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A Military Supply Chain is as Strong as its Weakest Link

And Ukraine's war of self-defense against Russia's invasions is exposing many.

The idea for this story arrived in the form of a suggestion, which itself arose out of a conversation I had with an acquaintance I’ve known many years. Another way to say suggestion is “tip.” If you have any suggestions or tips that might lead to stories such as this one, below, please send them my way either by Military Media’s Facebook page, or its LinkedIn account. They are always welcome.


A Military Supply Chain is as Strong as its Weakest Link

And Ukraine's war of self-defense against Russia's invasions is exposing many weak links.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine and the West belatedly provided Ukraine with assistance in the form of weapons and equipment as it fought back against (initially) overwhelming odds, some realities have been made clear. One: a successful military depends as much on the support of its people as its equipment. Two: Even decades-old equipment can be effective. Three: being prepared for war means one has a chance to win outright at the beginning; neither Russia nor Ukraine were truly prepared for the war Russia started.

A fourth lesson, which has not fully sunk in with a majority of westerners, is that our supply chain and manufacturing capacity has been optimized and streamlined until it is a series of links some of which depend on a single point of failure. The most conspicuous example of this in the U.S. was its inability to produce more than a fraction of the 155mm howitzer ammunition consumed by Ukraine’s military — a critical failing masked by America’s vast stores of the ammunition. Even worse, efforts to ramp up production within a year failed, leading to revised projections that production would meet need by 2025.

If America’s supply chain has become a systems engineer’s dream, and in so doing been made vulnerable, totally inadequate for the country’s needs, Russia has the opposite problem: a bewildering expanse of corruption and incompetence in which little progress has been made in decades (and some steps backward). Still, those parts of Russia’s economy that touched the West’s and America’s economy could not help but be impacted by it. Which is how it came to develop a critical vulnerability of its own, in the last place one might expect it — the oil industry.

Lubricant and grease are essential to making a mechanized military go. Not everyone has the knowledge to produce lubricant at the quality and in the quantities necessary to fight a modern war. Photo via DVIDS.

Russia is a dominant producer and refiner of oil and natural gas — much of the state’s wealth comes from its vast natural resources. But when it invaded Ukraine, something interesting happened: Western oil and gas companies left, pulling personnel and vast stores of technical expertise with them. As it turned out, some of that expertise included the production of advanced additives required to produce the quantity and quality of lubricant needed to run machines such as cars, planes, and boats. This lubricant is also used in more advanced weapons systems.

Russia has made do with its own inferior lubricant, produced in a handful (under a dozen) factories, supplemented by imports from Asia which are also not of the same level or quality as those capable of being produced in the West. It’s one of those weird spaces where a little expertise and production makes it possible to produce the great quantities of lubricant needed in a country at war — without which, importing slows things down.

This also means that, if these few factories were to be knocked out somehow, realistically, Russia’s ability to wage organized warfare would quickly (and literally) grind to a halt as engines seized, artillery guns broke, and rifles and machinegun parts wore out.

The United States is not the only country with supply chain issues. Finding ways to help Ukraine destroy single points of failure in Russia’s war machine will be a great way to shut down an illegal, immoral, and exhausting war of attrition. Then the U.S. can turn its attention to making sure its military and industry can be depended on to fight on advantageous terms.


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