Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics…


… and it looks like logistics professionals in the Russian armed forces were conspicuous by their absence when that country invaded Ukraine.  The Wall Street Journal reports:

In Ukraine, Russia began the war by mounting a complex multipronged offensive using land, air and seaborne forces. It quickly lost steam … more than 170,000 Russian troops are estimated to have been committed to Ukraine in about 130 units, known as battalion tactical groups. When the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003, similar numbers of U.S. troops were committed in fewer than 50 BTGs. The reason for the difference: the large proportion of the U.S. force being used for logistics and the transportation of fuel, ammunition, water and food.

Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said military experts may have been deceived by the “lavish logistical system” employed by the U.S. in the past three decades. “What the U.S. has done has made people immune to looking at the reality of logistics and just assuming it will get done,” he said.

He said the complexity of the Russian operation compounded problems of logistics. “What they were actually trying to do was logistically bonkers. They were trying to support five or six different axes of advance in a hugely spread-out arch, all the way from west of Kyiv, all of that bulge of eastern Ukraine, down to Crimea.”

. . .

“They [invaded] profoundly unready for sustained offensive operations,” said Scott Boston, a defense analyst at the Rand Corp. Some units ran out of fuel on day three of the campaign.

The Ukrainian defense also harassed stretched Russian supply lines from the side and rear. Many military analysts suspect this was part of Ukraine’s battle plan and no accident, though some Ukrainian units may have been left behind by Russia’s rapid advance and decided on their own to harass vulnerable supply and fuel trucks. Partisans also got into the act.

Russian forces at home are heavily reliant on rail for moving supplies around. Except in the south where Russian forces secured the city of Kherson, Moscow wasn’t able to secure any other major railheads, leaving it dependent on roads and trucks.

Logistical problems multiplied and were worsened by poor communications. “The more you advance, the more you extend your logistical line, the higher the complexity,” said Yohann Michel, a research analyst at IISS.

With little evidence that Russian forces established their own supply dumps inside Ukraine, resupply trucks had to shuttle long distances back and forth, themselves needing to refuel. Clips on social media also show much of this equipment was poorly maintained, perhaps coming out of yearslong storage.

“If one truck shows up and fuels three or four vehicles and then turns around and goes back, I don’t know how long you think you can do this,” said Mr. Boston.  The farther the journeys, the more challenging the refueling—particularly when supply lines haven’t been secured.

There’s more at the link.

Now that Russia appears to have abandoned its northern thrust on Kyiv and is reorienting its forces to concentrate on the campaign in and around the Donbas region in the east and south, they’ll have a far more concentrated force, easier to resupply and coordinate.  However, it’s probably cost them thousands of casualties in soldiers, vehicles and weapons to learn an expensive logistics lesson.

In “my” war, the Border War in northern Namibia, southern Angola and sundry other points here and there, one of the cardinal rules was that no operation ever went in without great attention being paid to how the troops were to be sustained and resupplied.  We were fighting a thousand miles or more from our industrial base, in a region almost without roads, and with little or no opportunity for airborne resupply.  The design of South African military vehicles such as the Ratel IFV and SAMIL truck range therefore emphasized simplicity, rugged reliability under the worst conditions, and carrying extended supplies of water, food and ammunition for their crews and troops embarked in them.  They offered greater range and offroad capability than contemporary designs in other armed forces.

Operations in that environment were planned to be in-and-out affairs, going in well-supplied and relying on at most one or two major resupply convoys before being withdrawn.  In 1987/88, during extended operations against Angolan and Cuban forces, they had to stay in contact with the enemy, at great distances from their bases, for prolonged periods – months at a time.  In the process, they encountered real problems with logistics, the artillery in particular.  (One operation involved a small team operating well over two thousand miles from South Africa, with no direct logistical resupply whatsoever – everything had to be smuggled in, taking a lot of time and risking a great deal.)  In his excellent book “The War for Africa: Twelve Months that Transformed a Continent“, Fred Bridgland covered the details of the later stages of the Border War in detail.  It’s an indispensable book for any student of military logistics in less developed areas of the world.

(Two other excellent books on military logistics are Martin van Creveld’s “Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton” and Kenneth Privratsky’s “Logistics in the Falklands War: A Case Study in Expeditionary Warfare“.)

In recent decades, the USA solved its logistics problems by throwing vast quantities of money and supplies at the problem.  It’s been estimated that only about one in ten US soldiers actually fight;  the rest provide services, backup, supply, etc. to the fighting spearpoint.  That was certainly the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, where enormous numbers of service personnel existed only to support and resupply those in contact with the enemy or patrolling troubled regions.  It’s a very expensive way to fight a war (witness the literally trillions of dollars spent on US wars over the past couple of decades, not to mention the amount of waste uncovered by multiple inquiries), but it does work, if it’s done right.

