The rapid evolution of war, or as Carl Von Clausewitz describes it, “politics by other means,” is reaching a point where “soldiers no longer have a monopoly on war,” as two People’s Liberation Army colonels wrote in the late 1990s. In their book Unrestricted Warfare, they predicted that the “boundaries lying between the two worlds of war and non-war, of military and non-military, will be totally destroyed” so that even the “rules of war may need to be rewritten.” Their notion of soldiers losing their monopoly on war emerged shortly after one of the US Army’s greatest triumphs, the defeat of Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm. In the decades since, our adversaries have covertly manipulated the boundaries between war and nonwar to shape the future battlefield. For much of that period, the US Army was largely preoccupied with counterterrorism and the post-9/11 wars. More recently, it has turned its focus to preparing for large-scale combat operations, but this focus avoids actually envisioning this battlefield. Instead, it envisions a one slightly altered from the battlefield experienced during Operation Desert Storm.
There have been a few, important voices calling for change. General Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seems to recognize the blurring of boundaries between war and nonwar and an evolving battlefield where the soldier is not the primary participant. In February, he signed the Joint Concept for Competing, which warns the joint force about the risks of relinquishing strategic influence, advantage, and leverage while preparing for a war that never occurs, as well as the potential to “lose without fighting.” In other words, the US Army risks losing its current contest by preparing to fight on the wrong battlefield, and even worse, failing contribute to the contest all together. To address this risk, the Army must reimagine how it understands war and the modern battlefield—which Milley describes as vast, amorphous, and an undefined competitive space. More specifically, it must redefine how it conceptualizes tactical actions and how it connects those actions to strategic objectives.
The primary concept for bridging tactical actions and strategy is known as operational art. Current US Army doctrine outlines two imperatives for operational art. The first is to actively create the most advantageous tactical conditions possible. And the second is to ensure that military operations align with and directly support strategy. In order to be prepared for the vast, amorphous new battlefield, the US Army must embrace the Joint Concept for Competition’s central idea and “expand its competitive mindset,” starting with its conceptualization, definition, and understanding of operational art. This cognitive evolution must proceed through three steps: (1) acknowledging the limitations of the historical conceptualization of operational art for today’s strategic environment; (2) embracing the multiplicity of warfare perspectives, specifically the different ways our adversaries understand warfare; and (3) redefining operational art and the application of the military instrument of national power across the competition continuum.
No Longer Fit for Purpose
A binary construct of war and peace limits the potential application of operational art. The Army’s current definition—“the pursuit of strategic objectives, in whole or in part, through the arrangement of tactical actions in time, space, and purpose”—traces back to the nineteenth century with Antoine Henri Jomini’s writings on strategy. Jomini’s description of strategy closely resembles how current doctrine defines operational art, which involves “making war on a map” and “mass[ing] an army, successfully, upon the decisive points of a theater of war.” Or in today’s terms, creating the most advantageous tactical conditions possible to bring about a decisive battle that ends the war and grants policymakers their desired political outcome.
However, the progression of weapons and tactics has transformed warfare, which Soviet military theorist Mikhail Tukhachevsky noted nearly a century ago had consequently rendered it “an impossible matter to destroy the enemy’s manpower by one blow in a one day battle.” Both the US Civil War and World War I served as demonstrations of this, revealing the futility of seeking a single decisive battle. Russian theorists recognized this shift and evolved the concept of operational art to tackle the challenges it posed. For the Russians, the “central challenge” of operational art transitioned “from enveloping linear maneuver to the deep frontal penetration.”
This shift in understanding reimagined enemy forces as systems and, according to retired Israel Defense Forces brigadier general and director of Israel’s Operational Theory Research Institute Shimon Naveh, demanded elaborate operations to disrupt the enemy’s functionality in terms of “depth, continuity, synergism, and wholeness.” Instead of adhering to Jomini’s strategy of “making war on a map,” operational artists shifted their focus to making war on the complex adaptive system of the enemy. To successfully conduct war on a complex adaptive system, it is necessary to target critical nodes and disrupt system functions, to create opportunities to defeat enemy militaries in detail. Systems theory, according to Naveh, became the new foundation for conceptualizing and understanding operational art. And it is systems theory that will prove critical to unlocking the future potential power of operational art for fulfilling the Army’s requirements within both the current and future strategic environments.
