Academic journal article Naval War College Review

NAVAL OPERATIONS: A Close Look at the Operational Level of War at Sea

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

NAVAL OPERATIONS: A Close Look at the Operational Level of War at Sea

Article excerpt

Today's American navy writes prolifically about maritime strategies but has not devoted equal attention to campaign plans or analysis that tests the strategies' viability. We illustrate herein how the operational-or campaign-level links policy and strategy to the tactical and technological elements of war at sea. First, we relate how the U.S. Navy reluctantly came to accept the existence of an operational level of warfare but having done so will find it useful. Second, we describe important properties of naval operations in terms of constants, trends, and variables in warfare at and from the sea. Third, we demonstrate how operationallevel planning would help if the Navy and the nation were to adopt six clearly stated, twenty-first-century strategies that would serve present and future national policies better than do current strategy documents.


In both peace and war, we frequently carry out our roles through campaigns [that] focus on the operational level of war. . . . There are three levels: tactical, operational, and strategic. . . . The operational level concerns forces collectively in a theater.


The Operational Level of War at Sea Introduced and Described

The U.S. Navy first acknowledged the existence of an operational level of war at sea when Admiral Kelso, as Chief of Naval Operations, and General Mundy, Commandant of the Marine Corps, signed the first "naval doctrine publication," entitled Naval Warfare, in the spring of 1994.1 In part the change had come from pressure for common terminology after World War II. In part it had come at the urging of the Marine Corps, which saw the advantage of applying "operational art," standing between strategy and tactics. The second edition of Naval Warfare, issued in 2010, reaffirms the three levels of war and concentrates specifically on the operational level as its doctrinal domain.2

The three elements of war, in the Navy's eyes, had previously been strategy, tactics, and logistics. Part of the reason that logistics were prominent was the geographical span of naval operations. Distances scarcely imagined by ground force commanders are involved at sea; a map of a maritime theater generally covers a geographical area an order of magnitude larger than that for a ground campaign. The activities of a naval campaign (or operation) are probably at least 80 percent the processes of operational logistics. Therefore it is reasonable-and clarifying- to say that the American navy's three levels of war at sea have now become strategy, operational logistics (or merely operations), and tactics. In what follows, we apply this utilitarian perspective of three levels of war to describe naval operations. We make no reference to operational art in past U.S., German, or Soviet army applications for ground operations. Nor do we have space to describe how naval operations are linked to joint operations. We are consistent, however, with the quite adequate descriptions of joint operations in Naval Warfare (NDP-1).3

The Traditional View of Navies

Sir Julian Corbett and American admirals Bradley Fiske and J. C. Wylie, among others, thought strategy included the operations in a naval campaign. This viewpoint permeates Corbett's Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.4 Fiske's The Navy as a Fighting Machine describes his vision of a fleet this way: "Imagine now a strategical system . . . so that the navy will resemble a vast and efficient organism, all the parts leagued together by a common understanding and a common purpose; mutually dependent, mutually assisting, sympathetically obedient to the controlling mind that directs them toward the 'end in view.'"5 Wylie is the most explicit. He points out that in most of history naval theorists have said that tactics apply when the opposing forces are in contact. Then, "the plans and operations are 'tactical. …

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