most recent issue of Infinity Journal, retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul van Riper, of Millenium Challenge fame, wrote an excellent article on the foundation of strategic thinking. In the article, he brings up Hew Strachan’s appropriate critique of the operational level of war: that it sets up a “firewall” of sorts between the political considerations that pervade strategy and the tactics that must support that strategy.
Regrettably, introduction of the operational level of war did not bring about the desired results. Rather than center attention on operational art, too many officers focused on mundane issues like what types of units were to deal with the operational and tactical levels, and the creation of new and more complicated planning techniques based on formal analyses. Noted historian Hew Strachan sees an even more pernicious fault with the so-called ‘operational level’ of war, that is, it “occupies a politics-free zone” where military officers are able to concentrate on maneuver while ignoring strategy and policy.
This is probably a very valid criticism of the operational level of war and, by extension, operational art. (See this SSI publication for more on problems with the operational level and operational art.) But this problem is not just a result of the original formulation or understanding of the concept on the part of the Army, but also of our execution of the idea. And every Marine has experienced this poor execution.
Throughout the Marine Corps, instruction is augmented by practical application. From the NCO Academies up to Command Staff College, leaders are expected to practice planning a tactical action or operation, either as a staff or individuals. The problem is that the majority of practical exercises lack context. The enemy is “red” or the infamous, fictional “Centralians” that operate around TBS at Quantico. Even when the scenario is more involved, it may not be up to date. In one simulation I participated in, enemy units were still labeled as Soviet tank divisions. This was in 2006. When students complained about the outdated exercise, the simulated enemy units were renamed as insurgent tank divisions. Someday I will tell my grandkids or my local VFW about how I defeated the 347th Insurgent Tank Division, but for now we should strive for a little more realism. The best scenario I’ve ever seen was during the Joint Maritime Operations course at the Naval War College which I completed in 2011. My class was tasked with planning a joint operation to defend a real Pacific nation against a real Pacific nation, which caused us to examine the culture and geography of both nations in order to effectively complete the project. This kind of training does not need to be exclusive to high level schools. We can inject realism, context, and culture into our practical planning exercises; we just frequently choose not to do so.
In the Marine Corps, we have etched away at this problem in recent years. Prac app planning exercises are more focused on insurgents than Soviet tank divisions. TBS specifically has made great strides in this area. EWS students plan an amphibious operation against an Iranian shore in the Persian Gulf. As we push more and more responsibility and strategic considerations further down the change, so too must we push down the training and tools used to effectively plan. We must, after all, train like we fight. Training on sanitized, apolitical scenarios may be necessary as an introduction, but we should rapidly introduce better realism. The operational artist must be a toll keeper of sorts on the military side of Colin S. Grey’s “strategic bridge” between the military and political spheres. He or she should judge which tactics, individually or collectively, contribute to the end states of strategy and policy. To do that, he must understand how military action affects the political and strategic goals. This cannot be done in a vacuum, it must be done with an understanding of the political and cultural contexts.
Fortunately, there’s a solution that will cost the Marine Corps not a single cent: More due diligence on the part of instructors and senior leaders when it comes to designing these training events. Rather than use blue or red team, or Marines versus Centralians, we should involve more personnel in the design of practical exercises. An overworked S-3 usually doesn’t have enough time to devote to the design of accurate and involved prac app evolutions. However, a working group could be formed to research a specific potential enemy in a specific location to use as the OPFOR. This simultaneously expands the knowledge of those junior leaders, brushes them up on research skills, and makes exercises more engaging to those who will participate. Although it may come as a surprise to some, everyone in the military is an adult and can handle a little more realism than the canned, generic training exercises that happen throughout the Marine Corps. This doesn’t require an order from TECOM or HQMC to implement, simply a little more attention and diligence on the part of trainers, be that at an MOS school or in the fleet.