Railroads, Logistics, and War, US Versus Russian Style

It’s really easy to be overly contrary, but it’s quite remarkable again and again to see the press, presumably reflecting what their political and military sources in the West are telling them, that Russia has a lousy no good military…that is nevertheless beating what Scott Ritter repeatedly depicted as a military trained to NATO standards and interchangeable with other NATO units.

We’ll use as a case study an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, The 19th-Century Technology Driving Russia’s Latest Gains in Ukraine: Railroads. Even the photo at the top is unwittingly at odds with the message:

Have a good look at the tracks. Maybe only a railroad maven like Lambert would see it, but those are beautiful, and most assuredly 21st century standard tracks.

Before we get to the particular questions about this article, let’s remember why this sort of thing matters. We are already suffering the cost of badly misjudging who would suffer more from the sanctions imposed on Russia, as shown by the Fed raising interest rates in a destructive effort to kill an inflation that isn’t the result of too much demand but supply shocks. We’ve similarly warned it’s reckless for the US and NATO to persist in underestimating Russia, and It’s going to unduly prolong the war, assure that there will be no negotiated outcome (not that any was all that likely given our “not agreement-capable” status) and produce an orgy of military spending in a misguided effort to contain Russia when we’re backfiring at that at almost every turn.

Larry C. Johnson explained the why the US considerably over-estimates its capabilities:

I want to focus on one of the key themes in Andrei Martyanov’s essential book, Losing Military Supremacy–the weapon systems the United States is spending money to develop and deploy are obscenely expensive and completely vulnerable to Russia’s weapons created to defeat the American threat. Let me explain it this way. The United States has created the most expensive racing car in the world but the race it will run is over an off-road course littered with rocks, deep ruts and sandy mountains. In short, the vehicle will breakdown and not complete the race.

Here is Andrei’s summation of the problem:

Manipulation and PR are no substitute for actual victory which is defined universally as achieving the political objectives of the war, or in Clausewitz’s one liner—the ability to compel the enemy to do our will. The United States military’s balance sheet on that is simply not impressive, despite a mammoth military budget, immensely expensive weapons and a massive, well-oiled PR machine. All this is the result of the US military-industrial complex long ago becoming a jobs program for retired Pentagon generals and an embodiment of the neoconservative “view” on war—a view developed by people, most of whom never served a single day in uniform and do not possess even basic fundamental knowledge of the physical principles on which modern weapons operate and how technological dimensions reflect upon tactical, operational and strategic aspects of war (they are all tightly interconnected and do not exist separately). But talking up or blowing out of proportion, or grossly exaggerating US military capabilities does not require a serious academic and experiential foundation—today it is enough to have that desire and a good command of the English language to do so.

Excerpt From Losing Military Supremacyby Andrei Martyanov

The focus in that must-read Johnson article was on weapons systems, but the collective West has taken to denigrating Russia’s capabilities because their military doctrine is different than ours. They use far less in the way of air planes and pilots and way way more in the way of precision long-distance missiles….which they’ve shown in Ukraine to be very effective, and that’s before giving credit to their hypersonic missiles. They didn’t take Kiev not because they couldn’t but that clearly hasn’t yet been an aim. They’ve been going methodically in Donbass because it’s very heavily bunkered and Russia is good at attrition.

With that as background, the thesis of the Wall Street Journal is Russia has a primitive military because it doesn’t used modern commercial logistics. It also makes claims about Russia abandoning equipment and running out of fuel that have been debunked by experts . Photos of dead tqnks and armored vehicles have been repeatedly shown to be Ukraine equipment, or from Donbass years ago, or from completely different theaters.1 For convenience, see Larry Johnson here starting at 8:20 for an assessment of Russia’s performance early in the conflict.

Let’s turn to the discussion of trains and logistics:

Russian forces have advanced in eastern Ukraine over recent weeks behind overwhelming artillery barrages, a shift in fortunes made possible by better access to rail lines delivering tons of ammunition and other supplies.

Trains are the Russian military’s go-to method for moving troops and heavy weapons. In Ukraine’s industrialized Donbas region, dense rail networks have played to Moscow’s advantage.

