Fighting in the void – combat operations in the logistic vacuum

By David Beaumont.

Logistics has emerged from a decade-long hiatus to reassert its relevance. As Western militaries turn their attention from operations with a generally consistent logistic tempo, to strategic challenges that necessitate a substantial shift in force posture, logisticians are confronting a multitude of problems. We are seeing these problems emerge out of recent exercises conducted by the US Army in Europe. Recent commentary concerning exercises conducted in  January 2017 have revealed a variety of challenges that it must address to avoid bleak outcomes in future conflict. But such experiences are not confined to the US military, or to the European theatre. Changes in force posture and preparedness always require complicated logistics systems and supply chains to be adapted to suit new conditions.

Despite the challenges of adjusting to new force posture, we can expect logistics systems to be established quite effectively and efficiently. Many of these concerns expressed with relation to US Army force posture changes will undoubtedly abate as it re-learns lessons from the past. However, if we hypothetically look at how conflict might evolve in Europe, just as the American and European militaries did in developing concepts during the Cold War, we would be left with little comfort.  Despite the best of efforts, logistic preparations often fail to meet the expectations of planners when it comes to war. While the reasons for logistical failures may be self-evident given we all know how destruction can be quite disruptive, this post offers a theory – the ‘logistic vacuum’ – which reflects upon the impact.

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Photo by US Army Europe

As force posture changes, or as developments to enable the projection of force over vast distances progress, sustainment methods become optimised for specific and often localised conditions. Prepared forces are so because they have robust, and as efficient as practicably possible, logistics systems that are capable of sustaining them for extended periods of time. We see the effects of this luxury on military exercises regularly; it is rare to find a unit in most exercises without enough stores, supplies and equipment to last the exercises duration. Except in cases of extreme strategic surprise, logistics often becomes relatively unimportant to the well-prepared force at the outset of combat. Resources are plentiful, and firepower is assured. Unfortunately, and it is a general rule of war, this rapidly changes as combat and as the operation continues.

When combat commences robust logistic systems allow for a high intensity of engagement – at least initially. However, this changes quickly soon after the first shots are fired. We can look at a European scenario from the past to understand why. Western concepts including Air-Land battle that were developed in the Cold War explicitly targeted logistic infrastructure; however, other issues would also mount upon any force engaged in battle. Forces would soon outrun their lines of supply, materiel might be lost in the confusion, health care inevitably overwhelmed and distribution capabilities overstretched.  When logistic support fails to materialise combat forces would be forced to adapt their tactical activities and the intensity of warfare would decrease commensurately. As seen routinely in Europe during the Second World War, combat forces resorted to using enemy materiel and supplies, local sources of supply were permanently borrowed, and rationing was introduced to overcome such deficiencies. In such circumstances the flexibility of and logistics forces remaining after the initial firefight becomes crucial to recovering any aspect of the initiative, and restoring tempo to the operation.

Vladimir Prebelic described this phenomenon as the ‘logistic vacuum’.[i] He saw it as a general feature of war because logistics elements and systems are typically and extensively targeted by adversaries, particularly as their initial targets, so to create this very condition! Many different types of weapons have been developed to achieve this effect in modern operations; from ‘anti-access, area-denial’ missiles used in the maritime domain to target ‘sea-bases’ and other vessels, to the rocket-based artillery we famously saw in Desert Storm (1991) and more recently in ongoing conflict in the Ukraine. Despite the best attempts to improvise solutions and disperse logistic capabilities without compromising the support available to the combat force, a challenge noted recently on the Grounded Curiosity blog in a piece by Kane Wright, offensive methods can be expected to find a way to overcome these defensive measures.

