Rethinking logistics – challenges of the modern battlefield

At the end of 2016 the Chief of the Australian Army, through conversations with senior logisticians, asked the logistic community to rethink assumptions made about logistics. This challenge, a part of other force structure reforms in Army, formed the basis of a variety of presentations and discussions at the subsequent ‘Army Logistics Leaders Symposium’ held at the Army Logistics Training Centre (ALTC) in November that year. This event was an initiative of ALTC and a means over overcoming the traditional organisational divisions that exist between Army’s logistics corps and units, and it was a really positive experience to be able to discuss a variety of issues with respect to the future in such a frank manner.

While it is not my prerogative to outline the contents of the discussions, many challenges facing the logistic community were discussed. These issues were both functional (how logistics should work on operations) and institutional (how it is organised to effectively and efficiently sustain Army in peace and war). No conclusions were made during the Symposium to overcome the challenges – such to be part of a subsequent consultative review – but a good starting point to an intended dialogue was made.

I thought, for a start, I would raise my views of what some of the ‘functional’, externally and environmentally delivered, challenges for logisticians.  For any non-Australian Army readers, I think you might find this basic list consistent with the views of forces and militaries world-wide.

  • The battlefield may be dispersing, but not as much as people might think. This is the predominantly the consequence of two factors: the supply requirements of forward elements which are in an up-trend, and the historical paucity (see next point) of transportation capabilities available to deliver to them in the required timeframe. This means logistics units and capabilities cannot withdraw from the battlefield and away from the weapons designed to obliterate them: long-range artillery, airborne weapons and precision rocketry. Geography, particularly in and around cities, will also reduce the dispersion of forces (although decrease their visibility). In lower scales of conflict other forms of interdiction will ensure self-protection is necessary remembering offensive capabilities tend to asymmetrically evolve quicker than defensive capabilities. Both scenarios require tactical concepts and doctrine to continue to be developed.
  • Transportation concepts will continue to determine the structure of the battlefield and not just where logistic units will be sited. In every modern campaign and war, transportation has been argued as the determinant of successful logistics and tactical plans will adjust to suit transport capacity. Where transport capacity is greatest, the commander will have the greatest tactical flexibility thus the need to mass transportation at a decisive point will remain a key force design principle. The logisticians and tacticians must plan and train together.
  • Modern threats will require logisticians to work alongside air-defence, engineering and communications capabilities. Habitual relationships will need to be established prior to deployment.
  • The increasing combat weight of forces will slow the rate of deployment of the force. There will be greater competition for transport resources as a consequence. Logistic units may deploy later than historical example may show accordingly. This may necessitate that the amount of stock initial deploying units carry will be larger than otherwise desired.
  • Battlefield manufacturing (aka 3D printing) will become increasingly useful, particularly for repair parts and some supplies, but petrol, oils and lubricants and ammunition will continue to pose the biggest challenges for supply. This will not change until new forms of engine are introduced. Demand for both has increased as armies have become heavier, and enabled with greater means of firepower.
  • Logistic information systems and ‘common operating pictures’ are one of the most fundamental technologies that if introduced correctly will allow for the efficient use of resources in war. However, these will not be a panacea. Very successful militaries have had lower quality systems of communications (the tactical successes of the German Army in the early Second World War attest to that), and there has to be an expectation that any logistic information system is vulnerable to cyber or electronic warfare attack.
  • Technology is becoming so sophisticated that, at some point, it will be beyond the capacity of military technicians to be reasonably expected to be trained to repair it. If armies can’t expand the size of their engineering support, a greater presence of contractor support forward will be required. Alternatively, the need to transport damaged and unrepairable equipment rearward will place an additional burden on the distribution system as equipment will have to be transported to safe points of repair.
  • Armies never have, and probably never will, go to war without contractors. Understanding where they are appropriate, how they can be best employed and what the tolerance for operational risk is due to their presence is the key. It will be impossible to leave contract management to a select cadre of specialists; it must become a core skill set of the majority of logisticians.
  • The proportion of the ‘tail’ to the ‘teeth’ of military forces has, and will continue to, increase unless the needs of the combat force decrease. It is (should be?) self-evident that a light infantry brigade has a smaller logistic ‘tail’ than an armoured brigade. However, logistic activities always escalate and inefficiencies, if allowed, make the ‘tail’ become disproportionally large and sluggish. To avoid this, any concepts developed prior to deployment must to be meticulous in their detail. Commanders, and their logisticians, must always pursue opportunities to remove waste – including any institutional ‘sacred cows’ preventing change.
  • If the battlefield becomes more dispersed, logistic forces must be designed to be organisationally flexible. Modular ‘capability bricks’ may not be the only answer; indeed this solution has been pursued by militaries for years.
  • Caveat emptor. Logistics will continue to be driven by context. All the above points could be utterly irrelevant to the conflicts of the future.

