Sustaining ‘Multi-Domain Battle’: Part Two – combat and modular logistic forces

By David Beaumont.

Success in war has always demanded forces that are adaptable, and sustaining the type of operations being considered under the rubric of Multi-Domain Battle will require no different. Most logisticians will be well-familiar with the idea of ‘modularisation’ as a way in which logistic forces can be organised with adaption in mind. It has been a central feature of the readiness processes of forces for years, where force structures are optimised so that components can be kept on varied ‘notices to move’. For example, the Australian Army rotates its three regular combat brigades and ‘modules’ of different support capabilities through phases of ‘ready’, ‘readying’ and ‘reset’ (analogous to reconstitution from a period of heightened readiness). This ensures enables operational planners have a selection of basic building bricks of capability  available that can be chosen to suit a routine operation, or a discrete contingency. However, there is a considerable difference between modularity in preparations for war, and modularity when conducting it. This post will explore the idea of modularity in the context of the latter; as it applies to force design, and as a method to overcome some of the challenges imposed in sustaining Multi-Domain Battle.

Logistics is contextual, and this means the appropriate tactical logistic force structure is always determined by a combination of distance, dependency, duration and demand. This nature of logistics has always given validity to the idea of modularity, as much as logisticians might find purpose-built echelons, with predictable sustainment requirements, convenient. As Mark Baldock recently described, a modular approach to tactical logistics saw him establish Combat Service Support Teams (CSST’s) to sustain different battlegroups for different tasks. Mark’s experiences are, in general, analogous to the way in which modular logistics has been employed for many years, by different militaries. It is an approach which requires the identification of a ‘capability brick’ which represent an irreducible minimum of a particular logistic resource, with multiple ‘bricks’ and command and control elements being allocated to suit a particular task. This approach reflects what is applied elsewhere. Tactics including ‘combined arms’ and joint warfare, both of which combine constituent capabilities to enhance battlefield effects, show that this approach to warfare has a fine heritage.

Modularity and the importance of adaptable logistic elements will become more relevant to logisticians in the future if one takes a survey of developing concepts, or views several predictions as to the character of future wars as certainty.  In a recent online article for the US Army’s Military Review,  Commanding General US Army Pacific (CG USARPAC) Gen. Robert Brown describes Multi-Domain Battle as not only requiring the integration of joint capabilities but outlines a vignette in which a Task Force of different capabilities forms a self-sustaining, independent, force. The idea of a task force is not new and as described above, the practice of grouping various modular elements to suit different tasks is routine practice in Western militaries. It would seem that under Multi-Domain Battle, and with ideas such as the USMC’s hybrid logistics (an expansion of expeditionary logistics  which integrates proposed technologies with concepts), or those contained within the Australian Army’s recent concept paper on operations within ‘the modern way of war’ that organisational adaptability will be a battlefield requirement. Indeed, Brown’s article notes specifically that the Multi-Domain Battle concept can be applied differently according to geography and which force might be employing it.

Sust MDP - Inchon landing - US Army
Inchon landings, Korean War, 1950; US Army archival footage

Groupings may ultimately differ for Multi-Domain Battle comprising urban combat, littoral manoeuvre or desert warfare; there is an infinite number of possibilities in war that lead to different conclusions when it comes to force structure for operations. Some militaries might be able to design purpose-built forces to partially account for this variation, but that luxury is not often possible for smaller land forces with less scope for specialisation. For logisticians, this means that no one logistic model can be applied to different situations (as much as logisticians would like it to be so), and the logistic force structures we have in peace-time must be adaptable to operations. As land forces intend  to operate with greater dispersion, particularly in environments where geography divides forces from one another or threat requires forces to avoid detection and precision fires, logisticians must find ways in which their forces can be sustained by combat service support capability bricks spread throughout the battlespace. We are now finding the limits to dispersion as specialised forms of logistic capability, such as the presence of medical elements or even key distribution platforms such as individual fuel trucks or recovery vehicles, now determine the limits through which such dispersion can be realistically achieved.

Such issues bring us to with one of the perennial problems for military logistics. History shows us that logisticians are often required to compromise between a need for decentralisation and dispersal of capabilities, and the need to have a capacity to ‘mass’ logistic capabilities that are few in number, or simply best employed in such a way, for best effect. As most land forces have done in the past we can plan logistic force structures on attending to this dichotomy. If we apply the lessons contained within Huston’s opus Sinews of War, Army logistics, 1775-1953, we would centralise the control of transportation and mass-sustainment effects, and decentralise control of small-volume, localised activity such as health care. We would ensure we had a responsive logistic management system, enabling logistic forces to provide the greatest possible effect at a decisive point on a battlefield or in the area of operations when they are required. Those functions central to immediate tactical flexibility, or for those day-to-day tasks, should be available to subordinate commanders and echelons structured accordingly. We would try to balance the structure to avoid rigidity through over-centralisation, while limiting dispersal so to prevent the inefficient use of critical logistic resources; but because logistic forces will be inherently modular, knowing that commanders can always reallocate forces from one point to another as required.

