Air University Review, March-April 1983

Soviet Offensive Ground Doctrine Since 1845

historical overview

Lieutenant Colonel David N. Glantz, USAF

Since the end of World War II, Soviet offensive concepts have evolved in consonance with technological changes and changing geopolitical relationships. While adjusting to inevitable change, the Soviets have repeatedly tapped as a source of inspiration and knowledge their rich World War II experiences. Thus, the Soviets have altered their operational and tactical concepts by blending the lessons of the past with the realities of the present. Only combat can prove the validity of these changes. However, it is worthwhile to review the salient features of evolving Soviet operational and tactical concepts, if only better to understand the capabilities and potentialities of our major foe.

Such a review is imperative to challenge a stereotype of Soviet military performance that has been produced in Western minds for the past three decades. Most Westerners, Americans in particular, have an image of Soviet military performance as seen through German eyes. This image is a product of countless descriptions by German generals of their experiences in fighting the Soviets in World War II.1 Most of these descriptions focus on the Russians of 1941-42, those who clumsily parried the German offensive efforts and crudely slashed back at the Germans with desperate expenditures of manpower. These accounts usually have less to say about the experiences of 1944-45 but tend to imply that the Russians continued their artless tactical patterns supported by overwhelming quantities of weaponry. According to these accounts, the sheer weight of numbers prevailed. The Germans recognize little finesse on the part of the Soviets.

This German view has been nurtured by numerous secondary accounts based on German sources.2 Americans, caught in the Cold War, were particularly receptive to this view. Stalin’s massive postwar army confirmed the German view by seeming to stress size and bulk over technique. Thus, the stereotype was born, a stereotype that lives on in part due to a lack of serious study by Americans of the Soviet World War II experience and perhaps also due to wishful thinking in the West. After all, it is easier to contemplate battle with an artless, inflexible, predictable mass than with a competent, flexible foe.

In any event, a close look at the record, through Soviet sources and the archival records of her former enemies, quickly erodes the stereotype and casts light on the realities of the development of Soviet military power.3 This article sketches the essence of that development.

The Soviets discuss the postwar years by dividing them into separate periods, each period characterized by distinct doctrinal and technological features that are reflected in the Soviet military force structure. Until the late 1970s, most Soviet writers divided the postwar era into two periods.4 The first of these periods ran from 1945 to 1953, terminating with the death of Stalin and Soviet recognition of the importance of nuclear weapons. The second period (post-1953) saw a revolution in military affairs with a rise to prominence of nuclear weaponry. Some Soviet writers further subdivide the nuclear period into two subperiods, the first involving the emergence of strategic nuclear power and the second involving the growth of tactical nuclear weaponry.5 Both are variations on the same nuclear theme. Soviet writers have only recently begun to describe what is in reality a new phase. This phase, emerging in the early to mid-1970s, recognizes the possibility of either nuclear or conventional war.6

In the immediate postwar period, the structure and doctrine of the Soviet army was a direct product of the final period of World War II, those years when Soviet doctrinal concepts and force structure grew into full maturity. The last years of Stalin were characterized by the maintenance of a large, efficient, and well-equipped standing army, an army capable of deterring Soviet enemies and defending the Soviet position in the postwar years regardless of the U.S. nuclear monopoly. These years produced little movement in Soviet military thought. The military experiences of 1944-45 were proof enough for the Soviets of the correctness of their doctrine and force structure. They undertook necessary measures to modernize the weaponry of their armed forces and to develop a nuclear capability of their own, while playing down the dominance of that weapon until they had completed their full development of it.

Soviet postwar military doctrine fully incorporated the doctrine expressed in the Field Service Regulations (USTAVs) of 1944, amended by the experiences of the campaigns of 1945 and in particular by the Vistula-Oder offensive and the Manchurian campaign.7 That doctrine emphasized reliance on the offense, an offense characterized by maneuver and judicious use of massed armor, artillery, and air power to effect success on the battlefield. The offensive model was that of 1944-45, although infantry forces were gradually motorized and mechanized and the last cavalry formations faded from the scene. While the Soviet force structure retained the essential flavor of the latter two years of war, the postwar restructuring incorporated the more significant changes of the final war years. Wartime tank and mechanized corps became tank and mechanized divisions.8 The brigades of those older structures became regiments in the new divisions. The wartime tank army was reorganized into a mechanized army, with 6th Guards Tank Army in the Manchurian campaign as a model.9 The combined-arms army and the rifle corps continued their existence, as did the rifle division although all three entities emerged with tables of organization and equipment (TO&Es) stronger in armor and artillery.10 Air armies consisting of air divisions and regiments provided air support for ground forces.

