Defining strategic competition – when logistics becomes a strategic weapon

By David Beaumont.

We are in an era of strategic competition. Then again, we have always been in an era of strategic competition. Recently Western militaries have contended that adversaries, real and potential, do not always distinguish peace and war. In the recently released Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff argue that the ‘binary conception’ of peace and war is now obsolete, and a ‘competition continuum’ now applies.[1] Now these same Western militaries recognise they must act in times other than in armed conflict, offsetting the strengths of other nations or groups who have a very different interpretation of what defines war. The reality is that they have always been acting within a competitive environment through a variety of measures. Above all else is logistics, which begins where military activity meets the national economy, and fundamentally leads strategy and any intent to use force. Indeed, it is military logistic activity which truly defines a nations capacity to respond militarily to its challenges, and most certainly to deter adversaries in a competitive environment.

The logistics systems which sustain nations and their military forces have always had a ‘deadly life’.[2] The architecture of global supply chains, siphoning national wealth through geographic areas of immense strategic interest to nations and others, have become focal points for national action. ‘Logistics cities’, major trade hubs and economic routes attract the interest of Governments and have become of immense strategic relevance. All arms of Government can be seen in action, using diplomatic, informational, military and economic means to shape how both commercial and military logistics might be applied to their favour. Supply chain security continues to occupy our minds as we intermingle our desire for national prosperity through global trade with our desire to prevent the loss of native capacity to build military capability, mobilise and sustain operations. In this environment it will take little effort for nations to exert influence, or strangle the capacity of a nation to respond to threats militarily. War won’t always begin when the first shots are fired.

Strategic competition has always been defined by logistics, and the credibility of a nation to deploy and sustain force is important not just for strategy, but for deterrence. John Roth’s work on the logistics of the Roman Empire saw military success a factor of the capacity to provision over long distances, and not just because of the virtue inherent in Roman military culture and training.[3] Having the ability to sustain forces effectively was both a tactical and strategic weapon. The ability to project forces throughout Europe and Asia was recognised by others, and conflict in a competitive environment sometimes avoided as a consequence. Two thousand years later the same concept applies; it is the capacity of the mighty US military to project itself on a global scale that deters potential adversaries, and it is why Cold War exercises such as REFORGER and the contemporary alternatives such as Operation Atlantic Resolve are vital at a time of increasing competition. It is also why aligned militaries watch intently as adversaries in competition develop new ways to move their forces or restructure their military logistics organisations.

The proximity of forces also works to deter and change the nature of competition, if only because it eliminates the challenge of strategic transportation from the equation. As economist Kenneth E. Boulding proposed with his idea, the ‘loss of strength gradient’, in Conflict and Defense: a general theory it is the overcoming of distance (but also time) through transportation which really determines relative military power against an adversary.[4] If it is impossible to project force from a homeland in a meaningful way, the next option for a motivated nation is to stockpile military resources locally or – better still – posture forces as close to national borders as is practical. These bases can be defensive, but most certainly also offensive, in nature. Behind the obviousness that a great source of competitive advantage comes from having ‘boots on the ground’ near a national border is the reality that the strategic thought process which led them to be in that location is largely, if not entirely, a response to logistic analysis.

Force posture or capability development are important in strategic competition, but the way in which nations mobilise logistics is vital. Though the degree may differ given the circumstances, nations are always mobilised and the logistics system takes resources from the economy to create military capability. In peace this system is generally stable and allosw for predictable results. When uncertainty becomes prevalent, or a crisis begins, this logistics system must be altered to direct economic and logistics resources to where they are most required. An adaptable system of mobilisation is thus an important criteria in any strategic offset. The manner by which the logistics process can translate national economic power into tactical combat potential is a reflection of a national capacity to compete, deter, and to demonstrate an ability to militarily respond. Therefore the presence of robust industry policy, the organisation of strategic logistics capability, the appointment of commanders to oversee sustainment and the presence of mobilisation plans and doctrine, attest to the likelihood of future military success.  These are not areas we typically look at when we consider how belligerents may compete, but they will certainly discriminate between the successful and unsuccessful in conflict.

And so we see competition play out in different ways, and for reasons that are often logistical in nature. One nation might build an island where there was none before, while another will procure air mobility platforms or ships for afloat support. Others will examine force posture from first principles, while another will establish arrangements and agreements that might support a friendly force at short notice. Militaries might be restructured so that the acquisition and sustainment of capability improves preparedness, or eventual operational performance, more effectively. Just as there will be an unending competition in the development offensive and defensive capabilities between nations, so too will there be unending shifts in the way military forces will offset one another through logistic means. At the height of non-armed competition, these changes in logistics systems will manifest in mobilisation.

As I mentioned above, wars won’t always begin when the first shots are fired.  The threat of armed conflict is always a factor in strategic competition; logistics capacity and capability is an important part of the calculus. It is vital in making a military a credible threat. It may be easy to see the beginning of conflict in national economic systems, but it can also be seen in the seriousness given to logistics within militaries, and in the context of how logistics informs, or conforms to, national strategic objectives. Strategy has been rapidly becoming an appendix of logistics, if it hasn’t been so all along, and logistics activities can be profoundly important well before the ‘conflict continuum’ approaches its zenith in armed conflict. And when armed conflict does eventuate, it will be as much about the fight to supply – the defence of the supply chain and the efficiency of the logistics process – as it is about winning on the battlefield.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer. The thoughts here are his own.

[1] US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint concept for integrated campaigning, March 2018,, p 4, 7

[2] See Cowen, D., The deadly life of logistics, University of Minnesota Press, USA, 2014

[3] Roth, J., The logistics of the Roman Army at war, BRILL, USA, p 279

[4] Boulding, K.E. Conflict and defense: a general theory, Harper and Brothers, USA, 1962, pp 260-262