The Evolution of Russian Operational Art
Ronald W. Sprang
Operational art provides the bridge between tactical actions and strategic objectives. It involves a systematic and deliberate campaign planning process for major operations in a theater of war.[i] Since the beginning of the industrial age and the advent of large conscript armies, there has been a need to link tactical actions to strategic objectives. Operational art concepts have existed in Russia and the Soviet Union on a much grander scale then the scope of this analysis. It is essential to dwell on three distinct periods over which Russian operational art has evolved over time, Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, World War I and the interwar period, and finally World War II against the German invasion. Additionally, the scope will be narrowed to address three critical components of deep operations and operational art[ii], depth[iii], operational reach[iv], and culmination[v].
Operational art and deep-operations theory in Russia traces its theoretical beginning to Napoleon’s six-month campaign in 1812. The French, under Napoleon’s watchful eye, prepared meticulously for the invasion. Napoleon understood the vast expanse of the terrain and planned to achieve a decisive victory. His goal was to destroy the Russian army within three weeks with a quick succession of battles in the western frontier of Russia.[vi] Napoleon made extensive logistical preparations from 1811 to 1812 to extend the French capability to maintain operational reach, avoid culmination and gain adequate depth against the Russians. The focused sustainment preparation would produce the required tempo to force a decisive battle and destruction of the Russian Army. Napoleon demonstrated his organizational genius and forward deployed ammunition and supply depots, artillery parks, hospitals, and coordinated twenty train battalions to keep the French supplied and maintain an aggressive tempo against the Russians.[vii] Despite meticulous preparation and planning, the French and Napoleon were still defeated by the Russians.
Napoleon began the campaign with tactical successes but eventually failed to defeat the Russian Army. Operations at Vilna, Minsk, Vitebsk and Smolensk demonstrated Napoleon’s mastery of skills, but failed to bring about the desired decisive battle. Napoleon’s failure to conduct an effective pursuit to envelop and destroy the Russians negated the pre-war logistical planning and build up. As the French lines of operations extended deeper into Russia the French failed to deliver sustainment adequately and in a timely manner.[viii] The strain on the French logistical system created continuous delays, limited the achievable depth and brought the Grand Armée to culmination. The French had surpassed the limits of their operational reach by the time they reached Moscow. Napoleon’s failure to bring about a decisive battle with the Russians prior to Moscow meant that the Russians had flanked the French Army and now threatened Napoleon’s overextended lines of communication and sustainment. [ix]
The Russians learned several critical and lasting lessons from Napoleons campaign in 1812, which left an indelible mark on the Russian concept of operational art. The Russian leaders understood that Napoleon sought a decisive battle in the frontier to destroy the Russian army. Throughout the campaign Bagration, Barclay de Tolly, and Kutuzov provided expert leadership and denied Napoleon a decisive battle on his terms.[x] They used the depth of the expansive Russian territory to force Napoleon to extend his lines of operations beyond a supportable distance and beyond his operational reach. The Russians pulled the French deeper into Russian territory until the French Army was on the brink of collapse and culmination in Moscow. The French lines of communication became overextended and vulnerable to Russian attack. The French began falling apart and conducted a retreat allowing the Russians to pursue, attrit, and destroy the French Army.
The interwar period following World War I brought about another critical evolution in Russian operational art. The deep-operations concept traces its genesis to as early as 1928 with the writings of several leaders and theorist; Svechin, Triandafillov, Tukhachevskii, and Isserson.[xi] Svechin is credited with beginning the Russian discussion on operational art. He proposed a strategy of attrition as an option outside of destruction in a decisive battle. The goal of attrition is a gradual depletion of the enemy’s capability to wage war over a successive series of tactical engagements. “The operations of a strategy of attrition are not so much direct stages toward the achievement of an ultimate goal as they are stages in the deployment of material superiority, which would ultimately deprive the enemy of means for successful resistance.”[xii] Attrition strategy is directly connected to attacking the enemy’s operational reach and forcing premature culmination to facilitate offensive operations in depth against the opponent.