The current, but limited, US Army understanding of systems theory sees war as the confrontation between two open systems or militaries. According to Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations, systems warfare is about attacking critical components of the enemy system while protecting your own. In this construct operational art serves to harness the power of the system’s various means to link battles and operations as ways to achieve “the isolation or destruction of critical subsystems,” disrupt the effectiveness of the “opponent’s overall system,” and then “[exploit] the resulting freedom of action” to annihilate the operationally paralyzed enemy and achieve specified ends, which is the main idea of the new FM 3-0. Enemy systems exist across the five domains and three dimensions through a series of interdependent links and nodes. The links and nodes then must be disrupted through multidomain operations to create opportunities to exploit with ground maneuver. FM 3-0’s concept makes sense. It’s how the Army contributes to large-scale combat operations. But alone it is not sufficient to produce the expanded military mindset necessary or optimized for the current strategic environment and evolved battlefield. Operational art, as written, prepares for a war that may never occur, to create advantageous tactical conditions on a battlefield that isn’t being fought on.
What is required can be discerned by examining the evolved nature of warfare birthed by Desert Storm. The globalization of warfare and the interconnection of nation-states around the world have changed the battlefield from an area where two independent systems are in confrontation into a global ecosystem. The warring nations are two interdependent variables in competition for relative advantage. Consider the premise of Unrestricted Warfare, which saw in Desert Storm “a war which changed the world [and] ultimately changed war itself” and concluded that warfare “can no longer be carried out in the ways with which we are familiar.” However, the US Army seems to only want to envision warfare in ways with which it is familiar, seeing the application of the military instrument of national power focused on warfare between military systems in conflict and not as variables in competition to alter the greater system and to create relative advantage.
Embracing All Perspectives
To expand its military mindset, the Army, as an organization, must study the competing conceptions of warfare. Two post–World War II conflicts serve as indicators of the expanding context of warfare and, consequently, operational art: the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. These two conflicts demonstrate a widened application of military force that transcends force-on-force land engagements.
Both the Egyptians in 1973 and the Russians in 2014 employed their military forces not to secure a traditional victory in war but to induce changes within the international system. Despite the Egyptian military’s loss, it achieved many of its desired strategic outcomes, including increased diplomatic and economic partnerships with the United States and the eventual return of, and demilitarization of, the Sinai. On the other hand, in 2014, the Russians executed their seizure of Crimea without direct combat, successfully restoring Vladimir Putin’s position in the Russian political hierarchy and retaining the strategically important port of Sevastopol. These examples illustrate the ability to achieve political aims within the international system without achieving a decisive military defeat of an adversary on a traditional battlefield.
Similarly, Unrestricted Warfare, as mentioned earlier, provides us with insights into China’s war concepts. These concepts aim for, as the Joint Concept for Competing describes it, “conflict without combat” and seek ways to “alter the current international system.” Colonels Liang and Xiangsui extensively discuss nonmilitary war operations and nonwar military operations, including trade war, financial war, terror war, ecological war, psychological warfare, drug warfare, network warfare, technological warfare, fabrication warfare, cultural warfare, and international law warfare. In fact, the same concepts continue to be promoted in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) literature, including the 2020 version of “The Science of Military Strategy,” published by the China’s National Defense University, as highlighted by a Center for Strategic and International Studies 2023 report on Chinese political warfare.
By integrating the ideas from Unrestricted Warfare with insights from 2018 and 2020 RAND studies on the operational concepts of the People’s Liberation Army, one can better comprehend the perspective of Chinese military strategists on warfare. According to their perspective, the “combat space,” representing the realm of kinetic military conflict, is shrinking, while the “war space,” encompassing the broader realm of conflict, is expanding. This operational concept, within a broader conceptualization of warfare, remains grounded in systems theory and system confrontation. However, Chinese military strategists acknowledge the necessity of waging “comprehensive competition in all domains” to alter the relative power and capability of the confronting systems.
A useful way of encapsulating (a) the limitations of current US conception of operational art are no longer fit for its purpose and (b) the need the US to embrace all perspectives of warfare is by imagining a football team. The current US Army doctrinal construct for operational art generates a team focused exclusively on X’s and O’s. This focus visualizes success accruing to the readiest and most adaptable team system, combined with having the best trained and conditioned players. However, an overemphasis on readiness, on X’s and O’s, narrows the competition to the playing field, which is inadequate for modern conflicts.
