Thinking small – the importance of small-team logistic operations

By Steven Mencshelyi

Orchestrating the efforts of small combat elements operating in tactical environments which require dispersal and disaggregation is difficult. It’s probably going to get even more difficult to orchestrate combat elements, and maintain tempo, when we start considering urban combat and fighting in environments that naturally separate forces from one another. Logisticians need to start thinking about this challenge as it applies to future operations. In the Australian Army, logisticians supporting formations (combat brigades) generally think about company sized teams when they talk about purpose-specific forces. However, I believe that to sustain the combat brigade in the future, logisticians need to become better practiced – or at least think about – sustaining small.

In order to win the land battle, orchestration and tempo have always been essential tenets for combat arms offers and logisticians to remember. The Australian Army’s Land Warfare Doctrine LWD 3.0 Operations defines orchestration as ‘the arrangement of physical and non-physical actions to ensure their contribution is unified within a single mission’.  Through orchestration, tactical actions are focused to ‘create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation that shatters an enemy’s cohesion … and will to fight’. LWD 3.0 nests tempo as a key tenet of orchestration; when ‘war is a competition for time and space’ the ability to maintain a higher tempo allows us to exploit friction, achieve surprise, seize the initiative and maintain speed.  Orchestration requires a well-developed and executed plan, orders and control measures.  However, tempo also requires agile and responsive logistics that can effectively support at the combat team level.

In practice, commanders and their staff plan for activity ‘two-down’. For a combat brigade this means a focus upon orchestrating the efforts of combat teams that are usually allocated to a battlegroup. A brigade can only generate so many combat teams based on its company or squadron level headquarters elements. Within the battlegroups, commanding officers group armoured troops, infantry platoons and other capabilities together. A range of additional enablers are often attached to these combat teams at different times for a specific task and purpose. These groupings are never templated, but usually reflect teams established and practiced during training prior to battle. From this mix of combat teams the brigade commander establishes battlegroups, based around a battalion or regimental headquarters.

Exercise Hamel 2016
Echelon replenishment during Australian Army Ex Hamel 2016, 1 Armoured Cavalry Regiment, Photo by Australian Army

After a recent review into its logistics, the Australian Army now concentrates much of its sustainment capability at the formation level with battalions and regiments possessing small integral echelons. Logistic capability is allocated to battlegroups to support tasks in a similar way as combat forces when they are assigned to combat teams and battlegroups.  There are two ways in which this allocation occurs as defined by duration, distance and threat. In the first, combat service support (CSS) capability is allocated for a set time or battle phasing. Alternatively, the brigade headquarters provides coordination and sets control measures which allow CSS capability bricks to independently navigate the battlefield to allow the sustainment of forward combat teams. As Mark Baldock recounts, 1 CSSB tested some of these concepts with dispersed company sized CSST’s during Hamel 2016.

As I write above, it is my opinion that this modularity could be taken further with logistic teams of platoon size the basis for CSS ‘capability bricks’ within a combat formation. This means that a CSS battalion commander like his peers from combat units would need to generate small and capable platoon-sized ‘replenishment teams’ which include:

  • proficient distribution teams, transports sections, and transport troops that can group and regroup to achieve the distribution effect across the battle space.
  • technically qualified and proficient forward repair teams and forward repair groups to maintain and repair brigade equipment across the battle space.
  • bulk fuel section, ammo sections, and warehouse platoons capable of defending, holding and preparing combat commodities for distribution.
  • logistic command teams that can command and employ any capability brick allocated to it.

Replenishment teams could operate in direct support to combat teams. To achieve this level of dispersal in a formations logistic capability would be difficult for reasons of control, but technology could assist future logistic commanders.   In the near future, enabled by a range of new platforms, replenishment teams should possess the ability to communicate, provide their own protection to some extent and have sufficient situational awareness to navigate a complex battle space, and most importantly, protection and weaponry stay alive.

As a CSS commander at any level, it is a sobering thought to realise you command a high value target and a physical vulnerability of the formation. This is especially the case if logistic capabilities are centralised and made static in large positions. There are ways to mitigate this risk, but it has been my experience and belief that dispersed, but mutually-supporting platoon-sized CSS capabilities, is the best way for sustainment to be assured without tempting an enemy with a large logistic target. Moving in small packets, below detection thresholds if possible, and responding with overwhelming firepower if required should become the norm for logistic elements. In applying this concept, losing a replenishment team to enemy action will pose a significant problem for the combat team being sustained. However, considered in the context of a non-dispersed formation, such a loss would seem minor in comparison to losing either a company-level CSST or the Brigade Maintenance Area or Support Group.

US Army_Bakhaira Iraq liberate Mosul_CJTF Op Inherent resolve
Recent US Army operations in Bakhaira, Iraq during the recent liberation of Mosul, Photo by US Army

How can the formation staff orchestrate this concept and give the brigade its tempo? It won’t be an easy task. With a set number of Combat Teams and replenishment teams available to a brigade, coordination and control measures become central to their effective and efficient use.  ‘Road space’ must be managed efficiently as CSS elements will routinely move forwards and rearwards as the battle ebbs and flows. Intermixed in this movement, combat teams will leap frog in tactical bounds; requiring replenishment at various intervals. Further rearwards bulk commodity movements and distributed, and continually moving, ‘logistic nodes’ will very quickly stretch the ability to sustain tempo. Managing this complex battlespace will require the best out of the formation staff.

