Transforming the Australian Army’s logistics – defending Australia in the 1980s and 1990s

By David Beaumont.

This post continues the ‘Transforming the Australian Army’s logistics’ series, and is an abridged extract from a larger paper.

As much as we might like to think that militaries change because of strategic necessity and transformative concepts, they are also beholden to a variety of social, economic and institutional influences. The developmental path undertaken by Army in adapting its logistics capabilities is a complicated mix of organisational culture, responsibility to Government, an element of happenstance, and operational pressures. Many influences in transformation are simply out of Army’s control. For most mid-rank to senior serving officer and soldier logisticians, Australia’s deployment to East Timor in 1999, Operation Stabilise / Warden, was a foundational event which compelled a generation of changes to logistic capabilities. Certainly, immediately after this operation, quick action was undertaken to address a variety of capability deficiencies that this operation so painfully revealed. The focus on systemic hollowness within several key logistic capabilities after the East Timor operation was important, but its long-term effect on Army’s development has been somewhat limited.  More fundamental changes to Army’s, and the ADF’s, logistics capabilities made in the two decades prior left greater legacies in terms of organisation, responsibilities and expectations relevant to the operational performance of land forces. Therefore, it is from this era that the modern history of Army’s attempts to transform its logistics must be understood.

Army, and the logisticians that serve within it, tend to view the twenty-year experiment with ‘Defence of Australia’ strategy as mythos. As a post-Vietnam Army sought to find its footing, growing societal and political moves for strategic self-determination, experiences from a range of peacekeeping operations in places such as Somalia and Bougainville, coupled with extensive capability programs fighting against the obsolescence of equipment but in a period of national financial pressure, placed immense pressure on the ADF’s logistics capabilities. Just as strategists contended with implementing the ‘Defence of Australia’ operational concept, born out of the 1986 Dibb Review and subsequent Defence Of Australia 1987 (DOA87) White Paper, logisticians began the process of rationalising capabilities under a variety of initiatives.[1]

However, it was not strategic policy that would be the biggest concern of logisticians; industry policy, and a bipartisan desire in Government to deregulate the government sector that would be particularly influential. If wasn’t until the 1990 Wrigley Review, the 1991 Force Structure Review and the Defence Commercial Support Program (CSP) which accompanied it, the latter of which saw a great transition of the ADF’s logistic capability to the private sector, that the policy implications of DOA87 and a greater union between Service logistics and commercial support from the national support base really hit home.[2] The atrophy of Army’s organic logistic capability through the commercialisation process undertaken over this period would have considerable consequences in the future. The degradation of base level logistics is well known, but the degeneration of deployable logistic capability also affected formation and unit logistic elements.

It is easy for a logistician to look back upon this time with concern. However, there were positive changes to Army logistics occurring during this period that are often overlooked in the hyperbole. Modern approaches to operational command and control, as well as logistic jointery, developed to support ‘Defence of Australia’ and other imposed changes, left long-term benefits for the ADF.  Within Army, logistics command and control was investigated in detail and with vigour. Efficiency seeking led to the growth of joint institutions that better coordinated logistic activities across the ADF. Systematic experimental and exercise-based analysis of logistic performance complemented conceptual development to produce force modernisation outcomes which continue to be implemented today. This period may have comprised paradigm-changing events and processes which had enormous implications for the ADF’s operational performance. There were, however, other incremental changes occurring to Army’s force design that were, arguably, just as influential. Before assessing logistic transformation during any further, it is important to appreciate other themes and issues which were affecting the force.

Post-Second World War operations, including the more recent Vietnam War and peacekeeping operations such as in Somalia (Operation Solace), had accentuated a shift in Army’s approach to where the bulk of its logistic capability resided. This move was reflective of the changing character of operations, and emerging thoughts on combat logistics. During the Cold War period, and in a stark contrast to the major wars which preceded, most deployments were of Task Forces or units, usually conducted within a coalition which provide some measure of sustainment. Furthermore, the light, motorised and armoured specialisations of Army’s formations and units saw such forces requiring their own equally unique logistic echelons at the unit and formation level.

