The Art of Logistics
Thomas L. Nielsen
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has served as a wake-up call for much of the world, not least Western Europe and a realisation that a new, major war in Europe was less improbable than had previously been imagined. This realisation has led to much soul-searching with regards to defence funding and military preparedness, and a large part of this has been the discussion of logistics. Particularly important in this discussion is the issue of ammunition. Although this article focuses on ammunition logistics, the same or similar arguments can be advanced for any item of supply, from vehicle spare parts to toilet paper.
How Much is Enough?
Much of the past and current discussion regarding ammunition logistics focuses on the issue of stockpiles. How much of which kinds of ammunition does NATO and its member countries need in order to be ready for a potential war in Europe? And what about assurance of supply, or in other words, how can this ammunition be obtained, taking into account European (and world) defence industrial capacities and Allied nations’ stockpiles?
Three major factors come into play with this issue: the existing stockpiles (how much is currently in stock); the expected expenditure rate in case of war (how much is needed per day/week/month); and the rate at which resupply can be expected from industry or from allies.
As outlined in a previous article (“Ammunition in the Post-Nuclear Age” by Scott E. Willason and Thomas L. Nielsen, published in ESD), many nations abandoned national ammunition production after the end of the Cold War since, with the significantly reduced requirements for ammunition, national production was not seen as economical. The “trickle-down” effect on the European ammunition industry was a lack of development, expansion and maintenance of capabilities due to the reduced customer base (due, in part to relatively restrictive European export control laws, which limited foreign sales). Unless the European ammunition production industry undergoes a revival, both with regards to capacity and capability, this will seriously impact on the third factor mentioned above (resupply from industry). At the same time, and for the same reasons, resupply from allied nations becomes increasingly unlikely, especially in case of a major war, since the said allied nations: a) have also reduced their national stockpiles; and b) now desperately need those stockpiles themselves. As a result, the questions of the current size of, and future requirements for, national stockpiles, increase in importance.
For years even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO has been working to put the issue of stockpile levels into a more formal framework, via the work in its “Stockpile Planning Committee” (SPC). The SPC has been working to formalise and harmonise supply and stockpile planning, to achieve at least a degree of agreement as to how to determine what constitutes “sufficient” stockpile levels, what these levels are, and how they can best be achieved.
While stockpile levels are certainly a vital part of any sort of ammunition logistics discussions and planning, they are not the be-all and end-all. In fact, it could be argued, as this article will do, that the above-mentioned questions of stockpiles and assurance of supply are the last questions we need to ask, however important they are.
The argument here is that much of the past and current logistical planning has been looking at the issue “from the wrong end”, so to speak. Where we ought to start is where the ammunition is needed: At the front line…
The Front Line
It should surprise no one that the front line is where ammunition is needed; for artillery, infantry, armour, air defence and a host of other weapon systems. Experiences from the war in Ukraine have amply illustrated the importance of tube and rocket artillery, so that is what we will use as an example for the rest of the article.
Ukrainian data indicates that, during heavy, high-tempo combat, the consumption of tube artillery ammunition has been approximately 300-400 rounds per tube, per day.
As a counterpoint to this, the old US FM 101-10-1/2 “STAFF OFFICERS’ FIELD MANUAL; ORGANIZATIONAL, TECHNICAL, AND LOGISTICAL DATA PLANNING FACTORS” also provides planning data for ammunition quantities, although it should be stressed that this field manual is no longer used by the US Armed Forces for logistical planning. That aside, table P-16 in the aforementioned manual provides ammunition quantities per weapon (platform) per day, for planning purposes. Specifically, for the 155 mm M109 howitzer, as part of a mechanised division, the baseline is 203 rounds per howitzer for the first day of combat, and 207 rounds per day for successive days, during defensive operations.
Although US quantities are lower than currently seen in Ukraine, it should be taken into account that Soviet (and, presumably, present-day Russian and Ukrainian) military doctrine was, and still is extremely “artillery heavy”. In Soviet doctrine, artillery constituted the primary means of destroying the enemy, with infantry and armour supporting the artillery in this task by engaging and “fixing” enemy units, allowing them to be engaged and destroyed by rocket and tube artillery. This is, in many ways, the obverse of Western/NATO doctrine, where artillery acts in support of infantry and armour, as the latter close with and destroy the enemy. Naturally, the Soviet/Russian/Ukrainian doctrine will lead to higher consumptions of artillery ammunition.
