The American and Joint Origins of Operational Depth in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign
By Thomas Bruscino, PhD
via the Marine Corps University Press web site
Abstract: A common view is that the U.S. military adopted wholesale the Soviet concept of operational depth in the 1970s and 1980s. However, a closer look at U.S. Army concepts, doctrine, and planning reveals that the concept, word, and definition of depth existed in the U.S. military prior to the 1970s. The beginnings of depth in the U.S. Army predate even the great interwar Soviet theorists. The American idea traces to the World War I era, during which it was made manifest in the Joint campaign and operations known as the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
In the mid-1970s, the U.S. military was trying to recover, like the rest of the country, from the travails of the Vietnam War. Since it seemed safe to say that the United States would avoid Vietnam-type interventions for a while, much of its armed forces returned to a more singular focus on a potential war with the Soviet Union in Europe. This focus helped the Services rebuild, and the armed forces improved tremendously in their recruiting, training, education, and technology. Revitalized schools and rigorous training events, especially in Europe, led to a closer look at the Soviet armed forces and their fighting doctrines and theories. Out of such studies of the enemy came the formal adoption into U.S. doctrine of the Soviet concept of operational art, the level of war between strategy and tactics. With Soviet operational art came the tenet of depth.1
Or at least so the story goes. The Soviets, led by such thinkers as Alexander A. Svechin, Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky, Vladimir K. Triandafillov, and Georgii S. Isserson, had invented the concepts of operational art and depth during the interwar period between the First and Second World Wars. Their focus was on the activities of large units—armies, corps, and divisions—in the field, along with a Marxist-Leninist emphasis on revolutionary changes in warfare. For them, operational art was a deviation from the old strategy of a “single point,” whereby armies would maneuver until they came together for a decisive battle. Greater numbers of soldiers, extended ranges and rates of firepower, and the extension of continuous lines had created the necessity of campaigns that consisted of multiple large units engaged in simultaneous, successive, and distributed operations. Depth was the central feature of modern operations that drove operational art. This had been evident in World War I, with deep-echeloned defensive formations and long-range artillery. But the Soviets quickly moved past that depth and focused on the advent of faster and more durable tanks, longer-range attack and bombing aviation, and large long-range airborne units. Their deep operations included deep fires, especially using aviation, simultaneous to the advance of a ground attack on the front lines to achieve a penetration, which would be followed by a breakthrough of mechanized and motorized forces deep into the enemy’s defensive echelons and reserves, causing shock and collapse of enemy forces.2
In the 1970s, the U.S. Army, the confidence of which had been hit especially hard by the Vietnam War, took the lead in the United States in developing more well-defined operational concepts. Through an agreement with the U.S. Air Force, Army leaders developed the operating concept of AirLand Battle in the 1980s. This new operating concept explicitly used operational art and emphasized depth. In Operations, Field Manual (FM) 100-5, published in 1986, offensive depth was described as follows:
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