You’ll notice that I started with process and experience, which is the perspective I present here: Operational art is a combination of refined processes such as the Joint Military Appreciation Process (JMAP), and leadership experience and skill. This short article uses some historical examples to highlight this thesis. Firstly, the Western Front stalemate, then the second Iraq war. I will grossly simplify some of the nuances with these examples in the interests of time.
In the nineteenth century, the decisive battle concept shaped military experience and doctrine. Put simply, defeating the enemy in detail on the battlefield would lead to total victory. Clausewitz referred to the enemy centre of gravity in this way. Logical then, that the Generals of both the Entente and Central powers sought this kind of victory. As history shows us, this was not to be the case. Industrial era mass armies, opposed along a small front, ground to a halt in a stalemate. Leaders such as Haig, Petain and Ludendorff, all products of nineteenth-century doctrine and experience, seemed unable to overcome the changed character of warfare. A process that had proven so effective in the previous century was simply not enough to sustain a breakthrough. The stalemate changed with Foch.
After several years of observing the bloody stalemate, Generalissimo Foch understood the critical element in a successful campaign involved carefully linking objectives into a coherent plan. Foch could comprehend the entire front, draw on the experience of the previous three or so years, and link combined arms and intermediate objectives (process) into a wider operation. This linking of objectives related to the breakthrough of the German Hindenburg line, severing the logistics, communications and reinforcement lines and circumventing the static defences. Foch and his general staff planned this campaign by capitalising on the experience of the previous years, understanding the environment, and linking a range of intermediate steps into a coherent whole. In this way, the battles of the Western front were the genesis of what we now consider operational art.
Fast forward nearly one hundred years… In 2003, coalition forces routed Iraqi forces in a short operation that echoed the shock and awe of the 1991 Gulf War. The rapid tactical successes led to premature declarations of victory that were soon proven wrong. While the operation to remove Saddam Hussein from power was more or less successful, the overall campaign fell well short of success which was primarily to do with the planning process and incorrect assumptions. Operational planning, which this essay assumes to be analogous to the JMAP, provided a framework for planners to design operation Iraqi Freedom. However, key leaders were unprepared for the situation that would unfold without the experience of a similar scenario to draw on. In a remarkably familiar parallel to the Western Front, the Iraq stalemate continued for several years with no end in sight and dwindling public support. Operational art, which had appeared so successful in the opening stages, was proving ineffective. One half of the solution was missing: sufficient experience, situational understanding and leadership, implemented under General David Petraeus.
Having operational experience in several subordinate commands during the earlier conflict, Petraeus intimately understood the complexity of the situation on the ground in Iraq. A process such as JMAP attempts to simplify complexity into subordinate and discrete elements which support the critical factors analysis. However, reductionist approaches to complexity defy the very nature of a complex system in which cause-effect relationships are difficult or impossible to know. While a JMAP-like process can assist in identifying areas of vulnerability or weakness, understanding the true nature of complex relationships requires experience, skill and a degree of patience. Petraeus with first-hand experience of the environment formed temporally accurate operational concepts of counterinsurgency. Coupled with the resources and personnel surge, Petraeus could apply operational art across eighteen months and dramatically alter the security situation on the ground. Thus, an operational planning process contains cues to revisit the environmental state continually, but the framework is also reliant on the key personnel to apply and lead the process.
Finally, despite Petraeus’ combination of skill and process, misapplication still occurred in a related, but different theatre. The application of a planning process such as JMAP does not merely translate without a reassessment of the environment, the underlying assumptions, and a subsequent gaining of relevant experience as was then demonstrated in the somewhat carbon copy operation in Afghanistan. That’s an essay for another time and a topic that we’re all too familiar with.
Operational art is the “skilful employment of forces to attain strategic goals…” and is facilitated by a combination of experience, skill and process. The JMAP and similar planning processes provide a useful framework with which a commander and planning team can analyse a scenario and develop a range of options that address the desired endstate. A deliberate planning process is indispensable in forming a balanced plan and prosecuting operations successfully, but a process alone is not sufficient. As Afghanistan has also showed us, operational art is not temporally and geographically independent. Skilled application requires intimate knowledge of the complex reality of an individual theatre and the environment at the time. Operational art is a diarchy – process and experience.
This article is an abridged version of a longer essay produced for the Australian War College. The full text is available on request.
WGCDR Adam Saber is a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff Course, and is currently a Deputy Director, Major Operations (Global), at Military Strategic Commitments. He was a Flight Commander and Aviation Safety Officer at Number 11 SQN, RAAF. His operational experience includes the Mid East, domestic and regional deployments including service with the Royal Canadian Air Force while on exchange.
Email: adam.saber [at] defence.gov.au
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