Survive first, sustain later: exercising dispersed logistics in the close fight

By Mark Baldock

A logistics element not capable of surviving and operating in a threat environment is a battlefield liability. Armies knew long before ‘multi-domain battle’ was developed that logistic capabilities are easy to identify, target and destroy. They are the soft underbelly of a fighting formation, and if a formations organic logistic elements are destroyed by indirect fires or direct attack, any combat forces remaining are usually quick to defeat. However, it is my opinion and experience that in order to ensure that the combat capabilities of formations receive due attention during exercises, we don’t tend to assess the ability of logistics elements to protect themselves. This risks lulling land forces into a false sense of security, when lessons from recent operations suggest we should be doing more to achieve the opposite.

During 2016, the logistic battalion I commanded – the 1st Combat Service Support Battalion (1 CSSB) – deployed to the Cultana Training Area in the desert of South Australia to participate in Exercise Hamel 2016. This annual exercise is conducted by the Australian Army to ‘certify’ the combat formation prior to it being declared ‘ready’ for operations. 1 CSSB, being the organic CSS battalion of the formation, was also being tested for its readiness to deploy. Although the unit was expected to meet different criteria before being declared ‘ready’, it was my opportunity to experiment and assess a variety of ways in which I could, within the constraints of the exercise, improve upon survivability of 1 CSSB.  Moreover, it was an opportunity to consider ways in which a large, formation-level logistic unit, could sustain operations in a contemporary, albeit simulated, environment.

This article describes the methods I undertook to improve the battlefield survivability of 1 CSSB during Exercise Hamel 2016, and the consequences of these attempts. There were many exercise limitations that influenced my assessments, meaning that the observations I describe here are not exhaustive. However, I offer this example to describe my own opinion and experience, and to promote further discussion.

Hamel - CLP
Deploying the battalion within Cultana Training Area, South Australia. Personal photo.

The philosophy for the training of the battalion before the exercise could be summarized as ‘survive first, sustain later’. However, it was a philosophy that I also applied to the force structure and disposition of the battalion during the exercise. After assessing the capability and intent of the enemy, it was assessed that the greatest threat to the unit’s overall survivability would be posed by indirect and aerial delivery weapons. Reducing the risk associated with this threat drove force posture, encouraging me to disperse my battalion by allocating forces forward. This approach was taken because the geography of Cultana Training Area was relatively small and sparsely vegetated; I had no opportunity to ‘hide’ the battalion. Furthermore, as a formation logistic unit sustaining front-line forces, my unit was well in range of expected enemy artillery. This meant that the unit was detectable and targetable by everything on the battlefield. In the end, survivability had more to do with risk management than any other factor.

Mobility and dispersion are key for logistic assets to survive on a battlefield where you cannot hide.  Geography favored the enemy in this case as the terrain offered little concealment. Noting the unit’s signature and the ability of deep strike weapons and mobile artillery to close ground quicker than a CSSB can redeploy; smaller, more mobile, dispersed logistics nodes were created. Notice to move was reduced as much as possible, with my subordinate commanders needing to be prepared for short-notice movements to avoid threats. Extra resources were allocated, from the transportation elements I would normally hold within the main battalion position, if this could not be achieved.

In the end three smaller, mobile, CSS Teams (CSSTs) had been formed to support the  three different battlegroups of the brigade. This is not an unusual practice as a CSSB always deployed a component of its capability forward to support combat forces more directly. However, the traditionally larger Brigade Maintenance Area (BMA)[1] position was dispersed and diluted amongst these CSST’s as much as possible. I believed that this still left the position too large, and a vulnerable target to the adversary. I never sought to reintegrate the forward CSST’s into my main battalion position for fear of exacerbating the problem and making the BMA even larger. This approach allowed for a loss of one of three logistic elements without critical impact on capability of the combat brigade. If either a CSST or the BMA were destroyed, the combat brigade could still be sustained for at least two to three days, meaning there would be opportunity to reallocate logistic elements.

 

BMA - 1 Bde
The Brigade Maintenance Area (BMA). Photo by 1 Combat Brigade, Australian Army

Observations

 

The dispersal of logistic forces forward was effectively achieved. However, new problems had started to emerge; problems that should not be surprising to any logistic commander. The primary weakness of smaller, dispersed forces that I saw on exercise is that they became more vulnerable to direct attack and infiltration. Troop concentrations within the logistic element are reduced, and defensive weapons – typically in small numbers within a CSSB – were spread thinly. I was fortunate that extra weapon systems were reallocated across the brigade to overcome deficiencies, but the unit was still caught short on a number of instances. It was particularly vulnerable to direct attacks by enemy cavalry who could exploit the defensive ‘gaps’ created by dispersal. This led me to believe that for dispersion to work effectively, each logistic element had to be well-resourced with equipment (especially weapons), communications and transportation capabilities to enable movement from the outset.

