Theater Sustainment Transformation: Lessons from the Russia-Ukraine War

By Maj. Gen. Ronald R. Ragin and Maj. Christopher G. IngramApril 23, 2024

A French soldier assigned to the 92e regiment d’infanterie engages an enemy drone during Saber Junction 23 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center at the Hohenfels Training Area, Germany, Sept. 10, 2023. (Photo by Sgt. Christian Aquino)
A French soldier assigned to the 92e regiment d’infanterie engages an enemy drone during Saber Junction 23 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center at the Hohenfels Training Area, Germany, Sept. 10, 2023. (Photo by Sgt. Christian Aquino) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Emerging technologies, already visible on the battlefields of Ukraine, are rapidly changing the character of war in ways that require a transformation in how the Army sustains the fight. Autonomous systems, long-range precision fires, and hypersonic weapons are reaching deep and targeting command posts, logistics nodes, and lines of communication. As seen in Ukraine, once a logistics node is established, it is rapidly targeted and often destroyed in less than 24 hours. With drones that can detect, surveil, and target, the kill chain in Ukraine demonstrates that as fast as a supply depot or command post can be found, it can be destroyed. The future of armed reconnaissance is unmanned, lethal, and expendable, and it may be operated by artificial intelligence (AI) that follows a different set of moral norms than Soldiers do.

The proliferation and exponential growth of emerging technologies are changing the scale, geometry, and complexity of warfighting. The lessons learned in Ukraine are not unique to Europe. From Russian logistical missteps in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine to the attrition warfare that predominates the defensive fight today, these lessons should drive transformation of sustainment across the Army, joint, and multinational forces.

Applying Lessons Learned and the Russian Theory of Victory

One of the hazards in applying lessons learned in any conflict is that adversaries may draw different lessons from the same events. In Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. and its allies deployed to a new theater of conflict, built combat power, and defeated one of the world’s largest land armies in under 100 hours of ground combat. The lesson the U.S. learned was that it could use its advantage in strategic mobility to respond to threats anywhere in the world. The lesson its adversaries learned was that if you let the U.S. establish a coalition and build up combat power in your neighborhood, you cannot win. From this observation, Russia and China invested heavily for three decades in anti-access/area denial capabilities.

As demonstrated in Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s theory of victory has been to turn tactical success into strategic advantage by exploiting political divisions of democratic nations and negotiating an end to the conflict that achieves their objectives. In contrast, the U.S.’s theory of victory includes an allied unity of effort, a theater set for contested logistics, multiple dilemmas imposed on the adversary, and creative options to win the close fight.

The logistics challenges the Russians faced in the early stages of the Ukraine invasion should not be ignored, but it cannot be assumed those challenges reflect the current or future Russian force. Russia is learning lessons and adapting under fire. While the initial phase depended on expeditionary logistics, the current phase features an active defense supported by robust internal lines of communication that are more consistent with Russian sustainment doctrine and organization.

At the theater level, Russia is expected to learn from its early missteps and develop expeditionary logistics capabilities to sustain offensive operations. Likewise, they are expected to continue investing in capabilities they believe will contest the U.S.’s ability to project power in response. While there are countless tactical lessons to be learned, this article’s focus is on areas of theater sustainment transformation that will be critical to countering Russia, China, or any advanced adversary.

Contested power projection provides combatant commanders with sufficient power projection capability and capacity to enable strategic and operational reach and supports the freedom of action necessary to create multiple dilemmas for our adversaries. Executing contested power projection requires rapid power projection; conducting reception, staging, and onward movement (RSO) in contact; use of Army pre-positioned stocks (APS); and theater power projection capabilities.

Rapid power projection requires the ability to project and sustain forward-positioned forces rapidly, reliably, and consistently from multiple points of origin to deployed locations throughout the depth and breadth of the battlefield.

RSO in contact should be an assumption in planning for crisis and conflict. Current operations are regularly conducted under the observation of adversaries. Intelligence gathering on RSO locations, timelines, and capabilities sets the conditions for active targeting in future crises or conflicts. Throughout the process, critical vulnerabilities are exploited for targeting RSO across all domains.

APS enables forces to be inserted rapidly and prevents adversaries from exploiting a window of opportunity to gain a fait accompli. In unanticipated crises, APS may represent the bulk of immediately available combat power. The balance of APS should include the sustainment capabilities required for intratheater force projection and distribution.

Theater power projection platforms are critical to strategic mobility and the rapid movement and integration of combat forces. An adversary can attack anywhere, so it is critical to have theater power projection platforms to respond rapidly to any potential crises.

Adaptive sustainment is the solution to a contested logistics environment. Adapting to a contested logistics environment requires rapid and predictive decision-making, sustainment at echelon that is purposefully designed for distributed and responsive operations, and diverse options for the transportation of forces and materiel. Rigid planning processes, echelons of sustainment with single points of failure, or single lines of communication create vulnerabilities the enemy can exploit to delay, disrupt, and defeat friendly forces.

The ability to hide in plain sight is critical to operating in a contested logistics environment. The proliferation of drones, with over 10,000 a day flying on each side, has made masking, camouflage, dispersion, and mobility a requirement for survival. Surprise, or rear area sanctuary, will be dramatically decreased in future conflicts. Expendable long-range drones above mean that if you can be seen, you can be killed, and you can almost always be seen.

Data-enabled decision-making and AI-enabled predictive sustainment are the nervous systems of an adaptive sustainment network. In a major war, the pace and scale of attrition will cripple antiquated decision-making processes. Achieving decision-advantage over the adversary requires the ability to collect and process volumes of data quickly and to provide relevant, reliable information to decision-makers faster than the adversary. AI will not replace Soldiers in combat, but Soldiers who know how to use AI will defeat those who do not.

