The Russian army depends on civilians to supply it. This could be a problem in Ukraine.



The Russian army does not have enough trucks to feed, supply and arm a rapidly moving army. But that’s not the only logistical problem the Russians face if they hope, for example, to expand their war in Ukraine and rapidly expand the territory they and their separatist allies control.

Traditionally weak in supply, the Russian military could have exacerbated its weakness through ill-considered attempts at logistical reform. Namely, the Kremlin has given a commercial enterprise much of the responsibility for supporting the frontline battalions.

This is not a Russian-only problem, but it could become uniquely projecting in the coming weeks or months if Russian President Vladimir Putin pulls the proverbial trigger and orders the army that has massed along the Russian-Ukrainian border – 100,000 soldiers and 1,200 tanks – to roll towards west towards Kiev.

For many decades, Russia avoided deploying large armies long distances from its own borders. Moscow’s security concerns centered on its periphery. So while the U.S. military—which usually fights overseas—expanded its logistical capabilities and capabilities, the Russian military devoted proportionally more of its own resources to combat forces. Reservoirs. War planes. Submarines.

This is evident in the army’s 10 “material-technical support” brigades – the Russian acronym is “MTO”. The MTO brigades support the entire front line force, moving supplies from the front line depots to the battlefield.

Each MTO brigade has only about 400 general-purpose trucks, many of which are generally unserviceable and which, taken together, might be too few and too unreliable to keep pace with the fast-moving battalion tactical groups advancing across the Ukraine. Especially if the Kremlin undertakes to fight all of the fifty or so BTGs it has mobilized for a possible attack.

After all, BTGs aren’t the only battalions MTO brigades should support. Artillery, air defense and engineer formations would also need ammunition, fuel, food and spare parts. Think how many trucks it would take to rearm the rocket launchers of an invading army.

“Although every army is different, there are usually 56 to 90 multiple rocket launchers in an army,” said the US Army Lt. Col. Alex Vershinin wrote to War on the Rocks. “The resupply of each launcher occupies the entire bed of [a] a truck. If the combined arms army fired a single volley, it would take 56 to 90 trucks just to replenish rocket ammunition.

Capacity is not the only issue. A decade ago, the Kremlin overhauled the army’s logistics system to hand more responsibility to a state-run commercial enterprise, Oboronservis. The reasoning was that the Army, dependent as it does on short-term conscripted manpower, could not reliably cultivate the expertise required by combat logistics.

Today, Oboronservis contractors are spread across MTO brigades and their subordinate units. There could be friction.

“The critical issue for MTO in supporting combat operations is precisely this: the extent to which military structures and civilian agencies can be integrated in order to meet deadlines and avoid unnecessary delays,” said writes Roger McDermott in a 2013 study for the Swedish Department of Defense.

“Civil institutions are also now private, for-profit entities and not institutions driven by state planning considerations. As such, they expect to have a contractual relationship with the [defense ministry] and to make a profit, and the efficiency needed by business will clash with the demand for efficiency demanded by the military.

“This civil-military mix has no serious history in the Russian Armed Forces and is understandably the main area that will be exposed to severe testing during combat operations,” McDermott wrote.

It is not clear that Russia’s smaller-scale intervention in Syria and eastern Ukraine can be seen as a rigorous test of this new quasi-civilian logistics system for a larger war. And it should be noted that within a few years of taking over logistics from the army, Oboronservis employees had embezzled so much money that it became a national scandal.

The Kremlin has had several years since then to sort out these more recent logistical issues. But these problems have deep roots, and they may quickly become evident if the Russians expand their war in Ukraine.

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