Soviet Operational Art Since 1936
The Triumph of Maneuver War
David M. Glantz
Introduction: On the Eve of War
The vital theoretical and practical work the Red Army accomplished between 1932 and 1936 in the realm of operational art created a model for offensive combat that has endured to the present. In the late 1930s, however, this model did not accord with reality. It would take years of crisis and warfare for the Red Army to realize fully the theoretical concepts it developed by 1936.
As was the case with the entire Soviet military establishment, Soviet operational maneuver concepts and forces suffered severe damage in the late 1930s, in part because Stalin purged their creators. The multiple waves of military purges, which began in 1937 and lasted into the opening months of World War II, liquidated most Red Army theoreticians and senior commanders. Inevitably, therefore, their ideas fell into disuse or outright disrepute.1 In addition, despite the success of the Red Army’s fledgling armored forces at Khalkhin-Gol in the Far East, Soviet military experiences in Spain, Poland, and Finland cast doubt on the combat utility of its large mechanized and armored formations.2 Consequently, in November 1939 the Soviet High Command abolished its four large tank corps and replaced them with smaller motorized divisions organized on a combined-arms basis.3
The subsequent German victory over France in the spring of 1940 revealed the full and shocking potential of Blitzkrieg and alerted the Soviets to the mistake they had made when they truncated their mechanized force structure.4 Hastily, under the direction of Defense Minister S. K. Timoshenko, the Red Army began creating new mechanized corps, twenty-nine of which were to exist, fully equipped, by mid-1942.5 Consequently, while the Red Army’s force structure, particularly that of its mechanized force, was imposing on paper by mid-1941, it was far less capable in practice.6 In addition, the shockingly efficient performance of the German Army in Poland and France, juxtaposed against the Red Army’s dismal performance during the early stages of the Finnish War, rekindled Soviet faith in the concept of deep operations and operational maneuver. Accordingly, Timoshenko reaffirmed the twin concepts (although not by
name) in a speech he delivered to senior commanders in late 1940.7 The purges, however, had eliminated the most effective large-unit commanders and those who best understood how operational maneuver fit with established offensive techniques. In addition to weak high- and mid-level leadership, the Red Army experienced a multitude of ills associated with simultaneous attempts to alter and entirely reequip its entire force structure. As a result, the Red Army was unprepared for war in 1941 in terms of leadership, command and control, logistics, and training, especially for a war begun by strategic and operational surprise.
The Test of War: Background
The surprise German invasion of June 1941 shook the Soviet nation to its very foundations, subjected the Red Army to six months of grave crisis, and subsequently led to over three years of grueling and costly war. The Red Army was utterly shattered during the first two months of war. Thereafter, it faced the arduous tasks of surviving, then reviving and maturing into an instrument that could compete with the Wehrmacht and achieve ultimate military victory.
Soviet military analysts and historians subdivide the war into three distinct periods, each of which reflected the basic political-military conditions that characterized its duration.8 Although the Red Army was primarily on the strategic defensive during the first period of war (22 June 1941–19 November 1942), this period was punctuated by the Red Army’s Moscow strategic counteroffensive and several operational offensives designed to wrest the initiative from German hands. The two massive German offensives during this period (October–December 1941 and June–October 1942) placed the Soviet nation in jeopardy. The second period of war (19 November 1942 – 31 December 1943), which commenced with the Soviet strategic counteroffensive at Stalingrad, was a transitional period marked by alternating attempts by both sides to secure strategic advantage. After the titanic Battle of Kursk, by 31 December 1943, the Soviets had firmly secured the strategic initiative and advanced beyond the Dnepr River line. The Red Army maintained the strategic initiative during the third and final period of war (1944 – 1945) and ultimately emerged victorious over Nazi Germany.
While each of these periods displayed unique political-military characteristics, each also reflected distinct changes in the Red Army’s force structure and operational maneuver capabilities — forces and capabilities that in turn helped produce the distinct political-military nature of each period. The first period of war was a formative phase during which the Wehrmacht virtually dismantled the Red Army’s force structure in heavy combat and forced the Soviet High Command (the Stavka) to reconstruct it in a painful and costly process of trial and experimentation. Soviet op-
erational maneuver concepts and mobile forces necessary to carry them out emerged in embryonic form during the spring of 1942. Additional battlefield experimentation during 1943 led to the creation of the Red Army’s “modern” operational maneuver force and refined concepts for their combat employment. The Soviets improved their mobile forces and concepts governing their use during the third period of war, providing a basis for both wartime victory and an effective military force in the postwar years.
The First Period of War
The first period of war began on 22 June 1941. During the ensuing two months, advancing German forces literally destroyed the Red Army’s initial force structure in intense combat along the Soviet Union’s borders. Although Soviet defensive (and counteroffensive) concepts were theoretically realistic, and the Stavka tried in vain to mount an effective strategic defense, the results were disastrous. German armored spearheads easily penetrated Soviet rifle armies and pushed rapidly into the depths of the Red Army’s strategic defenses.9 The new Soviet mechanized corps, hastily assembled and deployed under the ever-present threat of German air power, stumbled into combat, often in uncoordinated and piecemeal fashion, subsequently to be destroyed systematically by German forces. By early July most mechanized corps in the border military districts were fragments of their former selves. As the battle moved eastward toward Leningrad, Smolensk, and Kiev, the remaining corps suffered a similar fate, leaving the Soviets by late July with only a skeletal capability for conducting maneuver war, either tactical or operational. Throughout this entire period, the Stavka mounted attempt after attempt to launch counteroffensives and counterstrokes with its mobile forces, only to experience repeated failures.10
During the disastrous initial months of war, the Soviet High Command truncated its already-shaken force structure to match its commanders’ abilities and available logistical support. The Soviets disbanded the mechanized corps not already destroyed and replaced them first with separate tank divisions and ultimately with numerous small tank brigades.11 The tank divisions, however, also proved ineffective, and soon the Stavka transformed them into separate brigades or battalions. By December 1941 the Red Army’s armored force consisted of 7 tank divisions, 79 separate tank brigades, and 100 separate tank battalions. In conjunction with cavalry corps, cavalry divisions, light cavalry divisions, and new ski battalions, these provided the mobile capability of the Red Army, a pale reflection of the once proud mechanized force of June 1941.12
Soviet offensive operations before and during the winter campaign of 1941–1942 vividly displayed the weaknesses of this force structure. So-
viet rifle forces penetrated German tactical defenses and pursued into the operational depths at foot speed. They were, however, deficient in staying power; soon growing infantry casualties brought every advance to an abrupt and bloody end. Soviet cavalry corps reinforced by rifle and tank brigades also penetrated into the German operational rear. Once there and reinforced by airborne or air-landed forces, they ruled the countryside, forests, and swamps but were unable to drive the more mobile Germans from the main communications arteries and villages. At best, they could force limited German withdrawals, but only if in concert with pressure from forces along the front. At worst, these mobile forces were themselves encircled, only to be destroyed or driven from the German rear area when summer arrived.
At Rostov, in November 1941, the Soviets forced the overextended German First Panzer Army to withdraw to the Mius River line by striking German defenses with the 37th Army secretly deployed forward, supported by a cavalry corps and two separate tank brigades. However, no encirclements ensued, and German forces halted the Soviet advance at the Mius River defenses.13 Two months later, Red Army forces were frustrated as they launched another partially successful operation south of Khar’kov (the Barvenkovo-Lozovaia offensive). During the first stage of the Red Army’s Moscow counteroffensive in December 1941, the Soviets spearheaded their thrusts with rifle units on skis and tank brigades (roughly two or three per army). South of Moscow, General Belov’s 1st Guards Cavalry Corps penetrated into the rear of Second Panzer Army and advanced 100 kilometers deep into the Kaluga region. During the second phase of the Moscow counteroffensive in January 1942, the 11th, 2d Guards, and 1st Guards Cavalry Corps penetrated deep into the German rear area in an attempt to encircle German Army Group Center. Despite heroic efforts and the commitment into combat of the entire 4th Airborne Corps, the cavalry corps failed to link up and became encircled in the German rear area.14 The ambitious Soviet operation failed to achieve its ultimate strategic aim, due largely to the fragile nature of Soviet operational maneuver forces. Ultimately, in June 1942 German forces cleared “the Red louses from their hides,” although the elusive Belov escaped to Red Army lines with a quarter of his original strength. The geography of the Eastern Front in the summer of 1942, with huge salients occupied by German and Soviet forces at Demyansk, at Rzhev, and south of Khar’kov, bore mute testimony to the failure of Soviet operational maneuver during its winter counteroffensive.
The Stavka correctly judged that these operations had failed because of the Red Army’s lack of large, coherent, mechanized, and armored formations capable of performing sustained operational maneuver. To remedy the problem, in April 1942 the Soviets fielded new tank corps consisting of 3 tank brigades and 1 motorized rifle brigade and totaling
168 tanks each.15 The Stavka placed these corps at the disposal of army and front commanders for use as mobile groups operating in tandem with older cavalry corps, which by now had also received a new complement of armor. The Stavka employed these new tank corps in an offensive role for the first time in the spring of 1942.
