The Three Levels of War

Levels of Intelligence: Strategic, Operational, and Tactical

What are the Three Levels of War?

The Three Levels of War is a military concept which allocates responsibility for the planning and execution of the different levels of warfare to different ranks of commander:

  • At the Strategic Level, top-level commanders plan the overall strategy for winning the entire war;

  • At the Operational Level, mid-level commanders plan the operations that will implement that strategy; and

  • At the Tactical Level, low-level commanders plan how to achieve the individual objectives that are vital to the success of those operations.

Case Study: Hitler’s plan to starve the UK

In WW2, the Nazis attempted to starve the UK into submission by destroying deliveries of food from America. Here’s an example of how this plan could be broken down into the Three Levels of War:

Levels of Intelligence

The Three Levels of War concept translates across to the field of intelligence perfectly. When talked about in this context, the three levels are known as “Levels of Intelligence”.

Information relevant to decisions being made at the top level of an organisation may not be relevant to decisions being made - and therefore would not be useful as intelligence - at the bottom level, and visa-versa.

With this in mind, information needs to be delivered to and received by a decision-maker at the relevant level for it to be useful as intelligence. If it is delivered to a decision-maker it is not relevant to, at best it will be useless and at worst it will become a hinderance.

The Three Levels of War concept applied to retail intelligence

In the example above, the CEO would never have time to get any work done if she was constantly getting details of every shoplifting incident or being informed every time a checkout assistant was five minutes late for their shift. Similarly, spending time explaining the projected profits for Q3 to a shelf-stacker would probably have limited benefit for the company.

To ensure intelligence gets to the right level of decision-maker, we can assign it a level in accordance with the three levels of war concept:

Strategic Intelligence is intelligence that will assist top-level decision makers in the formation of policies and strategy that will help the organisation achieve its overall aims. For instance:

Generals receive intelligence that the enemy is heavily reliant on overseas supplies of food. They decide on a strategy of cutting off the enemy’s food supply to starve them into surrendering, thus winning the war.

The CEO of a premium supermarket receives a report by her customer retention team which states a large number of customers have recently switched to a rival, cheaper supermarket. To win back these customers, the CEO decides on a strategy of rebranding as a less expensive supermarket.

Operational Intelligence is intelligence that will assist mid-level decision-makers in planning and executing the operations that will implement those policies and strategy. For instance:

The Admiral of a submarine fleet receives intelligence that a fleet of merchant vessels is delivering a large shipment of food to the enemy. They decide to plan an operation to sink the merchant vessels, which would implement the strategy decided upon by the generals.

The head of marketing at the supermarket commissions market research to understand which vectors would be best to advertise the rebrand so it reaches the most amount of potential customers. The research suggests a TV advert campaign would be most successful, so he commissions a series of TV adverts.

Tactical Intelligence is intelligence that will assist lower-level decision makers in planning and achieving the individual objectives that need to be completed to ensure those operations are successful. For instance:

The commanders of the individual submarines are sent intelligence on the weak spots of the hulls of the merchant vessels' hulls. This enables them to cause maximum damage, making them more likely to sink, and therefore increasing the likelihood that the operation will be a success.

The director of the TV adverts does a screen test on the first finished advert to understand how effective it is at promoting the supermarket’s rebrand. The sample audience says there it isn’t obvious which company the advert is promoting, so the director reshoots the advert with the company’s name clearly visible in shot.


Levels of intelligence can be applied relatively depending on whether you are talking about an entire organisation or one of its constituent parts

For instance, when talking about an entire supermarket chain:

  • Strategic Intelligence may refer to intelligence relevant to the CEO;

  • Operational Intelligence may refer to intelligence relevant to an area manager; while

  • Tactical intelligence may refer to intelligence relevant to a store manager.

On the other hand, when talking about an individual store:

  • Strategic Intelligence may refer to intelligence relevant to the store manager;

  • Operational Intelligence may refer to intelligence relevant to a department manager; while

  • Tactical Intelligence may refer to intelligence relevant to a shift supervisor.

Note: Just to make life more interesting, some organisations use tactical and operational the other way around. This is not an issue provided everyone is on the same page.

Note: This article offers a simplified summary of the three levels of war concept – for more a more detailed study into the concept, check out this paper from the USAF College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research and Education (CADRE) Air and Space Power Mentoring Guide, Vol. 1, titled "Three Levels of War".

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