The Institutional Level of War

The United States military recognizes three distinct levels of war. At the lowest rung is the tactical level, followed by the operational level, and culminating with the strategic level of war on top. There have been attempts to create other levels such as the theater strategic between the operational and strategic. Other proposed levels include the grand strategic lying above the strategic, and the technical level of war below the tactical. Each of these levels of war focuses on the current and immediate future of war and determines success in war based on actions on the battlefield. In limiting the discussion of the levels of war to the tactical, operational, and strategic level, what occurs within military institutions that develop and deploy those units to the battlefield is completely lost. This article will introduce the institutional level of war with a corresponding institutional art (to match the operational art) as a parallel level or column of war.

Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, defines the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. The strategic level is the level of war at which a nation, individually or as a group of nations, determines national or multinational strategic security objectives and guidance, then develops and uses national resources to achieve those objectives.[1] The operational level of war is the level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas.[2] The tactical level of war is the level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to achieve military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces.[3]

There are, of course, other models and one can conceive of other levels of war. Clausewitz, for example saw warfare as made up of three levels: tactics, strategy, and policy.[4]  Adding to the context of levels of war is the recent developments of the theater strategic level of war. In his article “The Fourth Level of Warfare,” Dr. Michael Matheny provides a construct for a theater strategic level to match the current construct of theater strategies.[5] Another level of war to consider is the technical level, developed by Edward Luttwak. At this level is the individual soldier with their individual equipment.[6] Breaking down levels of warfare into the tactical, operational, and strategic assists in building a framework for the appropriate level of planning and execution by commanders and policymakers. And insofar as the amendments proposed by Matheny, Luttwak, and others facilitate building these frameworks, they are valuable contributions to the understanding of war and enable commanders and staffs to apply the appropriate amount of effort into their respective roles. Combatant Commanders understand they do not approve the gate guard schedule. Further, company commanders understand their tactical role and do not set up meetings with foreign defense ministers to develop policy. In each of the levels described, though, there is an element missing.

A Parallel Level of War

The overarching mission of the United States military services is to organize, train, and equip forces for combatant commanders to employ in contingency operations. These Title 10 responsibilities run the gamut from major combat operations to counterinsurgency to humanitarian assistance operations. Indeed, to conduct these types of operations, Title 10 directs the services to develop concepts, doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures. This is an institutional responsibility.

Map of ground operations of Operation Desert Storm starting invasion February 24-28th 1991. (Creative Commons)

In 1991, the United States military led a coalition of allies and partners in the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Much of the credit for the success of this operation has been given to generals such as Norman Schwarzkopf, his staff that included joint planners, and the component echelons who developed the complementary campaign plans, maneuvers, and feints that ultimately fixed, isolated, destroyed, and enveloped the Iraqi Army units inside Kuwait and in southern Iraq and led to the negotiated removal of the remainder. Certainly, the credit given to these individuals is well deserved. However, the success of Desert Storm lies in how the military performed at the institutional level of war leading up to the operation. During conflict, overcoming the enemy equals success. Absent conflict, the ability of military institutions to change determines success. Each service modernized and integrated as a joint force in line with the mandates of Goldwater-Nichols, creating a nearly unstoppable force in the deserts of Iraq.

When the nation gets the institutional level of war right, this creates the conditions for tactical, operational and strategic success. Credit for military success belongs to those who authored Field Manual 100-5, Air Force Manual 1-1, and developed the Air-Land Battle Concept as much as it does to those who executed it. Indeed, Major General (Retired) Robert Scales credited the Air-Land Battle Doctrine as “underpinning the way the Desert Storm campaign was planned and fought.”[7] But even that is misleading, in a sense. In fact, the success of Air Land Battle rests with neither the writers of the initial concept nor with those who executed it, but rather with the institutions that continued to refine and inculcate the concept following its initial publication in 1982 with noted updates to include the 1986 version which stressed the necessity of the operational art.[8]  At a higher level, the institutional changes forced upon the services to increase jointness by Goldwater-Nichols enabled not only decisive victory in the Gulf War, but effective responses to multiple contingencies throughout the past 30 years.

A representation of the links between the technical, tactical, operational, theater strategic, strategic, grand strategic, and institutional levels of war. (Daniel Sukman)

Actions at the institutional level of warfare establish the foundation for the success or failure of operational forces who fight America’s wars. Specific responsibilities include the development of warfighting concepts, doctrine, and weapons systems. Further, in terms of education and training of service members, the institutional level of war encompasses professional development reaching from initial basic training to the service war colleges.

"As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." (DoD photo, Scott Davis, U.S. Army.)