On 12 May 1942, the Soviet Southwestern Front attacked out of bridgeheads across the Northern Donets River north and south of Khar’kov.16 The Soviets intended to exploit with a cavalry corps (the 3d Guards) in the north and two secretly formed and redeployed tank corps (the 21st and 23d) and a cavalry corps (the 6th) in the south. Ultimately the two mobile groups were to link up west of Khar’kov and entrap the German Sixth Army. Although the offensive surprised the Germans, the Soviets mishandled their mobile forces. Soviet infantry penetrated German defenses to the consternation of the German commanders, but the Soviets procrastinated and failed to commit the two tank corps for six days. The corps finally went into action on 17 May simultaneously with a massive surprise attack by First Panzer Army against the southern flank of the Soviet salient. Over the next two days, the two tank corps disengaged, retraced their path, and engaged the new threat. But it was too late. The German counterattack encircled and destroyed the better part of 3 Soviet armies, the 2 tank corps and 2 cavalry corps, totaling more than 250,000 men.17
The Khar’kov debacle and a simultaneous disaster to the south in the Crimea demonstrated to Soviet planners that they not only had to create larger armored units, but they also had to learn to employ them properly. The twin disasters, however, did not halt Soviet efforts to rejuvenate their mobile force. Throughout the summer and fall of 1942, even as the German Operation BLAU (the Stalingrad offensive) was unfolding dramatically across southern Russia, the Soviets created even larger mobile forces. In June the Stavka formed four mixed-composition (rifle, cavalry, and armor) tank armies, each around the nucleus of two tank corps.18 (See Table 2.) The combination of tracked, foot, and hoof forces under control of a single headquarters was dangerous, and, understandably, the new tank armies functioned poorly. The 5th Tank Army, committed to combat west of Voronezh with four separate tank corps, attracted German attention and perhaps deflected the German advance southward but failed to halt the Germans’ offensive.19 Two other Red Army tank armies (the 1st and 4th) engaged German forces on the distant approaches to Stalingrad, but suffered heavy losses and were soon renumbered as rifle armies.20 By November 1942 the two tank armies (3d and 5th), which remained in the Soviet force structure, would soon make their presence felt with stunning effect. In September 1942, the Soviets formed eight mechanized corps, each consisting of one tank brigade (or three tank regiments) and three mechanized brigades.21 (See Table 3.) The Soviets relied on these new
Source: I. M. Anan'yev, B. B. Vashelenko, and N. T. Konashenko, "Tankovye armii" [Tank armies], Sovetskaya
tank armies, tank corps, and mechanized corps to spearhead their offensive operations in the winter campaign of 1942–1943, which commenced in November 1942 at Stalingrad and against the Rzhev salient, west of Moscow. While these forces experimented with new force combinations and operational and tactical techniques, the Stavka prepared to field even more capable and powerful operational maneuver formations.
The Second Period of War
The forces of the Soviet Southwestern and Stalingrad Fronts attacked out of bridgeheads across the Don and Volga Rivers northwest and south of Stalingrad on 19 November 1942, commencing the second period of war. After penetrating Romanian defenses with infantry forces, Soviet armored and mechanized corps drove deep into the German rear, linked up, and encircled the German Sixth Army and part of the Fourth Panzer Army.22 Although Soviet forces formed a coherent inner encirclement line around German forces, several flaws marred this first example of successful large-scale operational maneuver. Command and control was awkward because mobile corps commanders reported to both front and army commanders, and the outer encirclement line, formed by cavalry corps, was fragile and almost immediately threatened by German relief forces. Most troubling was the high attrition rate of armor in this and in subsequent stages of the winter offensive, due primarily to logistical causes.23
Less than a week later, the Western and Kalinin Front’s forces, under the personal direction of Marshal of the Soviet Union G. I. Zhukov, struck German Ninth Army in the Rzhev salient. Delivering a massive blow along four separate axes, six Soviet armies spearheaded by two new Red Army mechanized corps, two tank corps, and a cavalry corps tried in vain to encircle German forces in the salient. Three weeks of bloody and futile fighting produced over 300,000 casualties and once again indicated that Soviet commanders had yet to learn how to coordinate complex mobile operations by so massive a force.24
During subsequent operations throughout the winter, the Soviets worked to correct the deficiencies apparent in November. In the Middle Don operation (17–30 December 1942), the Soviets employed two groups of mobile forces to attack across the Don and Chir Rivers and encircle the Italian Eighth Army.25 Again mobile corps commanders were responsible to both the front and army commanders, but unlike the case at Stalingrad, one tank corps (17th) formed a more durable outer encirclement line. Despite the fact that the mobile corps advanced up to 100 kilometers and destroyed the Italian Eighth Army, the Soviets again experienced major difficulties. Armor attrition rates exceeded 60 percent in the tank corps, and the corps advanced out of mutual supporting distance and well beyond the range of supporting foot infantry and artillery. German
reinforcements took advantage of the weakness and dispersion of Soviet mobile forces by counterattacking and temporarily halting the advance.
In the Donbas operation (29 January–20 February), in which the Soviets sought to encircle all of German Army Group Don, the Southwest Front commander formed four of his tank corps (3d, 10th, 18th, and 4th Guards) under a single headquarters (Group Popov) as the first Soviet front mobile group.26 To improve the sustainability of the group, truck-mounted rifle divisions were attached to each of the tank corps. To a large degree, however, the overall weakness of the group (160 tanks) negated the group’s effectiveness. The weakness of the tank corps, their propensity for being caught up in operations along their flanks, and the lack of mobility of the attached rifle divisions almost instantly fragmented the group, and Popov was unable to concentrate and achieve decisive results. Overextension and dispersion of Soviet forces provided General Erich von Manstein, commander of Army Group South, an opportunity to orchestrate a counterstroke that cut the supply lines of overextended Soviet mobile forces and destroyed them. At the same time, Manstein’s forces encircled and severely damaged the 8th Cavalry and 4th Guards Mechanized Corps, which were attacking German forces in the Donbas region from the east (at Debalt’sevo and Anastasievka) and virtually cut off and annihilated the 25th Tank Corps, which had been advancing toward Zaporozh’ye.27
Concurrently, the Stavka mounted an ambitious offensive by its newly formed Central Front (the former Don Front), supported by the Western and Bryansk Fronts, against German defenses along the Orel-Bryansk- Smolensk axis. General K. K. Rokossovsky, the Central Front commander, spearheaded his offensive with the 2d Tank Army, the 2d Guards Cavalry Corps, and numerous ski brigades. In heavy fighting that endured from 25 February through mid-March, Rokossovsky’s forces reached the banks of the Desna River, over one hundred kilometers into the German rear area, almost severing communications between German Army Groups Center and South. However, a combination of skillful German maneuver, poor Soviet logistical support, and clumsy operations by exhausted Red Army forces, all exacerbated by deteriorating weather and terrain conditions, spelled doom for the ambitious offensive. By mid-March the Soviet offensive fell victim to Manstein’s counteroffensive. Having suffered nearly 500,000 casualties, the Red Army ceased its winter campaign and dug in around what would become the infamous Kursk bulge.28
An even more grisly fate befell the Voronezh Front’s 3d Tank Army operating in the Khar’kov region. This tank army was encircled and annihilated by counterattacking German forces in early March 1943, and its parent front was forced to abandon Khar’kov and withdraw to positions south of Kursk and east of the Northern Donets River.29 In the Donbas, Khar’kov, and Orel-Bryansk operations, the Soviets took a calculated
risk to win a major strategic victory before spring rains interrupted operations. Soviet mobile forces shared in that risk and suffered the consequences. While the winter campaign demonstrated what operational maneuver forces could achieve, it also vividly demonstrated the problems that had to be overcome if they were to realize their full potential. Soviet armored forces would require six more months to accomplish the goals the Stavka assigned them in February 1943.
After the winter campaign, a three-month lull set in across the Eastern Front, during which both sides planned summer strategic operations. During this period the Soviets exploited lessons learned in the winter and reconstructed their mobile forces to make them more powerful and sustainable. Simultaneously, they refined mobile operational and tactical techniques to improve the operational maneuver capability of front and army commanders. Soviet strategic plans for the summer of 1943 increasingly relied for success on the operations of these refined mobile groups. The premier Soviet mobile forces were the five new tank armies created by a January Stavka order, each consisting of two tank corps, an optional mechanized corps, and a variety of mobile support units. The new armies fielded over 500 tanks each and were soon augmented by newly formed self-propelled artillery units.30 Similarly, the Soviets refined the structure of separate tank and mechanized corps by adding more combat and combat service support units. By July 1943 the Soviets fielded twenty-four tank and thirteen mechanized corps.31
The new tank armies and augmented tank, mechanized, and cavalry corps provided operational maneuver capabilities to both front and army commanders. In all major operations, the Stavka allocated one or two tank armies to front commanders and one mechanized or tank corps to army commanders operating along main attack axes. These mobile units conducted operational maneuver under direct control of their parent headquarters. On difficult terrain or in bad weather (spring), cavalry corps served as front or army mobile groups, and by the fall of 1943 front commanders in these circumstances employed cavalry-mechanized groups (usually one mechanized or tank corps and one cavalry corps) to perform operational maneuver. In theory, rifle forces, supported by an increasing array of artillery and engineer units, penetrated enemy tactical defenses to a depth of 8–12 kilometers, and then army mobile groups began the operational exploitation. The front commander then committed his operational maneuver force to develop the offensive into the enemy’s operational rear area. In practice, however, rifle forces seldom completed the tactical penetration. That task fell to the army mobile group as it advanced to begin the exploitation. As a result, the army mobile group was often significantly weakened before the exploitation phase began. Thus, the success of deep exploitation depended on the skill of commanders whose tank armies were serving as mobile groups.
