Operational Art

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Operational Art


a distinct category of the art of war. It encompasses the theory and practice of preparing for and carrying out combined and independent operations and combat actions by operational commands of the armed services in various military theaters; it is a discipline of military theory.

The principal tasks of operational art are to investigate the nature and content of combat operations; develop methods of preparing for and conducting operations on land, in air and space, and at sea; determine the most effective methods of using the armed services and combat arms in combat operations; establish methods of organizing coordination among the armed services and arms; and work out recommendations on troop control, troop operational support, and practical direction of troop combat activity during operations. Operational art encompasses the study and development of all types of combat actions, including the offensive, the defense, and the organization and implementation of operational regroupings.

Operational art is a discipline that is intermediate between strategy and tactics, playing a connecting role between the two. It proceeds directly from strategy and is subordinate to it; the requirements and principles of strategy are fundamental to operational art. In relation to tactics, operational art is more primary; it determines the missions and directions of development of tactics. There are also inverse relationships and interdependencies. For example, when determining the strategic aims of a war and methods of waging the war in a particular military theater, consideration is given to the real capacities of the operational commands and the level of development of the theory and practice of operational art. In exactly the same way, during the planning of operations or combat actions consideration is given to the tactical capabilities of the various units and the nature and characteristics of their actions in the concrete situation, since, in the end, tactical successes are a condition for achieving operational results, and the results are directly reflected in the achievement of the intermediate and final objectives of strategy. The development of armament and combat matériel, refinements in the organizational structure of troops, and changes in methods of waging combat are causing the inverse relationships and interdependencies among strategy, operational art, and tactics to become more complex and dynamic.

Because operational art deals with the theory and practice of preparing for and carrying out both combined and independent operations by operational commands of ground forces, the air force, and the navy, as well as combat actions of the national air defense forces, it is possible to single out within the framework of the general theory and practice the specific areas of the operational art of the ground forces, missile forces, national air defense forces, air force, and navy. The operational art of each armed service proceeds in its development from the methodological foundations and requirements of military theory and practice, considering at the same time the specific features of the organization, technical equipment, sphere of action, and combat capabilities of the operational commands of that armed service.

The basic principles of operational art follow from the general principles of the art of war. The most important are maintaining troops, forces, and weapons in high combat readiness at all times; waging continuous and vigorous combat to take and keep the initiative; being ready to wage combat by conventional means and with nuclear weapons; achieving assigned objectives through the joint efforts of large units and commands of all the armed services and combat arms based on close coordination; and concentrating the main efforts along the selected axis at the decisive moment. The application of the general principles in an operation depends on the concrete conditions in which the troops will be operating.

The term “operational art” is not used in the military theory of the capitalist countries. Instead they employ the concepts of “large-scale tactics” or “small-scale strategy.”

The objective prerequisites for the emergence of operational art were a natural consequence of the changes that took place in the development of society’s productive forces, the social and political structure, the state of armament, the organization of troops, and the forms and methods of waging military action. With the appearance of mass armies in Western European countries in the late 18th century and early 19th, combat actions extended over larger areas in the form of successive and interrelated battles and were waged for longer periods of time. Headquarters, or staffs, developed as agencies of troop control. There emerged a form of military action that was new in scope and methods of organization and implementation—the large-scale operation. The first signs of this emergence appeared in the wars of the late 18th century and early 19th.

In the wars of the second half of the 19th century the operation continued to develop. The development of the railroad and other types of transportation made it possible to accelerate the movement, concentration, and deployment of troops and to improve the supply system. The introduction of the telegraph, telephone, and radio made it easier to control large groupings over vast areas. As a result of the scientific discoveries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there appeared magazine rifles, machine guns, high-speed and long-range artillery, and new classes of warships (armor-plated battleships, destroyers, and submarines). Combat aircraft and later tanks also began to be produced. All this was reflected in a change in the forms and methods of waging military action.

The characteristic features of these new ways—in particular, the trends toward an extreme enlargement of the front of military actions, a division of the military actions into a number of battles, and increasing length of encounters and battles—showed themselves in the very first imperialist wars, especially in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. For example, the battle at Mukden developed on a front up to 150 km long and lasted three weeks; the battle on the Sha River extended over a 90-km front and lasted 13 days. In World War I (1914–18), the battle in Galicia took place on a front of about 400 km and lasted 33 days.

Combat actions now took place not only on land and at sea but in the air as well. Even before the war, front headquarters were set up in the Russian Army to direct troops. At the beginning of the war, operational commands or groups of armies, with their corresponding headquarters, appeared in Germany, France, and Great Britain. As a result, in the early 1920’s there was formulated the concept of the operation as the totality of combat actions by large units and commands taking place over a large area, unified by a common concept, and directed toward the achievement of a single objective. The basic forms of operational maneuver were also defined: the maneuver to encircle and the frontal strike for the purpose of breaking through an established static front. Methods of breaking through were also outlined, but this problem was not fully resolved. All this created the objective conditions for the identification of operational art as an independent branch of the art of war. At that time, however, not a single army did so.

