Learning and training to get it right – what environment are we preparing Army logisticians for?

By Michael Lane.

It has been said that origins of modern logistics were adopted from the military. This implies that at some point in time military logisticians were the leaders in logistics thinking and by extension logistics training. However, where the military were once logistics thought leaders it can be argued that this is no longer the case. Logistics training   and education seems trapped by outdated scenarios and concepts that prepare logisticians for major war, but not the operational environment they are most likely to face. So how do military logisticians regain the initiative in logistics thought, training and education in order to renew their relevance and set them up for success in the future battlespace and logistics environment?

In order to promote the future of military logistics thought, training and education it is necessary to understand the here and now. I write here with the perspective of an Australian Army logistician, and my comments will be contextualized by my own experiences. Equally, what I propose is shaped by the needs of the Australian Army although I believe the views hold relevance to a wider audience.

Formal training and education for Australian Army logisticians is essentially comprised of three professional development courses. These courses are the Logistics Officers Basic Course, the Intermediate Course and the Advanced Course.  Each course reflects the requirements of an Army logistician at relatively junior ranks; Lieutenant, Captain and Major respectively. These courses deliver the basic concepts of compartmentalized logistics theory i.e. supply, distribution and maintenance and the aggregation of those concepts as coordinated logistics activity expressed within a formation environment (brigade in the Australian Army’s case).

The flaw with this approach is that generally speaking, as a logistician moves through their training continuum they are exposed to increasing scales of what is inherently the same tactical problem. While this system allows the logistician to deliver scalable logistics solutions across the unit to formation spectrum in a conventional warfare environment, I believe that it does not promote the knowledge or skills required to prepare logisticians for the complex tactical environment of the future.  I therefore advocate an alternate scenario by which advanced logistics activities are taught, and concepts are developed.

Since the commencement of the 21st Century, there has been a paradigm shift in the type and nature of warfare. The last 17 years has demonstrated a move away from conventional warfare into asymmetrical warfare against an increasingly sophisticated and unidentifiable enemy in locations that do not support conventional approaches to military logistics. This was recently captured by Chris Paparone who questioned the way in which logistics, and its requirements, were considered. Combined with the complexity of emerging, unpredictable and asymmetrical battlespaces, militaries have increased ‘blue force’ complexity by emphasising the use of ‘imported’ contractors for logistic support – often to fill capability gaps, and to meet the need to conduct logistics in a way that achieves social development objectives and contributes to local economies. This is especially relevant to the type of operations a nation such as Australia might be expected to lead independent of others – a stabilisation operation. If strategic policy is a guide, there is good reason for Army to focus on these problems in its training of logisticians.

The future mapped in Australia’s most recent Defence White Paper (2016) gives good cause to take this approach. Concentrating upon the Indo-Pacific Strategic Area (IPSA) and given current world affairs, it confirms several reasons Army logisticians should prepare for stabilisation operations, humanitarian responses and other operations. It confirms what many international organisations such as the United Nations, the Global Policy Forum, the Council on Foreign Relations, the World Economic Forum believe conflict and war will be associated with: diminishing water resources, climate change, economic factors, natural disaster and extremism to name just a few causes.

When we combine potential locations and possible causes some common themes become evident. The Army will be expected to operate in a littoral zone, in a region that is likely to be underdeveloped, chaotic and very highly urbanised. The operational area will change considerably as urban environments grow larger and the number of mega-cities [1] continues its rapid expansion within the IPSA. Furthermore, the IPSA is a region prone to natural disasters, registering more than 60% of the world’s natural disasters each year [2].

All of this leads to the conclusion that the logisticians of the future will need to be able provide logistics services in an environment where they cannot rely on HNS, where there will be no, limited or even damaged infrastructure, will be extremely densely populated and probably include maritime and land based activities in a complex environment of competing conflict and humanitarian disaster. At its most extreme, what we see in the current conflict in Syria reflects an example of this type of complexity.

