Adapting to the Expected LSCO Conflicts in the 21st Century

By Maj. Thaddeus WilsonApril 23, 2024

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Throughout history, advances in civilian and military technology have continuously changed the character of warfare and necessitated constant adaptation of military training, doctrine, tactics, and thinking. The most recent example of the present character of war is the Russia-Ukraine war that began on February 24, 2022. Observation and analysis of Russian, Ukrainian, and allied operations during this war have provided critical insights into likely U.S. Army requirements in future combat operations. To meet these requirements, the Army must adapt its doctrine, organization, training, and mindset to build leaders and formations that can survive, fight, and win in high-intensity, large-scale combat operations in a multidomain environment. Among the numerous lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine war, the five that directly and most profoundly impact sustainment on the battlefield are that sustainment assets are an intelligence indicator; the enemy will target sustainment nodes; the impacts of the widespread use of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs); the effect of individual Soldier discipline; and the importance of adaptive communication. Considering these insights, the Army has begun transforming training to build and maintain the capability to deal with dilemmas posed by the integration of new technologies into the future battlefield.

Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations, explains that Army forces conducting multidomain operations must “Account for being under constant observation and all forms of enemy contact.” The Russia-Ukraine war has clearly shown that sustainment units are susceptible to a multitude of enemy sensors and intelligence disciplines, including human intelligence, cyber intelligence, financial intelligence, open-source intelligence, and signals intelligence. This new transparent battlefield requires a shift in the way the Army trains for and conducts sustainment operations.

Military sustainment by its nature focuses on friendly forces and maintaining the tempo, endurance, and freedom of action of the supported force. Historically, sustainment leaders have focused most of their planning and mission command efforts on how operations could most efficiently provide support with little consideration for the signature their operations might give to the enemy. Outside of planning for defense against localized direct fire, indirect fire, or enemy special operations forces attacks, most sustainment planning has not considered the impact the placement or employment of key sustainment assets might have on the enemy’s ability to anticipate friendly actions. In both the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent combat operations, the movement and placement of key sustainment stocks and capabilities have proved to be intelligence indicators. Army sustainment leaders must understand they are always in some form of contact with the enemy. How sustainment assets are arrayed and employed not only exposes them to enemy targeting but may provide the enemy with indications of what the friendly force will do next. These considerations must be incorporated into training, planning, and operations at all echelons of sustainment. On a transparent battlefield, sustainers at any level could significantly hinder operational success by inadvertently exposing the friendly plan to the enemy.

The Russia-Ukraine war has also shown that sustainment nodes and assets will be targeted with direct and indirect fires delivered by air, land, maritime, cyberspace, space, or special operations forces. To mitigate this, sustainment leaders and units must understand their signature across all domains and employ camouflage and deception techniques to reduce their risk of being targeted. Completely avoiding detection is not realistic with the widespread availability of sensors, but sustainment units can minimize the size of support areas, disperse stockpiles, employ decoys, be deliberate with emitting signals, and camouflage vehicles and equipment. Integrating signature management, frequent and rapid survivability moves, dispersed operations, and mobility into future institutional and sustainment training will prepare Army sustainers for the threats they will encounter on the future battlefield.

One sensing capability that has been employed in many recent conflicts, including the Russia-Ukraine war, is a wide variety of UASs. UASs of every size and description have been used by both the Russians and Ukrainians to collect intelligence, observe indirect fire, kinetically engage the enemy, and conduct multiple other tasks. The availability, relative low cost, and ease of employment make UASs a capability of choice for 21st-century military operations. Sustainment leaders and units must understand friendly and enemy UASs, counter-unmanned aircraft systems, and electronic warfare capabilities. UASs will be present in all areas of the future battlefield, and Army sustainers must have the capability to differentiate friendly from enemy UASs, master all facets of active and passive protection from enemy UAS capabilities, and employ UASs to provide responsive and precise support.

On January 3, 2023, Ukrainian forces conducted a rocket artillery strike that destroyed a building and killed 89 Russian soldiers in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. The Ukrainians found the target through signals intelligence gained from unauthorized cellphone use by the Russian soldiers. This is just one example of the unforgiving nature of the modern battlefield. In Ukraine, there have been multiple examples like this in which soldier indiscipline has led to targeting with indirect fires. For U.S. Soldiers, individual discipline and unit discipline are critical to the survivability and effectiveness of sustainment units. This discipline must be generated through tough, realistic training that replicates the conditions and the consequences of the indiscipline that Soldiers will face on the next battlefield. Soldiers must understand that their actions have strategic impacts and may jeopardize success up to the strategic level.

One key capability that enables sustainment units to conduct dispersed operations, employ precision sustainment, and mitigate the enemy’s ability to find and target sustainment units is adaptive communication infrastructure. Lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine war have shown that sustainment units need to be dispersed, mobile, responsive, and precise. Those things are only possible if units can communicate effectively and converge capabilities at the point of need. Sustainment units at echelon must have secure and resilient communications capability. They must carefully plan how and when units communicate to manage their electromagnetic signature. Communication discipline must be integrated into all training.

More than two years of observing the Russia-Ukraine war has provided countless insights into the future battlefield. Army sustainers and sustainment units must be able to mitigate their signature, conduct dispersed operations that deceive the enemy, mitigate the effects of UASs, display individual and collective discipline, and employ effective resilient communications. The Army and the joint force have already begun to operationalize these principles and integrate lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine war into training and doctrine. The Joint Concept for Contested Logistics, the Predictive Logistics Capabilities Development Document, and the new draft of FM 4-0, Sustainment Operations, currently in development, all incorporate the changing character of war. Institutional sustainment training also integrates these lessons learned into courses. As the Russia-Ukraine war grinds through its third year, we will continue gathering lessons learned and adapt accordingly.


Maj. Thaddeus Wilson currently serves as the executive officer to the U.S. Army Chief of Transportation. He was also an operations officer (J3) in a joint and combined NATO Corps Headquarters in support of operations in Poland and the Baltic States. He has also served with the 75th Ranger Regiment and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. He attended the Army Command and General Staff College and has a Master of Business Administration from the University of Kansas.


This article was published in the Spring 2024 issue of Army Sustainment.


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