The offensive combat role of these forces remained that of World War II. Combined-arms armies of front first echelons created the penetration, and mechanized armies acted as front mobile groups to exploit success into the depths of the defense. At army level, rifle corps created the penetration, and mechanized divisions exploited success.11 Air armies developed further the wartime concept of the "aviation offensive," designed to support ground forces advancing through and beyond enemy defensive positions. The Soviet placed new emphasis on achieving air superiority and accorded Long-Range Aviation a greater role in aerial bombardment of military and industrial installations, command and control centers, and logistical facilities.

The death of Stalin in 1953 opened a new period of development, a period characterized by recognition of the importance of nuclear weapons and therefore the increased importance of the opening stages of any future war. Study of the beginning period of war became a major concern for the Soviets.12 Focus was on how to structure and use forces to avoid initial defeat on the defense or to produce initial victory on the offense. In particular, the emphasis was on the attainment of surprise or the avoidance of being surprised. Doctrinal changes involved recognition of the nature of nuclear war and those techniques required to wage such a war successfully. Inherent in the reassessment was a rethinking of the traditional definitions of mass and concentration, a reassessment of firepower, and adjustments to maneuver. Structural and equipment changes were made to enable Soviet forces to wage war and survive in the nuclear battlefield. The first stage of these changes began in 1954 and lasted to about 1960. The second stage began about 1960 and lasted to the mid- or late-1960s, when another period of reassessment began.

The first wave of structural changes was begun by Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov in 1954 and 1955 and continued by his successors after his ouster in 1957. The Zhukov reforms reorganized the ground forces into smaller, more mobile, and hence more survivable entities. Units were fully motorized. Rocket artillery, new tanks, and a new generation of automatic weapons were incorporated into the force structure. Over the period from 1954 to 1964, the size of the army was reduced from 2.8 million men and 175 divisions (including 65 tank and mechanized, 97 rifle, 6 cavalry, 7 airborne) to 1.8 million men organized into 140 divisions. The ponderous mechanized armies and mechanized divisions were abolished, as were the rifle corps, the rifle divisions, and the cavalry divisions. The new streamlined tank army replaced the mechanized army, and the more flexible motorized rifle division replaced both the mechanized division and the rifle division.13 The combined-arms army emerged as a balanced force of tank and motorized rifle divisions, and the tank division was cut in size as well.14 Tactical missiles replaced heavy artillery at army level, and early surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) entered the arms inventory as did the T-55 tank.

As a result of Zhukov’s program, the division emerged as the basic tactical entity, while the regiment developed greater self-sufficiency. The ground forces emerged as a mobile, useful adjunct to nuclear forces capable of flexible, semi-independent operations on a nuclear battlefield. The emerging importance of nuclear weapons on the battlefield increased the importance of air force aircraft as a means for delivering the new tactical and strategic weapons. To perform the basic missions of achieving air superiority and supporting ground forces, the Soviets equipped the air forces with a new generation of aircraft and missile weaponry.

The process of adjustment to the nuclear age accelerated in 1960. Khrushchev’s speech to the Supreme Soviet on 14 January 1960 underscored his commitment to nuclear warfare. Khrushchev’s "New Look" involved giving the preeminent position on the battlefield to the newly created Strategic Rocket Forces.15 Future nuclear operations would involve a strategic nuclear exchange and operations by small conventional armies as an adjunct to nuclear operations. The role of such ground forces was clearly secondary, and the pressure to further reduce their size and limit their function continued under the "New Look." The force structure changed accordingly. The motorized rifle division decreased in size as did the tank division to a lesser extent.16 Equipment modernization continued with the introduction of the T-62 tank, antitank guided missiles (ATGMs), and tactical missiles at division level. New vehicles were planned to function more effectively in a nuclear environment (BMD, BMP). Although the Strategic Rocket Forces assumed much of the long-range nuclear mission of the air force, new emphasis was paid to air force destruction of enemy nuclear delivery means and command and control installations on the battlefield.

