The Revitalization of Operational Thinking
I. The topics I should like to discuss in this short lecture are
- first, what we understand by the term ”operation”,
- second, the conceptual operational thinking on the defence of Central Europe in the German Army today,
- third, I should like to add some remarks on how to conduct defence on the tactical level of command,
- and I will end up with some ideas on arms control.
As you may well know there is a long tradition of operational thinking in the German Army. It was Moltke who introduced this level of command between that of strategy and tactics. However - looking through our military history - there were highhghts and low levels, ups and downs.
It was during World War I, that the operational thinking and the art of operation were down to the bottom and brave soldiers - regiment after regiment, division after division - were wasted in the hell of Verdun in a war of attrition. It was during World War II, when Hitler began - first in Winter 41 and later on more and more - to deny the higher commanders the use of one of the operational factors: space - and ordered to dig in and die; and it was in our time we witnessed the decline of the classical operational thinking, when nuclear weapons, above all tactical nuclear weapons, dominated all areas of thinking. The dominance of nuclear fire was absolute. Conventional forces played only a fringe role. Under these circumstances there was no need for operational thinking.
We, in the German Army, have been considering the need to revitalize operational thinking since the early 80’s - may I say: officially. The internal discussion on that subject had been going on for quite some time.
In 1984 we took the term ”operation” and gave it back the meaning that it has always had according to the classical German way of thinking, until we brought it in line with the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word, which meant by operation the action taken by just one side, regardless of the level of command concerned. The decisive break came, however, when the term ”operation” was surbordinated to that of tactics. This put an end to the classical three-tier division we had been familiar with since the days of Moltke, namely, that of
- operational command and
This is the background for my rough picture on what we think on the ”operational command”. There is no time to look back a long way into the history to get an understanding of operational command - 1 cannot look to Moltke, who introducted the term ”operation”, nor to Schlieffen, Seeckt, Beck and Manstein - although this would be an extremely enticing proposition, because it is simply impossible to get a firm understanding of the operational level of war without studying history of war and military campaigns.
The revival or renaissance of operational thinking finally - in 1987 - resulted in the publication of the ”Operational Command and Control Guideline for Ground Forces in Central Europe” - in short, the ”Operational Guidelines” issued by the Chief of Staff of the German Army - and, consequently, in a new edition of Army Regulation 100/100,which is the ”tactical guideline” and in which particularly the chapter on defence has been rewritten. Replacing the 1973 edition, the present version of this Army regulation applies to both divisions and brigades of the Field Army and to task forces of the Territorial Army.
I should mention too that one year ago CINCENT issued his ”operational principles” for the deployment of land and air forces in the Central Region - and that his staff started to develop a new operational concept.
What do we generally mean by ”Operational Command” today?
II. I say ”generally”. Also the Americans, for instance, have since the early eighties been trying the deal with the term ”art of operation”.
1. They introduced in addition this term to their doctrine and followed the classical three-tier division of
- art of operation, and
The British Army did the same.
The Russians, by the way, have never lost this level of command out of sight.
Anyone, who takes recourse to books in an attempt to answer the question as to what is meant by the term operational command, will discover that there is no generally authentic definition and the best ones still are to be found in Soviet military litterature. This lack of a clear definitions is nothing new. This was also the case back in the days of Schlieffen, and even in the writings of famous World War II army commanders, the term was used most iridescently, to a great extent bearing the hallmark of whoever took avail of it - even Manstein. Anyone looking into just what ”operational” actually means will have an exellent opportunity for argument.
2. What we Germans today generally mean by ”operational command” is once again the process of thinking and acting in greater dimensions of forces, time and space. Forces, time and space - these are the factors which count at the operational level. They exist beside one another in a state of reciprocal tension. Indeed, the entire nature of the field of operational command is marked by an inherent tension. The task facing a commander at the operational level of conmiand is to harmonize these factors of forces, time and space with the given mission and to always select the course of action that promises to provide the best results possible. However, we normally discover a discrepancy, between the factors of forces, time and space and the given mission - or to put in another way, the military-strategic objective. For example, an operational commander will seldom have all the forces he would like. Everyone demands more, because according to Clausewitz, superiority in numbers is simply the most general principle of victory. The commander will not always have the time he deems necessary - and he will seldom be granted enough space. Quite generally it can be said that the size of the discrepancy between the factors of forces, time and space and the mission characterises the degree of tension under which operational commanders will have to act. This discrepancy may develop to such an extent that they face a genuine dilemma. This also means: If the discrepancy is too great, operational command becomes impossible. I have taken up what according to traditional German understanding aptly is called the ”essence and task of command and control” of major formations - and today we have similar thoughts on the subject.
