Burning incense at a new altar – a year of ‘Logistics In War’

By David Beaumont.

Thank you for your patronage of Logistics In War and the interest given to the works of authors who have invested personal time and effort to write about a subject of profound importance to military readiness and operational performance. The engagement achieved across a wide variety of logistics issues, told from the perspective of a range of military experiences in different militaries and contexts, has been an incredibly positive sign. The contributions made to the site, done so from a genuine and honest desire to improve upon current practices in militaries, point to a conception of logistics as a not just a technical issue, but a matter of growing concern across many militaries and within their institutions. It is also a sign of military professionals seeking organisational transformation, and innovative ways in which improvements to logistics practices might achieve leaps in operational performance. With this in mind, it is worth reflecting on this professional interest in logistics and the reason why it is important to us right now.

Fifty years ago Richard Leighton and Robert Coakley, authors of the US Army official history Global Logistics and Strategy 1940-43 saw military thought clinging to two ‘Clausewitzian’ ideas:

‘that the primary function of the soldier is to use the tools of war in combat, not to fashion or provide them, and that material forces have not yet diminished the role of courage, leadership and the arts of command’.[1]

They asserted that such principles have been under strain since the industrialisation of war, and the integration of technological improvements into forces that offered the modern combatant access to unparalleled firepower. Secondly, courage and leadership were seen to be ‘losing the power to override heavy materiel odds’.[2] The victor in operations was the one that could effectively and efficiently utilise its logistics capacity to bring the most combat power it could to the battlefield. The importance of the individual combatant in battle was diminishing given the power of machinery and combat mass, with troops becoming increasingly employed in mobilisation and sustainment activities. Thus the Second World War was seen to be the tipping point where the more personnel were engaged in sustaining combat than participating in front-line combat. The ‘tail’ in contemporary campaigns now well outweighs the ‘teeth’, whether it be constituted by military personnel, contractors and industrial partners.

We are a generation of military professionals that continues to ‘burn incense at Clausewitz’ altar’, with a continuing emphasis on the human dimension of war, the weight of leadership and the role of the combatant.[3] I argue that this view of warfare is being revealed as increasingly incomplete and unsatisfyingly inadequate other than in terms of basic principles. The philosophical basis for the Western way of war emerged well before logistics was seen to be ‘nine-tenths of the business of war’, and where availability supply was less of a determinant of operational tempo, shock and firepower.[4] That there is only one chapter out of the one-hundred and twenty-five in OnWar with specific discussion on logistics is instructive of the limitations of this text. His contemporary, Antoine Jomini considered logistics as a principle component of the theory of war, yet also offered very little description on the topic. But this is typical of the works of the time. It should not, however, be typical of ours. Our interest in logistics must mirror that directed to strategy and tactics in an age where the latter are often determined by the former.

In complete contrast to the lukewarm professional and academic interest directed to the concepts of military logistics, we find logistics activities dominate much of what militaries, and their personnel, do daily. In war, logistics is the acme of strategy in the use of movements and supply to generate decisive combat power. Through the actions of commanders in control of a process of intertwined activities spanning national industry right to the passing of ammunition between soldiers in combat, military forces achieve their operational potential and firepower. This ensures combat forces are not just available; it will determine that they are employable. Logistics factors influence so many things from the amount of dispersal a force can achieve to their rate of advance, and the myriad of tactical options that a commander might have before him or her. No commander will perform effectively without full cognisance of the simultaneously constraining yet enabling characteristics of their forces’ logistics capacity.

The importance of logistics in the ‘business’ of Defence is even greater. Logistics factors are central to the development of the preparedness of forces as achieved through the six characteristics of logistics readiness – mutual understanding between commanders and their logisticians, the balance between logistics and combat resources and elements, effective governance, logistics organisation, materiel readiness, and through the testing of the logistics system. Military staff of all persuasions must deal with the complexity of logistics during the introduction of modern capabilities, the integration of military activities with industry support, and the realisation that no one person or organisation can maintain and sustain forces without the help of many others. Matters of money and policy, institutional behaviour and leadership make every member of the staff a logistician in one form or another, and every leader a resource manager. To expand upon Major General Julian Thompson’s idea, logistics is truly the lifeblood of military activity in peace, as much as it is in war.

The problem with logistics has that its importance is often recognised in principle, but eyes tend to glaze over when the subject is discussed in any detail. Just as it is important that this attitude to logistics concerns changes, it is similarly important that the language of logistics also changes to facilitate a more effective engagement. Commander and logisticians must avoid the temptation to discuss logistics issues from the basis of it being only a technical enterprise; where complex process and policies tend to obfuscate issues. With the increasing technological sophistication of militaries there is a real risk that logistics functions might splinter into fiefdoms of technical expertise, exacerbating difficulties in achieving integrated logistics outcomes throughout the military organisation. Secondly, if logistics considerations are to be given the attention they deserve, the positioning of logistics staff within the bureaucratic and planning staff will be vital to ensuring that their concerns are heard at the appropriate level. Logistics functions must not be housed in areas of defence forces where it is easy that their leaders are ignored. Fortunately, for Australian readers, I am glad to say that this problem appears to be lessening as a concern for the ADF and its Services.

There is certainly still a way to go with respect to logistics as a core pillar of professional military education and training, and a matter for regular professional discussion, but the prognosis is generally good. Logistics leaders want to take an innovative approach with respect to elevating it as a subject. As a logistics community we must go beyond the intent; the importance of logistics to the military organisation will be directly correlated to the way in which logisticians describe why it should be so. Succeeding in changing opinion will similarly be correlated to the personal and collective effort devoted to the task. The approach taken by all contributors to Logistics In War during 2017, however, is a positive indicator of the growing engagement within (and outside of) the professional community with respect to logistics in a contemporary context. It is certainly hoped that the discussion continues in 2018. The importance of logistics to operational and institutional outcomes is ever increasing, and I thank the Logistics In War community for playing its part.

[1] Leighton, R. & Coakley, R., Global logistics and strategy 1940-1943, The War Department, USA, 1954, p 10

[2] Ibid., p 10

[3] Ibid., p 9

[4] Van Creveld., M., Supplying War, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2nd edition, 2004, p 180

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