In shaping the future of warfare, militaries around the world will no doubt seek to incorporate the important lessons of the Russia-Ukraine war, from the use of tanks to the use of anti-ship cruise missiles and the ubiquity of drones. These lessons may be even more important for the Chinese military, which lacks recent significant combat experience and has also relied heavily on Russian weapons and doctrine for rapid modernization over the past few decades.
The Ukrainian war has been widely reported in Chinese media. The close nature of the Sino-Russian “quasi-alliance” means that Chinese military analysts have not been as relentless in their criticism of Russia’s military performance as in the West. However, Chinese military analysis is still digging deep into the lessons learned to understand the shape of modern warfare. They are particularly interested in the use of new types of weapons and strategies by the United States.
In order to fully grasp the breadth and depth of China analysis, it is important to obtain assessments from the full range of Chinese military media, which is broader in scope than is generally believed in the West. These articles are often related to research institutions directly involved in China’s military-industrial complex.
The Diplomat’s exclusive series will represent the first systematic attempt by Western analysts to assess China’s assessment of the war in Ukraine, covering the full spectrum of warfare on land, sea, air and space, and in the information domain. Read the rest of the series here.
A quote from General Omar Bradley states that “amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics”. Any attempt by China to seize Taiwan by force would be a huge logistical undertaking requiring the mobilization of large numbers of troops and materiel across the Taiwan Strait. So what have China watchers learned from the logistics of the Ukraine war?
In this installment of our series on lessons China has learned from the Ukraine war, we summarize a recent assessment by a Chinese defense magazine that has been providing detailed coverage of the war. The article analyzes Russia’s initial logistical blunders, its transition, and the enduring logistical challenges the Kremlin faced in the conflict.
In the Chinese analysis, three distinct phases of warfare related to logistics were identified. Chronologically, these are the pre-battle build-up and initial attacks; the second phase essentially corresponding to the period after the abandonment of the northern front; and the current developments in 2023.
Referring to the initial stages, the article notes that prior to “special operations”, they used deception to stockpile war materiel at pre-conflict strategic locations: “Before the operation began, troops and materiel were assembled under the guise of ‘special operations’. War games.” Interestingly, the article makes no mention of Moscow’s deception efforts ultimately failing to deliver strategic surprise.
At the beginning of the war, Russia tried to “control the main hub cities and establish a front-line logistics support center.” The article also pointed out that Russia has benefited from shorter communication lines and the use of Russian railways to transport supplies to the front. It is said that Russia also “set up small-scale damaged vehicle collection and repair points in border areas” in the early days.
The Kremlin was forced to pivot after initial offensives bogged down, especially near the northern cities of Kiev and Kharkiv. During the “second phase” of the war, Russia abandoned the northern front due to “logistical problems leading to poor offensive performance”. With poor pre-conflict preparations, Russia was forced to improvise quickly, trying to cobble together the necessary logistical support for a protracted war. According to the Chinese analysis, this includes “mobilizing a large number of civilian vehicles to realize the transportation of military supplies and basically meet the operational needs of the front-line troops.”
The remainder of the China analysis is a blunt review of Russian wrongdoing. First, it was recognized that “Russia fundamentally underestimated the Ukrainian military and failed to develop an adequate logistical support plan.” The article calls attention to the unfounded confidence in success that is prevalent throughout the chain of command, leading to inadequate preparation. “Before the war, the top leaders of the Russian army generally underestimated the enemy and believed that this operation would soon be victorious.” Due to the neglect of Ukraine’s actual military strength, “equipment and ammunition were insufficiently prepared.”
Much attention has been paid to the rate at which both sides are depleting various types of ammunition in the war. In this regard, the article commented, “In the beginning, the Russian army used precision-guided munitions for large-scale strikes. By the second stage, the Russian army’s precision-guided munitions were in short supply. Rockets and tactical missiles. The Russian military’s long-range strike capabilities are severely restricted.”
It is fairly certain that Chinese strategists’ recognition of the rate at which various types of munitions are depleted will cause PLA planners to also review their own war stocks and realize that military conflicts tend to last longer than initially anticipated.