Triandafillov added to the theoretical debate with his discussions on the challenges of command and control and logistics for modern army conducting deep operations.[xiii] Tukhachevsky contributed the concepts of mechanization, militarization of the Soviet economy, deep battle and its transformation into deep operations theory focusing on the annihilation of the enemy through the depth of his defenses.[xiv] He understood the requirements for an operational level of war to provide the linkage between strategy and tactical actions across the battlefield and throughout the entire depth of an enemy. He also highlighted the importance of the critical factors of depth, continuity, synergism and wholeness and developed an understanding of operational shock (udar) and impacts in the enemy as a system.[xv]
Isserson further developed the concept and provided models for the operational formations that would achieve a deep breakthrough. A hallmark of his concept is developing ‘depth-to-depth blows’ and ‘operational simultaneity.’[xvi] Attacking an enemy in depth erodes their ability to maintain and more importantly sustain operations over the planned operational reach capacity. The continuity and simultaneity of deep battle presents multiple dilemmas to the opponent throughout the depth of the battlefield, limiting operational reach and creating unplanned culmination. Operational shock is created when the enemy can no longer continue operations, thereby creating windows of opportunity for continued attacks in depth to disrupt lines of communication.
World War II marks the final historical event for analysis of Russian operational art. World War II presented the opportunity for further development and proof of principle of the Soviet deep operations theory. Operation Uranus, the Soviet counter-offensive against the Germans in 1942, is often seen as the turning point in the Second World War.[xvii] The concept of Operation Uranus was to redeploy large mobile formations to penetrate Axis defenses north and south of Stalingrad. The penetration would focus on the weakened positions of the Romanian defensive positions. Next, the penetration would be followed by an encirclement to destroy a German Army and other Axis forces in the region.[xviii] The goal was to create two pockets of trapped Axis forces by conducting a penetration in depth with large units of mobile forces. The second echelon goal was to further disrupt the German lines of operation and sustainment by severing resupply routes and seizing airfields to prevent German air support.
Operation Uranus began on 19 November 1942. The Soviet forces achieved surprise against the Romanian forces and quickly penetrated the lines behind massed artillery preparation. The initial breach set the conditions for the second echelon to drive deep into the German rear area and the double envelopment was complete on 21 November. The Soviet application of the deep-operations theory and doctrine, trapped the German and Axis troops in the pocket. The Soviets continued to close the pocket and destroy the German forces in detail until Field Marshall von Paulus surrendered on 2 February 1943. The Germans lost over 200,000 Soldiers as a result.[xix]
Operation Uranus was a text book application of the deep-operations concept and Russian operational art. The commanders and the Stavka adeptly adhered to the theorist concepts of Svechin, Triandafillov, Tukhachevskii, and Isserson. Adequate mobile forces were committed to achieve penetration and simultaneous operational depth enabling a double envelopment. The Soviet second echelon had the required combat power to strike the entire depth of the German lines of operations cutting off ground supply and seizing airfields to further limit air support and aerial resupply to the German forces. The Soviets preserved their operational reach while simultaneously constricting the Germans, leading to the culmination and eventual surrender.
Russian operational art has evolved greatly since the emergence of Napoleon and his impact on modern warfare. Three distinct historical periods have left significant impact on the Russian concept of operational art known as deep-operations. All three periods created valuable lessons in understanding the use of depth, operational reach and culmination to achieve effects. As new technologies, theoretical concepts, and leadership emerged the Russians continued to develop and refine the deep operations theory. Operations in World War II provided the final testing grounds as the Soviets had adequate manpower, equipment, concepts and operational artist to fully realize the potential of the deep-operations theory against the Germans.
Gat, Azar. A History of Military Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Glantz, David M. and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler.Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.
Isserson, G S. The Evolution of Operational Art. 2nd ed. Translated by Bruce Menning. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, US Army Combined Arms Center, 2013.
