Limping to war

Preparedness and its paradoxes

By David Beaumont.

‘Over time we lost strategic agility. Our units became hollow. Our ability to operate away from the Australian support base degraded dangerously. Our capacity to generate, sustain and rotate forces eroded. The tremendous efforts of all of the Australian Defence Force in East Timor concealed these deficiencies in the Army’s capabilities. But we learnt some important lessons during that deployment. We needed increased readiness, enhanced mobilisation capabilities, more and better strategic lift, improved logistics, improved engineering capability, better mobility, improved long-range communications and an ability to win water, distribute fuel over the shore as well as improved stevedoring and medical services.’

Chief of Army LTGEN Peter Leahy, 2004[1]

The importance of a high-level of preparedness to a military is self-evident. An unprepared military offers political leaders few options, corrupts strategy, is inefficient and ineffective, and poses a national risk. The term ‘preparedness’, or those associated with it such as ‘readiness’, is never far from the vernacular of senior military leaders – and rightly so.[2] It is mentioned as the first of five priorities within the Australian Army’s ‘Army in Motion’ narrative, just as it’s virtually the only priority for the incoming US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley (saying, in 2016, ‘there is no number two’). Given the frequency preparedness, readiness and other associate terms have been mentioned in recent years, it’s hard to avoid thinking that Western militaries have some pretty serious problems. For example, American commentators go so far as saying there is a ‘crisis’ in flagging a range of contemporary preparedness problems within the US Department of Defense including aviation incidents, capability gaps created with lower Defence budgets, and inadequate logistics support to the fielded force.

All militaries can be picked apart leaving deficiencies to be found, and some of these deficiencies might be particularly significant. But the reason these deficiencies are becoming problematic, and preparedness emphasised as an issue, is because of the changing nature of the perceived imminent threat. A comprehensive study such as the Final Report of the Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force on Survivable Logistics, one which looks at the roots of preparedness in the logistics infrastructure of the US military, was really only possible when a potential adversary – either Russia or China – could be identified as being capable of ‘catastrophic destruction of military supply chains and deployment of personnel and materiel’. As those militaries who fought the coalition counter-insurgency wars of the Middle-east adjust to new strategic realities, new preparedness requirements have understandably manifested with capability gaps emerging as a consequence. Given it is virtually impossible to design an armed force that can perform every conceivable type of military mission, it’s understandable that preparedness would become a major problem at this time of strategic transition.

Being definitive about threats or objectives certainly helps in answering the question ‘is the military prepared?’ Nonetheless, it remains a question that is difficult to answer. As with logistics, there is no single owner of the preparedness problem and different agencies, commanders and Defence leaders will often view preparedness outcomes as it applies to themselves and their organisations. In practice, and as highlighted by Dr Thomas Galvin of the US Army War College, the question we are really asking two ‘rolled into one.’ [3]

The first – the one that military preparedness systems typically answer – is ‘are the capabilities on hand prepared for X?’ This is what daily life in the military is all about; generating forces, individual and collective training, assessing capabilities and conducting remedial activities to correct any problems or deficiencies. Galvin’s second question is ‘are the right capabilities on hand for X?’ As Even though the capabilities on hand might be ready, they might not be the right ones for the situation. Thus what we might call ‘modernisation’ or ‘capability management’, a process which applies prediction through acquisition, plays its part.

I contend there is actually a third question which may be extrapolated from the other two. The ‘logisticians question’ and one recognised in the doctrine of many militaries, is ‘can those capabilities be sustained for X?’ Planners may have predicted the characteristics of the war before them, with capabilities ready to meet the threat, but the ability to deploy and support those forces will ultimately determine their worth. The reason this is important is shown in the exceptions and qualifications given to recent operational successes. For example, it is widely accepted that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) had little logistics capacity to sustain a large second-rotation force after intervening in East Timor in 1999. Similarly, a RAND report highlighted that while the US Army was nominally ready for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, there were real limits to the time in which high-intensity operations could be sustained – luckily, these limits were not tested.