By the 1980’s, Army was under pressure by the Defence to move from a divisional model that perpetuated hollowness across the Service, and adopt a force structure better suited to the demands of Australian continental defence. Thus, it was felt, there was no need to centralise capability at the divisional level; Army was evolving from one designed to fight formations of at least brigade in size within a two-Division structure, to one that deployed battalion groups within independent brigade-sized formations for a variety of different requirements.[3] Larger divisionally-oriented logistics regiments were slowly but surely decentralised, adjusted or simply disestablished as Army reluctantly abandoned long-held but impractical ambitions.[4]

These changes were only accentuated by the operational concepts and doctrine developed to enable a ‘Defence of Australia’ strategy. The resultant operational concept required an Army that was capable of fighting in extremely dispersed conditions, in an inhospitable geography defined by distances between units measured in the hundreds of kilometres. As stated in the Chief of General Staff’s Advisory Committee in 1986

The priority demands on our ground forces are for the protection of military and infrastructure assets in the north of Australia from a protracted campaign of dispersed raids.[5]

Based upon this prevailing view in Defence and Government, it is understandable why there may have been a desire to outsource many purportedly ‘non-core’ logistic functions, supposedly obtainable from the national support base in a time of crisis, through programs advocated by successive reviews.

This was only part of the reason for the truly transformational change that was to occur to Army logistics in the early 1990’s. Due to funding pressures that made attaining the capability desires of the 1987 White Paper, a strategic logic which required a growth in defence funding, a large ‘tail’ in the Services would not be tolerated by Government. Three reviews were fundamental to reshaping Army logistics in this period. Firstly, Defence was compelled by Government to examine its force structure to implement the ‘Defence of Australia’ approach through the 1991 Force Structure Review. At the same time, Dr Alan Wrigley was appointed by Government to examine a holistic, national-based, approach to defence. Wrigley’s report, The Defence Force and the Community: A partnership in Australia’s Defence, and the subsequent Inter-Departmental Report which reflected the endorsed Government outcomes, advocated an increased role for industry in the support of Defence activities.[6] Finally, the Commercial Support Program (CSP) that was released concurrent to the Force Structure Review and reflected the intended commercialisation of the ADF’s organic logistic capability.[7]

To fund $200 million of capability programs, the Force Structure Review required Army and the other Services to examine what were ‘core’ (directly combat and combat-support) and ‘non-core’ (largely ‘rear-echelon’ logistic functions) activities. [8] Those activities identified as ‘non-core’ would be market-tested for commercialisation, with many outsourced under the CSP. This process of reducing numbers in the ‘tail’ would hit Army the hardest; the Force Structure Review acknowledging that:

The combat structures of the Navy and Air Force are largely major equipment oriented and have been the subject of detailed reviews over the last decade, while Army is organised around personnel based structures. Any significant reduction in ADF personnel numbers inevitable involves a more fundamental review of Army’s structure to maintain the viability of the combat force.[9]

In addition, landholdings would be rationalised, the ‘Military District’ model of regional engagement would be abandoned because of the Defence Regional Support Review and the institution of the operational level of command in the ADF, and training institutions and practices consolidated across all Services. It was a period of ruthless cost-cutting and manpower saving, where logisticians themselves would have to volunteer options to reduce the size of Army’s organic logistics capabilities. Although the goal was to ensure the combat force was funded, these three programs in unison are now anecdotally regarded as creating structural weaknesses with respect to Army’s capacity to sustain itself on future operations.[10]

Accompanying the force structure changes were the conceptual ones. The need for Army to draw more of its sustainment from external sources began to be reflected in operational concepts. In 1992 Major General Geoffrey Carter, Deputy Chief of General Staff, described the logistic support required for ‘Operations in Defence of Australia’ as:

Logistic support to implement these concepts will tend towards austerity coupled with maximum use of the civilian infrastructure. While it can be expected that we may harness all available national resources, we may need to seek assistance from friendly nations.[11]

At the unit level, battalion groups were expected to operate without an abundance of logistic support but also independently. Yet it was recognised that logistics capacity would temper the ability to conduct operations.[12] Local civilian industry was expected to support the hypothesised military operations, but the reality was forces were too dispersed, and national support capacity limited in the remote environments it was believed that operations would be conducted in, to provide such support. Battalion-group level manoeuvre forces would be resourced with whatever would be required for defence of Australia tasks so to make them operationally responsive.[13] Army’s transformation path had optimised it for fighting at the battalion level, and this continued a growing emphasis on pushing logistic capabilities into brigade formations. This necessitated growth in unit-level logistic echelons, as well as confirming the importance of multi-capability formation logistics unit, the Brigade Administrative Support Battalion, in its role as the provider of modular logistic components to units as required.