As such, the figures presented here should be seen only as a means of illustrating the points made in this article – not as a realistic attempt to calculate or predict actual consumption levels or stockpile requirements. Furthermore, even though Western/NATO weapon systems are generally considered to be qualitatively superior to their Russian counterparts in terms of range, accuracy and effect, it would still be reasonable to presume that the quantity of artillery ammunition not expended by a Western/NATO army would still be expended, just in the form of some other ammunition type (aircraft bombs, tank rounds or other), thus leaving the logistics burden more or less the same.
Additionally, the figures from the war in Ukraine are specifically for heavy, high-tempo combat, which will not be the case for every day, and on every part of the front.
Incidentally, and as a second counterpoint, US experiences with ammunition expenditures during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom showed ammunition expenditures significantly lower than planned according to FM 101-10-1/2 (this being one of the reasons why the field manual is no longer used for logistical planning).
However, even taking these caveats into account, the war in Ukraine, between two near-peer opponents, has amply illustrated that considerable quantities of ammunition are required. And this ammunition has to come from somewhere.
Using one of the smaller NATO members as an example, Denmark recently purchased 19 Caesar howitzers from Nexter in France (all 19 having since been donated to Ukraine). If we use the lower consumption figure from Ukraine, each howitzer will require 300 rounds per day during heavy fighting, which for all 19 equates to a combined total of 5,700 rounds of artillery ammunition (shells, propellant charges, fuzes and igniters) per day!
Supplying the Front Line
Ammunition is typically supplied to the front line from temporary or semi-permanent rear-area supply points, or a series of them. As the situation in Ukraine has shown, these need to be close enough to the front line to be able to supply the weapon systems and soldiers in a reliable and timely manner, but at the same time far enough from the front line to, hopefully, avoid exposure to the majority of enemy weapons.
This situation also hints very strongly that the means of transporting the ammunition from these rear-area supply points to the weapon systems that need it will, at least in part, have to traverse areas that are within reach of enemy weapons, both by direct and indirect fire. Not only can this pose a direct risk to the transports themselves, but it can also mean that much of the infrastructure in the area has been partially or completely destroyed. This further indicates that the means of transportation must be protected (armoured) and all-terrain capable.
A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that one protected all-terrain truck with a 15 tonne capacity will be able to transport roughly 225 complete shots for 155 mm howitzers (shells, propellant charges, fuzes and primers). Continuing to use Danish artillery as an example, this means 25 truckloads per day, during heavy combat.
Does the nation(-s) have this transport capacity and capability? If not, it is irrelevant how much ammunition is available in national stockpiles.
Supplying Rear-Area Supply Points
Of course, in order for the rear-area supply point(-s) to supply the front line with 20 truckloads of tube artillery ammunition per day, that ammunition has to be available there. This means that the required quantities of ammunition have to be transported to the rear-area depot(-s), typically from national storage facilities.
The transport of the ammunition from national storage facilities to the rear-area supply point(-s) is likely to be conducted primarily with “non-military” means, in the sense that, even if the transports are operated by the armed forces, the actual means of transport will most likely be civilian trucks or trains and, for larger quantities over longer distances, by container vessel. In many situations, this part of the logistic transport will take place outside the range of enemy weapons. However, it might still be vulnerable to enemy air attack or, for sea transport, enemy warships, including submarines. In fact, for the last two major wars in Europe, attempting to intercept enemy supplies during sea transport (across the Atlantic or across the Channel), and preventing such intercepts from taking place, required significant effort on all sides of the conflict (in WW2, for example, 3,500 allied merchant ships, 175 allied warships, 783 German U-boats and 47 German surface warships were lost directly or indirectly in this effort).
Although present day warfare is, in many ways, different from WW2, especially regarding the prevalence of long-range, precision weapons, some parallels may still be drawn, including the question of whether the above-mentioned transports from national storage facilities to the rear-area supply points will need to be escorted, whether at sea, in the air or on land.
