Adapting Atlas – The cost of combat power: Part Two

By David Beaumont.

Most Western land forces are beyond the point where a ‘protection versus mobility’ argument has short-term usefulness. In recent years due to a range of threats upon typically Middle-eastern battlefields militaries have found protection as essential; protection often felt as a euphemism for armour (and thus shock and tempo) and firepower. Their visions of the future, and the potential of peer on peer conflict, suggests such combat power will remain necessary for a good while yet even as current operations draw down. Thus, it is unsurprising that British, American and Australian land forces have made acquisitions reflecting this battlefield requirement. This procurement has generally been accompanied by numerous studies, exercises and experiments. Surprising no one, such activities have revealed a considerable number of operational logistic costs to this improvement to battlefield performance.  In order to address these costs, land forces are eagerly seeking ways in which the demand on logistic capabilities can be reduced, and with it, the expected deployed logistic tail.

After reading ‘The Cost of Combat Power – weapons, weight and sustainment in the multi-domain battle’, you now know that the quantity of logistic forces required to support operational combat power increases proportionally. This is a well-known, historically proven, trend. However, there are measures which can be taken to reduce this effect, or eliminate it in some areas. It is possible to create a lean ‘tail’ capable of adaptively responding to operational needs in spite of logistic demand. However, without comprehensive planning, there is every likelihood that inefficient operations can result in a ‘tail’ which bloats to a force-compromising ‘iron-mountain’, or a ‘tail’ so austere that it invites an inconvenient force culmination in battle. This post is a ‘deep dive’ of the ways in which armies might seek to better manage, if not reduce, the logistic cost of capability; navigating around one of the existential, arguably internally-created, challenges facing land forces today.

I have said before that logistics is rarely just a logisticians problem. Very few logisticians, in times of peace, will ever be responsible for the strategic procurement decisions upon which logistic demand is based. However, they must be consistent advocates for demand reduction and management.  This is not as simple a task as it first sounds, because many proposed solutions have a habit of challenging the assumptions made by force designers; designers who have a tendency to assume logistic abundance in an operational setting, or, alternatively, fail to fully consider logistic demand as a planning factor at all. It seems we are at a turning point in a number of land forces where such a paradigm of force design thinking no longer has a comfortable place, but it remains useful for logisticians and leaders to have a frame of reference to better articulate logistic demand to force and operational planners.

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Deployment of US Army 3rd Armoured Brigade Combat Team to Poland via Germany, January 2017 – Photo by Stars and Stripes

There are a number of strategies which can be employed to reduce logistic demand, and thus the size of a logistic ‘tail’ required in any given operation. In 2003, the RAND Corporation presented a brief on transformation to the US Army Deputy Chief of Staff ‘G4’ (Logistics), who had been given the unenviable task of ensuring the US Army’s logistics and combat support capabilities were strategically responsive. This task was given at the height of planning for the ‘Objective Force’, but also as the Stryker-based ‘Interim Force’ saw combat in Iraq. The core philosophy in this logistic transformation was to enable strategic mobility while preserving combat power, but also to reduce the total cost of logistics.

One might look at what RAND proposed in the presentation in the context of the war underway in Iraq at the time and treat the promise it offered with some scepticism. Some of the force design beliefs and decisions made prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom set the US Army for troubles during its advance. Nonetheless, the strategies suggested as ways to reduce logistic demand by RAND in 2003 remain highly applicable to land forces today. At the very least these strategies offer logisticians a useful way of examining the problem of logistic demand, and a mental model that might help in the articulation of logistic costs, and opportunities to mitigate such costs, in force and capability planning.

The first strategy, and undoubtedly the most obvious, is platform efficiency. It is also the strategy that logisticians have the least ability to influence outside of describing logistic costs to key decision makers in the acquisition process. Platform efficiency refers to the application of technology to minimise the amount of logistic support required to deliver and sustain a capability (see here for an example involving tanks). In recent years, energy (fuel) management has exemplified this approach to logistic demand reduction, but other technologies such as on-board power and water generation exist. Even the use of precision munitions is a way in which greater combat effect can be delivered at a lower logistic cost, with less ammunition required to complete a fire mission. With much-vaunted revolutionary technology such as fuel cells, additive manufacturing and new materials which can protect vehicles with lower weight we are likely to see many ways in which combat power can be improved in the future while improving upon platform efficiency.

