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Battle of Bulge: A Lesson for Ukraine’s War Against Russia?

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Russian TOS-1 Heavy Flame Thrower weapon system. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

America’s Battle of the Bulge Experience a Lesson for Ukraine’s War Against Russia?: One of the greatest victories in American military history was World War II’s Battle of the Bulge in western Europe. American forces were surrounded, alone, and facing a massive attack by superior Nazi armored troops. The U.S. Army’s victory in that battle provides a path through which Ukraine’s army of today could inflict a deadly blow against the Russian invaders.

The Setup

In December 1944, after six months of grueling combat that followed the Normandy invasion, many American combat troops were worn out from near non-stop fighting. The German troops had been pushed back hundreds of miles from their once-strong positions in France and appeared to be on the verge of defeat. Shortly before Christmas, U.S. leaders sent several battered divisions into what was considered to be a quiet sector of the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, so they could get rest before facing more tough battles early the next year.

101st Airborne: Surrounded and Outnumbered

But in a shock that caught the entire Allied intelligence apparatus off guard, nearly 200,000 German troops – spearheaded by nearly 1,000 tanks – had secretly massed opposite the Ardennes and in the early morning of 16 December, blasted across a wide front in multiple axes. The initial thrust, conducted in a bitter cold snowstorm, caused severe damage to multiple U.S. and Allied divisions, sending American units reeling backward.

The 101st Airborne Division had spearheaded the Allies’ invasion of Normandy and in early December was sent to the Ardennes to recover and rebuild their strength for the drive into Germany – but got caught in the middle of the Nazi drive west. In the town of Bastogne, the U.S. paratroopers made a stand and were eventually surrounded by the Germans.

Three days before Christmas, the German commander offered terms of surrender to the 101st Airborne, warning if the U.S. commander refused, the Nazi troops would continue the attack and destroy all the defenders. Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, then commanding the 101st, refused the offer with the simple word “nuts.” True to their word, the Germans renewed the assault and the fighting did continue in brutal fashion.

But while the 101st was defending at Bastogne, other Allied units and air forces were attacking German fuel and ammunition storage sites throughout their support zone. Gasoline for German tanks was the single biggest factor in the battle, as without gas, even the best Panzer divisions became useless. The time bought by the stubborn resistance put up by the 101st at Bastogne cost the German panzers critical time. Eventually, their attack failed, not because all the tanks were destroyed, but because most of them literally ran out of gas.

Though there are some pretty significant differences between the U.S. position in World War II and the Ukrainian position today, there are enough similarities that the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) could draw some crucial lessons – and potentially inflict major blows on the invading Russians.

Missiles v. Drones

President Biden last week committed a $1 billion arms package to the UAF, featuring almost 10,000 anti-air and anti-armor missiles. While these are definitely beneficial to the Ukrainian defenders, they also present a challenge to the users: the operators have to have a line of sight to the target – and if the Ukrainian soldier can see a Russian tank, the tank can see them.

Nearly all Russian tanks have a greater maximum effective range than any of the hand-held missies we will provide, and the tank’s fire control systems are more accurate than a hand-held system – meaning, it’s a lot easier for the Ukrainian troops to be killed by Russian gunners than vice versa. There is one category of attack, however, where the UAF could engage Russian forces that would give Ukrainians the advantage over Russian ground forces: drone strikes.

While the U.S. arms package included almost 10,000 missiles, it only included a paltry 100 tactical drones. These 100 drones are reportedly composed of a short and medium range attack drone called the Switchblade. It is a combination of drone and missile. Once the operator identifies the target with the drone’s optics, the vehicle is simply flown into the target where its warhead explodes.

Whether it is Switchblades or other hunter/killer drones, however, the United States and NATO should send Ukraine thousands more of these systems – because it is the perfect weapon to exploit the Russian army’s Achilles Heel: its fleet of fuel and ammunition resupply trucks.

The Russian Army’s Achilles’ Heel: resupply operations

Over the past twenty years, Russia reformed and reorganized its Army to make it more professional and capable. They have fielded a moderately competent armored force with impressive numbers of strike systems. As they did during their Red Army days, the Russian Army of today prioritizes firepower above mobility, featuring significant numbers of heavy artillery systems, mobile rocket launchers, and many classes of precision-guided missiles.

