By David Beaumont.
Observations made of logistic performance in military campaigns always subjective. Because wars are inherently different, so too must be the means by which combat forces are sustained. Yet logistical requirements also change, and frequently, with the operational timings and ‘phases’ of a campaign. Of the various stages of an operation, there is no other time more difficult for logisticians and their operational commanders than when deployment and actual combat is concurrent. Transforming logistic capabilities to operate more effectively in this period is vital to any military that promotes itself as being expeditionary, and portrays itself as capable enough to launch itself directly into battle from short notice. However, not all modernisation efforts emphasise the difficulties encountered when the line between two arbitrary ‘phases’ of war is blurred, and the tactical and logistic are at their most competitive. Most programs base their logistic force structure and conceptual requirements on a situation where forces are whole and complete, sustained and ready. War, however, tends to show the error of this approach.
Similarities and continuities feature in war, and not-too-subtle variations of the same logistic problems are regularly repeated in nominally different types of military campaigns. In this post I will reveal such consistencies with a brief comparison between American Middle-eastern operations (Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF – 2002) and Iraqi Freedom (OIF – 2003), and Australia’s peacekeeping experience during Operation Warden in East Timor (1999). Despite differences in scale and the nature of combat the deployments, these three operations provide evidence to suggest that the ‘deployment and employment’ dichotomy should be the central basis for the transformation of logistic forces.
US Army Lieutenant Colonel Victor Maccagnan Jr., writing in 2005 on the US Army transformation process, described how the requirement to ‘employ while deploying’ created significant challenges for the logisticians of OEF and OIF. For the US military, OEF was conducted without the benefits of host-nation and allied elements that could sustain a deploying force; benefits it had enjoyed during the Cold War and Operation Desert Shield / Storm campaign a decade prior. Army logistic elements were ‘piecemealed into theatre as a result of new requirements being generated by ongoing and upcoming operations as opposed to an overall plan,’ Maccagnan continues. Tactical events resulted in erratic combinations of combat and supporting forces deploying, and a vacuum in logistic support temporarily appeared. The resulting uncertainty ultimately meant that to overcome supply chain and sustainment inefficiencies, ‘brute force logistics’ was applied and inefficiencies introduced. In addition to a snowballing of logistic effort, the normally orderly form of ‘reception, staging, onforwarding and integration’ characteristic of Cold War-era American force projection was abandoned in the turmoil of deployment and with forces in combat to sustain.
The initial assessments of OIF, conducted soon after OEF, portrayed an impressive picture of the capacity of the US military to project forces on a global scale. Yet, post-operational analysis confirmed a logistic legacy which belied the preceding twelve-months of logistic campaign planning before the invasion of Iraq began. It was true that in an amazing display of speed, the US military had mounted an expeditonary force, deployed it to Kuwait, and ten days was operating a divisional-plus Task Force (Ironhorse) in combat north of Baghdad. However, the simultaneous requirements of supporting forces while deep in the deployment process exposed a significant gap in logistic capability. A 2005 RAND Corporation study confirms the failure of ‘distribution-based logistics’ to adaptively respond to emerging operational problems, a result of shifts in the deployment flow. The stable logistic system that such concepts depend upon simply hadn’t been established; in some cases, distribution elements were demoted in terms of deployment priority as combat needs took precedence. By the end of the first week of operations, there were units in combat had not received water and rations as scarce logistic elements were redirected to supplying the modern-day life-blood of war; ammunition and spares. The resultant operational pause is now famous. However, such problems were not unique to OIF, and certainly not the US military more broadly.
It would not surprise many of the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) logisticians if I claimed Op Warden would be a benchmark in terms of challenges with logistics. Dr Craig Stockings, now Official Historian, described ‘logistics on the run’ as a succession of logistic issues compromised the limited planning that had been conducted prior to the crisis. A firm control of movement and sustainment coordination was conspicuously absent because operational imperatives necessitated an adapting and expeditious approach to controlling the area of operations. The consequences of operational necessity were borne by the few logistic elements that had deployed early. Nominally ‘modular’ logistics units arrived in theatre, as the Americans had experienced during OEF, ‘piece-meal’. This meant the capabilities they were to provide were inhibited in their capacity. The ability to determine what was operational urgent proved functionally ‘broken’, and the light scales of logistics units had deployed was one of the key factors that led the then-Major General Peter Cosgrove to allocate coalition forces and other units to specific areas of operations where they could be adequately sustained. One month later, as the deployment subsided and forward elements were in their areas of operation, logistic control was finally established and some measure of certainty came to the operation. It was, however, a widely-acknowledged close call.
Such short explanations do not do justice to the complex balance between combat and logistic activities that had to be coordinated early in an operation. Neither should they necessarily be construed as a justification for preference being given to logistics forces during deployment. Rather, the examples serve to emphasise why the conditions of the earliest phases of an operation must be of the highest priority when considering logistic force structure requirements. This same could be said of operational and logistic concepts. Logistic operations in austere conditions, and for forces with austere expectations, must be planned for.
It is tempting to simply construe the problem as an unsolvable, terribly inconvenient, feature of the nature of war. Certainly armies have, since time immemorial, outran their supply lines or endured austerity in the ‘grey’ space between deployment and combat operations. Historian Jill S. Russell describes a ‘rule of 4/6ths’, stating that on the battlefield you will only ever get ‘4/6ths’ of what you need; the art of war ‘is to find the means to make up for the deficit’. She notes the innovative capacity of the ‘human element’ as the bridge between what is available and what is not. Militaries should not, however, introduce this capacity as a logistic force design principle. When logistics planners and others start over-emphasising a Clausewitzian view of ‘friction’, or argue persistently that logistics is ultimately just an ‘overcoming of a monumental series of difficulties’ as Martin Van Creveld once described, there is good reason for all to worry.
There is always a tendency for those thinking about the future to the needs of the set-piece battle when designing future logistic forces. Doing so skips over an assessment of the needs of a much more challenging operational phase. It results arbitrary conclusions in force design; conclusions which, in the main, simply don’t eventuate in an operational setting. The simultaneous deployment and employment of forces encountered during OEF, OIF and Op Warden indicates aspects of the logistical problem that must be addressed in preparations militaries for future wars. If it offers some reassurance that preparation is actually possible, we can look at the outcome of the logistics planning conducted for Operation Astute, a return to a crisis affected East Timor, in 2006. Although the operation might have been an order of magnitude less complex than Op Warden and with a smaller burden on logistic capabilities, lessons from Op Warden resulted logistical choices were directly incorporated into operational planning. These lessons, in turn, better enabled the force to withstand tactical and logistic simultaneity as the deployment unfolded.
Militaries are ever-evolving to different visions of the future, visions which are shaped by a particular ‘lens’ through which a problem is observed. Many Western armies are now engaged in programs to adapt their logistics capabilities, and it will be important that they base transformation on a vision established through the right ‘lens’ and with the full advantage of history behind them. Determining those capabilities which are required to overcome the critical logistic challenges experienced from simultaneous ‘deployment and employment’ must consequentially be, in my view, the primary basis for their logistic transformation efforts. This may result in unexpected capability outcomes, but ones that could well be fundamental to the success of the campaigns of the future.
 Stockings, C. ‘Lessons from East Timor’ from Frame, T. & Palazzo, A., On Ops: lessons and challenges for the Australian Army since East Timor, UNSW Press, Australia, 2016, p 74
 Beaumont, D., ‘Logistics and the failure to modernise’ from Frame & Palazzo, 2016, p 140
 Creveld., M., Supplying war, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, UK, 2004, p 231