This approach requires the limitation of integral support capacity of a unit to that which is absolutely essential, with the allocation of sufficient capability bricks to support a particular task or mission occurring later. In describing ‘modular manoeuvre unit support’ as it was applied in the US Army, the RAND Corporation saw that ‘capability bricks’ would be provided through ‘reach’ and ‘phased in’ as the operation evolves. This was seen as important because it kept forward units lean, in turn enabling rapid deployment or combat manoeuvre. In terms of Multi-Domain Battle, this eliminates the need for a larger logistic footprint in areas where it will be especially vulnerable. Supporting logistic force elements held rearward will then be in a much better position to allocate capability bricks, in accordance with the commanders priorities, to those areas and units requiring the greatest efforts. This very idea was applied in the Australian Army’s recent review into its logistics, and has supported a change of focus from a tactical culture based upon fighting individual battalions to one emphasising formation-level operations. I suspect a similar philosophy might also be implemented by the British Army with respect to the sustainment of Strike Brigades, and in the current logistic review being undertaken by the Canadian Army.

East Timor
Operation Warden, Day 2, beach landing at Oecussi, September 1999; Photo by ADF

Technology, and in particular C4ISR capabilities[1], will significantly enhance the ability to employ modularised logistic forces even if we apply it in the context of current doctrinal methods and practices. With a commander’s decision making supported by a tremendous evolution in ISR, and digital communications enabling the rapid flow of information within formations and to elsewhere, the ability of formations to adapt their forces structure to suit operational changes has been enhanced considerably. These very systems are essential to the control of dispersed combat forces, but also form the backbone of battlefield distribution and potentially in enabling the ‘massing’ of logistic capabilities. Will these technologies overcome the insufficient numbers of logistic elements that normally characterise austere operations, as all operations in contested environments tend to be? The answer is a resounding no. Logistic and battlefield common-operating pictures will greatly enhance the commander’s ability to redirect logistic effort to where it is required, but they cannot overcome the physical limitations of the force. In this respect, land forces are looking to other technologies such as additive manufacturing, new sources of power generation, or different forms of distribution including increased use of airdrop or logistic-oriented drones to support existing tactical techniques and doctrine.

However, there are grounds to challenge some of the assumptions we make when considering modularity and how it is best employed. As described above, there is a great deal of complexity in this approach beyond the over-simplified view of centralising modular logistics elements at the rear, and fragmenting and dispersing logistic capability bricks forward. Such approaches apply a very traditional form of logistics, breaking a force into sequential components that naturally fit within a layered echelon system, or ‘lines’ of support, from unit to brigade to joint task. It may be completely impractical to apply this model in an environment where geography or detection and destruction prevents massed logistic capabilities from being easily switched from one area or force to another. However, it may be equally impractical to enhance the capabilities of forward echelons, even though it may be tempting to form logistic echelons robust enough to enable task forces to operate independently as per General Brown’s article.  If this trap is fallen into, land forces might find the need to spread modularised logistic capabilities across a battlefield to support the dispersion of combat forces actually requires the deployment of more of them to the theatre, increasing the force’s logistic tail in the process.

Ammunition Supply lines - WW1
Supplying ammunition to a WW1 Infantry Division

Furthermore, the tactical requirements of deploying into a highly-contested environment – into combat – are likely to challenge the ideas of what a modularised force might look like. The need to fight into an area of operations, and to sustain a force for an extended time during which it might be cut-off from supply-chains and logistic support, could mean that the practice of neatly dividing modular forces into discrete combat, combat support or combat service support echelons becomes limiting. Forces deploying into such environments must be packaged in a manner that integrates combat and logistic elements from the outset to prevent force projection from turning into a complicated mess, or at least less so than is typical of deployments. Forget a systematic process of reception, staging, onforward and integration in this environment, a process land forces are now accustomed to due to recent operational experiences. The need to integrate components of a force into ‘combat packages’ biases force modularity by function or effect, rather than by any particular technical proficiency, trade or specialisation.

Land forces appear to be moving in this direction, a logical extension of existing doctrine, with flexibility in force structure filtering into the concepts associated with Multi-Domain Battle. It is certainly a view that is being examined in the context of bases and staging forces, as shown by the CBSA with respect to USMC ‘Expeditionary Advanced Base’ operations in environments threatened by precision weapons. However, modularity could go further and challenge existing technical divides. For example, a future distribution capability brick might include armoured fighting vehicles, ground-based air defence and maybe integral ISR and access to fires capabilities. Similarly, basic combat teams optimised for independent operations might require their own solutions that ensures sustainment but doesn’t inhibit their manoeuvrability but gives them greater access to the logistic system. It will be less important for these ‘force packages’ to have their own integral support capabilities than it will be for them to successfully identify and access sources of sustainment from whomever might hold them in the joint force.  Multi-functional personnel will be required in this environment, where austerity and competition for resources will be the norm and a capacity to reinforce elements is significantly degraded.

These ideas are food for thought, obvious to some and not so to others, and there are real and self-imposed reasons as to why present versions of modularity may not change. Martin Van Creveld in Supplying War notes armies rarely get force structure before war right, and designing adaptable forces and logistic capabilities through modularity may never entirely deliver what it promises. Yet operations in the contested environments envisioned in Multi-Domain Battle are likely to demand a greater unity of effort between all of the ‘arms’ of land forces. We can look at this as a force design and conceptual problem, a training requirement, or we can leave it to deployed commanders to adjust the forces that are available, enhanced by better technology and training in the future, once they deploy. After all, a forces sustainment requirements are only ever known with some certainty (and I use the term ‘certainty’ loosely) once ‘boots are on the ground’. Although a combination of force design, training and command judgement is always required, all land forces, whichever military they belong to, need to apply intellectual rigour to confirm what the balance between the three must be. Either way, one thing is clear. The relationship between combat forces and their ‘sustainers’ must be closer than it ever has been, and the trinity of trust, logistic discipline and an acceptance of risk will continue to be vital for combat success.

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

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[1] Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

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