The Right Force for the Battle:  The Theater Support Command

by Master Sergeant John J. Blair

The author suggests that the theater support command is similar to the concept that enabled the Germans to win the World War I Battle of Tannenberg.

    In recent years, change has occurred at a greater pace than at any other time in U.S. military history. In a short time, many ideas have gone from concept to reality. One such idea is the theater support command (TSC). The TSC promotes force projection more efficiently than does a structure that supports large, forward- deployed forces, such as those deployed in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In a change from the Cold War mentality of deploying and fighting with an extremely large force, the TSC is designed to deploy with incremental modularity only those elements needed to meet mission requirements and with the smallest possible logistics footprint.
Of the 150,000 Russian soldiers participating in the Battle of Tannenberg, 92,000 were taken prisoner.

Of the 150,000 Russian soldiers participating in the Battle of Tannenberg, 92,000 were taken prisoner.

    A TSC enhances support coordination under the Army service component command. The functional components of a TSC are an engineer command, a medical command, a personnel command, a finance command, and a transportation command. Other types and sizes of organizations can be added, depending on the support requirements. Support is provided to the tactical forces more efficiently because the TSC has combat service support and certain general support units under one command, as well as a materiel management center (MMC).

    Centralized distribution management is handled within the TSC by the distribution management center (DMC). The DMC is the TSC staff agent for synchronizing the theater distribution system. Support operations for all the services in the theater can be coordinated by the TSC. The flexibility of the modular design means that only elements with capabilities that match the mission requirements are deployed to the theater. Modularity involves incrementally deploying only the minimum capabilities required in a theater. This creates the smallest footprint possible and uses all involved military resources most effectively. Communication systems and automated hardware and software not only are critical for coordination among the various parts of the TSC, but also are needed so the majority of the logistics can be managed from fixed-base locations as part of split-based operations. Commanders within the theater must furnish cells to coordinate with other elements. Two examples of this are a liaison officer from a functional commander attached to the TSC and a cell appointed by the MMC to serve as a port expediter team.

    Although the TSC concept is relatively new, it is not completely untested. A battle fought and won by a small army against a much larger one almost 90 years ago shows the value of the principle underlying the TSC concept: design an army for the battle, rather than the other way around.

The Russian Invasion of Prussia

    August 1914 found the German High Command in a difficult position. The conflict now known as World War I had just started. Most of Imperial Germany's forces were advancing in the west through Belgium and France in an effort to knock France out of the war quickly to avoid a war on two fronts. The French, reeling from the speed of the German invasion, put pressure on their Russian allies to help them by opening a second front in the east. Because of its huge reserves of manpower, the Russian Army often was called the "Russian Steamroller." Many observers believed that, because of its numerical superiority, the Russian Army could roll over any opponent. Russia surprised Germany with a relatively quick, although haphazard and incomplete, mobilization. Soon, a force of 450,000 Russians was attacking the thinly spread German 8th Army in the east.
The Russian infantry on the march.

The Russian infantry on the march.

    The Russian invasion was to be a two-fisted blow, one from the Russian 1st Army commanded by General Pavel Rennenkampf and the other from the 2d Army commanded by General Alexander Samsonov. The 1st Army was to punch through the corridor between the Baltic Sea and the Masurian Lakes region to the south. The 2d Army was to swing south of the lakes. The two armies would then pinch the German defenders between them.

    The Russians crossed the border into Germany on 21 August 1914. General Max von Prittwitz und Graffron commanded the German 8th Army, which was defending Prussia (Germany's easternmost province¾now northeastern Poland). After an inconclusive engagement with the Russian 1st Army, Prittwitz was intimidated by an advancing enemy at his front and the fresh Russian 2d Army moving toward his rear. He ordered a general withdrawal.

    The German High Command immediately ordered Prittwitz's dismissal. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, a decorated officer called out of retirement at age 67, replaced Prittwitz. Hindenburg had been raised in the area, had served there during his military service, and thus had spent countless hours becoming familiar with the Masurian Lakes and the treacherous marshes and bogs of the lake region.

    Forty-nine-year-old General Erich Ludendorf, who recently had distinguished himself on the western front, was selected as Hindenburg's chief of staff. Throughout the rest of the war, Hindenburg and Ludendorf proved to be a formidable team whose talents complemented each other. In contrast, the Russian commanders, Samsonov and Rennenkamf, were not even on speaking terms, and there was little coordination between their armies.

    Hindenburg and Ludendorf recognized a flaw in the Russian advance: There was a large gap between the two enemy armies in the lakes region. A daring counterattack was planned to encircle the 2d Army. The Germans were long on confidence but short on manpower, so on 24 August, they withdrew two army corps from the north that were defending against the Russian 1st Army. Only two German brigades were left to keep the Russian 1st Army in check.

