Lessons in logistic transformation and a new agenda for change

By David Beaumont.

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

Over a series of articles, I have outlined a basic history of change with respect to logistics in the Australian Army. Institutional history is not always the most interesting to read, but what it reveals is often highly important for understanding how change occurs in militaries. Militaries adapt during wars and on operations, but the ‘hard work’ of long-term transformation often occurs over extended periods of time and by people far removed from the battlefield. In the case of the ‘Transforming Army’s Logistics’ series of posts, the reveals a variety of lessons relevant to those seeking to influence the trajectory of change in those capabilities relevant to sustaining military forces. This includes the logistic community and force designers of land forces beyond the Australian Army, and perhaps even other Services.

The first and second periods of logistic transformation in the Australian Army were distinct. The first, from the late 1980’s to Army’s deployment to East Timor in 1999, was essentially defined by the pursuit of Australian continental defence strategy and the far-reaching programs of commercialisation that transitioned much of Army’s strategic organic logistic capability into the private sector. It was a period during which change was imposed, and Army’s logisticians were forced to make compromises and difficult choices about which capabilities had to remain organic to Army. Therefore, it serves as a reminder that logisticians should not take the opportunity to lead transformation for granted – there is always someone around the corner to do the ‘leading’ for them.

Although the basic operational concept applied in this period was proven strategically faulty, and Army’s logistic capabilities had been mauled by imposed policies, a few significant and ultimately positive changes did occur. Army had redesigned its logistic capabilities to fight beyond and outdated divisional model, and had consolidated various logistic organisations into arguable more efficient – and less hollow – units and formations. Furthermore, a more collegiate relationship with industry and other Services had emerged from new policy and the progression improved operational jointery in the ADF. The pressure to transform logistics was certainly severe at this time, and despite the soul-searching involved, a great many efficiencies were introduced in the process.

As I wrote here, the second period was shaped by Army’s focus on fighting wars in progress. Although concepts were developed, and Army developed modernisation plans and an ‘objective force’ based upon a long-term view of the future, the need to rapidly adapt for operations saw logistic transformation occurring as a series of many incremental, and at times hard-won, steps. The achievement of a goal pursued over no less than three decades by Army’s most senior leaders, to prefer Army’s structure on the basis of preparedness rather than concepts, also had a significant effect on the objectives sought out of logistic transformation. It was a period in which Army, and its logisticians, became used to meeting minimum preparedness requirements rather than preparing for contingencies themselves. Sustaining and supporting an Army on continuous operations over the last fifteen years has required Army’s logisticians to develop solutions to numerous, and serious, problems but it has come at the cost of developing innovative concepts and doctrine to prepare Army for the future.

Transformation in Army’s logistics capabilities has always required a combination of incremental and revolutionary changes usually made in response to externally-driven pressures. It is possible to infer from Army’s responses to the continental defence requirements of the 1980s and 1990s that revolutionary change in logistics has only occurred through a systematic, conceptually-based, process. Once Army had addressed several logistic capability gaps after the East Timor crisis, logistic transformation in practice was infrequently conceptually based at all; more about managing organisational change than preparing for the future. In the turbulence caused by supporting operations, and Army’s transition under programs including the ‘Hardened and Networked Army’ and Plan Beersheba, attempts to progress transformation were hampered as a consequence.

The transfer of funding from logistic capability programs, and manning to support combat capabilities, further complicated transformation in this time. In sum, this period was not conducive for logisticians to describe what they want – or, indeed, what Army needs – define the steps to get there, or assemble the requirements to achieve it. Considering this it is understandable, though hardly ideal, that ideas have tend to stay just that. Substantial transformation of doctrine and procedures have yet to occur to reflect innovative ways of sustaining the force with many ideas remaining as little more than points on a ‘Powerpoint slide’ or concepts in a pamphlet, and are unusable in actual practice.

Much of Army’s most recent efforts towards logistic transformation has been retained in the intellectual domain, fed on a diet of experimentation, and without an effective transition into evaluation and exercising, doctrine development or the modernisation of Army’s logistics. Concept development and experimentation are vital first steps to transformation, and there is a wealth of useful material available which reflects a diligent approach by a range of Army and scientific personnel to understanding the logistical needs of the future Army.  However, due to its attention towards the conduct of operations, it has been difficult taking the results to completion.

