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Transformation Under Fire: A Historical Case Study with Modern Parallels

Authored by Major Raymond A. Kimball. | October 2007

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Rarely have an army's fortunes shifted so much in such a short period. At the end of 1917, the Imperial Russian Army, bled dry and exhausted from the twin blows of tsarist incompetence and prolonged modern warfare, essentially ceased to exist. The military situation in 1920 could scarcely have been more different. The Red Army's military supremacy over the territory of the soon-to-be Soviet Union was unchallenged and acknowledged by the world's major powers. All of this made what happened next even more shocking. Later that same year, the Soviets would find themselves utterly defeated and thrown back by the Polish Army, an organization nearly one-tenth the size of the Red Army fielded by a state that had been obliterated from existence for 120 years and reconstituted only 2 years prior. This paper illustrates the hazards inherent in transforming a military under fire, and provides some cautionary lessons for the current U.S. efforts at military transformation.

The outbreak of civil war in June 1918 galvanized the creation of the fledgling Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, authorized by the Congress of Soviets only 6 months before. Specific focus areas for the Supreme Military Council, the chief military body of the new force, included leader development, new organizations and doctrine for the force, and a logistical system capable of supporting warfare across the vast distances of Russia. All of these were shaped by the pressures of transformation under fire, and those transformations would have great impact later. The most significant outcome of these pressures was the permanency of supposedly temporary institutions like the commissars and the limited role of the noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps.

Although the Bolsheviks showed real innovation and a healthy pragmatism in constructing their new force, their transformational efforts were ultimately doomed by a stubborn refusal to recognize their own limitations. Flush with victory, the Soviets drove west to settle old scores with the Poles, only to discover that their force was overmatched and incapable of adjusting to the new terrain and enemy. In a very real sense, the Red Army never really knew who it was fighting in Poland, and thus could not bring any of its strengths to bear. Additionally, its methods of logistics and command and control were all shaped by the long fight with the Whites and were wholly unsuitable for battle against a very different enemy.

The parallels and warning signs for U.S. efforts at transformation while simultaneously prosecuting a Global War on Terror are striking and ominous. Specific lessons offered include:

  1. Armies at war, and the governments who oversee them, must be willing to accept a limited amount of compromise between the ideological designs of the government in power and the practical imperatives of war.
  2. Armies that create "temporary" military institutions designed to meet only the exigencies of the current conflict should be aware that such organizations may rapidly achieve a state of permanency.
  3. Armies at war are dynamic institutions subject to constant stresses of varying forms and degrees. Such institutions must possess reactive and responsive organs capable of rapidly assimilating lessons learned and current trends and putting them into practice.
  4. The greatest danger inherent in transformation under fire is the hazard of creating a force geared towards defeating a specific enemy at the expense of more broad-based capabilities.