Although Khrushchev fell from power in 1964, the single (nuclear) option continued to dominate Soviet military thought. Soviet doctrinal writers saw war involving a strategic nuclear exchange and air and ground operations conducted within that nuclear context. Ground force operations would involve motorized rifle or tank formations, supported by air force and rocket forces, conducting deep operations at high rates of speed on multiple axes to the depth of defenses, essentially to clean up the theater after the nuclear exchange. Such forces were structured lightly to survive in a nuclear environment. Perhaps the best available translated description of Soviet doctrine in this period is found in V. D. Sokolovsky’s Strategia (Strategy). 17

In the late l960s and early 1970s, there occurred a subtle change in Soviet doctrinal writings, a change perhaps indicating reassessment of Khrushchev’s single option. Earlier writers had written at length about the nuclear aspect of war and tended to gloss over techniques of ground operations. After 1968 a number of important works focused on techniques of ground forces (while not abandoning the nuclear context). Reznichenko’s Tactics, Savkin’s The Basic Principles of Operational Art and Tactics, Sidorenko’s The Offensive, Strokov’s History of Military Art, Babadzhanian’s Tanks and Tank Forces, and Bagramian’s History of War and Military Art all paid lip service to the inevitability of nuclear war but also dwelt at length on the techniques of ground operations in far more detail than their predecessors.18 Strokov summed up Soviet attitudes by saying:

The main means of warfare will be nuclear, by strategic rocket forces with unforeseen effects . . . regardless of the means of war, war will require massive armies and a tremendous mastery of resources and popular support. . . in nuclear war rocket forces are of primary importance . . . in ground theaters highly mobile ground operations will occur simultaneously with the actions of strategic rocket forces. . . war will be characterized by maneuver. Nuclear weapons will open the door for offensive action . . . preparation time for war will be short. Operations may begin from a standing start. . . ground forces will conduct the offensive at high speeds in the absence of a dense continuous front usually on several axes. . . there are numerous forms for the conduct of operations. There is a new quality to combined arms battle. It is hard, severe, fast-paced and maneuverable. The basic mission of combined arms battle is to realize the fruits of nuclear strikes—the complete destruction of enemy troop concentrations and the securing of important regions. We reject as infeasible the older "gnawing through the dense" concept. Instead tank and motorized rifle forces overcome the defense from the march after use of nuclear weapons. The appearance of nuclear weapons has increased considerably the role and importance of surprise in battle and demonstrated increased demands for its achievement.19

These random thoughts from Strokov emphasized the nuclear nature of battle while delineating in great detail that which ground forces must do to achieve success. Reznichenko’s detailed assessment in Taktika focused on such conventional techniques as the use of mobile exploitation forces, the role of air assault units, and the increased utility of forward detachments.2 Perhaps the best evidence of evolving thought was found in Bagramian’s Military History. His final comment read: "While working out the means of conducting war in the nuclear situation, Soviet military science has not excluded the possibility of conventional combat."21 Other Soviet sources in the same generation contained the same qualification.

Writings of the period 1968 to 1972 seemed to reflect patient and deliberate study of the issue of the nature of war and thus the issue of the duration of war. While Reznichenko, Savkin, and Sidorenko enunciated official doctrine, other writers generated articles and works focusing on the theory and practice of strategy, operational art, and tactics in World War II. Obviously these works considered conventional operations, and virtually all considered the relevance of those operations in a contemporary context. The journals Voennaia Mysl’ (Military Thought) and Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal (Military History Journal) published extensive studies of World War II and postwar trends in military art. A number of major studies appeared investigating the precise nature of warfare in World War II with particular emphasis on the third period of the war (1944-45).22 Among these works was Ivanov’s The Beginning Period of War, Kurochkin’s The Combined Arms Army in the Offensive, Krupchenko’s Soviet Tank Forces, 1941-45, Rotmistrov’s Time and Tanks, and a multivolume study of tactics by combat example at every level from platoon through army, edited by General Radzievsky.23 Publication of such studies continued unabated through the l970s.24 While these writings focused on all aspects of military art, certain topics received greater emphasis than others. A new series of studies appeared on the nature of the "beginning period of war." Writers continued to emphasize the value of the offensive and focused on the importance of surprise and deception; the value of encirclement operations and exploitation; the necessity to deploy and regroup forces efficiently for combat; and methods for solving the problem of affecting penetration of a defense. The role of mobile groups and forward detachments was investigated in detail and emerged as a major theme. Among the myriad of operations studied, certain operations received greater attention than others because of their apparent relevance to modern operations. The VistulaOder operation (January 1945) and the Manchurian operation (August 1945) received such emphasis, as did the Belorussian offensive (June 1944) and the Yassy-Kishinev operation (August 1944).