The lasting benefits from experiments conducted or concepts presented have been arguably marginal and predominantly reflected in subtle shifts to major Army capability programs rather than significantly addressing wholesale logistic transformation. There has been virtually no transition of logistic ideas from the ‘laboratory’ to the training area since the RTA trials were conducted in the late 1990’s, with training time and capacity predominantly consumed by the need to operationally certify forces for deployments or other preparedness obligations. It is time Army devoted more time to exercising the ‘logistic fountain’ from which it draws the strength to fight.

Moreover, transformation in Army was always complicated by the way in which it synchronised with efforts undertaken elsewhere in the joint force. Admittedly, the idea of ‘joint logistics’ as an institutional construct is relatively young, its organisations frequently restructured in an unhelpful turbulence. The approaches required to support Army at the strategic level have required a considerable culture shift for a Service which used to perform many strategic and operational logistic functions organically. However, with its most recent focus on enabling a force generation cycle, logistic transformation on Army was less about structuring the right balance of capabilities and concepts within the joint domain than “simply” getting forces to the operational area.

Logistics, as a process which begins in the national economy and ends at the front line of the battlefield, depends on all Services and Defence agencies to be effective, and to work efficiently together. If transformation is to be given a chance to succeed, a greater proportion of time must be spent getting the joint relationships right. Whether future operational concepts demand Services to interact together more effectively or not, the logistics process or system is bigger than any one Service, group or agency to control; ‘bridging the gap’ between all parties involved is essential for effective sustainment. This applies in garrison, as well as on operations. The Australian Army has been reminded of this necessity in successive operations, and has come a long way – along with the Australian Defence Force – over the last three decades in making joint operations a true force multiplier.

It is, however, important for us to not ‘over-think’ this requirement and look to solve every strategic logistic challenge with a complicated and complex systemic review of Defence logistics. Changes taken at the local level are important in transformation, and as much as logisticians need to think strategically in terms of the wider force, and getting relationships ‘right’, they shouldn’t forget there are many things to fix right in front of themselves. Furthermore, there is always a risk that the bigger the problem that logistic transformation appears to be in the future, the less likely logisticians will invest the considerable time required to do it properly.

After reviewing this history of logistic transformation in the Australian Army, I feel that logisticians have not embraced logistics transformation as fully as they should. This is not an indictment upon the attempts made by many logisticians to positively influence Army’s modernisation outcomes. Rather, it is collectively held belief that a more comprehensive investment by logisticians in terms of their time is unlikely to be productive. Army’s natural bias to organisational change over the last twenty years rather, as well as its conceptual focus upon its front-line formations, are just two of the reasons as to why major logistic transformation has been viewed as wasted effort.

Secondly, the rapidity by which the Australian Army has introduced major force structure initiatives including Hardening and Networking the Army and Plan Beersheba has created an environment in which simply responding to short-term change is all that capacity allows. Army’s logisticians are so consumed by performing the day-to-day function of sustaining training and operations that it is understandable that many would consider themselves unable to promote transformation outside of the staff environment. Thus, it can be entirely expected that changes to doctrine or concepts rarely find the way out of the hands of planners and into those who will be expected to execute transformation.

Perhaps this means that the prospects for future logistic transformation are not good, and a review of history gives logisticians a reason to disengage themselves even further from logistic transformation. For those who feel this way, they should keep in mind the considerable personal effort undertaken by many who have been engaged in Army’s future – from the senior-most logistician leader who fought to get Army’s logistics thus far, to the forward-thinking soldiers and officers who promoted their own ideas by whatever means possible. Insularity caused by an unhealthy scepticism of attempts to transform logistics capabilities and processes does nothing more than perpetuate problems. Nor should inadequacies of time be an excuse for a failure to invest in the future; any efforts undertaken by logisticians now are ultimately for the benefits of others on the battlefields of tomorrow.

Successful transformation requires Army’s logisticians invest themselves deeply in transformation despite the many institutional and operational obstacles that confront them. There is reason to do so now because Army is always changing to suit new circumstances and emerging problems. Participating in the agenda for change in this time requires a personal investment of interest, and an enhancement of a collective sense of responsibility. After all, it is certainly better to ‘own’ one’s destiny, than let one be ‘owned’ by it.

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

One thought on “Lessons in logistic transformation and a new agenda for change

  1. Excellent article. With regards to where you mention the logistician’s insularity and scepticism in transforming logistics capabilities and processes, reminds me of the fact that Australia’s DoD has a systemic culture of ‘doing things just for the sake of doing it’. Old habits die hard in this culture. I wonder what can be done to shake off this mentality, both in the ADF and APS.


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