Just a Set of Labels?

By Martin Dunn, Chief Research Officer, Directorate of Army Research and Analysis

This item originally appeared in the Australian Army's on-line journal, Research and Analysis: Newsletter of the Directorate of Army Research and Analysis, no.10, OCT 1996. DARA is now LWSC (Land Warfare Studies Centre).

Throughout history, war has been perceived as action on three broad levels: strategic, operational and tactical. Clausewitz distinguished the three levels by relativity in time, space and mass.

MLW 1-1-1, The Fundamentals of Land Warfare, 1993, para 2.1

That we should seek to equate Clausewitz with belief in three levels of war is curious, as is the way in which we assert that he distinguished between them. His writings only refer to two levels:

If fighting consisted of a single act, no further subdivision would be needed. However, it consists of a greater or lesser number of single acts, each complete in itself, which... are called "engagements". This gives rise to the completely different activity of planning and executing these engagements themselves, and of coordinating each of them with the others in order to further the object of the war. One has been called tactics, and the other strategy... According to our classification, then, tactics teaches the use of armed forces in the engagement; strategy, the use of engagements for the object of the war.[1]

Thus Clausewitz himself followed the traditional view that tactics was what happened on the battlefield, and strategy was everything that led to and from it. In his era it made sense. Control was limited by what the commander could see, and the distances travelled by visual and audio signals. Troops fought concentrated and weapons were, by today's standards, short-ranged. The battlefield was a small and well-defined place, and the battle usually short. Although, even here Clausewitz recognised that there could be exceptions and potential for blurring of the two.

Now while current Australian doctrine admits three levels of war (see box) and Clausewitz discusses only two, other theorists have produced different constructs. Luttwak, for example, postulates five levels.[2] Current US doctrine offers fuzzier boundaries than Australian, merely suggesting that the operational is the link between the tactical and the strategic.

• 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.

[from ADFP 101 Glossary]

Liddell Hart constructed his definitions to reflect his criticisms of Clausewitz. He dissented from Clausewitz's emphasis on the battle as the instrument of strategy (something implicit in the Australian definitions of the levels of war). More significantly, he argued that Clausewitz confused the responsibilities of government and military leaders, which should remain distinct. Thus Liddell Hart defined "higher" or "grand strategy" (what we might today call "national strategy") as distinct from "pure" or "military strategy", under which sits tactics.[3] Such a view would be dismissed by Clausewitz who argued that the concept of purely military advice is nonsensical, and thought that the commander-in-chief should sit in cabinet to allow a properly integrated military and political strategy to be developed.[4] An even more direct challenge to Liddell Hart came from revolutionary warfare, particularly Communist revolutionary warfare. We saw in Indochina, Vietnam, Malaya and elsewhere how Communist political and military organisations were integrated down to the local level, and local military action often was in support of political goals. Further, successful counter-guerrilla campaigns, such as in Malaya, found it desirable to mimic Communist organisation and closely coordinate military and political decision-making. Here it was impossible to successfully separate military and political aspects at the local level, let alone the national.

The discovery of an operational level of war has been attributed to Helmuth von Moltke, who led the Prussian, and eventual German, army in a series of successful wars in the 1860s and 1870s.[5] Yet Moltke also diverged from Clausewitz in seeking to minimise the political role in the conduct of operations, arguing that once a campaign was underway such advice should be restricted that which was militarily "proper".

Certainly, by the time of Moltke, warfare had changed significantly. Prior to Napoleon a campaign was defined by season more often than geography. In the Napoleonic Wars, divisions and corps provided more flexible command structures, separate campaigns were fought under different generals in geographically dispersed areas, and in some cases fighting continued through winter. By late 19th century, technology was catching up with warfare, and the wars in Europe and North America at this time were different in character to those that both preceded and followed them. The railway and improvements to the road system were allowing armies to become more mobile. The telegraph made control of dispersed forces a practical proposition. Together these permitted forces to be controlled within a theatre of operations, and then concentrated at the point where they needed to give battle—something practiced by Moltke. They also permitted the mobilisation of much larger armies than hitherto fielded, and improvements in industry and agriculture allowed them to be sustained. Firepower had improved with better artillery, the magazine rifle and later the machine gun. Further dispersion or fieldworks were needed to minimise their effects. Thus by World War One, the battlefield became hundreds of miles of trenches to be fought over for four years, instead of a single field in which one day was required for a decision.

