I, Logistician …..

‘Never make a specialist of the logistician … ‘

–        Duncan Ballantine, 1947[1]

There is nothing more an anathema to effective logistics in war than a military logistician who is an isolated, introverted, technical specialist.  Logistics is not a technical specialty, nor is it the ‘science of war’. It is a process of transforming resources into armies, and that which gives those armies their combat potential or capacity to fight. With this in mind, it is perhaps important to revise our beliefs as to what logisticians should be doing in war. What do, or should, logisticians functionally provide? Besides the technical functions of their day to day duties, or provision of advice with respect to the sustainment of forces, how to they truly contribute to the successes, or failures, of their commanders?

What militaries and commanders have demanded from their logisticians has changed considerably over time, but there is a trend. As the logistic ‘tail’ of armies, navies and air forces expanded in proportion to their lethality, particularly following the development of the ‘nation-state’ (and wars between them) and the invention of technologies such as the machinegun, artillery and the internal combustion engine; with it, the need for specialisation and technical mastery has been a centrepiece of developments in logistic capability. Rocketry, advanced health care, aircraft and the computer chip have created such complexity that it is virtually impossible to do without a swathe of technicians, supply planners and information system operators when preparing for war. New business science practices adopted in militaries, promoted by logisticians with the best of intent, have placed additional expectations and demands upon logisticians.

Literature, conversely and persistently, argues for the opposite with respect to military logisticians. It warns of the tendency of logisticians to be incomprehensible or disconnected from other staff functions through insularity.  Perhaps this is the consequence of whom has written on the topic of logistics. Most soldier-scholars on the topic have tended to come from the combat arms, and see logistics as a thing to be ‘controlled’, as an aspect of decision making, or as a ‘shaping’ influence on plans and objectives. From Clausewitz and Jomini, Colonel Charles Thorpe (Pure Logistics, 1919), Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (Rommel Papers, timings various), J.F.C Fuller (The Generalship of Alexander the Macedon, 1958) to Rear Admiral Henry Eccles (Logistics in the National Defense, 1959); each has commented upon logistics, not as a discrete function, but a constituent of strategy and tactics. Some have regarded it as the most important factor in operational success.

Most importantly, in these works logistics is considered as inseparable from the execution of command. It is in enabling commanders to effectively prioritise in war that the real value of logisticians, and the logistic staff in particular, is argued to be found.

logistic-control

The ability of commanders to prioritise and allocate the usually scarce logistic elements amongst his or her forces clearly places a substantial proportion of the logistic problem in the realm of command decision making. Where, then, does this leave the logistician? As a staff officer sitting in a Forward Operating Base coordinating contractors, supervising cargo delivery or ruminating over spreadsheets of daily replenishment statistics? That might be the basics of the job, but the routine tasks hardly capture the important relationship between logistician and the commander. Clearly, the answer is in supporting the decision-making process; thinking broadly about sustaining the operating force and advising commanders accordingly. The commander may fight the enemy, but the logistician fights for an armies capacity to simply exist.

Some authors of well-known works on logistics have been particularly critical of the way in which logisticians have engaged (or not) command, as well as their tendency to over-specialise; even moreso than Duncan Ballantine. US Army General Carter Magruder (Recurring logistic problems as I have observed them, repub. 1991) argued that every senior logistic commander should have served time in the combat arms to avoid either outcome. One could look at former UK Major General Julian Thompson, hero of the Falklands campaign and author of the excellent Lifeblood of War (1994) as verifying the case; serving time as a logistic adviser prior to leading combat forces in the UK’s Falkland Islands campaign. This is not, however, just a modern trend or view!

It is conceptually difficult to escape the orbit of the Napoleonic era when talking about war, but modern logistics emerged from the time ‘hand-in-hand’ with modern strategic theory. It was born from the idea of generalship, and the adoption of methods to sustain large forces in the field. In most European armies of the era and later, the second in command of a force was described in terms we would use to describe a logistician. Such appointed Generals were responsible for the sustainment of the forces; food, fodder, weapons and other necessitates of war in addition to operational command issues.  It is understandable that we might see armies such as the German Imperial Army give the title of ‘General Quartermaster’ to its senior operational commander (see Erich Ludendorff, for one).

Theorists were equally confused. Jomini’s description on logistics in the Art of War is suggestive of the idea of operational-level command, and Clausewitz barely extricates strategy from logistics through the definition of ‘paper-war’, despite a chapter of On War describing the impact of supply on operations. Both, incidentally, repeatedly revised the sections of their works with respect to logistics and supply, let alone the linkages either had to strategy and tactics. Logistics, even to these greats of theory, remained an uncertain topic. Nonetheless, because of the mixture of operational and logistics in command, it is unsurprising that we might see an army such as the German Imperial Army afterwards title an operational commander by the appointment ‘General Quartermaster’ (see Erich Ludendorff, for one).

The reality is that most contemporary logisticians come from more mundane backgrounds and are, like all other personnel, bred to meet specific force requirements. While over-specialisation may be detrimental to operational outcomes, the proficiency achieved by logisticians is critical to the effective decision making of commanders. In any case, no commander will ever benefit from myopia or professional ‘stove-piping’, or a cultivated perception that logistics is a ‘black art’. Logistics, despite its technical nature, has simple principles and theories that rest upon its role in decision making.  These ideas should be accesible to all. Very few logisticians will ever be operational commanders, and equally few operational commanders will ever become experts on logistics. The wisest commanders, however, know what they don’t know – and they always know to whom they should turn.

 

[1] D Ballantine, US Naval logistics in the Second World War, Princeton Univeristy Press, USA, 1947

[2] https://www.army.gov.au/our-future/blog/themes/strategy/logistics-and-the-art-of-prioritisation

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