The first “modern” Soviet operations in terms of operational maneuver occurred during the Kursk strategic operation (July–August 1943).32 Soviet strategic plans called for a temporary defensive phase to weaken German forces, diversionary attacks to draw German operational reserves to other sectors of the front, and two major counteroffensives, spearheaded by mobile groups, against weakened German forces, the first at Orel and the second near Belgorod. The Orel offensive by the Western, Bryansk, and later the Central Front began on 12 July 1943, just as the Germans’ Kursk assault ground to a halt. Tank corps (1st, 5th, 20th, and 1st Guards) of attacking Soviet armies joined the struggle on the second day of the operation and were later joined by two tank armies, 3d and 4th Guards, attacking under front control on the eighth and fourteenth days of the operation. Heavy German defenses and quick reaction by German reserves prevented significant Soviet advances, and the operation evolved into a slugging match between both parties.
The Belgorod-Khar’kov operation, however, better characterized deep operations and more clearly reflected what the Soviets hoped to accomplish. It began on 3 August 1943, after German operational reserves (the XXIV Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps) had been drawn away to other sectors of the front by Soviet diversionary offensives.33 The attacking armies of the Soviet Voronezh and Steppe Fronts advanced directly against the nose of the Belgorod salient to penetrate German tactical defenses. Once penetration was achieved, the army and front commanders were to commit both separate tank and mechanized corps or multiple tank armies to conduct operational maneuver and seize the Khar’kov region.
Before noon on 3 August, the Voronezh Front’s 1st and 5th Guards Tank Armies advanced through the 5th Guards Army into the penetration, with a forward detachment leading each of their four subordinate tank corps. By late afternoon, the four corps had penetrated thirty kilometers to begin an operational exploitation. Separate tank corps of adjacent Soviet armies also advanced on the first day of attack but had to deal with more extensive German defenses before exploiting into the operational depths. The operational exploitation of the 1st and 5th Guards Tank Armies lasted seven days and thrust to a depth of 110–120 kilometers. On 11 August German operational reserves, returned from other sectors of the front, intervened and within days halted the precipitous Soviet advance. After heavy fighting, which severely eroded the strength of both Soviet and German mobile forces, Khar’kov fell on 23 August, signaling the end of the operation.
Despite the early deep advance and the favorable outcome of the operation, severe problems emerged for Soviet mobile forces, which they would have to remedy in the future. The tank armies and mobile corps outran supporting forces by a factor of several days, thus exposing them-
selves to German counterattacks. As a consequence, the Soviets recognized the need to provide them more mobile combined-arms support. Moreover, some link had to be established between armor and mechanized forces operating deep and slower follow-on forces. The Soviets remedied this problem by fielding and employing more forward detachments at army, corps, and division level.
After the Kursk strategic operation, Soviet forces launched offensives along the entire Eastern Front and forced the Germans to withdraw to its newly created Panther Defense Line, which the Germans had constructed along the Sozh, Pronya, and Dnepr Rivers. Soviet forces pursued vigorously, with operational maneuver forces leading the advance to secure crossings over these river barriers. During the pursuit the Soviets secretly shifted the 3d Guards Tank Army southward from Orel. Together with numerous separate tank, mechanized, and cavalry corps, the tank army raced forward parallel to withdrawing German units, reached the Dnepr River before the Germans, and, with forward detachments from rifle armies, seized small bridgeheads near Velikiy Bukrin, south of Kiev. Because the absence of heavy bridging equipment prevented passage of the river by the army’s armored elements, for the first time the Soviets attempted a major river crossing operation employing a large-scale airborne drop.34 The attempt failed when hastily assembled German forces thwarted both the airdrop and Soviet attempts to enlarge the bridgehead. The operation, although unsuccessful, was an attempt to fulfill Marshal of the Soviet Union M. N. Tukhachevsky’s dream of combining ground and vertical aspects of operational maneuver.
To the north, after clearing German Army Group Center forces from the Smolensk and Bryansk regions, in early October the Kalinin, Western, and Central Fronts began a major operation to envelop and defeat German Army Group Center from north and south, capture Minsk, and liberate Belorussia.35 Soviet forces hammered German defenses from Nevel’ southward through Vitebsk and Orsha to Gomel’ in massive offensives that pierced German defenses in the Nevel’ and Gomel’ region but failed to collapse German strategic defenses. The Kalinin Front succeeded in driving a wedge between Army Groups North and Center near Nevel’, and the Central Front severed communications between Army Groups Center and South in a deep thrust along the Rechitsa-Bobruysk axis. However, numerous separate violent Soviet offensives against Vitebsk and Orsha failed, and by mid-December a German counterstroke restored the front in southern Belorussia. By 31 December Soviet forces threatened Vitebsk and occupied sizable bridgeheads across the Dnepr River near Rechitsa and Chernobyl’. Once again, the Stavka failed to achieve its strategic ends largely due to the weakness of operational maneuver forces in the three attacking fronts. Since the Stavka had been forced to withdraw its tank armies for refitting after the heavy losses they had incurred during
the Battle of Kursk, only separate tank and cavalry corps were available to spearhead the advance into Belorussia. The Stavka would try again to smash German defenses in Belorussia during the following winter but would fail once again. The German bastion in Belorussia would not fall until the summer of 1944.
In the southern sector of the front, the Steppe and Southwestern Fronts advanced on the Dnepr and secured a large bridgehead south of Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk in October. However, despite constant heavy fighting throughout November and December, the fronts’ forces failed to capture their objectives, the cities of Krivoy Rog and Nikopol’, and drive the Germans from the Dnepr River’s eastern bend. At the same time, the Southern Front employed a cavalry-mechanized group to conduct deep operations and drive German Army Group South back through Melitopol’ toward the Dnepr River and Crimea.36 Clumsy employment of a mechanized corps (the 4th Guards) and a tank corps (the 19th) led to the bloody failure of four separate Soviet attempts to crush German defenders of the Nikopol’ bridgehead.37
In late fall 1943, Soviet forces wrestled with the problem of breaching the German’s Dnepr River defenses near Kiev. In five separate offensives during early October, the Central Front’s left wing (the 13th and 60th Armies) and the Voronezh Front’s 27th, 38th, 40th, and 47th Combined-arms Armies and the 3d Guards Tank Army failed to crack German defenses near Chernobyl’, Gornostaipol’, Lyutezh, and Velikiy Bukrin.38 These failures occurred despite Soviet massed employment of the 3d Guards Tank Army and three separate mobile corps in the Bukrin region. After these bloody failures, in early November the Soviets finally employed operational maneuver masked by successful deception to solve the strategic dilemma. Between 29 October and 3 November 1943, the Soviet 1st Ukrainian (formerly Voronezh) Front secretly redeployed the 3d Guards Tank Army northward into the small Lyutezh bridgehead north of Kiev, and on 3 November the front assaulted out of the bridgehead.39
Subsequently, the 3d Guards Tank Army advanced over one hundred kilometers southwest of Kiev before being halted by redeploying German reserves. The operation bore many similarities to the Belgorod operation, for the 3d Guards Tank Army’s two forward detachments were destroyed in the German counterattacks. Subsequent German counterattacks failed to drive Soviet forces back to Kiev. During the waning stages of these counterattacks, the Soviets again secretly regrouped under the cloak of an effective deception plan and prepared a new offensive, this time spearheaded by two full tank armies (the 1st and 3d Guards).40 While German forces attacked what they falsely assumed to be the main Soviet concentration northwest of Kiev, on 24 December the new Soviet blow struck weakened German defenses southwest of Kiev. In the ensuing Zhitomir-Berdichev operation, Soviet operational maneuver forces
advanced 120–130 kilometers before being halted by redeployed German armored forces.
The Third Period of War
The Zhitomir-Berdichev operation began what the Soviets call the Right Bank of the Ukraine Strategic Offensive, which encompassed two distinct phases. The first phase, from December 1943 to the end of February 1944, consisted of five major operations conducted successively by one or two fronts.41 During this phase, the third period of war commenced on 31 December. The second phase, which lasted from 4 March to 12 May 1944, consisted of three simultaneous and two successive operations, each by a single front.42 Operational maneuver forces played a significant role in these operations and often resulted in the encirclement of large German forces, although at this stage most encircled forces were able to escape destruction. More disturbing for the Germans was the fact that for the first time Soviet mobile forces successfully operated during the period of the razputitsa [spring flooding], a time when, in earlier years, operations came to a grinding halt.
