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Speculative Fiction Writers’ Guide to War, Part 3: Levels and Types of War

As Star Wars: Rogue 1 showed, warfare normally happens at three levels: tactical, operational, and strategic. And has many different types.

Travis P here. We started the discussion of warfare by first looking at basic motivations for war, what essentially causes fighting. Then we followed up with a higher level of causes of war by looking at the types of calculations a nation must make in regard to other nations, especially in relation to balance of power, before deciding to enter a war.

But when a nation goes to war, what exactly does that mean? It’s helpful here to define warfare itself a bit as broadly as possible, while still making it clear that armed conflict happens at different levels and includes different types of fighting.

The most ancient concepts of warfare really involve two different levels of war–strategy and tactics.

Tactics means how to use combat power in the best way on the battlefield in a single fight or single engagement. Tactics is heavily focused on weapons systems and how to employ them most effectively. Of course issues other than weapons feed into tactics–tactical supply is an issue. Troop training will manifest itself in tactical situations. Tactical situations also require troop movement and the ability for units to communicate with one another.

Strategy is the use of combat power at a national level, looking at all the forces a nation can muster. Strategic considerations are thoughts a ruler could have such as, “How can I make my enemy surrender? How will I keep my troops fed all winter? Where will I get new troops next year? How can I leverage my alliances to help me get draw the enemy from a key mountain pass I need to take?” Things like that.

While the strategic level of thought about war is by nature focused less on weapons systems than the tactical level is, weapons systems still matter. Though strategic considerations of what a good weapon system is may be quite different from a tactical level analysis.

For example, during World War II, the German Army’s Tiger tanks were far superior to the US Sherman tank at the tactical level. They had better armor, a better gun, well-trained crews, and an excellent communication system. They were very deadly to Sherman tanks–US tankers dreaded going up against Tigers.

However, at a strategic level, the Tiger was a terrible tank. It took much more time to produce than a Sherman tank; it also required more maintenance, and used more fuel. The US could produce and supply five Shermans for the cost of one Tiger–and while a Tiger tank was better than a Sherman, it wasn’t five times better. The United States Army overwhelmed the Germany Army with sheer numbers as a result (though most armies try to build weapons which are effective both at the tactical and the strategic level).

Modern warfare has defined a third level of warfare, the operational level. Operations develop campaigns–note a campaign is a series of engagements linked together. At the operational level, military planners assign specific units to specific missions that fall in line with the national strategic plan. This is where generals and admirals and other senior military personnel work most of the time in a modern military. (As opposed to the top leaders of government, who in modern democracies are civilians, who are in charge of the strategic level of warfare.)

Note that the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare can be used to talk about nearly everything that happens in a war. Tactical communication is focused on the radio in a soldier’s hand–at the operational level communication concerns how separate units get in touch with one another, whereas a strategic look at communications would look at how the entire military communicates–such as by satellite systems. Tactical supply might be the amount of ammo in the back of a military truck; operational might be supply depots, a system of trucks, and routes and movement, while strategic could be movement of ships from the home country to ports in a distant country, national rail assets, national food production, etc.

You may have heard nuclear weapons called “strategic weapons” and the reason why is that even a single “ordinary” nuclear weapon affects an entire country at the national level. While there have been efforts to develop extra-small “tactical nuclear weapons” (which might be used to destroy, say, a single aircraft carrier), generally speaking, nuclear weapons form a special case in which a type of warfare really only exists at the strategic level. There is one nominal outcome. With nukes, there are no campaigns for operations to be involved with and no specific engagements to win. Not in our current world.

By talking about nuclear warfare, we’ve slipped into talking about warfare types. Though there are many different types of warfare that can’t really be given full consideration until we talk a bit about the psychology of war. But for now, let’s look at some types of war through the lens of the levels of war, as we already did with nuclear weapons.

