Monday, 21 November 2022 — The van says…
If you’re going off the beaten track, it might be better if you are on tracks.
If there’s one thing that everyone agrees about, it’s that the weather in Eastern Europe can be terrible from any time in October through to April. From snow to hail to frosts that last a month, the inclemency of the climate becomes more legendary the further you travel eastwards.
Mud is a Mess
Those tires are no good if they’re bad off-road
As much as people hate it being minus thirty and blowing a blizzard in January, both the late fall and the coming of spring also present challenges, the first rains of winter as well as the thawing of the winter snows turning every track and dirt road into a quagmire. The videos we see of the war in the Ukraine are now beginning to demonstrate this, yet as we move forward, new tactics will come into play as the hard frozen earth permits previously impossible operations. This article will look at how sludge and snow are affecting operations.
Hitting the Mark
Cold weather is snow problem for Russian vehicles.
When marketing a military vehicle, an absolute priority is that it be fit for purpose. Not only that, the equipment has to tick all the boxes in a whole range of scenarios and situations. When looking at any general purpose vehicle being touted on the global marketplace, this means that it has to operate in temperatures ranging from around -30° to +50°, and on any terrain where it can be reasonably be expected to serve, be it blacktop, dirt, snow, mud or sand.
Vehicles such as the Mastiff may have been tested in the Middle East, but they are in for a real trial in the Ukraine.
In the case of NATO purchases, vehicles are either militarized versions of civilian offerings or custom chassis fitted with off-the-shelf components to make up the rest of the truck. Rather than manufacturers going to the expense of designing a new vehicle from scratch, they have found it far more cost-effective to ‘customize’ their existing platforms, cutting expenses on R+D, yet, as covered in this article, still making a packet on the margins that selling military kit offers. These have, over the last few decades, been used by Western nations in their frequent forays into the Middle East, governments welcoming the slightly lower costs of these machines whilst still maintaining operability in-theater.
From Sand to Sludge
Get away from the blacktop, and this is the road network at this time of year.
Most of the vehicles fielded by NATO today have been put into service in the last thirty years. These may have been used on exercises in Europe, but their only combat service has been in theaters such as Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern locations where mechanical assistance has been close to hand and the terrain is chiefly comprised of sand and rock. This has meant that whilst heat and dust may present problems, matters such as traction, axle articulation and snow have not proven to be issues.
As much as manufacturers have attempted to sell less for more, their customers always want more for less. Not only does that mean they will accept inferior equipment if the price is right, they will also forgo certain requirements in return for lower running costs. In real terms, this means there has been a move away from tracked vehicles, and if that was not bad enough, the NATO standard tires fitted are simply not up to the job in certain environments, the Ukrainian mud being an excellent example of this.
Sold on Standards
Just as with any army, NATO has adopted standards, these ranging from turrets to tires. This has resulted in all of its assets operating on certain tire sizes, rather than rubber that was specifically designed for one vehicle type. In the case of the Ukraine, tires that acquitted themselves well enough in the Middle East are simply not up to the clinging mud that is now everywhere. The Russian equipment however is suffering far fewer issues, both the vehicles and their tires having been designed to perform in this environment from the outset.
Probably best to use an airline rather than a foot pump with these tires.
The Eastern sphere of the globe has historically tackled this issue in a completely different manner, and for very different reasons. The kit fielded by Soviet forces as well as that being brought into service today by the Russians has been custom-developed for military use. This does not mean that there are not components present that are found in their civilian counterparts, but that the package has been designed for military-specific use from the get-go.
The weather in places such as Siberia can be some of the worst seen on earth, yet in more normal climes, the Russian military appreciates that there may not be a fully-equipped workshop just down the road, the kit it uses being readily repairable with a minimum of tools and knowledge. When we compare this to the more modern yet complex vehicles being employed in the West, what would in Russia be a ‘bush fix’ is effectively dead until it can be attended to in a specialist workshop.
Tracks and Tires
At this point, tracks are the only real option.
Larger vehicles either use tracks or tires, both systems having different merits. Tracks cause increased fuel consumption and are more expensive to manufacture and maintain, but generally fare better on very soft terrain. Wheels however are the opposite; yet unlike tracks however, there is a far greater variety of different formats available, some being much better than others.
Another advantage offered by tires is that by varying pressures, their characteristics can be altered, meaning that they can be optimized for use on or off road. Many Soviet and subsequently Russian vehicles, in contrast to their NATO counterparts use CTIS (Central Tire Inflation System), meaning that pressures and therefore qualities can be adjusted by the driver whilst on the move.
CTIS is more than just hot air.
When we now compare the equipment fielded by the Russians, (and the Ukrainians to a degree, due to the older Soviet-era kit that is still in service) and that which has been donated by Western powers, on one side we see older tried-and-tested vehicles, yet on the other we see kit has has put profitability before purpose, this now becoming a real headache for the Ukrainians.
The last two years have seen all kinds of surplus Western kit turning up in the war zone, and amongst these, pickups, purpose-built APCs and their more modern counterparts have now appeared. The first months of spring saw Kiev using its own vehicles, yet as fall is now turning to winter, eight months of losses now sees the Ukrainians using a mixture of kit from various nations. With the change in seasons, it is expected that we see a change in conditions, yet much of equipment now being used is anything but fit for purpose.
The wrong vehicle in the wrong place with the wrong tires.
One of the Ukraine’s great assets is its black earth, this making it an agricultural powerhouse in the region, yet when wet, that soil turns into the kind of slippery sludge that only the best of vehicles can traverse. As things stand at the moment, Russian armor is waiting for the freeze of winter before making its way forward, but smaller vehicles are still attempting to move around. The equipment that has been used in the region for decades continues to do so, yet the bitsa battlebuses such as the Mastiff, Wolfhound and MaxxPro equipment are demonstrating their inadequacies wherever they go (or more succinctly put, where they don’t).
Equipment needs to be fit for purpose, yet with governments wanting more for less and manufacturers supplying less for more, Western kit is now leaving the Ukrainians wanting. There is more to this however. Western governments are now at a loss as to how to curtail Russia’s activities, and should they attempt to enter into the conflict, they will suffer the same woes as the Ukrainians.
The Russian vehicles however, being simpler and simply more capable just carry on as they have done for decades. For Moscow, if it cannot be repaired with a hammer, finding a bigger hammer will very often do the trick.
Moreover, what we are seeing today is an army suffering through the partial deployment of just a few systems. Should Western nations attempt to involve themselves in the Ukraine, greater numbers of both weapons and vehicles may highlight even greater shortfalls in their inventories.
Moscow knows very well what it wants and needs, and it is neither profits nor dividends. The failure of Western politics is now followed by the failure of Western equipment, yet it will be once the winter comes that Russian kit leaves its NATO counterparts out in the cold…