In a defensive battle, Moscow designed a system that could keep its armored and rocket forces effectively supplied with fuel and ammunition. In an expeditionary fight on foreign land, however, they built-in severe constraints. Those constraints could be exploited by Kyiv to significantly constrain Russia’s continued armored advances.

As revealed in an excellent analysis by former Army officer Alex Vershinin in Task & Purpose, the Ministry of Defense designed a system within Russia that utilizes rail movement to a degree that no other major power on earth does. There are pros and cons to this decision, but if the fighting remains on Russian territory, it has a good chance to be effective. Owing to the reliance on rail networks, Putin’s army intentionally chose to build a comparatively limited number of fuel and ammunition trucks – and this reliance exposes Russia to serious constraints when fighting abroad.

On Russian soil, the combination of rail networks and truck fleets is enough to keep Putin’s army supplied with adequate quantities of food, fuel, and ammunition. In Ukraine, however, Russia has limited access to rail resupply (and in many quarters none at all), putting the full burden on the truck fleets. Already in the first month of operations, the Russian armored units have had to conduct a number of resupply pauses, as they don’t have enough trucks to transport the full range of supply requirements from the depots in Russia to the fighting units in Ukraine.

Already, limited efforts by Ukrainian troops and partisan fighters to attack Russian rear areas and destroy resupply trucks have had a damping effect on Russian ability to maintain offensive operations with its armor.  But this type of attack should become more than incidental to Ukrainian operations; it should be central to it: every supply truck destroyed slows down Russia’s ability to press its tanks and artillery forward, giving Ukraine’s frontline troops more opportunity to destroy Putin’s armor while stationary.

Adjusting Tactics to Slow Down Russian Advance

Presently, of Russia’s initial four axes of advance into Ukraine – the Kyiv axis, Northern axis (Sumy/Kharkiv), the Eastern axis (Donbas region), and Southern axis (from Crimea) – the fiercest fighting is in the Donbas area. Ukrainian troops are being subjected to relentless attacks by Russian armor, artillery, and air power.

A pocket is forming that could potentially trap up to 40,000 UAF troops. If the Russian advance continues to make progress around the flanks of the Ukrainian positions, the entire force could be lost. Something has to break the momentum of the Russian attack quickly, or Kyiv will be faced with either conducting a tactical withdrawal to a more defensible position further inside Ukraine – or risk having the troops surrounded and cut off.

The Ukrainian troops fighting in the Donbas, along with those in Kyiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv, have been fighting with the same level of tenacity and ferocity as the 101st Airborne at Bastogne. For the UAF to survive and continue resisting, however, something needs to break loose as it did for the U.S. paratroopers in World War II. That’s where NATO could help a lot with a major investment in hunter/killer drones.

There are many variants of drones available in NATO inventories that could do the trick. The point is to get platforms in which either drones work in teams (one drone conducts reconnaissance while another fires a missile) or like the Switchblade, the drone is both the hunter and killer. The lethality and game-changer ability of hunter/killer drones was demonstrated in the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war.

Armenia and Azerbaijan were evenly matched and had fought to a stalemate over many years – but Azerbaijan made extensive use of drones to attack Armenian armor, infantry, and resupply trucks. The impact was decisive and forced Armenia to accept a negotiated settlement that favored Azerbaijan. Ukraine has, thus far, used such drones to some effect, but the volume has been too sparse. Kyiv could reap enormous benefits if, in addition to sending 10,000 missiles, NATO also sent thousands of armed drones.

The UAF could then heavily prioritize its target lists by attacking Russian rear areas with drones, potentially all the way back into Russian territory, and destroy every supply truck and fuel carrier it can find. If done well, it is possible Ukrainian troops could concentrate the effects of its drone fires on a geographic area – like the area of biggest danger right now, the pocket forming opposite Donbass – and bleed the frontline Russian units dry of fuel and ammunition resupply.

Then the frontline units would have a chance – like the Allies at the Battle of the Bulge – to use those thousands of anti-tank missiles to attack the Russian tanks and artillery pieces when they run out of gas and ammunition.


Ukraine is fighting heroically in its battle against Russia. They have performed well above what anyone thought they were capable of, yet heroism alone isn’t likely to be enough to win their war. NATO and the United States have been very generous in providing large-scale military support up to this point. But for Ukraine to turn the tables on Russia, for them to have any chance at rolling back Putin’s forces, they will need a game-changing adjustment in what they’ve been doing. Extensive use of armed drones could provide that change.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.