3. In view of the huge and different number of military means avilable, operational command has today become a process of high complexity. It is the job for an operational commander and his staff to bring all the various assets he has got into line - especially their reciprocal effects. Thus the operational levels of command primarily have a coordinating function.
- Above all, we need to look at the air campaign in Central Europa. The air forces has to fight for one of the prerequisite for a succesful land campaign now a days: It is the air superiority, which has to be gained by the means of offensive counter air as well as air defence. On the higher operational level we have to speak about ”joint operations”.
- We have to mention the integrated land- and aircampaign - that underlines the joint aspect of the operational level - follow-on- forces-attack, air reconnaissance as well as close air support and air patrol.
- In the northern and southern region of Europe, naval warfare and its particular importance must be mentioned.
- Next is the fight against the enemy command and control system which includes electronic warfare in a broad sense as well as depth fire and commando operations.
- Command, control, communication, intelligence, and the fight within the electromagnetic spectrum become more and more a decisive area of operational command.
- Suppression of enemy air defence is necessary to render air operation as the well coordinated use of combat helicopters near the forward line of own troops.
- Air space management becomes of greater importance the more ground forces use their increasing air mobility.
- Of course, last but not least, concealment and deception have to be mentioned as well as logistics, safeguarding of operational freedom and civil-military cooperation.
- And if I mention logistics only one time and just at the end of the last sentence, it does not mean, that we do not recognize this area as of major importance.
In the case of forces in the Alliance, also questions of interoperability exist. We encounter these different areas, the complexity of operational command in the most diverse forms at the various levels of operational command - these give the theatre level a different look to that of the army group or corps level. I would quite like to stress this point, because what I am going to say later on is somewhat confined to ground forces. Today - I am inclined to say: even today, in our highly sophisticated world - we are still compelled to add a few human characteristics to any description of operational command. The ones I am thinking of are: skill and ability, character, willpower, imagination, and mental prowess. These qualities take the element of predictability out of the operational command and are also to a great extent unsuitable for scientific analysis. This outline of operational command, as a process of thinking and acting in greater dimensions of forces, time and space, also separates this area of military activity from the field of tactics which we conceive - and there is general agreement on this - as the doctrine of combined arms operations and its implementation, which is always limited in time and space. Nevertheless, it is hard to draw a clear dividing line; the borders between the art of operation and the field of tactics are fluid.
4. At this poont I should like to highlight our position on the use of nuclear weapons: From our national point of view, nuclear arms - regardless of their range, be it in the form of nuclear artillery, shortrange missiles or whatever - you know that intermediate-range missiles are no longer available - are not seen as an element of the operational command. I could give you a separate presentation here and now on the shifts in the importance of nuclear delivery means and the extreme diversity of views shared by some of our allies in this field; we witnessed this, of course, again in fuU in the run-up to the NATO summit in May 1989.1 shall, however, content myself in this case by quoting from the ”Operational Guideline”, as I said, the document that reflects our basic operational ideas. There, it says: ”Nuclear arms are primarily political means of deterrence and their use as a means of operational or tactical warfare with a purely military objective is not in Germany’s interest”.
This clearly states that nuclear arms are to serve politico-strategic purposes only:
- Prior to a conflict, that of deterrence, the aim being to prevent war;
- During a conflict, that of restoring deterrence, the aim then being to put an end to the state of war quickly.
What are the concrete operational problems we are facing - what are the conceptual ideas that we are pursuing?
III. In this part of my presentation, I shall be concentrating on the role played by ground forces, though I do not want to lose sight of the complexity, in particular, of joint operations.
1. First of all, I must once again stress the fact that it is impossible to understand operational questions, unless you have an idea of what the factor space means, and unless you recognize space as being one of the factors at operational level.
So returning to my question: What are the operational problems that we are confronted with?
Let us begin by doing what we have learned to do at all levels - by answering the question of what the enemy would probably do? What is the operational concept of our potential adversary? What options does he have? What conclusions should we draw?