Worth mentioning first because it helps make the difference between strategic and tactical levels even clearer is aerial bombing. A single aircraft (or a few) dropping bombs to help a ground unit defeat an enemy in an engagement is the use of tactical bombing. The type of bombing that happened in WWII, where hundreds of bombers would go out and destroy entire cities to reduce enemy industry nationwide were examples of strategic bombing.

The operational level of war becomes king during maneuver warfare, which is where armies attempt to take valuable terrain and supplies behind enemy lines (i.e., maneuver to gain an advantage). Maneuver warfare also seeks to destroy an enemy’s willingness to fight by separating them from what they need to win the war. Operational planning is vital to maneuver warfare–oh, of course tactics and strategy also matter, but maneuver war is won and lost with the kinds of plans that top commanders develop and execute. Think Erwin Rommel or George S. Patton.

A war of attrition, in contrast to maneuver war, is where opposing armies seek to destroy their enemy’s ability to fight with greater numbers. This is how zombies fight–or in far too many science fiction movies, aliens. It’s also happened in the real world. In World War I, a great deal of attrition warfare happened, a specific example being when German commanders decided that the way to break the stalemate on the Western Front was to send so many troops at Verdun that the French would be “bled white.” The plan didn’t work, though it did kill about 150,000 soldiers on each side of the fight.

In ancient and Medieval times, the siege of a city qualified as attrition warfare. Sun Tzu recommended against besieging cities, by the way (The Art of War book 3, 3-4)–and in fact, most military commanders would agree with the idea that attrition warfare is best avoided, except as a last resort. Note though if used, a war of attrition will usually be won for strategic reasons, i.e. who can afford to lose the most troops.

A form of warfare that’s quite different from a war of attrition is a guerrilla war. Guerrilla means “little war” in Spanish and the term developed after Napoleon’s France invaded Spain (1807-1814). Spanish guerrillas (and those who fight like them since then), who were more often than not civilians, employed hit-and-run tactics, seeking to keep larger forces off-balance, and won not by eliminating the enemy’s ability to keep fighting, but by making the enemy’s presence so costly that they were unable to stay.

This kind of war is more commonly called “Asymmetric Warfare” in modern military terminology (because the two sides of the conflict don’t have equal or symmetric power) and is closely related to a war of revolution or a counter-insurgency. The still-ongoing war the USA has in Afghanistan is this type of war. In this kind of war, all the fighting happens at the tactical level, since there are no masses of enemy forces to maneuver around operationally and there are no centers of industry to bomb strategically. Yet while all the fighting in a guerrilla or asymmetric war happens at the tactical level, the decision of the more powerful opponent to leave or go is actually a strategic decision.

Note there are many other types of warfare, from cyberwar to chemical war to psychological war and numerous others. Yet by talking about the basics we hope to impart an understanding that war happens at different levels, with different considerations at each level. And that different types of warfare have particular strengths and weaknesses across the different levels of war.

Travis C here to continue the discussion. As Travis P opens this topic, we see three common levels that we describe warfare: strategic, operational, and tactical. We also describe several types, or “flavors”, that you as an author might want to consider, and as a reader you may encounter. To some degree, every story that involves war has these three levels playing in the background. You may not see it, may not need to show it, but the big gear is turning the little gear all the way down.

For this week, I want to analyze the Star Wars story world through the lense of one particular movie, Rogue One. We should be able to show a wide variety of levels and types all in one compact unit, with the advantage of knowing the broader story. For anyone who hasn’t followed Jyn Erso’s story, be forewarned… spoilers follow.

Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebels gained the technical plans for the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate planet-killing weapon system. Jyn’s father, a weapons developer turned pacifist, has been taken by the Empire and made to complete the Death Star. The Rebels learn that an Imperial defector knows the location of Galen Erso and has a message for his daughter, and so bring Jyn into the plot. With a trusty band of untrustworthy misfits, she goes to the moon Jehda to learn more.

We see Imperial troops conducting patrols through Jedha City, followed by an extremist group of Rebels who conduct insurgent (or guerrilla) attacks against the Empire. Constabulary duty mixed with insurgents? Beautiful.

