Origins of Soviet operational art

The first reference to operational art as a concept of military art has been attributed to Aleksandr Svechin, officer of the Imperial General Staff and military specialist in the service of new Bolshevik state. According to first professor of operational art at the Red Army’s military academy N. Varfolomeev, Svechin had first used the term in 1922 in conjuction with his lectures on strategy. At that time he defined operational art as a critical conceptual linkage between tactics and strategy. In this manner, senior commanders transormed tactical successes into operational bounds to achieve strategic objectives.

Svechin specifically called attention to the growing complexity of warfare since the wars of the French revolution and noted that the conduct of military operations had become ‘more complex and profound’ and that contemporary commanders could not count on success in any operation, unless they undertook preparations to solve the problems that would appear in course of operation. Strategic foresight was necessary for the conduct of successful operations. He defined operational art by referencing its relationship to tactics and strategy. If tactics solve immediate problems and strategy pursues goals defined by the political leadership, then operational art governs tactical creativity and links together tactical actions into a campaign to achieve strategic goal.

As an alternative to destruction, Svechin offered a strategy of attrition. It was a strategy that was not limited to operational art, but was politically and economically informed. While destruction is driven by its own logic to seek an immediate decision in a campaign, attrition, depending on the intensity of armed conflict, can range from close to destruction to the abscence of combat operations. A strategy of attrition allows for the shaping of a conflict and for continued political engagement to redefine the conflict to one’s advantage in both domestic and international terms. Under such a strategy, the guidance of operations is under the direction of the integral military command, and the conduct of operations in a particular theatre depends upon the general staff.

Source: J. Olsen, M. van Creveld. “Evolution of Operational Art”.

End of German operational art

It was Operation Barbarossa that definitively marked the end of operational art as a factor in German war making. Five interlocking factors were responsible. No less than the cavalry of 1914, the panzers of 1941 were unsuited for their operational mission. This had little to do with the often-criticized doubling of the panzer divisions’ number while halving their tank strength. It reflected an armaments industry with limited production, capacity, and policy decision that spread available resources across the military spectrum. The second factor was a strategic plan that denied any operational element by its lack of focus. In what amounted to an offensive cordon deployment, Germany’s three army groups advanced in divergent directions, each led by its own mobile divisions. Military, political, and economic objectives were shifting and conflated – not least because of a belief that the panzers could make good the mind-changes. The war aims of exploitation and extermination meant from the beginning that the Germans were fighting in 360 degrees. Finally, the Germans’ logistic weaknesses and the USSR’s underdeveloped infrastructure made it impossible to sustain mobility. And underwriting it all was a level of hubris alien to Moltke and Schlieffen, a technocratic arrogance that ignored potential obstacles instead of considering them – or perhaps, seen from another perspective, the solipsism of artist blinded by their inner visions.

Barbarossa’s scale exceeded the German grasp of operational art. The successive victories won by the panzers, the huge losses inflicted on men and equipment, the great encirclements of Minsk, Kiev, and Smolensk were essentially exercises in grand tactics, in the context of unravelling strategic objectives that were poorly defined in the first place. Operation Blue of 1942 suffered from the same problems, and thereafter the German army in Russia was impelled into a defensive mode whose paradigm denied any prospects of operational art. Manstein’s riposte after Stalingrad, the successes of his backhand, and second-strike counterattacks in 1943 were virtuoso performances – but again on the level of grand tactics, ultimately no more productive in terms of strategy as ‘operations’, particularly in German technical literature.

Operational art is the o-ring between strategy and tactics. By the summer of 1943, the Reich was approaching a dead end in both. Some of the Eastern Front’s most experienced armoured commanders were advocating a zone defence: deep and complex, to be sure, but with the panzers being used for immediate intervention to choke off local breakthroughs and mount local counter-attacks. The concept owed more to 1918 than to 1940. Instead of ‘punch a hole and see what develops’, it was ‘plug a hole and hope for the best’. Operational art must serve a strategic objective. Otherwise, it becomes grand tactics.

Source: J. Olsen, M. van Creveld. “Evolution of Operational Art”.

From Sitz to Blitz

Panzers were an art form, like the ‘German way of war’ itself – their structure and employment defy logical analysis. Blitzkrieg controversy connected to concept of operational art and place of panzers in it. German victories of 1939-40 were not consequences of doctrine or planning. They developed from a series of accidents and coincidences reflecting operational improvisation born of necessity to avoid a drawn-out war of attrition and responding to strategic imperatives generated by essentially random nature of the National Socialist regime.

Blitzkrieg was certainly not a structure of concepts like AirLand Battle or counter-insurgency, expressed in manuals, taught in schools and practised in manoeuvres. The word appeared in German military writings not in a specific case, but to refer to the kind of quick, complete victory that was at heart of the army’s operational planning. Blitzkrieg is a manifestation of the war of movement, that was a historical focus of Prussian-German military planning.

Source: J. Olsen, M. van Creveld. “Evolution of Operational Art”.