Soviet operational art took shape during the Civil War and Military Intervention of 1918–20, based on the theoretical principles and teachings of V. I. Lenin regarding military issues, as well as on plans that were developed for waging the most important Red Army operations and on the experience drawn from the war. The Red Army operations were typically conducted with extensive troop maneuvering, large scope, and decisive objectives. The basic principles of planning and waging front and army operations were also defined: selecting the axis of the main strike, concentrating forces and weapons along the decisive axes, creating assault groupings, using reserves flexibly, and organizing operational coordination among armies. An important achievement was the use of mobile large units and commands (cavalry corps and horse cavalry armies) in offensive operations; they made it possible to greatly increase the depth of the strikes, step up the tempo of the attack, and develop a tactical success into an operational one.

After the Civil War, operational art was refined by the experience gained in World War I and, primarily, by generalizations drawn from the practices employed in the new types of operations of the Civil War. The creative discussions and the works and articles of Soviet military leaders during the 1920’s played an important part in shaping the theory of operational art. M. V.

Frunze was particularly important, and other major figures were A. I. Egorov, S. S. Kamenev, I. P. Uborevich, B. M. Shaposh-nikov, and M. N. Tukhachevskii. The basic principles of preparing for and carrying out operations by armies and fronts were set forth in the directive The Supreme Command: Official Manual for Command and Field Headquarters of the Armies and Fronts (1924) and elaborated in V. K. Triandafillov’s work The Nature of the Operation of Contemporary Armies (1929). Since the late 1920’s, the Soviet art of war has been divided in practice into three parts: strategy, operational art, and tactics. The division is especially noticeable when defining the fundamentals of operational art. The further development of operational art was influenced by the growing economic might of the country and the successful development of the aviation, tank, chemical, and motor vehicle-tractor industries, which made it possible to supply the armed forces with the latest combat equipment. At the same time the organizational structure of the armed forces was being refined.

Early in the 1930’s the theory of the deep offensive operation was developed in the Soviet armed forces. The essence of the theory is the simultaneous suppression of the entire depth of the enemy defense through massed artillery fire, air strikes, and the use of paratroopers, followed by the creation of breaches in the defense for mobile troops to race through with the objective of developing the offensive to the full operational depth. It was considered that a front offensive operation could be characterized by a zone of advance of 150–300 km in width, a depth of up to 250 km, a rate of advance of 10–15 km and more per day, and a duration of 15–20 days. An army attacking along the main axis would be assigned a zone 50–80 km wide, and the depth of the operation could reach 70–100 km and might last 7–10 days. The army operation was considered to be a part of the front operation. Under special conditions armies could conduct operations independently. The achievement of the goals of an operation was conceived of as being the fulfillment of the immediate and subsequent missions. The defense was considered in close connection with the offensive. Certain advances were made in developing the fundamentals of operations by the navy, air force, and airborne troops.

In the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939–40, experience in Soviet operational art was acquired in the conduct of a front operation to break through a fortified region (the Mannerheim Line) and in the massed use of infantry, artillery, and aviation along the main axis.

During the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45, operational art took a further step forward in its development. The war proved that the views on the preparation and conduct of front and army operations that had been worked out earlier were correct. In 1941–42, when the Soviet armed forces were for the most part waging a strategic defense, a great deal of experience in organizing and carrying out front and army defensive operations was gained. The most important problems resolved by operational art were the correct determination of the axes of the main enemy strikes and the concentration of forces and weapons there at the proper time to repulse the strikes, as well as the development of methods for constructing a defense in depth and providing for its stability. Special attention was devoted to setting up an operational defense capable of resisting massed strikes by tank groupings and aviation and massed enemy artillery fire. Also important were the echeloning of forces and the means of fire and increasing troop aggressiveness and perseverance. Front defensive operations were ordinarily part of strategic defensive operations and were waged for the purpose of repulsing an attack by large enemy groupings, holding important regions, and creating conditions for going over to the offensive.

As combat experience accumulated during the winter coun-teroffensive of 1941–42 at Rostov, Tikhvin, and especially Moscow and as the rate of supply of equipment to the armed services and the combat arms gradually picked up, the practice of preparing for and waging offensive operations steadily improved. Thus, new methods were worked out for creating strike groupings to attack along the axes of the main strikes and for making effective use of tanks, artillery, and aviation. During the battle of Stalingrad of 1942–43 and the battle of Kursk in 1943, methods were developed for organizing a stable defense in depth and counter-offensive; correctly choosing the axis of the main strike; achieving operational-tactical surprise; determining exactly the weak spots in the enemy defense; correctly calculating forces and weapons for a successful break through the tactical defense and for the development of the success to an operational depth; organizing precise coordination among forces; rapidly carrying out encirclements; and routing large enemy forces.