Tactical action. (Credit: The Wrap–from a scene deleted from the film)

We later see the tactics of a small unit attempting to infiltrate the research facility on Eadu, as well as the technical storage vaults on Scarif. Troop movement, calls for fire, aerial support (what we call close air support), and employment of various tactical weapon systems are all on display.

While we witness several convenings of the Rebel leadership, military and civilian, it’s on Scarif we also see the operational level of war play out. While the Rebel leaders debate what actions to take since learning the Death Star is operational, the Admiral Raddus deploys the fleet to Scarif to aid Jyn’s party and attempt to take down the Empire forever. Movements of this type, especially when supporting major vessel-on-vessel action while maintaining support to ground operations, are good examples of seeing the operational level in play. Multiple missions on-going, largely coordinated (or at least monitored) by a central command station.

Operational action. (Credit: Business Insider)

Lastly, we recognize the strategic element at play. If the Empire has a strategic weapon system like the Death Star, it’s game over for a Rebellion. We see several Rebel leaders effectively bow out of the fight when they learn the weapon system is operational. If the Death Star can be taken down though, if the weakness placed within by Galen Erso can be exploited, then the Empire can be shown to be defeatable. An alliance of like-minded people can bring down the giant.

While chronologically we must wait for Episode IV, A New Hope, to see the plot run to fruition, the foreshadowing of the Death Star’s defeat leaves us on a high note.

The Death Star–a strategic weapon (Credit: Expandedart)

For science fiction authors, you’ll always be in good shape to begin from the three major levels and derive your campaign actions from there. Certainly you will have technologies more advanced than today’s modern standards, but you can probably find a relative place for them at the strategic, operational, or tactical level. A recent example I’m reading is John Ringo and David Weber’s March Upcountry. What happens when every junior Marine has a kiloton-sized explosive projectile at their disposal?

If you are a fantasy author, you may not need to consider the operational level of war at all. When the king or queen marches with the army and commands from the front, there is a natural marriage of strategic and operational concerns and activities. King Theoden is able to make decisions for all of Rohan while in the saddle as well as direct the Rohirrim on the front. You may need to consider what role, if any, magic has on warfare. Is it the equivalent of a strategic nuclear weapon, or is it so commonplace that it blends into tactics like any other weapon? One of my personal favorites is Glen Cook’s The Black Company series, where the company has wizards embedded with them who are capable of doing pretty powerful things, but are often overshadowed by greater thaumaturgy at the strategic level.

Next week we’ll pick this topic up again as we introduce a spectrum of conflict and a progression, or escalation, of war. We’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate the shades of gray that lie between the simple levels and types described here.

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notleia
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notleia

I’ve heard that 90% of warfare is logistics. But thank you for the vocabulary for the levels of warfare, that’s handy stuff.

For operations-level thinking, I’ve heard that having a concrete plan for what you’re trying to accomplish makes a huge difference, which is why WWII worked (defeat and occupy Germany/Japan) and Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan/Iraq didn’t/isn’t (something something communists/terrorists). Of course, I imagine it would help if Congress actually declares war (which they haven’t since WWII).

Travis Perry
Editor

Notleia, a counter-insurgency/insurrection/guerrilla war (the terms are not entirely interchangeable, but in this context they relate to different aspects of the same thing) is something that guys trained at the operations level have been historically ill-suited to win. They are thinking of campaigns and mass actions and tried to import that mentality with specific air campaigns in Vietnam, for example. Bombing Hanoi again and again. Bombing the Ho Chi Min trail–but that’s not where the war was really being fought.

Since the very nature of a guerrilla war has action mainly happening at the tactical level, winning this sort of war involves retraining tactics to include “winning hearts and minds” of the populace at the most basic, front-line grunt level. Not actually better operations–other than providing for the better tactics, of course.

