Operational art is a relatively new term, roughly from Russian and German theorists at the beginning of World War II, between tactics and strategy. If strategy defines one's areas of operations, operational art defines the priorities and campaigns within the various areas. A master of operational art sets conditions such that battles happen at the places, times, and other circumstances that give maximum advantage to one's side. Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace and Operational Preparation of the Battlespace, or, in more recent jargon, Operational Preparation of the Environment, applies here. Some authors prefer the term theater strategy to operational art.
Units that are highly mobile within part of a theater, such as air assault troops, or amphibious forces maneuvering at sea, are key ways of selecting the place and conditions of battle, a basic characteristic of the operational level.
The US began to explore the concept seriously as the Training and Doctrine Command began publishing doctrinal guidance on operational thought. These were first published in Field Manual 100-5, which has been redesignated Field Manual 3-0.
In the past, the smallest ground unit that could dictate where battles would be fought was the corps. With increased mobility, C3I-ISR and precision-guided munitions, the minimum operational levels are becoming smaller, typically at the brigade level. At-sea amphibious forces, with their own helicopters, landing craft, and STOVL aircraft, often can take the initiative. Such units include U.K. Royal Marine Commandos and U.S. Marine Expeditionary Units, both in company with warships and supported by long-range aviation.
The restructuring of the United States Army is building a new structure around brigade-sized units. There are also long-range aviation and missile capabilities (e.g., the U.S. Air Force's "Global Reach") and naval units capable of deep strike and air warfare against land targets.
- Jacob W. Kipp (Spring 1988), "Soviet "Tactical" Aviation in the Postwar Period: Technological Change, Organizational Innovation, and Doctrinal Continuity", Airpower Journal
- Frederick Kagan (Spring 1997), "Army Doctrine and Modern War: Notes Toward a New Edition of FM 100-5", Parameters: 134-51
- Field Manual 3-0: Operations, United States Army, June 2001, p. 2-3
- David K. Pigman (1997), The Marine Expeditionary Unit (Operational Maneuver Group) and Operational Maneuver From The Sea, Command and Staff College, United States Marine Corps