Generally, within the accepted framework of the levels of war, the strategic level drives the operational level, which in turn drives the tactical. The relationship between the institutional level of war and the tactical, operational, and strategic is a two-way, multi-tiered dialogue. Within the climate of ongoing wars (Afghanistan, Iraq), the needs of the operational force should drive institutional practices. However, in future conflicts, those practicing the operational art will devise contingency plans based on the available capabilities developed years, if not decades, prior. Indeed, planners for Iraqi Freedom went to war with the Army they had, but operational needs drove the institution to shift focus (providing mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, for example, and creating new doctrine in Field Manual 3-24). This same dialectic repeats itself as we plan for potential future conflict–and is driven by the uncertainty of the specific conflicts with which we'll be faced. We postulate potential threats, develop force structures, and these then become "the army we have, not the army we might wish to have" when faced with the realities of a given conflict.

The Institution is an Extension of Policy

Just as Clausewitz described war as an extension of policy, how a nation postures for war is an extension of policy.[9] Indeed, Clausewitz made it clear that “maintenance of the force is always a necessary its creation and training precede its use.”[10] Policy guides the levels of force, the overseas and homeland basing construct, and the level of technology that the military can use. Budget policy guides what airplanes the Air Force will fly to the type of pistol the Army will use.  Further, both policy and law determine the funding levels the military can access to prepare in peacetime. Colin Gray, in Fighting Talk,  described war and peace as a continuum. Peace is constantly interrupted by war, and periods of warfare are interrupted by peace.[11] During this peacetime, militaries and the defense industry do not cease their work. Indeed, militaries in time of peace continually prepare for the next conflict.  With the acceptance of an institutional level of war, military professionals can construct peacetime strategy to meet the desired ends of policy.

The dialogue between policy makers and the military is inherently more complicated in institutional matters than operational concerns. While wartime policy ends are typically provided by the commander in chief, peacetime policy ends derive from multiple branches of government. Not only must military institutions factor the policy ends provided in strategic documents such as the National Security Strategy, consideration must be given to legislative documents and agendas. These agendas cover a range of actors from Congress to State legislatures who have a stake in the force structure of their state’s national guard.  Navigating these nuances to design, develop, and maintain service institutions is an art that stands alone, separate from strategic, operational, and tactical warfighting.

"Whether or not the United States and other nations recognize it, they are “fighting” at the institutional level of war all the time..."

While the specific social, cultural, political, and institutional factors vary from state to state, this dialogue is not unique to the United States. Other nationsallies, partners, and adversaries alike–publish national security strategies and modernize their respective militaries with respect their perceived threats and internal political and budgetary priorities. For example, both Russia and China recently made public their national security strategies. Allies such as Great Britain are reducing the size of their land forces in response to fiscal constraints, a reduction that began with an institutional review formalized with the publication of The Strategic Defence and Security Review. Whether or not the United States and other nations recognize it, they are “fighting” at the institutional level of war all the time, through tactics, operations, and strategy planned and executed by professionals through the institutional art.

Institutional Art and Science

There is an art at work in executing Title 10 functions and designing the force of the future while enabling the force of the present. Indeed, the Department of Defense (or any military institution) could benefit from codifying and integrating the institutional art and science in the same way we integrate the art and science of operations. If the operational art is about drawing arrows on a map, then there is a need for an institutional art to ensure that the men and women at the pointy end of the arrow are prepared to fight and win.[12]

Current U.S. doctrine defines the operational art as “the creative thinking used to design strategies, campaigns, and major operations and to organize and employ military force.”[13] Similarly, the ability to lead service institutions fighting current wars while simultaneously preparing for future warfare is rare skill. Leaders practicing institutional art and science must anticipate not only who our future adversaries may be, but what capabilities they may employ. Using this construct, the institutional art can be usefully defined as “the creative thinking used to design force capabilities and structure for employment in global operations.”

The parallels between operational and institutional art don’t stop at these definitions. For example, planning in the institution can mirror planning in the operational force. Within the Joint Operational Planning Process (JOPP), wargaming is a critical part of course of action (COA) comparison. Similar to the JOPP, wargaming at the institutional level of war assists in the determination future force structure, and the required capabilities the force needs to fight anticipated adversaries. Recently, Secretary Carter has taken steps to prioritize service wargaming. For example, the use of wargaming at the institutional level can identify what capabilities the force needs, from skilled cyber planners to artillery that can shoot faster and farther. Identification of facts and assumptions and other mission analysis steps can drive doctrine development, while elements of design can influence the development of institutional campaign plan and strategies.

The B-52 has been in active service with the USAF since 1955. Built as a long-range strategic bomber, it was recently deployed in support of operations against the Islamic State. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

While there are many similarities between planning processes at the institutional and operational levels, there are also clear differences. Most notable, there is a significant difference in timelines. Fighting the current fight in the air, land, maritime, cyberspace and space domains is the purview of the operational art, while the institutional art looks at timelines that could last well over fifty years. Examples of this include the development and continued improvement of the M1A1 tank or the B-52 bomber. When all is said and done, the life-cycle of these systems may reach out over six decades. Moreover, capabilities designed for the current fight generally last well beyond the current war. Indeed, FM 3-24, written for the current fights in Iraq and Afghanistan will survive in Army doctrine for decades to come with appropriate revisions. Today, combatant commands and other theater strategic and operational commands do look into the future, but typically within either the 2-year Adaptive Plans and Execution  (APEX) cycle, theater campaign plan timelines, or the 5-year timeline of the program objective memorandum (POM).

