Transforming the Australian Army’s logistics

By David Beaumont.

Some may recall from earlier posts on ‘Logistics In War’ that in late 2016, the Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, challenged the senior logisticians of the Australian Army to ‘revolutionise’ Army’s logistics. This was not because sustainment operations were not successfully happening, nor was it a condemnation of any imaginary inadequacy perpetrated in the efforts of the soldiers, officers and civilians responsible for delivering Army its logistics, and through extension, operational capability. Such operations and efforts, also borne by the joint logistic community and the wider Defence organisation, have kept Australian forces in the field for nearly twenty years of operational activity.

Rather, the Chief’s challenge was a direct statement that logistic transformation must come from within Army’s logistics community; an encouragement to find innovative ways in which Army’s logistic capabilities could be enhanced without substantially growing the land force. Furthermore, it reflected a need to break from tradition and habit to progress logistic development in a new direction. While not an indictment on Army’s logisticians nor their leadership, the challenge compels the community to realise transformative efforts in balance with current operational needs, and with a speed of execution that will enable the entire Army to progress into the future.

Long-term transformation in any component of the land force has always been a difficult and consuming process. Most Western militaries have had difficulty in transforming logistics in particular, and various individuals have written about such challenges as a consequence. John Louth, writing in respect to the UK situation, cites unrealistic expectations being made of logistic capability, the inability of the logistic community to successfully make the intellectual and business case for investment, the general unwillingness of the organisation to accept their advice once offered, and a widespread ‘misreading’ of the significance of lift and sustainment capabilities to numerous operational scenarios.[1] These are only a portion of the challenges that impede transformation.

Numerous American reports and papers attest to similar difficulties, and describe the consequences of logistics transformation stalling with respect to recent operations such as Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.[2] Although few Australian Army logisticians have written on logistic transformation, a number of notable papers exist such as Lieutenant Colonel Susan Smith’s research paper in 2000 which examined East Timor operations and the need to change Army logistics.[3] More recently the need for logistic transformation featured in Army’s 2014 Institutional Lessons Study and was regarded as Army’s priority concern by its leaders; it was discussed further during the resultant ‘On Operations’ conference and publication.[4] The problem has never been that issues requiring transformation have remained unknown. Rather, the problem has been the manner and means by which change is ultimately implemented.

Army’s logistics capability and capacity has endured tremendous transformation over the past thirty years. During the 1980’s and 1990’s a series of Government-induced reviews by successive Labour and Coalition Government’s compelled the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to cut its ‘tail’ to fund its ‘teeth’. Army bore the brunt of the cuts, and of Army, the commercialisation process affected Army’s logistics capabilities the most. Since the logistically harrowing experience of a deployment to East Timor in 1999, Army considered its logistics strengths and weaknesses in considerable detail. Some weaknesses have been addressed. Others have not. During the seventeen years since Operation Warden, strategic planners have conceptualised various pathways to effect land-force logistics, and senior commanders and logisticians have argued persuasively and campaigned consistently for further investment or force structure adjustments.

Even as we see a generational change in equipment enter into service we are still left with an unpleasant feeling that Army’s logistics capabilities are an area of risk, awaiting to play havoc with the future Army’s operational performance.  Dr Palazzo and Colonel Chris Smith recently noted that to prepare for expeditionary warfare, as envisaged under Australian Maritime Strategy, ‘any chance of success [in expeditionary operations] requires a higher ratio of ‘tail’ to ‘teeth’ than expected from current operations.[5] Furthermore, their paper claims that there is potential for a shift in balance between land forces from a focus on the combat arms to ‘enabling and support’ elements.[6] Therein lies the base assumption that the Army is unbalanced, its logistics capabilities are hollow and that most attempts to transform logistics have led to unsatisfactory outcomes.

There is more to transformation than getting the ‘tooth to tail’ ratio, or any other abstract measure of force balance, right. Yet there is a real need for further investment in the right logistic capabilities, as there is also an obligation by Army and its logisticians to steward this investment. This is the component of transformation which, for many years, has been forgotten. Concepts seem repetitive, assumptions are outdated, and senior ADF logistic community leadership has recently commented upon how logisticians seem to have lost control of their own agenda. This is a tremendous risk to logistics transformation in an epoch in which ‘austerity’ and ‘efficiency’ are terms used to complement logistics, budgetary limitations and growing costs in delivering combat capability necessitate reductions in other areas, and in the systemic uncertainty which exists as the entire ADF changes the way it undertakes its business during the First Principle Review (FPR). Arguments are riven with assumptions that are well beyond their usefulness, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the ever-changing nature of warfare requires these shibboleths to be abandoned. It is now time for logisticians and planners to look to the future and reinvigorate and transform Army’s logistics capabilities accordingly.

The transformation of Australian Army logistics will be the subject of a series of posts which articulate the need to transform Army’s logistics and the way in which transformation should occur. These posts are abridged versions of a much larger work to be published at a later date. With this in mind, these posts will not prescriptively outline concepts; this being the work of a systemic review being undertaken by Army Headquarters over coming months. As a work of opinion the series of posts will make observations and conclusions about Army’s track record with modernisation, discuss how problems may be prevented in the future, and highlight the challenges that must be overcome in future efforts. Some may seize upon this as a criticism of Army, its leadership and its logisticians. This is absolutely not the case. At times, Army has experienced tremendous pressure from external sources with respect to what logistics capabilities it should possess, and how they should be employed. Army’s logisticians have performed the best they can with the means available. Instead, this series looks to the future as one of opportunity whereby an operationally-experienced logistics community can lead change to better enable Army to win the land battle as part of a joint force.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer, and the thoughts here are his own. He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics.

[1] Louth, J., ‘Logistics as a force enabler’ from RUSI Journal, June / July 2015, vol. 160, no. 3, Royal United Services Institute, UK, 2015, p 60

[2] An excellent example being Maccagnan Jr., V, Logistic transformation – restarting a stalled process, US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, USA, 2005

[3] Smith, S., A handmaiden’s tale: an alternative view of logistic lessons learned from INTERFET, Australian Defence Studies Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia, 2001

[4] See Beaumont, D, ‘Logistics and the failure to modernise’ from Frame, T. & Palazzo, A. (eds)., On ops: lessons and challenges for the Australian Army since East Timor, UNSW Press, Australia, 2016

[5] Smith, C. & Palazzo, A., Coming to terms with the modern way of war: precision missiles and the land component of Australia’s joint force, Australian land warfare concept series, Vol. 1, Australian Army, Australia, 2016, p 20

[6] Ibid., p 21

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s