Multimodal transportation provides options for sustainment when adversaries attack a preferred mode. Army watercraft are critical to sustaining operations in areas where ground lines of communication are unavailable or disrupted. Large ports, bridges, railheads, and tunnels are fixed targets for contested logistics. Russian forces were overly dependent on rail transportation and struggled when they had to transition from rail to road for expeditionary logistics in the offense. Russian reliance on rail for high-volume resupply of artillery ammunition also created a lucrative target for contested logistics before the Russians adapted.

Secure prolonged endurance determines the outcome of major wars. The side that produces, maintains, and regenerates combat power faster will likely prevail in Ukraine. As the pace of destruction has increased, the complexity of weapons systems has also increased. Success requires stockpiles of critical munitions and rapid regeneration.

Pre-positioned and distributed storage of bulk commodities is required to sustain forces in a contested environment at the scale seen in Ukraine. Both sides target fuel and ammunition storage facilities. Even semi-fixed locations are not mobile enough to support a dynamic fight and are targeted.

Resilient and autonomous distribution creates a targeting dilemma for an enemy focused on disrupting logistics. The simplest way to disable a tank is to deny it fuel, and a corps-sized force requires two million gallons per day. Relying in recent decades on contractors delivering fuel to forward operating bases, it cannot be assumed that contracted distribution will reach the tactical edge in an environment dominated by persistent surveillance and long-range fires.

Production at the point of need improves readiness and reduces the demand for long lines of communication. Advanced manufacturing closer to the point of need provides exponential advantages in speed and proximity. Advanced manufacturing capabilities exist in the commercial market. The ingenuity of Ukrainians has already demonstrated that additive manufacturing can produce parts that are good enough to meet operational requirements. However, current policies and proprietary restrictions create hurdles for the use of these technologies to sustain U.S. forces.

Regeneration of combat power requires distributed maintenance activities in theater with higher-level capabilities. The efficiency of the current sustainment model is not sufficient for large-scale combat operations. Russia has prioritized building maintenance, repair, and overhaul capability sites to get combat platforms rapidly back into the fight. Maintaining the advantage in prolonged endurance requires capabilities and authorities for combat regeneration, including advanced/additive manufacturing of parts in theater.

Collective sustainment enables collective defense. The U.S. has not fought a major war alone since 1898. When considering reinforcement and sustainment, the Army must find collective solutions and reduce friction. That includes collective investment in infrastructure, training, and efforts to streamline the cross-border mobility process. Whether in Europe, the Pacific, or elsewhere, building partner capacity and improving interoperability will make us stronger together.

Interoperability, integration, and interchangeability of sustainment capabilities improve unity of effort and prolonged endurance in a future conflict. The Army must train alongside its allies and partners as it pursues modernization. Our strength is multiplied when we combine effects to address common challenges, share costs, and widen the circle of cooperation. Interoperability enables forces, units, and/or systems to operate together, allowing them to communicate and share common doctrine and procedures, along with each other’s infrastructure and bases. While interoperability can be trained, integration requires the ability to seamlessly sustain forces, regardless of nation, enabled by interchangeability.

Conclusion: Campaigning to Transform Theater Sustainment

As transformational change is sought to win in contested logistics environments against strategic rivals, theater sustainment requires deliberate operations, investments, and experimentation:

  • Russia and China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy requires contested power projection across all domains, from points of origin to the tactical edge. Our adversaries’ theory of victory relies on delaying our military response to achieve their strategic objectives.
  • The contested logistics environment requires an adaptive sustainment network, which leverages AI to adapt faster than the enemy attacks, a networked sustainment model, and multimodal and unmanned transportation capabilities to sustain the force.
  • Victory depends on secure prolonged endurance. All wars become wars of attrition, eventually. The side that creates multiple dilemmas for its adversary, sustains the massing of operational effects at critical points over time, and regenerates combat power faster will win.
  • Collective defense requires collective sustainment. Allies are the U.S.’s greatest strength. While we face active threats from adversaries opposed to the rules-based international order, we are stronger together.

Finally, some of the least discussed lessons being learned today are from the sustainment operations the Army does every day to transport, integrate, and repair equipment donated by the U.S. and its allies to Ukraine. The Army has an opportunity to leverage these contingency operations through a campaign mindset to transform how the Army sustains theater operations in conflict.

The innovations the Army fails to make today will be the adaptations it is forced to make under fire tomorrow, and the price will be paid in lives lost. Russia is adapting; China is innovating; Iran is learning; and the technological evolutions seen today will reshape the future of conflict. The scale and complexity of war are changing rapidly. Is the Army transforming sustainment doctrine, infrastructure, equipment, and training fast enough to win the next fight, wherever it occurs?


Maj. Gen. Ronald R. Ragin currently serves as the commanding general of 21st Theater Sustainment Command and as deputy commanding general - support of United States Army Europe and Africa. He previously served as deputy commanding general - support of Security Assistance Group - Ukraine. He holds a Ph.D. in public policy from Walden University, Minnesota. He completed the Harvard National Security Fellowship program and is an alum of the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government, Massachusetts.

Maj. Christopher G. Ingram is an Army strategist, currently serving in the Commander’s Initiative Group of 21st Theater Sustainment Command in Germany. He previously served as deputy chief of plans and operations at the National Training Center Operations Group, California, and as the speechwriter to the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. As an infantry officer, he served in South Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He holds a master’s degree in international affairs from American University, Washington, D.C., and serves on the board of the Military Writers Guild.


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


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