While forces and capabilities available determine how joint force commanders develop courses of action within the operational art, budgets drive how leaders practice the institutional art. With this in mind, it is important for leaders across the services to understand what drives budgets and ultimately future force presentations. For example, within the U.S. Army, understanding the differences between funding from a Training and Manning Program Evaluation Group (PEG) is just as important as understanding the difference between the employment of an Airborne Brigade Combat Team (BCT) and an Armored BCT.[14]  Indeed, individuals practicing the institutional art should have a deep understanding of the documents and processes associated with the funding of the services and the larger institution. These include the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Program Objective Memorandum (POM), and Base Realignment and Closing (BRAC), to name just a few. Understanding these documents and how to influence the content is not a task for finance officers alone. Officers from all branches of every service find themselves in the Pentagon or organizations such as the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command at various points throughout their career and there they will be asked to practice the institutional art.  

Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) in Baghdad, 2007. (U.S. Army photo)

Simultaneously, while the nation is engaged in an ongoing conflict, the horizon for the institutional art may be as short as six months. Throughout the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, each service took risk in planning for the long-term environment to focus on the current fight. Initially, the U.S. military failed at the institutional level of war, failing to recognize the importance of support those practicing the operational art required. Only when the services recognized the need for greater focus on the institutional art did the warfighter receive the tools necessary to win the fight. This included new doctrine such as Field Manual 3-24 and proper equipment to traverse IED-laden roads such as the MRAP.

As the operational art is about planning for engagements with an adversary, so too is the institutional. In the institutional arena, however, engagements are interpersonal and influential rather than violent, and they do not occur with tribal leaders, or host nation chiefs of staff, rather they occur with leaders within governments. At the institutional level of war, engagements with members of Congress and committee staffs are paramount to gain and maintain funding for specific programs, from weapons systems to an expansion of advanced civil schooling and other professional education. Moreover, the ability to convince civilian leadership such as service secretaries and their respective undersecretaries in service positions on the value of programs and initiatives can be the difference between an idea that receives funding and one that receives nothing.


"The capacity of the United States military to fund and field an institutional force is an asymmetric advantage..."

In the United Statesor in any nation planning, organizing, training, and equipping a force for wareach military service has unique processes and motivations for institutional actions. Process however is not a unifying theory. Lacking a theory of institutional actions leads to processes that are often de-linked both within the institutional field and to the operational force. Developing and understanding the institutional aspect of the military can enhance how America fights its wars. Further, leader development on the institutional side of the military can enable those on the operational side develop long lasting solutions through participation, albeit from a distance, at the institutional level of war.

The capacity of the United States military to fund and field an institutional force is an asymmetric advantage over enemies and adversaries around the globe. Indeed, the size of the institutional force, from staff within the Pentagon to the cadre of initial entry training bases of each of the services is larger than the entire militaries of most states. The development and advancement of knowledge necessary to improve the force is not a distraction from the operational elements in the current fight. By recognizing the value of the institutional level of war and the contributions of leaders practicing the institutional art, the United States will maintain this asymmetric advantage for decades to come.

Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[i] Joint Publication (JP) 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2011), GL-16.

[ii] Ibid., pg. GL-14.

[iii] Ibid,. pg. GL-17.

[iv] Michael Matheny. “The Fourth Level of Warfare.” Joint Forces Quarterly 80, 1st Quarter 2016. Pg. 62-66.

[v] Hew Strachan. 2007. Clausewitz's On War: A Biography. New York: Grove Press, page 108.

[vi] Edward N. Luttwak. 2002. Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Harvard University Press.

[vii] Robert J. Paquin. 1999. "Desert Storm: Doctrinal Airland Battle Success or 'The American Way of War?'" School of Advanced Military Studies United States Army Command and General Staff College. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

[viii] Robert H. Scales, Jr. 1994. Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War. U.S. Army Command and General College Press. Fort Leavenworth, KS.

[ix] Carl Von Clausewitz. 1976. On War. Princeton University Press. New Jersey. Book 1, Chapter 1, pg 6.

[x] Ibid., pg. 55.

[xi] Colin Gray. 2007. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy. Praeger Security International. Westport, Connecticut.

[12] Robert H. Scales, Jr. 1994. Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War. U.S. Army Command and General College Press. Fort Leavenworth, KS.

[13] Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Doctrine for Joint Operation Planning (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2011), I-5.

[14] A PEG is a Program Evaluation Group. There are six PEGs, Organizing (OO); Manning (MM); Equipping (EE); Training (TT); Sustaining (SS); and Installations (II). Any funding for programs will come from one of these six groups.