The basic theoretical principles and practical recommendations worked out by operational art were used throughout the war and steadily developed in subsequent operations, especially in the Byelorussian operation of 1944, the Iaşi-Kishinev operation of 1944, the Vistula-Oder operation of 1945, and the Berlin operation of 1945. During the war the front operation was ordinarily a part of the strategic operation (operation by a group of fronts), whereas the army operation was part of a front operation. In certain cases combined-arms armies conducted operations independently. Soviet operational art successfully resolved the problem of breaking through the enemy defense to the full depth and developing a tactical success into an operational one. In the armies and fronts strong second echelons were established. Tank and mechanized corps and tank armies were used as the mobile groups of the armies and fronts. Methods of organizing and carrying out the artillery attack and the aviation attack were developed as effective forms of using artillery and aviation in combat to destroy the enemy to the full depth of their defense. Soviet troops successfully carried out maneuvers with reserves, river crossings in haste, operational pursuit, and night action. All this promoted an increase in the depth of offensive operations and in the rate of advance. Thus, whereas in 1942 the depth of front offensive operations was 100–140 km and the rate of advance was 6–10 km a day, during the concluding stage of the war front offensive operations were carried on to a depth of 300–500 km with a rate of advance of 15–20 km a day, and tank armies moved 40–50 km or more a day. Encirclement became a typical form of combat action for Soviet forces; combat methods to destroy surrounded enemy groupings were refined. There was further development of methods of organizing and conducting reconnaissance, engineer support, camouflage, and logistics.

The most important operations during the war years were ordinarily conducted with the participation of operational commands of all armed services. At the same time, methods of preparing for and waging independent operations by commands of the armed services (air, airborne, naval, and marine landing operations) were developed. In the operational art of the air force, the basic principles of using aviation commands and large units in combat were defined: surprise, massed forces, continuity of coordination, extensive maneuvers, availability of a reserve, and centralization of control. There was development of the methods for winning mastery in the air, routing large enemy aviation groupings, providing aviation support for the introduction of tank armies into a battle and their actions in the operational depth, assisting troops in eliminating encircled enemy groupings, repulsing counterstrikes by enemy reserves, combating enemy operational and strategic reserves, and striking large political and industrial centers, communications centers, and naval bases.

Naval operational art was aimed at developing and refining methods of waging operations with the objective of disrupting enemy sea-lanes and protecting friendly lanes and securing the flanks of fronts operating along coastal axes. There was significant development in the art of preparing for and conducting marine landing operations and combat actions aimed at stopping enemy marine landings, as well as methods for striking enemy naval bases and other targets from the sea. In the operational art of the air defense forces experience was gained in waging combat by air defense commands in coordination with the troops and the air defense forces of the fronts and fleets for the purpose of repulsing and breaking up massed enemy air attacks.

The experience in preparing for and waging operations gained during the war was distilled and theorized in the orders, directives, and instructions of the Supreme Command and General Staff; in regulations and manuals; and in works on military theory.

In the armies of the capitalist countries the theory of preparing for and waging combat by operational commands developed along various lines before and after the start of World War II (1939–45). In the armed forces of fascist Germany primary attention was devoted to the use of tanks and motorized troops together with heavily massed aviation, the use of airborne troops, coordination between commands and the large units of the armed services, and troop control. During the first years of World War II the German Army achieved some success in conducting its operations. Subsequently, however, there was no notable development of the art of war of the Hitlerite generals, and by the end of the war the complete bankruptcy of their art had been demonstrated.

During the war years the Anglo-American forces gained experience in conducting operations with forces of the armies in the field or groups of armies in coordination with large air forces. But the combat actions of the Allies in North Africa and Western Europe were conducted with a great superiority over the enemy in forces and weapons. Much more experience was gained in carrying out a series of major air operations against Germany and Japan and in the naval and landing operations in Europe and the Pacific Ocean involving participation by ground forces, the navy, aviation, and paratroopers.

In the postwar era, scientific and technological progress has been the determining factor in the development of Soviet operational art through the development and massive introduction into all armed services of new weapons with enormous destructive potential. The adoption of nuclear weapons and electronic equipment by the armed forces and full use of motor vehicles and mechanization immeasurably increased combat capabilities, led to fundamental changes in organizational structure, and required a review of methods of preparing for and waging operations or combat actions. It became necessary to work out the fundamentals of organizing and conducting possible new types of operations that would involve destroying enemy spacecraft, routing naval strike forces, and conducting blockades. The very content of the operation was in large part changed. Along with encounters, battles, and maneuvers, the present-day operation may include nuclear strikes as the chief means of achieving the assigned objective.

Present-day means of combat and the dynamism and great maneuverability of troops in operations on land, at sea, and in the air place before operational art the challenge of further improving methods of preparing for and waging operations corresponding to the new principles of the art of war. Great contributions in the development of the theory and practice of operational art are being made by Soviet military leaders; the generals, admirals, and officers of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces; the main headquarters of the armed services and the headquarters of the combat arms; military science organs; and military educational institutions.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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