Soviet force structure and overall military posture began to change in the early 1970s, and those changes have continued unabated into the 1980s. The cumulative effect of these changes has been an overall buildup in conventional forces and an increase in the force capability of forward deployed forces side by side with a reduced readiness posture of forces within the Soviet Union. While the overall size of the ground forces has remained relatively stable, the number of divisions in the force structure has risen from 140 to 180. More important, the TO&E strength of those divisions and divisional firepower has significantly increased. This has markedly increased the combat capability of forward area divisions, which are kept at full combat readiness in peacetime. On the other hand, the Soviets have reduced the peacetime readiness status of divisions within the Soviet Union, a probable indication that the Soviets have deemphasized the feasibility and importance of prewar mobilization and reinforcement.

The motorized rifle division has increased in size and firepower as has the tank division to a lesser extent.25 The tank army has picked up a motorized rifle division in its likely wartime TO&E.26 A heavy artillery brigade and an air assault brigade now exist in the potential wartime front force structure, and assets to lift an air assault battalion are at the disposal of each army in the forward area. New tanks, artillery, and antiaircraft systems in increased numbers are found in motorized rifle divisions and tank divisions, and the Soviets have drastically increased their assault helicopter capability. Modernization of air force equipment in the 1970s and the introduction into the force structure of numerous heavily armed helicopters have improved the Soviet capability to engage maneuverable enemy nuclear delivery means and support rapidly moving maneuverable ground forces.

All of these changes, set against the backdrop of changing Soviet written views, seem to indicate a basic change in the Soviet view of war. While the Soviets still consider nuclear war to be a strong possibility, they increasingly indicate an acceptance of and perhaps a desire for a nonnuclear phase of operations. They seem to conclude that the existence of a strategic or tactical nuclear balance on both sides may generate a reluctance on both sides to use those weapons, a sort of mutual deterrence that increases the likelihood that conventional operations will remain conventional. At a minimum, the Soviets have prepared themselves to fight either a nuclear war or a conventional war in a nuclear-scarred posture. The Soviet version of "flexible response" emphasizes the necessity for expanding and perfecting the combined arms concept. It indicates Soviet willingness to fight a longer war while their precise force structuring and their military doctrine are aimed at keeping any war short.

Doctrinal writings of the past few years have begun to enunciate these views more clearly. The pages of the new eight-volume Soviet Military Encyclopedia, published between 1976 and 1980, are illustrative of these changing views. The signed articles on offensive operations, on fronts, armies, and tactics all consider both nuclear and nonnuclear operations.27 They stress the increased capabilities of all types of units, the growth in the scope of the offensive, and the increased dynamism of battle. To a greater extent than earlier works, these articles delineate the role of units in the offensive, both in the nuclear and the conventional context. A typical passage from the encyclopedia reads as follows:

In an offensive using nuclear weapons, after nuclear strikes by the enemy, commanders take necessary measures to restore combat effectiveness and specify or establish new missions to complete the destruction of remaining enemy forces. Divisions move forward on their directions of attack from regions where they have regrouped and decisively advanced forward. In favorable conditions the offensive can be begun by forward detachments. . . During the conduct of military action with conventional means of destruction the enemy covering zone will be overcome by forces from the first echelon combined arms units after strong aviation and artillery strikes on the most important objectives in the entire depth of the enemy defense. Forward detachments from each division will destroy security and covering units of the enemy and secure important objectives and regions in the forward defense position. Their action is supported by artillery fire, aviation strikes and action by air assault units. Having overcome the security belt, forward detachments supported by other first echelon units (regiments) from the march penetrate the forward defensive positions. If it is not possible to create conditions for the advance of the main force, the positions are overcome after suitable preparations. . . . During army offensive operations, in all sectors of the army offensive or on separate directions meeting engagements can occur. The army conducts then with all or part of its forces. Meeting engagements can occur at the beginning or during the operation, during the destruction of counterattacking enemy forces or forces advancing from the depth to deblockade encircled forces or occupy new defensive positions.28

Thus, unlike earlier years, when the Soviets considered the meeting engagement to be a distinct category in its own right, it now is envisaged as a subcategory of the offensive in addition to its earlier categorization. Even more significant is the growing emphasis on a meeting engagement at the commencement of hostilities.

Several recent journal articles vividly display Soviet concerns over conventional operation and conventional techniques. A February 198 article in Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal de scribed the dominance of nuclear concepts after 1954:

From the beginning of the 1960s our military theory and practice conceded the conduct combat using only conventional means though under constant threat of enemy use of nuclei weapons. . . There were conducted in the armed forces a large number of demonstrations, tactics and other type exercises and military science conferences. The Great Patriotic War experiences in penetrating a prepared enemy defense were widely used.

