqi Freedom more than a decade later. However, Operation Desert Storm was so overdetermined a conflict—given superior US resources, intelligence, equipment, morale, leadership, and international support—that the victory has been described as a catastrophic success. The validity of AirLand Battle against a near-peer adversary was never tested. More importantly, the relative ease with which US forces destroyed a large (if poorly trained and led) military blinded many to the reality that winning a war involves more than simply destroying the enemy’s forces.

The US military thus went into Iraq in 2003 with a false sense of security in its understanding of how the war would be fought. Senior political and in some cases military leaders did not grasp that the destruction of enemy military forces promised by AirLand Battle would not be sufficient to achieve the theater strategic goals. Nor did they fully appreciate the role of logistics, force flow, and strategy as inputs to operational art. Additionally, the problems they confronted after the initial invasion were in many cases unsuited to existing doctrine and mindsets.

The Army You Have

In a 2013 Wired article, journalist Spencer Ackerman offered a particularly scathing review of Rumsfeld’s Rules, the collected leadership lessons of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “Who better to impart life lessons than the only defense secretary in U.S. history to screw up two wars at once?” Ackerman wrote. One of those lessons, “You go to war with the Army you have—not the Army you might wish you have,” is uniquely representative of the abandonment of operational art that marked the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This was in stark contrast to the Gulf War, where General H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s “Hail Mary” maneuver across southern Iraq was firm grounded in operational art. Even against a less-than-capable foe, operational art and the cognitive underpinnings of AirLand Battle were instrumental in bringing a quick, and arguably decisive, conclusion to the ground phase of the war.

One of the hallmarks of operational art and a linchpin during Operation Desert Storm was the logistics infrastructure necessary to assure operational reach. In his book, Moving Mountains: Lesson in Leadership and Logistics from the Gulf War, retired Army Lieutenant General William Pagonis recounted the challenges presented by the task of mobilizing a force of 550,000 troops and seven million tons of supplies.

That effort, sometimes derisively recalled as “just in case” logistics, ensured that coalition forces could maneuver almost at will across the vast theater of war, knowing that the necessary logistics were always within reach. Pagonis’s sustainment plan leveraged tight movement control along main supply routes and vast logistics bases to support the hub-and-spoke system that made possible the hundred-hour ground war.

A decade later, a force attuned to “just in time” logistics, where UPS and FedEx ensured that the right supplies were in the right place at the right time, answered the call. Gone were the mountains of Pagonis’s time, as were the tight movement-control measures he used to such great effect. The close synchronization and sequencing of tactical maneuver were still present, but the coordination of logistics so important to operational art was not. “You go to war,” Rumsfeld so aptly remarked, “with the army you have.”

That force launched into Iraq on March 20, 2003—a second invasion expected to bring a quick end to the rule of Saddam Hussein. However, just seven days later a combination of bad weather and logistics issues forced Lieutenant General William Wallace, commanding the Army’s V Corps, to order an operational pause to consolidate forces, secure supply lines, and prepare for the final assault on Baghdad. It was a brief, but noteworthy respite. Wallace was a brilliant commander with a deep appreciation for logistics; rather than risk early culmination, he elected to seek an operational pause to allow his forces the time necessary to resupply and refit.

Wallace’s pause is generally relegated to a footnote in most accounts of the invasion, but it foreshadowed a collapse of operational art following the fall of Baghdad. Where the close synchronization of time, space, and force is clearly evident in the march to Baghdad, the same cannot be said for the postwar phase.

When General Tommy Franks, commander of US Central Command, failed to produce a viable postwar plan for the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq, Rumsfeld turned to retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner, who had led the relief effort in northern Iraq following the Gulf War. But that effort, initiated just two months prior to the invasion, and the organization Garner established, never set foot in Iraq. Instead, Rumsfeld ultimately replaced Garner with diplomat L. Paul Bremer, whose plan for Phase IV operations, Eclipse II, was built around a set of fundamentally flawed assumptions. On his first day in country, Bremer issued Coalition Provisional Authority Order 1, the de-Baathification of the Iraqi government, the first in a series of ill-conceived and poorly planned directives that would fuel the nascent insurgency.

In retrospect, it is difficult to say with any certainty whether an adherence to the tenets of operational art might have produced different results. However, it is fair to assume that doing so would not have made the situation any worse than it was. If bad policy spawns bad strategy, then maybe operational art would not have made a difference. But one thing is certain: the gap was noticed, and an effort to regain the cognitive edge was already on the horizon.

The Post-9/11 Era

Drawing on the initial lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army launched an effort to update its capstone operational doctrine, Field Manual (FM) 3-0, during the summer of 2004. The 2001 edition of the manual, which introduced the concept of full-spectrum operations, predated the attacks of 9/11. Though the manual was only three years old, there was a palpable desire among senior Army leadership to translate contemporary wartime experiences into emergent doctrine. To that end, Wallace, now the commanding general of the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, assembled a core team of writers who brought that experience: all were veterans of either Afghanistan or Iraq, each having held a key leadership position in combat during the previous year.