The next lesson these Chinese strategists learned was that Russia’s existing logistical means did not match the Kremlin’s preferred strategic goals. Here the article states that “Logistics supply lines are too long; troop numbers and available materiel are insufficient to meet Russia’s multi-front operations.” Problems associated with this mismatch were further identified as “slow supply” and lack of adequate logistical support troops . Russia’s failure to capture Kiev in the first days of the war was largely due to “the inability to use rail and road transport quickly and efficiently… [which] Make it impossible to continue an effective attack. “
While these initial lessons focus on Russia’s mistakes, remaining observations highlight the challenge Ukraine and its Western backers pose to Russia. The first of these included the successful interception of Russian logistics by Ukrainian forces. “The supply line was harassed by the Ukrainian army, which made the logistics impossible. The Ukrainian army used small-scale targeted strikes to destroy bridges and railway lines used to resupply the front-line combat troops.” In addition to targeted attacks, Ukraine has also succeeded An “ambush was carried out to trap the logistics convoy”.
The attacks were successful in part because Russian transport vehicles were “outdated, not equipped to defend themselves and lack the patrol vehicles needed to protect the convoy and secure supply routes and the rear”. This analysis, while not directly attributing irregular guerrillas, seems to acknowledge the danger of disruption of communication lines by guerrillas and special forces operating behind the front lines.
Next discuss modern weapons and the impact of Western support for Ukraine. The Chinese analysis noted that “Ukrainian forces used drones to bomb and attack Russian logistics support nodes.” These attacks included “strikes on border areas outside Ukraine, including Belgorod, Kursk and Bryansk” The plant was targeted with the aim of cutting off oil supplies to the Russian army”. Applying this lesson to the Taiwan situation, PLA strategists might try early on to target Taiwanese weapons systems that could reach mainland China and potentially disrupt key logistical nodes and supporting infrastructure.
The Chinese analysis emphasized that “continued Western assistance to the Ukrainian military has put greater pressure on the Russian military’s logistical support.” Although Russia has since adjusted its supply lines to deal with the HIMARS attack, the article noted that “the HIMARS provided by the United States have been used to … attack ammunition depots, fuel depots, supply depots, and other logistical supply bases and supply lines, causing logistical problems for the Russian Army.” (In the previous installment of this series, we directly examined China’s assessment of HIMARS and its application to the Taiwanese scenario, in more detail.)
In addition to the military weapons provided by the West to help Ukraine weaken Russia’s logistical capabilities, the article also mentioned that Western sanctions have affected Russia’s defense industry. Sanctions prevent Russia’s “defense industry” from quickly replacing components used in some Russian military equipment. This presents a long-term supply chain problem. This appears to be more of an acknowledgment of Russia’s military production problems than the general Chinese media reports.
Of course, there is some irony here, given the market opportunity that such disruptions could present to China’s defense industry — though the issue isn’t addressed here. There is evidence that Beijing is currently supplying Moscow with certain key components of the Russian military.
While this article extensively analyzes Russia’s problems, it rarely predicts whether and how Russia will adapt to the difficulties it finds. There does not appear to be optimism that Russia will be able to fully overcome the logistical challenges it faces. It should also be noted that this article does not cover how corruption weakened Russia’s logistical support system prior to the war on Ukraine.
Of course, many of the challenges Russia faces in Ukraine are likely to be further exacerbated for China when considering an invasion of Taiwan, since China’s military operations are focused on seizing an island separated by the high seas and thus completely lacking direct and relatively simple ground communications Lines are used for resupply. What is certain, however, is that China would be better prepared from the outset on the Taiwan situation than Russia would be at the outset of its invasion of Ukraine — especially since PLA planners are watching the Ukraine war closely and learning from it.
The PLA has always attached great importance to logistics. The modern Chinese military has learned the hard way from the early days of the Korean War that exposed supply lines will be attacked by the enemy, and frontline troops cannot function without vital supplies. In the case of Taiwan, the PLA would definitely choose to prioritize securing the most important logistics nodes, with the goal of quickly capturing Taiwan’s airports and ports. Still, they are likely to take more unconventional approaches, including the rapid construction of artificial docks, airdrops, and perhaps widespread use of drones that shuttle across the Taiwan Strait.