In conditions not involving the use of nuclear weapons, tank subunits [battalions] and units regiments] attacking in the first echelon in appointed sectors realized penetration of the defense on a narrow front with subsequent blows against the enemy flanks. Tank subunits [battalions] of motorized rifle units [regiments] on exercises were used to penetrate enemy defense in close coordination with motorized rifle troops and artillery, acting like infantry support tanks of the war years.

The characteristic feature of the preparation of a penetration is the careful organization of combat with enemy antitank means. For that struggle we foresee the use of all fire means.

The means of using tank subunits [battalions] and units [regiments] as forward detachments has been improved. Unlike the first post-war period, in the second, forward detachments based on the experiences of exercises, did not begin their action from the boundary of their commitment during the penetration. They approached the enemy defense in advance of the main force, securing their [the main forces] movement and transition to the attack. In some instances, depending on conditions, forward detachments moved forward . . . . at night before the transition of the main force to the offense. . . .

The overcoming of defensive positions in the depth of an enemy defense is realized from the march in dispersed precombat formation and sometimes in march column. Basically advanced guards or forward detachments must realize a penetration and the main forces plan to overcome that defense at a high tempo as in a normal offensive.

Thus the methods of combat use of tank subunits [battalions] and units [regiments] during the penetration of an enemy defense in the postwar years have constantly improved. The basic tendency in that development is the constant striving to realize a penetration of defenses at high tempo, in short periods of time in order to create favorable conditions for a rapid offensive to the depth.29

The Soviets have, for the past 15 years, addressed two fundamental military problems reflecting the realities of the times. The first of these is how one overcomes a contemporary defense, specifically the defenses of NATO and China. The Soviets recognize the impact of technology on antitank weaponry as evidenced by the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The second problem concerns the issue of nuclear warfare. They recognize the likelihood of any major war’s becoming nuclear, but at the same time they have sought ways to avoid nuclear conflict or reduce the effectiveness of nuclear weapons on their forces.

In seeking solutions to these problems, the Soviets have studied three basic areas. They have closely analyzed the nature of NATO’s defenses, its coherence, the time it takes to form, and, most important, the time ramifications of political decision-making. The Soviets have intensely studied the nature of nuclear war. They have invested great time and expense to equip and train their forces to operate successfully in a nuclear environment. They assume war could become nuclear at any time, but they apparently hope that will not be the case.

The Soviets have also studied, in considerable detail, the operations of World War II in the East (Great Patriotic War), especially, the opening phase and the third period of the war. As a result of their study, the Soviets have renewed faith in the preeminence of the offense in achieving victory. They believe the tank still plays a key role in successful offensive operations. They recognize the folly of set-piece battle in a nuclear or potentially nuclear environment. This recognition precludes Soviet use of traditional massing of forces in deeply echeloned and patterned arrays. Their study of the last period of the Great Patriotic War has led them to conclude that many of the techniques developed during that period have applicability today in spite of changing technological conditions.

The Soviets understand NATO defense, and they respect its strength when it is fully in place. Though they still credit NATO with the ability to conduct a mobile defense, one must assume they understand the forward nature and limited depth of the defense and its lack of mobile reserves. The Soviets understand the real and potential problem sassociated with timely establishment of NATO’s defenses. And they also realize that if hard pressed, and if given the opportunity, NATO may choose to go nuclear. Thus, a cardinal tenet of Soviet planning is the necessity of preempting the defense or disrupting its formation. They also recognize the necessity of preempting use of or minimizing the effects of nuclear weapons. Above all, the Soviets, from their study on the theme of the beginning period of war, have concluded that surprise is absolutely essential; strategically regarding timing and operationally and tactically regarding the form and nature of the offensive.

Having reached these conclusions, the Soviets would aim to achieve surprise in the event of war. They would attempt to preempt or disrupt the defense and preempt the use or effectiveness of nuclear weapons by launching a rapid attack, by early neutralization of allied nuclear delivery means, and by attacking in a manner that causes utter confusion in NATO’s ranks. Certain prerequisites must be met for the Soviets to hope to achieve these aims: forward area forces must be kept in a high state of readiness, their equipment must be first rate and backed up by a logistical capability to sustain operations for the duration of the campaign, and the Soviets must achieve parity or superiority in the strategic and tactical nuclear realm. They must renounce the necessity for advanced mobilization and reinforcement. Forces must be prepared to attack on short notice after limited redeployment and regrouping. Maximum use must be made of cover and deception, and forces must be structured and trained for high-tempo deep operations. Most of these prerequisites have been met.

