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Wars Are Won by Logisticians

The ongoing military operations in Ukraine are the largest land conflict in Europe since World War II. The organization of military support, which is flowing into Ukraine from all over the world, shows the great importance of logistics on the battlefield.

Unclassified reports on the course of the war that is taking place in Ukraine show that Ukrainian soldiers use around 5,000 rounds of artillery ammunition a day. This is roughly as much as a medium European country has hitherto ordered in a year. It is also estimated that Ukrainians fire as many shells in one day of hostilities as were used in a month during intense combat in Afghanistan. Moreover, according to Michael Kotkin, an expert at the Washington think tank Woodrow Wilson International Center, Ukraine, while defending itself, is using up more missiles than the West as a whole can produce in that time.

 

REKLAMA

Who Has the Upper Hand?

This is only one, albeit emphatic, example. It is a known fact, however, that ammunition alone is not enough to fight a war. Military equipment, fuel, individual equipment, uniforms or food rations are also necessary. Providing appropriate supplies for the fighting subdivisions takes time, and so does delivering the necessary military equipment and supplies directly to the fighting units. It is a huge logistical challenge, faced not only by Ukraine itself, but also by partner states, mainly in the West, which for months have been directing a massive stream of military aid to the fighting country.

“The conflict in Ukraine shows us what logistical warfare is. The winner is the one who better and faster provides his troops with ammunition, fuel, weapons, uniforms, sleeping bags or food packages,” says LtGen Jaroslaw Gromadziński, until recently Deputy Commander of the International Relief Team for Ukraine and since June Commander of the Eurocorps in Strasbourg. “Logistics is very expensive, requires time and good synchronization. It is not as spectacular as combat operations, but without logistics – as the war in Ukraine clearly illustrates – we can't get very far,” he adds.

It has been a year and a half since the Russian attack, which started a full-scale war with our neighbor. For the time being, there is no indication that the war will end anytime soon. Instead, it could turn into a long-running conflict, whose outcome will be determined by more efficient resource management. This also means that the role of logistics will increase even further. Kiev is dependent on foreign supplies, as it needs significant quantities of ammunition, weapons, equipment, fuel and other supplies. Russia's seemingly inexhaustible resources also have their limitations, and the Kremlin authorities are also trying to obtain deliveries of arms and ammunition from partner countries, such as Iran and North Korea.

Col Tomasz Jałowiec, Prof, Dean of the Faculty of Management and Command at the War Studies University (ASzWoj), draws attention to yet another aspect: “In recent years, the world's scientific centers and experts in various fields have paid a lot of attention to the issues of the war of the future. They have marginalized the role of logistics, arguing that conflicts will be fought mainly in the cyber sphere. However, the war in Ukraine has made us realize the importance of logistical resources in warfare.”

Mistakes Also Count

Since the first days of the ongoing war in Ukraine, there have been plenty of examples proving the crucial role played by logistics in a modern conflict. “The effective conduct of military operations depends on providing regular and timely supplies to the fighting subdivisions, of which the Russians became painfully aware. Ukraine was undoubtedly saved from a quick defeat by its heroic defenders, but the disastrous organization of Russian logistical support was not without significance,” assesses BrigGen Mirosław Polakow, Head of Division – Deputy Chief of Staff for support of the Armed Forces Operational Command.

True, in the first days of the war, Russian armored columns pushed toward Kiev, covering dozens of kilometers a day. Presumably, Moscow wanted to achieve what the Americans did during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when, in a lightning-fast ground campaign that lasted only a hundred hours and was preceded by intense bombardment, they neutralized Iraq's defensive infrastructure and imposed their terms on the enemy. The Russians, boasting the world's second largest army, most likely expected to achieve similar success. They wanted to carry out a blitzkrieg operation, hitting the critical points of Ukrainian defense, seizing control and forming a pro-Russian government. This was the kind of operation that individual units and logistics were prepared for.

However, the resistance of the Ukrainians was greater than Russia had expected, and the difficulties of Russian soldiers began to grow rapidly. After just three days, they began to suffer from a shortage of fuel, ammunition and food rations. The world media circulated photos of Russian vehicles pulling up to Ukrainian gas stations or soldiers stealing food from the locals.

The Russian logistics convoys got stuck on narrow and mucky roads, which destabilized regular deliveries to line units. Moreover, they were routed without adequate backup. As a result, supply trucks became easy targets for the Ukrainians. “Over time, counterattacks forced the Russians to deploy significant forces to protect their own supply lines, which in effect materially limited Russia's offensive potential. In addition, the lack of control over the airspace and the limited transport options made it impossible to effectively supply advanced units with even such basic items as food and fuel,” explains Gen Polakow.

To the Front Line As Fast As Possible

The mistakes of Russian planners and logisticians are one thing. Providing supplies to the Ukrainian army is a separate matter. Compared to the resources and capabilities of the Russian Federation, Ukraine's potential at the time it was attacked was incomparably smaller. The support flowing from Western countries proved decisive for the soldiers defending their own country. Just a few days after the outbreak of the war, the head of Ukrainian diplomacy Dmytro Kuleba reported that there were nearly 90 countries and 15 organizations in the international anti-war coalition. He confirmed that 19 countries were donating arms to Ukraine, ten were providing financial support, and 22 were giving humanitarian aid.