Although dispersal introduced its own vulnerabilities, there was no mission failed by a battlegroup or the brigade because of a failure in its sustainment. On the contrary, the dispersion of the battalion enhanced the responsiveness of the formations logistic system because the lines of communication were usually short.  Similarly, as robust teams were force-assigned to battlegroups, the combat forces were well resourced to be able to complete their assigned missions and tasks. My decision to focus on allocating forces to the battlegroups, however, meant that it was particularly difficult to concentrate my battalion’s capabilities for specific brigade level tasks. I suspect that this might have become a significant problem for the combat brigade had the notional operation continued longer than it did, or if the brigade had conduct major combat maneuvers.

I found that the success of a dispersed, mobile model hinges on foresight and responsiveness. Foresight naturally drives the responsiveness. It requiring logisticians to understand the how the combat force might maneuver and have the administrative proficiency to determine what their requirements might be Furthermore, foresight is greatly enhanced by effective communication within the formation. This includes routine reports and returns and also direct liaison with combat elements and other logistic units. Similarly, where communications are of a poor standard the ability to apply foresight becomes limited; in some instances, I had to overcompensate when assigning logistic elements to battlegroups because it was extremely difficult to predict their exact requirements. TThe high pace at which combat battlegroups reorganised during the exercise led to erratic sustainment requirements, and negatively influenced the CSSB’s capacity to apply foresight.

HAMEL - clp 2
Observing the movement of logistic forces. Personal photo.

Foresight and responsiveness are at their heart command and control issues, and are improved by measures all military logisticians should be familiar with.  Although the application of ‘mission command’ led to good outcomes, simple things such as accuracy in reports and returns, staff ‘battle-tracking,’ monitoring of the maneuver of other units within the brigade, routine communication and planning, as well as effective liaison between units within the combat brigade make a bigger difference. Control measures were especially important when the brigade maneuvered rapidly, with logistic forces dispersing across the battlefield. This includes control of routes and locations, ensuring that all logistic elements weren’t moving at the same time, and enforcing greater input from Brigade to better understand friendly force movements. In the long term, new technologies and improved ‘battlefield operating pictures’ may improve the situation. Although I may have left Exercise Hamel 2016 with the view that dispersing logistic elements in an area of operations without compromising operations was challenging, the application of relatively simple tactics, techniques and procedures did much to overcome problems.

Logistic units, particularly at the formation level, shouldn’t expect to be operating as a massed capability kept well out of range of enemy threats, especially artillery. I think that is now, and probably always has been, an impossibility on the battlefield. Instead, logistic personnel must learn to operate in an area of considerable threat, and they must be prepared to take acceptable risks to ensure battlefield survivability. This should continue to be a major focus of unit and formation level collective training exercises. Smaller, disaggregated, mobile logistic forces reduce detection signatures and lessen the payoff associated with targeting larger logistic positions, bases and ‘nodes’. I am glad that I was given an opportunity to experiment with ideas that have been discussed among logisticians in my Army for many years, and to challenge doctrine and procedures that applied rigidly. This opportunity created considerable challenges for my logistic battalion, but the lessons learned were useful. With ongoing refinement, and further investment in terms of collective training activities, I think logisticians will be well on the path to finding effective ways to survive in the forward areas of the contemporary battlefield.

[1] The Brigade Maintenance Area is the ground on which the concentrated assets of the unit occupies. It is rearward positioned, and the primary logistic ‘node’ for the combat brigade.

Mark Baldock is a serving Australian Army officer, and commanded the 1st Combat Service Support Battalion over the period 2015-2016. The thoughts here are his own, and are offered to stimulate conversation and debate.

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10 thoughts on “Survive first, sustain later: exercising dispersed logistics in the close fight”

  1. Mark

    Great post. We have been trialling exactly the same concepts and procedures that you discuss here in the UK, in readiness for our impending deployment to Canada (BATUS). We have thus far experienced some of the tribulations that you describe but, like you, I am confident that it is worthwhile. I’d be curious to know (on average) what the dispersal distances between your elements usually were. We still require them returning to the ‘hub’ of the Brigade Logistic Rendezvous Point to inload stores and our consideration is ‘how far (dispersed) is too far’? I’m sure BATUS will provide the answer!

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    1. Matt
      I am glad you are looking into these techniques as I feel that it is the way we are being pushed due to tactics being employed by near peer (and superior) states. The distances between my sub units was restricted to a very small training area (by Australian standards). At most no further away than approx 30km, which can still take a lot of time ( few hours) to transit under tactical movement conditions. Good luck and I am keen to hear how you go!

