The Operational Level of War is an essential component of the analytical framework, which encompasses all stages of conducting warfare. In this context, experts generally recognize four factors – Political, Strategic, Operational, and Tactical Levels of War – which determine the military organization’s effectiveness. The current paper thoroughly investigates the contribution of the Operational Level of War to Military Effectiveness and Combat Effectiveness. The former concept refers to the general capability of the organization to conduct warfare, emphasizing the Political and Strategic Levels of War as primary elements of the military campaign. On the other hand, Combat Effectiveness demonstrates how efficiently the military organization can utilize its resources to achieve superiority on the battlefield, thus, focusing on the Tactical Level of War. Ultimately, the tentative hypothesis of the study is that the Operational Level of War vastly contributes to Combat Effectiveness but has a less profound impact on Military Effectiveness.
The current paper examines two historical examples to demonstrate the contribution of the Operational Level – Nazi Germany in 1940-1942 and the United States in 1942-1945. Lieutenant General John H. Cushman (1986, 626) ranks these military campaigns as A-class instances of the Operational Level warfare. Consequently, additional references that cover the topic are Allan R. Millet’s work on the military effectiveness of the United States in World War II and Jürgen Förster’s paper on the successes and failures of the Third Reich. Ultimately, it is possible to utilize the mentioned credible sources to present a comprehensive overview of how the Operational Level of War affects Military and Combat Effectiveness.
Operational Effectiveness Overview
At first, it is essential to provide an overview of the Operational Level of War to establish the background for the consequent analysis. According to Millet and Murray (1988, 4-27), six criteria determine the military organization’s operational effectiveness. The factors generally concern the organization’s capability to conduct warfare at the campaign level, focusing on the forces’ flexibility, integrity, operational methods, decision-making, and understanding of strengths/weaknesses (Millet and Murray 1988, 4-27). Moreover, Millet (1986, 125) characterizes the Operational Level of War as “the how of strategy or the way in which armed forces execute strategic plans by fighting a major enemy force over extended periods of time, over extended areas, and over many separate engagements.” It is also frequently understood as the bridge between the Strategic and Tactical Levels, which the Principles of War characterized. Ultimately, while the lines between the levels of war might become more indistinct in actual military campaigns, it is evident that the Operational Level of War is an essential element of warfare.
Military Effectiveness and Combat Effectiveness
The second significant concept for the analysis is the difference between Military Effectiveness and Combat Effectiveness. According to the proposed framework, the former concerns all four Levels of War, while Combat Effectiveness does not consider the Political level as a part of its scope. In other words, while the Operational Level is crucial to both types of assessment, it takes a more extensive portion of Combat Effectiveness. The organization’s capability to fight primarily depends on how efficiently it can utilize its resources in combat, implying the significance of operational and tactical effectiveness. Based on the definitions, the current paper assumes that the Operational Level of War contributes more to Combat Effectiveness than to Military Effectiveness.
Nazi Germany in 1940-1942
The unprecedented Military effectiveness of the Third Reich in the first phase of World War II and its failure in 1941-1942 transparently confirmed the significance of the Operational Level of War. The conquest of mainland Europe, specifically France, demonstrated a superior understanding of the Operational and Tactical Levels of War. In his estimates, Lieutenant General John H. Cushman (1986, 626) recognizes the potency of Nazi Germany at the Operational Level as one of the most impressive feats in military history. On the other hand, Förster (1986, 397) argues that the consequent campaign in the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Third Reich, as Hitler and the commanding officers significantly overestimated the strength of the Wehrmacht. The current sub-chapter investigates the Battle of France in 1940 as a remarkable instance of operational effectiveness and Operation Barbarossa in 1941-1942 to demonstrate the impact of operational failures.
Battle of France: Operational Perspective
At present, most experts recognize that Germany’s victory in France in 1940 was an example of the Third Reich’s superior military methods, and the Operational Level of War played a vital part in the campaign. By 1940, Nazi Germany had perfected the art of joint action armies, which allowed them to secure a swift victory in France despite the parity in numbers (Jackson 2004, 7). Earl Zimke (1986, 587) summarizes the campaign stating, “although the Allies had possessed manpower and material superiorities in France <…> the defeats were taken to have demonstrated that they had sorely misjudged the German quantitative lead.” The passage emphasizes the significance of military mindset and preparations on the Strategic, Operational, and Tactical Levels of War – the elements of Combat Effectiveness – to the campaign’s success.