These factors suggest that our current logistics training continuum does not orient us towards the most likely activities the ADF, and Army, will undertake. Arguably, we are preparing for the least likely type of operation we will face. However, if we choose to take a different approach to the scenarios depicted in our training, we can certainly learn from others. There is a field of logistics service delivery that experiences many of the same features as does military logistics, and within the environments described above. Those features include: demand uncertainty, location uncertainty, commodity uncertainty, a lack of infrastructure, limited contractor support, time criticality and the need to achieve social development objectives. That field of logistics endeavour is humanitarian logistics.

 

HA Canberra
HMAS Canberra and LCM1E, Operation Fiji Assist 2016. Photo by Department of Defence.

 

Given the very similar natures of the military and humanitarian logistics enterprises I find it very surprising that military logisticians are not frequently exposed to humanitarian logistics enterprises as part of their professional logistics education. There is good reason for Army to exploit the knowledge and experiences of Government and non-Government humanitarian agencies and organisations. Furthermore, effort should be taken to improve the professional education of military logisticians by seeking the experiences of business that also operate in remote and complex environments. This means that military logistics should be examining innovative ‘best-practice’ approaches such as those used by HK Logistics, currently supporting the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s humanitarian responses, and Agility Global Integrated Logistics.

Whatever the case, any evolution of military logistics education, development must not be limited to additional guest lecturers or classroom based activity. Participation and experience are key drivers of learning and as such should be maximized. Examining case studies, or potential complex scenarios as depicted here, should form the basis of our approach to training and education; particularly at the advanced level.

When working in China, I was struck by the ubiquitous blue 3-wheeled electric motor scooter used as the primary mode of commodity delivery in the very narrow and similar looking streets of Shanghai. Understanding the difficulties involved in undertaking logistics within a city that has more than the entire Australian population compressed into a land area half the size of Sydney is not something that cannot be adequately discussed and understood within the confines of the classroom. Imagine what it might be like in a time of conflict, or natural disaster. When adding in factors such as conflict, cultures and uncertainty it is those who can draw upon relevant experiences and training focussed on such complexity that will enable future success.

[1] A megacity is defined as city of more than 10M population.

[2] ICRC 2013, World Disasters Report: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action, Geneva, Switzerland.

Michael Lane is a serving Australian Army officer. The views here are is o

1 thought on “Learning and training to get it right – what environment are we preparing Army logisticians for?”

  1. “The last 17 years has demonstrated a move away from conventional warfare into asymmetrical warfare” – this is untrue. ‘Asymmetric’ warfare is but a synonym to the earlier ‘guerrilla’ warfare which hadn’t stopped in European military history since the peasant revolts of the 17th century.

    The 2016 DWP got many things wrong, the worst of them being that each such policy document is supposed to look at least a generation ahead in terms of capabilities, i.e. the 2042 and onwards period.

    Why exactly does anyone think that urban combat will become common? There have always been ‘megacities’ relative to rural populations, and the sieges these cities endured are well documented. Siege is a form of warfare that recognises the needless loss of lives to the attackers in trying to take a city by a frontal assault. And, in an unwalled city, there is not even anything to assault frontally. Its just a maze of artificial ambush sites that force tactical division of forces…everything Infantry lieutenants used to be taught NOT to do. Why would Lieutenant Generals ignore these lessons?

    It seems to me there are two questions to be asked: what is the role and function of Australian Army’s logistics in the context of the Maritime Strategy and, as you rightly point out, the littoral region, and the role and function outside this context. Either way, it is clearly an ‘expeditionary’ role in terms of achieving operational reach, either near or far. This capability is currently tactical, with a demi-brigade lift capacity. For a strategic lift capacity the entire Army’s force structure needs to be reconsidered, i.e. the ability to simultaneously lift the entire 1st Division. Is there anyone in the Army prepared to think big?

    I note that currently there is no state in the world which can offer a model for achieving this logistic capability in strategic lift capacity. This is what leadership means…going where no soldier had gone before, walking point.

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