In the initial phase, Ukraine was supplied with protective and defensive equipment, including bulletproof vests, helmets, binoculars, thermal and night vision cameras, optical sights, as well as drones and lighter weapons. “As the conflict progressed, heavier equipment began to reach the front,” says Gen Gromadziński, adding: “At one point there was so much military support that we encountered problems with logistics.” It was necessary to take care of efficient shipment of transferred weapons, proper coordination of tasks, good communication and modes of transportation. Poland took the main responsibility in this regard. It was here that the largest logistics hub in this part of Europe was established, becoming the equipment base for the fighting Ukraine.

“On the third day from the outbreak of war, Poland was already prepared to conduct a large-scale reload and transport operation using the logistics hub launched in the southeastern part of the country. From the beginning, our task has been to coordinate the deliveries of military equipment transferred to the Ukrainians by the United States, Poland and other countries from around the world. We also participate in coordinating the repairs of equipment returning from Ukraine and planning trainings for Ukrainian soldiers in Poland and other European countries,” explains BrigGen Mariusz Skulimowski, Chief of the Logistics Department (P4) of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces. The officer adds that despite the launch of similar logistics hubs in Slovakia and Romania, about 90% of the equipment destined for the Ukrainian armed forces is still distributed through Poland.

“The main challenge for military logisticians at the very beginning of the war was to develop a system ensuring efficient transit of transferred equipment,” emphasizes Gen Skulimowski. The procedures created at that time had to comply with NATO guidelines, and at the same time be acceptable to countries outside the Alliance and to representatives of our country's non-military system. This is important, because support for the Ukrainian armed forces comes to Poland by air, road, rail and sea, and apart from the military, the acceptance of transferred equipment involves, for example, the Border Guard, the Police, the Customs Service and airport and seaport services. In the case of heavy equipment and intercontinental transit, the best option remains sea transport, followed by rail. As experts from the P4 of the General Staff explain, other supplies and spare parts are most often flown aboard military aircraft.

The equipment delivered to Poland is not warehoused, but immediately transferred to the fighting troops. “We want to avoid unnecessary interruptions in the shipment of assets that are urgently needed in the combat zone, and to reduce storage costs,” explains Gen Skulimowski. The officer adds that in the early phase of the war, up to 30 transport planes were unloaded in Poland daily. Military logisticians did their best to ensure that armaments arrived in Ukraine within 24 hours at the latest.

The tasks performed by Poland can be partially combined with the role of the Host Nation Support (HNS), but we are now operating under specific circumstances, which is pointed out by Col Tomasz Jałowiec of the War Studies Academy: “This is the first time in history that such a situation has occurred in the field of logistics. An attacked country that does not belong to the EU or NATO is supported by allied countries, using the infrastructure and logistical support of a member of the North Atlantic Alliance.”

Enormous Challenges

“Today, I don't think anyone doubts the importance of support for the fighting subdivisions. Logistics determines the success of any full-scale operation, because without it any action is short-lived,” states Gen Skulimowski. Lessons on logistical security are being learned not only in Poland, but also throughout NATO and the EU. It was one of the most important tasks of the International Relief Team for Ukraine. During its session within the framework of the NATO-supervised Contact Group on Defense of Ukraine, which brings together defense ministers and military representatives of countries providing military support to Ukraine (the so-called Ramstein format), operational, training and logistics issues were addressed. “The scale of the challenges in logistics proved to be enormous. It was necessary not only to organize the transfer of armaments and supplies to the front, but also to deal with the training of soldiers and the withdrawal and repairs of damaged or destroyed equipment. This is where the problem occurred,” says Gen Gromadziński. He explains that more than 600 units of various types of equipment from more than 50 countries have been delivered to the Ukrainian army, and this required training a multitude of logisticians who would be able to secure these armaments on the battlefield. “We have drawn lessons from the fact that the equipment was not followed by logistical support. Our team recommended that along with armaments, the donors should provide technical evacuation vehicles and mobile workshops, as well as spare parts in sufficient quantity. Ideally, these parts should be enough for 90 days of combat. This, however, is quite unrealistic,” says Gen Gromadziński.

The officer also points out that repairing equipment damaged on the battlefield is not always possible. And this is not only due to enemy operations, but also due to the lack of access to diagnostic equipment. “New technologies are demanding, so you need experts and appropriate repair shops. It is impossible to organize this in a country that is at war and has lost its heavy industry,” concludes Gen Gromadziński. That is why there has been talk of establishing technical hubs located as close as possible to Ukraine, in addition to logistics hubs delivering equipment and supplies. According to experts, they could be organized in Poland. Recently, for example, the creation of a service and repair center for T-64 tanks at Zakłady Mechaniczne Bumar-Łabędy was announced. Polish specialists together with engineers from Ukroboronprom, a Ukrainian company, will restore machines belonging to the armed forces of our eastern neighbor. The center will also service and repair T-72 and PT-91 tanks transferred to Ukraine.

