Memorandum regarding Military Strength of the Soviet Union

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Memorandum regarding Military Strength of the Soviet Union  (1938) 
by Philip R. Faymonville

memorandum to Joseph E.Davies U.S. ambassador to the USSR

Enclosure No. 1 to Despatch

No. 1341 dated June 6, 1938, from

the American Embassy, Moscow, U.S.S.R

April 20, 1938.

Memorandum for the Ambassador. Subject: Military Strength of the Soviet Union, April, 1938

Standing Army

1. The first line of defense of the Soviet Union is its standing army, a force consisting of all land arms and services administered by the Peoples Commissariat for Defense. This force, known as the RKKA (Workers and Peasants Red Army), consists of officers about ninety per cent. of whom expect to make the army their career, junior commanders or non-commissioned officers about half of whom have had extended military service, and conscripts who are enrolled yearly for periods of two, three, or four years with the colors.

2. The total strength of the RKKA is approximately 1,300,000. During the weeks when conscripts are being received into units and men finishing their enlistments have not yet been furloughed to the reserve, the total figure probably is twenty per cent. greater than that stated. During the winter season, the average strength is probably twenty per cent. below the figure stated.

3. Naval units, now forming part of a separate Peoples Commissariat of the Navy, amount to approximately 50,000 officers and men.

4. Border guards and transport troops, forming part of the Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs, receive regular military training and discipline and should be considered in estimating the total military effectiveness of the Soviet Union. They amount to about 200,000 men.

Relative Strengths

5. Comparisons between the military Power of the Soviet Union and its neighbors can be made by assuming that the strength of standing armies measures roughly the ability of each nation to carry out immediately its military objectives when an emergency arises. Comparisons made on the basis of the relative strength of standing armies are not conclusive since some nations have vastly more economic reserves and manpower reserves than others. Such reserves are effective, however, only after the initial mobilization has taken place and the initial military moves have been made. In past wars this initial phase, sometimes called the "first echelon of mobilization", has occupied the the two to four months following the outbreak of hostilities.

6. The figure of 1,300,000 for the RKKA may be compared with the following approximate figures for the standing armies of the various neighbors of the Soviet Union:

Estonia 12,000
Finland 25,000
Germany 600,000
Italy 528,000
Japan 248,000
Latvia 27,000
Lithuania 22,000
Poland 284,000
Rumania 266,000


7. All the nations mentioned in paragraph 6 above have made provisions for supplementing their regular army units by other units made up in whole or in part from reserve troops. The reserves are composed both of men who have completed the regular period of enlistment and have been granted long-term leave, and also of men who have never served regularly with the colors but have received limited periods of military or semi-military training yearly.

8. With the probable exception of the German army, European armies have accumulated considerable reservoirs of reserve trained manpower. These trained reserves amount to three, four,and five times the strength of the standing armies.

9. The Soviet union has been thorough in the training of its manpower an in the utilization of all eligible individuals for some sort of military work.

10. The youth of the nation is under the constant supervision of local military authorities from the age of eligibility for the Oktobriata up through the stage of Young Pioneers (twelve to sixteen years), to the pre-conscription training of the Komsomols (League of Communist Youth). Age limits for membership in the Komsomols are sixteen to twenty four years, but the great majority of Komsomol units are made up of youths between the ages of sixteen and nineteen or twenty, when they are called for military service.

11. The activities of the Komsomols are closely supervised by military authorities. In the various training groups are included not only actual members of the Komsomol but also candidates and non-members. The activities include physical training, military drill, marksmanship, parachute training, glider practice, athletic competitions, manual training, hunting, and scientific and literary work.

12. Approximately 1,500,000 Soviet youths arrive at the conscription age each year. From this number, about 500,000 are required for active service in the armed forces of the nation. The periods of service are two, three or four years, depending upon the branch of the army to which the recruit is assigned. The training of the remaining conscripts may be deferred for family reasons or because studies are being pursued in a higher educational institution, or the conscripts may be held liable for a few weeks of training each Summer.

13. About 500,000, men complete their active service annually. In addition, for every conscript selected for service in the Red Army, two men are given brief summer training in military fundamentals. The Red Army is therefore building up its reserves at a rate of about three reserves for each man in the ranks of the Red Army.

14. The rate of accumulation of reserves during the past twenty years has not been uniform, but it is probable that the Soviet Union possesses approximately 5,000,000 trained men who could be used to fill up reserve divisions. An additional 6,000,000 men partially trained are estimated to be available for subsequent draft requirements. The total pool of physically fit males from which the armed forces must be drawn is estimated at 15,000,000.

