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Will logistics become Ukraine’s Achilles’ heel?

Leopard 2 tank
AP Photo/Michael Sohn
A Leopard 2 tank is pictured during a demonstration event held for the media by the German Bundeswehr in Munster near Hannover, Germany, on Sept. 28, 2011. The German government has confirmed it will provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks and approve requests by other countries to do the same. Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany was “acting in close coordination” with its allies.

In a salient quote often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte and Gen. Omar Bradley, the late Lt. Gen. Robert H. Barrow, 27th commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in an interview, “Amateurs talk about strategy and tactics. Professionals talk about logistics and sustainability in warfare.” Today, it is retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former commander, U.S. Army Europe, who is cautioning about challenges that Kyiv faces as new equipment, munition suites and training regimens are introduced in Ukraine.

Hertling, a former armor officer, is quick to note, “Anyone who knows tanks understands it isn’t the tank that makes it awesome, it’s the trained crew inside the tank.” That takes time, as much as three to six weeks of training, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Learning to communicate and synchronize movements on the battlefield as a part of a combined arms team — armor, infantry, artillery and air support — extends the timeline and learning curve. 

Logistics and footprints, as Hertling counsels, will compound Ukraine’s capacity to introduce tanks on the battlefield and the sustainability that is necessary to keep them in the fight. Each weapons system necessitates “echelons of support that will flow the needed parts, FUPPs [full-up power packs], ammo, fuel, road wheels, torsion bars, etc.” Synchronization of each of these elements is key. Hertling likens it to intricate “choreography,” if they are to “work on the battlefield.”

Thus, while strategically helpful, the West’s latest pledges to send equipment to Ukraine will have no immediate tactical impact on the war. While Western world leaders announced new commitments to Kyiv, Russian forces launched deadly cruise missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian civilians — and continued relentless human wave assaults in and around Bakhmut and Soledar in the Donbas — reportedly amassing more than 25,000 casualties since New Year’s Eve.

The commitments are potentially formidable: artillery, armored personnel carriers, air defense systems, ammunition and tanks. However, Ukraine’s Achilles’ heel is that the war is taking place in the here and now. Berlin’s delay in authorizing the dispatch of the Leopard 2 main battle tank by its NATO allies is costly. Germany acquiesced and announced they would donate 14 Leopard 2s, after the Biden administration pledged to contribute 31 M1 Abrams tanks. But neither platform and the advantages they will bring in firepower and maneuver against Russian forces is likely to appear on the battlefield anytime soon.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warns that this slow rollout of weapon systems may be fatal to Ukraine and that “speed of supply” going forward is vital. He recently said that “Russia hopes to drag out the war, to exhaust our forces. So, we have to make time our weapon.” Zelensky is right; his army needs weapons today, not six months from now, like the Patriot missile batteries donated by the U.S., Germany and The Netherlands.

As spring nears, analysts predict the Kremlin will launch a counteroffensive before the ground thaws, a counteroffensive that may happen as early as March, if not sooner. Sizeable Russian troop concentrations are reported in Belarus, Crimea and the Donbas. The threat is looming. In response, Ukraine is asking for as many as 300 Leopard 2s. Some members of the European Union are supportive of that level, including Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg. Much like Barrow and Hertling, Asselborn has noted the need for “synchronous” weapon platforms.

Leopard 2 tanks arriving in Ukraine by late February could prompt Russia to launch a preemptive strike. Time, therefore, is a luxury that neither Zelensky nor General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, his commander in chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, have much of. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has noted, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” 

If Kyiv is to win, however, Ukraine needs to build an offensive army, while in the fight, that’s capable of out-maneuvering Russian forces. Zelensky’s defensive-centric military is far too limited in this regard. In large part, that is because the Biden administration evidently still regards the war in Ukraine as a defensive struggle — and has imposed limitations upon Zelensky.

As such, the Biden administration may be helping to create Ukraine’s Achilles’ heel. The administration’s oft-repeated excuse is that advanced weapon systems take too long for training and deployment. This was said about the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), the Patriot missile system, and now the M1 Abrams. Yet, once greenlighted, Ukraine has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and overcome. They may not employ the platform as it was designed to operate, but they do send many Russian soldiers back home in coffins. In the words of Gen. George S. Patton, “Nobody ever defended anything successfully; there is only attack and attack, and attack some more.”

Continued handicapping of Zelensky’s ability to strike back at Russian targets in sanctuary beyond Ukraine’s borders only prolongs the war and its carnage. It also risks allowing President Biden to turn Ukraine’s Achilles’ heel into Washington’s — if a Russian counteroffensive proves effective this spring. 

Biden likely has a strategic blind spot. He appears to be operating on the assumption that if “Russian troops returned to Russia, they’ll be [sic] where they belong, and this war would be over today.” Problem is, that is exactly where Russian forces are staging troops for the next offensive. It’s from where they fire ballistic missiles and drones, and launch aircraft. 

Biden’s rationale? Arguably, he is more concerned about Russia not losing than he is invested in Ukraine winning, because of fear of escalation. He is seemingly buying into Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric and propaganda that Russia invaded Ukraine because it fears NATO as an “offensive threat.” Regardless, Biden is helping to unwittingly afford Putin’s forces sanctuary in Russia and Belarus and refuses to greenlight Ukraine the weapons they need immediately to deny the Russian military this sanctuary.

It is time to put an end to this line of thought. Ukraine has no intention of invading Russia. Nor does NATO. Ukraine has proven highly adaptable — and will again, if it is not too late, when the Leopard 2s are introduced on the plains of Crimea and in the Donbas. 

The Leopard 2 must not be the end; it should be the beginning of an offensive capacity. The tanks will give Ukrainian troops advantages — but only if they can aggressively maneuver and engage the enemy. To do that, they need logistics and offensive weapons suites to come together “synchronously” to accomplish that mission. They need a deep strike artillery and air support capability, as well as Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB), and fighter jets such as the F-16

For now, however, Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are saying “no” to F-16s and German fighter jets, and in the process transforming Ukraine’s Achilles’ heel into Kyiv’s “Achilles hell” — and, potentially, one of our own. 

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.  

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL

Tags air defense system military aid to Ukraine tanks Ukraine war Volodymyr Zelensky

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