Lessons to Be Learned

The situation in which Europe has found itself after the Russian aggression against Ukraine is unique. The scale of aid flowing from around the world is also unprecedented. All of this is an important point of reference for Poland as a country bordering the fighting Ukraine, and at the same time a member of the North Atlantic Alliance. Col Tomasz Jałowiec explains: “What is happening in Ukraine now will be a valuable lesson for us from two perspectives: both from the defending side – which interests us more, since our doctrine suggests a defensive operation – and in terms of the mistakes made by the attackers.”

Conclusions drawn from the conflict in the area of logistics are already being collected and analyzed by the War Studies Academy. Its researchers, in cooperation with experts from other military academies, the P4 Logistics Department of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, and the Armed Forces Support Inspectorate, are working on a report on the logistics system of the Polish army. The document will be issued in 2024 and will be divided into an unclassified and a classified part. The latter will include, among other things, logisticians' conclusions on the war in Ukraine.

Military experts are already pointing to some important areas. Col Jałowiec points to the logistics-related leadership system, but also civilian support: “The Ukrainians have shown how important it is to decentralize certain decisions. On top of that, there is the issue of realistically securing the needs of the fighting troops and using civilian potential, which plays a key role in all dimensions: material, technical, in transport and movement of troops.” He also reminds that the conflict in Ukraine has been going on practically since 2014: “During this time the Ukrainians have done their homework on logistics. Previously, they had stock centralization in force, but they have changed that.”

The Armed Forces Operational Command also talks about the conclusions. “The war has verified many theories about the modern battlefield. It has emphasized the importance of logistics, while exposing many erroneous assumptions. All the observations we are currently collecting are and will continue to be reflected upon. We already know about problems with supplying troops, breaking supply chains or with poor planning of logistical support by the Russians,” says Gen Polakow.

Allied armies, including the Polish Armed Forces, also need to revise their transport capabilities during hostilities. The example of Ukraine clearly shows that what worked during operations in Iraq or Afghanistan – that is, transporting combat assets by air – will not work everywhere. “We are observing a novel approach of the Ukrainians in this regard. Of course, supply lines are in operation, but new solutions are also emerging. For example, they are employing small mobile transports with supplies, which can react instantly to the existing situation,” explains Gen Skulimowski.

The Chief of the P4 Logistics Department of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces announces further development of Poland's logistics capabilities. “We realize that the war is taking place very close to our border, and in such a situation we need to develop our logistics capabilities even faster. We have plans to significantly increase mobile logistics capabilities of the tactical and operational level. We are developing units, building more logistics regiments, and have begun forming another logistics brigade. Systematically, in place of post-Soviet equipment, we are introducing new-generation armaments, and this is also a considerable challenge for the technical security subsystem in terms of maintenance, repair and overhaul.”

There are more conclusions, though. Military officials point to the lack of standardization of ammunition in the Alliance. On the Ukrainian front, for example, it turned out that not all 155mm bullets fit every type of equipment. Work in this area has already been initiated. Test studies are being conducted, as the military wants to verify, for example, whether French bullets can be used for Danish cannons or American ammunition for Polish ones. That is not all. “In the war in Ukraine, we observe the inefficiency of the Russian system of supplying the fighting troops due to the manual handling of supplies. There is no palletization, no containers or forklifts commonly used in NATO,” adds Gen Polakow.

Valuable Lesson

There is another important issue. While the Russians are hitting Ukraine's civilian infrastructure – which is supposed to weaken the defenders' spirit – the Ukrainians are consistently doing the complete opposite. In preparation for their long-announced counteroffensive, they are launching pinpoint attacks aimed at taking out Russian logistical nodes and resources – thus the strikes against Russian fuel and ammunition depots. Gen Gromadziński explains: “According to military tactics, the aim is to make the enemy lose freedom of operation by means of attacking all their maneuver paths, troop and equipment concentration areas, in order to prevent them from reaching the front line. Deep strikes, such as those using HIMARS, are very effective. Owing to them, the Russians are losing resources and are unable to reconstitute them on the first line.”

The Ukrainians, wishing to avoid the mistakes made by the enemy and minimize losses, are acting unconventionally, learning how to get out from under fire and, above all, not to concentrate their forces. This applies not only to combat operations, but also to logistics. “The war has shown that when artillery ammunition is stored and warehoused, it immediately becomes a target and is destroyed. The distribution of ammunition must be mobile, constantly on the move – on vehicles,” points out Gen Gromadziński, adding: “It is this mobility of logistics that Poland should now invest in. However, it means that we need more personnel, more vehicles and reloading trucks.”

There are many lessons to be learned from the Ukrainian front. They apply to every aspect of the military: from battlefield medicine to the tactics of fighting subunits, their armaments or just logistical support. The message that comes from across our eastern border is that tanks are of no use without good logistics. This is a particularly valuable lesson, because it should be kept in mind that if an armed conflict took place in Poland, our soldiers would have to fight on similar terrain, in the same climate and, most importantly, with the same opponent. The Ukrainians are winning time for us, so it seems worthwhile to benefit from their experience.

Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek, Robert Sendek

autor zdjęć: Abaca Press / FORUM, USAF

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