The present force potential - which will remain in existence for some time to come - will enable the Warsaw Pact - to be more precise, the Soviet Union - to launch sweeping offensive operations deep into our territory if she intended to do so due to political developments of a different nature to those we are witnessing at the moment. It has all the means it needs: Highly mobile mechanized major formations with thrust, superior conventional firepower, assault helicopters and a strong air force.
I doubt very much that the Warsaw Pact is in a position to do so ”from one moment to the next” - but it will be so, if the Pact made the appropriate preparations!
This adversary will command the forces ”operationally” - an art of command which - unlike us - he has never given up and one in which his commanders are trained with strict consequence. This adversary will make operational use of the space available.
In practical terms, this means that he will adopt the classical line of action of establishing points of main effort, concentrating his forces in a small number of breakthrough sectors in an attempt to smash the cohesion of our defences by means of deep thrust. While tank divisions will be concentrated in four kilometre wide tactical breakthrough sectors, dense force concentrations of several divisions deployed abreast will fight in operational breakthrough sectors, with massive fire support.
2. From the lessons in World War II we have learned, that the adversary is likely to achieve deep penetrations and breakthroughs. From the lessons we have learned in the past, we can also say that if we nail one of our forces - say, a battalion or a brigade - to a forward position within a breakthrough sector, it will be destroyed.
The operational problems we face are primarily a result of our adversary’s breakthrough operations which - unlike before - we would today no longer counter with nuclear strikes.
These breakthrough operations therefore require
- flexibility at the tactical level in breakthrough sectors,
- the establishment and deployment of reserves at the operational level, even if this means the withdrawal of forces from the front in other sectors and
- the disposition of major formations for counterattacks in an operational context.
This gives us a list of three comprehensive operational tasks for ground forces. We will not be able to fulfil them unless we have
- a conception of ”space as the element in which operations are conducted”, as formulated by Manstein,
- an all-embracing basic idea of how to fight the battle, and
- the determination to seize the initiative.
3. But solving these problems confronts us very quickly at the operational level with the mihtary-strategic principle of forward defence.
Obviously, there is a dilemma: On one hand the military strategic postulate of forward defence which is of supreme importance for us - Danes and Germans - and on the other hand the necessity to exploit the space factor. How far are we supposed to withdraw in breakthrough sectors? I stated before there is always tension where operational command is involved and repeat it again. However, if we see forward defence in a static mode - and really well forward - then operational command of ground forces probably faces unacceptable restrictions.
But - 1 believe - we have absolutely no choice in deciding whether we are going to use space as an operational factor of our own accord or not. We have no choice - our adversary will force this question upon us, and if we do not have a perception of space as an operational factor, then defeat will be as foregone conclusion, due to the lack of mental agility among our commanders - and it will not matter how bravely and tenaciously our troops will wrestle to hold our main defence areas.
4. The essential operational task today becomes clear when we turn our attention to the operational factor of forces.
One of the declared aims of the NATO member states was and still is to strengthen the conventional component - see the GDI (Gonventional Defence Initiative) - and thus to free themselves from the necessity to make early use of nuclear fire.
Gonsiderable improvements have undoubtedly been made in some areas. The unilateral force reductions within the Warsaw Pact give additional cause for hope. Nevertheless, if we consider the mihtary potential available in Gentral Europe today, there is no room for contentment. The bulk of these forces is deployed along the front. There are few operational reserves available from the outset. External reinforcements are required, but they are not available early, because they require a long time to deploy.
The question is wether or not, under these circumstances, we are making the right use of the forces we do have in place.
More and more commanders today are becoming convinced that in view of the general shortage of forces, the entire area from the Baltic to the Alps, must be seen from the operational points of view and the GDP’s (General Defence Plan) seen to be what they really are meant to be, and that is: Our initial posture, not one which will suffice beyond the first clash of forces. And here I once again stress the interdependence between the operational factors: forces, time, and space.