Our adversaries see a larger competitive space, or battlefield, encompassing not just the field of play but the whole league, the stadium, the media, the players association, and more. The Joint Concept for Competing urges us to adopt a similar view, with a much larger understanding of “competitive space” and critical “sub-areas” of competition. Our adversaries are gaining relative advantage through various activities off the field and outside of game time. While we prepare players for next Sunday’s game, our adversaries are using cyber warfare to infiltrate local traffic systems to prevent fans from being able to attend the game and thus negating homefield advantage. They are embedding personnel within our medical staff to prevent player readiness or within the coaching staff to gain a cognitive advantage. They are using media warfare to plant or leak various stories about racial or other schisms prevalent within the organization that will deter future free agents from signing with the team. They are conducting legal warfare, lobbying the league to change on-field rules in ways that favor their team system. The list of examples is endless, but the analogy’s core idea is to encourage contemplation of what else the US Army should contribute within the broader realm of competition. This calls for a reimagining of how the US Army should define and apply operational art to effectively manage this expanding war space.
Toward a New Definition
The US Army must undertake the task of redefining, in doctrine, operational art and the application of the military instrument of national power across the competition continuum. This redefined foundation necessitates a rescaled understanding of systems theory, acknowledging the Army’s role as a variable within these complex systems. The redefined foundation must, as the esteemed international relations theorist Robert Jervis describes, recognize that any interaction with a system will have “chains of consequences [that] extend over time and many areas.” Therefore, Army operational art must prioritize adaptability.
John Boyd, a renowned military theorist, extensively explored this concept. His well-known OODA loop illustrates how individuals or systems “learn and adapt [their] mindset to an ever-changing environment amid unavoidable uncertainty.” For the military, the key lies in adapting to environmental changes faster and more effectively than adversaries. The same principle applies to the Army in the new strategic environment, where adaptability becomes paramount.
Sensemaking and feedback are critical components of operational art. Moreover, the objectives of interacting with a system are to alter the interrelationships between variables and the behavior of various components. A significant part of influencing behavior is rooted in psychology, narrative, and context. When identifying elements to focus on for generating system changes within the expanded war space or competition, both narrative and node-link interdependence emerge as crucial factors. Lastly, the joint elements of direct and indirect effects must be added to the Army’s elements of operational art to help drive broad coherent strategy supporting operations.
The future application of operational art will focus more broadly outside of armed conflict and more predominately within the expanded war space, or competition space. As such the Army institutionally must accept premise that Milley articulated in his foreword to the Joint Concept for Competing—that “remain[ing] fully prepared and poised for war,” on its own, “will be insufficient to secure [our] strategic objectives and protect [our] freedoms.” Redefining operational art and its elements is just one step of expanding the Army’s mindset, although it is a crucial one. The new definition must include focus on continuous interaction with the greater operational environment, condition shaping, sensemaking, exploitation, and interrelationship across myriad of interdependent variables. Having more skilled and trained football players won’t be sufficient to retain an advantage, and the football field is only one of many areas of competition.
Change does not come easy to large institutions, but the US Army must adapt to the evolving nature of strategic competition by embracing irregular and nonlethal methods. Theater campaigns in the twenty-first century should utilize operational art’s system perspective to employ military forces in ways that alter the interaction of variables within the greater geopolitical system, ultimately supporting US strategic objectives. As strategic competition becomes a persistent and long-term struggle, one that defines the operating environment, the United States must reconceptualize its application of the military instrument of national power.
Given this overarching imperative, the following proposed redefinition of operational art captures the specific requirements facing the US Army:
Operational art is the organization’s continuous interaction with its operational environment that is focused on shaping conditions (through strategies, campaigns, and operations) and adapting to changes (through sensemaking and feedback) to exploit opportunities (both tactical and strategic) more effectively than an adversary.
Operational art offers the Army a framework to organize and employ military forces below the threshold of armed conflict, supporting strategic objectives. In the twenty-first century, armed conflict against peer adversaries may become less common with the dominant context within which operational art is applied becoming strategic competition. Consequently, the United States will call upon its Army to help achieve its strategic objectives in constructs short of armed conflict. Therefore, operational art must evolve to prioritize creating changes to the international system and generating strategic relative advantage for the United States through campaigns within competition.
David C. Clouse, is a US Army information operations officer, is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), and has extensive operational planning experience from his tenure at the United States Army Pacific. His knowledge of Army operations in competition and systems theory is largely informed by his master’s degrees in military operations and project management, earned from SAMS and the University of Kansas, respectively.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Timothy Hamlin, US Army