There is this thing called operational art, and supposedly military commanders and their staffs do it. What is it though? And, how does it fit into the philosophical and practical realm of war fighting? Here are some thoughts to consider how this planning doctrine relates to the way military planners and commanders engage in the art of war.
There are things we can know, and there are, currently, things we cannot know. The fact that we can even know such a truism is a function of the cognitive interplay between predictability and unpredictability. In other words, we really can know that we can know things, and we really can know that we cannot know things. One attempts the former through theory; they discover the latter through the experience of history. Doctrines capture knowledge of the two. In war, a commander’s genius is the missing link between the theoretical and the historical. Current U.S. Army doctrine capitalizes on this rarity by emphasizing the role of commanders in the planning process. Thus, in war, applying a construct for predictability to control certain uncertainty through the imagination of knowledge and experience is an intangible genius made tangible by operational art.
First, theory provides a framework for understanding uncertainty in predictable terms. One of Hans Morgenthau’s purposes for defining realism as an international political theory is to think about predictable outcomes based on “human nature as it actually is.” He takes what he considers are relevant empirical factors such as political structures (states), sources of economic viability and military might and determines a relative abstractness of overall state power. He creates a language that is both abstract and useful for understanding political relations. Morgenthau’s conclusions about states’ motivations to pursue power remain abstract enough that present day national policies maintain an adherence to preserving the security of America. For instance, Richard Kugler notes the emphasis the 2010 National Security Strategy places on contending with the power potential residing in Russia, India, and China. Realism, as a theory, offers some predictability regarding motivations useful for analyzing state-to-state interactions.
Similarly, operational art predicts outcomes by analyzing empirical factors such as centers of gravity, operational reach, and lines of operation and effort. Operational art creates a language of intersubjectivity with abstract yet empirically relevant concepts that commanders express through the design of military plans. Those plans are a theoretical approach to a problem. For instance, in 1973, the Egyptian Army tried to achieve a desired political outcome by employing some elements of operational art when they attacked Israel.
Through surprise, effective decisive points, and several phased lines of operation, the Egyptians maintained control of the early stages of the war with a tempo that shocked the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The Egyptian theory (plan) of a coordinated surprise attack initially worked, although, the IDF ultimately defeated the Egyptian army. Arguably, however, the Egyptian operational approach achieved their desired strategic objective. In 1979, Egypt diplomatically regained the entire Sinai.
Second, history adds the knowledge of experiences to a theoretical framework allowing one to find opportunity in unpredictability. Since one cannot always predict human nature, one relies on the knowledge of previous experiences to mitigate the margin of unpredictability. Thucydides and Machiavelli refer to the unpredictable as luck and fate (tyche and fortuna respectively). Clausewitz considers it chance and offers, “the commander continually finds that things are not as he expected.” This realm of the unknown is where operational artists arrange what they do know, such as resources and experience, against what they do not, such as enemy dispositions and motivations, as a kind of hypothesis. Commanders test their operational hypotheses and make adjustments with new inputs to achieve an overall end state. A realized objective or strategy is what Henry Mintzberg argues is the combination of intended strategies with those that unintentionally emerge. The arrangement of tactical actions and purposes is how operational art capitalizes on unintended actions. One example of this occurred in WWII when allied forces broke through an operational stalemate at Normandy.
Eisenhower and Bradley probably anticipated some reaction by the German army following a breakout. However, they could not have predicted the specific action Hitler took to hold his forces and counterattack the allied flank near Mortain. Hitler’s tactical decision at Mortain took the allied forces by surprise. They were surprised by the tactical opportunity it presented because the coordinated arrangement of forces and purposes through Operations GOODWOOD and COBRA enabled the allied command to absorb then defeat the German counterattack. Ironically, Hitler failed to take advantage of the unpredictable with a plan that Carlo D’Este described as “brilliant in its conception” but “[overlooking] the problem of what might happen if it failed.” Hence, the application of operational art accounts for a commander’s experiential knowledge in combination with theoretical precepts (such as elements of operational art) to overcome unforeseen challenges.
Finally, doctrine codifies theories and knowledge from experiences. It embodies prevailing thoughts and captures lessons from history. The description of operational art in joint and Army doctrine applies the essence of current war fighting principles based on an American military experience. Moreover, since the commander plays an integral part in the operations process, their wisdom (or genius) factors heavily into the balance of predicting outcomes and managing uncertainty.
As a process, operational art takes intangible ideas and shapes them into military plans. For instance, during one planning exercise at SAMS, students derived news of an earthquake in Haiti to conceptualize a coordinated military response. Conversely, the process of planning reveals strengths and weaknesses of intangible ideas. During another, similar planning exercise, students at SAMS re-fought the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The exercise forced students to uncover operational principles as they competed against their peers in an interactive war-game. These exercises demonstrated the utility of operational art as both a guide and as an analytic tool.
Therefore, operational art is many things. It is a process. It is a philosophy. It is a theoretical construct, and it is a proven methodology for arranging military operations. More importantly, though, operational art is a way for commanders (and staffs) to integrate what they know into a plan that seeks to counter what they do not know. Clausewitz emphasizes that at least one factor is certain in war – uncertainty. Operational art enables a commander to manage uncertainty by applying a codified framework for thinking to a base of relevant understanding.
 Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is often cited for his “known unknowns” comments in a press briefing in 2002 although the comments are not unique to him. See more at: http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=2636. This essay will take a slightly different twist on his now famous quip.
 Hobbes, pp. 94-99, part I, ch. III, regarding man’s train of imagination.