Russia’s military depends so heavily on trains that it maintains an elite Railroad Force, a service branch once common in countries through World War II. The unit has camouflage-painted armored train cars equipped with antiaircraft cannons and artillery to guard supply trains, and its troops are trained to repair bombed tracks while under enemy fire. Russia’s Defense Ministry said it has restored 750 miles of track in the land corridor it now controls in Ukraine’s southeast.

This discussion omits what some readers have pointed out: Russia can and does built fresh temporary rail lines. It isn’t restricted to existing tracks. Admittedly that requires accommodating terrain but it means Russia is not restricted to existing railways as the piece indicates.

We then get to this part:

But Russia’s heavy reliance on train transport, a 19th-century technology, reveals critical gaps in its logistics, the coordinated transfer of supplies. Russia’s struggle to supply troops away from rail lines has slowed its invasion and contributed to catastrophic failures in its early offensives to take Kyiv and Kharkiv.

This is false. Russia depicted is campaign as a special military operation. It clearly did not send enough troops to take Kiev. That was design. Kharkiv looks more like an intelligence failure (this may have been one of the cities where senior officials signed “no contest” letter and were either shot or were double dealing).

Clausewitz, which treats politics and war as integrated. Russia’s supposed terrible first phase not only got Ukraine to the negotiating table but won such significant concessions in Istanbul at the end of March that the UK and US had to order Ukraine to repudiate them.

Now to the argument about railroads and logistics:

Unlike the U.S. and other countries that have adopted modern military logistics, Russia has largely remained wedded to traditional Soviet-era methods. It isn’t just a sign of the military’s failure, according to Western officials. The shortfall results from a lack of modernization in Russia’s economy.

Russia boasts one of the world’s largest military forces, equipped with nuclear submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles, but it has few shipping containers, forklifts or pallets of the kind the U.S. is using to speed supplies into Ukraine, according to logistics experts.

To unpack this a bit more, Russia is allegedly able to get in enough artillery in Donbass (Alexander Mercouris yesterday said at least 70,000 rounds a day) because the area is industrial and has a lot of rail lines. First, Russia is not going to need anywhere near as intense artillery barrages as it does in Donbass. The Ukraine army has bunkered it heavily all along the old line of contact, and in rows beyond that. It’s literally hundreds of kilometers of fortifications. That obstacle exists no where else in potential theaters in Ukraine.

Second, I can’t see the detail on the map all that well, but from the briefings on Military Summary, Russia is using mainly roads and not railroads for supply in Lugansk, which is the north-eastern of the two oblasts. So if that is correct, the Wall Street Journal thesis has already broken down even in Donbass. Similarly, why would a pontoon bridge over the Seversky Donets be an important focus of fighting if Russia were so rail dependent?

A related part of the logistics argument is that Russia is hopelessly behind because it uses muscle and not containers and forklifts. They ground the military argument in the fact that Russia generally relies less on delivery trucks than the US does:

Modern cargo handling relies on containers of standard sizes that fit trucks, train cars, ships and hoisting equipment. Russia’s container ports in 2020 handled slightly more of the containers than those in Colombia and fewer than France, according to United Nations data. The volume of container traffic passing through Russia has been largely flat since 2013, while global volume rose 23% over the same period….

Russians load cargo manually into railway vehicles that travel its national rail system, which forms the backbone of the country’s freight network.

Russians allegedly rely on wooden crates “which can weigh more than 100 pounds when full” as the purported backbone of their logistics. Um, that means nearly all the time, two fit men can move them, particularly if they have a few low-tech aids like winches and dollies for big jobs.

The US found in World War II that using pallets and forklifts would reduce man hours to unload supply ships by a factor of 3. But these aren’t supply ships! What are the figures for more comparable modal shifts?

Let’s get to the reasons for my reservations. See this photo?

First, those happen to be the famed Javelins. Gee, how successful hove our logistics been in getting them to Donbass? They’ve been a complete fail in the field, although that may be mainly due to their batteries being no good, as opposed to them getting to the east of Ukraine in sufficient numbers.

But what looks wrong with that picture? Look at all the stuff you need! You need the forklift. We are told you need pallets. Recall in West Coast ports we’ve had pallet shortages? What happens if a forklift breaks? How many do you have in reserve? How many guys are trained to do the easy field fixes when they get in trouble?