As the 20th century progressed, the mechanisation of armies and the availability of radio further supported dispersed operations. And new forms of firepower, notably that provided by aircraft, could be applied against targets throughout a theatre of operations.

Thus the edge of the battlefield had blurred and—unlike the exceptions observed by Clausewitz—this blurring was significant and consistently present. Expanding armies, improved mobility and better communications allowed the area where troops were in direct contact to grow. And it was no longer just the troops in contact that decided the outcome of a battle, but the actions of forces in a broader, but still limited, area. Firepower could be exercised by aircraft, long range artillery and missiles; and manoeuvre outside the immediate area of a contact could fundamentally affect the issue as lines of communications and logistic resupply were threatened. Neither tactics nor strategy appeared to encapsulate the skill of the theatre commander—and hence "operational art" was coined to cover that which was between the two.

It took some time for an operational level of war to appear in western doctrine. It first gained recognition in the US Army with the 1982 edition of FM 100-5 Operations; and appeared in Australian doctrine soon after. In contrast, the Soviet Union had adopted this terminology in the 1920s. Although the west was slow to adopt this terminology, similar concepts such as "grand tactics" and "theatre strategy" were used to describe the art of the lesser generals.

However, we need to remember that the existence of an operational level simply is a reflection of the practical issues that face commanders, and the command and control measures that they adopt to overcome them. These issues include the geography they operate in, the scale of forces involved, and the technology that defines the capabilities of these forces in terms of mobility and firepower, the logistics required to support them, and the communications that control them.

From this, two points should be apparent.

Firstly, not all circumstances give rise to all three levels of war. For example, while US doctrine can accept three levels as a given, with its global commitments in widely disperse theatres, for Fiji the "operational level" can never be more than a hypothetical construct. Similarly, armies, with thousands of individuals to control through a combination of doctrine and layers of headquarters, see it as natural to have something between the strategic and the tactical level. In the maritime and air environments, the need for this intermediate level is not as clear. With relatively few units and good communications, it is feasible (and often desirable) to control task groups and squadrons from the one central location.

Second, just as changing technology gave rise to the appearance of three levels of war, so further developments can render these old classifications inappropriate. We can see that process already underway. There are platforms and weapons with global reach. B52 bombers with cruise missiles can be deployed from Guam in the Pacific to destroy particular systems in Iraq—simultaneously a strategic and a tactical operation. Communications are also near instantaneous and global, with satellite communications filling in the remaining holes. Importantly, media communications have the same capacity. Lieutenant General John Sanderson commented on the accidental death of refugees in Lebanon as a result of Israeli shelling, "this is not the first case of a single tactical incident having massive strategic repercussions".[6] Global media reach is making such consequences more immediate and more certain. The process of blurring between the tactical and the strategic is continuing so that eventually we might not be able to clearly distinguish between levels of war at all.

The concept of levels of war is useful teaching and learning tool. They help us explain the past, and develop our ideas for the future. But we need to remember that they provide us with just a tool. Clausewitz observed:

"...Only the rankest pedant would expect theoretical distinctions to show direct results on the battlefield. The primary purpose of any theory is to clarify concepts and ideas that have become, as it were, confused and entangled."[7]

Adherence to a doctrinal construct rather than the realities of the environment can result in an air of unreality. Resources and time can be wasted and inefficient structures built in search of some utopia reflecting the trilogy of levels—forgetting that they are just a tool to help us explain what we observe.

If you can draw important conclusions from the existence of a particular level of war, then you should apply a test: will the same arguments hold if you do not refer to any level of war? If your case can only be sustained by using such a concept, then perhaps you are letting the doctrinal tail wag the organisational dog.


1. Carl von Clausewitz,On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1989. p 128.

2. Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1987 pp 69-71.

3. B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 2nd revised edition, Meridian, New York, 1991, pp 319-323.

4. Clausewitz, On War, pp 605-610.

5. Michael D. Krause, "Moltke and the Origins of the Operational Art," in Military Review. Vol lxx, No 9, September 1990, pp 28-44; and Douglas A. MacGregor, "Future Battle: The Merging Levels of War," in Parameters, Vol xxii, No 4, Winter 1992-93, pp 33-47.

6. LTGEN John Sanderson, Opening Address at the Chief of the General Staff's Exercise, Darwin, 28 May 1996.

7. Clausewitz, On War, p 132.


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