The value of a moment – logistics and the acceleration of war

By David Beaumont.

‘Future advantage will lie with the side who can ‘own the time’ and best prepare the environment.’

–        Lieutenant General R Burr, Chief of Army, Accelerated warfare, 08 Aug 18

What is the value of a moment? Thomas Kane – writing of the ‘quartermaster’s claim’ on war – notes this ‘value’ depends on the skill of commanders, the strength of forces and the will of troops. However, he concedes, ‘the side that manages to act first has greater freedom to choose the time, place and manner of the battle.’[1] Logistics might not be a competitor to strategy or tactics, but it most certainly helps determine ‘which side will have the most options available’; to seize advantage, if not define the way in which wars might be waged.[2] In return, different styles of war require different forms of logistics. The intended speed of action, the distance and dispersal of forces expected, the types of weapons used and the nature of specific units can create very unique requirements which must be planned and prepared for. Finally, technology plays an important part in determining both logistics capabilities, and the requirements which will ultimately sustain the force.

The ‘value of a moment’ is becoming an important in an age of increased, and clearly overt, strategic competition between a range of state and non-state actors. Maintaining military advantage, if not the relevance of military forces, purportedly requires new ways of thinking about warfighting.  The Australian Army, like its contemporaries, is exploring ideas while sitting at the cusp of very significant strategic, technological and institutional changes. The short ‘Futures Statement’ titled Accelerated Warfare cites that we now live in an ‘era of increasing competition’, identifying four strategic pre-eminent challenges.

–        Firstly, Australia’s region is the site of considerable strategic competition and dynamic diplomatic, informational, economic and military action. This conforms to the increasingly advertised notion that the spectrum of conflict, from peace to war, is becoming increasingly blurred by competitors who are exploiting Western disadvantages and ‘strategic seams’. The ability of forces to sustain and project forces, overcoming distance and achieving persistence over time, is a critical aspect of military capability. Force posture, access to local resources in partner nations, the sharing of such resources in coalition, and strategic transportation underwrite a credible military response.

–        Secondly, military threats have become increasingly asymmetric as state and non-state actors exploit technology to strike at military vulnerabilities. Precision weapons and ‘swarming’ and low cost capabilities make concentrated (historically speaking) force postures vulnerable, and risk the brittle Western military force structures based upon high-cost, few-in-number but ‘bleeding-edge’ capability. Gaining ‘access’ and persisting on the battlefield, if not acting in a ‘anti-access, area-denial’ approach itself, will define the Army approach to warfighting. In this environment of rapid action and destruction the capacity of the logistics system to reconstitute itself and replenish combat forces and their potential will determine who gains the initiative.

–        Thirdly, the ability for militaries to use technology to rapidly increase the speed at which decision are made, using centralised information more effectively to assure ‘decision superiority’, commends a new warfighting philosophy. This has explicit connotations for logistics capabilities, where decision making is critical for efficiency, if not transformation in general. The longstanding goal to replace quantity of supply with quality of information, if achieved, will enable decision-makers and commanders to efficiently reallocate resources. The speed of logistics decision making will contribute to operational sustainability.

–        Finally, the military ‘domains’ are blending further with the increasing reach of firepower, and where even ‘space’ and ‘cyber’ influence emerging battlefields. As the US Army Chief of Staff recently remarked, war will become a ‘perfect harmony of intense violence’. Networks and effective integration, as described throughout 2017 on Logistics in War, will be critical to this end. In a multi-domain environment, the blending of the battlefield and the strategic logistics system will predominate. Threats, such as cyber, will strike at vulnerabilities often outside of the military’s purview. Effective integration across the logistics system – partnerships with other militaries, in the Joint force, with industry – create efficiency and improve responsiveness.

The moment the Army began to consider time and the owning of initiative, the importance of logistics capability and capacity was elevated as a function of combat performance. The moment it considered the important of persistence in response, as a factor, logistics capability and capacity became essential.

