The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in September 2020 passed into history without comment, greatly overshadowed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Most Americans would have been challenged to find Azerbaijan or Ukraine on a map before recent events. Fresh professional articles have started examining the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its possible implications in greater detail. However, the explosion of war in Ukraine has transformed an academic discussion into an urgent need to update the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) for Army logistics in the field. An article in the April 2021 edition of Small Wars Journal states that in Nagorno-Karabakh, “for the first time in recorded history, nearly all battle damage was inflicted by unmanned platforms. The attrition of forces and equipment by UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) led to a decisive Azeri victory.” Azerbaijan was able, in 44 days, to seize an advantage, capture a large portion of the Karabakh region, and redraw a regional map that had been in place since the early 90s. In Ukraine, defensive and offensive operations have hinged on the availability and capability of drones to shape tactical and operational activities. The idea of secure support areas, insulated from threats and hidden from enemy reconnaissance by distance from the forward line of troops, is over. As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army has demonstrated, the U.S. Army must update its tactical way of operating or risk failing strategically.
Nagorno-Karabakh: September-November 2020
The opening and subsequent shaping of military operations in 2020 by the Azerbaijan military drew primarily upon the proliferation of low-cost loiter munitions (“kamikaze” or “suicide” drones), low-cost UASs both as direct fire and reconnaissance platforms, and the use of direct/indirect fires aided by UAS precision targeting. This sensor-to-shooter enhanced flexibility enabled a low-cost multidomain threat environment that the Armenian forces were not prepared, equipped, or trained to deal with. Six days into the conflict, Azerbaijan destroyed 250 armored vehicles, a similar number of artillery pieces, and 39 air defense systems, including a Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system. Without a modern air force, the Azeri forces penetrated the entire air domain and engaged high-value targets through various means without overcoming the Armenian main defense line. The destruction of key bridges, logistics nodes, and resupply convoys isolated forward elements early in the conflict. Assembly areas and reinforcements were easy targets due to the lack of tactical dispersion and camouflage because the Armenians lacked an appreciation of the depth of the threat environment. These shaping operations critically weakened the main defense for the final coup de grace. In less than two months, previously accepted military tenets about the importance of the reverse slope (vulnerable to armed UAS and loiter munitions) and the defensive advantage of mountainous terrain (continuous UAS observation coupled with direct/indirect precision fires eliminates strong points and break up counterattacks) crumbled, along with the Armenian defenses.
Ukraine: February-September 2022
In November 2021, three months before Putin’s failed attempt to seize Kyiv, retired Lt. Col. Alex Vershinin wrote an article in War on the Rocks that, in hindsight, appears prophetic. He defines the Achilles’ heel of the Russian army and the limit of its threat to NATO as the lack of logistics flexibility and capability. He postulated that victory after the initial assault would require an operational pause by the Russian army to extend operational reach. The accuracy of his article was borne out by the 40-mile resupply convoy to Kyiv that attained ubiquitous status with the early logistics failures of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian use of drones early in the war strained Russian resupply efforts. Later, the combination of drones, loiter munitions, special operations, and partisan forces with precision munitions and artillery all but immobilized the entire Russian army offensive. With U.S. M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARSs), the Ukrainian armed forces destroyed more than 50 Russian ammunition stores in just a few weeks. It now appears that Russian forces have attempted to disperse their logistics nodes to avoid catastrophic losses but are unable to maintain the flow of supplies to forward troops. In September 2022, a Ukrainian counteroffensive shattered an undersupplied and overly stretched Russian army in the eastern Kharkiv Oblast. Ukrainian soldiers captured hundreds of armored combat vehicles and full ammunition stockpiles while troops fled without weapons, vehicles, or combat gear back to the rear.
U.S. Army Logistics
Army logistics officers with brigade combat team experience know the sprawling footprint of our brigade support area (BSA). This necessary concentration consists of ammunition holding areas, motor pools, various company headquarters, assorted support company echelons, communications arrays, antennas, supply support activity containers, maintenance collection points, and, of course, the battalion headquarters for operations. Poorly camouflaged, if at all, and tightly spaced to provide some semblance of an integrated perimeter defense, usually in an open space, the BSA is not mobile or survivable in the conflicts we are now seeing. Yet without this logistics support element, the brigade’s capability is measurable in a few days. So, what is the answer?
Tactical doctrine for Army logistics must change, and the type of threat we face needs to be reframed and emphasized across the force. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) study of the Nagorno-Karabakh war came to a similar conclusion of “ground force tactics on dispersal and deception ought to be reinvigorated.”