While new concepts favoured the battalion group as the principle fighting formation of the Army, there were reasons for change in other areas in Army. As defence planners started to think about the means by which operations in the north and north-west of Australia could be sustained, it was realised that these forces would require a greater level of logistic support than had been experienced when in operations with coalition partners.[14] Thus the Logistics Support Group (LSG) was created on the basis of Vietnam war experience; consolidating many of the divisional-level logistic functions and assuming the responsibility for operational-level logistic support for land operations.

Ex Kangaroo '95.
Logistics convoy during Exercise Kangaroo 1995 – defending Australia; Photo by Commonwealth of Australia

This formation (later known the Logistic Support Force (LSF) and now 17 Combat Service Support Brigade) additionally served as the ‘third-line’ of logistic capability, meaning Divisional-sized operations could – in theory – be sustained. However, this formation proved to be a poor cousin to the combat formations, themselves heavily hit by the pressure on Army to cut the size of its force. Combined with the downsizing of the ADF’s logistic elements (the Army had downsized from 34000 to 24000 over this period) with Government policy and reform initiatives, the LSG and LSF would prove to be quite hollow. This was an issue that would have significant ramifications in future operations in East Timor.

Elsewhere, and as the operational concepts continued to mature, and major strategic-level changes in logistics occurred, Army found itself more and more integrated in the fortunes of the emerging ‘national support agenda’ and the burgeoning joint force. Army’s own strategic and operational-level logistics organisations and capabilities, including Logistic Command, had been merged with those of the other Services to form Support Command Australia (SCA) and other Departmental strategic agencies in the mid-1990’s due to Government efficiency-seeking. This was a natural progression to the development of operational-level command within the ADF, but also to centralise and more efficiently manage ADF logistics from acquisition to service delivery. Furthermore, SCA was directed under the 1997 Defence Reform Program (DRP) which established it, to accelerate the commercialisation of ADF logistics. This process resulted programs such as the Defence Integrated Distribution System (DIDS) for transportation within the national support base amongst other major programs which integrated commercial operations with Army activities.

SCA would, in 2000, meld with the National Support Division and Defence Acquisition Organisation to form the now defunct Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO). Planners had conceived SCA to be an organisation that could exert control over the strategic and operational components of the logistics process, but in practice it was overwhelming focussed upon the acquisition and sustainment of Defence capabilities rather than their operational use. When DMO was created, this weakness in SCA would lead to planners establishing a subordinate Joint Logistic Command (JLC) whose purpose was to perform numerous operational functions Army undertook for land operations in the past. Nonetheless, until this happened, the logistic process as it applied to the ADF’s land operations was fractured and confused. The constant changing at the strategic level of Defence which began in the late 1980’s until 1999 had been immensely disruptive, and created a great deal of uncertainty with respect to supply-chain responsibilities for land forces around operations such as Op Bel Isi (Bougainville) and Operations Warden (East Timor). Â

With respect to the tactical logistic activities left to Army, in the mid to late 1990’s, and learning off the US Army’s experiences with its Task Force XXI study, Army began to approach the problem of defending Australia through a series of planning events and experiments. These would become known as the Army 21 (A21) concept launched in 1995, and the subsequent change process known as ‘Restructuring the Army’.[15] Although the 1996 election resulted in a change in Government, and a nominal shift from a continental approach to strategy, the RTA trials maintained the same vision of war as practiced the decade before. Army would become an integrated full-time and part-time Army, comprising highly mobile task forces and units, capable of autonomous operations in dispersed, joint, operational environments.[16] For logisticians, these concepts once again emphasised the robustness of forward echelons as a means of ensuring sustainment for forces vast distances away from historical lines of operation. These forces would have to be sustainable for operations of 15 months at a time, with 30 days of combat operations mixed within.[17]