In an offensive at the strategic level, the Soviets would commit a maximum of forces into action on a broad front after a limited period of preparations by forward area forces. A single echelon of armies at front level would give maximum force to the initial blow, achieve the necessary momentum to carry the attack through the enemy defenses, and reduce the nuclear risk by quickly intermeshing Soviet forces with those of the enemy. It would also offer no major target (large formations) in the front’s second echelon.30 The attack would use a maximum number of axes of advance, many of them deliberately traversing inhibiting terrain. Forces would be committed to combat on a time-phased basis, with concentration for the attack occurring probably at night at the last possible moment. An air offensive would accompany the ground offensive aimed primarily at neutralizing the nuclear delivery means of the enemy. In addition, diversionary forces operating in small teams would conduct disruption operations to the depth of the theater in the enemy’s rear.

Operationally, army forces would advance to combat in the same manner as those of the front. Maximum forces would deploy on a broad front in a single echelon of divisions with an army reserve dispersed in the rear. Soviet forces would make maximum use of darkness, inclement weather, and marginal terrain to achieve surprise. Artillery and air force (as well as helicopter) units would provide suppressive fires to the depth of the enemy defense with fires concentrated in sectors where the penetrations were envisioned. Forward detachments of reinforced tank regiment (or brigade) size would lead the attack of armies. The mission of these forward detachments would be to attack prior to the commitment of the main forces to penetrate enemy-covering force positions and secure a position in the main defense zone, thus disrupting formation of the defense. The depth of mission for the army forward detachment would be from 30 to 40 kilometers. Army main forces would advance rapidly in march column on multiple axes behind the army and division forward detachments. An operational group of tank-division size would prepare to exploit either from army first echelon or army reserve, depending on the degree of success the initial advance has achieved. Air assault operations in brigade strength would be conducted at a depth of 30 to 40 kilometers in support of an army ground forward detachment on one of the army’s axes of advance. Diversionary forces would disrupt enemy rear areas to a depth of 180 to 200 kilometers.

In the tactical realm, motorized rifle and tank divisions would attack on regimental and battalion axes of advance (two to three per division) in two echelon formations. Forward detachments would lead the attack at division level and at regimental level. A forward detachment from division consisting of a separate tank battalion reinforced by motorized rifle and sapper units would attack at night in coordination with the army forward detachment before the advance of the main force. Its mission would be to cut through the covering force sector and penetrate into the main forward defensive positions to a depth of 15 to 25 kilometers, thus preempting or disrupting continuity of the defensive position. Air assault operations by battalion-size units will occur in tandem with operations of the division forward detachments. A forward detachment from each first echelon motorized rifle regiment, consisting of a reinforced motorized rifle battalion, will attack in concert with the division forward detachment with a mission similar to that of the division forward detachment. Division main forces will advance in precombat formation or march order following the forward detachments and capitalizing on the disruption caused in the enemy defenses. Artillery and assault helicopter units will provide fire support for forward detachments and main force units. After completion of these primary missions, forward detachments of army and division, if able, will continue to advance at maximum rates of speed. Each division will designate in advance an operational group or groups comprising the division tank regiment reinforced by at least one battalion of motorized rifle forces. This operational group will attempt to complete the penetration of the main defensive zone (to a depth of 60 kilometers) and to initiate the pursuit. Operational groups will be led by forward detachments.

The airborne forces under front control will be used in regimental or multiregimental size in conjunction with pursuit operations to secure key communication junctions and river crossings. The scale and scope of airborne operations will depend on the success of the ground offensive.

This description represents my assessment of the Soviet definition of current military problems, their means of analysis, the sources they have used, and the conclusions I believe they have reached. The resultant portrayal of current Soviet offensive theory implies neither likelihood nor intention of the Soviets’ going to war. It simply conveys the direction of Soviet military thought as conditioned by the circumstances of the 1970s and 1980s. Soviet military theory is neither stagnant nor rigid. It is ever-changing. The evolution of the past 35 years bears witness to those changes. Probably more so than in the case of any other nation, to understand what the Soviets might do is to understand what they have done in the past and the reasons why. The Soviets are products of their past. Their military theory and force structure are derived from the past and conditioned by the present. They must be understood in that context.

U.S. Army Command and
General Staff College
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas


1. Among the most popular are H. Guderian’s Panzer Leader (New York, 1957); F. von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles (Norman, Oklahoma. 1972.); and Erich von Manstein’s Lost Victories (Chicago, 1958).