And since I am a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, I would say that both wars were in fact moderate successes (though in the case of Iraq especially, after much blundering) that required a minimum level of follow up to maintain. The United States did not have the stomach for arguing the case with the Iraqis to stay there past 2011, so we left, leaving them vulnerable, leading to a significant but not total collapse on their part (which was, sadly–from the perspective of someone responsible for developing training for the Iraqi Army–predictable). As for Afghanistan, in spite of a number of blunders, we are still there and in fact will win that war by transforming the majority of Afghan culture, bit by bit, if we have the temerity to stay the course–but it will take a minimum of 40 years to do so in my estimation. Or in other words, a bit more than 20 years from now–best case scenario (worst case would be like 80 to 100 years total time).

I can explain in detail why I have the opinions I have about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, by the way. I had access to information when I was in each war that far exceeded what was normal for someone of my rank (due to circumstances I did not specifically influence myself).

Autumn Grayson
Guest

It’d be interesting to hear your opinion of that, if you don’t mind sharing 🙂

Travis Perry
Editor

I’m sorry Autumn, but I’m not quite sure what you are referring to with “that”…

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Ah, sorry about that, I keep forgetting that replies don’t always stay right below the post they’re replying to.

I was referring to the last paragraph in one of your longer posts, where you said you could explain your opinions of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Travis Perry
Editor

I see. It might take some length to explain all for both wars, but let me mention right now that when I was in Iraq, I got attached to a team that had the purpose of coordinating training across all coalition organizations. I attended meetings and briefings that covered all aspects of training that happened in Iraq for both military and civilian agencies (with the exception of training for intelligence agents and special forces, which was kept separate).

So I knew the status of Iraqi training and preparation and how much time it would take for them to be fully ready to defend themselves. One example–for their Air Force pilots to be trained to international aviation standards, they had to learn to speak English (the international language of aviation) which takes several years. Then they have to go to pilot school, which takes another couple of years–so it took five years to train an Iraqi Air Force pilot. How many jet pilots had been trained in 2008 when I was there? Zero. How many had been trained by 2011, when US forces withdrew from the country? Sill zero or very close to it (and none of the military jets the USA promised to sell the Iraqis had been delivered, either). That plus numerous other factors made the collapse of the Iraqi Army verses ISIS not surprising.

In Afghanistan I spent 2 1/2 months as a liaison to the Italian command of the western region of Afghanistan. As they looked forward to the future when they would hand over their region to Afghan control, they were required to write a set of plans on how to do so. Since the international language of NATO is English, I wound up helping the group of senior officers writing those plans, since I was a more proficient writer in English than they were. So I knew a huge amount of details about the actual status of the Afghan military and civilian government in that region–and for lots of reasons (such as a lack of training in maintenance for equipment we provided the Afghan Army–or even really a culture that understood machinery well enough to keep it running right), they were a long way from being able to take over for themselves.

I’d be happy to answer any specific questions you have. But explaining all of everything is a bit too broad for me. 🙂

notleia
Guest
notleia

Well, it is over-simplifying a hugely complicated thing. That would be one tiny thread in a weave of f*ckery.

Prolly a larger issue is that there is only one big-money industry there (at least in Iraq): oil (also I can’t remember if I’m stealing this talking point from NPR). Same with Venezuela and Russia, taking over the oil industry (ie, the money) is the short way to becoming an effective dictatorship. I can only make half-educated guesses about the Afghani economy.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Heard poppy farming/opium is kind of another one in Afghanistan, though that hasn’t worked out so great for them, either.

Travis Perry
Editor

The war on poppy farming, ironically, was most successfully conducted by the Taliban (a fact not widely known in the USA). But when I was there (2010-11), we had various programs to encourage Afghan farmers to produce different kinds of crops. Where I spent most of my time in Afghan-land, Farah Province, local farmers grew pomegranates that had the potential to gain them much more money than they would get from opium. However, with bad roads, attacks on roads, and no cold storage facilities, they had little way to get their crops to market.