Several notable features characterized the first phase of these operations. During the Kirovograd operation, the Soviet 2d Ukrainian Front employed a portion of its operational maneuver force to deceive the Germans regarding the location of their main attack, a technique the Soviets improved upon in the future.43 During the Korsun’-Shevchenkovskiy operation, the 2d Ukrainian Front’s operational maneuver force, the 5th Guards Tank Army, continued its exploitation despite the fact that German tactical defenses temporarily solidified behind it.44 In addition, the mobile groups of the 1st and 2d Ukrainian Fronts formed an outer encirclement line around two encircled German corps, while rifle and cavalry forces reduced the encircled German forces. This formation was designed to permit the forces manning the outer encirclement line to continue to develop the offensive while the encircled force was being destroyed. Soviet forces, however, were not able to accomplish this feat successfully until the summer operations of 1944. Elsewhere, cavalry and cavalry-mechanized forces played an important role in the offensives, particularly in swampy regions near Rovno and Lutsk and in operations during rainy periods in the southern Ukraine.45
During the second phase of the offensive, the Stavka placed three tank armies at the 1st Ukrainian Front’s disposal. General Vatutin, the front commander, and Marshal Zhukov, who succeeded him when Vatutin was killed by Ukrainian partisans, regrouped these tank armies secretly from his right flank to his left. He then committed them in sequence (first two and then one) from the Lutsk area south toward the Romanian border in an attempt to encircle German Army Group South.46 After advancing
120–180 kilometers, the three tank armies encircled German First Panzer Army, which barely escaped destruction by breaking out to the west. The offensive concluded in early May with a major offensive by the 2d Ukrainian Front toward Yassy in northern Romania. The operation, which the Germans called the Battle of Targul-Frumos, failed when German Panzer forces skillfully countered a poorly coordinated assault spearheaded by the Soviet 2d, 5th Guards, and 6th Tank Armies.
Soviet employment of multiple tank armies, mobile corps, and cavalry- mechanized corps fragmented German defenses in the Ukraine and forced German forces to withdraw from the Ukraine into Poland and Romania. Improved Soviet mobile force logistics permitted deeper operations over longer periods. Most important, the concentration of Soviet armor and mechanized units in the Ukraine convinced German planners that in the summer the Soviets would attack German forces in Poland and Romania. The Soviets reinforced this misperception by deliberately posturing offensively in the south while secretly moving large mobile formations northward into Belorussia. The Stavka prepared to conduct a series of devastating offensives in the summer that would rely on operational maneuver forces and deception to produce significant strategic success.
Planning for the 1944 summer-fall campaign began in May. Under the cloak of an extensive strategic deception plan, the Stavka planned four major successive strategic blows, each capitalizing on the results of the preceding offensive and each relying on operational maneuver forces to produce victory.47 Each operation targeted a single German army group for destruction, and three of the four relied for success on strategic-scale maneuver by large mobile forces. For the first time, the Soviets employed large mobile formations in the terrain of Belorussia, which the Soviets previously had considered less suited to armored operations than southern Russia or the Ukraine.
During the Belorussian operation, the Stavka employed simultaneous and then successive encirclement operations to destroy the German Third Panzer and Ninth Armies around Vitebsk and Bobruysk and, subsequently, Fourth Army and the bulk of Army Group Center east of Minsk.48 Separate tank corps served as army operational maneuver forces; and the 5th Guards Tank Army and two cavalry-mechanized groups formed front mobile groups for deep exploitation. In addition, tailored forward detachments created by combined-arms armies and rifle corps conducted tactical maneuver to produce shallow encirclements. These tactical and operational maneuver forces operated in concert to continue the exploitation after German forward forces had been encircled. The Belorussian offensive, code-named Operation BAGRATION, commenced on 22 June and developed rapidly and spectacularly. The armies’ mobile groups exploited the success of rifle forces on the first or second day of the operation; and, in the Vitebsk region, the advancing forward detachments and rifle forces
quickly encircled most of the Third Panzer Army. On the first day of operations, the cavalry-mechanized group exploited toward the Berezina River northeast of Minsk, and the 5th Guards Tank Army advanced directly toward the Berezina River and Minsk on the third day. To the south, army mobile groups committed on the first and third day of the operation reached Bobruisk and encircled major portions of the German Ninth Army, while another cavalry-mechanized group thrust northwestward on the second day to sever German communications routes running into Minsk from the south and southwest. By orienting their advance on key terrain southwest and northwest of Minsk, the fronts’ operational maneuver forces had linked up west of Minsk by 3 July, secured the city without costly urban combat, and encircled large segments of Army Group Center. Unlike earlier operations, Soviet forces were able to continue the offensive westward and simultaneously destroy the bulk of three German armies, assisted by the fact that the bulk of German armor remained in the south in the expectation of a major Soviet offensive in that region.
No sooner had the Stavka inflicted a devastating defeat on Army Group Center than it launched a second major offensive against German Army Group North Ukraine, defending in southern Poland. The First Ukrainian Front struck German defenses northeast and east of L’vov on 13 July 1944.49 Two tank armies (the 3d Guards and 4th) and a cavalry-mechanized group, operating as front mobile groups, assaulted L’vov from the east. Simultaneously, a secretly deployed third tank army (the 1st Guards) struck German defenses at L’vov from the northeast in cooperation with a second cavalry-mechanized group. The Germans expected the former attack but were unprepared for the latter. The armies’ mobile groups (separate tank corps) advanced on the first day of operations and were followed by the tank armies and cavalry-mechanized groups.
In the south, however, the offensive did not develop as planned. Rifle forces penetrated German defenses in the 3d Guards Tank Army’s commitment sector but failed to pierce German defenses in the sector where the 4th Tank Army was to join battle. Hastily, both tank armies and several tank corps regrouped and advanced through the narrow (6-kilometer) corridor in the 3d Guards Tank Army’s sector. The 3d Guards Tank Army advanced on the third day, followed over the next two days by the 4th Tank Army. Once committed, the two mobile groups enveloped German defenses around L’vov.
The 1st Guards Tank Army’s and the cavalry-mechanized group’s operations to the north had even more devastating effect on the Germans. Prior to its commitment on the fifth day of the operation, the 1st Guards Tank Army had ordered its army’s forward detachment (the 1st Guards Tank Brigade) to attack westward and deceive the Germans regarding the direction of the army’s main attack.50 Once German operational reserves (the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions) had responded to that threat,
thinking it to be the bulk of the Russian tank army, the main Russian Army advanced to the southwest, broke cleanly through German defenses, and advanced deep into their operational rear. Subsequently, Soviet operational maneuver forces drove to the Vistula River, where they secured a key bridgehead. By the end of the operation, the three Soviet tank armies had advanced up to 300 kilometers during only 15 days of continuous operations. Capitalizing on Red Army successes in Belorussia and southern Poland, on 17 July the 1st Belorussian Front’s left wing advanced from the Kovel’ area toward the Vistula River south of Warsaw, employing its secretly redeployed 2d Tank Army and a cavalry-mechanized group as front mobile groups.51 The 2d Tank Army reached the banks of the Vistula River in early August and turned north toward Warsaw, only to be halted on the outskirts of Warsaw on 4 August by heavy German counterattacks.
Between 23 June and early August 1944, multiple Soviet mobile groups employed deep operational maneuver across an 800-kilometer front to thrust deep into the German rear along numerous axes. The attacking Soviet forces forced the shaken German defenders to frantically erect new defenses along the Narev and Vistula Rivers, over three hundred kilometers west of their original defense lines. Only the increased number, strength, and resilience of Soviet operational maneuver forces made this possible. To an increasing extent, the axiom held true that, where Red Army mobile forces operated successfully, Soviet offensives succeeded. Where they failed, offensives failed.
The final Soviet blow in the summer-fall campaign occurred in August 1944 where the Germans had expected the first blow to fall. On 20 August the Soviet 1st and 2d Ukrainian Fronts struck German Army Group South Ukraine in Romania.52 The two Soviet fronts employed tank and mechanized corps, configured as army mobile groups, to conduct shallow encirclements, while the 1st Ukrainian Front’s mobile group, the 6th Guards Tank Army, conducted deep operational maneuver toward Bucharest. The two Soviet fronts fully encircled and destroyed two Axis armies (the Sixth German and Third Romanian) within nine days. In the wake of this destruction, the remnants of German Army Group South Ukraine frantically erected defenses in the Carpathian Mountains to block the Soviet offensive from spreading into eastern Hungary.
Near the end of the summer-fall campaign, the Stavka ordered additional assaults to exploit the Germans’ unprecedented defeats. The 3d Belorussian Front conducted the most important of these along the Gumbinnen-Königsberg and Goldap axes into the heartland of German East Prussia in late October. Once again, the limited availability of combat- capable operational maneuver forces at the end of a long strategic campaign (in this case, only the 2d Guards Tank Corps was available) permitted the Germans to parry the Soviet thrust. As was the case before
in the Kursk and Orel regions, Belorussia, and Romania, the conquest of East Prussia would have to wait several more months.
During the winter campaign of 1944, Soviet operational maneuver forces successfully encircled German forces; but those encirclements had been either partial, or the quarry had escaped. In the summer, however, the encirclements were larger, and few of the encircled forces escaped destruction. By summer the Soviets had mastered the most difficult step of an encirclement operation, the ability to continue the exploitation while encircled forces were being destroyed. This sealed the fate of the encircled and extended the range of the operation. The increased use of forward detachments by operational maneuver forces, their refined composition, and the improved logistical structure of mobile forces overall markedly improved the Soviets’ capability for sustaining operations to greater depths and for longer periods.53
Soviet operational maneuver forces and techniques achieved their greatest successes in 1945. This was due to more experienced Soviet commanders, improved weaponry, and the weakening of German forces, which had been dealt such devastating blows in 1944 and now had to contend with a two-front war. Mitigating these Soviet advantages was the shrunken Eastern Front, which now ran from the Baltic Sea through Hungary, and the manpower crisis facing the Stavka.54 Given the catastrophic losses the Red Army had suffered in more than three years of war, success in 1945 would have to depend on sustained operational maneuver rather than wholesale expenditures of men’s lives.