Deployment_Limping to War.jpg

To answer the three questions requires different information, applied in different processes, usually with different management systems, with different decisions made by different leaders who value aspects of the problem in different ways. The ‘convergence’ of these questions can determine the success of the entire system of preparedness. This is because different preparedness requirements can be a source of competition for resources; modernising the right capabilities might come at the literal expense of the logistics resources needed to sustain them properly, or having the capabilities available at any given point of time. It’s a competition at the heart of perennial debates about funding the ‘teeth’ or the ‘tail’, the retention of ‘seed corn’ capabilities in militaries where the prospect for their use is low, and why periods of ‘bloc’ replacement of capabilities – right now for the ADF – are real risk periods for Defence organisations. This convergence might, in fact, be the strategic centre-of-gravity and the penultimate point of internal-to-Defence decision making and risk management. It is also what most strategic organisational restructures – such as the ADF’s 1997 Defence Efficiency Review, many of the acquisition and sustainment reforms undertaken in the 2000’s, or the more recent First Principles Review – are really about.

Preparedness systems are tension-ridden to the point of having paradoxical features. For the reasons mentioned earlier, trade-offs are common, and over a myriad of issues. For example, by limiting the issue of equipment or training to components of the force it might be possible to achieve greater things in other areas deemed higher priority. More significant is the paradox of ‘more is less’, where the desire to train in a way that approximates operations is paid through ‘evanescence and self-destruction’.[4] Routine exercises and training can achieve high standards of preparedness, at least for a time. There comes a point, however, where human energy is consumed, machinery is run-down, supplies exhausted and the performance of units begins to drop.[5] Accidents occur as risk tolerance increases and people and organisations are pushed to their limits to achieve results. Compromises made across the force create varied standards of preparedness, or obviate true assessments of certain capabilities, systems and processes.

Perhaps it is inevitable that militaries limp to war. At the very least it’s unsurprising that Martin Van Creveld could conclude that ‘most armies appear to have prepared their campaigns as best they can on an ad hoc basis’ in his assessment of logistics performance.[6] War is against the strategic planner when it comes to preparing forces. At any stage a Defence force might get any one of the three preparedness questions ‘wrong’, with consequences for the allocation of resources, interest or time. Alternatively, they could simply prepare for the wrong circumstance – or pretend they can prepare to a high standard for anything – and the entire preparedness equation can produce inadequate answers. The consequence of this could range from a delay to mobilisation as industry and Defence work together to fill a capability gap, or generate supplies and stocks to resource capabilities adequately, right to operational and potentially strategic capitulation.

The lesson from history is military staff have better uses for their time than imagining detailed ‘blueprints for victory’ well in advance of conflict.[7] Instead they should be focussed on the dull yet critical problems of mobilisation, identifying changing contexts, developing potential solutions to address preparedness challenges, and understanding the risks and limitations of any alternative options. Just trying to develop a coherent sense of the many variables that affect preparedness or mobilisation for war is challenge enough for any Defence leader and their staff appointed to the task; a problem made more difficult with the diffusion of responsibility for preparedness across strategic headquarters and commands. Peacetime should be spent establishing the organisational and logistics agencies and structures that enable a smooth(er) transition into conflict. There is no guarantee that the architects of strategy will heed the results of planning as events outpace the products of industrious minds, or proclivities and politics prevail. But the gruelling staff-work entailed in preparedness planning might just be enough to win in war.

There has never been a fine line between peace and war to simplify our preparedness and mobilisation decisions, nor will opponents wait until each other is ready for the fight. It’s clearly important to take preparedness out of the headlines and give the topic the attention it deserves. This article has touched on several of the important concepts concerning preparedness, but as we know from previous articles, there are a whole range of factors which influence preparedness outcomes. The reality is that all actions within a military lead to preparedness outcomes, bar the warfighting itself. This means that it is well worth the effort to make sense of the issue today to not only advise senior civilian and military leaders, but to avoid the costs of poorly made strategic choices.

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The thoughts here are those of the author, and do not represent any official position. David Beaumont can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics or LinkedIn. Images by the Australian Department of Defence.

[1] ADDP 00.2 Preparedness and Mobilisation, Department of Defence, Australia, p4-4, available at

[2] In Australian doctrine, preparedness comprises ‘readiness’, the availability of a capability at a given point in time, and ‘sustainability’ which considers how long that capability can maintain the necessary level combat power. Terms vary in different militaries, and it’s always important to confirm definitions when discussing preparedness.

[3] Galvin, T., Military Preparedness, US War College, USA, 2005, p 1; available at

[4] Betts., R., Military readiness: concepts, choices, consequences, Brookings, USA, 1995, p 70

[5] Ibid. p 70

[6] Van Creveld, M., Supplying War, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2004, p 236

[7] Betts., p 235

2 thoughts on “Limping to war

  1. This resonates with the recent RAND report “National Will to Fight” in that the cost of sustainable operations reaches far beyond the immediate stock’s on hand.

    Thanks and I shall mull this over for future posts…


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