LIW Editorial – SSI, Strategy Bridge and the quartermasters claim on history

In Military Logistics and Strategic Performance Thomas Kane wrote that the ‘quartermaster’s claim on history may, at its root, lie in the effect of logistics on timing.’[1] Moreover, ‘[t]he longer a nation requires to bring its force to bear, the more time its enemies have to seize whatever objectives they consider desirable.’[2] In other words, the rapidity of supply of forces as well as their movement determines what forces may be able to achieve, but also the options available to the enemy. The faster that a side can act, the greater the freedom they will have to ‘choose the time, place and manner of battle.’[3] Logistics does not ‘compete with strategy and tactics’ but logistical factors such as movements and supply certainly ‘determine which side will be able to mount the type of warfare it is best fitted to win.’[4]

Logistics In War has examined strategic mobility in the context of capability choices in The cost of combat power: weapons, weight and sustainment in multi-domain battle by David Beaumont and with respect to operations in Task Force Eagle – V Corps deployment to Bosnia and logistic cost by James Davis. Over the last week two great articles on the topic of mobility, supply and transportation have been published elsewhere that are worthy of your attention and continuing the discussion.

USAF Officer Jobie Turner in The temptations of the brown box at The Strategy Bridge contends the it is time for strategists to ‘pause and consider the permissive environment that has existed for over 70 years in both war and commercial enterprise’. Referring to the inclusion of modern and emerging logistics technologies in future concepts, Turner believes that an American natural advantage in materiel delivery has created a positive bias when it comes to expectations as to how such capabilities and concepts might perform. This culture has emerged as a consequence of the immense US industrial base, and strategic mobility forces that offer unparalleled expeditionary capability. Similarly, he notes that the assumption of logistical superiority ‘is so ingrained in the way the military approaches problems that even minor hiccups in delivery of bullets and beans to troops is considered anathema to the American way of warfare’.

This view implies risks are being overlooked, and comfortable assumptions are being made concerning the sustainment of military operations. Turner argues that we must avoid overestimating the benefits of logistics technology and spend more time understanding the ‘physics’ of logistics. He cites the technical scepticism of Martin Van Creveld in Supplying War, that logistics tends to overpromise and un-deliver according to a ‘law of diminishing returns’ involved with the increasing complexity of technology (also another LIW topic here). ‘As with all technological applications to war’, Turner concludes in his excellent piece, ‘those that improve logistics must be approached with skepticism and critical thinking’. Technology is always vital in logistics performance, but its employment must be the subject of serious planning.

The second article comes from Parameters where the theme of ‘Army expansibility’ and mobilisation is a core topic amongst a number of articles. In US Air Force airlift and the Army’s relevance Dr Robert C. Owen examines the joint nature of strategic mobility; arguing that the US Army must invest itself deeply in capability discussions elsewhere when it comes to its ‘global responsiveness’ and in the context of ‘expeditionary maneuvre’. These ideas, once again, must be shaped by an understanding of logistical physics. He cites an airlift planning adage, ‘the Army does not have light units; it has heavy and incredibly heavy units’.[5] Therefore, it is essential that the US Army must fully invest itself in Air Force capability debates, ensuring that the USAF is well aware of land force goals and requirements.

With this in mind, Owen investigates the numerous operational and tactical concepts being developed in the US Army and counterpoises this with the need for robust air mobility to make such concepts viable. The ‘challenging qualitiative requirements for airlift support under austere conditions’ in areas of ‘A2/AD’ threat, a vital component in the planning assumptions behind the multi-domain battle concept, are considered particularly demanding on air mobility elements.[6]  A variety of alternative airlift capabilities cognisant of these concepts might be required, with new Joint arrangements instituted to better coordinate the modernisation of capabilities essential for force projection.

Strategic mobility is a perennial challenge that all militaries face; the desire to deploy forces and supplies into a theatre is bottomless, with any extra capacity in mobility usually consumed in increasing the rapidity of deployment. The insufficiency of transport is a feature in virtually every major post operation report of recent wars and operations, and should be fundamental concern for armies. The conversation started by Owen is an important one for land forces as develop their concepts, procure their materiel and consider their tactics. Furthermore, it is also a reminder that resolving this insufficiency will be a joint problem; the development of capability within Service ‘silo’ must be done so appreciating the limitations on its use imposed by capabilities elsewhere. Whatever the arrangements may be to produce modernised combat forces, strategic mobility concerns are certainly worthy of greater attention than they sometimes receive.

Two interesting articles that once again reinforce logistics is, as Thomas Kane describes, the ‘arbiter of opportunity’.

Feature image by the Australian Department of Defence.

[1] Kane, T., Military logistics and strategic performance, Frank Cass Publishing, UK, 2001, p 8

[2] Ibid., p 8

[3] Ibid, p 8

[4] Ibid., pp 9,10

[5] Owen, R., ‘US Air Force airlift and the Army’s relevance’ from Parameters, 47(2), Summer 2017, Strategic Studies Institute, USA, 2017, p 103

[6] Ibid., p 105

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