Where competition, modernisation and capability meet

By David Beaumont.

Thankyou, once again, for supporting Logistics In War. The last year has been one in which logistics has featured in debates on strategic competition, advancements in modernisation, and with discussions on the professionalisation of logisticians. The site appears to have found its niche, filling a gap ‘somewhere’ between strategy, defence institutional performance and modernisation. I sincerely wish I had the capacity to do more, but if the feedback I have received is a measurement of success, I think Logistics In War is in a ‘good place’. The purpose of the site remains true to last year – it exists to discuss logistics, contest ideas and to generate professional awareness of a subject that generally garners interest after the fact. I hope it has met your expectations.

Advocacy and engagement is always important. One wonders, however, whether the real problem with logistics is in the way it is thought about, or at the very least, described. Western militaries have had such profound experiences of war over the last century or so that they could be expected to have moved on from the longstanding traditions and ideas about logistics. They have adapted and learned, but in many ways, logistics remains a very ‘industrial’ topic. No matter the lessons learned, it is still very difficult for militaries to admit, as J.F.C Fuller once did, that logistics is ‘the basis of strategy and tactics’ and tread further from centuries-old doctrinal roots.[1] It will be this way while logistics remains an ancillary science, a technique, an adjunct capability, or an activity practiced by cloistered specialists. It will be this way without a language that moves beyond contemporary doctrine and its focus on movement and maintenance. Most importantly, it will be this way while it remains an idea owned only by logisticians. Logistics is a problem for commanders who must take active interest in preparing and sustaining their forces in war; commanders who are – quite rightly – the decision-maker and operational arbiter. For this reason, logistics sits alongside strategy and tactics as one of the pre-eminent components of the art of war. It is part of the art of command.

It will likely be some time before the military’s intoxicating fascination with strategy is matched with one for logistics, and where we will see military reading lists hold authors such as Thorpe and Eccles with the same regard as Clausewitz and Thucydides. Militaries would do well to do so, for though war’s nature might be eternal, its characteristics have long since changed from the circumstances which gave us On War. Strategic competitors adjust force posture and preparedness, deciding whether to position forces proximate to potential adversaries, or invest in strategic transportation to improve expeditionary mobility. The building of islands, the nature of armaments, the forward deployment of forces and even the arrangements which allow nations to operate on one another’s territories are evidence of the stranglehold logistics has over contemporary strategy. Supply chains are now areas of great strategic risk, where the seams of the economy and military are vulnerabilities to be exploited by adversaries using cyber capabilities and other forms of intrusion.

Just as strategic competition has grown as a defining theme for the military mind, so too has the dramatic transformation underway in militaries. The wave of modernisation breaks over forces as they recapitalise for future conflicts, and we are increasingly realising that our logistics requirements are so vast, supply lines so complex and opaque, preparedness needs so critical, and that our form and function has irrevocably changed. Costs are so high to acquire materiel that militaries are consuming sustainment budgets in the early stages of procurement. New fighters and ships are becoming that difficult to sustain that strategic partnerships between like-minded nations are support their economic maintenance; these partnerships immensely relevant to the formation of strategic policy and conceptions of national strategic risk. In the pursuit of ‘increased lethality’ even the once humble soldier has become so well-equipped that new logistics burdens have emerged. The proverbial ‘Rubicon’ will be truly crossed once automation and robotics truly delivers. The time in which the ‘teeth’ could survive on the battlefield without a substantial ‘tail’ is long gone, and likely never to be seen again.

The future is not to be feared, but the logistician must adapt to the times. Into the mix comes the prospect of a new information-age, substantially changing the way forces are comprised and sustained. The future for logistics is one where supply is replaced by information, where knowledge enables decisions which lead to the right resource being dispatched to the right place at the right time. Logistics will be a vital part of the ‘digital spine’ which binds the force together. This basic idea has been at the core of innovation in logistics since the 1990s, captured in concepts such as ‘distribution-based logistics. We are, without a doubt, in a period where technology can meet our ambitions. In the future, more will be possible. Consider how artificial intelligence, automation and robotics will revolutionise logistics whether it be through automated warehousing, unmanned casualty evacuation or instantaneous data-sharing to support tactical logistics activity. Think about what the average logistician will be doing in this environment. Just as we are seeing the need for ‘integrators’ in the command and control function, staff who assist commanders by combining multi-domain effects into coherent tactical actions, we might need to see the logistician as a system manager and integrator.

While there is opportunity, there is also risk. There are options available for militaries to greatly improve the efficiency of their logistics and contribute to their combat potential and readiness as a result. They must, however, choose to make the investment. Unfortunately, capability programs which include updates to logistics information systems, equipment and personnel tracking, and more significant pieces of logistics equipment critically required, are often considered low priority in comparison to what you might see included in a list such as the ‘Big Six’. Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) offers a cautionary tale (see here) with respect to the partial implementation of logistics technology, where the digital logistics control network caused as much confusion as it solved problems. Logistics situational awareness is a critical capability for an effective, modern, military let alone a way in which commanders can be given information to assess operational risk. In exploring new technologies such as AI, we might – as US Army’s Director of the Army Capability Integration Centre – Lt. Gen. Wesley recently remarked – actually find that our biggest capability opportunities will come from their roll-out in the logistics domain.

So, it appears there are problems aplenty. I mention four different – albeit linked – areas and issues for logistics communities to grapple with not because they reflect failures on the part of militaries, or irreconcilable gaps in capability. My purpose is to highlight four areas in which, as a collective, we might consider. They are topic areas that are waiting for professional logisticians to claim, promoting new ideas and thoughts which lead to quality solutions. In doing so, we can make our own organisations and military forces more efficient, and as a consequence, more effective. Undoubtedly there are many more areas that as professional logisticians or interested military commanders we can be investigate, or themes we can engage with. Participating in discussion, or working to inform others such as decision-makers, is a way in which logisticians can contribute to mastering their own destiny. Thankyou for supporting Logistics In War throughout 2018, and being part of this promising future.

The thoughts here are those of the author, and do not represent any official position.

[1] JFC Fuller, The generalship of Alexander the Great, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, 1998, p 52

One thought on “Where competition, modernisation and capability meet

  1. The US Army is launching its Futures Dave
    Command HQd in Austin, Texas. Will be interesting to watch and see if they can prevent bureaucratization in the organizational evolution as did it’s presecessor, TRADOC. Will also be interesting to see if logistics takes on an equitable place with strategy as you suggest.
    All the best,
    Chris

    Like

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