Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Operational Strategy and the South African Way of War: The Way Forward

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Operational Strategy and the South African Way of War: The Way Forward

Article excerpt


Operational strategy and operational theory are two concepts within the levels of war that do not always receive sufficient attention. Russia revived the operational level during the early 20th century while the United States of America came on board during the second half of the same century. The operational level also received insufficient attention in South African military circles until very recently, since it had to compete with a host of military priorities in order to be recognised. In this article it is argued that the South African National Defence Force lacks a clear, coherent operational theory towards a joint operations doctrine for combat operations. One reason for this is the commitment to peacekeeping duties in Africa, which diverts personnel, time and other resources from matters pertaining to operational theory and doctrine. In spite of this, some progress has been made to revive the operational level within the South African National Defence Force, but these initiatives do not sufficiently address the level of operational strategy.


The operational level of war represents an intermediate level within the strategic hierarchy that links the political-strategic level and the lower tactical levels of war. It forms a nexus between the politically-inclined levels of decision, with their broad and often fuzzy contours and goals, and the lower military-strategic and more tactical ways and means of achieving the desired outcome. However, the operational level of war has not always received due recognition. Due to ever larger armed forces, the notion of destruction being superseded by disruption, and tactical battles and tactical thought being insufficient to produce the desired political outcomes, a renewed emphasis has been placed on operational thought.

By challenging the assumption that a culmination of tactical activities could produce the desired strategic outcome, conceptual space has been created for operational thought to re-enter the realm of strategic theory. First realised and exploited by Russian military thinkers, the United States of America (US) soon realised its dilemma and managed to catch up with the operational brilliance displayed by the former Soviet Union (USSR). Deep operations theory and the airland battle now guide the theory and practical implementation of the operational level of war, and allow military planners to develop this level within the strategic hierarchy of the use of military force.

The aim of this article is to address the operational level of war and to suggest guidelines in terms of which the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) can develop an operational theory and eventually an operational strategy. Some of these guidelines might be applicable to 'operations other than war', but their main focus is on the SANDF's primary role, which is to protect South Africa's territorial integrity and its people. (1) Firstly, an overview is given of the meaning of operational strategy and the main developments in operational thought. Secondly, within the South African context, the operational level of war is discussed with reference to its absence prior to 1990, developments in operational thought since 1990, as well as lessons learnt from Operation Boleas in Lesotho during 1998. Thirdly, attention is given to developments in operational doctrine in the SANDF after Operation Boleas. Finally, shortcomings in SANDF operational thought and some challenges for future developments are considered.


The operational level features within a specific theatre of operations. (2) A theatre is a geographical area in which the commander of an expeditionary force is given the responsibility of joint command to conduct a campaign, (3) Such a commander is referred to as an operational commander and is responsible for orchestrating a series of tactical actions to achieve the end-state of the campaign. …

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