Surviving your time as a military logistician

by Hayden Marshall.

Ed. – With the Australian & New Zealand Defence Logistics Conference in one week, LIW will revisit several recent posts on logistics at the strategic (and enterprise) level, or within joint organisations. 

It is no wonder that logisticians are regarded as a humourless bunch for they have spent many years living in fear of Alexander the Great’s wrath (and his successors) that famously declared that the logisticians would be the first to be slain if the campaign fails. The prospect of a slaying often has the ability to sharpen one’s focus at the expense of missing the bigger picture. Our success as military logisticians rests directly with our ability to quickly and decisively understand the needs and requirements of our commanders. This can also prove to be challenging at times as commanders sometimes communicate in a manner or language that differs from our own and at times, under less than ideal conditions. Nevertheless, one must persevere and perhaps the best way for the logistician to regain the right trajectory is to adopt a couple of logistics mantras.

The inane value of a mantra is that it can be extremely flexible in its application and its pithiness can often be the key to capturing the understanding of a diverse, and sometimes, eclectic audience. This collection of logistics related mantras (which are my own) is offered for entertainment, debate and to perhaps to help lift the shroud that sometimes confuses how we apply our trade.

Logistics mantra #1: It depends.

This is not meant to be a cop-out, but rather an important recognition that variables make an incredible difference in the world of logistics. Accordingly, it is very important to ensure that the full extent of the situation is clearly understood. If not, the potential for a dissatisfied commander and a confused logistician is high, which will only lead to tears and an interesting conversation about future career options. To successfully address this mantra requires tact, diplomacy and sometimes the ability to read minds to support the development of feasible options. The military logistician must also clearly identify risks and threats to ensure that orders/instructions are made on an informed basis. Experience over many campaigns (successes and failures) will help to prepare one to recognise where more initial planning effort is required.

Logistics mantra #2: Are you sure?

The delivery of military logistics support is not achieved without the expenditure of resources – time, people, money, etc. Getting something for nothing does not ring true in any significant military activities, so before any reasonable amount of logistics resources are committed to a course of action, it is worth checking that commanders are aware of the full extent of impending liabilities. Importantly, this is not meant to suggest that one questions or attempts to second guess the authority of the commander, but rather recognises that it is not uncommon to have competing demands for scare resources. Therefore, effective prioritisation is required to ensure that scarce resources are applied in a manner that generates the best outcome. Gifted as some commanders are, they may likely require some additional assistance to understand logistics capabilities and capacity limitations to help to avoid an ugly outcome. Careful examination of requirements and discussion with the commander is important to get the right balance against the classic trade-offs of time, quality and cost.

Logistics mantra #3: It’s never simple; there’s always complexity.

If military logistics was simple, then everybody would be doing it and I could have spent the umpteen years I studied logistics doing something else. Simplicity is a principle of war to ensure the application of clear logic and skills to ensure that concepts, plans and instructions are presented in a manner that avoids confusion. Military logistics problems that appear to be simple often quickly spin into major dramas before you know it. This is largely due to the reality that the successful delivery of logistics solutions requires collaboration and coordination across multiple entities, many of which will be outside of your direct control. Giving a problem appropriate respect will allow the military logistician to project an image of calmness, whilst working furiously in the background to leverage from an extensive professional network to deliver results. People may think that Sun Tzu was thinking about combatants when he contended – keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. I suggest that he had been closely observing his logisticians and the manner in which they skillfully applied their trade.

Logistics mantra #4: Logisticians should laugh.

This has absolutely nothing to do with logistics and draws directly on an effective appreciation of psychology. The disarming effects of laughter (at an appropriate juncture!) can remove tension in a group and help to improve interaction. All being well, this should lead to better outcomes. A little bit of humour can also assist to reinforce the notion that perhaps the current concept being considered does not have a snowball’s chance of success from a logistics perspective. Humour also has the innate ability to encourage other parties to join the discussion and offer valuable input, where previously they were potentially intimidated or afraid to offer a view. In other words, humour can be an important leveler and bring key issues back to a more sensible perspective. Plus it also makes the work environment a bit more enjoyable.

Since the time of the Romans, and perhaps beforehand, the application of logistics has been a challenge for all concerned. The essential nature of military logistics and the need for skilled professionals to support the execution of successful military operations is rarely questioned. However,  it is sometimes necessary to remind folks to not take logistics for granted. The skillful use of a mantra (or two) has the ability to focus the attention of logisticians and commanders to maintain effective lines of communication to avoid confusion, misunderstanding and incorrect assumptions, all of which could lead to professional embarrassment or more adverse consequences. The occasional laugh helps to put things into perspective and while not in keeping with Alexander the Great’s description of his logisticians, the injection of humour at the right time can break the tension and help all parties get to the essence of the problem.

Do you have a mantra (or two) that you find helpful in the successful application of logistics?

Hayden Marshall is a Logistics Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, with considerable experience as a tactical, operational and strategic logistics commander and planner. He prepared this article while Deputy Commander, Joint Logistics Command, Australian Defence Force.

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