The question is whether the former US approach will be sustainable (i.e. affordable) in a high-inflation, financially boondoggled economy.  I venture to doubt it.  Russia’s earlier approach in Ukraine clearly is also not sustainable across a broad battle front;  but it may be made more workable in a limited, geographically restricted campaign.  That remains to be seen.



  1. Glad to see the WSJ catching up with the bloggers and tweeters

    I wrote something not totally dissimilar on my blog a month ago.

    Mind you I'll admit I was slightly over-optimistic then about the ability of Ukraine to defeat the Kyiv ares attack (I figured they'd be done in week or so from then) but overall when I reread that post it seems to hold up pretty well.

    I hope my more recent one explaining how Ukraine can actually win holds up as well

  2. in my very humble opinion (I am, in no way a strategist or a logician) I think Mr V. Putin is an extremely brilliant man employing (unemotionally) his troops as chess pieces.
    again, IMHO, I think, had he so wanted, he could have taken Kiev (and the way he played it, I think he demonstrated that); not necessarily held it.
    I think he's only mildly annoyed that the U.S., NATO, and the EU are (and have been increasingly) involved in the politics of the Ukraine and, with a view towards the history of the Hapsberg empire, feels that the balkanization of the old Russian empire will only result large-scale wide-spread war.
    I'm looking at this "kerfuffle" as a first-generation American, a child of Eastern European parentage. I'm also looking at this as someone who read and studied the "Cuban Missile Crisis."
    I don't think that we (the U.S.) should have ever become involved in the Ukraine – just my very humble opinion.

  3. Could be that the leadership truly believed in the "How do you do, fellow Slavs?" gambit.
    If you're expecting to be welcomed as liberators, who needs logistics?
    Taking a few centuries of the region's history into account, a considerable amount of resistance to the return of Russian rule ought to have been expected, but this is where hubris and rewriting history will get ya.

  4. I recall someone saying something along the lines of, "We'll kick the door down and the whole house will crumble." My German language skills are somewhat lacking, but that was the gist of it, anyway. When the Wehrmacht was extended to the gates of Moscow, it was turned back (or more realistically, redirected), but the effect was the same. When it reached the interior of Stalingrad but could not entirely dislodge the defenders (who were highly motivated to repulse the attackers of its homeland, not to mention that they had been given the ideal battle space on which to bleed the attacking forces), the Wehrmacht was again unsuccessful in knocking down the door, let alone the entire edifice. When redirected south to the oilfields, they were again ultimately unsuccessful in maintaining their advances and were forced to retreat. Thus ended Fall Blau. Ultimately it was the inability of the attacker to maintain its impetus over long distances and overstretched supply lines that did the Wehrmacht in. Hitler and his general staff probably should have read Clausewitz more closely. Once those dominoes started to fall, the conclusion was inevitable. So it may be in Ukraine. Or not. It's confusing. I just know that the USA must maintain its distance from that morass, and if it persists in its present course, it too may ultimately be defeated. I would hate to see that. The Chinese have a better grasp on the realities of war, since they are trying to militarily expand only within a sphere that radiates outward within defensible boundaries and safe lines of resupply. It is conquering areas outside that sphere by other-than-military means.

  5. How are all those millions of Ukrainians being resupplied? (not the ones who fled west). Their logistics can't be a hell of a lot better.

    DW has an undated report that Russia is blocking up to 300 ships filled with mostly grain from leaving the Black Sea. Not sure how true that is but I'm sure that if a year from now a couple of million Africans start fleeing to continent they won't be going to Russia; or China for that matter. I am cynical enough to think the Davos crowd would be happy to push a million or so to North America in their ongoing efforts to transform America.

  6. So……….the incompetent, under-supplied, conscript-laden Russian Army, may or may not take its objectives.

    And we're told that this very same incompetent, under-supplied, conscript-laden Russian Army threatens to take over the rest of Eastern Europe if the US & NATO don't stop it right now.

    Yup. Sure.

  7. Peter
    Logistics these days for the DotMil was/is handled strictly by Contractors. Most of us were/are former DotMil but ALL sustainment, from Property Book 'Officers' (one of my 'hats' over the years) to the kitchens staffed by TCNs (Third Country Nationals) and run by FUSA nationals as the 'bosses'. It's literally the Corprotocracy at work… CACI, one of the many companies I worked for is better known as "Colonels And Captains Incorporated" for the 'back-in-the-day' enormous amount of former Occifers making MAD bank.

    I quit contracting primarily b/c the arena so to speak got positively FLOODED with every. single. 92Y supply kid who did 3 years, got out and expected 100k a year. Totally undermined the salaries, allowing the Companies in question like KBR and the like to cut the pay down to el zilch-o.

    No way in hell was I going to go into an active war zone for less than $75k a year, but these days? Starting rate for a first time loggie is about $45k… too little for an experienced contractor like me, and the new kids? Clueless, lazy and uninspired. Better to be at home with Wifey and the Grans. Safer and a longer life expectacy. My 2 cents.

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