In other words, yes the US system is likely more efficient when you have it up and running. But it takes more moving parts. More moving parts = more potential points of failure. By contrast, Russia effectively chunks its supplies into smaller packages that guys can move.

Rail lover Lambert came to similar conclusions:

It’s a legitimate point that Russia could struggle to move materiel beyond the railhead. But it’s also ASSERTED, not proved. Who says this? (“Shape the conflict going forward” is a delicate way of saying that a sparse network could impede a move on Odessa.)

The rest of it is a paean to the American Way of Logistics which naturally is the Only Way. (Implied: “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics”). The author’s issue is that Russia’s logistics aren’t containerized, there are no forklifts or palettes or robots, and there’s a lot of human labor (An early version of containerization was developed for the Vietnam war, which, of course, we lost.) The conflation of primitive with different (optimized for different conditions) is pretty pervasive.

However, Russia has never required an enormous 21st Century containerized multimodal ship -> rail -> truck network, because Russia doesn’t run its economy based on enormous quantities of consumer crap from China (and when they do import, I bet it goes overland). So it’s dumb to expect Russia to have leveraged a commercial supply chain they do not possess. (I would also like to know how much of our wondrous supply chain is run by Halliburton and its buddies.) As for robots, “chipless” could well be essential in even as short a time as a decade.

The only question is whether Russia’s approach to logistics supports the warfighter (and not whether its optimal according to American standards). In the special case of Donbas, it clearly does. In the more sparse rail networks of Western Ukraine, this remains to be seen. That is the key point of the article, and unfortunately that key point is only ASSERTED, and not reported!!!!!

Finally, as to the performance of American logistics in Ukraine, remember that Russia took out most of Ukraine’s rail capacity in the west by destroying the electrical transformers in all of the major rail junctions. Over 80% of the Ukraine’s trains are electric-powered, so Ukraine and its Western allies can only use a much smaller number of diesel trains.

So how are they doing without having much use of those trains they pooh pooh to get weapons to the east? Consider this May 22 talk by Jacob Dreizin2:

At 1:33, Dreizin discusses how Javelins and other light weapons have failed.

But the money quote is at 16:50 (emphasis mine):

The fact that these cannons [howitzers] have been deployed in east Ukraine is an admission that Uncle Sam has not been able to get any better, more modern artillery systems into eastern Ukraine and this is all they could do, this is the best they could do….In recent decades, even in recent generations, the whole trend, the military trend, has been away from towed cannon and towards self-propelled cannons, self propelled guns, because they’re more versatile, they’re tracked, they can go off road anywhere, they carry their own ammo in their turrets, at least some of it, and they can move around much faster, you know, move and shoot from here, whereas these towed systems essentially have been abandoned by all Western armies, everybody from the US to the UK to Israel. I think they’re being fielded only by the US Marine Corps. The US Army does not have any towed artillery at this time whatsoever…These are still conceptually antiquated systems, very vulnerable from the air….If you are fighting a modern enemy, these are absolutely impractical weapons systems.

I find it hard to see how the US can be preening about Western logistics when we spent eight years funding and training Ukraine to NATO standards and they can’t adequately supply Ukraine. Now admittedly there are lots of reasons in addition to logistics, like Russia has done a good job of blowing up weapons deliveries, a lot of the weapons were old and didn’t operate well, and many of the ones that did work were likely sold on the black market. But even so, Dreizin’s account that it appears that the only large weapons system we could get to the east is the military equivalent of an antique is pretty damning.


1 If you’ve been at all following the war, you can see clear fakery in the article. For instance, it claims to have overheard a Russian soldier “over an open frequency.” As Scott Ritter has stressed, again repeatedly, any stories claiming to have captured Russian telecommunications are obviously false. Russia uses only secure comms and we have not cracked them. Russian soldiers have their phones taken from them and understand full well using any non-military device reveals your location and an invitation to get you and your companions killed pronto.

2 Dreizin made some minor corrections to this video: “Every time I said “trailer” in this video, I meant to say “hitch.” Also, the Javelin missile is self-guided, not wire-guided”

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