The bloody fields of the First World War prompted major shifts in military thinking. Going into the war in 1914, most of the belligerents still conceived of war as it was during the Napoleonic and American Civil Wars. This emphasized maneuver between compact forces, punctuated by sharp, decisive battles on relatively small battlefields. The winner of the decisive fight could then strike for the enemy’s capital or other objective. Napoleon summed this mindset up well on the field of Austerlitz, saying “One sharp blow and the war is over.”
This mindset met a bloody, grinding death on the battlefields of World War I. The armies, instead of being compact bodies of men and materiel that could maneuver around each other, found themselves spread out over miles, tied down in static trench lines. Instead of being decisive “one and done” affairs, battles were much less pivotal. Rather than being able to mop up the shattered remnants of his enemy’s forces and strike for his strategic target, even a victorious general would find himself staring at the enemy once more over battle lines which had only slightly shifted.
World War I was an objective lesson of this new reality of war. One where forces would need to act across tens of miles of front, coordinating land, sea, air, and artillery and mechanized units to achieve objectives. These objectives would also have to be much more detailed than just “find the enemy and crush him”. This kind of coordination between different military arms did begin to emerge during WWI, notably in the Battle of Cambrai. However, the interwar period would see the lessons of the war marinate and mature. These lessons would grow into different expressions in different countries (blitzkrieg in Germany, the Maginot Line in France), but they all placed a new emphasis on coordinating operations across a wide and often deep front, with further coordination between different arms of the military and different organizational units. In the Soviet Union, their expression became known as glubokaya operatsiya– “Deep Operations” or “Deep Battle”.
The Origins of Deep Battle
In the interwar period, Soviet military minds began to try and apply the lessons of WWI to create a system of warfare tailored to the Soviet Union’s strengths and weaknesses. As Colonel David Glantz writes in his examination of Soviet Deep Battle doctrine:
By its very nature Soviet military science differs significantly from what the US construes as military science. The US has neither a well developed and focused body of military knowledge nor an analytical process that compares with Soviet military science. The US does not systematically study and critique its past military experiences and the past military experiences of other nations… System informs the development of Soviet military thought as well as military practice.”David Glantz, “Soviet Military Operational Art: In Pursuit of Deep Battle”. Page 2
Key minds in this movement to study and systematize the Soviet war machine included Alexander Svechin, Vladimir Triandalfillov, and Mikhail Tukhachevsky. Together, they and others developed a unified military doctrine for the Soviet Union: Deep Operations.
Operation- Not Just a Kid’s Game
The old nineteenth-century mindset towards conducting war placed a strong distinction between “strategy” and “tactics”, and never the twain shall meet. Strategy in the “Napoleonic” mindset was the overall goal of the campaign; a city to capture or an army to destroy. Strategy also included all the maneuvering the two armies did as they jockeyed for position while attempting to achieve their strategic objectives. Strategy’s role in war ended once one general outmaneuvered the other and forced battle to begin. Then it was tactics’ turn, confined to the move and countermove of that particular battlefield. Once the outcome of that battle was decided (usually on a single day or over a few days), it was back to the strategic view, and the maneuvering began again. A good modern day analogy could be Beyblade tops, spinning around and around each other before clashing briefly and violently, and then returning to circling each other.
This view of strategy and tactics was valid of most of human military history, as armies were relatively cohesive and compact, with the troops concentrated in one location rather than spread across the countryside. The First World War began to blur those lines. Offensives would have layers of many different territorial objectives across a front, with “battles within battles”- multiple different engagements occurring across the width of the offensive. The Soviets were the first to bridge the gap between tactics and strategy, creating a “operations” level of war that sat between the battlefield details of tactics and the high-level planning of strategy.
Getting DEEP brah- On Operational Depth
This “operational” level was one half of the backbone of Soviet Deep Operations theory. The other, understandably, was depth. To pull from US Army Publication ATP 3-94.2 “Deep Operations” :
Commanders strike enemy forces throughout their depth preventing the effective employment of reserves, command and control nodes, logistics, and other capabilities not in direct contact with friendly forces. Conducting operations in depth allows commanders to sustain momentum and take advantage of all available resources to attack enemy forces and capabilities simultaneously throughout the area of operation.ATP 3-94.2 “Deep Operations” Page 7
As a part of a commander’s concept of operations, deep operations include actions to divert, disrupt, delay, or destroy enemy forces and capabilities before they can be used effectively against friendly forces. They involve efforts to prevent or limit uncommitted enemy forces from being employed in a coherent manner.ATP 3-94.2 “Deep Operations” Page 7
The Army does a very good job of explaining the goals and purpose of fighting in depth as part of Deep Operations. The above quotations describe it much as Tukhachevsky did, and show the relevance of Deep Operations theory even in the 21st century.
Bring it Back Now Y’all- Deep Battle as Both Breadth and Depth
So given this background, can we better define what the Soviets meant by “Deep Operations”? In essence, this was offensive action at the operational level, with objectives across the entire breadth and depth of the enemy defenses, not just at the front lines. Operational in this case means maneuver by multiple Soviet Army fronts (note that this is a military formation consisting of 3-5 armies, similar to an army group in most Western militaries. It is not referring to fronts as areas within a theatre of war.) Operational offensives are not intended to knock an enemy out of the fight in one blow; rather, multiple operations would be conducted either successively or in parallel to induce a catastrophic failure in the enemy’s defensive system. A key factor in this system was maskirovka, “disguise” or deception. To that effect, in a Deep Battle operation involving multiple Soviet Army fronts, the fronts would each be striking at different objectives, often many objectives per front. Most of these objectives would be either diversionary or supplementary, concealing the real thrust of the offensive. The supplementary objectives would not be merely feints; those units would have real targets and would try to achieve them as far as they could, until they were bogged down by the enemy. A second echelon of forces would follow up on the first, consolidating the gains the first had made, crushing sticking points of enemy resistance, and continuing to drive further behind enemy lines. In some ways this mimicked the German Stoßtruppen (“stormtroopers”) of WWI, but scaled up to an operational theatre level rather than at the small tactical unit level.
