Tactical Sustainment: Unraveling Kyiv’s Urban Battlefield

By Lt. Col. Phil ThomasApril 23, 2024

Russia bombards telecommunication antennas in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022. (Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0)
Russia bombards telecommunication antennas in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022. (Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

The battle for Kyiv reinforces the lesson that the sustainer must always account for worst-case scenarios, including prolonged operations, increased​​ demand for supplies, dispersed formations, and little or no security. The battle, which occurred from February to April 2022, saw Russian forces advance from the north, transitioning from rural to urban environments. However, Russia’s plan for the battle did not unfold as intended for several reasons. One of the most prominent was the expectation of encountering little Ukrainian resistance, which would facilitate a quick victory and uncontested resupply. The commonly accepted Russian objective was to surround Kyiv and create a blockade​​. For this discussion, let’s assume the U.S., with a similar strategic need to seize a city, would approach it by focusing on key terrain while emphasizing messaging to mitigate collateral damage. Under these assumptions, the Army can derive the following sustainment lessons and considerations for U.S. forces that can be applied to future urban fights.

Seizing key terrain takes longer than expected, especially in an urban environment. A brigade combat team can carry three days’ worth of supplies. According to Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 3-06, Urban Operations, one should anticipate a “20–30 percent expenditure increase in personnel, fuel, ammunition, barrier, or obstacle material” in an urban environment. Simple math suggests at least four days’ worth of supply is required. Consequently, the brigade combat team either needs additional division sustainment resources assigned from the outset or must be resupplied within the first 24 to 48 hours after entering urban terrain.

The pace of battle is slow. With additional sustainment resources and more frequent resupplies, the tempo of the battle naturally decreases, which degrades the element of surprise and exposes formations to risks, such as from unmanned aerial systems or indirect fire. Striking a balance between tempo and protection is crucial for commanders on the ground, and sustainment leaders must be prepared to offer guidance and advice.

Battlefield geometry is messy, consequently affecting logistical reporting. Forces deplete at an alarming rate and divide into sectors and/or neighborhoods most likely delineated by supply routes. Units will most likely share supply points for the sake of simplicity. However, due to security challenges, it should be anticipated that the accuracy of logistical reporting is less accurate than usual. Hence, overcommunication and anticipation, achieved by synchronizing running estimates in all command posts regardless of warfighting function, become even more critical.

Stability proves to be a friend to sustainment but an adversary to protection. As the Army moves beyond the conventional support area, the enduring theme of stability from ATP 4-90, Brigade Support Battalion, remains pertinent: “units must know where the new BSA (brigade support area) and resupply points are and when to begin using them.” Meanwhile, dispersion enhances survivability but “complicates C2 (command and control) and perimeter security.” The Russian forces found themselves inadvertently dispersed, leading to a precarious situation. Commanders must devise innovative strategies to plan and safeguard stability, even if temporarily, across the battlefield to protect the planned distribution cycle. This concern has prompted many Army leaders to explore tactics and techniques, including keeping supplies uploaded and distributing items more quickly, while being conscious of the survivability of the logistics forces.

Sustainment units must prioritize their own protection or rely on others to do so. While sustainment units can protect themselves to a limited extent, are they designed or trained to defend adequately against anything beyond saboteurs (level I) or small tactical units (level II)? The resounding answer is no, leaving them increasingly exposed as logistical elements approach the front line​​, especially in an urban environment. The conflict in Ukraine involving Russia has prompted discussions among adjacent warfighting functions regarding the necessity for deception, pre-positioned ammunition, and additional strategies for moving commodities across the battlefield. All these factors bring field ​​trains closer to the frontlines. Therefore, either sustainment leaders need to dedicate more time to training for their own self-defense, or maneuver commanders must allocate more forces to avoid further strain on an already resource-intensive operation.

The array of sustainment command posts within the division, including the brigade, requires reconsideration. Currently, Army divisions serve as the primary units of action, operating sustainment nodes in what is known as the close and rear areas per ATP 3-91, Division Operations, a configuration better suited for linear warfare but challenging in urban environments. The condensed nature of urban settings potentially exacerbates battlefield congestion and renders the supply chain more susceptible to indirect fires or unconventional threats when these nodes are established conventionally.

Moreover, the Army emphasizes commanders controlling their forces from smaller, dispersed command posts, ready to relocate quickly, introducing added complexity. When command nodes intertwine with dynamic battlefield geometry, roles and responsibilities among echelons may become unclear. Sustainment leaders must demonstrate immense discipline in synchronizing sustainment operations effectively without compromising flexibility and responsiveness.

This complexity might necessitate streamlining C2, potentially removing layers or redefining roles. Such measures aim to prevent mission creep, avoiding unnecessary redundancy or distribution inefficiencies that could needlessly risk constrained resources.

Current maintenance operations are structured to facilitate repairs as close to the front lines as feasible through maintenance collection points. However, in urban environments, this approach may not be viable. Consequently, vehicles end up being triaged in semi-secure locations for a significantly extended duration, surpassing what is presently considered ideal.

The degradation of combat capabilities may accelerate, necessitating more frequent and challenging decisions by maneuver commanders, particularly as they transition main effort responsibilities. Division-level and corps-level leaders could encounter task organization alterations that require hours, if not days, to realign and maintain effectiveness.

The demand for patient treatment at forward positions and/or the need for evacuation is significant and unconventional, necessitating strategic allocation of the division’s limited assets to address these needs. Air evacuation within a city might not be feasible due to the threat or the terrain. Commanders must ready themselves to confront a challenging choice between managing personnel losses at the expense of momentum or capitalizing on momentum at the risk of neglecting personnel losses. This presents a tough decision, one that simulations may not comprehensively address—the emotional toll on the force in such a battle.

Divisions and corps sustainers undergo training to analyze the critical path, evaluating requirements, available resources for transportation, and the necessary measures to safeguard such movements. Senior leaders may make decisions like these once or twice a day. Operationally, this process entails identifying the main effort, formulating schemes for fires, and other essential inputs.

The outcomes involve adjustments in sustainment and protection priorities, alongside requests for support from either expeditionary sustainment or theater sustainment commands. Consequently, this process enables a surge of capabilities, like increased throughput and allocation of combat platforms from reserves.

The urban environment and the demands required for a successful battle for a city like Kyiv would not permit such an extended process. Therefore, corps-level leaders must anticipate needs beforehand. Anticipating and effectively distributing these requirements necessitates collaborative, rapid planning between corps and division staffs, especially in an environment where synchronizing operations and sustainment within the current planning cycle is already challenging.

One could argue maneuver commanders may need to plan for tactical pauses or transitions, even in environments where such pauses are not immediately apparent, solely to allow sustainment to maintain pace.

The Russia-Ukraine war has evolved into a battle of attrition, where the ultimate victor will be the one who integrates fires more effectively or mobilizes their military-industrial complex more efficiently. As with all wars, it consists of a series of tactical battles sustained by tactical planners. The overarching lesson gleaned from this is that sustainment leaders within the division and corps must undergo detailed training to adequately address the previously outlined lessons. An emphasis on immersing leaders in an urban training environment like Kyiv may be required to adequately provide the exposure required to facilitate the tough discussions and ultimately tough decisions between the sustainers and their maneuver colleagues to address the lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine war.


Lt. Col. Phil Thomas currently serves as the 40th Infantry Division G-4. He is a graduate of the Armor Officer Basic Course, Quartermaster Advanced Course, Support Operations Course, United States Army Command and General Staff College, Kansas. He has a Master of Business Administration from the University of Redlands, California.


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


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