Six strategic challenges for Defence logistics

By Hayden Marshall.

In 2017, Logistics In War was privileged to have been given permission by the author to publish this essay. It is especially relevant to participants of the Australian and New Zealand Defence Logistics Conference and others elsewhere. Air Commodore Hayden Marshall was, at the time of writing this article, the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) Director-General Strategic Logistics at Joint Logistics Command . You may remember his leadership insights from the post ‘Surviving your time as a military logistician’. The paper was originally prepared to support the professional development of ADF logisticians at the rank of Wing Commander, Commander and Lieutenant Colonel and beyond, and was produced in the interests of stimulating discussion and thought on a number of questions. It therefore does not reflect any official position.


As senior logistics officers in the ADF, you will soon (if not already) be placed into key positions that will require you to make important contributions to shape and influence Defence’s logistics capability to be ready to support our current and future military objectives. This will require you to develop new skills, improve your understanding of Defence priorities and gain a broader appreciation of the bigger picture.

The purpose of this discussion paper is to provide you with a collection of potentially unrelated, but relevant, future issues that you may encounter in your future roles. The paper should also generate a sense of urgency to encourage you to better prepare (or improve) your networks and connections to give you the opportunity to review and assess industry (or international) trends as potential opportunities for Defence. This will not be a simple task, but will be made easier with ongoing discussion and active debate amongst the Defence logistics community. Current indicators suggest that the Defence logistics system will need to be more flexible, more adaptable and more resilient than ever due largely to anticipated technological influences, which are already beginning to have an effect.

At the same time, many of the basic tenants of our logistics system will endure, as we will still need to purchase, transport, maintain, store and dispose of stuff – how we do it and how we make use of the best available tools will be the challenge. Through an assessment of the issues considered in this paper (and any others), against a clear understanding of performance requirements and operating constraints, you will need to determine if Defence should be a leader or a follower.

Digital Disruption 

Much is made of the trends in e-commerce and the influence on the supply chain. Many commercial customers are expecting same day delivery for consumables as part of a drive to reduce overhead costs; therefore delivery options need to be effective as stock holdings by users are often limited or non-existent. Amazon continues to explore the use of Drone delivery for small payloads within a limited range, with the realisation that it will be the price and timeliness that will capture the attention of customers. The use of ‘big data’ and ‘cloud’-based applications is becoming increasing prevalent as customers and suppliers understand the possibilities. An interesting quote from an industry observer:

‘It will be especially important for logistics managers to truly weigh up the benefits of leveraging supply chain information against the ability to implement improvements to their logistics strategy.’

Technology improvements will also see a focus on supply chain tools such as beacons and scanners to streamline retail purchasing transactions and monitor stock movements back to the warehouse. Real-time updates to inventories will offer improved situational awareness and the ability for timely intervention where required

The growing use of 3-D printers in commercial applications will have an impact for Defence logistics. The previous challenge of resupplying repair parts to forward deployed units will be replaced with the challenge of resupplying printing media (plastic and metal), along with the computer hardware and power systems necessary to operate industrial 3-D printers. Also 3-D printers require highly stable platforms to allow production of complex items to high tolerance levels, which may not be feasible for deployed units that are operating in austere conditions. The US Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) is working on a program to ensure effective controls are in place for data packages that are only available to an endorsed network of commercial 3-D printers when they receive orders from US military units.

Access to reliable energy sources is necessary to operate current inventory management systems and supply chain hardware. Power outages in garrison or deployed locations already create problems and contribute to lost productivity. The criticality of logistics support to mission success will increase the need to ensure that appropriate back-up systems are in place to protect against accidental or enemy imposed disruptions to power supplies. Expanded use of power systems using alternative generating techniques (wind, solar, etc) may offer opportunities of “off-grid” solutions for both garrison and deployed situations.

Questions to consider: 

  • What are the trends from the retail/private sector that will have applicability in the military sector?
  • Is Defence well placed to monitor and understand future changes to supply chain management?
  • Who should be taking the lead to champion supply chain innovation in Defence?
  • Should Defence make more use of cloud-based opportunities for inventory management, as well as engagement with suppliers and coalition partners?

Cyber Security 

The “good news” stories associated with innovations in the supply chain generally have links to improved information management, computer software enhancements and more capable smart tools to deliver efficiency and effectiveness gains. The vulnerability of computer networks and smart devices to cyber attacks has received increased prominence, with several high-profile organisations subject to hacking and denial of service attacks. Many of our new Defence capability programs rely on participation in global logistics support programs which require an increased level of systems connectivity with external sources to process resupply requirements and provide critical performance data. The dynamic tension between open information systems to support timely data exchanges and the need for information security to protect national interests will be difficult to balance and will require significant work to understand relevant risks and mitigation measures.