Just Keep Swimming- Mobility in the Battlescape
Meanwhile, the breadth and depth of the Soviet assault meant that the defenders would not be able to effectively coordinate a defense. Attacks would appear to be coming from everywhere, circumventing defensive strongpoints and flowing inexorably deeper behind the front lines. This negated the effectiveness of a defense in depth, which was one of the most effective ways of stopping German Blitzkrieg offensives. Instead of a single offensive that could be bogged down by layers of defensive positions and the sensible application of reserve forces, a commander would have to deal with a dozen or more offensives finding and pushing through weak points in the defenses. Where a Blitzkrieg offensive could be encircled or defeated through attrition, the massive manpower reserves of the USSR could reinforce the offensives that were succeeding and keep the ball rolling. As one Reddit user put it, the goal of a Deep Battle offensive was to “Get the battlescape moving, and keep it moving” (source).
Below is a nice representation of the differences between a Blitzkrieg-style offensive, and a Deep Battle offensive. Source: Reddit user Vox_Scholasticus
The Fate of Deep Battle
Tukhachevsky and many other military theorists were victims of the Soviet military purges of the 1930s. As such, the implementation of Deep Battle was not immediately used in the early days of World War II. However, later operations used many of the ideas initially laid out by Tukhachevsky and Svechin, namely achieving objectives at the operational level rather than aiming for grand strategic victories, and using the USSR’s manpower reserves to exploit openings to in wide fronts. The concept of the Operational level of war and Deep Operations has survived to the present day, to the point that the United States military teaches it as part of its modern doctrine.
References and Further Reading:
- Wikipedia on Deep Operations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_operation
- USSR Provisional Field Regulations of 1936. https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a361873.pdf This is one of the first publications that codified the Deep Operations Doctrine
- Glantz, David, “Soviet Military Operational Art: In Pursuit of Deep Battle” http://www.worldhistory.biz/download567/SovietMilitaryOperationalArtInPursuitofDeepBattle.pdf
- US Army Publication ATP 3-94.2 “Deep Operations”, September 2016. https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/atp3-94-2.pdf
- Curtis E Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, “Levels of War”, February 2015. https://www.doctrine.af.mil/Portals/61/documents/Volume_1/V1-D34-Levels-of-War.pdf
- Seventeen Moments in Soviet History Article Used: “Tractor Drivers”. http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1939-2/tractor-drivers/
10 thoughts on “Deep Battle and the Development of Soviet Military Theory in the Interwar Period”
I really enjoyed reading your post. I love reading about stuff like this and its really interesting to see the change in a strategy that had been used for so long. I was wondering if you knew how the Russians implemented this new strategy. Was it easy to convince old war generals that battles needed to be fought differently or was there a lot of push back?
The push to formally study war in a scientific manner and develop a doctrine suited to the USSR’s strengths actually came from Soviet High Command. Unfortunately, all the “old generals”, including the ones involved in the development of Deep Operations were killed in the Purges of the 30s. So going into WWII the Soviets struggled to implement D.O. well, as large operations like this require experienced leadership, which they didn’t have. I believe they recovered their stride later in the war, with Kursk being a good example.
Wow I don’t even know what to say.! What a thorough analysis of Soviet deep battle doctrine. I especially enjoyed it because it is a common myth that during the Great Patriotic War the Soviets only won because of their man power, and that there was no real strategy behind the Soviet Union’s battle tactics. But this shows that not only did the Soviet Union have a strategy, but that it had been developed for years leading up to the war.
While researching this I found it really interesting how the USSR spent all this time developing a very formalized, scientific approach to the study of war, but the system they settled upon (at least for defense) superficially looks very much like every other time Russia had been invaded. You know, the typical “scorched earth retreats until the winter kills them”. But I think that arises from a commonality of their starting conditions rather than incompetent leadership. The Deep Operations system was very tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet military: very large reserves, the assumption of space to maneuver, and the assumption of a numerically superior but equipment and training inferior force. The fact that the Russians tended to have these conditions every time they’re invaded means that their likely response is going to look similar.
What a detailed but accessible introduction to deep operations! On behalf of all your readers, I thank you! We might need to come back to this next week when we talk about the war. For all of the early miscalculations, it’s clear that the Soviets’ success had a lot to do with having committed to this approach ahead of time. And understanding how deep operations works helps put victories like Kursk in even better perspective. It’s so good to see you bringing David Glantz’s work in here as well.
Thanks! In this post I only really covered the offensive side of Deep Operations Theory, since it was all I really had time to research. There’s a whole other defensively-oriented side of the system which I’m hoping to research more in the coming days.
That was so detailed and informative where you left no doubts and answered every question you could think of and to give a great explanation to how war was back than and also the Beyblade reference which was pretty funny but it does give someone who may not understand but give a simple example. This was and awesome and fun read.
Thanks! This is what happens when I get sucked down Wikipedia rabbit holes haha
Great post! You mentioned that the Soviet implementation of Deep Battle did not occur until later in the Second World War. Could this be because the Soviets did not have the necessary industrial base to equip mechanized and armored units early in the war and thus could not counter initial German advances or launch offensives of their own? I appreciate the detail and analysis in your post!
This is a great post! it is always interesting to see how different strategies develop based off of the strengths and weaknesses of their enemy. it is also cool to see how this strategy was developed to go head to head with the germans on an industrial and military level.