Kipp, Jacob W. “The Tsarist and Soviet Operational Art, 1853-1991.” In The Evolution of Operational Art: From Napoleon to the Present, edited by John Andreas Olsen and Martin van Creveld. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Mikaberidze, Alexander. “The Limits of the Operational Art: Russia 1812.” In History of Warfare,. Vol. 110, Napoleon and the Operational Art of War: Essays in Honor of Donald D. Horward, edited by Michael V. Leggiere. Leiden: Brill, 2016.
Naveh, Shimon. The Cummings Center Series,. Vol. 7, In Pursuit of Military Excellence: the Evolution of Operational Theory. London: Frank Cass, 1997.
Olsen, John Andreas, ed. The Evolution of Operational Art: From Napoleon to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Svechin, Aleksandr A. Strategy. Edited by Kent D. Lee. Minneapolis, MN: East View Publications, 1992. Original printing 1927.
US Department of the Army, Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 3-0, Operations. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2016.
US Department of the Army, Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0, Operations. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2016.
US Department of Defense, Joint Staff. Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Planning, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017.
US Department of the Army, Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 3-94.2, Deep Operations. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2016.
Ziemke, Earl F. Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East. Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 2002.
[ii] US Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0, Operations, defines operational art as the, “pursuit of strategic objectives, in whole or in part, through the arrangement of tactical actions in time, space, and purpose.” See ADRP 3-0 Operations for an expanded discussion: US Department of the Army, Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0, Operations. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2016), 2-1.
[iii] Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 3-94.2, Deep Operations, defines depth as the, “extension of operations in time, space or purpose and is a tenet of unified land operations… As 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.” Reference US Department of the Army, Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 3-94.2, Deep Operations. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2016), 1-1.
[iv] Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Planning, defines operational reach as, “the distance and duration across which a joint force can successfully employ military capabilities.” US Department of Defense, Joint Staff. Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Planning, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017), xxiii.
[v] Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Planning, defines culmination as, “that point in time and/or space at which the operation can no longer maintain momentum.” US Department of Defense, Joint Staff. Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Planning, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017), xxiii.
[vi] Alexander, Mikaberidze, “The Limits of the Operational Art: Russia 1812,” In History of Warfare,. Vol. 110, Napoleon and the Operational Art of War: Essays in Honor of Donald D. Horward, edited by Michael V. Leggiere. (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 270.
[vii] Ibid., 270-271.
[viii] Ibid., 311-313.
[ix] Ibid., 314.
[x] Ibid., 313.
[xi] Shimon Naveh, The Cummings Center Series, vol. 7, In Pursuit of Military Excellence: the Evolution of Operational Theory (London: Frank Cass, 1997), 179.
[xii] A Svechin, Strategy, ed. Kent D. Lee (Minneapolis, Minn.: East View Publications, 1992), 247.
[xiii] Jacob W. Kipp, “The Tsarist and Soviet Operational Art, 1853-1991,” in The Evolution of Operational Art: From Napoleon to the Present, edited by John Andreas Olsen and Martin van Creveld, (New York: Oxford University Press, 201)1, 68.
[xiv] Ibid., 70-71.
[xv] Shimon Naveh, The Cummings Center Series, vol. 7, In Pursuit of Military Excellence: the Evolution of Operational Theory (London: Frank Cass, 1997), 11.
[xvi] Georgii Samoilovich Isserson, The Evolution of Operational Art, translated by Bruce W. Menning (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2013), 67-69.
[xvii] Jacob W. Kipp, “The Tsarist and Soviet Operational Art, 1853-1991,” in The Evolution of Operational Art: From Napoleon to the Present, edited by John Andreas Olsen and Martin van Creveld, (New York: Oxford University Press, 201)1, 76.
[xviii] David M. Glantz, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, Modern War Studies (Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 130.
[xix] Earl F. Ziemke, Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East, (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 2002), 79.