Many of these points shouldn’t be surprising, and the list is by no means exhaustive. I believe most military logisticians are already well aware of the problems that they will face on the future battlefield. With this in mind, feel free to correct me or enhance my list.

In any case, as with all force design planning, it is always the solutions to problems that prove the most contentious.


7 thoughts on “Rethinking logistics – challenges of the modern battlefield

  1. Dave – after a visit to the International Armoured Vehicle Summit I commented on my own blog, the Armchair Colonel, I made two suggestions about future war that might contribute to your thinking:

    Suggestion number 1. The first fight in a future war will be one of countermeasures and automated systems. Each side will use unmanned systems to probe and attack and the countermeasures to defeat these attacks will be automated. The transition between the fight of the machines and second fight will be critical. Leaders must understand network performance and characteristics to mitigate damage and exploit opportunities.
    The fight of the machines may create opportunities for “Old technology.” A cyber attack to defeat the active defence systems of light AFV may expose them to old technology of passive armour and high velocity cannons. “Old skills” like land navigation, vehicle craft and fighting at night will remain critical and have new dimensions; does the ground that provides concealment from visual observation do the same for radar? Strategic leaders might learn that “second fight deterrence” can work. Could a state weak in the first fight, like Saddam Hussein’s 2003 Iraq, deter a powerful opponent with a strong show of a its “second, long fight” capability.

    Suggestion number 2: Thinking about dogs and horses puts unmanned AFV in context. Unmanned AFV are available now; India has autonomous BMP-1 to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance and an Armoured Engineer vehicle that autonomously breach. Australia will trial unmanned AFV for CSS in the immediate future. Don’t be afraid; semi intelligent entities have been used for these roles before. Dogs have always conducted reconnaissance and provided early warning for their human masters. In many parts of the world logistics convoys feature a single human with a train of horses obediently in trail. The problems typically cited in relation to autonomous systems can also be characterised using the horse and dog lens. A lame or errant horse would be abandoned or destroyed and the same fate will befall lame or errant autonomous AFV. Unmanned AFV don’t need to be over thought because we already understand how to work with semi intelligent entities.

    I hope this helps


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. It certainly seems that technology is outpacing the development of concepts – but I note a lot of positive work is underway in various militaries. Logisticians and armoured specialists will have to work together to make it a coherent enterprise.


  2. So thinking about future war brings me to challenge the following log assumptions:

    – Dispersion. At the moment and for the last 20 years we clump all the CSS in 4 – 8 square kilometres in the BMA. Beyond line of sight fires are now ubiquitous as are aerial and electronic sensors and our response has been to make the CSSB bigger not smaller. Either CSS needs to disperse or it needs to get outside of the range of bulk of missile and tube artillery – this might make throughput, aerial resupply, contractor use and detailed task organisation more common.

    – The teeth to tail ratio idea has to be challenged. We want an all teeth army; CSS organisations will have vehicles with active and passive armour and battlefield management systems – they will be required to provide their own security in dispersed locations. Logisticians with teeth have a vital role to play in frustrating the offensive ambitions of any threat, leaving combat force free for offensive operations. Given this logisticians should expect to drive heavy trucks at night, crew AFV, operate heavy weapons, radios and data management systems.

    – Second fight. I agree that any Log IS system will probably be destroyed in the fight of the machines. This has two implications 1) Our tactical cyber teams must train to protect or hide it and 2) A second, low technology solution will still be required.

    – Manned vehicles; we won’t need as many of them. Transport soldiers will become experts in autonomous vehicle operations.

    The other question is; do we have a list of the base log assumptions that we should be challenging?




    1. Great thoughts. On the last issue, all bets are off when it comes to challenging assumptions; a list is a great idea. I think we are well beyond the days of the long-haul driver. If ops in the Middle-east taught us anything, it confirms your point on the ‘teeth’. I’ll pass your points on to the right pers, that’s for sure.


  3. I’ll keep mine short. In my view we need to be mobile and dispersed enough that we are not worth unmasking high value weapons to attack us with when we are detected. This doesn’t mean keeping loads on wheels, provided we can load an unload in minutes. Small groups moving frequently become hard to target. How we C2 this requires more thought.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s