There are four levels of warfare. These are the Political, Strategic, Operational, and Tactical levels of war. I will use examples from World War II in order to level the playing field and convey these ideas in their most basic (and least confused) form. For our purposes, we will only address three in detail: the tactical level, the operational level, and the strategic level. I believe that the “Political” level is self-evident, but for clarity I will address it briefly. It is perhaps the most important, because decisions at the political level have the ability to directly or indirectly affect the other three.
In our society, the civilian government retains control over decisions to go to war, whom to fight, and with whom to ally. Decisions at this level involve the interrelationships between allies, decisions regarding the factors of production, the national will, and societal issues. And it is here that another profession holds great sway, one that operates in the realm of influencing civilians. Here, one of the most critical tools—”weapon” in all but name—is the power which is held by the press, by reporters.
(…)the strategic level of warfare. Over time there have been various definitions and subsets of this overarching term. There has been “Grand Strategy” and “National Strategy” and “Military Strategy,” all of which address slightly different aspects of the same general concept. This level concerns the planning and conduct of the war at the highest levels. Strategic plans aim for objectives that lead directly to, or at least significantly toward, peace. In other words, these plans seek to answer the question, “How will we win this war?”
The operational level is somewhat more difficult to define and understand. Operational level planning occurs with the intent of setting missions and objectives that will bend the enemy to your will in an entire theater of operations. Think of this as the blueprint that helps you build a house from a bunch of bricks. Each brick is a tactical engagement. You put them together to make a wall, and then a house.
“The tactical level of warfare is that level where men meet and fight from the individual level through the division. It is the realm of skirmishes, engagements, and battles. Planning at the tactical level starts at ‘now’ and occurs out to roughly 48 hours in the future, or at most a few weeks. The tactical level of warfare is where one sees the face of battle.”