July 05, 2012

Paul Van Riper on Strategic Thinking and Operational Art

There's two things I eagerly await every summer: a new Batman movie and a new edition of Infinity Journal. There is much discussion of strategy scattered across the blogosphere, military journals, and international affairs forums. But IJ is where you can find strategy--the use of military engagements for the purpose of war--in one place, edited and written in an rigorous fashion by contributors from all over the world. That's why I publish in IJ, and always read it. This year's summer edition has a host of delights, from discussion of maneuver warfare vs. attrition to a reconsideration of Mahan's strategic importance, but there is one article that demands extended comment.

I gather most reading Abu M will be familiar with the name Paul K. Van Riper, but for those who are not Riper is one of America's greatest strategic thinkers. Van Riper, a retired Marine Lt. General, is one of the few that has really mastered the difficult art of joining together new scientific methods and concepts with military doctrine and thinking. From Robert McNamara to the untimely Effects-Based Operations, we've seen a parade of people come and go with concepts that sound nice in theory but run counter to the experience of military history.

Van Riper's piece looks at the relevance of systems theory, complex adaptive systems, and other similar scientific concepts to strategy. Van Riper ties it to Carl von Clausewitz and explains how and why previous military thinkers got the relevance of complexity to strategy wrong. One particular area of interest is Van Riper's discussion of operational art:

Properly designed campaigns and operations were to overcome a serious
and accurate charge that U.S. forces won every battle and engagement of
the Vietnam War—on occasion at tremendous cost—even though they were
unable to win the war itself because there was no overarching plan.
Political and strategic failures negated tactical successes in that
tragic war.
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.

The problem with the post-Vietnam (mostly Army-led) focus on operational art as a salve for political failures is that this motivation (better operations and tactics to compensate for bad strategy) contributed to the general strategic malady it was intended to cure. The creation of a new level of war--in a manner very different from the way its Soviet theoretical originators intended it--could not help but focus planning energies on principles of warfare rather than war. Properly planned campaigns and operations, no matter how well-Designed, will not provide an overarching plan capable of winning wars. 

Van Riper recommends that operational art be seen as a cognitive means of connecting strategy to tactics, which surely can help focus attention back on the strategy and make operational art simply a means of arranging tactics in space and time. Van Riper is on solid ground, but in order to truly make the operational demon managable we also have to historicize it. James Schneider and others have made a case that the idea of operational art not only did not exist prior to the early 20th century, but there was no need for it to be practiced prior to the mid-1800s. The idea of operational art, as opposed to grand tactics or posting troops in the field of battle, serves a need because of political, economic, informational, and geographic realities of 140 years of warfare.

Strategy and tactics as fundamental aspects of war have always existed, and it could be plausibly argued that collections of military activity can always be described as operations. But the notion of operational art, while by today's standards old wine in new bottles, is still nonetheless a beverage of a distinctly recent vintage. Context dictates whether the notion of operational art is useful. In some wars it is essential--in others it is of limited use. In this, it is similar to the much-misunderstood Center of Gravity.