A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 28, 2023

The Reason Logistics Remain the Strategic Focus For Ukrainian Victory

If one analyzes the strategy that has underpinned Ukrainian successes from Kyiv through Kharkiv, Kherson to the present day and into the future, the underlying reality is that they have come from relentlessly attacking Russian logistics while defending their own.  

From the 40 mile convoy approaching Kyiv to the ammunition storage, troop concentrations, bridges, highways, railroads and command centers which the Ukrainians have targeted, Russia's ability to supply and reinforce its troops has been undermined. And in looking at what may happen next, either in the Donbas or in Ukraine's south, the same logic applies to Ukrainian attack strategy. JL

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

Why is Bakhmut strategically insignificant? Because its capture doesn’t threaten Ukraine’s supply lines. It merely pushes out the front line a few kilometers in one corner of the front. How did Ukraine liberate Kherson? By destroying the bridges supplying Russian troops. How did they liberate Kharkiv? By taking Kupiansk, the logistical hub for the Russians. How will Ukraine liberate southeastern Ukraine? By cutting the land bridge at Melitopol. How will Ukraine liberate the northeast of the country? By liberating Starobilsk, where the region’s rail and road networks converge. How will they liberate Crimea? By destroying Russia’s bridge to its mainland, and cutting off its water supply at Nova Kakhovka.

You all know my mantra by now: War isn’t about people pointing weapons and shooting at each other. It’s about logistics. Yes, death and destruction are part of the Faustian bargain, but logistics determine overall strategy and eventually crown the winners and losers. 

Take Bakhmut, for example. The city has been under siege by Russia for over nine months. Why has this strategically insignificant town in the middle of thousands of kilometers of front line become the focal point of Russia’s efforts? Because given exiting road and rail infrastructure, Russia can easily supply the attack. And why is Ukraine in danger of losing the town? Because Russia has managed to snake its way north and south of the town, putting Ukraine’s supply lines in danger. 

And why is Bakhmut ultimately strategically insignificant? Because its capture doesn’t threaten Ukraine’s supply lines. It merely pushes out the front line a few kilometers in a tiny corner of the front. I mean, I know Ukraine’s geography inside out by this point, and even I struggle to find Bakhmut on the big map: 

(It’s north of Donetsk city.)

Russia wanted to fight a war based on logistics. Remember the original plan was to envelope the eastern third of Ukraine in a north-south pincer maneuver. 


Each one of those was a valid strategy, except Russia couldn’t pull any of them off, their ambition gradually shrinking over the months until we got to where we are today—human wave attacks against deeply dug in Ukrainian defenders around a single strategically unimportant city. Bakhmut mattered when it was the southern prong of a pincer. Not so much when the norther prong—Izyum—was long ago liberated. 

How did Ukraine liberate northern Kherson Oblast? By destroying the bridges supplying Russian troops in the area. How did they liberate Kharkiv oblast? By punching through Russian lines and taking Kupiansk—the key logistical hub for the entire Russian presence in that oblast. 

How will Ukraine liberate the northeastern corner of the country? By liberating Starobilsk, where the entire region’s rail and road networks connect in a star-pattern. 

Old map, but lines have only moved slight east around Svatove

How will Ukraine liberate southeastern Ukraine? By cutting the land bridge at Melitopoil. How will they liberate Crimea? By destroying Russia’s bridge connecting it to its mainland, and cutting off its water supply at Nova Kakhovka.

So yes, logistics dictate strategy at the macro level, even if Russia never got the memo. But logistics are also important at the tactical level, including decisions on what weapons systems to field. 

People get frustrated at the slow pace of Western weapons deliveries, and much of that frustration is justified. But a lot of it isn’t: Ukraine has burned through Western stocks of artillery ammunition, and ramping up increased production doesn’t happen overnight. (Hey, that’s also logistics!) And fielding brand new weapons systems is a challenge even in peacetime. In the middle of a war? The challenges multiply. 

I keep reminding everyone that the biggest difficulty in fielding new weapons systems isn’t about the crew manning the weapon. It’s not the people driving the vehicles or pulling the triggers. There have been several stories about how quickly Ukrainians learned to operate the Patriot air defense system. That’s not the hard part! The hard part is maintaining complex machinery and electronics. 

It’s the difference between learning to drive your car and learning to maintain it. The vast majority of us can easily do the former, but need specialists to handle the latter. And training a good mechanic takes years. Learning to drive? Months.

So yes, I do wonder how those Patriot systems will be maintained. The current system is to haul even simple systems, like M777-towed howitzers, back to Poland for maintenance. It wastes precious time, putting valuable systems out of service for months. The Patriot batteries will likely suffer the same fate, repeatedly driven across the border for maintenance on a regular basis, because weapons systems break down a lot. As I’ve mentioned before, typically only six of the nine M270 MLRS launchers in my battery were operational at any given time. And they were new at the time (1989). 