EX Predator's Run 18

The response

The selection of a name for the emerging Army concept – Accelerated Warfare – is instructive as to the capabilities the Army might seek to develop in the future, and the operational concepts and doctrine which may also be produced. Like other armies, the Australian Army will likely seek to improves its command and control systems, acquire new weapons that give it an ability to influence operations on the land and from the land, continue to improve its survivability, and engage in vital international engagement tasks with regional partners so to ensure strategic stability is preserved. Logistics transformation is briefly mentioned as a requirement for technological transformation, alongside force structure, future investment and mobilisation (or the ability of the Army to ‘scale’ in size and capability to meet an unforeseen or predicted threat). But what is the different form of logistics required to sustain a different type of warfare?

At the strategic level, the ‘value of a moment’ will be increased by a logistics system that is well prepared and flexible, with its constituent elements modular and structured in such a way that they can be easily reallocated and reprioritised. A more nuanced approached to partnering, especially with industry and the Joint Force – largely responsible for the ADF’s strategic logistics approach to operations – will be vital in this preparedness. Prior to conflict, the Australian Army should consistently invest in engagement with partner nations. This includes working with the Joint Force in the development of logistics arrangements that reduce the logistics forces and sustainment stocks required to support operations. Most importantly, it should invest ensure that there is parity in those very things that enable responsiveness in decision-making, so that the ‘speed of logistics’ can match the ‘speed of battle’.

Operationally, the Army must look to efficient ways to set, sustain and collapse theatres. Logistics forces must be designed to be expeditionary, rapidly deployable, and once again, modular. To protect vital, developing, anti-access / area-denial weapons and persistent land operations, the role of the combat force may become secondary and a protective force, bringing with it new logistics requirements. Theatre logistics capabilities will need to be easily dispersible and supporting an ‘austere’ fighting culture that must be rediscovered by the joint land force. This will allow the joint land force, as a whole, to do what no other force can – persist in the operational area. Operational mobility must be emphasised at all stages, enabling the projection of military power to where it is needed, but also to avoid suppression, destruction and defeat. Time will be on the side of the mobile.

EX Predator's Run 18

An Australian Army HX77 truck from the 1st Combat Service Support Battalion delivers a load of blank ammunition to a 7th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment combined arms team in preparation to begin training activities under Exercise Predators Run 2018. *** Local Caption *** The landscape west of Port Augusta became a hive of activity as the 1st Brigade undertook its pinnacle training activity for 2018 – Exercise Predators Run. Held from 3-28 September2018 at the Cultana Field Training Area, South Australia, the exercise required a unit of the 1st Brigade combine to split into multi-discipline combat teams and complete a series of scenario based “lanes” which encompass a wide range of military tasks. These tasks included the march to advance, obstacle crossing, attack, peace support and defensive live fire. More than 2,500 soldiers were involved in the exercise conducted over three weeks.

Finally, the operational needs will make the tactical logistics requirements particularly challenging. Small logistics footprints will demand an improvement in the ability to prioritise and allocate resources, and with the ability to move with speed and to disperse and coalesce whenever support is required. Interdiction must be prepared for, prevented or avoided, for if the logistics footprint of the force is to be minimised, the capabilities that are deployed will be individually more important to the battlefield outcome. Technology must be exploited to offer scale, with equipment such as unmanned and robotics systems enabling the land force to do more at a lower operational risk. Flexibility, adaptability and tempo will become the defining traits of logistics capabilities and the system which sustains the ‘accelerated’ battle.

As I have said before in the context of predicting future war, all, some or none of the above may eventually apply. Nonetheless, if we accept the well-founded assumption that a new approach to joint warfighting is required, and ‘owning time’ is its main feature, we must also accept the role of logistics in determining the ‘value’ of a moment. Accelerated warfare, and the discussion and concepts which are likely to emerge in the Australian Army, offer us a chance to reflect on the changing character of war and potential threats that forces might face. It is self-evident that the logistics considerations which will ultimately impact on any response, considerations which reflect the role logistics has on timing and tempo, will need to be foremost in our minds:

‘One should understand the supply factor as a piece in the strategic jigsaw puzzle. By itself it means little, but one can assemble other pieces around its edges until the overall picture takes shape. Logistics helps determine which side will be able to mount the type of warfare it is best fitted to win. Thus, logistics takes its place in strategy as an arbiter of opportunity.’[3]

–        Thomas Kane, Military logistics and strategic performance

[1] Kane, T., Military logistics and strategic performance, p 8

[2] Ibid., p 9

[3] Kane, T., Military logistics and strategic performance, p 10

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