On Operations A Review

(Disclaimer: Naval Institute Press provided me with a review copy of On Operations by B.A. Friedman)

„What are the levels of war, and why are they important?” was one of the first questions I asked myself when I started to study war and human conflict. I found conflicting answers and could not make sense of it until someone explained it to me like this:

Imagine you are the leader of a group of teenagers. You decide to TP* a teacher’s house. You pick the TP team, others are sent to procure a specific amount of toilet paper. All this is the strategic level.

You make a plan for the operation. You decide the direction from which to approach the house, you plan the route, you plan how and where the TPers receive the materiel and who delivers it to them. You decide where to put your look-outs, you plan for different contingencies, and also on how to retreat again once the deed is done. This is the operational level.

Once there, the exact way how you throw the toilet paper, where each thrower is positioned, how they hold the roll and how to create the best effect…this is the tactical level.

*for all those not in the know: TP stands for toilet paper, “to TP something” means to throw rolls of toilet paper over that object until it is wholly covered in toilet paper. Obviously this is just meant as an analogy. Don’t TP peoples houses!

Strategy, within national policy or in the context of armed conflict, encompasses the top-level decisions, what to do and why to do them, and how to set up different parts of the government in order to reach a conflict party’s goals. Choosing the exact goal to pursue is part of the strategy. The tactical level is everything that includes the specifics of fighting, from the big to the small: how to angle forces, where to maneuver, how to enter a building. Tactics is the actual fighting, the shooting that is happening. Engagements are the materialization of that. Operations connect strategy and tactics. The operational level is that which enables the tactical level, strings together engagements into a logical frame that in the end enables the achievement of strategic goals. Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between the tactical and operational levels. There are many different definitions on when one starts and one ends, often focusing on the size of element conducting the specific action. However, the true differentiator between both levels is the purpose: an action that is conducted in order to enable another independent operation is operational. For example, taking a bridge with a company-sized element via air assault in order to allow an operation with armored forces to keep pushing into the enemy rear is an operational level assault. However, taking a bridge as part of an engagement in order to gain a tactical advantage, is not. Or so I thought.

In comes B.A. Friedman with his work On Operations. It is a work on military operations and how the thinking about operations developed. Friedman’s central thesis is as revolutionary as it is controversial: he claims that in fact there is no operational level of war, however that operational art, defined as that which enables tactical engagements, does exist and is an important part of military planning and the conduct of operations. According to Friedman, the operational level of war was invented by Soviet officers in order to be able to talk about strategy without stepping on Stalin’s toes and having to go to the gulag. Stalin saw strategy as his own prerogative, so theorizing or even talking about strategy could quickly lead to one’s death if one’s ideas were not in line with Stalin’s, so Soviet officers invented the operational level of war. Friedman further states that the claim that the operational level links tactics and strategy is untrue, adding that “tactics and strategy are inextricably connected to the point where they are not truly distinct. Strategy can only be accomplished through tactics, while tactics without the purpose provided by strategy is merely random violence. To do one is to do the other and vice versa. The gap that needs to be bridged is not between tactics and strategy, but between tactics and policy, and strategy is the interface between them.” (p.53). This sentence is an interesting idea. However, one is forced to ask oneself: what exactly does he mean by tactics, strategy and policy? It seems like this is a redefinition of strategy and policy, where policy means everything in the political sphere and strategy is reduced to mean military strategy, not grand strategy or national strategy. Therein lies one of the biggest flaws of the book: there is no clear concise easy to look up definition of what exactly is meant by the different terms. So reading, understanding and criticizing On Operations becomes an exercise in semantics, where the potential to talk at cross purpose is high. Further discussion is pointless. This problem continues with the levels of war: there is no definition what exactly a level of war is, and what criteria have to be met in order to qualify as a level of war.

The rest of the work talks about different warfighting functions and their role in operations, campaign taxonomy and the role of modern staff work in operational art, however the connection between the different topics, other than the fact that they play some role in military operations, is not obvious. For me personally it was not clear who the target audience for this work is. Is this a work on military theory, addressed at military theorists? Or is this meant to be an introduction on operations for lay people? I am not sure. It feels like Friedman had to squeeze everything about military operations into roughy 200 pages. The book feels rushed, we jump from topic to topic, at times it is hard to discern why the chapters were ordered the way they were.


B.A. Friedman is a superb scientist and military theorist, there is no doubt about that. However, personally I found his work On Operations to be lacking in focus. There are many good ideas, and he traces the development of thinking on the operational level of war in the United States very well. However, the central flaw of the work is a lack of precise definitions of terms, permitting a discussion and dissecting of his theories. It is not clear who this work is written for, as it combines complex theories on the relationship between tactics and strategy on one end, basic conversations on warfighting functions on the other. It reads like several volumes of theory on military operations have been squeezed into one book.

Personally, I think it is worth a read for its innovative ideas. However, On Operations would benefit from a clear focus and exact terms.

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