“Ought to be” should be replaced with “must be,” or the risk to the force is an unmitigated disaster. However, physically dispersing the BSA to limit the effect of fires is not enough, and dispersion also can affect the efficiency and security of the BSA. CSIS’s study also recognized the necessity of deception. Typically, the Army does not train much on deception, likely because of the Army’s domain dominance. Since the Vietnam War, the Army has been used to friendly skies and fires dominance. The low cost and availability of new technologies almost guarantee this will not be the case in future conflicts. It should be assumed in any conflict the air domain will be contested, and therefore rear areas will not be safe and secure for combat support activities. We must reallocate protection assets across the battlefield to protect vital capabilities, disperse the signature, and deceive enemy targeting.
Deception can be accomplished with simple, low-cost methods. Gen. George Patton’s Ghost Army in England during World War II was provided with inflatable tanks to fool German aerial reconnaissance. An August 2022 article in the Washington Post reported Ukraine was using wooden mock-ups of HIMARS to fool Russian UAVs, wasting expensive precision-guided cruise missiles on mistaken high-value targets. Similarly, applying wood or sheet metal to current Army logistics platforms like the tank rack module and the Hippo water tank could make readily identifiable logistics targets look like simple shipping containers. Dispersing the BSA geographically and reintroducing camouflage netting would lower signatures and conceal activities. Replacing tactical operations center tents, which are anything but tactical, with all-terrain expandable command trucks with integrated power and communications systems would increase survivability and mobility. Yet dispersion and deception can only accomplish so much. As an executive officer and support operations officer in a brigade support battalion (BSB), I argued for the positioning of the brigade reserve, when not being actively employed, with the BSA to provide effective protection to counter threats. I also argued for mortars and air defense to be positioned to support the BSA. When combat power is limited, it cannot be everywhere, and hard decisions must be made on what to protect and where to accept risk. The support area’s nature demands additional combat power beyond the BSB’s organic capability to protect its critical functions. New air defense and counter-UAS systems are critical to BSA survival. As we have witnessed in Karabakh and Ukraine, combat formations stripped of their logistics rapidly derail operational and strategic plans.
Lastly, as the Army reviews its TTP for large-scale combat operations (LSCO), we must consider our current alignment of logistics elements. The decentralized BSB organization that worked so well in supporting the counter-insurgency fight does not bode well for LSCO. The BSB and its parent organization, the division-aligned sustainment brigade, have limited ability to mass logistics to support the main effort. The forward support company (FSC) construct creates a situation where the BSB commander asks to take back resources from maneuver battalions to conduct the logistics fight rather than having the organic flexibility to weigh the effort according to the brigade plan. The current spread of command and control of the logistics peanut butter is inefficient and leaves the BSB without the capability to surge transportation, maintenance, or recovery to the brigade’s main effort, limiting the combat brigade’s operational reach. We should remove the habitual relationships of the FSCs and bring them back to the BSB commander to enable the massing of logistics effects and weight the effort in line with the brigade and division plans.
At echelon, active duty sustainment brigades do not have the organic units necessary to support a division’s combat requirements. The division combat sustainment support battalion (CSSB) in the sustainment brigade should have transportation, maintenance, fuel, and recovery capability to support the division support area (DSA). Without a division CSSB retrograde capability for maintenance and combat losses, battle-damaged equipment accumulates in the BSA. Accumulation in the BSA further complicates concealing this critical logistics node, delaying the reconstitution of combat power and restricting mobility. Currently, too much Army logistics has transitioned to National Guard and Reserve components for sustainment brigades to train BSBs how to fight in LSCO. While the modular system enables Reserve and National Guard battalions and companies to complement formations in wartime, it limits a sustainment brigade and a division’s ability to train as it fights. A sustainment brigade commander with full command and control over three BSBs, all their FSCs, and a Division Sustainment Support Battalion capable of executing DSA operations would vastly increase flexibility and extend operational reach to support the division fight.
This commentary is based on my experiences supporting various forces in varying contexts. Ultimately, we cannot wait for combat to ensure our logistics forces are efficiently aligned, trained in dispersed operations under constant threat, and properly equipped to conceal, deceive, and avoid threats in this current multidomain threat environment.
Lt. Col. Ross M. Hertlein is currently serving as the Deployment and Distribution Operations Center chief for U.S. Southern Command. He has company and field grade operational experience in the 524th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the 82nd Airborne Division. He has 36 months of combat tours in Central Command in addition to deploying to Liberia in support of the Ebola response mission. He is a graduate of the Transportation Officer Basic Course, the Combined Logistics Captains Career Course, and Command and General Staff College at the Navy War College in Rhode Island.
This article was published in the Winter 23 issue of Army Sustainment.