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By David Beaumont.
‘It is no great matter to change tactical plans in a hurry and to send troops off in new directions. But adjusting supply plans to the altered tactical scheme is far more difficult’
– General Walter Bedell Smith, Chief of Staff to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force from 1944-1945
It is unsurprising that sustainment has become one of the key hurdles for planners to overcome as they experiment, exercise, and explore the concept of ‘multi-domain battle’ (MDB). Sustaining operations in the hypothesised dispersed and deadly conflict zones of the present and future creates especially acute problems for land forces. For decades, the combat power of most modern-Western land forces has been underwritten by a surplus of supply, massed sufficiently to eliminate logistic constraints as a tactical concern. This approach, however, brings increasing risk when facing opponents who can find, fix, and destroy vulnerable logistic nodes and supporting infrastructure. Austerity will become the norm in these future battlefields as projecting large logistic trains into theatre becomes progressively difficult. Logistic forces on the battlefield will be fewer in number, support likely intermittent, and the prioritisation and allocation of sustainment capability will become a central determinant of operational success.
But the problems presented by this new threat environment are not unique to land forces. The Army to which I belong describes the emerging security landscape as “lethal, collective and converging,” a description forces of all operational domains would recognise as salient. Similarly, each of these forces shares the need to significantly change the tactics required to succeed in war. Although we have yet to see much discussion on how air operations will be sustained outside of ‘A2AD’ debates of a few years ago, there has been recent discussion on the sustainment of naval forces in the context of ‘distributed lethality’ and naval manoeuvre warfare. The traditional ‘domain owners’ will undoubtedly progress these discussions as concepts move closer and closer to operational reality. This vital discussion is particularly critical for forces like the Australian Defence Force, or geographical US Combatant Commands such as PACOM, where operations in littoral environments have always been joint in nature.
As with the current MDB discourse, much of which has been led by land forces, the need for dispersal and sustaining under continuous threat has typically been described in terms of land operations. As an aid to the author who comes from a land force background, so too will this article. However, the principles that will be discussed here are applicable to all forces; they are in fact based upon the writings of a senior USN officer, Rear Admiral Henry Eccles and are largely based on his personal experience during the Second World War and research of naval strategy and logistics. Sustainment in MDB will depend – more than ever – on the management of priorities, the allocation of logistic capability and supplies, and the methods by which this is supported.
The need to disperse sustainment capacity, whether land-based logistics, air-refuelling or replenishment-at-sea, has long been a staple of military doctrine. However, this challenge is magnified when logistic forces are few or degraded in capability – as is predicted for the future battlefield. Kenneth Macksey, in For Want of a Nail, describes how the ever-increasing killing power available to the soldier operating in the defence has led to the depopulation of the battlefield, as have the destructive power of air forces, missiles and artillery, and at its most extreme, nuclear weaponry. The need to spread forces thinly for their own safety, combat and logistic forces alike, introduces serious problems to movements (of forces) and distribution (their sustainment), and tests the limited logistics management systems that will be available to control them. Furthermore, it tests logisticians who will be frustrated by how thinly their capabilities are stretched, and commanders who must determine how such capabilities might be prioritised and allocated.
There have been a wide range of methods employed in the past to overcome this problem, and to effectively utilise generally insufficient logistics forces. One way – the traditional approach as applied by current Australian Army doctrine in an arguably outdated way to some – is the use of logistic ‘battlefield geometry’ such as ‘lines’ or ‘levels’ of support. This approach to logistics system making sees sustainment achieved through a succession of steps from the national support base to the front line. At the tactical level, these methods allow for the concentration of logistic capabilities and supplies with sufficient depth while being dispersed enough to prevent their destruction by artillery, bombs, and counter attack. One of the reasons this approach is losing its appeal is that it is typically associated with the establishment of large logistic ‘nodes,’ and is manpower intensive.
A second method is to apply an alternate command and control logic to the problem. Apportioning logistic support by its function or by priority of effort places sustainment as a time-dependant activity, one that allocates resources to a commander based on their prioritisation and operation demands. This method suits operations where logistic austerity is the norm, and commanders must make tough decisions as to who gets fed, and who doesn’t. This may seem stark, but it is an all-too-common lesson of major conflicts and wars that militaries tend to forget. This approach is gaining increasing traction in the Australian Army, as evinced in its inclusion in early drafts of a 2017 rewrite of Army logistic doctrine.
