Hoping and planning for the best: understanding war without logistics

By David Beaumont.

In ‘Burning incense at a new altar’ and closing Logistics in War for 2017, I reflected on the state of interest in military logistics and why it was important to the profession of arms right now. As military professionals that continue to ‘burn incense at Clausewitz’s altar’, our continued emphasis on the ‘role of courage, leadership and the arts of command’ overlooked the strain such principles had been enduring since the first half of the twentieth century.[1] Victory was increasingly being determined by the ability of a combatant to bring machinery, firepower and mass to the battle. More personnel – whether military or partners from industry – were engaged in sustaining battle than participating in front-line combat. In peace, militaries were so consumed with logistics activities that the ‘business of defence’ had made every member of the staff a logistician in one form or another. Logistics was increasingly a determinant of strategy, while itself  influenced by the outcomes of strategic decisions. Yet we heard strikingly little about it.

Many readers of military history might look to statements such as these and contend that the importance of logistics in determining strategic outcomes was an idiosyncrasy of global war. In the post-Cold War era, however, the consequences of logistics miscalculation or failed integration within strategic or tactical planning could be regarded as far less of a consequence. The reality is completely opposite. Security is being recast as international logistics systems and supply chains contribute to the reshaping of the global order, and strategic policy intertwines itself with economics and industrial power to create objectives for the military forces protecting national interests (it has, of course, been ever thus). The growing logistics needs of combat forces creates pressures at a time where ‘small wars’ are being fought on a shoestring budget, where the increasing outsourcing of military activities binds operational success with the fortunes of commercial opportunity, and the growing complexity and diversity of supply creates troubling issues for military security.

If these problems were as significant as I make them out to be, you might expect we would hear far more about them. The culprit is not that the problems are inconsequential; they are just not written about. Our understanding of modern war is at the mercy of an academic debate which fails to address supply beyond discussions on technology, weapon systems and their use, defence industry and finding a balance between contract and organic logistics. There is virtually no strategic discussion concerning the ‘revolution of military logistics’ which accompanied the ‘revolution of military affairs’ in the 1990s, where militaries world-wide moved from a supply-based system to one that emphasised distribution and integrated logistics.[2] With hindsight we can see how significant this change really was, revealed most starkly between two defining military campaigns. The first, Operation Desert Storm of 1991, saw the transportation of near an entire national strategic reserve to an operational area thus ensuring a 100-hour war was possible; a war where logistics offered little tactical constraint. The second, Operation Iraqi Freedom of 2003, saw the logistics system falter during the advance at An Najaf, reminding operational planners that the contemporary logistics system based upon new assumptions and concepts was an entirely different beast.

There is little discussion – nearly a complete absence – of how logistics shaped the Western counter-insurgency operations which followed. With forces ‘hoping for the best, and planning for the best’, small logistics footprints and inadequate strategic consideration severely curtained British Army operations in Basra in the early years of its deployment in Iraq.[3] The need to secure supply-routes and distribution tasks restricted the frequency of combat patrols, and entrenched forces into ‘forward operating bases’ thus reducing the tactical mobility of the force. Similar experiences in Helmand, Afghanistan, were encountered.[4] More and more significant resources had to be directed to logistics missions, drawing upon helicopters to overcome lacking equipment and the state of lowering materiel readiness as the supply chain failed to keep up. Although there is little recorded evidence to substantiate, I contend that they are illustrative of the Australian Army’s efforts in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. The fault in these cases was not that there was too much logistics support requiring fortification; rather, it was the fact there was too little sustainment support meaning control over the operational area could not be assured by any other method.

We are now in a paradigm of logistics that requires the military professional to adapt once more. Commanders wait pensively at the mercy of supply lines, hoping that the ability to operate austerely will return to their forces. Logistics efforts over the last decade have been defined by managing global supply shortages, complex distribution systems, a reliance on industry to act at short notice to meet procurement requirements and adapt products and services, and with little appreciation of the role that logistics would eventually play in shaping strategy and tactics. Will the next decade of operations display the same characteristics? If greater political and military value is given to logistics readiness and other topics prior to operations, perhaps not. The problem is that in a highly constrained discussion about logistics, our study of war is patently ‘incomplete at best, false at worst’.[5] In a professional discourse flooded by strategists and tacticians, the academic and professional component invested in understanding logistics seems infinitesimally small. With inadequate knowledge of logistics and its timeless relationship with strategy and tactics it is understandable that we so often grossly underestimate its influence.

This year Logistics in War seeks your help to continue its offerings. It will continue to present articles on as broad a field of topics as possible, and to remain relevant amidst the public discussion on military operations. It will also hone in on three focus areas. Firstly, the relationship between strategy, tactics and logistics as it applies to contemporary war and military operations. Secondly, the professional development of the military logistician and the training and education required for future success. Thirdly, it will focus on modernising logistics and strategic preparedness in the context of the Australian Defence Force and its experiences of operations. If these topics interest you enough to contribute to the site, Logistics in War would like to hear from you.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer, logistician and Editor of ‘Logistics in War’. The thoughts here are his own. He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics.

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

[2] Erbel, M. & Kinsey, C., ‘Think again – supplying war: reappraising military logistics and its centrality to strategy and war’ from Journal of Strategic Studies, 2015, Routledge, p 6, https://doi.org/10.1080/01402390.2015.1104669. This paper is behind a paywall – apologies for those who may wish to access it.

[3] Ibid., p 14

[4] Ibid., p 14

[5] Ibid., p 22

One thought on “Hoping and planning for the best: understanding war without logistics

  1. Great insight on the bloodline of warfare. A major issue here is highlighted, the lack of logistics planners in operations planning causes a strain on a ccdr to execute!


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