During the fall of 1944, the Stavka planned a climactic winter offensive to drive German forces to the Baltic coast and the Danzig-Poznan- Breslau-Budapest line. Since the offensive would be conducted across a more restricted front against more heavily fortified German defenses, careful planning was necessary to generate sufficient force superiority in key front sectors. The Stavka selected the Warsaw-Poznan-Berlin axis as the focal point for its operations after the New Year. In the meantime, Soviet forces along the strategic flanks in the Baltic region and Hungary conducted offensives to distract German attention and reserves from the critical western axis. A Red Army advance to the Danzig-Poznan- Breslau line required that it sustain offensive operations to a depth of almost three hundred kilometers, and the new area of operations was crisscrossed with well-prepared, but largely unoccupied, defense lines. An advance to this depth required rapid penetration of tactical defenses and coherent, well-coordinated conduct of deep operational maneuver into the operational depths.
The Stavka planned two major offensive operations along adjacent strategic axes. The most important offensive required two fronts to advance toward Poznan and Breslau from bridgeheads across the Vistula River south of Warsaw. The second required two more fronts to advance
into East Prussia toward Königsberg, the lower Vistula River, and Danzig. The offensive across Poland (named the Vistula-Oder operation) was aimed at dismembering and destroying German Army Group A by deep, cutting thrusts. The offensive into East Prussia (named the East Prussian operation) was designed to pin German Army Group Center against the coast between Königsberg and the mouth of the Vistula River and destroy it. The former began on 13–14 January and the latter on 14–15 January, and Soviet mobile groups played a key role in three of the four front operations.55
In the Vistula-Oder operation, Marshal I. S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front employed separate tank corps as mobile groups for each army participating in the main attack from the Sandomierz bridgehead. He used two tank armies (the 3d Guards and 4th) to exploit the initial offensive success. The 1st Belorussian Front, now commanded personally by Marshal Zhukov, exploited his front’s main attack from the smaller Magnushev bridgehead, with two tank armies (the 1st and 2d Guards), which entered the bridgehead soon after the rifle armies had commenced their assault. Zhukov supported the main effort by launching attacks from the even smaller Pulavy bridgehead with two separate tank corps functioning as army mobile groups.56 The two fronts also committed their mobile groups to combat in different fashion. Konev orchestrated a massive blow on the first day of operations, and his three army and two front mobile groups advanced into combat on the heels of the rifle armies’ assault. So close was the cooperation that tank army forward detachments deployed within the rifle army’s attacking formation. On the other hand, since Zhukov initially had no room within the bridgehead to deploy his two tank armies, the armies entered combat sequentially on the second and third day of operations after rifle armies had penetrated German tactical defenses.
Both techniques were equally devastating. Deception concealed the scale of Soviet concentration and, combined with economy of force elsewhere, produced Soviet force superiority of over 10:1 in manpower and 6:1 in armor. Konev’s assault swept through German defenses in a matter of hours and smashed the two reinforcing German Panzer divisions; within two days the 3d Guards and 4th Tank Armies were streaming deep into the Germans’ operational rear.57 Zhukov’s forces penetrated German defenses quickly; and the 1st and 2d Guards Tank Armies began their operational exploitation on the second and third day of operations. The momentum of the four exploiting tank armies was so great that they swept around and encircled German operational reserves (Panzer Corps Grossdeutschland) deployed from East Prussia. Within a week the four Soviet tank armies and five tank corps advanced west, past Lodz and Krakow toward Poznan and Breslau, virtually obliterating organized German defenses across a 250-kilometer front.
While three tank armies raced toward the Oder River, the 3d Guards Tank Army dealt with German resistance anchored on the industrial city of Katowice in southern Poland. On the evening of 20 January, Konev ordered the tank army to turn abruptly southward 90 degrees away from its projected line of advance, west toward Breslau.58 The army reoriented its forward detachments southward within hours, and the remainder of the army followed the next day. The attack ultimately forced the Germans to abandon their defensive bastion. By 1 February Soviet forces had reached the Oder River from Kuestrin, 60 kilometers east of Berlin, to south of Oppeln and had secured small bridgeheads across the river 100 kilometers beyond their planned objective of Poznan. The spectacular Soviet advance covered up to 650 kilometers in seventeen days and established new sustainment records for Red Army operational maneuver forces. Although part of the deep advance resulted from decreased enemy resistance after the initial battles, the distance traversed demonstrated that the Soviet capability for sustaining operational maneuver was double that of 1944 and six times that of 1943.
In East Prussia, more formidable German defenses and difficult terrain adversely affected the operation.59 The 3d Belorussian Front’s thrust toward Königsberg became a prolonged penetration operation until the commitment of a second echelon army unhinged the German defenses. The 2d Belorussian Front, however, succeeded in unleashing its operational maneuver forces. Its army mobile groups advanced on the second day and completed penetration of German tactical defenses. The front mobile group, the 5th Guards Tank Army, entered a wide-open breach in the German defenses on the fifth day. Subsequently, the tank army reached the Baltic Sea, severing communications between German Army Group Center and forces west of the Vistula. After the massive January offensive, over a period of six weeks, Soviet forces defeated troublesome German forces in Pomerania and Silesia that threatened the flanks of the Soviet salient. All the while, the Soviets prepared for the inevitable drive on the German capital.
Spurred on by their concern over the rapid Allied push toward Berlin and the upper Elbe River, the Stavka began their Berlin strategic offensive in mid-April. After a hasty, but major regrouping of forces, on 16 April Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Fronts began the Berlin operation in the form of a classic double envelopment of German forces defending the city.60 Attacking from the Kuestrin bridgehead directly toward Berlin, Zhukov ordered his army mobile groups to penetrate German defenses and two front mobile groups (the 1st and 2d Guards Tank Armies) to encircle Berlin from the north. Konev ordered his tank armies (the 3d and 4th Guards) to advance south of Berlin as soon as the rifle armies and their mobile groups had penetrated German tactical defenses.
The two assaults, however, developed in dissimilar fashion. Zhukov committed his tank armies on the first day, before his forces penetrated the dense German tactical defenses. The resulting crush of concentrated manpower and weaponry was so great and the German defenses so effective that a prolonged, costly penetration battle ensued virtually all the way to Berlin, during which all of Zhukov’s tank forces simply provided infantry support. On the other hand, Konev’s infantry and armor broke cleanly through the German tactical defenses and exploited so successfully that they earned for Konev the honor of participating in the seizure of Berlin. Although the Soviets relied on time-honored and combat-proven methods for employing their mobile forces in the Berlin operation, Zhukov experienced major difficulties and failed to fulfill his mission in the requisite time or manner. Although Konev’s forces operated successfully, they experienced similar difficulties to a lesser extent. The Berlin offensive made it apparent that armored and mechanized forces structured to maneuver in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union could not do so effectively in the more heavily urban and forested terrain of Central Europe. After the Berlin operation had ended, the Soviets studied its conduct and recommended force structure changes to overcome these problems in the future.
Although not an integral part of the third period of war, one of the most intriguing wartime operations involving operational maneuver was the Soviet’s August 1945 Manchurian offensive operation, shaped by unique imperatives of time, geography, and politics.61 Although the Japanese faced inevitable defeat, that defeat would occur far more rapidly if the Soviet Union could eradicate the large Japanese force (the Kwantung Army) in Manchuria. At the request of the Allies, the Soviets agreed to engage Japanese forces in Manchuria in August 1945. However, Japanese reinforcement of their forces in Manchuria and the U.S. employment of the atomic bomb in early August forced the Stavka to accelerate its offensive plans. In short, the Stavka considered it essential to capture Manchuria and, if possible, southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands, northern Korea, and a portion of Hokkaido before the Japanese surrendered, if the Soviets were to reap any political rewards from their participation in the war against the Japanese. The immense size and challenging geographical configuration of Manchuria made the task facing the Stavka even more daunting. Therefore, it concluded that only bold, rapid maneuver on a strategic scale could preempt Japanese defenses, paralyze Japanese command and control, overcome the imposing terrain barriers, and guarantee seizure of the region before the Japanese Empire and its military collapsed.
The Soviets conducted a Cannae-type strategic envelopment operation in Manchuria. Two fronts invaded Manchuria from east and west, while a third front exerted pressure from the north. The two enveloping fronts’ operational maneuver forces penetrated deep into Manchuria and linked up in the region’s central valley. The envelopment forces encircled large Japanese forces with a rapidity that paralyzed the entire Japanese force. The attacking Soviet fronts exploited their operational and tactical maneuver forces to achieve surprise and generate the maximum forward momentum necessary to preempt defenses or overcome weakened defenses before they were reinforced. Wherever possible, additional maneuver forces in the form of forward detachments exploited terrain the Japanese considered unfit for the conduct of maneuver.62
The rash plan succeeded beyond Soviet expectations. The operation originally planned for thirty days was over in fifteen. Soviet mobile forces reached the pinnacle of their success in the Manchurian offensive by employing operational and tactical maneuver extensively and effectively in special conditions. The Soviet offensive operation also generated a host of lessons relating to mobile operations in the future.