This kind of problem can be solved, but it takes long-term investment in a society.

notleia
Guest
notleia

*gets out agricultural soapbox*

Hemp. Hemp grows effing errywhere* and it has lots of uses that aren’t even marijuana-related. (Rope and textile, prolly lots of potential for bio-fuel.) Still doesn’t solve the lack of infrastructure, tho.

The US should also grow more hemp, but we don’t because marijuana scaremongering. It wouldn’t need as much babying (ie, water) as corn and would be a valid alternative for the dryer parts of the Midwest/South.

But effin marijuana scaremongering. Yeesh. [Insert why we can’t have nice things meme]

*Some conditions apply

Autumn Grayson
Guest

If they can keep the hemp from being used for recreational drug purposes(most of the time. They can’t control it completely obviously), I wouldn’t mind it. Not sure about trading one drug product for another, though.(That’s how some drug epidemics started or were augmented)

Even poppies have way more uses than just drugs, so that doesn’t automatically make it a good thing. So, whether or not I agree with you depends on what system is put in place to deal with that. Kind of also more of a fan of the agricultural crop idea since that can give them more to eat as well if need be.

notleia
Guest
notleia

The druggie varieties are bred to produce more THC than is naturally occurring. They also use different parts of the plant: the leaves are the smoking part, the stem is what produces the bast fibers for spinning. I don’t know enough about hemp varieties, but you can always breed for more stem and more delicate leafage.

But I also think the mary jane should be decriminalized and put on the same level as alcohol consumption.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

It’d be interesting to see some strains of hemp being developed that are still useful but not for drug use.

Flax seems to be kind of like that in a sense, though I guess without the drug use and it probably grows in a different climate.

notleia
Guest
notleia

IIRC, flax prefers more water.

Heck as a literal distaff counterpoint (LOL I DID A PUN) to the warfare articles, I should write a series on cloth. Because culture is worldbuilding, and cloth IS culture.

Travis Perry
Editor

Not giving this a full answer, but marijuana is already grown in Afghanistan quite a bit. It has a different growing season there than poppies in most places. So loads of people are growing both. I.e. “hemp” cannot replace opium. Saffron can, but it’s hard to grow.

And as I stated already, in Farah Province, fruit growing, especially pomegranates, would make the local farmers far more money than poppies do. But requires a much more rigorous support system.

notleia
Guest
notleia

I will freely admit to ignorance about the growing seasons and preferences of opium poppies.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

That’s interesting. Kind of sad that people are able to transport/sell something like opium, but unable to do so with something useful that feeds people, like pomegranates, though. Maybe if they manufactured them into a product before transporting them(if a market could be created for dried pomegranates or something) maybe that could help with the cold storage issue at least?

What was the Taliban’s interest in going against poppy farming?

The long term investment thing you mentioned reminds me of something my business class textbooks talk about with global business. Basically, there’s a lot of profit to be made in less developed countries, or countries with large problems, but it is difficult to do so because of war, crime, lack of infrastructure, etc.

But, at the same time, the businesses that make their investment by actually building infrastructure to help solve those issues stand to make a pretty high profit down the road. Maybe there’s some hope for something like that in the area? Though maybe that could get politically sticky.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Assumes someone there has money to invest that ISN’T from war profiteering. The US certainly has the money to do it, but we can’t even get Congress to agree to fund an infrastructure bill in the domestic sphere, let alone for foreign interests.

Tangent: That’s why drug lords often had good reputations in their home stomping grounds, because they would invest some of their money in community improvement and got a reputation for generosity.

Also from what I remember, the Taliban is anti-drug (deffo anti-alcohol). They also cracked down on pedophilia. But don’t worry, they’re still douchebags.

Travis Perry
Editor

Addressing things in no particular order (and with the time I’ve got, sorry for the brevity):

The Taliban was indeed anti-drug, but they changed their minds when they realized a really good way to fund themselves was through opium sales.

The resin of a poppy plant is easy to extract. It doesn’t rot. It doesn’t quickly go bad. It’s light and easy to transport. It also grows well without fertilizer in soils and climate common to Afghanistan. And provides enough money to put food on the table.

