War in Ukraine
Heavy weapons – how they get into Ukraine and then into the combat zone
This is how Marder-type armored personnel carriers are transported.
4 min reading time
Ukraine needs and gets heavy weapons from the west. The real problems start with transporting the systems, because Putin wants to prevent them from getting to the front.
Without heavy weapons and associated ammunition from the West, Ukraine will not be able to continue the war for long. Own stocks of tanks and artillery are depleted during battles, and ammunition stocks are used up. Supplies from the West are supposed to remedy the situation, but for this they have to get to Ukraine and, above all, to the combat zone.
Light weapons can be transported in almost any way. By train and truck – but also by cargo planes and vans. It's different with heavy weapons, you can't load them in dozens onto a Euro pallet. And hard is not the same as hard. Infantry fighting vehicles, personnel carriers and guns without self-propelled guns can usually still be transported with special aircraft if time is more important than cost. Main battle tanks and self-propelled howitzers first have to be loaded onto a ship if they are to be sent from the USA to Ukraine, for example.
For deliveries from Europe, transport by rail is almost always an option – even if air freight is possible. Heavy tanks can also be moved long distances with special trucks, but the freight train should be chosen simply because of the excess width and the heaviness of the combination. Transporting large amounts of equipment is no problem by rail – up to the Ukrainian border. After that it becomes dangerous.
NATO territory is taboo
The Kremlin has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with western arms shipments to Ukraine, calling them interference in the war and citing the shipments as legitimate military targets. But even without getting into complicated legal considerations, one can say: So far Russia has not attacked such transports outside of Ukraine, and it would be a significant escalation of the war if Russia were to attack railway facilities in Poland, i.e. on NATO territory. Nobody is expecting anything like that at the moment – that could change if the Ukrainian armed forces were to set up regular bases on the "safe" side of the border.
As of today, one can say that trains, trucks and armaments are "safe" as long as they are not on Ukrainian soil but on NATO soil. If you look at the promised arms deliveries from Germany, that means there are no significant problems up to the border. Whether it is between Ukraine and Poland or Slovakia. A delivery via the Republic of Moldova, on the other hand, is not an option, even if the country is closer to the combat zone in eastern Ukraine. On the one hand, Russia has already destroyed important transport links there, on the other hand, Moldova is not a NATO member and Russian retaliation is more likely.
1000 kilometers in Ukraine
But the problems start at the border. There is a distance of around 1,200 kilometers between Lviv on the western border of Ukraine and the Donbass – these have to be covered by rail or on main roads. Secondary roads are not possible due to the weight, height and width of the transport. The Russian army has not yet covered itself in glory in Ukraine. Nevertheless, one has to assume that trains with armored vehicles or the huge heavy transporters on the road will be discovered and attacked. It can be said that if Putin had an air force like the US Air Force, not a single tank would ever arrive in Donbass. But even so, there is a high probability that the transports will be attacked.
Such heavy loads are easy to spot – even from space. And they can only use a few connections. In Ukraine there are additional factors. Russia is attacking the transport network, much of the damage can be repaired promptly – but not destroyed bridges and tunnels. The same applies to overpasses and underpasses at motorway junctions. The destruction forces the transports to use the remaining intact routes. The Ukraine is also crossed by rivers, the most powerful being the Dnieper. The few possibilities of crossing must also be used by the arms transports and the Russians will be waiting for them there.
However, these transport routes are beyond the reach of Russian artillery. The stationary transport facilities – rails, bridges, stations – can be attacked with cruise missiles and rockets. This is not so easy with a mobile transport, it would either have to be attacked by the Luftwaffe or the target would have to be observed by a drone. The Ukrainian armed forces can therefore try to protect sensitive areas such as river crossings with air defenses. But the entire route cannot be covered.
Heavy weapons cannot be hidden
How dangerous the transport of military equipment is at present can be seen from the fact that Kyiv has switched to using civilian transporters without military markings. Legally, this is a questionable practice, but it is a common method in wars. In the case of really heavy weapons, it's just useless. A tank howitzer can hardly be hidden. The same problem concerns the ammunition. The use of artillery, and in particular that of multiple rocket launchers, requires a great deal of material replenishment. These quantities cannot be moved camouflaged in the trunk or in delivery vans. Incidentally, such long distances cannot be covered on your own chains. Only the last section from the unloading point to the place of use is driven by the truck itself.
It is difficult to predict which type of transport Ukraine will choose. The railway route is faster and the capacity is larger. However, an entire train can be lost at once. If the track is damaged, a train can hardly avoid it and has to wait for repairs as a target. It is also conceivable that the rail network to the east will become completely unusable. It may therefore be more promising to pack the deliveries from the West onto trucks and heavy flatbed trailers. And not to organize the vehicles in a conspicuous convoy, but to send the vehicles on their journey individually. Only letting them drive at night and storing them in halls during the day. Provided that there are enough vans in Ukraine.
Battle decided before Germany gets a chance
Conclusion: The fighting in the Donbass determines the further course of the war. If Kiev's troops can stop the offensive, there is no longer any possibility for Putin to conquer Ukraine with the available forces. However, the Ukrainian armed forces can only defend themselves if they receive supplies of material and ammunition. The battle for supply routes is crucial. However, this only applies to a limited extent to German deliveries such as the Panzerhaubitze 2000 or the Gepard anti-aircraft tank. At least four weeks will pass before the first delivery to the Ukraine – by then it will be clear whether Kyiv can keep the supply routes free or whether the Russian army will succeed in making the routes unusable and destroying the transports on the march to the front.