Amateurs talk about strategy and tactics. Professionals talk about logistics and sustainability in warfare.
– Robert Hilliard Barrow (1922-2008)
For the first time in decades, the world has two near peer state adversaries facing off in conventional combat. Ukraine and the Russian Federation, after eight years of smaller engagements, have had their relations deteriorate into full scale kinetic warfare. The conflict between these two former Soviet Union (FSU) nations has presented a host of lessons for both the actual combatants, and the numerous Western analysts desperately trying to make sense of the situation’s stakeholders and power struggles.
Kinetic warfare of this scale has not been seen in recent history, and certainly not to a level of near-peer equipment usage. Years of tension and consolidation of military equipment has culminated in Russian tanks being abandoned from fuel shortages, and columns of Multiple Launch Rocket System trucks that are required to move miles to rearm between fire missions. Ostensibly, this would seem like any other logistics problem encountered in the field. Users are unable to have supplies brought to them fast enough to manage the situation at hand and must slow or even halt dramatic advances in order to allow the critical 1, 3, 5s of supply to reach the forward combat units.
One notable observation so far has been the general disarray of nearly completely undefended Russian supply convoys, which is in contrast with the relative ease that Ukrainians are able to move Anti-Tank Guided Missiles and small arms throughout the battlespace. Or to use a literary reference, the Goliath is being out-manoeuvred by the David. Camera footage that has made it into mainstream social media paints a very bleak picture for Russian logisticians who are being filmed broken down on the side of highways in light trucks, while the local civilian populace verbally abuses them.
Keen observers of this footage will notice the mishmash of different logistics vehicles, as well as the sheer size of the convoys. Scale is difficult to comprehend, particularly as amateur footage is analysed from several continents away, however, the sporadic reports of halted tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, combined with the number of tanks found abandoned by their crews due to a lack of fuel, paints a bleak picture of the logistics situation.
At the time of writing, the Russians have been unable to take Kiev which has been defended with a combination of conventional Ukrainian troops, Ukrainian Reserves, and militia forces that have been armed by the government. This is despite the Russians fielding more advanced inventory of military equipment (though the T-14 Armata has been suspiciously absent).
Nearly all the Russian mechanised and armoured elements have slowed significantly to allow infantry to conduct the bulk of the fighting in the capital, whilst different news outlets report that major airports change hands on a near daily basis. Unsurprisingly, this has made resupply by fixed wing aircraft an impossibility for both sides in large numbers, causing even further strain on conventional ground logistics vehicles.
Shipping throughout the Black Sea has proved to be capable of supporting the forces that took Odessa; however, that is of little comfort to the tank battalions that are now stranded near Kiev.
Therefore, to an outsider looking in, with only amateur footage and what amounts to government propaganda (from both sides), it is abundantly clear that the invading Russian forces have completely forgone significant logistical planning in exchange for speed of action, and an assumption that they would encounter far less resistance than they have.
Invasions of this scale are incredibly resource dependent and highly prone to dislocating key logistics assets from frontline troops as the advance into hostile territory can be faster than anticipated. Taking a holistic view of the invasion as it stands currently, it can be reasonable to deduce that the Russians expected to have far greater support from the local populace to furnish their soldiers with food; and that they expected to take and hold major airports for use as forward resupply very soon after H-hour. Strategic assumptions such as these have led to desperate situations at the tactical level, with some smaller Russian units and sub-units going up to 48 hours, or more, beyond their food and fuel capacities.
As this conflict unfolds in the coming weeks, the West needs to look deeply at our own logistics planning and capabilities and seriously consider whether they are up to standard, or if we are doomed to follow the same mistakes that we see from the Russians. Supplying this kind of invasion for an extended period is likely to be unsustainable. Senior soldiers, still serving today, remember the rapid advances through Iraq in 2003 and the difficulties of remaining supplied well enough to continue to fight against a combined threat of conventional and insurgent forces.
Echoed through the Russo-Ukrainian War are the rapid advances of Desert Storm, Korea, and Barbarossa; the same issues that plagued the Coalition, North Koreans, and Germans (respectively) now eat away at conventional Russian capability. Studying these massed offences and learning from them is essential to the competitive advantage of a modern military force.
But what is the solution? A simple solution would be to slow the advance down to a level that is sustainable by the current road capabilities; however, this assessment ignores key strategic goals as set by the overarching plan. Logistics and logisticians never lead planning groups with good reason – just because something is completely sustainable, does not mean it is operationally or tactically sound. The chaotic nature of warfare means that often brash exploitation of openings in enemy defence is an unsustainable prelude to victory.
An army on the advance needs to establish a main effort and move the focus away from short term objectives, towards the maintenance of tempo. The defending Ukrainians have enjoyed significant successes in slowing down the Russians and forcing them to take resupply at inopportune moments. This has compounded on the usual stressors for logisticians and made it incredibly hard for any amount of momentum to be maintained.
In conclusion, every ADF soldier, sailor, airmen and officer should be intently watching every available piece of footage that comes out of the Russo-Ukrainian War and forming their own ideas for overcoming the problems that we are seeing play out in real time between two modern militaries.
Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.
– Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898)