This approach can be seen in the force design of Western armies which have typically centralised mass movement or technical activities, and decentralised those capabilities which operate at lesser volume as localised activity. An illustrative example of this logic is found in transportation where it is routinely applied: point-to-point and inter-theatre transportation is centralised at a higher level than local or intra-theatre transportation. This enables the concentration of logistic mass which, properly enabled by a responsive logistic management system, provides the greatest possible effect at a decisive point on a battlefield. Conversely those functions central to immediate tactical flexibility, or for those day-to-day tasks, remain available to subordinate commanders. The challenge with implementing this approach to logistics is that the massing of capability direct to the commander’s main effort presents an enticing target to an enemy with the means to detect and strike a preparing sustainment force. How we concentrate dispersed logistic forces, hoping to avoid detection and fire, to create sufficient logistic mass when it is required must be a hot topic amongst contemporary logisticians (see Survive First, Sustain Later and Thinking Small).
A third approach involves combining both methods. This includes ideas such as ‘area logistics’ where protected forward operating bases or mobile logistics elements, supported by a range of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, anti-air and other defences, are assigned areas of responsibility for the sustainment of nearby combat forces. Ideas such as the USMC’s ‘Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations’ (EABO), as promoted by Centre for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments in this 2016 paper and subject to some contention, epitomise this concept. In this example, once operational manoeuvre allows for a force to be ‘injected’ into a contested environment, the EAB establishes a defensible node that can sustain combat operations. In area logistics, the question is less about drawing sustainment from a familiar logistic force, let alone a force from the same Service; instead the question for the dispersed combat force is ‘what logistic force is nearby, and how do I access it?’ This may mean we cross Service lines to share logistic problems, and become more comfortable with giving support to forces whom we never expected to support – even in a joint force.
No one method is suited to all occasions, as sustainment is a matter of context. Operations in different domains, geographies and against different threats, will always require doctrine to be questioned, and new methods of sustainment considered. This means that until we see a real technological revolution that fundamentally changes the way in which forces are sustained, militaries will have to be adaptable in their approach to sustaining in the field, in the air or at sea. Combat forces will have to be logistically disciplined, especially when austerity is paramount or after combat severely disrupts support, and commanders will have to devote considerable effort to controlling their logistic support. Supporting forces in dispersed environments brings the art of prioritisation to the forefront, and requires the commander and his or her staff to be cognisant of the condition and state of their own forces, as well as the desired objective so that the right sustainment capabilities are allocated when required.
As much as we might like to see technology as the solution to sustaining MDB, in the short term we must recognise one of the unwritten ‘laws’ of logistics – it is a command problem. Being a command problem, effective performance in logistics also relates to the capacity of logisticians and leaders to make timely and appropriate decisions on prioritisation and allocation. They and their logistic staff must be empowered and enabled by access to information which allows them to make the best quality decision they can as limited logistic forces are directed to support dispersed combat elements. Future logistics information systems will be key in this process. If logisticians aren’t able to make decisions based upon efficiency, success in battle will be dependent upon the wasteful practice of over-allocating logistic resources. Over-allocation results in excessive stocks or logistic capabilities being held, increasing the logistic footprint. Even if the over-accumulation of supplies and logistic resources occurs without becoming a targetable vulnerability, wasteful behaviour with respect to sustainment always erodes the flexibility of the force. This limits the resources, indeed options, available to exploit successes or prevent failures, or the redirecting of usually limited supplies and capabilities to the places where they are most needed.
There are no easy answers to sustaining MDB, although there have never been easy answers to sustaining combat operations in general. The effectiveness of logistic supports depends upon a range of contextual factors at the best of times. However, the scenarios painted in the MDB concepts suggest forces will have to operate in environments of greater austerity than they are used to, and the efficient use of logistic capabilities will be increasingly critical to success. The prioritisation and allocation of sustainment effort is just as relevant for air and naval forces as it is to land forces, as they consider the wars of the future. While they do consider the methods of sustaining MDB or joint operational concepts, it is also worthwhile to ask how each can better support one another in a joint fashion, thereby alleviating some of the burden of austerity, and making the prioritisation and allocation decisions easier for operational commanders. It certainly seems that if we thought logistic operations in recent wars might have been complex enough, there does not appear to be any relief over the horizon.
David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer, logistician and Senior Editor of ‘Logistics In War’. He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army or the Australian government.