From the operational perspective, Blitzkrieg was the sole concept that changed the art of conducting warfare in World War II. Up to this day, there are disagreements concerning the relevance and history of the term. For instance, Earl Zimke (1986, 589) believes that “true Blitzkrieg did not actually come into being until Barbarossa.” On the other hand, Karl-Heinz Frieser (2013, 53) acknowledges the French Blitzkrieg as a polished “operational-tactical doctrine” compared to a primarily tactical approach during the Polish campaign. Frieser (2013, 230) particularly emphasizes the Battle at Sedan as the “operational-level breakthrough” and a “turning point in military history.” This battle had perfected the art of lightning war, causing fear regarding the Third Reich’s combat and operational effectiveness among the Allies and the Soviets.
From the perspective of Combat Effectiveness, it is evident that the Third Reich’s superiority at the Operational Level granted it a significant advantage. This perspective particularly emphasizes the leadership, administration, maneuver, and integration criteria of the assessment. Field Marshal Sir Michal Carver described the Third Reich’s commanding officers by stating, “their knowledge and practical application of the weapons available to them was in almost all cases superior” (Cushman 1986, 641). The military personnel’s training programs were objective-oriented and highlighted the essential components of warfare, such as flexible decision-making, preservation of combat efficiency among soldiers, and zealous dedication to the established mission (Cushman 1986, 644). As a result, Germany’s superiority in preparation and operational decision-making allowed it to overcome France, despite the parity in numbers and technological research.
Consequently, while the Third Reich demonstrated a significant advantage in the Political Level of War in 1939-1940, it was not the decisive reason for the Third Reich’s success in France. At the time, many experts considered France a substantial force both in the political and military spheres, emphasizing its importance as a counter to Nazi Germany (Jackson 2004, 1). The prominent generals praised French military power, relying on its protection from the Third Reich. In other words, French Military Effectiveness was perceived on par with Nazi Germany; however, its Combat Effectiveness was relatively non-existent. Cushman (1986, 627) assigned the lowest F-rank to the French efforts both at the Operational and Tactical Levels of War, while Germany was given the highest A-rank. It is an objective assessment that showcases the significance of Combat Effectiveness during the Battle of France. Therefore, while the Military Effectiveness of the two parties was relatively equal due to the political circumstances and manpower parity, the difference in Combat Effectiveness between France and Germany was astonishing. Ultimately, this perspective supports the tentative hypothesis that the Operational Level has a more substantial impact on Combat Effectiveness.
Operation Barbarossa or the invasion of the Soviet Union applies a different perspective on the Third Reich’s military prowess due to an extensive number of strategic and operational mistakes. Earl Zimke (1986, 588) highlights that the earlier success of Nazi Germany at the Operational Level and a severe underestimation of the Soviet forces were the crucial errors. The author further emphasizes the point by stating, “The German High Command apparently believed that the Blitzkrieg’s inherent potential would almost of itself be sufficient to sustain the shift from a regional to a continental scale” (Zimke 1986, 589). Prof. Förster (1986, 389) agrees with this perspective and criticizes Germany’s decisions concerning the deployment of forces on the Eastern Front, which only slightly exceeded the Western campaign. Ultimately, it was a crucial strategic-operational mistake that did not consider the Soviets’ capability for military warfare and the difference in the necessary logistical infrastructure.
Upon closer examination, the military campaign in the Soviet Union was disorganized and lacked a transparent chain of command compared to the Western Front. Prof. Förster (392) emphasizes the dichotomy of Hitler’s and Halder’s decisions concerning the deployment as the primary cause of operational ineffectiveness. Franz Halder ultimately disagreed with Führer’s conclusions and demanded to perceive Moscow as the prioritized target (Förster 1986, 392). These disputes caused chaos among the commanding officers, ruining the necessary supply chains for effective Blitzkrieg implementation. Förster (1986, 393) describes this approach as “a system of improvisations” which is a sign of operational ineffectiveness on the campaign level. Ultimately, insufficient resources and broken supply chains significantly hindered Germany’s advances in the Soviet Union in 1942.
These mistakes transparently demonstrate the Third Reich’s incompetence at the operational level since the commanding officers failed to accumulate the necessary resources for the invasion and estimate the Soviet Union’s military potential. At the campaign level, Operation Barbarossa was supposed to become the “greatest single campaign of the war, planned and prepared to achieve by combat a strategic objective within a single theatre of war” (Förster 1986, 389). However, only 20% of the available manpower and technological units were at their total military capacity by the start of the operation (Förster 1986, 389). Ultimately, the Third Reich was expecting a swift victory in Russia and did not prepare for the prolonged war, exposing the strategic and operational weaknesses of the commanding officers.
Evidently, these mistakes significantly affected Germany’s Military and Combat Effectiveness. Subjectively, the disorganization and chaos in the high ranks had the most considerable impact on the leadership and integration factors of Combat Effectiveness, virtually stopping the Third Reich from waging modern warfare. The operational objectives differed significantly in the minds of Adolf Hitler and Franz Halder, who had opposing perspectives on the importance of occupying Moscow (Förster 1986, 391). As a result, Germany failed at the leadership and integration criteria of Combat Effectiveness, significantly losing its military power. In the context of the current work, it implies that the Operational Level of War has a substantial impact on Combat Effectiveness, and any crucial operational mistakes inevitably hinder the country’s military campaign.