German operational art in Great War

German operational art received a technical window of opportunity when its gunners developed ways of using artillery as a precision instrument of neutralization instead of a blunt tool for blasting ground in the hope of hitting something important. Combined with the storm-troop tactics based on fire and movement by small groups that the infantry had been developing since 1915, they offered the possibility of a tactical breakthrough on a scale that would restore operational mobility and enable strategic objectives. A high command increasingly desperate for an endgame seized the moment.

The system as a whole was focused more on a Vernichtungsschlacht (breaking the enemy’s will by destroying its forces as quick as possible – v Moltke Elder’s approach) than a Gesamtschlacht (total battle that would begin with mobilization move through concentration, deployment and advance to contact, then culminate in a battle of envelopment built around flanking manoeuvres and flank attacks – v Schlieffen’s approach): emphasizing the British army, but neglecting the vulnerabilities in the railway network that kept it fed, supplied, and able to move troops. Once the initial attacks failed, objectives shifted almost at random. So did lines of operation. So did coordination among sectors.

Failure to move the offensives to an operational level was tactical as well as conceptual. The artillery systems, brutally effective in the initial stages, lacked the organizational flexibility and the tactical mobility to keep pace with changing situations. Too many of its heacy guns were horse-drawn, and too many of the artillery teams had been weakened by hunger. The vaunted storm troopers eventually exhausted first their bag of tactical tricks, then themselves. The storm-troop principle of infiltration, bypassing strong points in the way water seeks the easiest path, generated a downward focus in which there were no objectives – just processes, ultimately leading nowhere in particular.

Source: J. Olsen, M. van Creveld. “Evolution of Operational Art”.

Three Western approaches to war

The Western world has developed three intellectual approaches to war. The first is the “scientific”. The scientists interpret war as subject to abstract laws and principles. Systematically studied and properly applied, these principles enable anticipating the consequences of decisions, behaviours – even attitudes. The Soviet Union offers the best example of a military system built around the scientific approach. The Soviet state and Soviet society were organized on scientific principles of Marxism-Leninism. War making too was a science. The application of its objective principles by trained and skilled engineers was the best predictor of victory.

The second approach to war is the “managerial”. Managers understand war in terms of organization and administration. Military effectiveness depends on the rational mobilization and application of human and material resources. Battle does not exactly take care of itself, but its uncertanties are best addressed in managerial contexts. The United States has been most distinguished, and successful, exemplar of managerial war. In part, that reflects its underlying pragmatism: an ethic of getting on with the job. In part, it reflects a historical geography that since the revolution has impelled America to export its conflicts. From the disasters suffered by Harmar and St. Clair in the 1790s to the catastrophe of Task Force Smith in Korea in 1950, without effective management successful fighting has been impossible.

The Germans have understood war as fundamentally an art form. Though requiring basic craft skills, war defied reduction to rules and principles. Its mastery demanded study and reflection, but depended ultimately on two virtually untranslatable concepts: Fingerspitzengefuhl and Tuchfuhling. The closest English equivalent is more sterile phrase “situational awareness”. It emphasized speed and daring, manoeuvring to strike as hard blow as possible from a direction as unexpected as possible. That mentality depended on, and in turn fostered, particular institutional characteristics: a flexible command system, high levels of aggressiveness, and an officer corps with a common perspective on war making.

Source: J. Olsen, M. van Creveld. “Evolution of Operational Art”.

Edward III tries operational art

In the year 1346, when famous Battle of Crecy was fought, Edward III was based west of Paris. From there the king would have needed about a week to pass an order to his lieutenant in Flanders or receive a report from him. Let us assume that, to exircise effective command over a distant subordiante, a commander-in-chief has to go through four stages. First, he has to send a message to that subordinate and ask him for a plan. Second, he must have that plan submitted to him. Third, he must transmit his orders back to the subordinate. Fourth, he must receive a confirmation that those orders have been understood and will be carried out. Still assuming the king is based in a region west of Paris and his subordinate in Flanders, the entire cycle will require a full month to go through. Of course it’s an ideal cycle and thing can rarely be completed in such precise form.

Other English armies operating in France at the time were even further away and even harder to reach. A considerable force was stationed in Gaskony, however, communicating with them took about twice as long as with the one in Flanders. As a result, for armies coming from different fronts to join hands was usually possible only when they were not opposed by a strong hostile army. As a matter of fact, we have reason to think thad Edward did intend to have three armies meet before fighting the battle. However, communication difficulties seem to have interfered and prevented the juncture.

So the dire situation in which he found himself in a defensive position between two woods and fought outnumbered was the result of the failure of operational art, to the extent that he understood it and tried to exircise it.

Source: J. Olsen, M. van Creveld. “Evolution of Operational Art”.

Operational art obstacle

What prevented operational art from developing before the 1800 was the inability of most forms of information to move much faster that the troops themselves. Travellers and deserters made their way more or less at the same speed as armies did, rarely exceeding 25 miles per day. This meant that any enemy information they could provide would only arrive a fairly short time before that enemy himself came into view. So when Napoleon was asked how one fights a battle, he answered: “First you engage, then you see”, thus summing up all previous military practices.

Source: J. Olsen, M. van Creveld. “Evolution of Operational Art”.