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Photo by Australian Army

However, the concept of the ‘logistic vacuum’ goes beyond its relationship with major combat operations. As I argued in a previous post , commanders often make operational decisions which result in significant disruption to logistics systems. In most instances these decisions are made for vitally important reasons. But such decisions have consequences, in a process of compromise and risk management that is necessary in war. Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Warden demonstrated that the act of deploying produces its own ‘logistic vacuum’ as forces adapt to new situations. In these examples the uncertain nature of supply chains, and the impact of capacity constraints introduced by the desire to deploy with a light logistic ‘tail’, conspired to introduce temporary (and in some cases enduring) logistic shortcomings.  The problem is particularly significant for operational and tactical-level logistics organisations who must establish in-theatre logistics infrastructure where there was previously none. Despite this applicability of the idea of the ‘logistic vacuum’ to more benign deployments, it is really in major combat operations that the ‘vacuum’ is at its most pernicious.

The ability of logisticians and commanders to overcome the ‘logistic vacuum’ by working a logistic system out of the remnants of what existed in peacetime will often determine the operational initiative. Armies have typically sought to prevent the vacuum from appearing by conceiving ways to the defend logistic elements, than examining what happens after such systems fail. Options proposed include defensive measures such as ‘rear area security operations’, the reinforcement of logistics elements and patrols with self-protection capabilities such as anti-air systems, protection of logistics infrastructure via the establishment of operating bases, and through distance and dispersal. Such measures are essential to providing resiliency to the logistic system that, if attacked, will prevent a catastrophic collapse of support.  However, these measures are also only part of the problem. Reassessing doctrine, training and thinking – perhaps even the study of history – to admit the existence of the vacuum will be fundamental to the logistician and commander in their mental preparations for war.

We can try to ‘force-design’ ourselves out of the problem. History, unfortunately, suggests we won’t be overly successful. The ‘logistic vacuum’ is an oft-repeated feature of warfare, and many smart people before you and I have failed to conceptualise a way out of it. What really matter is that military planners design forces that are able to emerge from the ‘vacuum’ quickly, and with the initiative. All attention should be given to the ways in which risks can be reduced, the resiliency of the logistic system improved and flexibility of logistics forces enhanced. The perfect solution would be to provide logistic support in an over-abundance, particularly to forward units, but that isn’t a realistic expectation to have. Forces must be prepared to operate austerely, logisticians better empowered to prioritise resources, and all must plan and rehearse accordingly. In this regard technology offers all sorts of possibilities, many of which will lead to positive outcome. However, we shouldn’t be overconfident in our attempts to avoid the inevitable.

Any war between great powers, such as the nightmarish scenario in Europe as hypothesised above, would be tremendously destructive. After the first strike, logistic concepts that purport to support their armies will rapidly give way to practical reality and absolute necessity. Combat forces shouldn’t have a misplaced faith that they would be able to operate with everything they need, nor should any logisticians make claims as to their capacity to eradicate the ‘logistics vacuum’ through conceptual perfection. Ultimately, the ‘logistic vacuum’ is a reality of war that both logistician and commander must accept and prepare themselves for.

The feature photo is of 3ABCT undertaking training, photo by US Army Europe and available on Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/usarmyeurope_images/31544722004/)

[i] Prebelic, V., ‘ Theoretical aspects of military logistics’ from Defence and security analysis, Vol. 22, No. 2, Routledge, USA, 2006

5 thoughts on “Fighting in the void – combat operations in the logistic vacuum”

  1. Filling the vacuum has historically been a key task of tradesmen (from RAEME, RAE and Pioneers) in the 2nd and 3rd line who are tasked to improvise, adapt and overcome utilising enemy force and civilian equipment. Force design has unfortunately significantly reduced these capabilities over the last decades. Without them, will we succeed in the future to fill the vacuum?

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    1. The point being – we don’t know what we don’t know! Or in other words, our experience of these requirements is beyond institutional memory. It’s hard to say on the manning side of things – recent Australian Army CSS reviews have planned for manning for the specific scenario. I suspect there may be some functions not considered in the planning. I wonder if there are some doctrinal / employment style of issues involved? Do we even know where to start on the problem?

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