The example of Nazi Germany’s military campaign from 1940 to 1942 demonstrates the utmost importance of operational effectiveness and, particularly, its contribution to Combat Effectiveness. In France, the implementation of the lightning war concept on the campaign level combined with the extensive experience of the commanding officers on the Tactical Level of War allowed the Third Reich to reach unprecedented levels of Combat Effectiveness. According to many experts, the difference between France and Germany in Combat Effectiveness, in particular, was a decisive factor that determined the Third Reich’s success. Consequently, Operation Barbarossa clearly demonstrated that crucial mistakes at the Operational Level significantly affected the national Combat Effectiveness. The disputes in objectives and failure of the logistical infrastructure obstructed the leadership and integration criteria of Combat Effectiveness, resulting in the defeat of the Third Reich. Ultimately, the example of Nazi Germany reveals that the Operational Level has a substantial impact on Combat Effectiveness and a slightly lesser influence on Military Effectiveness.
The United States in World War II
The second example concerns the United States, which demonstrated remarkable operational effectiveness throughout the majority of World War II. Allan R. Millet (1986, 87) states that the American military paradigm differed slightly from the conventional framework due to the foreign policy complications before and during the Second World War. The United States had fierce disputes concerning the intervention in the war and was eventually forced into action due to the Pearl Harbor attack. As a result, the country fought two separate fronts against Imperial Japan and German-Italian alliance, which required thorough planning and significant strategic-organizational competencies. Summing up, the lack of preparation due to the national security disputes and the sudden intervention of Japan put the United States in a complicated position.
During World War II, the United States waged operations across various continents, land types, and against distinct adversaries. Furthermore, America collaborated with the Allied forces, who had diverse economic conditions, technological capabilities, and manpower. In this sense, the conventional Principles of War framework was inapplicable to the United States, and comprehensive analysis of the operational level was required. The described challenges demanded the highest level of operational effectiveness to mobilize the national army quickly, coordinate efforts with allies, provide financial support to the Soviet Union, and perform other necessary tasks to defeat the Axis powers. Allan R. Millet (1986, 125) emphasizes this point by stating, “World War II required operational force integration to a degree unparalleled in modern military history at the campaign level.” However, as Cushman (1986, 626) notices, the United States successfully managed to overcome the said difficulties, achieving the highest A rank regarding operational performance. The current chapter thoroughly examines the contributing factors to America’s operational superiority in World War II and discusses its impact on Military and Combat Effectiveness.
One of the most notable feats of the United States in World War II was effective forces integration within the national army and the Allied forces. Despite internal political challenges in 1939-1941, the United States made remarkable efforts in the second part of the war to supply its allies and wage independent operations in various theatres. For instance, the European theatre required the highest level of interoperability, particularly with the British forces (Millet 1986, 125). The Allies demonstrated effective forces integration and formed Anglo-American air, naval, and ground collaborative units. While there were still disagreements in the ground forces integration, direct cooperation between the Allies emphasized the unity of the Western coalition and caused significant concerns for the Axis powers (Millet 1986, 127). Thus, this approach to operational integration was immensely influential at the strategic level and overall Military Effectiveness.
Concerning Combat Effectiveness, however, experts frequently criticize the impact of the operational efforts on the military potency. For instance, Millet (1986, 141) and Ziemke (1986, 594) generally consider forces integration a practical approach to creating a unified Western coalition as a response to the Nazi threat but not necessarily an operationally effective mission. Ziemke (1986, 594) states that the complicated chain of operational commands hindered the army’s capacity at the campaign level since the Allies had varying interests and ambitions in the war. Millet (1986, 145) supports this idea by focusing on adherence to American operational doctrine as one of the primary principles of Combat Effectiveness. Ultimately, historians claim that forces integration of the Allied forces was an effective strategy for Military Effectiveness; however, the American troops demonstrated higher Combat Effectiveness while conducting independent missions.
The Pacific War
Operations of the United States in the Pacific theatre transparently demonstrate the importance of the Operational Level of War on Combat Effectiveness. Ziemke (1986, 595) emphasizes the “absence of combined operational commands” or forces integration was America’s advantage in the war against Imperial Japan. According to the analytical framework, the United States could mainly utilize the maneuver criteria of Combat Effectiveness due to the peculiarities of American operational doctrine. Millet (1986, 145) highlights, “American operational doctrine and practice sought to exploit enemy weakness, largely by maintaining a high operational tempo and destroying high-value enemy units.” This approach is easier to execute without the necessity of interoperability, and the second part of the Pacific War transparently demonstrated America’s vast potential for the highest levels of Combat Effectiveness.