We also need to be aware that potential adversaries are likely to have more than a passing interest in our logistics data. The successful aggregation of information from unclassified sources could provide insights into stockholdings and maintenance availability that could be areas of potential vulnerability or exploitation.

Questions to consider:

  • How does Defence ensure that commercial suppliers are adequately protecting their information networks?
  • What logistics information does Defence need to protect?
  • What are the implications for supply chain security resulting from potential cyber attack?

Globally integrated logistics

Our key alliance partner (USA) published a Joint Concept for Logistics (JCL) in Sep 15. The JCL “considers how an evolving Joint Logistics Enterprise could better support operations in a future characterised by the challenge of meeting unremitting strategic requirements with constrained military resources”. The concept proposes the use of globally integrated logistics to support future joint operations which will be characterised by the need to rapidly aggregate globally distributed forces to generate the required military effect. Globally integrated logistics is seen as the “capability to allocate and adjudicate logistics support on a global scale to maximize effectiveness and responsiveness, and to reconcile competing demands for limited logistics resources based on strategic priorities”. The logistics imperatives nominated by the US for the JCL are:

  • Global distribution network
  • Global readiness awareness
  • Responsive logistics planning capabilities

The realisation of this approach will likely require close engagement with coalition partners to identify opportunities to leverage logistics support from non-traditional sources. The recent increases in sealift and airlift capabilities in the ADF will not have gone unnoticed by the US, and whilst US military logistics capabilities are considerable, they may not always be positioned or available to meet responsiveness requirements.

Questions to consider:

  • What opportunities are potentially available for the ADF from the US JCL?
  • Does the ADF Joint Logistics Enterprise Strategy (2016-2021) – (ed. available to ADF members only – many apologies!) – offer sufficient direction to recognise US developments and develop complementary capabilities?

Valuing professional discourse

The pace and scope of technology-based changes that will impact supply chain operations in coming years will be significant. Maintaining overwatch will be important to ensure that the ADF continues to challenge itself and industry partners to pursue opportunities for strategic planning, innovation and continuous improvement. Commentary on Australian Defence logistics, internal and external, is very limited, so it is always intriguing to see a new title appear on news feeds. The recent Kokoda paper written by Gary Waters and AVM (Retd) John Blackburn, provided some interesting observations regarding the current state of Defence logistics and made recommendations regarding a lack of logistics strategy which in turn, inhibits efforts to emphasise the importance of Defence logistics to achieve Defence outcomes. The report starts with some very fundamental questions – what is Defence logistics and what does Defence logistics do? – which most Defence logisticians would expect are universally understood however, this would not appear to be case.

Waters and Blackburn also make a number of informed suggestions regarding future trends and drivers, as well as improvement opportunities. Interestingly, I have found no reference to follow-on discussions or debates in the Defence logistics community (or associated partners) that either support or challenge these ideas. Therefore, how do we value the contribution of these thoughts and ideas as they apply to the development of Defence’s logistics capability?

The value of public debate cannot be overestimated, provided that it is conducted in a professional manner. Effective debate provides the opportunity to consider credible options that may not be readily apparent and highlights areas that would benefit from informed research. Consequently, the field of operational research becomes increasingly important to be able to understand historical, political, economic and environmental factors as they apply to contemporary circumstances.

As another reinforcement of the struggle to gain main stream attention for defence logistics matters, a simple study was highlighted in a recent research paper.[1] The paper presented names of journals (US based) that had four or more articles indexed in ABI/Inform Global and Proquest Research Library-Business mentioning ‘military logistics’ or ‘defence logistics’ or defense logistics’ in the title, abstract, key words or text from 1952 to 2010. Details are shown below:

  • Air Force Journal of Logistics – 65 articles
  • Management Science – 15 articles
  • Military Medicine – 14 articles
  • Parameters – 11 articles
  • International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management – 10 articles
  • Journal of Business Logistics – 10 articles
  • Journal of the Operational Research Society – 9 articles
  • Public Administration Review – 8 articles
  • Journal of Public Procurement- 7 articles
  • Journal of Government Financial Management – 7 articles
  • National Contract Management Journal – 5 articles
  • IIE Transactions- 4 articles
  • Interface – 4 articles
  • Operations Research – 4 articles
  • The Journal of Military History – 4 articles

Of concern is the most prominent of the publications in terms of volume, Air Force Journal of Logistics, ceased publication in late 2012 with the disbandment of the Air Force Logistics Management Agency. Perhaps the “blogosphere” will replace traditional journals in the future and there appears to be plenty of room for new forums regarding defence logistics.

