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The Russian invasion has some logistical problems. That doesn’t mean it’s doomed.

Supply problems are the norm, not the exception

- February 28, 2022

As the most recent Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second week, some observers are starting to suggest that the Russian army’s slow progress and supply problems are evidence that the invasion is in trouble.

Russia may be facing logistical problems. But my research on the logistics of military operations suggests that this early in a campaign, such difficulties can be overcome.

Supply problems are the norm, not the exception

Even successful offensives usually have moments of high drama caused by supply shortages.

Indeed, success on the battlefield often causes supply shortages. As a force advances, its supply lines get longer, requiring more resupply vehicles in order to maintain the same rate of replenishment. The amount of broken and malfunctioning equipment also increases, which in turn increases the demand for spare parts, recovery vehicles and maintenance teams. As two historians writing about World War II observed:

More recently, the U.S.-led campaign to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 — widely regarded as one of the most successful military operations of modern times — had its supply headaches. For example, the ground portion of the war famously lasted just over four days, but the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division nearly ran out of fuel on Day 3 while trying to attack the Iraqi Republican Guard.

As Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor note in their history of the conflict, crisis was averted only by cobbling together an 18-hour emergency convoy of fuel tankers driven by a hodgepodge of soldiers trained for other jobs.

There were close calls during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, too. The U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division was supposed to be resupplied two days after the invasion began. But a confluence of events conspired to delay the first resupply until six days into the offensive. By then, despite stretching their initial supply of food and water as far as possible, some units had only enough on hand to last them a few more hours.

The supply problems in 2003 are rarely remembered now, but they were known and widely discussed at the time. As a Rand Corp. monograph on the logistics of the campaign noted:

Indeed, articles in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere documented the many problems and expressed worry that the effort might stall or, worse, fail because of them.

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Large military operations move slowly

The striking speed and maneuverability of modern tanks notwithstanding, military forces rarely advance at anywhere near the top speed of their vehicles. During the campaign against Iraq in 1991, for example, the average pace of the U.S. force was a little over 1 mph. Even the fastest division barely managed a little over 2 mph — the speed of a leisurely walk.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was no faster. It took U.S. forces about two weeks to cover the 350 miles from the Kuwait border to the outskirts of Baghdad. Some units took indirect routes and some sprinted over short distances, but the net pace of the invasion was about the same as in 1991.

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These speeds may seem slow, but they are not unusual. In an old but still very useful study on how fast large forces advance during military operations, Robert Helmbold found that “even the most rapid advance rates of land combat forces are at least one or two orders of magnitude below that of their principal modes of movement.” Most military units, it turns out — even those participating in a successful invasion — spend the vast majority of their time standing still.

Units halt for any number of reasons, but a common one is to wait for supplies. This makes sense when we consider the mechanics of resupply. On average, resupply convoys must maintain an average speed much faster than the units they support because of the need to shuttle back and forth. The net result is to slow the overall pace of the advance, even if everything is going as planned.

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It is still very early

None of this is to suggest that things are going exactly as planned for the Russian army or that it will succeed in Ukraine. However, it’s important to distinguish the difficulties that every operation confronts from those that are severe enough to lead to failure and defeat.

Only over time do shortages become decisive. It is the accumulation of resource deficits that leads to defeat, not a shortfall in any one unit. In successful operations, supply problems are common but isolated; in operations that founder on logistics, the number and scale of supply problems increase over time to the point where there is not enough combat power to continue the advance.

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 — perhaps the most famous example of supply problems leading to defeat — it wasn’t until German soldiers were on the outskirts of Moscow and were exposed to subzero temperatures, low on ammunition and living off a third of their daily rations that the advance stalled for good.

Whether the supply problems the Russian army is experiencing will be decisive remains to be seen. But the bare fact that some units are having trouble and the invasion is proceeding slowly is not a sufficient reason, on its own, to conclude that the operation will fail.

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Ryan Baker (@RyanBaker51) is a full-time research analyst at Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), a nonresident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare, and a reserve officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CNA, the Navy, the Marine Corps or any other institution.