Ukraine’s Lifeline

Ukraine’s fate will be decided not by combat power alone, but by either side’s ability to employ effective logistics to sustain that combat power.

A shipment of weapons near Kyiv, Ukraine
Sean Gallup / Getty

About the author: Elliot Ackerman is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and author of the novel Red Dress in Black and White. He is a former Marine who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If I have a single sensory memory of combat, it’s of wet socks. In Iraq and Afghanistan, when a firefight was over and I had a moment to take stock of the units I led—our casualties, our remaining ammunition—I would be so soaked in sweat that even my socks were wet. The sheer physicality of combat, and how much it takes out of you, is difficult to overstate. In one of my first firefights, three Marines in our platoon were wounded. We had to evacuate three times that number felled by heat exhaustion when we ran out of water, despite having begun the firefight fully topped off. Granted, this occurred in Iraq, in the dead of summer, but in the years after, I never fought in a major engagement without basic logistics such as water and ammunition becoming a crucial consideration within hours.

In Ukraine, Russian troops will soon face an estimated 100,000 entrenched Ukrainians as they begin a fresh offensive in the south and east of the country. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, has noted that “the involvement of thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, planes, artillery” promises a battle of a scope not seen in Europe since the Second World War. Given the past two months’ debate over arming the Ukrainians, one would think that costly, high-profile weapons systems such as fresh MiG-29s and high-altitude surface-to-air missile systems would prove determinative in this war. Although those weapons systems could give the Ukrainians an added edge, Russia’s recent defeat outside Kyiv demonstrates the centrality of logistics to any army’s success or failure in the field. It’s the uninterrupted supply of ammunition, food, water, and fuel that will likely be decisive in the battle ahead.

Ukraine will no doubt continue to petition the West for more advanced weapons systems to secure its skies, but, in the near term, the current menu of weapons has proved sufficient to halt the Russians. Moving forward, Ukraine’s leadership would be wise to spend its political capital not on expanding that menu but on making sure that it remains well stocked and that its lines of resupply are uninterrupted; the latter is no small feat.

A recent fact sheet released by the Pentagon shows that the U.S. has already provided Ukraine with more than 5,000 Javelins, 7,000 other anti-armor weapons, and 1,400 Stingers. The numbers of anti-armor and anti-air weapons systems swell to 60,000 and 25,000, respectively, when the contributions of our allies are included. Lockheed Martin, which produces the Javelin, recently told Inside Defense that it has “the capacity to meet increased demand for the foreseeable future” and could replenish more than 6,000 Javelins a year. Although Stinger production has faltered as the Pentagon looks to transition to a newer missile system, defense officials have assured Congress that current U.S. stockpiles are adequate to arm the Ukrainians.

In addition to high-profile anti-armor and anti-air weapons, the U.S. has also provided the Ukrainians with equally essential items such as body armor (45,000 sets), small arms (7,000 weapons), and ammunition (50 million rounds). The U.S. has also given the Ukrainians encrypted radios so Russia can’t intercept their communications and crucial night-vision devices, as well as shipments of drones and counter-mortar and counter-artillery tracking radars.

If this sounds like a lot of equipment to get into the field and sustain, it is.

Many a battle has been lost because of supply shortages at the front lines while pallets of ammunition and bladders of fuel sit undistributed in rear areas. The Russian battalion tactical groups that retreated from Kyiv and are being recommitted to Ukraine’s southeast can attest to that. Their 40-mile supply convoy, which seemed an ominous indicator of their immense combat power, turned out to be an indicator of their dysfunctional logistics: a 40-mile traffic jam. As conditions in the Donbas have intensified, reports of an eight-mile-long Russian convoy stalled on the road are yet another sign that the battle for Ukraine will be decided not by combat power alone, but by either side’s ability to employ effective logistics to sustain that combat power.

An infantryman, fully loaded, typically carries about 240 rounds of ammunition distributed in eight magazines, a couple of fragmentation grenades, perhaps a light anti-armor weapon, and water and food for a day, at best two. That’s nearly 100 pounds of ammunition and equipment. In a firefight, he can work through that ammunition pretty quickly, depending on the intensity of the engagement. In Fallujah, where I served as a Marine, we required multiple ammunition resupplies a day as we fought through the city.

Logistically, the defending Ukrainians possess an advantage over the Russians, who are on the offensive. They can stockpile supplies in their fixed positions, while the Russians have to maintain effective and mobile supply lines, something they’ve proved inept at thus far in the war.

The Russians, for their part, maintain the ability to strike at Ukrainian supply lines from the sky. However, Russian aircraft become vulnerable to Ukrainian Stingers when they descend below 11,500 feet—and above that altitude, are less effective against ground targets. For Ukraine to hold out in the east and south, it will have to maintain an uninterrupted logistical flow from Poland, through Ukraine’s west, and up to the front lines. This is doable, and it should become the focus of Ukraine’s efforts and NATO’s support as the war enters a new phase.

Combat is a resource-devouring monster. In the days ahead, both sides will run short of equipment, ammunition, and, of course, lives. The side that is able to adapt most quickly to logistical demands and keep its army well resourced and in the field will be the victor in Ukraine. There’s nothing fancy about this. No single piece of technology will provide a decisive edge. Armies need to be adaptable, and to provide resources to their soldiers so they can remain engaged with the enemy. Sometimes that means extra ammunition, sometimes extra water—or even, as I learned two decades ago, an extra pair of socks.