Questions to consider:

  • Should the ADF invest in targeted industry placements to gain an improved understanding of supply chain management from a commercial perspective?
  • Do ADF members understand the value of professional associations to enhance engagement with industry?
  • Where do you get your information to make sure that you are aware of contemporary logistics matters relevant to commercial and defence interests?

Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) 

Modern military theorists, encouraged by the ideas of William Lind, are citing the emergence of a new generation of warfare whereby sovereign states are losing their monopoly on war and future conflict will be linked to cultural, not sovereignty issues. The legitimacy of states will be challenged, wars will be undeclared and the contest will be more about the supremacy of ideas as opposed to traditional territory battles.

Third generation warfare is based on “blitzkrieg” or manoeuvre warfare following World War I. The tactics of speed and surprise to “bypass and collapse” enemy forces represent a significant challenge for military logisticians with high reliance on decentralised logistics to support dispersed forces. Therefore, what are the challenges of 4GW that need to be addressed by today’s (and tomorrow’s) logisticians?

An interesting observation by Parag Khanna, an international relations commentator, in his recent book where he suggests that supply chains and connectivity, not sovereignty and borders, will be the organising principles of humanity in the 21st century.[1] For both military strategists and logisticians, the challenge to understand supply chains and their dependencies will be important however, further consideration will need to be given to understand interests of other parties in the same supply chains.

With this in mind, how well do we understand our own supply chains? Through the work of Parag Khanna, I was introduced to some very interesting research by DHL through their Global Connectedness Index. The annual report provides a series of graphical representations of global trade volumes, information exchanges and financial transactions. These views confirm Australia’s vulnerability due to distance and stark economic realities as to where priorities lie. For a fee, there are some software products (e.g. Sourcemap) that provide end-to-end mapping of your supply chain that could provide a new perspective to identify risks and opportunities.

Questions to consider:

  • What measures need to be considered to ensure that supply chains are appropriately protected, as distinct to traditional military approaches of considering SLOCs, GLOCs and ALOCs?
  • Do our preparedness assessments appropriately consider supply chain variables?
  • Should the ADF be investigating the applicability of supply chain mapping tools?

Fifth Generation Hardware 

The ADF is presently undergoing the most significant recapitalisation of defence capabilities since WWII, across all three Services. Legacy fleets of hardware are being replaced by newer and far more capable equipment that will be managed under very different maintenance/support regimes. The recent announcement of the Naval Shipbuilding Plan provides a very clear indication of the proposed scale of industrial development activity that will significantly reshape capabilities in the two key shipbuilding locations of Henderson (WA) and Osborne (SA). The “industrial ecosystems” that will emerge in these locations are likely to present new opportunities for logistics support options.

The new defence equipment has less failures (comparatively) and periodic maintenance (preventative) does not need to be undertaken with the same level of frequency. The logistics support requirements for the future force will be fundamentally different to the logistics support requirements of the current force. Increased use of technology for systems diagnostics will ensure that maintenance activities are given clear direction and priority. In turn, supply support will be better informed of required stockholding levels. New materials offer improved protection and resilience for defence equipment. For many components, there is no intent to repair any damages, as it is cheaper and quicker to replace with new items. Nanotechnology is offering further opportunities for improvements in electronics, medical therapies, energy utilisation and environmental remediation that will also reshape logistics support requirements. Increased use of artificial intelligence will progressively replace many areas currently prone to error and bias that currently lead to sub-optimal results. In short, the future looks to be very bright.

Questions to consider:

  • What does this mean for the disposition of logistics support activities in the National Support Base?
  • What logistics support activities will continue to be performed by military personnel?
  • How do we make the transition to 5th generation logistics support?
  • Do we really understand the extent of change on the horizon for logistics support that is associated with new technologies that are no longer in the world of science fiction, but are today’s reality?

The six strategic challenges for Defence logistics

The list of challenges/issues/opportunities is not exhaustive – the intent of this and preceding posts is to stimulate thought and discussion – with a view to identifying other internal or external influences. Many of these issues are bigger than Defence, but we will need to develop plans that clearly identify how we intend to respond, along with an assessment of resources required to respond to the challenge. As a community, we need to develop the necessary policies, processes and tools that will provide operational commanders with the confidence that the Defence logistics system will be sufficiently resilient and responsive to support mission requirements. Increased levels of confidence provide the ability to more fully explore new and emerging opportunities to optimise the supply chain in all circumstances, while clearly understanding risks and vulnerabilities.

Hayden Marshall is a Logistics Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve, with considerable experience as a tactical, operational and strategic logistics commander and planner. At the time of writing this article he was Deputy Commander of the ADF’s Joint Logistics Command.

[1] Khanna, P., Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution. 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s