Saffron is a plant that is a common seasoning used in the Middle East and West and South Asia. It is hard to grow and takes work to process, but transports well and brings in more money per pound than opium. US types were trying hard to increase saffron growing in Afghanistan–but it’s hard when the stuff is a pain to grow.

And next in order of my responses (for no particular reason), when I was doing US Army stuff in East Africa, the USA would do small humanitarian projects funded through the military as goodwill gestures. Whereas, China was busy building a lot of infrastructure, outspending the USA at what some people estimated to be 10 to 1. Building roads that just happen (sheer coincidence, ahem) to lead to mineral fields and important resources.

And last, Afghanistan has the world’s greatest known deposits of lithium. If Elon Musk winds up driving our future, Afghanistan has about 2 trillion dollars of battery-making-minerals underground. But you need roads for that kind of thing, too…

notleia
Guest
notleia

IIRC, saffron is the pollen/stamen from a particular kind of lily(?), and the problem is mostly in getting it harvested in the time before the flowers drop. But depending on the kind of climate it likes, it may take lots of babying for it to grow in Afghanistan.

Travis Perry
Editor

Yeah, I knew about the harvesting of the stamen. I accounted for that by saying “takes work to process.” My understanding also was it requires fertilizer to grow in Afghanistan. Though I’m not sure how much or how hard it is. I know some saffron was grown there.

But my bottom line was that growing poppies and harvesting their resin is easier.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Still kinda trying to decide the exact conflicts in my current WIP, so I haven’t figured out all the types of warfare they’ll use. Most of my characters tend to be strategic in general, though, and would probably rely on sneakier types of warfare more. Some guerrilla tactics will probably be involved, though there probably won’t be huge size differences between a lot of the warring factions. Psychological warfare will probably also be important, too.

One interesting thing about warfare is how even the smallest advantages(and how they’re used) can make the largest difference. In my current WIP, there’s a bunch of factions in conflict with each other. Faction sizes will vary, but probably not exceed a few hundred individuals, which means the average fights are smaller(except in the cases of a full scale invasion, which tends to only happen if one side is extremely weakened and pretty much destined to lose.) Which factions get ahead, or which individual fighters have the advantage, can come down to small genetic traits or circumstances within each faction. Factions with a high amount of demon and angel descendants in it, for instance, might have better night vision, or the right temperament to do well in a warsome environment. Better night vision could make it easier for certain individuals to infiltrate enemy territory without falling into traps, being seen, etc.

Day to day, their more blatant fights usually take the form of small border skirmishes(or even simply arguments) that are used to kind of push each other around in order to gain scraps of information, or see what they can get away with, in terms of claiming more territory. If, for instance, one side seems a bit hesitant to engage in skirmishes several times in a row, the other side might assume the hesitant side has some sort of disadvantage they don’t want to reveal(maybe they’re too busy on another front, or they just had their numbers culled by a disease.) Other than that, each faction is going to spend their time gathering information in secret, or covertly honing their skills and strategies and finding ways to sabotage the other side.

Something that interests me as well are situations where groups aren’t actually at war, or might even officially be allies, but are still always trying to find ways to one up each other, and there’s a certain underlying hostility since each group knows that there will be war as soon as one group is too provoking or shows enough weakness. That vibe was kinda there in the earlier time periods of Naruto’s story world. There’s this multi nation event called the Chunin Exams, but whether or not each nation wants to participate will depend on politics and each nation’s strategy. There was one episode where receiving an invitation to the Chunin exams made one leader angry, because he thought it was simply a ploy for the leader of a rival nation to look for weaknesses.

Travis Perry
Editor

Autumn, if you ever have specific questions over anything you are working on, feel free to contact me and I will help if can.

As for situations in which groups are not actually at war, this is something Travis Chapman and I have already decided to cover next week. 🙂

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind 🙂

Sounds awesome, can’t wait 🙂

Jay DiNitto
Guest

Digging this series, since I have no mind for military and this info could be useful for future writings.