Recent Growth of the Red Army

15. The period 1934-1938 has been one of extraordinary growth for the Red Army. During this time, the strength of the army has been increased from less than half a million to a present total of 1,300,000. The increase in budget estimates for military purposes during this period has been no less startling. The military budget for 1934 was 1,665,000,000 rubles an increase of about fifteen per cent. over the previous year. The actual expenditures for military purposes during 1934 were 5,000,000,000 rubles. Budget figures rose rapidly until in 1938 they amount to over 20,000,000,000 rubles approximately a fifth of the total national budget.

16. The increase in personnel and in military expenditures has been accompanied by a real increase in military effectiveness, but this increased effectiveness is probably not commensurate with the increase in expenditure. The principal branches which have benefited by the increases are the air forces and the mechanized forces.

17. The Red Army compares favorably with the armies of neighboring states in its tank equipment and its mechanized units. It is probable that 4,000 tanks of various types are available for immediate use and the munitions factories producing tanks have reached a satisfactory stage of mass production.

18. The Red Army is provided with a powerful air force which is superior in numbers to the air establishments of any of it's neighbors. The types of planes assigned to the air forces of the Red Army are not entirely satisfactory. In nearly every class, types of planes are known to exist abroad which are superior to Soviet types. This deficiency is partially compensated by the considerable numbers of planes actually on hand in the Red Army. Soviet Pursuit planes are very satisfactory, and the light bombers and reconnaissance planes are good, but heavy bombers are too slow and unwieldy. These defects are especially disappointing in view of the great progress made abroad in the design of bombers during the past three years.

Industrial Preparedness

19. Such effort has been expended on the building up of a munitions industry to support the armed forces of the Soviet Union in an emergency. These efforts have been quite successful in the creation of an airplane industry, a tank building industry, and in the great improvement in the entire metallurgical field. All activities of the munitions industry are grouped in a separate commissariat in order to achieve greater coordination and in order that first priority may in all necessary cases be secured for munitions programs.

20. The Soviet Union is fortunate in having adequate stocks or adequate resources of nearly all the basic materials necessary for munitions production. The principal exceptions are rubber, tin, and aluminum. The various manufacturing processes required for the adaptation of the metal industry for munitions have been acquired by the Soviet Union, and new factories employing the latest scientific methods are making satisfactory progress.

21. Under the socialist economy existing in the Soviet Union five elements are of great importance in planning the industrial structure which must support any war effort. These five elements are food, munitions, transportation, and to a lesser extent clothing and housing. Since industry is not privately controlled, the question of finance is not of the same relative importance in the industrial plans of the Soviet Union as it is in other nations. Manpower presents the important problem of industrial training, but no problem of actual manpower shortage exists. The morale factor is important, but steps already taken by the government to control public thought and mold public opinion appear to be effective.

22. Of the five questions noted above, that of food has been solved by the practically complete collectivization of agriculture. This step insures to the government a greater amount of control over both the production and distribution of food products than would be practicable in the Soviet Union under any other system. The munitions question has been met by the creation of a separate commissariat of munitions which controls all industrial activities to army supply and which guarantees to the munitions industry first priority and if necessary monopoly control over raw materials and trained labor. The transportation question has not been solved and would constitute a serious handicap in munitions production and distribution. The measures undertaken to speed up transportation appear to be meeting with some success. Clothing and housing are unsatisfactory, even in time of peace and would be no better under emergency conditions. Both are so highly centralized in government commissariats however, as to assure adequate clothing and housing to the armed forces and to workers engaged in the munitions industry, even though the rest of the population were not provided for.

23. Incidental but important difficulties which hamper all Soviet industry are the lack of skilled labor, the frequent misuse of machinery, and the adoption of advanced industrial methods without having passed through preliminary stages of development and training.

Training and Morale of Officers

24. During the twenty years of its existence, the Red Army has passed through various phases in the task of attempting to provide its organizations with proper officers. Throughout the Civil War and post-war years, Red Army units were officered largely by former soldiers, generally without military education, and by former officers, who were allowed to exercise their talents under the constant and direct supervision of a political officer. One of the greatest accomplishments of Frunze and Voroshilov in building up the Red Army was the establishment of a large number of military schools through which all the younger officers and many of the older officers of the Red Army were required to pass.

