By David Beaumont.
Joe Byerly, in an excellent post at his blog ‘From the Green Notebook’, reminds us of the importance of continual reading. He promotes 20-30 minutes of reading in a day (or night) as part of a ‘consistent practice of self-study’. Reading about logistics, the difficulties encountered in sustaining and moving armies, should be part of this study. Yet very few people know about the important works on military logistics or know where to start. I am often asked by people which logistics books I would recommend to anyone who might be time-poor, or had only just made the decision to start reading on the topic. Byerly’s piece compelled me to answer this question properly (if a little evasively).
I maintain the view given at the time I was questioned; it ‘depends what you are after’. Because logistics is a process that includes so many different functions from the tactical to the national-economic, it is experienced in different ways by different people. Furthermore, with the term ‘logistics’ being so conflated, it is hard to find one particular book which describes logistics holistically. For those in capability development, logistics is about efficiency, production and acquisition, whereas those in tactical formations see logistics as a variety of ‘small’, yet all-too-often ‘big’, things that give the formation the capacity to fight. A book such as Clements, The Lieutenant Don’t Know, therefore examines an experience of logistics worlds apart from Eccles, Logistics in the national defense.
With this in mind, I thought I should summarise what might be learned from what I feel are the most important works on military logistics. The choice with respect to relevancy is therefore your own. I have already gone a substantial part of the way here to outlining the basic principles of the literature, but for the sake of identifying who might benefit the most from reading each text:
- From Clausewitz, On War, the strategist will learn how logistics determines the ‘form or factor’ of operations.
- From Jomini, The Art of War, the commander will see how logistics is the ‘means and arrangements which work out the plans of strategy and tactics’.
- From Thorpe, Pure logistics, the commander will see way in which logistics ‘sets the stage’ for operations.
- From Eccles, Logistics in the national defense, the strategic logistician will learn of the processes of connecting the economy to the battlefield. The operational commander will learn that logistics requires control and oversight for it to be efficient and effective.
- From Macgruder, Recurring logistics problems as I have observed them, the tactical commander will be shown the importance of well-trained logistics troops, and that time is won in conflict by having effective advance / forward logistics early.
- From Van Creveld, Supplying War, you will be persuaded that strategy is second to logistics in modern war. However, because militaries rarely plan on this basis, logistics often seems ‘an overcoming of a series of difficulties’.
- From Lynn, Feeding Mars; Thomspon, Lifeblood of War, the operational and tactical commander will learn how contextual logistics is, and the need for adaptation in battle.
- From Huston, Sinews of War, the tactical and operational commander or logistician will learn of major principles of logistics as it applies to delivering ‘firepower or shock’, based upon a comprehensive study of centuries of conflict. Pagonis, Moving Mountains is a natural complement.
- From Macksey, For want of a nail, the commander and logistician will learn of the expansion of the ‘tail’ as compared to the ‘tooth’ with new technologies, and that logistics is fundamentally about affecting mobility (and thus time and space).
- From Tuttle, Defense logistics for the 21st century, the logistician will learn of the modern inputs to logistics capability and how they relate to expeditionary warfare.
- From Kane, Military logistics and strategic performance, the strategist will learn how logistics creates the circumstances for strategy and tactics, and is the ‘arbiter of opportunity’.
- From Engels, Alexander the Great and the logistics of the Macedonian army, and Roth, The logistics of the Roman army at war, the strategist will see how the basis of their work is found in logistics.
- From Cowen, The deadly life of logistics, the strategist will see how the geography of logistics, supply chains in all their complexity, govern national interest and strategic policy.
- From Privatsky, Logistics of the Falklands War, all will learn how logistics truly is the arbiter of strategy, how it defines operations and that it is critical to tactical success – especially in expeditionary warfare.
The books I have briefly described above are independently valuable, and each contribute their own perspective to a vital aspect of war. Some readers are likely to value certain books over others, or different books entirely. However, I have found the list reflects the most important to how I have formed my opinion and understanding of logistics. After reading, and re-reading, the list of books above, I was left with the following conclusions about logistics:
- Logistics is essentially moving, supplying and maintaining forces. It is above all else concerned about the practical existence of forces as distinct from their employment.
- Logistics, as a process, connects the economy to the battlefield. In raising and sustaining forces, logistics comprises a vast proportion of a military’s time.
- Logistics is the application of time and space factors to operations. It is concerned with what can be moved and when. It is therefore the substance of strategy, and ‘sets the stage’ for tactics.
- Logistics is a self-sustaining system of many elements and countless, often contextual, inputs. If left ‘uncontrolled’ in war it has a tendency to grow inefficient, and in doing so, forces allocated to logistics tasks swell in size.
- War can be prepared for, and in this capacity, logistics influences all options. However, once battle commences, it is virtually impossible to plan logistics efficiently. ‘Brute force’ logistics often prevails.
Each book on logistics, including those many I have not mentioned here, deserves to be read. Twenty to thirty minutes of reading about military logistics is such a small proportion of time to devote to a topic so fundamentally relevant to success in war.
What can you expect? You will be left concerned with repetition of problems throughout history, and certainly the propensity of armies to outrun their means of supply with regularity. But you will also be left with a sense of the ingenuity of logisticians, commanders and soldiers to overcome logistics issues through a variety of means unforseen prior to war. You will see how logistics does indeed shape how forces will fight, and that logistics leads strategy to its ultimate conclusion.
But most of all, you will also be left to question why so few of these works are on professional reading lists.
David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer. These thoughts are his own.