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The Australian Light Armoured vehicle (right) and a prospective replacement – Photo by Australian Army

Technology will be transformative, but it is a long-term solution typically reflected in multi-decade procurement processes. Furthermore, and as stated in introduction, some land forces have only just recently introduced (or are in the process of introducing) new combat capabilities. This means the opportunity to influence platform efficiency will be very limited for some time yet. Fortunately, the next strategy for reducing logistic demand – force efficiency – is an option that can be implemented now. Force efficiency refers to initiatives which require fewer force elements to achieve a desired effect. In developing the US Army’s Stryker-capability, the organic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance available to brigade combat teams, coupled with precision fires, ostensibly complemented and enhanced the capability of the medium-weight nature of the platform. In this case, some might argue that force efficiency didn’t deliver operational effectiveness – at least in terms of the operations that the Stryker would subsequently find itself in. Nonetheless, we are continuously reminded that the combination of modern armed, and increasingly cheap, UAV’s supported by surveillance capabilities and guided weapons offer forces firepower with little permanent presence on the ground and logistic cost as a consequence.

In terms of logistics-specific activities there are other force efficiency opportunities that can be, indeed currently are, undertaken. Adopting common components, ammunition and other items, and standardisation across coalition boundaries as practiced by NATO or under the ABCA program, greatly simplifies supply between likely coalition partners. Collectively, and in an operational environment, there may be possibilities to share capabilities and prevent the unnecessary duplication of effort. Elsewhere, the modularisation of vehicle components, supported by information systems that better predict maintenance requirements, has been touted as offering opportunities to improve force efficiency. Implemented effectively, this approach limits the need to forward position maintenance personnel with most deep repair occurring rearward (although, admittedly, this approach can make a maintenance problem a distribution one). Self-offloading distribution vehicles, or more effective ways to store and package supplies, also exemplify a force efficiency strategy.

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Photo by Australian Army

Force efficiency can also be improved through conceptual and doctrinal means. At the macro level, land forces – as part of joint forces – can achieve greater efficiencies by removing duplicate functions, or if demand can’t be reduced, sharing functions to create greater opportunities. This approach is a cornerstone of the multi-domain battle concept, a natural evolution of joint operations. Doctrinal approaches to logistics which move away from philosophies where logistic elements are devolved and owned at the lowest level, to those where modularised logistic capabilities are surged to support particular missions and tasks for limited time periods, also offers the prospect of improving force efficiency. Rethinking assumptions about who ‘owns’ what in the battlespace, and the logistic control methods such as ‘lines’ or ‘levels’ of logistics support to use Australian doctrinal terms, must therefore be part of future logistic transformation efforts in Western land forces. As should the development of a culture in land forces which tolerates the inevitable periods where limited logistic support must be directed away from one unit to another to support combat operations.

Closely aligned to force efficiency is personnel efficiency. An example of personnel efficiency, whereby less personnel are required to do a particular job, was recently given by James Davis. In his post, he proposed logistics and combat force personnel ‘mixing’ tasks such as armoured fighting vehicle operations and maintenance. Noting the training burden and competency risk it imposes, some small militaries extensively cross-train limited logistic personnel; a noteworthy example being the New Zealand Army whose land terminal, movements and aerial delivery personnel come from a base trade. There is no philosophical reason that the skills possessed by personnel from logistics or combat arms cannot be similarly transferred between one another in such a way. Technology can also support personnel efficiency, and is being rigorously pursued by armies as a way of enhancing the effect each deployed soldier or officer contributes to the deployed force. Examples of such include modernising ‘logistics information systems’ and ‘common operating pictures’, both of which promise to improve supply chain performance thereby enhancing the capacity of managers to respond to emergent tactical requirements.

