Calculations and the loss of logistics

By David Beaumont.

Recently the US Army introduced an internet site reinvigorating the idea of the ‘extended battlefield’ as envisioned by TRADOC in the last decade of the Cold War. In reading General Starry’s 1981 Military Review article on offer at the site, conspicuously linked to the ‘Multi-Domain Battle’ concept, the description of ‘deep attack’ conjures images of wanton destruction being wrought on logistic echelons and reserve combat formations on both sides of the battlefield. Armies are quite aware that logistic echelons are a vulnerability any enemy will seek to target, so they posit how best to structure their forces to withstand the inevitable loss of support encountered early in battle. It is a virtual certainty that such thoughts are going through the minds of those land forces readying themselves for ‘Multi-Domain Battle’ against peer threats.

It is likely beyond the capacity of most force designers to determine, with any accuracy, how much damage a logistic system might endure before it collapses. Nor does it appear that they have had much luck at predicting how long a force can fight as its capacity to sustain itself is whittled away by the enemy’s firepower. One way is to approach the idea from the basis of a general theory, where ideas such as the ‘logistic vacuum’ have use. Unfortunately, few theories come with metrics to measure consequence. Instead, when metrics are used in force design, it is far more common for logisticians and others to employ some form of a logistic calculator to conclude a basic requirement to sustain a force, usually to support a force design objective, without going into a deeper analysis of how an envisage sustainment system might support combat operations. Such modelling occurs in experimentation, but probably too infrequently to really influence doctrine and concepts.

One such attempt to predict the effects of a degradation in sustainment capacity was outlined in a February post on ‘The Dupuy Institute’s’ blog, Mystics and Statistics. In this post, Shawn Woodford responded to a question regarding logistics and whether there was a quantifiable relationship to combat effectiveness. He refers to the work of Trevor Dupuy, who as part of a wider team, examined the operational performance of the German Army in defence of Rome in 1944. In assessing the impact of air interdiction on supply routes and logistic ‘nodes’, Dupuy began his study with an historically based assumption that armies could generally operate effectively with supply reduced to 65% of normal, expected, requirements. Beyond this point combat power would reduce proportional to the percentage of lost (i.e., and as Shawn describes, ‘a 60% supply rate would impose a 5% decline, represented as a combat effectiveness multiplier of .95’). Based upon this relationship, you could extrapolate that a force would be 35% effective without access to any resupply. Alternatively, you might look at this statistic and conclude that a commander could push a force to the point 35% of its sustainment requirements were not being met with no effect to the combat power available.

Shawn Woodford notes that Dupuy caveats his study by stating that the statistics only applied to the situation in question. Presumably, the ability for a force to tolerate logistic austerity is based upon physical, geographical or other tangible logistic factors that comprise its combat power. For example, a mechanised or motorised force will require greater surety of supply than a lighter unit to operate, meaning it will probably lose its combat power with a higher rate of supply than 65%. Forces operating sophisticated equipment such as combat aviation and computing, dependent on parts or ammunition in limited supply, might have combat effectiveness degraded even sooner. In contrast, the availability of distribution capabilities, sufficient supply chain ‘velocity’, routes and systems which enable greater opportunity for austere conditions to be relieved may mean a loss of combat power is experienced at a lower supply rate. A logistic system with in-built redundancies which allow a level of sustainment to be maintained as losses due to combat are endured could also better maintain combat power. However, there are other non-physical factors to combat effectiveness which prove difficult to quantify, if they can be at all.

We expect our military commanders to have a sense of how far operations can proceed with or without adequate logistic support. It is probably true that a proportion of the influences which maintain combat power in the face of supply uncertainty are matters a commander is best judging upon; the personal qualities that comprise the individuals of the fighting force, and their collective proficiency. A force with high morale, well-trained and experienced with some assurance that resupply will occur soon after a period of deep austerity is likely to perform much better than others whatever the circumstances as compared to a force with opposite characteristics. The individual resilience and capacity of soldiers, airmen and sailors to endure hardship is equally important to maintaining combat power when sustainment falters; we currently find many militaries investing considerable attention pursuing ‘resilience’ strategies in this context. Forces fighting for their lives or homelands might also be able to tolerate greater austerity, or those ready to capitulate less.

As mentioned above, few operational analysts such would ever offer their assessments of a force’s ability to remain viable in combat without providing caveats to their advice. It would have been impossible for Dupuy to predict every possible factor influencing his base assumptions about combat effectiveness, nor did he want to try to in his work. Ultimately it came down to understanding history and the experience of others to make an approximation that provided a good start to subsequent calculations. With such knowledge in mind, I think it is good time that logisticians challenge the assumptions which lie behind their predictions of how a future logistic system might work given potential combat scenarios and the use of future technologies among other factors.  At the very least it is vital to examine logistics from the point that all is not going well, rather than simply using a calculator to determine a basic usage rate for a force. Experimentation, exercising and research will be the most important means to this end.

The discussion here might be interesting information rather than anything which serves an explicitly practical, even useful, purpose. The post suggests that logisticians must have a good sense of how to model problems, but at the same time it counteracts such a view by highlighting significant risks when using analysis to plan for the future. However, despite methodological challenges, it is sensible to apply logistic science to the problems we are likely to encounter in the wars of the future. Hunches and guesswork from logisticians who have only experienced counter-insurgency or stabilisation operations won’t cut it if the threats imagined require ‘Multi-Domain Battle’ to be enacted as an operational concept. Many now believe coalition armed forces have – in general – forgotten that supply is not always assured as a consequence of recent wars. This hole in knowledge should be overcome, concepts developed and forces designed which account for the loss of sustainment capability while militaries have the opportunity.

With this talk of logistic science, it is worthwhile taking a step back into theory to find a warning. An erudite Prussian once cautioned those who might want to take logistic science that little bit too far, or with the aim of trying to do the same with less:

Ability to endure privation is one of the soldier’s finest qualities; without it an army cannot be filled with genuine military spirit. But privation must be temporary; it must be imposed by circumstances and not by an inefficient system or a niggardly abstract calculation of the smallest ration that will keep a man alive. In the latter case it is bound to sap the physical and moral strength of every man.[i]

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.

 Don’t forget that Logistics In War’s ‘Future Logistician’ series will be launched in early May, and is seeking submissions from military, academic and industry contributors by 30 April 2017. For full details, please read this post. Have a great Easter, and watch out for a new post in two weeks.

[i] C. Clausewitz, On War, translated by M. Howard and P. Paret, Princeton University Press, USA, 1989, p. 331.

2 thoughts on “Calculations and the loss of logistics

  1. David,

    One of Eisenhower’s favorite aphorisms was “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” In looking at the possible battlefield environment of the future, it seems self-evident that sustainment will be a critical factor both in enabling successful combat, but also in delimiting the boundaries of acceptable risk. Developing better tools for assessing these factors can never hurt. We also need to do a lot more research to better understand the relationship between sustainment and combat effectiveness.

    On a related note, have you looked at the sustainment model in Doug MacGregor’s proposed Reconnaissance Strike Group? It is a departure from current U.S. Army practice and appears tailored for future extended battlefields and Multi-Domain Battle. Briefing here:

    Great post. Thank you for the mention!




    1. Hi Shawn,

      Thanks for the comments. I think you are on the money in describing this as a problem of risk awareness / management. It has long been a topic included in Australian Army logistic doctrine, but I think we have way to go when it comes to describing logistics in terms of risks. Not all of us can be systems analysts and present the science adequately – thus we tend towards experience-based observations!

      I haven’t read the link, but will do over the next few days. I understand there is a good deal of controversy concerning the proposal.

      All the best – Dave B


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