As a result, the absence of forces integration allowed the United States to adhere to its operational doctrine and achieve notable feats at the Strategic, Operational, and Tactical Levels of War. Millet (1986, 145) specifies that “American operations against Japan matched strategic preferences better than operations against Germany.” It was another factor that allowed America to fully unleash its military talent in direct combat. Ultimately, the United States demonstrated a high level of operational effectiveness in the Pacific War, which impacted the country’s Combat Effectiveness.
Most experts agree that the analysis of America’s operational effectiveness is a complicated task due to the specificities of World War II. The United States waged operations in different theatres, conducted both independent and cooperative missions and provided extensive support to the Allies. Forces integration was a necessary strategy that demonstrated America’s capacity for interoperability and significantly boosted the Military Effectiveness of the Allied Forces. At the same time, it had the opposite effect on America’s Combat Effectiveness due to the peculiarities of the national operational doctrine. Experts generally praise the potency of American independent missions during the second part of the Pacific War, revealing the extensive influence of operational effectiveness on direct warfare against Imperial Japan. Ultimately, these findings demonstrate that American operational doctrine during independent missions, such as the battles in the Pacific theatre, directly affected national Combat Effectiveness while having a lesser impact on Military Effectiveness.
Findings and Breakdown of Principles of War
The examples of Nazi Germany and the United States in World War II demonstrated the utmost significance of operational effectiveness. The Third Reich was most remarkable during the Battle of France as the operational-level breakthrough in the form of Blitzkrieg allowed the country to achieve unprecedented levels of Combat Effectiveness. On the other hand, negligence of operational effectiveness significantly reduced Germany’s combat capabilities during Operation Barbarossa. This analysis supports the initial hypothesis that the Operational Level of War has a substantial impact on Combat Effectiveness. At the same time, the example of the United States demonstrates that operational efforts might contribute to the political and strategic levels in the form of forces integration and interoperability. However, this impact is not substantial, and the United States showed a higher level of Combat Effectiveness during the independent missions, which were not obstructed by the operational chains of command.
Another significant element of the Operational Level of War is its contribution to the evolution of military doctrine. As mentioned before, the operational level is an intermediate stage between the strategic and tactical levels, described by the Principles of War. In this sense, the operational level directly relates to Military and Combat Effectiveness, discrediting the previous Principles of War framework. Modern warfare became overly complex to be explained by the strategic and tactical levels, requiring the introduction of the Operational Level of War.
Furthermore, experts frequently associate the Principles of War with operational and tactical effectiveness in the modern military doctrine while applying Clausewitzian theory to the strategic level. Subjectively, this approach connects the operational level with Combat Effectiveness since this type of assessment prioritizes effectiveness at the Tactical Level of War. The lines between the Levels of War might become indistinct in actual warfare; however, the perception of Principles of War as a symbiosis of operational and tactical levels supports the thesis of the current paper. Ultimately, the Operational Level of War is an essential element of modern military doctrine, which substituted the Principles of War framework.
The current essay has demonstrated the significance of the Operational Level of War and highlighted its contribution to Combat Effectiveness, in particular. According to the analysis of Nazi Germany and the United States in World War II, operational effectiveness has a more substantial effect on Combat Effectiveness, while Military Effectiveness is primarily governed by political and strategic elements. Lastly, the current paper has demonstrated the significance of the Operational Level of War as the bridge between strategy and tactics, discrediting the conventional Principles of War framework.
Cushman, John H. “Challenge and Response at the Operation and Tactical Levels 1914-1945.” In Military Effectiveness: Volume 3, edited by Allan R. Millet and Williamson Murray, 351-432. The Ohio State University, 1986.
Jackson, Julian. The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 (Making of the Modern World). Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
Förster, E. Jürgen. “The Dynamics of Volksgemeinschaft: The Effectiveness of the German Military Establishment in the Second World War.” In Military Effectiveness: Volume 3, edited by Allan R. Millet and Williamson Murray, 351-432. The Ohio State University, 1986.
Frieser, Karl-Heinz. The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013.
Millet, Allan R. “Military Organizational Effectiveness/ The United States Armed Forces in World War II.” In Military Effectiveness: Volume 3, edited by Allan R. Millet and Williamson Murray, 351-432. The Ohio State University, 1986.
Millet, Allan R., and Williams Murray. Military Effectiveness: Volume 1 – The first World War. Unwin Hyman, 1988.
Ziemke, Earl F. “Military Effectiveness in World War II.” In Military Effectiveness: Volume 3, edited by Allan R. Millet and Williamson Murray, 351-432. The Ohio State University, 1986.