However, just before the focus of the RTA trials could turn to the sustainability requirements for offshore deployments during 1999 in the ‘Defence of Regional Interests (DRI)’, the Australian Army was called to deploy to East Timor. Operation Warden would provide good reason for Army – and the ADF more broadly – to adapt its approach to logistics and support to operations. The consequences of commercialisation and a national support base not ready to support an operation which all but consumed the entirety of the ADF’s attention and effort would hit home hard. Army threw whatever it could at the problem of force projection, even resuming operational-level logistic tasking that it was not supposed to perform. In the wake of this deployment, to be explored in the next post, Army’s planners and logisticians switched to a new focus in which logistic transformation would be considered.

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

[1] Department of Defence, The defence of Australia 1987, Commonwealth of Australia, Australia, http://www.defence.gov.au/publications/wpaper1987_1.pdf [accessed 03 Mar 17]; For an outline of what this policy meant see http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1516/DefendAust/1987 [accessed 05 Mar 17]

[2] Horner, D., ‘Deploying and Sustaining INTERFET in East Timor in 1999’, 2009 from Australian Army History Unit, Raise, training and sustain: delivering land combat power, Canberra, http://www.army.gov.au/~/media/Files/Our%20history/AAHU/Conference%20Papers%20and%20Images/2009/2009-Raise_Train_and_Sustain-Delivering_Land_Combat_Power.pdf, [accessed 13 Apr 15]

[3] Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, From Phantom to force: towards a more efficient and effective Army, Commonwealth of Australia, 2003; http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Completed_Inquiries/jfadt/army/armyindx [accessed 04 Mar 17]

[4] Horner, D., Making the Australian Defence Force, The Australian Centenary History of Defence, Vol IV, Oxford University Press, Australia, 2001, p 260

[5] Chief of General Staff Committee 7/96 Agendum of Oct 1996

[6] Commonwealth of Australia, Interdepartmental Committee on the Wrigley Review, Australian Government Publishing Service, Australia, 1991

[7] Department of Defence, Force Structure Review 1991, Commonwealth of Australia, Australia, p5, para 8 [National Archives of Australia; AWM 388]

[8] Shephard, A., The Defence Commercial Support Program: saving $200 million a year for defence procurement?, Parliamentary Research Service Research Paper No. 2 / 1993, Commonwealth of Australia, Australia, 1993, p 1

[9] Department of Defence, 1991 Force Structure Review, Commonwealth of Australia, para 2 [National Archives of Australia; AWM 388]

[10] Horner, D., ‘Deploying and Sustaining INTERFET in East Timor in 1999’, 2009 from Australian Army History Unit, Raise, training and sustain: delivering land combat power, Canberra, http://www.army.gov.au/~/media/Files/Our%20history/AAHU/Conference%20Papers%20and%20Images/2009/2009-Raise_Train_and_Sustain-Delivering_Land_Combat_Power.pdf, [accessed 13 Apr 15]

[11] Carter, G., ‘New developments in land forces’ from Horner, D., The Army and the future: Land forces in Australia and South-east Asia, Department of Defence, Australia, 1992, p 263

[12] ibid., p 266

[13] ibid., p 265

[14] Horner, D., Reshaping the Australian Army: challenges for the 1990s, Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence, No. 77, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, Australia, 1991, p 42,

[15] Chief of General Staff Committee 7/96 Agendum of Oct 1996

[16] Fisher, J., Brennan, M., Bowley, D., A study of land force modernisation studies in DSTO1996-2000, Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Commonwealth of Australia, Australia, 2002, p12

[17] ibid., p 12p

3 thoughts on “Transforming the Australian Army’s logistics – defending Australia in the 1980s and 1990s”

  1. I lived through all that with the formation of 3 BASB, DNSDC CSP, 1 BASB, A21, FSR, WOCON at 10 and 9 FSB East Timor and finally the transition to DMO. Adaptation was the key to logistics support as policies and concepts were always being reinvented. But at the end of the day, the soldiers role did not change.

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