2 . See A. Clark’s Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45 (New York, 1965) in which 80 percent of the book is devoted to 1941-43 and Paul Carell’s (Schmidt’s) two volumes: Hitler Moves East and Scorched Earth (New York, 1965, 1966). The volume in the U.S. Army Historical Series by E. Ziemke, Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East (Washington, 1968), also relies heavily on German sources. In fairness, this bias was due in part to the limited availability of Soviet accounts prior to 1965 and to a virtual absence of translated material.

3. For example, see Japanese Monographs, Nos. 154 and 155 (Military History Section, Headquarters, Army Forces Far East, 1954).

4. See I. Kh. Bagramian, editor, Istoriia voin ivoennogo iskusstva (History of War and Military Art), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1970.

5. See V. Reznichenko, "Osnovnye Napravleniia Razvitiia Sovetskoi taktiki v poslevoennye gody" (Basic Directions in the Development of Soviet Tactics in the Postwar Years), Voennoistoricheskii zhurnal, August 1971; and M. Cherednichenko, "Ob Osobennostiakh Razvitiia Voennogo Iskusstva v poslevoennyi period" (Concerning the Characteristics of the Development of Military Art in the Postwar Period), Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal, May 1970.

6. Inferred in N. Kireev, "Primenenie tankovykh podrazdelenii i chastei pri proryve oborony protivnika" (The Use of Tank Subunits [Bns] and Units [Regtsl during the Penetration of an Enemy Defense), Voenno-istoricheskii zh urna 1, February 1982.

7. Polevoi Ustav Krasnoi Armii (Field Regulation of the Red Army), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1944, translated by the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G2, GSUSA, 1951; and Nastavlenie pa proryvu positsionno, oborony (proekt) (Instructions on the Penetration of a Positional Defense/project), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1944, translated by Directorate of Military Intelligence, Army Headquarters, Ottawa, Canada.

8. A tank division consisted of three medium tank regiments, a heavy self-propelled gun regiment, a motorized rifle regiment, and support units; its strength was 10,659 men, 252 tanks, and 63 SP guns. A mechanized division comprised three mechanized regiments, a medium tank regiment, a heavy tank self-propelled gun regiment, and support units; it numbered 12,500 men, 197 tanks, and 63 SP guns.

9. A mechanized army comprised two tank divisions, two mechanized divisions, and support units.

10. A combined-arms army contained three rifle corps, a heavy tank self-propelled gun regiment, and support units. A rifle corps comprised three rifle divisions or two rifle divisions and one mechanized division with support units. A rifle division consisted of three rifle regiments, a medium tank self-propelled gun regiment, and support units with a strength of 11,013 men, 52 tanks, and 34 SP guns.

11. The postwar combat formation of fronts and armies normally consisted of two echelons and a mobile group. The mobile group comprised a mechanized army (at front) and tank and mechanized divisions (at army). Most armor units were in second echelon.

12. For a survey of early articles, see P. A. Zhilin, editor, Ocherki Sovetskoi Voennoi Istoriografii (Features of Soviet Military Historiography), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1974, pp. 240-41; and P. Maslov, "Literatura o voennykh deistviiakh letom 1941 godu" (Literature about Military Actions in the Summer of 1941), Voenno-istoricheskii zhurual, September 1966.

13. A tank army was comprised of four tank divisions and support units. The motorized rifle division consisted of three motorized rifle regiments, a medium tank regiment, and support units; its strength was 13,150 men and 210 tanks.

14. The combined-arms army comprised three to four-motorized rifle divisions, one tank division, and support units. The tank division consisted of two medium tank regiments, a heavy tank regiment, a motorized rifle regiment, and support units; its strength was 10,630 men, 368 tanks, and 52 SP guns.

15. H. Krylov "Raketnye voiska strategicheskogo naznacheniia" (Strategic Rocket Forces), Voenno-,storicheski zhurnal, July 1967.

16. By 1968, the motorized rifle division strength decreased to 10,500 men and 200 medium tanks. By the same date, the tank division converted its heavy tank regiment to a third medium tank regiment; its strength fell to 9000 men and 325 medium tanks.