In early 2005, the writers produced a series of white papers that represented the key areas of focus for the new doctrine. Among those papers was a proposal to commit an entire chapter of the manual to a discussion of operational art, a topic that had received scant attention in doctrine since the AirLand Battle era. Other than a brief section on the various elements of operational art in FM 100-7, Decisive Force, in 1995, little effort had been applied to broadening understanding on the subject. When the 2001 edition of FM 3-0 reached the force, the subject of operational art received only minor attention and lacked any substantive discussion whatsoever.

The first indicators that this effort would produce the necessary increased emphasis on operational art came with the release of an update to Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, in 2006. Working closely with writers from Joint Forces Command, the FM 3-0 team introduced a broader discussion of the tenets of operational art in the manual. This was an important first step, since the primacy of joint doctrine often sets the tone and tenor for service doctrine. A deeper discourse on operational art in joint doctrine would provide the impetus to do the same in Army doctrine.

But operational art would take on a more substantive role in FM 3-0. That document would expand on the discussion of the elements of operational art, but it would also do something never before attempted in doctrine: provide a comprehensive framework that would add richness and context to the application of both operational art and the emergent design methodology.

To do so, however, required a more expansive approach to the underlying cognitive threads of operational art rooted in AirLand Battle. The first of those was what was known as the battle command framework: visualize, describe, and direct. While this was a sufficient model for well-structured problems, the challenges presented to coalition forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq were decidedly unstructured, or what University of California, Berkeley professors Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber described as “wicked problems” in a 1973 paper on social planning dilemmas. Rittel and Webber asserted that planning theory had evolved to address structured or “tame problems,” whereas those that involved societal issues—the norm in both Iraq and Afghanistan—were anything but tame.

A thorough understanding of both the problem and the situation are fundamental to solving wicked problems, which are by their nature dynamic as a result of the complex interactions at play in human social systems. To address this, the writing team added “understand” as an element of the battle command framework, then further expanded on it by including “lead” and “assess” to emphasize both the role of leadership in the process as well as the need to continuously frame and reframe the problem and situation as circumstances changed over time. This modest change to doctrine allowed for the codification of Army Design Methodology in FM 5-0, The Operations Process, in 2010.

Understanding is also fundamental to the application of operational art, and the expanded discussion of the topic allowed writers to directly link cognitive framing with operational art for the first time in doctrine. In turn, this fostered a much more thorough exploration of operational art, one that introduced critical language and ideas to the dialog necessary to adequately address both the changing character of conflict and the evolved cognitive framework that change required. Writers introduced the concept of stability mechanisms—a companion to the more traditional defeat mechanisms—to address the human and societal factors presented by wicked problems. The manual also replaced the term “logical lines of operation” with the more appropriate “lines of effort” and significantly expanded on their role in contemporary operations. Finally, the writing team deliberately fused the constituent elements of operational art to what would become the Army Design Methodology, ensuring that the necessary foundation was in place to further expand on emergent thinking in the coming years.

Although much of the attention on the new manual at the time focused on the return to a commander-centric doctrine, the increased emphasis on the cognitive dimension of warfare was both timely and necessary. There were instances of adaptation in Iraq, in which commanders developed a new understanding of how to link tactical capabilities with theater strategic goals. The Second Battle of Fallujah, as well as the experiences of Colonel H.R. McMaster and Colonel Sean MacFarland in Tal Afar and Ramadi, respectively, illustrate this adaptation, and the lessons drawn from these engagements informed FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency. What is notable about the latter two especially, though, is that they derived their own visions of how their areas of operations could contribute to achieving theater strategic goals that was independent of, and in some cases contradictory to, the vision of the senior military leadership in Iraq.

As the focus of US professional military education, doctrine, and planning shifts away from counterinsurgency and stability operations and toward great power competition, FM 3-24 will become less relevant. Arguably, it was less relevant even in counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, being the particular product of the Iraq War. The processes that led to better warfighting in Iraq, though, will remain germane. The coordination of tactical actions in time and space, with the logistical support and capacity those actions require, toward strategic goals will be central to any conflict the United States fights in the future, as they were in the past.

The Future is Now

There is the potential, in the early 2020s, to reinvent the US approach to war in the same way that DePuy and Starry did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are parallels beyond the desire to put counterinsurgency in the rearview mirror between now and then. Today, as in the post-Vietnam years, the US military is viewed with decreased respect by a fractious and polarized country. Just as precision-guided munitions led to killchains that transformed conventional warfare in the 1980s, so too can successful exploitation of cyber and space domains, as well as their integration with air, land, and sea, give the US military an advantage over even a numerically superior foe today.

What will be crucial in the years ahead is a deeply rooted grasp of the reality that tactical victories amount to little or nothing when they are not aligned with strategy, and when they are not supported sufficiently to sustain or exploit gains. The importance of stimulating holistic and divergent thinking through tools such as the Army Design Methodology, other approaches to design, and red-team methods, in order to frame and reframe the problem and the ecosystem in which it exists, will also be central to improving in war.

Dr. Rebecca Jensen is an assistant professor at the Canadian Forces College. She studies warfighting, particularly operational art and planning, coalition warfare, doctrine, service culture, and military change.

Steve Leonard (@Doctrine_Man) is a faculty member and the director of assessments at the University of Kansas School of Business. He is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute and the coeditor and a contributing author of To Boldly Go: Leadership, Strategy and Conflict in the 21st Century and Beyond (Casemate, 2021).

Image credit: Lt. Col. Brian Fickel, US Army