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What does it take to deliver weapons into a war zone?


The Pentagon says some initial shipments of weapons from the U.S. have reached Ukraine. They're part of an $800 million package of aid approved by the Biden administration. But what does it take to deliver weapons into a war zone? From NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator, Adrian Ma and Stacey Vanek Smith explain how the process compares to supply chains for online retailers, like Amazon or Walmart, with much, much higher stakes.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: When Vince Castillo was in Iraq doing combat logistics patrols, he says his responsibility was basically figuring out how to get the right stuff in the right quantity to the right place at the right time.

VINCE CASTILLO: I was an infantry officer. But I guess that was the first time in my career where I started dabbling in logistics.

VANEK SMITH: He went on to become a logistics professor at the Ohio State University, where he studies things like online retail.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Vince says the e-commerce supply chain provides a rough analogy for understanding how weapons are making their way into Ukraine. He says you can basically think about it as having three stages. In logistics lingo, these are called the first mile, the middle mile and the last mile.

VANEK SMITH: So first up, the first mile. This is where stuff is being transported from a supplier to a manufacturer. Second up, the middle mile. This involves moving goods from the manufacturer to a distribution point, like a warehouse. And from there, No. 3, the final mile. This is where products go from that warehouse to the customer.

MA: So for the first mile of this military supply chain, Vince says think of the military itself as the supplier of weapons.

CASTILLO: Whether it's machine guns, rifles, body armor, anti-air Stinger missiles, the U.S. has stocks of weapons all over Europe.

VANEK SMITH: One of these weapons is called a Javelin.

MA: It kind of looks like a bazooka because you hoist it on your shoulder.

VANEK SMITH: Except the Javelin fires a heat-seeking missile. They can take out a tank. And the U.S. has committed thousands of these Javelins to Ukraine. And Vince says these weapons were probably flown in bulk from somewhere in Europe to military bases of NATO members, countries along Ukraine's western border - places like Poland and Romania. And when they arrive at these places, that first mile part of the journey is complete.

MA: Next comes the middle mile. And for this leg of the journey, Vince says that shipment of Javelins is likely crossing the border by ground, making its way to Ukrainian cities near the fighting.

CASTILLO: Any information about the timing and location of shipments - it's all going to be classified to the maximum extent possible.

VANEK SMITH: When Vince was in Iraq, he says the shipments he escorted were these miles-long caravans of vehicles.

CASTILLO: Convoys that were comprised of anywhere from 20 up to maybe 50 or even 60 big-rig trucks.

VANEK SMITH: In other words, a huge target for Russian tanks, planes and helicopters.

CASTILLO: So ideally, you want to break it down into smaller shipments. Smaller convoys are a little bit more agile. And if there's more of them, it can be like a game of whack-a-mole for Russia, and it can be harder to deal with.

VANEK SMITH: And if you want to protect your supply chain, you have to be able to whack back if you need to. Vince says this can be done by positioning armed soldiers along a route, soldiers who have Javelins of their own or Stinger missiles or other weapons.

MA: Of course, avoiding a firefight can also be good. And to that end, soldiers moving weapons can do a number of things to try and mask their movements.

CASTILLO: Things like taking different routes, ferrying the times at which you're traveling - most of these convoys will likely be moving at night. And there's going to be fewer civilians on the road at night. So any movements would be less likely to expose civilians to being attacked as well.

VANEK SMITH: And so back to our hypothetical supply chain of Javelins. Let's say it has now made it safely to that middle-mile city in Ukraine. The journey is not over yet. This cargo still has to complete the final mile of our supply chain.

CASTILLO: That final mile in the military combat zone is where the goods are going to reach the soldiers who are actually going to be using them. This process is usually one of the most precarious because that's where you're closest to active combat.

VANEK SMITH: Big shipments get broken down into smaller ones. And then intelligence is used to decide what goes where.

MA: So there you go - the three-step journey of a Javelin missile. And that, hypothetically speaking, is how weapons are delivered into a war zone. But as this conflict drags on, there is a lingering question - will it be enough? Or to put it in logistics terms, will enough of the right equipment get to the right place into the right hands in time?

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

MA: Adrian Ma, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.