Which brings us to the M1 Abrams, considered the most difficult American land system to support and maintain. As Mark Sumner wrote a few days ago, Ukraine has asked the U.S. to speed up deliveries of 31 promised M1 Abrams tanks. So instead of sending brand new models of the latest Abrams variant, the M1A2, they will be sending tanks from existing M1A1 stock. This means instead of taking 14 months or so for delivery, Ukraine can expect the M1s by the end of this year. 

While the new delivery timetable is more aggressive, people still can’t believe it’ll take over six to nine months to deliver 31 tanks. They scream that the West “doesn’t want to give Ukraine what it needs to win.” Those tantrums, once again, betray misunderstanding of logistics. 

The first is that while the U.S. has thousands of M1 tanks in storage, they require a great deal of refurbishment just to get them operational. Tanks already break down like no one’s business. The last thing Ukraine needs is M1s rolling in with 20-year-old parts. Additional, American Abrams feature depleted uranium armor so top secret that the U.S. does not (by law) allow its export to anyone, not even our closest allies. Export variants have tungsten armor, so these surplus tanks will need to be retrofitted and rearmored. 

(Fun fact: No new Abrams are being built. The A2 variants are actually completely rebuilt A1 models, stripped of everything down to the hull.) 

Next, the logistical support chain needs to be built from scratch. The Abrams gets 0.6 miles to a gallon, and that’s assuming proper jet fuel for its jet turbine engine. People are quick to note that the Abrams can run on anything that burns—gasoline or diesel—but it does so at an efficiency cost. I suspect Ukraine will be forced to run diesel in these tanks, so gas mileage will be even worse. An Abrams also uses as much fuel when idling as it does running. 

Ultimately, each individual tank consumes 300 gallons of fuel every eight hours. So the battalion of 31 will consume 9,300 gallons in that time period. Without jet fuel, that number will be even worse. A military tanker truck will carry around 2,500 gallons of fuel, so Ukraine will need to significantly beef up its fuel transport and forward storage capabilities to feed this insatiable beast. And that’s just the armor part of the battalion. There are dozens of additional vehicles supporting those tanks. 

An American tank battalion will additionally carry six Humvees carrying officers, three cargo trucks (carrying food and other supplies), each towing a 400-gallon water trailer, and nine M113 armored personnel carriers carrying leadership and medics. Here’s where things get fun: That battalion will have 15 maintenance and recovery vehicles carrying mechanics and spare parts, along with 36 mechanics and systems maintainers. (The guys who work on the engines are different from the guys who work on the optics and other electronics.) 

There’s more! Three M2 Bradleys carry the fire support teams—the guys who coordinate with artillery. Three more Bradleys carry combat engineers. Then there’s assorted specialists—guys who integrate with military intelligence, guys who fix radios, chemical warfare guys, armorers, etc. In all, those 31 tanks are directly supported by 39 additional vehicles and around 120 soldiers. The 31 tanks have a crew of four, each, or 124. (I’m not even going to try and calculate fuel consumption for all that.)

And none of this includes the supply troops, higher level HQ support, nor any attached infantry, scouts, and combat engineers for combined arms operations and security. An American tank battalion has over 500 soldiers. No idea how Ukraine will organize theirs, so let’s focus just on the tank part.

The 31 tanks will be supported by literally dozens of fuel and supply trucks ferrying everything they need to operate: fuel, lubricant, ammunition, food, water, spare parts, soldier’s kit, and everything else needed to wage war. And every kilometer this battalion pushes into Russian-occupied territory, that’s 2 additional kilometers those supply trucks have to run to keep the vanguard fed. Russia failed its initial assault because it couldn’t handle this task. It can’t be half-assed.

Furthermore, that maintenance supply line is a beast to set up. Each tank company has trucks with spare parts, and they get consumed quickly, so the battalion supply has to keep a steady flow of those parts to the company. That means the next organizational level up in Ukraine’s rear has to be on top of those consumables, ensuring a steady flow of the right parts, which means Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense has to be on top of things to make sure the U.S. keeps sending the necessary parts—and quickly

None of this is to say that Ukraine can’t do this. Of course it can. It has demonstrated time and time again an incredible ability to quickly adapt and integrate its motley assortment of Western military gear. But what it does mean is that it takes time

The good news is that once this logistic chain is set up, it can be easier to supplement with additional tanks. Thirty-one tanks can become 62, and eventually hundreds. From a political standpoint, I wish the U.S. would announce 500 Abrams just to psych Putin out. But from a practical standpoint? Announcing more Abrams before Ukraine can support even 31 is pointless.


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