    Two days later, the Germans began executing their plan by attacking Samsonov's flanks while presenting his army with a soft middle. The Russian flanks were pushed back even as Samsonov pushed his center forward. Because the Russian rail system ran on different gauge tracks than Germany's, all Russian supplies had to be transported to the battle by horse-drawn wagons. In addition, Samsonov's communication with his various elements was poor. The end of August found the tired, poorly fed, and ill-coordinated 2d Army with its center forced into the marshy region of the lakes and its flanks in disarray.

The Harder They Fall

    The Germans encircled the Russians at Tannenberg in eastern Prussia on 28 August. According to historian Willis John Abbot, the Russian 2d Army was penned in a "bewildering and fatal maze of marshes, creeks, lakes, and quagmires" covering about 200 square miles. Attempting to escape, the Russians "broke and took to the fields, only to find that what appeared to be solid ground was in fact an impassible bog in which horses, men, and guns slowly sank from sight."
The Imperial Russian Army in action.The Imperial Russian Army in action.
The Imperial Russian Army in action.

    The 1st Army to the north did not answer Samsonov's appeals for help. Furthermore, there was no communication among elements of the 2d Army struggling to flee from the trap. That army became demoralized as "regiments and brigades were swallowed up, and the death toll taken by Hindenburg's artillery was moderate in comparison to the numbers of men swallowed up in the mud and water. The accounts of eye-witnesses are ghastly in their descriptions of the cries of whole battalions of men rising out of the night from some dark quicksand in which they were being slowly engulfed."

    Samsonov, despairing in his great defeat, shot himself on 29 August. The Russian 2d Army had lost 30,000 men, and an additional 92,000 were taken prisoner. German casualties were estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000 men. On 29 and 30 August, the remnants of the Russian 2d Army, tired and plagued by supply problems, surrendered. Most had not eaten for several days and were starving.

    Not content with the annihilation of the Russian 2d Army, the Germans turned north on 5 September and engaged the Russian 1st Army in battle. On 9 September, a portion of the German 8th Army, striking though the Masurian Lakes region, severed the already anemic Russian supply and communication lines to their rear. Rennenkamf reacted better than Samsonov and retreated faster than the 2d Army had. Even so, Russian casualties were again numerous and those of the Germans were few. The Russian "Steamroller" not only was destroyed and thrown back, but it was months before the Russians again were capable of offensive operations. The Allies learned in time that the Russian logistics system was inadequate and that, quoting Abbot, "the Russian supplies of munitions of war had been exhausted."

What Happened?

    In 1917, while World War I was still raging across Europe, Abbott published the first book about the Battle of Tannenberg. He believed that the superior deployment of the German forces, combined with their intimate knowledge of the terrain, enabled the Germans to destroy the Russian Army. While this strategic assessment is certainly true, modern historians such as John Macdonald recognize the great importance that logistics played in the Russian battlefield disaster, noting that "Russia certainly had an abundance of manpower, but was woefully lacking in administrative ability; nor was there competent machinery to keep thousands of soldiers supplied in the field."

    The German High Command had put together an organization to confront the Russian threat, beginning when Hindenburg was ordered out of retirement to lead the 8th Army. In addition to the forces available to confront the Russian 2d Army, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had drawn two corps from the north defending the Russian 1st Army and forces from as far away as Flanders, on the western front. It follows that the logistics support for these forces was cobbled together as well.

    Although guided by circumstance and the forces available, rather than by fielding a preconceived organization, the German commanders responded quickly to the unique battlefield situation they confronted. They designed the organization they needed to match the specific mission requirements dictated by the Russian invasion.

    The Russian Army at Tannenberg was defeated for many reasons, one being its poorly planned, coordinated, and executed logistics. From deploying cavalry to an area ill suited for cavalry operations, to inadequately supplying the 2d Army with food, the Russian logisticians failed to create the environment necessary for their army to achieve victory.

    Conversely, the German forces under Hindenberg and Ludendorf gathered the minimal forces at their disposal and, through adept organization and coordination, destroyed a numerically superior enemy force with little effort. Although the Russians had mobilized faster than expected, the Battle of Tannenberg showed that victory does not always go to the army that gets there "the firstest with the mostest," but rather to the army that deploys with what it needs to win as dictated by theater requirements.
Left, Germans are entrenched in Masurian Lakes Country.  Right is a German machinegun trench.Left, Germans are entrenched in Masurian Lakes Country.  Right is a German machinegun trench.
Left, Germans are entrenched in Masurian Lakes Country.  Right is a German machinegun trench.

German troops clean out a captured Russian trench. German troops clean out a captured Russian trench.

    The military historian and other followers of battle often see only the combat arms elements, and those only as pieces on a chessboard. The logistician must see all elements as threads on a spider's web, all connected in a way that makes them interdependent. The United States has many types of arsenals at its disposal. The organizational arsenal of the TSC concept will help achieve victories for the United States military on the battlefields of the future much as a similar concept enabled the Germans to win the World War I Battle of Tannenberg.  ALOG

    Master Sergeant John J. Blair is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Corps Liaison Officer Team (Forward) in the Readiness Operations Division, 55th Materiel Management Center, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He has 4 years of active-duty service and 16 years as an Army Reserve logistician.