Definitions of operational art are not hard to find. I will echo a theoretician and writer who has long been associated with the concept of operational: there is a small cottage industry devoted to defining operational art. Debates over exactly what constitutes operational art began very soon after the official introduction of the term in U.S. military doctrine. Today, operational art is firmly rooted in Army and Joint doctrine. Still, with the somewhat controversial revival of operational design (or simply design) and the even more controversial effects-based operations, it seems that operational art is once again a topic of popular discussion in military periodicals.
Operational art is not new. It has been present in the art of war even if in earlier periods of warfare it was not an overt presence. Since operational art is a kind of specialized mental process, taking place primarily in the mind of the overall operational commander, there are less and less glimpses of it as we travel back in the history of warfare. Presumably Alexander the Great executed design to create the mental framework for how his forces would defeat the enemy, and he used operational art to furnish campaign plans that his subordinates could carry out, but there is no concrete evidence of this.
Today’s operational environment is likewise not really new. Even though the present world of asymmetric threats, non-state actors, and weapons of mass destruction seem to define a unique strategic landscape, there is actually far more continuity with the past than breaks. Warfare is still politically based, featuring critical alliances, necessary coalitions, economic competition, and struggles over control of physical territory and resources.
Today, considering national and transnational threats, political and military leaders conduct operations in an increasingly complex, interconnected, and increasingly global operational environment. This results in a larger and more complex operational environment, which has raised the profile and importance of operational art. With a globalized world, and multi-polar international system, it has become imperative that modern militaries get military actions right--i.e., the political and economic costs of failed military actions is too great, especially for democratic regimes to tolerate. Operational art is an indispensable tool for commanders to make sure the employment of military forces directly support the attainment of strategic aims with the least possible risk. Risk cannot be divorced from strategy.
The most useful definition of operational art, for both the Army and Joint arenas, concentrates on its functionality, not a particular organizational echelon, force size, or headquarters. Operational art began in the context of large force, deep operations, featuring disruption and distributed maneuver, but it was never meant to be confined to that context. Operational art exists at the level where commanders and their staffs translate strategic aims into military operational objectives and conceive operational plans to organize tactical actions to achieve those aims. This is true whether the means include only an airborne battalion task force or a 90,000-strong multinational, combined joint task force.
Operational art connects the strategic to the tactical. But what does this really mean? How are positive strategic ends--compelling a competitor state to relinquish claim to a region, or hand over control of its nuclear program--achieved through negative tactical outcomes. We still cannot get around the fact that the application of forces at the tactical level entails destruction of physical and human resources. This mild dichotomy--tactical control and destruction leading to more favorable political agreements, arrangements, etc.--is resolved through the creative application of operational art.
- “A nation is only as strong as its people. To ensure national strength there must be adequate military forces, properly equipped to repel any attacks upon our sovereignty, and such forces must be backed up by a well organized civilian population of high morale which can produce all the necessities for carrying on modern warfare. This unity of military and civilian strength will be only as strong as its weakest component, therefore, we must ensure that all parts of this combination are equally strong.” --- Admiral Chester W. Nimitz quoted in Military Review 27, no. 10 (January 1948): 11.