17. V. D. Sokolovsky, Voennaia Strategiia (Military Strategy), three editions, Moscow: Voenizdat, 1962, 1963, 1968.

18. P. A. Kurochkin, editor, Obshchevoiskovaia Armiia v Nastuplenii (The Combined Arms Army in the Offensive), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1966; V. G. Reznichenko, Taktika (Tactics), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1966; A. A. Strokov, editor, Istoriia voennogo iskusstva (History of Military Art), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1966; A. Kh. Babadzhanian, editor, Tank i tankovye voiska (Tanks and Tank Forces), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1968; second edition, 1980; 1. Kh. Bagramian, editor, Istoriia voin i voennogo iskusstva (History of War and Military Art), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1970; A. A. Sidorenko, Nastuplenie (The Offensive), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1970; and V. E. Savkin, Osnovnye Printsipy Operativnogo Iskusstva i Taktiki (The Basic Principles of Operational Art and Tactics), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1972.

19. A. A. Strokov, editor, Istoriia voennogo iskusstva (History of War and Military Art), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1966, pp. 608-16.

20. V. G. Reznichenko, Taktika (Tactics), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1966. Reznichenko gave a more flexible view of combat formations by describing the circumstances calling for a single and double echelon formation. The former was suited to overcoming a shallow defense while the latter was designed to overcome a prepared de tense in depth.

21. 1. Kh. Bagramian, editor, Voennaia Istoriia (Military History), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1971, p.345.

22. The Soviets identify three distinct periods in the war. The first period lasted from June 1941 to November 1942, the second period from December 1942 to December 1943, and the last period from January 1944 to the end of the war.

23. I. E. Krupchenko, editor, Sovetskie Tankovye Voiska 1911-45 (Soviet Tank Forces 1941-1945), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1973; P. A. Rotmistrov, Vremia i Tanki (Time and Tanks), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1972; S. P. Ivanov, Nachal’nyi Period Voiny (The Beginning Period of War), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1974; A. I. Radzievsky, Tanktika v Boevykh Primerakh: Vzvod, Rota, Polk, Divisiia (Tactics by Combat Example: Ptn, Co, Regt, Div), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1974-76; A. I. Radzievsky, editor, Armeiskie Operatsii (Army Operations), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1977.

24. Among the most substantial are A. I. Radzievsky, Tankovyi Udar (Tank Blow), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1977; A. I. Radzievsky Proryv (Penetration), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1979; 0. A. Losik, editor Stroitel’stvo i Boevoe Primenenie Sovetskikh Tankovykh Voisk v Gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny (The Construction and Combat Use of Soviet Tank Forces in the Years of the Great Patriotic War), Moscow: Voenizdat, 1979.

25. The 1980 motorized rifle division with three motorized rifle regiments, one tank regiment, and support units numbers 12,500 men and 250 tanks. The 1980 tank division of three tank regiments one motorized rifle regiment, and support units has a strength of 10,000 men and 325 tanks.

26. In 1980 the tank army averaged four tank divisions, on motorized rifle division, and support units.

27. Sovetskaia Voennaia Entsiklopediia (The Soviet Military En cyclopedia), Tl-8, Moscow: Voenizdat, 1976-80, hereafter cited a S.V.E.

28. M. M. Kirian, "Armeiskaia Nastupatel’naia Operatsiia" (Army Offensive Operations), S. V.E., T1, Moscow: Voenizdat 1976, pp. 239-44.

29. Kireev, "The Use of Tank Subunits [Bns] and Units [Regts] during the Penetration of an Enemy Defense," pp. 38-40, is representative of the changing emphasis in Soviet military writings.

30. The Soviets say the following about current combat forma Lions: "In combat formations there may be one or several echelons arranged one after the other," S.V.E., vol.8, p. 617. "Operational formations of combined arms units can consist of one, two and sometimes more echelons," S.V.E., vol. 6, p.58. A single echelon configuration within fronts and armies permits application of maximum force across a broad front in the initial attack. It is particularly effective against an unprepared or only partially prepared defense and a defense lacking depth (less than 40 kilometers). Ii also lessens the vulnerability to nuclear attack by providing no large second echelon target. The best examples of such an offensive in World War II were the Soviet Stalingrad offensive (November 1942), the Right Bank of the Dnieper offensive (Spring 1944), and the Manchurian campaign (August 1945). A two-echelon configuration permits sustained operations against a prepared defense organized in depth. Excellent World War II examples were the Vistula-Oder operation (January 1945) and the Berlin operation (April 1945). A single echelon formation seems to offer the best chances for success in a Soviet offensive involving limited preparations.


Lieutenant Colonel David M. Glantz, USA (BA., Virginia Military Institute; M.A., University of North Carolina), is Curriculum Supervisor at the Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has served as an assistant professor Of history, United States Military Academy, West Point, and Chief of Estimates, U.S. Army in Europe. Colonel Glantz is a graduate of U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and Army War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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