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Loading of an RNZAF C-130 by NZ Army Terminal personnel during Ex Kiwi Koru 2014 – Photo by NZ Army

The final strategy promoted by RAND was mission focus. For many militaries who have transitioned their forces to enable a consistent, rotatable amongst available combat elements, readiness cycle the term mission focus may be antithetical. Mission focus refers to the specialisation of formations for particular tasks thus avoiding the costly logistic capabilities that might enable the formation to be prepared for all tasks, or those tasks which might be perceived as unlikely. There are, however, inventive ways in which land forces can be structured appropriately to achieve mission focus without abandoning preparedness-based force design methodologies. Temporary allocations of modularised logistic capabilities based upon emerging operational requirements is perhaps the best-known method in this regard, and should be rigorously applied in future attempts to transform land forces. Nonetheless, land forces should always be prepared to abandon force design models which are based upon an assumption of being able to ‘do it all’ when the need arises, and prepare logistics capabilities accordingly.

The strategies mentioned here are useful for structuring thought, but it is worth concluding with a sobering point from RAND’s own summary before land forces race ahead to make changes. In referring to applying these strategies to reduce the logistics ‘tail’ of the interim and objective force, it was noted that although it was relatively easy for Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) to implement force design changes, when these strategies required other organisations to participate, transformation stalled. Logistics is an end-to-end process, and although land forces may seek to reduce logistic demand through a variety of comprehensive strategies, their work can be undone by a failure to properly integrate their planning with other activities and change programs elsewhere. Secondly, one could ask an equally sobering question; if armies have been actively trying to reduce logistic demand for decades with varied levels of success, can we actually expect to be successful now?

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Logistics in Europe post-Normandy – from Ruppenthal, Logistics in the Support of the Armies Vol 2

My personal view, based upon historical trends and the reading of operational reports, is that land forces are unlikely to curtail logistic demand without revolutionary changes in technology. However, this is not something to be overly pessimistic about; rather it is just something that land forces must plan for. We should be positive about the capabilities resident in modern land forces. After all, the combat power now available to the contemporary soldier is orders of magnitude greater than that possessed only decades ago. It is self-evident that this should come with increased logistic cost. Perhaps the second-order question to be asked is in this debate is, because of the increase in combat power, do we actually need the same number of forces and consequential logistic ‘tail’ to succeed in future operations?

In any case, logisticians must be an intellectual ‘kernel’ around which any plan to more efficiently support combat capability must be formed, for it will be their lot in the operational environment to advise, if not resolve, numerous challenges which come from increased combat power. If demand management lacks such champions now, as land forces adjust their forces to face new threats or to modernise, future armies and marine forces will be unable to break free from the shackles of the ‘iron mountains’. Comprehensive thinking along the lines of the strategies outlined here must be continued. Similarly, leaders must nurture a culture within land forces which recognises that logistic austerity is commonplace in war, and therefore must be prepared for in all aspects of planning. This includes in the acquisition of equipment, to the development of future doctrine.

Whatever is planned and prepared for, I am certain that the substantial improvements in combat capability now being seen in land forces will be routinely curtailed by the supply shortages, maintenance limitations and distribution constraints that are so very routine in war. Commanders will always exploit success as far as their logistic capability will allow, so much so that they may willingly bring severe logistic risk on their force to win. To prepare land forces for such occurrences, logisticians must be professionally active and understand tactics and concepts implicitly. They must, before the battle begins, find a way to balance combat power with logistic capacity; like the titan Atlas, holding the sky upon his shoulders, they must take a shifting weight and through adapting their own practices ensure the force remains steady for its ultimate test.

With this in mind it is worth closing with the words of eminent strategist Colin Gray, writing in the preface to Thomas Kane’s Military logistics and strategic performance; ‘they cannot know logistics, whom only logistics know’.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer, logistician and founding Director of Logistics In War. He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics.

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1 thought on “Adapting Atlas – The cost of combat power: Part Two”

  1. UAV are a long way from being the panacea of force efficiency – they can’t survive contested airspace and require a runway. .. it’ll be a decade before such constraints are overcome.

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