Modern System of Force Employment Explanation?

Last week in class my group attempted to answer the following question:

Why was the Soviet Union so ill-prepared for the conflict known as the “Great Fatherland War”?

Our three leading explanations were:

  1. The Nazi-Soviet Pact
  2. The Skill of the German Army 
  3. The Purges 

It is because in all honesty I don’t know which of these is the best answer, or even if there is one correct answer rather than many, that I have decided not to answer this question at all; Rather, I will focus on the discussion of one of our hypotheses: the skill of the German Army.

In my Strategies of Modern Warfare class this semester, we learned about a theory called the modern system of force employment in Stephen Biddle’s book, “Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle.” To keep it short, the theory of the modern system of force employment states is supposed to be a strong determinant of capability and success in conflict. Biddle explains it best as, “a tightly interrelated complex of cover, concealment, dispersion, suppression, small-unit maneuver, and combined arms at the tactical level and depth, reserves and differential concentration at the operational level of war.” (3) Biddle continues in explaining the importance of numerical preponderance in war and that the implementation of the above tactical and operational elements reduce vulnerability to advanced technology in warfare.

The below image from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History is an example of cover in the Battle of Kursk. Here, men in trenches are safe from the tanks. However, cover is not total and soldiers are still at risk, but vulnerability is reduced nonetheless.

Mark Markov-Grinberg: The Kursk Front (1943)

The German military was implementing the modern system even in World War I. An example of which is Operation Michael, four major German offensives in the Spring of 1918. The German military implemented the modern system of force employment both tactically and operationally and were able to pull off an offensive success despite the odds being stacked against them. This, according to Biddle, is because the British defenders did not implement the modern system.

Similarly, in the ‘Great Fatherland War,’ the German military continued to implement the modern system of force employment and had many successes. An example of which is Operation Goodwood, in which German defenses successfully halted British offenses through their implementation of cover and concealment, and dispersion at the tactical level and defense in depth as well as mobile reserves at the operational level. Thus showing the successes of the modern system.

Gregory Freeze does not make mention of the modern system, however, in his book, Russia A History, although, he does note that “at the operational and tactical levels of war the German Wehrmacht was the finest army in the world.” (376) Further, he states that their military strength and skill was a reason for Russia’s “dismal military performance that summer.” (Biddle 376)

Despite my discussion of the skill of the German army and a possible explanation therein, I am still left with questions such as:

Did the Soviet Union’s army implement the modern system?

If the modern system is a determinant of capability and success, why didn’t the German Army prevail in ‘The Great Fatherland War’? (It is important to note that success in a battle does not mean success in a war, and obviously we didn’t want the Germans to win, but still a question worth asking.)

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but after writing all of this out I stand behind my group’s decision to put the German military’s skill as one of the leading explanations for why the Soviet Union was so ill-prepared for the ‘Great Fatherland War.’

P.S. If you are at all interested in learning more about the above mentioned German implementations of the modern system of force employment, here is my Strategies group project!

Edit: Answers based on discussion in comments section:

  1. The Soviet’s were adopting the “modern” system in the 30s with Tukhachevsky’s “combined” operations largely built on the German model, but when he was purged those operational elements declined until Zhukov’s methods of “deep operations” were implemented during the war.
  2. Soviet success was allowed by their ability to industrialize and mobilize.

Works Cited:

Biddle, Stephen. Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. Princeton University, 2004.

Freeze, Gregory L. “The Great Fatherland War and Late Stalinism 1941-1953” Russia: A History. 3rd ed., New York, Oxford UP, 374-405. 2009.

Mark Markov-Grinberg: The Kursk Front (1943). Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, Accessed 26 Mar. 2018.


comrades corner  This post was featured in our course blog’s “Comrade’s Corner” chosen by the editorial team.




8 thoughts on “Modern System of Force Employment Explanation?

  1. Catherine, I love how you applied a theory from another class to this post! I agree that why the Soviet Union was so ill-prepared stems from many issues, not just one. But your argument on tactics is very convincing, as Germany had one of the best regimented and strongest armies in Europe at the time. As for your question on why Germany didn’t prevail, what advantages/strategies do you think the Soviet Union had that allowed them to eventually have success in WWII?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback! In response to your question, I think that the Soviet Union advantages such as their ability to mobilize and industrialize rapidly allowed them to eventually prevail over Germany, despite the strength of the Germany army both tactically and operationally.


  2. What a terrific post, Catherine! I agree with Caroline, that pulling in the perspectives on military strategy you learned about in another course makes this post really strong and provocative. I also think Caroline’s point about resisting mono-causal explanations is really important. There were many reasons behind Soviet ill-preparedness in 1941 and many factors that contributed to the Soviets’ eventual success. You can’t point just at one thing as “the” cause.
    As to your questions: The Soviets were adopting the “modern” system of force deployment in the 30s — Tukhachevsky’s “combined” operations largely built on the German model (which makes sense because the Red Army benefitted from collaborating with the Germans in the interwar period). Anyway, Tukhachevsky of course, was purged, and his reforms deep-sixed for a while. And then, during the war, Zhukov’s methods of “deep operations” (google it) proved to be extremely effective and critical to Soviet victory.
    And that leads us to your second question – about why, if the modern system really is a determinant of success did the Germans lose on the Eastern Front? Which is a terrific question! Looking back at what you read in the Freeze chapter (by Fuller), what does the author say about this? I think it’s important to view the Eastern Front in terms of Soviet victory by reframing the question: How did the Soviets prevail? Check back and let me know what you think!
    I will say (again) that I’m very reluctant to ascribe “success” to one factor (such as a particular kind of military tactics). And I would say that the claim that those tactics correlate strongly with eventual victory seems pretty weak since that didn’t happen in the most critical arena of the twentieth-century.
    Also, the Strategies group project is very cool — thanks for sharing that!


    1. Thank you for your feedback and for answering my questions! Caroline, above, pointed me to the same re-framed question of how did the Soviets prevail; I would argue that their success was allowed by their ability to industrialize and mobilize but also by German failures.


  3. The Wehrmacht definitely had incredible tactics for winning individual battles, what they lacked was a comprehensive strategy for winning the war as a whole. They defeated the French and British in France, then they turn their attention to the Soviet Union before dealing with the British in a peaceful or warlike manner. Then when they invade the Soviet Union they don’t set up a dual invasion with the Japanese, even though they had the Tripartite Pact. Just a whole slew of problems going on with the invasion of the Soviet Union.


  4. In my post, I talked about the Winter War fought between Finland and the Soviets roughly a year before the Nazis invaded. In the war, the vastly undertrained, undersupplied, and outnumbered Finnish Army was able to not only hold off, but kick the butts of the Red Army for the first month or two of the war. I believe their ability to outperform the Soviets has a lot to do with Biddle’s theory. The Red Army simply did not employ their forces according to Biddle’s theory. They used combined arms, (tanks, airplanes, artillery, infantry, etc.) but they used them poorly with little thought given to much of what Biddle mentions i.e. concealment, dispersion, suppression, maneuverability, etc. The Finns on the other hand were able to use what they did have incredibly effectively because they employed their forces tactically with special attention paid to maneuverability and concealment. It was not until the Soviets reorganized in the 3rd month of the war and altered their tank and artillery tactics that they achieved success. I just thought it was interesting how well the Soviet’s initial failure is explained by Biddle’s theory.


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