December 29, 2022
Ukraine is demonstrating that hard-won lessons from old, long-forgotten World War II playbooks remain relevant. Since Russia’s invasion began, Ukrainian fighters demonstrated that old-fashioned battlefield scrounging remains a valid—and often underestimated—source of supply and intelligence during mechanized conflict. Rather than simply loot, Ukrainian commanders have taken a systematic approach to battlefield scrounging, making the task an integral part of the war.
Battlefield scavenging was first mastered in World War II by units at the end of long, fragile supply lines. Germany’s Africa Corps, until the final months of 1942, built up a formidable reputation by scrounging their way through Libya and right up to the Egyptian border. Marching across Africa, Germans replaced combat losses or filled supply shortfalls with captured vehicles and gear. At times, German scavengers were so desperate for equipment and supplies, they would conduct flying raids for gas, or go under fire to yank abandoned and disabled vehicles off the battlefield, turning them against their British owners.
The British did the same. After the epic battle of El Alamein, allied scavengers immediately put “over a million German petrol containers” to use. Over 90,000 tires, nearly a million large 44-gallon drums, 50,000 rifles, 3000 machine guns, as well as “hundreds of tons of clothing, and nearly 9000 pairs of boots” were reused. Magnesium alloy stripped from wrecked aircraft in the theatre was turned into “enough ingots daily to produce ten fighters.”
Ukraine’s Army is being no different. Technical reconnaissance units roam about the battlefield, looking for abandoned or otherwise usable gear. The Ukrainian military has done a great job of salvaging what they can. In October, UK intelligence estimated that more than half of Ukraine’s tank fleet consists of captured Russian vehicles.
And, while Ukraine’s mechanics are struggling to get a vast and battered grab-bag of non-standard former-Russian fighting vehicles back into service, they can take solace in the fact that Russian mechanics are facing an even tougher time managing Russia’s rolling stock. At least the vehicles Ukraine receives from the battlefield have recently worked, while Russia’s undisciplined fleet of armored vehicles run the gamut from balky prototypes to old UAZ-452 “Scooby Doo” vans to non-functioning T-62 tanks that have been stored in the open for decades.
But Ukraine’s scavengers have done far more than just turn captured gear back on the invading Russians. They are doing a masterful job of collecting and dissecting Russia’s “high-tech” equipment, working to gain both technological and propaganda advantages.
While Ukraine’s front-line mechanics, working with the passion of old automobile aficionados, bewail the lack of a sprocket necessary to get a rare example of a captured Russian fighting vehicle back to the front, Ukraine has done impressive work on the technical exploitation of high-tech battlefield spoils.
Ukraine has moved fast, and, in the process, it has broken several of the traditional “sotto voce” norms of America’s intelligence communities. But the tactics work. Within the first three months of the war, Ukrainian technical experts were busy telling everyone who would listen that top-tier Russian military equipment was often vintage, and chock-full of U.S.-sourced microchips, semiconductors, and other American gear, to boot. The revelations were enough to make certain Russian military clients rethink their procurement plans.
Ukraine’s practice of breaking behavioral norms have gotten political results that certain stodgy and risk-averse parts of the U.S. intelligence community only dream about. Within a month of first noticing Russia was employing Iranian drones, Ukraine told reporters it had targeted the source and date of manufacture of several drone components.
Again, the gambit worked. Within just two months, the Biden Administration convened a task force to determine how U.S. technology was ending up in Russia’s Iran-supplied drone fleet. In just a matter of weeks, Ukraine’s scroungers have done more to boost U.S. sanctions enforcement than all the U.S. government combined.
Ukraine’s speedy and sometimes “crowd-sourced” exploitation of Russian gear may well change the balance of the war, helping Ukraine—and many others—better understand the principles behind Russian jamming, missile guidance, and communications. But the trick there will be in harmoniously balancing the fine line between the Free World’s often timorous and overly-cautious intelligence bureaucracy and the devil-may-care demands of battlefield expediency.
Battlefield scrounging is a romantic thing—a fun call-back to the pirate stories of old. Embodying sort of a battlefield “Robin Hood” in a John Deere tractor is great propaganda, and a wonderful tool to demonstrate a thrifty sort of community-driven self-reliance.
But scrounging has limits. Intelligence scrounging is one thing, but systemic battlefield scrounging for supplies and new gear is only done in extremis. In the end, World War II firmly demonstrated that the prompt delivery of modern weapons is a far, far better option than battlefield scrounging.
Ukraine’s success at battlefield salvage raises the risk of overestimating the Ukrainian supply situation. Scrounging has certainly kept Ukraine in the fight, but don’t be fooled by the hype. The spoils of battle are fickle gifts, and they usually disappear once front lines stabilize around prepared positions. If battle lines freeze, then Russia’s stream of “lend-lease” tanks and gear will halt as well.
Craig Hooper – I offer blunt, uncompromising guidance on national security solutions, bringing complex security issues and oft-neglected defense topics to the attention of interested policymakers and the general public. Founder and CEO of the Themistocles Advisory Group, I focus on communications and government relations as well as maritime, homeland defense and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) challenges. Previously, I served as an executive for naval shipbuilder Austal USA, helping deliver Littoral Combat Ships and Expeditionary Fast Transports to the U.S. Navy. With a Ph.D. in Immunology and Infectious Diseases from Harvard University, I have taught at the University of California, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In my spare time, I support think-tank studies, discuss naval matters at NextNavy.com or write about the Navy, publishing op-eds and papers in places like the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Naval War College Review, the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings and beyond.