The ‘Headquarters Snowball’

By David Beaumont.

The scale of logistics and the size of headquarters are routinely considered alongside one another because of the belief that smaller headquarters and logistics forces means more combat troops and, more importantly, efficient processes. This can be seen at the organisational level; most militaries have experienced periods of reform where efficiency-seeking impacts the size and scale of organic logistic capabilities (usually strategic in focus) as well as that of headquarters. A modern Australian Defence Force (ADF) example of this is in practice can be seen the 1997 Defence Reform Program (DRP) which accelerated existing logistic outsourcing programs across Defence, and reduced the size of strategic headquarters (some ADF personnel or veterans may recall the ‘centurions’, a consequence of Service headquarters being limited to 100 personnel as an outcome of the DRP).

In recent years, and based on concerning observations from operations or exercise, many militaries have sought to change their logistics and headquarters footprints. A component of this relates to an arguably deleterious trend in which the proportion of both logistic and headquarters ‘forces’ have outgrown that of the combat arms in terms of the total force. John McGrath’s work with respect to the ‘tooth-to-tail ratio’ is an excellent read which examines this trend in detail.[1] To cite one of his examples: the 2005 US Army in Iraq comprised 36% logistics troops, 40% combat forces and 24% were HQ staff or administrators (McGrath, p 51). In terms of HQ size, this was a three-fold increase of what existed one hundred years before. We all know numbers don’t tell the whole story – to a great extent this trend can be accounted for the evolution of command and control and its technology over this time.

Even more recently the concern has migrated to the nature of tactical threats to logistics and headquarters elements in imagined future wars. As examined today in an article at the ‘Wavell Room’, and in a 2016 post at ‘Grounded Curiosity’ recirculated soon after, the size of tactical headquarters is described as a significant issue which demands an innovative response. A quick read of either piece confirms that logisticians and headquarters staff are looking at different aspects of largely the same problem relating to the way Western land forces fight, and the potential enemies that they may face.

Given the natural affiliation and similarities of the ‘logistics’ and ‘headquarters’ problem as described above, what lessons from logistic history and theory could apply with respect to the growing size of headquarters? Although headquarters size reflected the nature of technologies, functions and systems available to modern land forces, were there other lessons from logistics theory regarding efficiency which could be offered into the debate? One theory that sprang to mind was the idea of the ‘logistic snowball’.

I once again refer you to Logistics in the national defence by USN Rear Admiral Henry Eccles.[2] He has been recognised for a variety of theories and concepts, but the idea of the ‘logistic snowball’ is perhaps his most important. Eccles viewed that as a process, ‘logistic activities tend to grow to inordinate size like a snowball, that they tend to become rigid, and they tend to acquire a very real physical momentum’ (p103). In terms of the logistic process, and what he called ‘command control’ of it, Eccles referred to the criteria (p 102):

  1. The organisational structure of command and the impact of administration.
  2. The basic design of the logistic system.
  3. The way in which resources were prioritised or allocated.
  4. The sense of discipline across the force.

The snowball itself was a creation of the ever-increasing ratio of logistic support to sustain operations (i.e. a reflection of the logistic needs of modern warfare); a high standard of modern living (i.e. the expectations and basic requirements of the system), coupled with a general lack of discipline in the use of logistics; and the failure of commander and staff to understand the nature and implications of the snowball (p 104).

Poorly disciplined, mediocre quality and inefficient logistics personnel or capabilities are also factors contributing to the growth of a ‘snowball’. In each of these circumstances, it was seen that a greater number of personnel or capability would be required to achieve the ends desired; a more efficient, well-trained and equipped logistic element avoided a spiralling of force size. In the Second World War, Eccles saw that if initial logistic support proved inadequate, the tactical commanders would ‘naturally exert the greatest pressure to ask for more’ and would usually be obliged (p104). Another complication is described as the ‘under-planning-over-planning sequence’ (p108). This refers to the basic human tendency to begin with an extreme of austerity prior to an inevitable overcompensation. An initial desire to deploy lightly results in inadequacy, and to correct initial deficiencies, deployed forces tend to over-compensate accordingly. In other words, if a commander experiences a logistic organisation that is insufficient in quantity or quality, in successive operations they are likely to seek greater numbers as a compensator.

Imagine, for a moment, the process he was referring to the exertion of command over a force, and the size of a logistic force instead the scale of headquarters across a deployed force. The flow of information through a force is much like supply, progressing through nodes at which decisions are made or analysis occurs. If this process is inefficient, ill-designed, lacked appropriate control methods and there was little discipline applied to prioritising what was necessary or required, there would exist a tendency for these nodes (re headquarters) to grow just as in logistics supplies might build up, process ossify, etc.  If the characteristics of war have evolved so that this ‘commodity’, information, is required in ever-increasing volume you would expect that the risk of a ‘headquarters snowball’ would be also be commensurately greater. Furthermore, a commander’s experience in war might be such that a larger headquarters is required to assuage fears that the force has been denied intelligence, information or a capacity to communicate. Such factors give cause to the idea that there might be a ‘snowballing’ effect as relevant to understanding the nature of modern command and control as it is with respect to logistics.

Inefficiency is only one cause of an increasing size of headquarters in Western land forces. Nonetheless, there are lessons from logistics – a field which routinely responds to questions of efficiency and scale – which are worth studying in parallel. There is one more I would like to describe in closing. US Army General Carter Magruder from Recurring logistic problems as I have observed them commenced a chapter on the topic of ‘Logistics Troop Requirements’ by unequivocally arguing that ‘requirements usually are, and I believe should be, under attack’, however, ‘after a critical review has been made’ and the numbers justified, those troops should be considered as essential to the success of combat operations (p 25).[3] Just as we may look at the size of a headquarters as an impediment or a threat, it is important to understand why it needed to be that size in the first place. If we choose to do anything different, it may be that some vital function is lost – a function that cannot be replaced any other way.

[1] McGrath, J., The other end of the spear: the tooth-to-tail ratio (T3R) in modern military operations, The Long War Occasional Paper 23, Combat Studies Institute Press, US Army, USA, 2007

[2] Eccles, H., Logistics in the national defense, Stackpole Company, USA, 1959 republished online by USMC, FMFRP 12-14, USA, 1989

[3] Magruder, C. Gen (retd), Recurring logistics problems as I have observed them, Centre of Military History, US Army, USA, 1991

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