The First Postwar Years (1946–1954)
Even before war’s end, the Stavka began analyzing the lessons its forces gleaned during the final year of war so as to adjust its military force structure and operational techniques to the political and physical realities of the postwar world. The most important physical reality was the geographical configuration of the central European theater of military operations, within which Soviet armies were likely to operate in future warfare. Red Army experiences in the Berlin offensive operation clearly indicated that the army needed to restructure its forces to operate effectively in the more urbanized, rougher, and more heavily forested region.
In 1946 Marshal of Tank Forces P. A. Rotmistrov, the Chief of GOFG’s (the Group of Occupation Forces, Germany) armored forces, chaired a commission that analyzed the Red Army’s performance in the Berlin operation and recommended appropriate force structure changes.63 These changes included full integration of armored and mechanized forces into every level of the army’s force structure, the formation of more powerful combined-arms armies, the conversion of tank and mechanized corps into tank and mechanized divisions, and the transformation of tank armies into mechanized armies.
In many ways, the new mechanized armies replicated the configuration of the 6th Guards Tank Army in the Manchurian offensive. They consisted of two mechanized and two tank divisions with improved fire and logistical support, and its component tank and mechanized divisions were more capable of conducting sustained operations in central
European terrain than the older tank-heavy tank forces.64 The new combined- arms armies were also considerably more durable than their wartime counterparts. Each consisted of two rifle corps made up of two rifle divisions. Each rifle corps also contained a mechanized division, and each rifle division a tank and self-propelled gun battalion.65 In addition, Soviet industry created a new generation of tanks and armored personnel carriers to improve the survivability of operational and tactical maneuver forces.
The operational and tactical techniques that this reformed force structure adopted closely resembled procedures that Red Army mobile forces employed during the final two years of war. Offensive operational maneuver by mobile groups remained the most critical ingredient for achieving offensive success. As expressed by one contemporary Soviet source, “Mechanized troops are used for the exploitation of success into the depth of the operational area.”66 A wartime front commander, with two to four combined-arms armies and one or two mechanized armies under his control, employed the combined-arms armies’ rifle corps to conduct the penetration operation. The rifle corps’ mechanized divisions supported the penetrating rifle divisions and, if possible, began the operational exploitation. The combined-arms army commander then committed his mobile group, which consisted of one or two tank or mechanized divisions, into combat on the first or second day of the operation, with the mission of exploiting tactical success into the shallow operational depths. Thereafter, but probably on the second or third day of the operation, the front commander was to commit his mobile group(s), the one or two mechanized armies, into combat to extend the exploitation to even greater depth. The Soviets expected these operational maneuver forces to advance to a depth of up to two hundred kilometers within five to seven days.
The Zhukov Reforms (1954 –1959)
In the mid-1950s, Soviet recognition of the growing importance of atomic weaponry, reinforced by the United States’ adoption of new force structures and weaponry tailored to combat in the atomic age, prompted the Soviets once again to alter their force structure and operational and tactical concepts.67 After Stalin’s death in 1953, Ministers of Defense Zhukov and R. Y. Malinovsky implemented these reforms. The central focus of the Zhukov reforms was to create a force with greater mobility and troop protection that could better perform and survive in an atomic environment. The heavy mechanized armies and corps were too large, too cumbersome, and hence too vulnerable to survive on the atomic battlefield, while the rifle corps and divisions were too light and lacked mobility and troop protection.
Therefore, Zhukov converted the mechanized armies into more streamlined tank armies and the heavy mechanized and light rifle divisions into more agile motorized rifle divisions.68 Although this restructuring fully mechanized and motorized the Soviet Army and rendered the term mobile group superfluous, it did not alter the importance of operational maneuver. The new combined-arms armies consisted of three to four motorized rifle divisions and one tank division, while the tank army reversed the mixture of divisions. Although the Soviets recognized the significance of atomic weaponry, they considered the weapons neither unique nor dominant, but only one more combat factor (albeit a powerful one) to consider.69 Soviet concern for retaining a strong conventional capability was reflected in the size of the Soviet force structure (175–180 divisions) and the strength of the new divisions and armies within that structure.
The operational and tactical employment of the new Soviet force remained similar to former patterns. Fronts consisting of three or four combined-arms armies conducted the penetration operation, and army-level tank divisions began the operational exploitation. The fronts’ tank armies then continued the exploitation to depths of up to 270 kilometers within three to seven days and up to 500 kilometers in two weeks. Soviet theoretical works reaffirmed their faith in operational maneuver, stating: “Military operations in contemporary wars are characterized solely by maneuver. This is made possible by contemporary means of combat, especially the full mechanization and motorization of the ground forces.… The mobility and maneuverability of ground forces on the field of battle will have decisive importance in operations.”70 Although the term mobile group no longer applied to specific operational maneuver forces, Soviet definitions of the function still made it clear that specific forces would be assigned the task: “Operational maneuver is … the organized shifting of distinct groups of forces during an operation to achieve a more favorable position with regards to an enemy in order to strike a blow against him or repel an enemy attack.”71
The Revolution in Military Affairs (1960 –1970)
In 1960 Soviet Premier N. S. Khrushchev’s open declaration that a revolution had taken place in military affairs signified a major shift in Soviet military doctrine. Marshal of the Soviet Union V. D. Sokolovsky’s 1962 work Voyennaya strategiya (military strategy) summed up the nature of the change: “The fires of nuclear weapons will play a decisive role on the battlefield; the other means of armed conflict will utilize the nuclear attack for the final defeat of the enemy.”72
Soviet acceptance of the notion that future war would inevitably be nuclear had serious implications for traditional Soviet views concerning
the nature and conduct of military operations and for the Soviet force structure. The strategic nuclear exchange became all-important, and the newly formed strategic rocket forces replaced the ground forces as the premier arm of the armed forces. Strategic considerations eclipsed the realm of operational art, and operational maneuver ceased to be an area of fundamental concern.
Reflecting this doctrinal change, the Soviet ground force structure shrank to roughly 140 divisions, each better tailored to operate in a nuclear environment. Tank and combined-arms armies decreased in manpower and weaponry, and tank armies and divisions became armor-pure entities more capable of surviving on a nuclear battlefield.73 Ground forces would perform the simple mission of cleaning up the battlefield after the nuclear exchange.
Given the more restrictive role of the ground forces, Soviet fronts and armies would normally deploy in two-echelon configuration across larger frontages and disperse to greater depths. At every level armor forces would operate in the first echelon, because of their reduced vulnerability to the effects of nuclear weapons, and advance along numerous axes to exploit gaps created by nuclear fires. Operational maneuver was irrelevant in these chaotic scenarios, since nuclear forces would be the principal means for destroying the enemy. Consequently, Soviet commanders did not employ operational maneuver forces as specific functional entities. However, tactical maneuver became far more important on this fragmented and potentially contaminated battlefield. Numerous, tank-heavy forward detachments spearheaded ground operations, protected from the adverse effects of the nuclear environment by their small size, greater speed, and heavier armored protection. This offensive scheme also revived the utility and prestige of airborne forces, since they were particularly well suited to cooperate with tactical maneuver forces.
The Counterrevolution in Military Affairs (1971–1985)
At least in part, Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964 reflected the Soviet military establishment’s growing uneasiness over existing doctrinal trends. Although displeased with the reduced size, importance, and prestige of the ground forces, Soviet military leaders and theorists had temporarily accepted the validity of the revolution in military affairs as long as the United States retained clear nuclear superiority. As that superiority waned, however, and the United States shifted from the strategy of massive retaliation to one of flexible response, the conventional option once again appeared more attractive and feasible. This transformation in Soviet military thought to renewed faith that warfare could be kept conventional took years to mature fully. First, it required that the Soviet Union checkmate U.S. nuclear capabilities at each level: strategic,
theater, and tactical. Then, as the world wearied of the specter of nuclear war, Soviet leaders believed that political conditions would become conducive to reducing the quantities of these weapons and, perhaps, fully or partially abolishing them. Were this to occur, warfare would return to the conventional realm in which the Soviets were far more capable, hence more comfortable. Meanwhile, Soviet military theorists sought to develop combat techniques that could deter the use or, should they be employed, at least neutralize the effects of enemy nuclear weapons. Specifically, the Soviet military began fashioning strategic, operational, and tactical combat techniques that could in the future make any opponent’s decision to use nuclear weapons militarily irrational and increasingly unlikely.
The increased attention Soviet theorists paid to the conventional option and the operational level of war in general, and to operational maneuver in particular, provided clear evidence of this change in Soviet military thought. During the 1970s and well into the 1980s, the steady trickle of articles on conventional operational and tactical maneuver ultimately turned into a flood. The threatening presence of nuclear weapons in the European theater of war prompted this intensified study. If employed by the enemy, these awesome weapons placed in jeopardy the large maneuver forces deployed deep in the Soviets’ rear area, either in the second echelon or in positions from which they could support the initial penetration operation and conduct the exploitation. Therefore, Soviet theorists sought methods to neutralize or at least minimize the effects of those weapons. Based on this study, Soviet theorists formulated several concepts designed to remedy the problem. First, they transformed their traditional air offensive (developed in late 1942) into an air operation designated in part to strike and neutralize enemy nuclear weapons, particularly artillery, missiles, and aviation systems, deployed from the FLOT (forward line of troops) to the deep enemy rear. Second, they developed the concept of antinuclear maneuver (protivoyadernyî manevr), expressed first in defensive terms. Col. F. D. Sverdlov, a leading maneuver specialist, defined antinuclear maneuver as: “The organized shifting of subunits with the aim of withdrawing them out from under the possible blows of enemy nuclear means, to protect their survival and subsequent freedom of action to strike a blow on the enemy. Therefore, antinuclear maneuver is also one of the forms of maneuver.”74 Soon, however, offensive measures “to disperse sub-units rapidly or change the direction of their offensive and to conduct other measures related to defense against weapons of mass destruction” complemented the defensive aspect of this maneuver.75
The work done by Sverdlov and other military theorists in the 1970s led the Soviets to conclude that the most effective manner in which to conduct antinuclear maneuver was to rely more extensively on operational and tactical maneuver. Although Soviet theorists ceased referring directly to the term antinuclear maneuver during the late 1970s, they
continued to describe the function indirectly in both defensive and offensive contexts.
