An old adage states that military amateurs worry about tactics while military professionals worry about logistics. It’s a bit of an overstatement. Sound tactical plans, executed properly can produce decisive results. But, at a higher level, the adage relays an important truth. Putting resources where they’re needed is a prerequisite for victory and that comes through good logistical planning.
Logistics in the Ukraine War
We are witnessing the pitfalls of poor planning for logistics in the Ukraine War. The Russian Army collected large armored formations along its border before launching them into Ukraine in February. From the start, evidence of weak planning began to show. Long lines of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles were stuck on roads with nowhere to go. Reports of abandoned vehicles with empty fuel tanks circulated. Troops complained of not getting enough food and ammunition, leading to morale problems. The offensive stalled in little more than a week. The Russians discovered that large, powerful combat formations can only go so far without a functioning logistical tail.
Soviet era tactical doctrine, still in play within the Russian military, stipulated the width of a unit’s avenue of advance. For an attacking regiment to break an opponent’s line, a regiment concentrates on a front one kilometer in width. At that density, the vehicles would be nearly hub to hub if stretched on a straight line. However, conditions did not favor putting Russian tanks in linear formation. In Ukraine late winter thaws and spring rains can turn farm fields to slush, impassable for even track vehicles. That’s why the Russian tank columns kept to the roads. Confined to a narrow road, an armored force can string out several kilometers—easy pickings for an opponent’s artillery.
The Russians tried to cram too many combat vehicles into too small a frontage. Much of their firepower was left idling on the roads as the lead elements bogged down under Ukrainian fire. Careful military planners have to look beyond doctrine for more practicable solutions.
Keeping an Offensive on the Move
Once a combat formation has been committed it must be supported. Logistical planners have prescribed estimates for the daily tonnage a single brigade consumes in food, fuel, and ammunition. To reach forward elements with necessary supplies, the brigade needs support vehicles capable of carrying that amount of tonnage. To give some idea of the challenge, consider a single 6-gun artillery battery firing one 30-minute preparation. That battery would expend nine tons of ammunition in one mission, enough to empty two 5-ton trucks. Added to the daily consumption of rations, water, diesel fuel, lubricants, spare parts, etc. the supply convoy gets long. Logicians have guidelines for the extent and quality of the road network required to support a brigade in combat. The Russians apparently overlooked that calculation.
The logistical task gets greater the deeper into an opponent’s territory the army goes. More miles between depot and forward units means more capacity needed to haul and longer lead times to deliver. For example, the US Army faced this problem in 1944. After the Normandy breakout, the Allies advanced across France and Belgium in little more than a month. The army kept the advance moving with innovative measures like the Red Ball Express, a prioritized resupply route for trucks. I discuss some of these supply issues in my book Battle Hardened. More recently in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US combat forces outran their supply vehicles. Commanders paused the rapid advance long enough to allow logistics to catch up. After a couple of days, the well-stocked armored columns captured Baghdad.
Eventually, armies must plan for extending bulk deliveries of critical items farther forward. They have to lay pipelines and construct new rail lines to push fuel and supplies closer to the forward units. As far back as the Civil War, the US Military Railroad brought supplies to Grant’s army around Richmond and Petersburg.
Global Force Projection
Deploying forces overseas is the greatest logistical challenge. Access to ports is critical. A force can either use those of friendly nations or seize an enemy port by amphibious assault. Manila, Cherbourg, Cam Ranh Bay, and Doha are examples of foreign ports used by American forces in previous wars. The docks, warehouses and transportation hubs of deep-sea ports are essential for offloading the resources coming off ships. To project an army across an ocean requires a huge merchant marine lift capacity and naval strength to protect it. Over the last 200 years only America, Japan and western European nations have demonstrated such a capability. Meanwhile, Russia has had difficulty projecting force more than 200 kilometers beyond its own borders.
Projecting an army into enemy territory takes more than superior firepower. It requires logistics. Planning for logistical support, supplies, and the assets to deliver them are keys to success.