SANDF expeditionary logistics and lessons from Russia

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Whilst at first glance the logistics on display in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war compared to the expeditionary logistics required in typical Southern Africa operations may appear to be quite dissimilar, there are parallels between the two, with lessons observed from Ukraine needing to be heeded by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

This is according to Dr Ronald Ti of King’s College London, who delivered a presentation at a recent seminar on expeditionary logistics and its relevance to the SANDF, presented by the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa (SIGLA), affiliated with Stellenbosch University and located within the Faculty of Military Science.

“The Russo-Ukrainian war is a major armed conflict at a scale much greater than the ‘small wars’ that the SANDF is accustomed to,” according to Ti’s research. “However, these two situations are linked across the spectrum of conflict by the threat of high lethality effects, regardless of intensity. In addition, the difficulties encountered by the Russian military in the initial phases of the Ukrainian war have exposed its inability to deliver ‘expeditionary logistics’, with some observers arguing that logistic deficiencies have had a greater impact on the campaign than strategic deficiencies.”

Ti highlighted four important elements of expeditionary logistics, the first three of which have been prominent in Ukraine. These are: the effect of uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), the elongation of the ‘last logistic mile’ concept, the strategic importance of medical support, and the presence of commercial logistic providers in the battlespace.

The Ukraine conflict has highlighted two major impacts of widespread employment of uncrewed aerial systems in the logistic battlespace, according to Ti. The first impact is in the surveillance aspect of UAS ranging over the battlespace and acting as target acquisition enablers for long-range standoff distance strikes.

The second is in the effect of UAS as weaponised strike platforms on logistic facilities in their own right. The comparatively low costs of these systems have led to their widespread use by both state and non-state actors. In a future Southern African battlespace, whether during International or Non-international Armed Conflict, the SANDF can expect to encounter UAS deployed by potential adversaries. The lethality of UAS has recently been increased considerably through the augmentation of weaponised UAS with real-time streaming of flight vision in the form of ‘First Person View’ UAS (FPV UAS).

Allied to this, commercial satellite imagery is increasing in resolution capabilities and coverage, giving own forces and enemy forces greater resources to tap into.

A century ago ‘the last logistic mile’ was generally reckoned to be around 15 km (the average range of field artillery in 1914), but in 2024 the striking distances of weaponised UAS and distance strike platforms have exposed these previously ‘safe’ rear area logistic installations to attack far from any notional ‘frontline.’ The ‘last logistic mile’ is now effectively hundreds of kilometres long.

In the case of operational logistic nodes occurring along a logistic line of communication (LLOC) in future SANDF operations, the implications on force protection requirements are significant, Ti stated. Joint support network arrangements consisting of operating bases, theatre logistic bases, and other aggregations of logistic facilities have been prominent in much of the African operational context. In the evolving threat environment, these logistic arrangements will need re-evaluation, particularly regarding key elements such as dispersal, concealment, electromagnetic signature management, disaggregation, command arrangements and force protection.

The third point raised by Ti was that medical evacuation and support is increasingly difficult to sustain, as Russian forces in Ukraine have not only been challenged by maintaining forward movement of materiel but also rearwards movement of battle casualties.

“In future Southern African expeditionary situations, medical stabilisation followed by strategic aeromedical evacuation is not only a critical logistic, personnel support task, but will have major political importance in terms of strategic communication and perception management….In a constrained political environment where political will and perceived domestic support are critical enablers of any military operation, the effectiveness of medical personnel support may be a determinant of operational success in future African military operations, particularly if casualties are anticipated.”

Ti notes that strategic communication issues arising from medical support issues may be critical for future South African governments in retaining public support for prospective SANDF military operations.

The final point raised by Ti is that civilian contractors are increasingly being used in conflict zones. “Operational commercial support has now become a major component of Western expeditionary logistics. This has resulted in widespread use of commercial firms to provide logistic capabilities such as strategic airlift, fuel services, camp real-life support services, and multi-modal transport in major Western militaries.”

The key force protection issue with commercial firms relates to their ‘targetability’ in a battlespace where the ‘last logistic mile’, is now potentially hundreds of kilometres long. The larger question is how an adversary which a non-state actor is and which, by definition, cannot be a signatory to international humanitarian law conventions- engaged in a Non-International Armed Conflict can be held accountable, or indeed, will respect these ‘rules-based order’ norms at all. Critical issues arise from the presence of (now) targetable contractors such as questions of insurance, compensation, and contract pricing effects. Any future SANDF expansion of expeditionary logistic service outsourcing will need to consider risk and force protection issues as well as factor necessary mitigation required into its operational planning, Ti noted.

With the South African National Defence Force operating in both the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, the issue of expeditionary logistics is particularly important, especially as the SANDF has battled to get equipment to the DRC, having to charter aircraft (primarily Ilyushin Il-76s) to rotate troops there, and has had to drive vehicles into Mozambique. The growing use of UAVs in the DRC by rebel forces is also something of concern.