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.