Russian Struggles in Ukraine Show US Special Operators Logistics Needs

  • The challenges of waging modern warfare are on vivid display in Russia’s ongoing attack on Ukraine.
  • A less visible aspect has been the need for a robust logistical network to sustain frontline forces.
  • For US special operators, the war is a reminder that such a network won’t always be available.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought renewed attention to the challenges of a large-scale, nation-on-nation conventional conflict.

After a year of fighting, the world has learned a lot about what it takes to wage modern war. Ukraine thwarted Russia’s initial attack and, with extensive Western support, has driven Russia’s forces back. Russia continues to struggle to achieve its objectives despite reducing its ambitions after the first few months of the war. So far, Moscow has lost an estimated 200,000 troops.

Access to heavy weapons, ample ammunition, and a will to fight among troops have been important elements in each side’s performance, as has the ability to set up an effective logistics enterprise.

According to US special-operations leaders in Europe, Russia’s logistical struggles in Ukraine have shown that in a major war, US commandos will to live without the logistical “tethers” they’ve relied on in past conflicts.

Logistics and Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers reload a Grad multiple-launch rocket system

Ukrainian soldiers reload a Grad multiple-launch rocket vehicle in the Donetsk Oblast in November.

Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

US Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Edwards, commander of Special Operations Command Europe, outlined some of SOCEUR’s lessons learned from Ukraine during an event hosted by the New America think tank in September.

Edwards said that one of his command’s biggest hurdles to being more effective in Ukraine has been finding ways to support Ukrainian forces remotely, as US troops were withdrawn from the country shortly before Russia attacked.

“Trying to get equipment and resourcing in to our partners has proved to be very, very difficult,” Edwards said, pointing to the logistics required “to actually move it from one country inside Ukraine.”

One of the major logistical hurdles Ukrainian forces face is getting the right munitions and spare parts at the front. Over the past year, scores of Western nations have sent Ukraine billions of dollars in military gear and other assistance.

Ukrainian troops now use an array of weapons that require different ammunition and have different maintenance needs, so the Ukrainian military’s logisticians have had to be very organized and maintain good situational awareness of what equipment is needed where and went it is needed.

For example, sending Western-made 155 mm ammunition to a unit that has 152 mm howitzers, which for decades was Ukraine’s standard howitzer caliber, would be a waste of time and resources.

Logistics and special operators

Army Romania Ukraine Special Forces Green Beret

Romanian, Ukrainian, and US Army Green Berets conduct close quarters battle training in Romania in May 2021.

Romanian army/Capt. Roxana Davidovits

At the same event, Michael Repass, who commanded SOCEUR before retiring from the US Army as a major general, also highlighted the importance of logistics not only for special-operations forces but also for militaries facing bigger, better-armed opponents.

“We know that logistics matters. It’s very interesting to see SOF guys talking about how important logistics are,” Repass said. “Stockpiling material to defend your nation has become an imperative for small nations in conflict with big states.”

Indeed, Russia’s struggles in Ukraine are showing US commandos that in a conflict with a near-peer force like Russia and China, they will need to live without the stockpiles and short supply lines they were accustomed to during the war on terror.

For US special-operations units, logistical demands in a conflict “would largely depend on the unit and the mission,” a US Army Special Forces soldier in a National Guard unit told Insider.

US special-operations forces “are designed to operate deep behind enemy lines in often austere environments with little to no support for outside. We are trained and mentally prepared to fight without much logistical support,” said the Green Beret, who was granted anonymity to discuss potential future operations.

Ukrainian troops train to clear a trench

Ukrainian troops train to clear a trench with guidance from US soldiers at a training center in Yavoriv, Ukraine in June 2017.

US Army/Sgt. Anthony Jones

Getting supplies to US special operators in the Indo-Pacific region would more challenging time the closer they are to China because of the weaponry China has developed to deny its rivals access to parts of the region, such as the South China Sea. The US Army is the service responsible for logistics across the Indo-Pacific area of operations.

“Again, depending on the unit and the mission, we will require some sort of logistical support eventually. That’s where our relationships with the conventional military and any partner forces will be key,” the Green Beret added.

US Special Operations Command is trying to address the challenge of getting supplies to the frontline by pursuing what one SOCOM official described as “untethered logistics.”

SOCOM is considering new technology and other means would allow it to push supplies to special operators in austere environments or to enable those troops to produce what they need where they are. Some of the technology in the works involves 3D printing, which could allow frontline commandos to produce much-needed ammunition and spare parts on their own.

Military logistics is not as sexy as some of the weapons and operations on display in Ukraine, but the war there has shown that it is as important to battlefield success as ever.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master’s degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.

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