Continuing with this point, if the nation(-s) involved does not possess the capability and capacity to keep the rear-area supply points resupplied from national storage facilities including, where necessary, the capability and capacity to escort said resupply transports, it becomes irrelevant how much ammunition is available in national stockpiles.
With Denmark as our example, the Danish Navy currently possesses only one dedicated transport ship, the HDMS Sleipner (named after the Norse god Odin’s 8-legged horse) with a cargo capacity of 150 tonnes. A rough calculation indicates that this is equal to approximately 2,300 complete 155 mm shots (if these would fit in the cargo hold of the Sleipner, which is unknown). And, as shown by our calculations above, this is roughly 40% of the estimated daily requirement for 155 mm ammunition! The HDMS Absalon and Esbern Snare, originally commissioned as “Flexible Support Ships”, undoubtedly have greater cargo capacity, as well as self-defence capabilities, but in 2020 both ships were re-classified as anti-submarine frigates, and it is highly unlikely that the Danish Navy would choose to withdraw one or both of these ships from submarine hunting duties to serve as transport ships. The Danish Navy, and others, of course have the option of leasing additional transport capacities from civilian shipping companies, and in many cases agreements are already in place for this eventuality, but this doesn’t change the fact that the capacities to perform these transports need to be available, including the capacity to escort them if necessary.
A Question of Space
Having now followed the logistics chain in reverse from the front line, we find ourselves back at the starting point, at the national storage facility(-ies), provided these actually exist.
As part of the general drawdown of forces at the end of the Cold War, many nations significantly reduced their national stockpiles of ammunition, either through demilitarisation and disposal, or by using it for training. This left many storage facilities empty and, in order not to spend money on maintenance of empty structures, many of these facilities were decommissioned. In the specific case of storage facilities for ammunition, this also meant that the safety zones established around the storage facilities, where construction and building were prohibited in order to maintain minimum safety distances to the ammunition storage, were opened up to development, and new civilian buildings began to spring up.
What this effectively means is that, in many cases, even if the storage facility infrastructure (bunkers, office buildings, roads, etc.) still exist in a usable condition, it cannot simply be recommissioned as an ammunition storage facility, due to the encroachment of civilian infrastructure over the years, and the consequent lack of safety distances to civilian infrastructure.
Therefore, in order to store sufficient ammunition (greatly depending, of course, on one’s definition of “sufficient”), new national storage facilities will almost certainly need to be constructed more or less from scratch.
In the past, a regularly quoted benchmark for stockpiles was 30 days of supply. Using Denmark as the example, we calculated above that heavy fighting would require some 5,700 rounds of tube artillery ammunition per day. As previously stated, not every one of the 30 days are expected to be “heavy fighting”, but this should still be taken into account.
Just as a calculated example, if we assume that ten days out of the 30 days stated above involve heavy fighting, and the remaining 20 days require only 10% (570 rounds per day) of the ‘heavy fighting days’, we end up with a total requirement of a whopping 68,400 rounds of artillery ammunition for 30 days.
Another rough-order-of-magnitude calculation indicates that this will require some 2,000 m2 of storage space; and this does not include the safety area around the depot where, for high-explosive ammunition, a radius of 600 – 1,000 m or more could easily be required. Is the capacity available nationally to store the required ammunition quantities? If not, how quickly and at what cost can it be developed?
Continuing with the points developed above, even if a small NATO nation such as Denmark, found the funds to actually contract 68,400 complete rounds of 155 mm artillery ammunition, this wouldn’t do much good if no ammunition storage facilities existed. And, at this point, we haven’t begun to talk about the resources required to maintain the ammunition, to take regular samples of the propellant charges to check for ageing, to X-ray samples of the HE shells to check for cracking and cavities in the explosive, or to conduct regular test firings.
Circling back to the initial paragraph, when addressing the issue of ammunition, the current discussions within NATO and in nations on military readiness tend to focus on stockpiles and required quantities. The point being made is that discussions and calculations of quantities of ammunition and stockpile levels are absolutely relevant, but they need to be accompanied by planning to ensure that NATO and its member countries also have:
- The required capacity to store the ammunition nationally.
- the required capacity to transport the ammunition from national storage facilities to rear-area supply points.
- The required capacity to transport the ammunition from the rear-area supply points to the soldiers and weapon systems that need it.
Thomas L. Nielsen
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