As Soviet theorists developed techniques for employing contemporary operational and tactical maneuver forces, they carefully examined how these forces operated in their Great Patriotic War. In particular, because of their flexible configuration, wartime mobile groups and forward detachments seemed ideally suited to conduct antinuclear maneuver at both the operational and the tactical levels. Their organization and operating procedures during the war provided a sound basis for the emerging concepts of operational maneuver by groups — OMGs — and tactical maneuver by forward detachments.
At the same time, the Soviets deemphasized the importance of operational second echelons (at the front and army level), because of their increased vulnerability to possible nuclear strikes, and began to emphasize the concept and utility of employing multiple operational maneuver forces and reserves at front and army level. Specifically, they recommended that fronts and armies concentrate the bulk of their forces well forward prior to launching an offensive and, once the offensive began, commit numerous operational maneuver groups into combat along multiple axes early in the operation. Tactical maneuver would pave the way for advancing operational maneuver forces and main force units.76 Employment of these antinuclear maneuver techniques provided increased opportunity to surprise the enemy with respect to the timing and form of the attack.
During the later 1970s Soviet theorists also carefully analyzed past “initial periods of war,” in particular the disastrous initial months of their Great Patriotic War (June–October 1941). They did so to determine what a nation’s army had to do to win quick victory or avoid precipitous defeat. Based on this study, they concluded that the most important factor contributing to offensive success was the early and surprise commitment of the bulk of one’s maneuver forces deployed well forward.77 Accordingly, the Soviets deemphasized preliminary large-scale mobilization (which had been the primary indicator of impending war) and recommended employing single strategic and operational echelons dominated by numerous tailored operational and tactical maneuver forces.
This modern variant for the employment of operational maneuver groups had fully matured by the early 1980s, and Soviet ground force strength and composition reflected these new warfighting concepts. The steady growth of the ground forces increased its total strength to well over 200 divisions by 1985. As the ground forces expanded, formations (divisions) and units (regiments) grew in size, and, although the Soviet Army still tended to be armor heavy, its force structure increasingly reflected the combined-arms balance so essential for success in conventional operations. In particular, tank armies and divisions received additional mechanized infantry, and divisions were augmented with more
personnel, tanks, and artillery to improve their strength and mobility. The Soviets also streamlined their logistical support structure to better support sustained deep conventional operations.78
The Soviets developed, tested, and fielded a wide variety of new functional units necessary to support their expanded concepts of combat maneuver. Air-assault battalions and brigades at army and front level provided a new vertical dimension to both operational and tactical maneuver and, although fielding never occurred, thought was given to deploying smaller air-assault units at division level. Reconnaissance-diversionary (special designation [spetsial’nye naznacheniye, or SPETNAZ]) brigades at front level added a new dimension to deep operations by threatening security in a potential enemy’s rear area. Assault helicopter formations employed as flying artillery or tanks assisted traditional aviation units in providing necessary air support for deep operating forces. In addition to these structural changes, the Soviets experimented with new types of maneuver forces whose organization closely resembled their former mobile groups and forward detachments.
The Soviets also modernized their specialized forces in accordance with new concepts of maneuver. They fully mechanized and restructured their airborne divisions by equipping them with the BMD combat vehicle and assault guns. They reorganized their naval infantry regiments into brigades, formed their first naval infantry divisions, and provided each with an air-assault capability. Throughout their force structure, the Soviets streamlined logistics by creating materiel support units at the tactical and operational levels. By implementing these and other changes during the 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviets sought to create more flexible forces capable of performing the critical functions of tactical and operational maneuver in theater war.
The Technological Revolution in Weaponry
Beginning in the early 1980s, Soviet military theorists recognized that a technological revolution was taking place in conventional weaponry and that the rapid development of new, high-precision weaponry had the potential to make the conventional battlefield as deadly and complex as the nuclear battlefield described in the 1960s. Increasingly, they also realized that these developments were fundamentally altering the traditional relationship between offense and defense.79
Initially at least, theorists still emphasized the utility of antinuclear maneuver as the cornerstone for their operational and tactical techniques. They continued to maintain that antinuclear maneuver could preempt, preclude, or inhibit enemy resort to nuclear warfare. As articulated in 1987
by V. G. Reznichenko, “The continuous conduct of battle at a high tempo creates unfavorable conditions for enemy use of weapons of mass destruction. He cannot determine targets for nuclear strikes precisely and, besides, [he] will be forced to shift his nuclear delivery means often.”80 By the mid- 1980s, however, the Soviets openly acknowledged that the Western development of a wide variety of high-precision weapons posed a major new threat. If employed skillfully, these weapons could affect attacking forces in the same fashion as tactical nuclear weapons. Worse still, they could engage attacking maneuver forces even before they made actual contact with the enemy. Initially, at least, the Soviet solution to this dilemma was to place even greater emphasis on operational and tactical maneuver to counter enemy employment of high-precision weaponry.81 To capitalize fully on the effects of maneuver, the Soviets believed that they had to restructure their forces for maximum flexibility, reduce planning time, and execute command and control more precisely. This required the increased use of cybernetic tools, including automation of command and expanded reliance on tactical and operational calculations (nomograms, etc.).
A dialectical process of change governed this evolution of military techniques and force structure as multiple influences forced the Soviets to refine their concept of antinuclear maneuver and increasingly emphasize operational and tactical maneuver. This process continued in the 1980s as new stimuli provided impetus for Soviet definition of new forms of combat, new operational concepts, and combat structures and formations (echelonment) to carry them out. At the same time, Soviet views on the nature of contemporary combat also evolved, and the Soviets redefined the requirements for a force to achieve offensive success. One writer articulated the chief characteristics of future battle as:
This offensive scheme posited certain distinct requirements, which included:
Increasingly, however, Soviet theorists emphasized the increased difficulty encountered in meeting these requirements.
As late as 1985, buttressed by analysis of the impact of new, high-precision weapons on combat, the Soviets still reiterated their firm belief that a combination of operational and tactical maneuver, conducted by tailored forces operating in relatively shallow echelonment and employing deception to achieve surprise, could produce success in contemporary and future war. The military solution to the problem of waging contemporary warfare seemed to rest in the creation of a force structure that encompassed in its entirety the attributes of operational and tactical maneuver forces, namely a corps, brigade, and combined-arms battalion structure. The works of Reznichenko, Dragunsky, and many other theorists conveyed this impression. At the same time, it was becoming shockingly apparent to Soviet military leaders that the Soviet Union lacked the technological know-how and economic resources to meet these challenges.
In the late 1980s, however, the dialectical process of change continued, and the Soviets were able to project possible changes in military conditions in the 1990s. The Soviets responded to these stimuli with a range of military and political options whose adoption would depend directly on future political, economic, social, and military realities:
The political and economic components of these realities triumphed, at least temporarily, during the late 1980s and shaped Soviet force structure and concepts for conducting operational and tactical maneuver. Impelled by economic, political, and even military considerations, in 1988 the Soviets embraced the concept of “defensiveness” in their military doctrine. They admitted that defensiveness contradicted and altered what had in reality been a long-standing offensive orientation in the component levels of Soviet military science — strategy, operational art, and tactics. They underscored their sincerity by proposing to create a new military force structure, which by its very nature had to be construed by the West as defensive.83
However, as the shape and form of the new Soviet force structure emerged, it became clear that there was a sharp dichotomy between the offensively oriented force so evident in Soviet writings up to and through 1985 and the new and apparently defensive force being implemented. In essence the former force, offensive in its orientation, seemed to accord with strictly military requirements, while the new defensive structure reflected the dictates of sharply adverse economic and political conditions.
Addendum: The Soviet and Russian Army After 1988
During the period 1988 through 1991, political and economic realities prompted the Soviets to enunciate a new defensive military doctrine within the context of the twin programs of perestroika and glasnost’. The central notion of defensiveness was a Soviet commitment to a strategic defensive posture based upon the principle of “defensive sufficiency” and a military strategy based upon premeditated defense. Driven by political and economic necessity, the Soviets shelved their attempts to restructure their armed forces to meet the demands of nonlinear war and temporarily abandoned public attempts to create a corps, brigade, and combined-arms force structure that could fight and survive in the fragmented modern battlefield. While doing so, however, both the economic situation within the Soviet Union and the technological dilemmas that the Soviet Army faced worsened sharply.