 Clausewitz, p. 177. He contends that a generals employs his genius, which is a function of his knowledge and intuition, to manage campaigns.
 ADP 3-0, p. 10, para. 39.
 See Bousquet, pp. 239-240. This essay will not emphasize the Army doctrinal definition of operational art which is an arrangement of tactical actions in time and space that achieve strategic purposes. See more at ADP 3-0, p. 9-10. That definitional factor will be implied as understood. Instead, the author will attempt to explore a more nuanced aspect of operational art, that the very arrangement of actions itself harmonizes what can be controlled and what cannot be controlled.
 For one definition of “theory” see Reynolds, p. 10. This author has distilled Reynold’s definition into what the author considers a useful definition relevant to operational art. Furthermore, this author will discuss military plans as a form of theory in so much as they are a framework for executing military operations against an uncertain challenge.
 Morgenthau, p. 4. Realism, the term, specifically refers the reality of human nature as interpreted by observers of political realism. Hence, there is a predictability inherent in human interactions.
 Morgenthau, p. 11. Also, see Reynolds, p. 18 where he outlines three critical fundamentals of a theory: abstractness, intersubjectivity, and empirical relevance.
 Morgenthau, p. 241. Self-preservation is a tenet of realism theory and Morgenthau asserts that states seeks to “keep in check” the relative power of other states.
 Kugler, p. 10. Although, the 2010 NSS appears to highlight a strategy of “smart power,” it remains a document that stresses the importance of American power in check with other state powers.
 ADRP 3-0, p. 4-3.
 Reynolds, p. 18.
 Gawrych, p. 27. Gawrych notes that the surprise attack was “complete, stunning virtually everyone in Israel.”
 Gawrych, p. 29.
 Gayrych, pp. 79-81. He argues that because Egypt demonstrated military skill and resilience, Egypt earned diplomatic power to negotiate a Sinai settlement. See p. 80.
 Experiences here imply either one’s own experiences or those learned through the study of history.
 Tyche is the greek word for luck or happenstance which Thucydides often refers to regarding factors beyond a particular commander or politician’s control. Machiavelli uses fortuna in a similar way with an added benefit of fate that is granted to a political leader, namely a prince.
 Clausewitz, p. 102.
 ADRP 3-0, p. 4-3, section 4-13.
 Mintzberg, pp. 24-25.
 In a soon to be published Small Wars Journal article (Finding Operational Art: Examples in History – The Normandy Breakout), this author argues that the reason the breakout was successful was that operational art was applied whereas previously little to no operational art reinforced the stalemate.
 Eisenhower, p. 291. Eisenhower says he seized on the counterattack as an opportunity because it left the German army vulnerable to envelopment.
 Ibid. See also, D’Este, p. 417. The allied employed a simple fix-and-flank maneuver whereby allied forces fixed the German army near Mortain and maneuvered around them to envelope their flank.
 D’Este, p. 417.
 See Petraeus, p. 58 for his concluding thoughts on how history provides perspective more so than literal lessons. See also, Clausewitz, p. 112 for more on how commanders apply their intuition that is derived from their perspectives of learned and experienced history to inform decisions in war.
 ADP 3-0, p. 1. See also Brown, p. 66. The timeframe of historical experience should be understood in context. For instance, some doctrine may harness recent history, such the new ADP 3-05 Special Operations which emphasizes an interdependent role special operations forces have with conventional forces.
 ADRP 3-0, p. 4-1, section 4-3. See also Angstrom and Widen, p. 264. They contend that one uses doctrine to either defeat an enemy or explain outcomes. This author believes commanders and staffs do both and that operational art is both an analytical tool and a principled guide.
 ADP 3-0, p. 10, para. 37 &39.
 Students at the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, KS conducted a planning exercise in which they were given very little guidance and limited “news” of an earthquake in Port-au-prince, Haiti. They used elements of operational art to create a thorough, phased and coordinated military response plan.
 The Arab-Israeli exercise arranged students into country planning teams as they “fought” against each other using the context of the Arab-Israeli war as a backdrop.
 Angstrom and Widen, p. 264.
 Clausewitz, p. 101.
Angstrom, Jan, and J.J. Widen. "Adopting a Recipe for Success: Modern Armed Forces and the Institutionalization of the Principles of War." Comparative Strategy, July 16, 2012: 263-285.
"Army Doctrine Publication 3-0 Unified Land Operations." Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, October 10, 2011.
"Army Doctrine Reference Publication 3-0." Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, May 16, 2012.
Bousquet, Antoine. The Scientific Way of Warfare. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Edited by Michael Howard, & Peter Paret. Translated by Michael Howard, & Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton Universtiy Press, 1984 paperback edition 1989.
D'Este, Carlo. Decision in Normandy. London: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1983.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. Crusade in Europe. New York: Doubleday, 1948.
Gawrych, George W. Dr. "The 1973 Arab-Israeli War: The Albatross of Decisive Victory." Leavenworth Papers. Vol. Number 21. Combat Studies Institute, 1996.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London: Penguin Books, First Published in 1651 Reprinted in Penguin Classics 1985.
Kugler, Richard L. New Directions in U.S. National Security Strategy, Defense Plans, and Diplomacy. A Review of Official Strategic Documents, Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2011.
Mintzberg, Henry. The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994.
Morgenthau, Hans J. Politics Among Nations. 7th Edition. Edited by Kenneth W. Thompson, & W. David Clinton. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Petraeus, David H. "Lessons of History and Lessons of Vietnam." Parameters, Winter 2010: 48-61.
Reynolds, Paul Davidson. A Primer in Theory Construction. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1971.
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