The Tactical, Operational and Strategic Levels of War

Today, I want to explain the differences between the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war.  As a military leader, regardless of your rank, you should have a basic understanding of the levels of war, what they are and who is responsible for what.  Even though you will more than likely never leave the tactical level of the military, there is always a chance you could get some experience at the other two levels if you have a long and successful career.

Listed below are a few bullet points for each level of war, in order to keep things simple.  Please see the references section for greater details and explanations of each level.


  • Battles and fighting is normally determined from the strategic and operational levels
  • Typically includes the platoons, companies, battalions and brigades fighting in combat
  • This level focuses on ordered arrangement and maneuver of combat elements in relation to each other and to the enemy to achieve combat objectives
  • All of the tactical fighting should help the country reach its strategic and operational goals
  • Some of the key players at this level include the NCOs, Soldiers and Officers in the companies, battalions and brigades that fight in combat


  • Defined as “the level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas”
  • Objectives at the operational level support the strategic objectives
  • Concerned with employing military forces in a theater of war or theater of operations to obtain an advantage over the enemy
  • It often involves units at the Division and Corps level
  • Overall strategy for a specific theater of operations
  • Some of the key players at this level include Theater Commanders


  • It is basically the “BIG PICTURE PLAN” on how the nation and military will fight and win the war
  • It is the concern of the National Command Authorities and some of the highest military commanders
  • This level focuses on defining and supporting national policy and relates directly to the outcome of a war or other conflict as a whole
  • It applies to all forms of war and conflict to include conventional war, nuclear war, insurgents, etc.
  • It can include country to country relationships, using national policy, national resources and politics
  • Some of the key players at this level include the President, the Secretary of Defense, The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Service Chiefs and the Combatant Commanders

Final Thoughts

These are the differences between the strategic, operational and tactical levels of war as I see it. Please keep in mind that the levels intertwine and cross-over with each other.  If you have experience (or better definitions) please leave a comment and share your insights.  I would love to hear from you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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2 thoughts on “The Tactical, Operational and Strategic Levels of War”

  1. To use World War II as an example, the guys on the front lines at Kasserine Pass, Salerno, Caen, Remagen, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, or Okinawa were dealing with tactical matters. The planning of Operation OVERLORD (the D-Day invasion), Operation HUSKY (the invasion of Sicily), or Operation TORCH (the invasion of North Africa) was conducted at the operational level. Decisions made at the Casablanca, Washington, or Quebec conferences involving Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs about whether to focus efforts in the Mediterranean or on a cross-Channel invasion, or whether Allied resources would be focused on defeating Europe first or assigning additional resources to the Pacific Theater, were strategic. At the end of the day, the men and women on the ground are operating tactically in order to achieve operational goals that are dictated by overall strategy planned by the National Command Authority.

    1. Great article, and great added info, Daniel. There is an incredible amount of expertise and planning involved in all of these phases, and all three levels have to integrate smoothly for a successful campaign. Personally, I think my brain would explode. Something I find interesting is the influence military leaders from our nation’s early history has on our war strategy today.

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