In accordance with defensiveness, the Soviets introduced two new divisional structures. The first, called Division 89, fielded in the forward groups of forces, was clearly defensive in nature. The new square, motorized
rifle division consisted of four motorized rifle regiments and incorporated the combined-arms principle by including a tank battalion in each motorized rifle regiment. The new tank division had two tank and two motorized rifle regiments. However, both divisions were far weaker than their predecessors, and they suited political rather than military needs. The second type formation, called Division 90, and formed within the depths of the Soviet Union, was a stronger counteroffensive-type shock division. To a greater extent, these divisions were better tailored to suit their prospective combat function and the area in which they operated. At the same time, the Soviets revived the fielding of fortified regions (ukreplenniye raiony) as economy-of-force military formations. Although Division 90 formations realistically met military demands, they were “cumbersome and expensive,” and they experienced “serious complexities in rear services and technical support.” Nevertheless, they represented serious efforts by Soviet military authorities to satisfy both the requirements of defensiveness, military-technological realties, and the perceived demands of future war.
During the period from 1991 through 1993, unprecedented and revolutionary political, economic, and social changes engulfed and destroyed the Soviet Union and gave birth to the new Russian Federation. In large measure, the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its immense defense burden conditioned by Russian resolve that it could never permit a recurrence of the predicament in 1941. Frustrating Soviet defeat in the prolonged Afghan War, which sapped the national will, exacerbated the devastating long-term effects of the crushing weight of massive military expenditures produced by an arms race that Russians finally perceived could not be won due to the Soviet Union’s weak economic and technological base. Accordingly, the Revolution of 1991 replaced the Soviet State with a Russian Federation that lacked the strength of its Communist predecessor.
Understandably, the army of the new Russian Federation brought with it many of the traditions and biases of the former Soviet Army. In addition to playing a key role in the formulation of a new military doctrine, the Russian Army and General Staff continued to perform the vital role of applying foresight and forecasting to determine the nature of future war and the defense needs of the Russian State. They did so through careful analysis of key defense issues and careful study of recent and ongoing military conflicts, in particular the Persian Gulf War.
The twin imperatives of determining State doctrinal requirements and the General Staff ’s appreciation of the nature of future war provided context for Russian military theory and force structuring since 1993. In accordance with the draft military doctrine, the Russian Federation announced in May 1992 and in subsequent official pronouncements that
the new Russian State mandated a peacetime military establishment of about 1.5 million men. Although unattainable for a variety of reasons, this establishment was to consist of two types of forces, permanently ready forces and mobile, rapid-reaction forces, backed up by a one million-man strategic reserve. Economic and geographic constraints dictated that permanently ready forces would deploy in limited numbers along critical axes to serve as covering forces in the event of war. Mobile reserves, structured flexibly to respond to any crisis, would deploy within the depth of the state to assist ready forces in repelling aggression, while strategic reserves would mobilize and deploy in the event of major war. Given these doctrinal requirements, the most critical question facing the General Staff was determining the size, form, and shape these forces take in peacetime. The General Staff also continued to define the nature and requirements of future war.
The debate within the General Staff over the nature of future war represented a dynamic and virtually seamless continuation of the debates that dominated the 1980s. The General Staff concluded that future war would be fragmented and nonlinear and would be dominated by increasingly lethal, high-precision weapon systems. This warfare would place a premium on combat flexibility at all levels and exploitation of the time factor in decision making, planning, command and control of forces, and battlefield communications. Among the many themes Russian military theorists analyzed were:
New concepts such as fire strike of the enemy and the employment of mobile fortified regions and mobile covering brigades supplemented the ongoing study of such familiar themes as reconnaissance strike, airmobile defense, raids, and antipartisan combat.
Characteristic of this analysis, one perceptive theorist concluded:
So defined, this new combat environment placed immense new demands on organizations and staffs tasked with operating within it. At least, coping with the consequences of the ongoing technological revolution required Russia to fundamentally reevaluate all components of its military establishment.
The Russian Ministry of Defense attempted to structure its forces in accordance with these doctrinal constraints and theoretical discussions. The General Staff indicated that all new force structures and future strategic deployment as a whole had to satisfy four functional and interrelated components essential to conducting modern military operations. It identified these components as information, ground, air, and logistical support. The information component combined mobile command, control, and communications with reconnaissance and radio-electronic combat in a traditional headquarters structure. Beneath this headquarters were tailored building blocks of combined-arms subunits and units that could be flexibly configured to meet precise combat requirements. The air component provided vertical capability, and the logistical component was designed to sustain relatively independent combat in nonlinear circumstances.
Force tailoring for maximum flexibility predominated within this paradigm as the Russians created what may be termed a Division 2000 force structure. While the components principle was clearly applicable to all types of forces during the transition to whatever new force structure emerged, they were most applicable to a corps, brigade, and combined-arms battalion force configuration. However, continuing economic and budgetary problems and extreme turbulence in the Russian Armed Forces (particularly in recruiting) inhibited the institution of these changes. Moreover, Russian failure in the first Chechen War only compounded the problems, although it reinforced Russian resolve to solve both the Chechen and force-structure dilemmas. In the near term, it remains likely that Russia will institute military structural reforms at lower command levels (the battalion level) and in the formation of new brigades of various types and a limited number of new corps. Thus, a transitional structure consisting of mixed divisional, regimental, corps, and brigade organizations will exist. In the longer term, however, depending on political, economic, and military circumstances, these structures will evolve into a more thorough and varied corps and brigade structure. This conclusion derives from the predominate belief that as in the past flexible corps and brigade structures will better meet the demands of future war and the requirements of operational and tactical maneuver that still endure.
According to the General Staff ’s construct, the highest level of the force structure will likely consist of unified commands, or operational-strategic groupings organized on a geographical basis, each of which will ultimately consist of from three to five corps and associated air and supporting forces. Within these commands, permanently ready forces
will consist of divisions (perhaps corps), light motorized rifle brigades, mobile fortified regions, and mobile covering brigades. Mobile forces will consist of two operational-strategic force components: immediate reaction forces and rapid deployment forces. The former will be light forces with a strong air component capable of deploying within one to three days after alert, and the latter will contain heavier combined-arms formations (probably corps) capable of reinforcing IRF forces within three to seven days.
In the near term, the nucleus of immediate reaction forces will comprise 5 airborne divisions, 8 separate airborne brigades, 6 light motorized rifle brigades; the reaction forces will be supplemented by naval infantry battalions, air assault battalions, and reconnaissance-diversionary forces. The air component will include bomber aviation, fighter ground-attack aviation, and helicopter regiments; surface-to-air missile brigades will provide air defense. Helicopter regiments and air transport divisions will provide mobility support, and a mobile signal center exploiting satellite communications will form the upper end of the information component.
The rapid deployment force will provide tailored heavier support to IRF elements. It will likely include several mobile corps of from three to five brigades (tank, mechanized, or motorized rifle, depending upon battalion mix, and at least one light motorized rifle battalion), at least one tank and one motorized rifle division during the transitional period, a large air component, and enhanced mobility and communications support.
Economic necessity dictates that the new corps and brigade structures are likely to be truncated in form and often experimental during the immediate future. In the interim, remaining motorized rifle and tank divisions and their component regiments will take on some of the characteristics of corps and brigades, particularly in terms of diverse attachments, and the Russians will field a wide variety of test brigade structures, some separate, some within corps, and some, perhaps, also within divisions.
Whether or not political and economic developments within Russia permit further rational and orderly development of military art and force structuring, it is clear that the Russian military will continue to be perplexed by those same issues that their Soviet forebears found daunting. Despite the past and continuing turmoil and the persistent uncertainties that now plague the Russian Federation and its military establishment, to date key and striking continuities are evident. First, examination of Russian military theoretical writings indicates a continuing keen appreciation on the part of military theorists of the altered nature and unprecedented new challenges of future war. Russian military theory remains alive and vibrant; and, in terms of operational art, tactics, and force
structuring, analysis of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s remains accurate, seamless, and convincing.
Like the Soviets before them, Russian military theorists understand the revolutionary effect that new generations of increasingly lethal high-precision weapons have had on the face of battle. They also appreciate the unprecedented new demands these weapons have placed on modern force structures and the ability of commanders to communicate and exercise control over them in modern, nonlinear war. Since the 1980s the conclusions they have reached regarding the formation of optimum force structures for fighting, surviving, and prevailing in such a lethal environment have been remarkably consistent. Finally, they realize the importance of what they term information warfare in future war. The Russian Federation’s apparent political and economic weakness, social ferment, and ignominious and embarrassing defeat in the 1995 war in Chechnya, however, has severely negated Russian progress in the realm of military theory and force structuring.
Russian political and military leaders realize that the nation faces daunting political and potential military challenges in the future that may require military response. These include challenges to the viability of the Russian state itself from within, arising from ethnic conflicts and potential new challenges from an apparently offensive-oriented NATO alliance. The Russian leadership has already begun responding to these perceived challenges, first by conducting the Second Chechen War, and second by openly renouncing its longstanding policy of no first use of nuclear weapons in the event of an attack on Russian territory.
Translating their military theories into practice will remain a formidable task. Political instability, economic deprivation, social upheaval, and technological barriers are likely to pose major obstacles to realization of these theories in terms of the reformation of the Russian military establishment and the reconfiguration of the Russian Army force structure. This applies equally to the ability of the Russian Army to perform the functions of operational and tactical maneuver, which it still deems a critical element of contemporary and future war.
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