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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a basic type of combat. The offensive is waged on land, at sea, and in the air in the form of engagements, battles, and operations.

The prime objective of the offensive is to crush the enemy completely and take important lines or regions. On land an offensive may be waged against an enemy who has gone over to the defensive ahead of time, or it may ensue directly from a meeting engagement that has turned out to be unsuccessful for the enemy. The offensive against a defending enemy ordinarily begins with a breakthrough, which is achieved by wiping out the main enemy grouping with artillery fire, air strikes, and other means of destruction; a swift attack by tanks and motorized rifle forces; and subsequent development of the offensive in depth and toward the flanks. To carry out the breakthrough, a superiority is created over the enemy in forces and weapons along the axis of the main strike. Before the breakthrough begins, there is fire preparation for the attack; during the offensive the advancing troops receive fire support and accompaniment. In waging an offensive, large units are given zones and breakthrough sectors within them; subunits are assigned a front, or object, of attack and an axis in the offensive. When the enemy has open flanks or when they form during the offensive, wide and close envelopment are used. An offensive in a city, in woods, when negotiating water obstacles, during winter, at night, and in other conditions will have various characteristic features. The offensive may be strategic, operational, or tactical, depending on the scale of combat, the objectives, and the weapons and forces involved.

Before the appearance of firearms the combatant armies, which were comparatively small in size, waged offensives in the form of engagements and battles that usually took place on small sectors of level, open terrain. The troops came close together and hurled spears, arrows, and stones; then they went over to the attack, striking from the front and the flanks and completing the attack with hand-to-hand infantry and cavalry combat. The navy supported the offensive of the land army and sometimes waged independent offensives. With the appearance of firearms in Western Europe and Russia (14th century) and their refinement (15th to 18th centuries), an ever larger part in battles was played by fire, the force of which depended on the rifles supplied to the armies, the maximum rate of fire, the range of fire, and the accuracy of the riflemen. In all the European armies and navies in the 17th and 18th centuries, forces were predominately employed according to linear tactics, which made it possible to support the offensive with the maximum number of rifles (in the navy, artillery guns). With the adoption of standing mercenary armies by the Western European countries (16th and 17th centuries) and standing navies in the major maritime countries (Spain, Great Britain, and the Netherlands), the efforts of the combatants were directed to winning the war by skillful maneuvering on enemy lines of communication and capturing enemy fortresses while avoiding battle as much as possible.

There were profound changes in the evolution of the offensive as a result of the Great French Revolution and the wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when mass armies were formed and large permanent military units (divisions and corps) and headquarters as special means of troop control appeared. The primary mission of the offensive became the crushing of the enemy army and not the capturing of his territory, lines of communication, and fortresses. In the offensive the French and Russians, followed by other armies, began to apply a new tactic, which was based on a combination of columns and an extended formation, maneuvering, and fire as a means of preparation for the attack. Navies also made a transition to new tactics.

In the wars of the second half of the 19th century and early 20th, the size of armies increased greatly, and the troops were supplied with larger amounts of rapid-fire artillery, machine guns, and magazine rifles. Advancing infantry approached the enemy in columns, then reorganized into extended fire positions in the zone of machine-gun and rifle fire, and moved forward by rushes. The offensive included the approach, the advance, and the attack. As the size of armies grew and the scale and spatial scope of combat enlarged, it became impossible to achieve a victory over the enemy by one all-out battle, as had been the case before; a new form of offensive on land and at sea originated—the offensive operation.

During World War I (1914–18), the combatants waged offensives in the form of army and front operations. During the war a new method of offensive was worked out—the breakthrough of the tactical defense, which consisted of a system of man-made structures and obstacles and was supported by heavy firepower. Before the infantry attacked, the enemy defense was neutralized through artillery fire by means of a long (at first several days and later several hours) artillery preparation for the attack and artillery support for the offensive. However, methods for developing a tactical breakthrough into an operational one were not discovered by all the combatant armies. During the Civil War and military intervention of 1918–20 the offensives by the Red Army were characterized by great maneuverability, the introduction of concentrated forces and weapons along the axes of the main strikes by the creation of striking forces, and the use of large mobile units—horse cavalry armies and corps.

A major achievement in the evolution of the theory of the offensive in the Soviet armed forces in the mid-1930’s was the elaboration of the theory of waging an offensive with large, technically well-equipped armies and the concentrated use of tanks, aviation, artillery, and airborne landings. The theory was accepted in many armies.

The theory and practice of the offensive were developed comprehensively in the Soviet armed forces during the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45. Based on the experience of the winter counteroffensive at Rostov, Tikhvin, and especially Moscow in 1941–42 and with the provision of artillery, tanks, and aircraft to the troops, powerful assault groupings were created along the main axes of the offensive, and a decisive superiority was achieved over the enemy in forces and weapons. In 1942 the artillery offensive was introduced. In the battle of Stalingrad in 1942–43 and the battle of Kursk in 1943 the practice of concentrating forces and weapons to deliver a powerful assault and break through a well-prepared static defense was further developed. The theory and practice of the offensive were augmented by the experience of surrounding and wiping out a large enemy grouping and using mobile groups of armies and fronts (tanks and mechanized corps, and from the summer of 1943 tank armies) for swift development of the offensive to the operational depth. In most of the operations of 1944—45 the enemy’s main zone of defense was broken through in the first day of the offensive, the entire tactical zone was penetrated on the second day, the average daily rate of advance of combined arms units reached 25–30 km, and tank and mechanized corps covered up to 50–70 km a day. Artillery support for an attack by infantry and tanks using a double rolling barrage to depths of 2.5 km was a new development in the use of artillery. A great deal of experience was accumulated in the concentrated use of large tank, mechanized, and aviation groupings in the offensive and in the implementation of close coordination among them. The air force conducted independent air operations using long-range and frontline aviation; methods of achieving superiority in the air were worked out. The navy gained experience in conducting independent naval offensive operations and joint operations with ground forces and the air force.

At the beginning of World War II (1939–45), the armed forces of fascist Germany made significant advances in the conduct of offensive operations. In 1944–45 the theory and practice of the offensive were also evolved further by the Anglo-American forces, especially in regard to the conduct of offensive operations by ground forces with the use of large air forces and the conduct of airborne and large naval landing operations.

During the postwar period significant progress in the development of the theory of the offensive has been made by drawing conclusions from the experience of the war, the introduction of nuclear weapons, and the further refinement of conventional weapons. Greatly increased troop combat capabilities made it necessary to work out principles for the application of nuclear weapons in offensive operations and combat.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.