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  2. Mark, this is an interesting and thought-provoking article. To my simple mind this sounds like, and I apologise for using British Army terminology, you assigned Immediate Replenishment Groups (IRGs) to the Battlegroup’s echelons. This is something our doctrine allows for, and is often what our combat arms ask for as it gives them a warm cosy feeling to have the extra CSups and logistic lift ‘under their control’. Can I ask, did you retain OPCOM of the CSSTs or were they made OPCON to the affiliated battlegroups? It is something we resist strongly, unless for a very limited and finite period of time/mission. This is because, as you might expect, demand from our dependencies usually exceeds capability and, to allow us to maintain the flexibility and agility to meet unexpected needs, or even just to synchronise support and gain the maximum efficiency from our limited assets, it is more appropriate for the CSS commander to retain C2. This doesn’t detract from the valuable points you make about dispersal of a larger number of smaller nodes though. The ‘elephant in the room’ to me seems to be with regards to what we do about the set up/tear down and productivity of Equipment Support (ES) capabilities. Whilst repair forward should always be the aim, we will always come to a level of repair that is better served in terms of productivity by being moved as infrequently as possible (ie a facility that needs 24 hours to set up before it can start repairing and takes 12 hours to close down is ineffective if moved every 48 hours). I would also be interested to know what you did with your medevac nodes and Fwd Surgical/Damage Control surgery assets.

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  3. Andy
    Thanks for the comment. My mobile sub units remained OPCOMD me and were allocated TACON to the manoeuvre units. This allowed the manoeuvre commander to tactically move them and assign tasks. They did not have authority to assign missions or to split them (although they tried!) At any stage The CSS sub units could be recalled to reinforce other areas. With regards to capacity, we critically managed bulk water, recovery and troop lift assets (especially rearward conducting battlefield clearance). I agree with the maintenance challenges and achieving a balance between mobile forward repair teams and a larger repair group, but the latter was maintained on wheels so was quick to tear down and set up. The capabilities I had that took longer to establish were the Brigade Health Support Platoon, Detainee processing and holding facility, kitchen and signals units. To give them more time to set up without having to minimise movement, I always occupied a new position at night ( obvious restrictions of light and noise discipline) and prioritised unit assets in support. At times during a move, a precondition for a manoeuvre unit action was the confirmation that health and detainee facilities were set. Once I gave the order, the main position ( the BMA) could draw down and move within approx 8 hours and would be fully operational within 12 hours of occupying. Good luck and I am keen to hear how you go!

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  4. Mark,
    Very good article, lots of parallels with UK exercises and deployments and I really like the philosophy of ‘survive first, sustain later’. I have a few questions if you don’t mind?
    As part of the survivability were any deception measures employed?
    I am interested to understand if you deployed with Logistic Information Systems (Log IS) during your exercise and what if any problems you encountered? During similar exercises in BATUS, the CSS elements deploy with a full suite of Log IS.
    Did you deploy with the capability to account and provision for materiel and combat supplies?
    Did you a have consignment tracking capability to support the Log RV?
    Do you deploy with any engineering Log IS?
    Did you have any connectivity problems?
    How far forward do you push your Log IS?
    How do you manage the employment of Emission Control Measures (EMCON)? What reviosionary methods do you employ?

    All the very best.

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  5. Mark,
    Very good article, lots of parallels with UK exercises and deployments and I really like the philosophy of ‘survive first, sustain later’. I have a few questions if you don’t mind?
    As part of the survivability were any deception measures employed?
    I am interested to understand if you deployed with Logistic Information Systems (Log IS) during your exercise and what if any problems you encountered? During similar exercises in BATUS, the CSS elements deploy with a full suite of Log IS.
    Did you deploy with the capability to account and provision for materiel and combat supplies?
    Did you a have consignment tracking capability to support the Log RV?
    Do you deploy with any engineering Log IS?
    Did you have any connectivity problems?
    How far forward do you push your Log IS?
    How do you manage the employment of Emission Control Measures (EMCON)? What revisionary methods do you employ?

    All the very best.

    Like

  6. Interestingly on 4 May 17, the US Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, warned “that wars of the future may look much different. Consolidated bases and logistics hubs will be untenable, presenting lucrative targets for an enemy with precision firepower.” He noted we must “untether ourselves from this umbilical cord of logistics and supply that American forces have enjoyed for a very lengthy period of time.” Army units will have to move, set up, move, and move again — “maybe every two, three, four hours just to survive. Fixed sites of any kind will be lethal magnets for destruction by enemies who will have a rich diet of targeting information.”

    As he bluntly stated, “If you’re stationary, you’ll die.” This strongly aligns and supports your “susvive first, sustain later” philosophy.

    Milley’s message, “Think Iwo Jima, not the boardwalk stores at Kandahar airfield. Be prepared for thousands, not dozens, of casualties. Make austerity a virtue, and prepare to win under the worst imaginable conditions.”

    Reference:
    Three things the Army Chief of Staff wants you to know
    David Barno and Nora Bensahelmay
    23 May 17
    https://warontherocks.com/2017/05/three-things-the-army-chief-of-staff-wants-you-to-know/

    Like

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