Establishing an ‘unequal dialogue’ between the logistician and the commander

By Steve Cornell

‘My logisticians are a humorless lot … they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay.’

–  attributed to Alexander the Great

Logisticians can be a misunderstood lot, which is probably why – if you believe the authenticity of the quote – Alexander the Great was so willing to execute them if he lost. They can also be guilty, at times, of complaining from the sidelines as ‘G3 snobs’ crack on and ignore ‘sage advice’ based on ‘impeccable data’. So how could this situation be improved?

Eliot Cohen has described an ‘unequal dialogue’ between military commanders and their political masters.[1] The primacy of the civilian leader is acknowledged and adhered to, but the defining characteristic of the relationship is an honest and robust dialogue that ensures the leader is provided the best possible advice and support. Trust is implicit in this dialogue. I propose that an effective and robust dialogue is just what logisticians need to achieve with their commander.

Why the need? Logisticians must understand the mind of their commanders, and in return, their perspective must be reflected in their commander’s thinking. This applies in peacetime where materiel and personnel must be ready and prepared for operations. However, it should go without saying that the dialogue is even more fundamental during operations. Without an effective dialogue between commander and logistician, operations and logistics planning requirements risk becoming unbalanced, with logistic and combat elements potentially ‘unhinging’ each others operations at a time they should be working effectively together.

uk-army-iraq-2003
UK Army logistics – Iraq 2003

Before any operational dialogue can occur, we should consider what the commander and logistician should seek to understand.  In my experience, I have found that the commander likely wants to know three things:

Is this plan doable or not? They have a plan and they just need a yes or no as to its feasibility. They don’t necessarily need to provided with reams of calculations although the most will want some sort of evidence to your conclusion, especially if your answer is no.

When is the battle going to end? And restart? In an ideal world formations would be able to operate forever over unlimited distances, with logistics quietly sustaining the force. Commanders get this is not realistic, if for no other reason than they get that their people need to sleep at some point. They want to understand when or where they need to pause, and at what point they can resume their preferred activity.

How much is this going to cost me? Be it time, money or tactical opportunities logistics will cost a commander and his plan. What is it, can he afford it and what is he giving up to be sustained?

Logisticians are also seeking answers to three questions:

What are you thinking of doing?  As logisticians there is a lot of difference between the ‘fight tonight’ and the ‘fight tomorrow’. It is too late for the ‘fight tonight’ to be influenced by a logistician: the right stuff must already be in the right place, right now, because there is little opportunity to change plans.  The ‘fight tomorrow’ is key business for the logistician. It may be utopic to assume that the perfect logistic preparations can ever be put into place. Such is the fog of war, and the non-linear nature of warfare between two sides,  that commanders themselves will be doing well to know exactly how the fight might unfold. But any insight with respect to the planning picture and changes in commander’s intent can provide the lead time a logistician needs.

What opportunities are there to reset the battle?  As much as sustaining in background is desirable, fleeting opportunities in the lull of the fight must be taken to enable the force to recuperate itself. Identifying, along with operational planners, when these opportunities might be taken by consulting the commander  will be vital to enabling the force to reset and recuperate.

How much are we doing to need? How many times has a conversation gone like this: ‘what do you think we’ll need? – Dunno, what are you planning to do?’ Logisticians and commanders need to understand the logistic requirements that are created by a plan. They will only ever be able to do this together.

uk-army-afghanistan
UK Army logistics – Afghanistan 2013

It is incumbent on logisticians to start this dialogue, just as it is for commanders and operations staff to participate in it. How should logisticians start the dialogue?

Firstly, logisticians must have confidence in the role logistics plays in operations and the level of expertise that they possess. Too often we lack pride in our profession because we have a supporting role.  However, effective commanders always value frank advice and a self-confident approach.

Secondly, logisticians must talk and act as a military professional. No one wants to talk to a single-issue zealot with little insight as to the operation. Logisticians must actively and usefully involve themselves in the activities and planning of the combat and combat support arms. This relationship forms the basis upon which the future dialogue between commander and logistician will be set.

Starting the dialogue might not be easy but it’s better to do so when training at home than when already deployed. On that basis, start today: commanders will be surprisingly receptive.

Steve Cornell is a logistician in the British Army enjoying unit command.  The views expressed here are solely his own and are not reflective of any organisation.

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1] Eliot A.Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime, New York: Free Press, 2002.

6 thoughts on “Establishing an ‘unequal dialogue’ between the logistician and the commander”

  1. Great post, thank you.

    I think this is a two-way street, though. Maneuver leaders need to start learning and mastering logistics planning and execution early in their careers.

    During training progression planning, commanders need to ensure that resource requirements are captured.

    Throughout the mission planning process, courses of action need to be resource informed.

    During mission execution, command focus on logistics is a must. The S4 can only jump up and down about the logistics status report (LOGSTAT) being on time so many times before the LOGSTAT is late and the higher headquarters does not know what subordinate units need. Or worse, to adhere to reporting timelines, Company executive officers make up resource requirements for future operations instead of asking platoons what exactly they need for the next reporting time period. This results on full water tanks being driving back to the Brigade Support Area while platoons are without required lubricants.

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  2. Great read. The biggest challenge I see in working with young staffs at battalion and brigade levels is in learning the right questions that must be asked. The S4 should have a template of the questions they need answered during the planning process that guides, without limiting the thought process. Examples – armored forces consume massive quantities of fuel on the offense at a predictable rate with “time and distance” being the common factors. Understanding these factors, when mated to operational timelines develops a fuel estimate. Likewise, ammunition is expended at a rate tied to both “direct and indirect” fire engagements. Understanding what you will engage with which systems and where leads you to determine ammunition requirements. So, if you are prepared by understanding the questions that must be answered, you can guide planning discussions that allow estimates to flow from the operator freely. You just need to be able to capture the requirements. It takes practice and it takes active participation to master this skill. And at the brigade level it also forces not just the S4, but the support operations officer’s participation – at least in the US Army.

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  3. While I understand that the 4 at any level faces perhaps the greatest challenge in relation to dialogue, I believe it is an issue that extends to all enablers as well.

    I would hazard that more often than not, enabling assets supporting maneuver operate in a somewhat self-inflicted isolation resulting from poorly formed relationships thanks to an inability to communicate effectively (knowing what questions to ask and what key information to provide).

    Effective and relevant dialogue, being a primary causal factor of efficient communication, can only occur with regular exposure to both knowledge and individuals.

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  4. Good article Steve. From my experience the tone the G3 commander sets is the tone the HQ adopts. I was very lucky to work for two great Brigade Commanders who knew what logistics could do for them and worked is really hard. DCOS briefed ‘where we are now and where we will be in 72 hours’ at the start of every planning cycle so that everyone knew the basics of what the Brigade was capable of.
    As we progressed, the G4 types would be helping planning and COA development so we generally had a really good handle on what was ‘doable’. This meant we generally had COA that delivered what was needed and didn’t require a short notice miracle half way through!

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  5. Thanks for all your comments and on FaceBook. There were some on FB about logisticians having to do service in a combat arm, and vice versa. Cross training and experience is beneficial but I doubt the practicalities of doing this wholesale. What struck me were two things: 1) the role of core Professional Military Education. Ensuring officers (primarily but not solely) are able to understand and wield all of the land environment’s capabilities to at least a basic level strikes me as the core to the understanding and dialogue you have all described in you own ways. 2) the need for cross-functional planning and teams. You’re never going to know it all. Whether you go for embedded SMEs in the Plan, Refine and Execute parts of an HQ, or just become better at avoiding departmental silos, creating an integrated set of effects is a necessary part of success.

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