The ability to enable, sustain and maintain combat teams concurrently in any operational setting is the key to generating tempo and winning the land fight. This requires logisticians to ‘think smaller’ when considering the use of logistic capabilities. Future wars and operating environments, particularly in littoral or urban domains, will require logistic units to operate independently, and most likely in platoon-sized elements supporting combat teams in combat. Just as members of the combat arms need to develop new tactics, techniques and procedures to operate in a dispersed battlefield, so too will logisticians.  Transferring what was once a regimental echelon sustainment task to formation level logistic units will require them to develop a different mindset to generate capabilities that are suitably structured to interact directly with combat teams so to effectively sustain the brigade.

This requires more of logisticians who must understand the building blocks of the brigade and the mechanics of how combat teams move, fight and execute tactical tasks. This will enable them to better visualise and plan sustainment requirements.  Doctrine should guide them in developing such an understanding.  Undoubtedly seeing it, exercising it and simulating it will be lead to better outcomes; logisticians must practice the concept regularly in collective training. Furthermore, logistic commanders must trust junior logistic officers to command and fight logistics capabilities in the battle space. I believe this is something that logisticians have been reluctant to do in the past, and is a culture that must change.

Changing old approaches to logistics to focus upon small-team operations will, in my opinion, better prepare logistic for the requirement to be responsive and agile. Orchestrated effectively with the formations battle plan, small-team operations will better support the Brigades’ tempo and contribute to it winning the land fight.

Steven Mencshelyi is a serving Australian Army officer. He has served in staff and command appointments in Cavalry, Infantry and Tank Regiments, and as a Bde S4 and Log Battalion Executive Officer. The thoughts here are his own. He can be followed on Twitter @Munch1976.

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5 thoughts on “Thinking small – the importance of small-team logistic operations”

  1. […] Steven Menschelyi recently described in a great article how armies can manage combat service support units best if it sees them as they really are: a collection of mission-focused teams. As a CSS Bn Cdr, I came up with a management scheme to organize around small teams instead of platoons or companies. I described this method in a piece in Army Logistician — “CSS: A collection of teams” by Paparone, (May/Jun 2003): pp. 20-21. There were two charts (the first one is important) — but they will not show up in the following pasted text: […]

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  2. Steve, I couldn’t agree more with your concept. The difficulties of command, control and battlefield movement are surpassed by the improved responsiveness and redundancy that I feel contributes to overall survivability. In my writings on this topic, I didn’t mention how my sub unit commanders employed their troops. Each forward deployed CSST was further split to better effect sustainment and maintenance. Some were split into battlefield clearance vs replenishment teams and others were split into rapid response vs more deliberate moving capabilities. My sub unit commanders could provide more tactical insight into the pros and cons of their actions, but I was impressed by their innovation. Over to my CSST commanders or Operations Officer to provide further comment if they wish.

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  3. Battlefield clearance and replenishment will often occur simultaneously, but rarely in the same location. Splitting the CSST into these two task organised teams improved responsiveness and enhanced the effect provided to the supported element during high tempo periods such as a CT or BG attack. The main difficulty associated with having two independent teams was maintaining command and control with limited communications (battle tracking was a challenge).
    Steve, I fully agree with the final paragraph of your submission regarding the responsiveness and agility that small teams offer. It is my belief that the biggest challenge to achieving this is ensuring our CSS personnel are tactically proficient, physically robust and capable of both surviving and operating in a high threat environment.

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  4. I agree wholeheartedly with the need to task organise our CSS elements into smaller groupings in order to disperse risk, improve survivability and pose the enemy with dilemmas. The key, however, is in the command and control of the teams deliverying the logistic effect. Smaller groupings must not come at the expense of synchronisation, prioritisation and flexibility. Therefore grouping appropriately is only the first step. Coordinating the effect, retaining the flexibility (and willingness) to regroup to meet changing needs, and maintaining accurate visibility of tasks, capacity and stock holdings are all critical. Decentralised execution via dispersed teams can still be achieved with centralised control. For these reasons, a multi-nodal, adaptive disposition where finite, scarce and high value assets are centrally coordinated and controlled warrants consideration. Finally, we must not kid ourselves that dispersal is the panacea for protection. More targets may well pose the enemy with a dilemma, but unless we accept a degree of attrition (and build in sufficient redundancy to account for such) more CSS elements inevitably means a larger protection task.

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  5. […] This approach can be seen in the force design of Western armies which have typically centralised mass movement or technical activities, and decentralised those capabilities which operate at lesser volume as localised activity. An illustrative example of this logic is found in transportation where it is routinely applied: point-to-point and inter-theatre transportation is centralised at a higher level than local or intra-theatre transportation. This enables the concentration of logistic mass which, properly enabled by a responsive logistic management system, provides the greatest possible effect at a decisive point on a battlefield. Conversely those functions central to immediate tactical flexibility, or for those day-to-day tasks, remain available to subordinate commanders. The challenge with implementing this approach to logistics is that the massing of capability direct to the commander’s main effort presents an enticing target to an enemy with the means to detect and strike a preparing sustainment force. How we concentrate dispersed logistic forces, hoping to avoid detection and fire, to create sufficient logistic mass when it is required must be a hot topic amongst contemporary logisticians (see Survive First, Sustain Later and Thinking Small). […]

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