We must again think about our entire posture in the Central Region and decide on which forces should be tied to the front and which forces should be held back as operational reserves. The forces along the front must not be used to achieve the tactical aim of controlling an area with fire. We must use our generally outnumbered forces right from the start - even if this means running high risks - to establish strong reserves, in never failing adherence to the principle that says: The smaller your forces are, the greater the importance of reserves. This means abandoning the practice of threading main defence areas together like a string of pearls - and - on the contrary - assigning divisions and brigades missions in an operational context. This must never, however, apply solely to the initial operations. On the contrary, in an early stage of the battle when our adversary’s intensions become more clear, additional formations must be found at corps and army group level; this should be done by withdrawing major formations from less threatened sectors along the front. All our thoughts must be dominated by the fundamental operational objective and not by tactical considerations. This means: All our forces must be used to achieve the main purpose of any operation, namely, to destroy the enemy on the battlefield and not to hold ground where it does not matter.
5. What we therefore need is operational mobility. This operational mobility first of all demands mental agility from our commanders and staffs. Operational mobility, acting with forces in space establishing reserves, conducting counterattacks: All these things serve the prime purpose of operational command, which is: To gain the initiative and the accomplishment of its ultimate purpose, the destruction of the adversaiy on the battlefield.
6. It must be our concern to counter our adversary’s fundamental concept, his intention to break through our lines in only a small number of axes. We must have an all-embracing fundamental operational idea of our own. The fundamental thing is that we do not allow our actions to be determined by our adversary’s concept - we must decide when, where and how we are going to seek the outcome.
Above all, we must not allow ourselves to get caught up in a sustained counterattack - more or less at the tactical level only - against our adversary’s leading forces. This would merely leave us dependent in our minds on the enemy, the battle would progress according to his concept. We would get involved in a battle of attrition which, given our generally inferior force potential, we could never win. The struggle for the iniative demands an all-round ”fundamental idea” fundamental to all our operational levels. This will remain incomplete, however, if we fail to conceive space in its operational dimension.
7. The iniative con only be seized through attack with purposeful objectives - this remains a valid principle. In view of our military strategic situation, it means: By operational counterattack. The initial aim must be to thwart our adversary’s operational concept. I say ”initial” - for everyone has agreed that the struggle for the initiative will not be decided after one blow only. On the contrary, there will be crises to overcome; even failture is conceivable. Only when we have things firmly under our control can the real objective of any operation can be revealed: The destruction of the enemy on the battlefield - and consequently, the military strategic objective: The restoration of NATO’s territorial integrity and to assure the freedom of action for the political masters.
8. Let us address to the question: How are these operational counterattacks to be conducted? That is to ask:
- What operational direction is to be selected - only the flank tips, or better the deep flanks and rear of our adversay?
- When are the counterattacks to be launched - not until our adversaries attack has passed its point of culmination, or in a daring counterexploitation?
- Where are we to establish our points of main effort, and where are we to take risks and when?
I would like to make it very clear that all these questions will have to be answered at the level of concrete operational planning and command, or in other words at corps, PSC (Principal Subordinate Command) and MSC (Major Subordinate Command) level.
9. In this context the ”Operational Guideline” as well as the ”Operational Principles” of CINCENT mention the first and the second battle and subsequent operations.
First battle should be conducted by the corps with the aim to defeat the armies of enemies first operational echelon.
Second battle being the fight against the second operational echelon, and must primarely be directed at the army group level. This again under- hnes the growing importance of the army group at the operational level. But we should not understand this distinction in a first and second battle as a mechanized picture, we must understand it on the background of the dynamics of operations.
Subsequent operation can of course not be planned. They can even not be described in a general way. You can only state that these will be subsequent operations and this underlines again that our planning does not reach far beyond the first clash of forces.
10. I would once again like to stress the fact that the struggle for the initiative, the first and second battle including the counteroperations, must always be understood as integrated operations and as joint operations with the full complexity of operational command.
11. I believe that this is an appropriate moment to return the question on how to translate the military-strategic principle of forward defence to the operational level. I believe - and I state this as a very personal opinion - that the decisive elements must be:
- That we try to gain the initiative from the very begiiming and
- that we try to defeat the enemy as early as possible and
- as far forward as possible.
But this must be a general guideline, and not a restriction. Operational commanders do need freedom of action in their command. I think we should leave this question open for discussion.
The tactical level
IV. I would now like to address the tactical level and add some remarks on tactical defence operations.
I will specially highlight the changes and the new ideas of conducting the tactical defence which we incorporated in our new tactical guideline.
Firstly, the requirement for an active defence has been expressed more clearly in order to draw attention to the overriding importance of gaining the initiative.
