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soviet deep battle doctrine: policy so bad it’s good

A while back, I got into reading about Soviet “Deep Battle” doctrine. Here’s the Wiki summary:

Deep battle encompassed manoeuvre by multiple Soviet Army front-size formations simultaneously. It was not meant to deliver a victory in a single operation; instead, multiple operations, which might be conducted in parallel or successively, would induce a catastrophic failure in the enemy’s defensive system. Each operation served to divert enemy attention and keep the defender guessing about where the main effort, and main objective, lay. In doing so, it prevented the enemy from dispatching powerful mobile reserves to this area. The Army could then overrun vast regions before the defender could recover. The diversion operations also frustrated an opponent trying to conduct an elastic defence. The supporting operations had significant strategic objectives themselves and supporting units were to continue their offensive actions until they were unable to progress any further. However, they were still subordinated to the main/decisive strategic objective determined by the Stavka.

In other words, if you’re big, sit on the enemy.

Now, this is interesting for a number of reasons. First, most modern armies, starting after WWI, have not relied much on raw size. Instead, most Western states field armies that have strived for mobility. The German blitzkrieg is an example. Today, the US armed forces are striving toward smaller groups that have multiple capabilities (air support combined with infantry). Second, the Soviet military sector was not known for its innovative theory. In fact, Soviet deep battle theory is so odd that it has inspired its own cottage industry of commentators.

The most interesting take on Soviet deep battle is by Earl Ziemke, in a 1983 issue of Parameters, a journal of the War College. Ziemke makes the following arguments:

  • SDB was not really implemented since its creators were killed in the purges of the 1930s.
  • The USSR’s biggest victory, the battle of Stalingrad, was actually a case of modern maneuver warfare. The Red Army won by encircling the Nazi army and essentially starving it to death.
  • SDB was only implemented (barely) in late WW2 when a massive Red Army was steamrolling through Eastern Europe.
  • After WW2, SDB was dropped as the Red Army retooled for nuclear war.

So here’s my take on deep battle. At first, you have a theory that is shaped by contingency. You have a big massive army, so you build a theory about drowning the enemy. Then, the the theory fails early in WW2. It’s proponents are murdered and what’s left is useless. Then, by chance, a situation arises where SDB makes sense. Once that passes, SDB is praised in order to make the victory homegrown and logical rather than accidental. Once history moves on, the theory is quietly dropped and SDB becomes the province of military historians in needs of something to say about the cryptic Soviet military. Bottom line: Zombie policies keep historians employed.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 28, 2014 at 12:00 am

4 Responses

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  1. Fascinating. Given your last few posts I’m starting to wonder if you’re going to write the “institutionalist view of military doctrine” book that I contemplated as a dissertation topic for the better part of 2002. That was about 12 years ago and obviouly i didn’t stick with it so it’s a bit hazy, but I remember reading in Van Creveld’s Training of Officers that the Soviet war college was the only one to grant PhDs (I’m not sure why he didn’t count America’s NPS) but the curriculum was heavily grounded in Marxist theory, which van Creveld approved of as providing a systematic basis for conceptualizing doctrine. (Personally, it struck me as nuts at the time that having to find a labor theory of destruction would somehow make for more effective mobilization against NATO). Now I’m wondering if van Creveld was referring to SDB doctrine.

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    gabrielrossman

    August 28, 2014 at 12:38 am

  2. Well, on the first point, I have seriously considered a major project on the military, but I came to realize that my geographic location precluded me from doing so (unless it was doctrinal in nature). Second, Soviet and Maoist armed forces were unusual in developing doctrine emphasizing raw numbers. For example, Warsaw pact doctrine essentially was to swarm NATO immediately after limited nuclear exchange before NATO caught up with tactics and superior technology. How Marxist theory framed this still remains unclear to me.

    PS. The NPS (which my mother in law used to work at as tech support) isn’t really a war college in the sense of focusing on leadership training. It’s more of a combined engineering/management/computer science/foreign language school where lots of civilians get trained, as opposed to an officer training school. Very sui generis.

    PSS. The NPS cafeteria also has a swell Thanksgiving day spread. If your in-laws are vets, it’s worth the ticket.

    Liked by 1 person

    fabiorojas

    August 28, 2014 at 12:58 am

  3. What is the point of commenting on SDB unless you relate the historiography to current events?

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    Fred Welfare

    August 28, 2014 at 1:42 pm

  4. @Fred: To quote the great Jeremy, bloggers choose what to write and readers choose what to read.

    Liked by 3 people

    fabiorojas

    August 28, 2014 at 4:14 pm


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