25. By 1934, the number of former tsarist officers still commanding Red Army unit's had become almost negligible, and the successive classes of graduates of Soviet military schools had risen to posts of importance. As these officers were generally considered politically reliable, they were often appointed "commander and commissar" of their respective units, the system of political control by an independent commissar being considered unnecessary

26.As a result of the treason trials of 1937, the Soviet government reconstituted the system of military, commissars and of military soviets composed largely of political officers, to supervise the political education of the army and to maintain a closer supervision over military commanders than had been thought necessary during the preceding four years.

27. The typical Red Army officer of today is a man who has passed through the military school of his arm or service and who has in addition been graduated from one of the higher military institutes or academies which prepare officers for general command duty and for general staff duty. His military qualifications for command of company, battalion, regimental, and brigade units are considered excellent. His qualifications for higher command have not been tested but are probably good. His general education is spotty. As a rule, he is qualified in the basic sciences, his own language and literature, and has been exposed to a long course of training in socialist theory. He has also some general culture and an appreciation of music and art. His knowledge of history is usually deficient, and his views as to foreign nations are nearly always distorted. He is usually a man of excellent physique, ambitious, and full of energy, and accepts as part of his job hardships and deprivations which do not fall to the lot of officers in other armies.

28. The government fully realizes that its strength and the success of the regime it is attempting to maintain, depends in the last analysis on the loyalty and support of the Red Army. No pains have been spared to indoctrinate both of officers and conscripts with a sense of loyalty to the government and to their country. These efforts have, in fact, produced a loyal army. The military trials of 1937 and the exposure of alleged traitors caused a shock throughout the army, and the subsequent cleansings instituted in military units produced serious although temporary, dislocation and confusion. It is believed that these changes have now resulted in a feeling of greater security on the part of the average soldier and a belief that his destiny is now in the hands of trustworthy officers and that the traitors have met a deserved fate. The promotion of many younger officers as a result of the elimination of higher commanders has built up new groups of commanders, younger in age and experience but apparently more energetic and more devoted in their loyalty than their predecessors. The system of parallel control by commissars, whatever may be its disadvantages for active operations in war time, has produced no ill effects in peace time administration. Since both officers and conscripts are undoubtedly ready to defend their government, and since personal discontent is far less among the military forces than among the civilian population, the morale of the Red Army is judged to be satisfactory.

Strategic Plans

29. The Soviet Union faces potential enemies on its western and far eastern boundaries, against which the Red Army must be prepared to operate simultaneously.

30. In the face of this double danger, the government has created two considerable forces which may fight independently and without expectation of mutual support. In the far east, the Special Red Bannered Far Eastern Army, numbering approximately 200, 000, occupies a strong defensive line well equipped with reserve supplies and supported by a growing rural population from which it can draw reserve personnel and necessary farm products.

31. On its western boundary the Red Array maintains three strongly garrisoned military districts. Red Army units of approximately equal number to the standing armies of those states which could be quickly aligned against the Soviet Union, are maintained in constant readiness near the border.

32. Although both the training and the equipment of the Red Army look toward the holding of defensive lines rather than toward the organizing of large expeditionary movements, the Red Army is nevertheless equipped with air fleets and with tank units which are used to best advantage in warfare of movement. It is unlikely that the Red Army would resort to purely position warfare if invaded either in the west or the far east. The recent utterances of army leaders as to the desirability of defeating the enemy "on the teritory whence he may appear" are not necessarily to be accepted literally as campaign plans, but they do seem to indicate that in case of attack the Red Army would be unwilling to remain in defensive positions but would engage the invader's army actively wherever it might be.


33. The Red Army of April, 1938 may be regarded as a powerful military organization composed of excellent soldiers, excellent junior commanders, and at least fair higher commanders. The army is equipped with good hand arms, many very fair airplanes and excellent tanks. Its artillery is fair and is rapidly being improved. The army is supported by an enormous munitions industry which is highly centralized and capable of turning the entire resources of the country toward the support of the munitions program.

34. The defensive position of the Soviet Union is inherently very strong. It would, in fact, be impossible to literally conquer the Soviet Union. An enemy might sooner hope for internal collapse of the Soviet regime, but the Soviet government, well aware of this possibility, is taking every precaution to insure that the armed forces shall be loyal to the government and that no discontented groups shall be formed within the country which might threaten the authority of the Kremlin. The Soviet Union can at least hold its own militarily against any combination of two hostile powers. If the Soviet Union were confronted by a hostile alliance of more than two powers, some of its territory might be occupied, but it is probable that the present military of the Soviet Union would prevent a decisive defeat, and it is unlikely that permanent gains would accrue to the invading armies.

Philip R. Faymonville
Lt. Col. Ord. Dept.,
Millitary Attache.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).