Secondly, back in the past we trained planned and conducted the defence rather static in defensive position along the FEBA - and the aim at the tactical level was to stop the enemy attack at the FEBA. Today we think that the enemy attack will be repelled within the defence area and no longer primarily in front of it or within its forward parts. This calls for an increased utilization of space which helps to avoid linearity in the defence. The FEBA, therefore, is no longer understood to provide an indication of where to find the most forward positions, but is in fact considered to constitute a coordination line for fire and manoeuvre. I think - this above all is the decisive change.
Thirdly, the commander establishes the point of main effort where he thinks he can defeat the main thrust of the enemy attack and no longer where he expects the main enemy thrust on the FEBA. Consequently, his idea of how to organize the battle and to again the initiative dominates the selection of the point of main effort.
Fourthly, I will roughly touch on the elements of tactical operations. In the past there were fire and manoeuvre. As a new element mine barriers have become increasingly more important. The extensive use of modem mine barriers has opened a new dimension on how to conduct the tactical defence. If you imagine that the capacity of a division today to built mine obstacles in 200 kilometers which can be done in less time than we needed some years ago to create 20 kilometers, you will realize that these mine obstacles do not only have tactical importance, but also an operational dimension. Indeed we certainly think so.
Today the commander is given the opportunity to conduct the combined arms combat most flexibly. He needs to organize the close cooperation between armour, infantry, artillery, combat engineers, anti-tank helicopters and air support, where applicable.
Fifthly, we again found the brigade formation to be at the level of command where planning and conducting tactical defence operations can be implemented at its very best. This level of command has all means available organically to translate the operational idea given from levels above into combined arms actions - and it can be appropriately reinforced and still be commanded effectively.
More and more we realize that the brigade commander and his staff are the people to plan and organize the tactical battle. They allocate means to the battalion commanders to implement the idea of the battle sequence in a limited dimension of space and time. Finally, I must again underline the importance of personal initiative, activity, agility and imagination on all levels.
The prospects of arms control
V. Gentlemen, some of you will probably be asking yourself wether this presentation should be given at this time when we in the political arena hope to overcome the confrontation with the Warsaw Pact and to establish an atmosphere of cooperation in the European house.
Allow me therefore to finish my thoughts on operational level of command by looking into the field of arms control. I am very aware of the fact that no one knows if the political process of arms control will develop in the way we all want it to - and no one knows if the Warsaw Pact will be really a pact as it was before. Do we know if we are wittnessing its decline these days? Poland, Hungary, Soviet a.o. There is enough room for speculation.
If the results of the negotiations in Vienna should turn out to be as both sides declared initially, then the military strategic situation and consequently the operational situation will change fundamentally. The Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union could lose one of the important advantages: That is the overwhelming superiority in numbers. The aim of the negotiations is to create parity in the number of some of the important equipment in the area from the Atlantic to the Ural and within some subregions.
But we should be careful at the operational level of conamand. Parity in number does not mean stability per se - on the contrary, and there are several lessons of history.
I believe that it is a challenge to make this point clear to the political masters as well as to the public. And because parity is not stability - the NATO nations ask for intensive stabilizing measures additional to arms reductions and for an intensive verification system.
We cannot predict what the operational situation will be like in a post reduction phase. But one aspect seems to be clear: We will have less forces than today and we will have to cover the same area as today. Less forces in the same amount of area will make a more profound understanding of space as an operational factor necessary. With less forces in the same dimension of space there will be a greater need for mobility and dynamism than in those days where we thought in terms of continuous frontlines. Only with a higher degree of flexibility and mobility we will be able to counter an offensive operation from an enemy, who will attack on one or two axis of main effort.
Next - force structures will change - probably in consequence of the reduction but in most cases caused by shortages of resources, of manpower as well as of financial resources. Because of the shortages in resources and the stabilizing and verfication measures we will probably have to rely more on mobilization - and this classical operational task will become increasingly more important.
But even if all results of the negotiations will be as we hope, we in the military will still have to play our part to preserve peace by preventing war - may it be called deterrence or not. And it will remain the task of operational commanders to harmonize force, time and space with the given mission and objective and to find courses of action which promise the greatest success possible. Also the future operational command will be a challenge to our minds, a challenge which we have to conceive as a force and creative activity based on skill, character and mental prowess.
PDF med originaludgaven af Militært Tidsskrift hvor denne artikel er fra: