Committing to preparedness, and the balance between ‘all of it’ and ‘just enough’

By David Beaumont.

Logistics In War has been exploring preparedness and logistics in a series of articles over the last three months. The role of logistics in preparedness is self-evident. However, while we know that this is the case, it has been difficult to rationally or accurately state why it is or ‘how much logistics is truly enough?’. On one hand, it is tempting to answer ‘all of it’. It certainly helps to have ample logistics support at the outset of a crisis or in response to a contingency, but it is also wise to use resources sparingly and at the time their value is highest. Alternatively, it is also tempting to answer ‘just enough’. Yet giving this answer also requires a tremendous ability for insight as to future requirements. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. This series on logistics and preparedness aimed to allow for a gross calibration of the truth; before concluding the series with a few thoughts on major shortcomings in preparing militaries for their operations, let’s recap the previous posts.

The water in the well – how much logistics readiness is enough?’ started with why logistics is an understated yet central feature in the contemporary discussion about strategic competition. We’re in a time where commentators are discussing strategic logistics from the resilience of defence industry to the way in which modern capabilities are integrated into forces; from force posture to the marshalling of strategic resources such as fuel and ammunition. The ability for a military to respond quickly depends upon its ability to mobilise resources, national support base capability and to give support where it is required, as soon as it is required. This is the playground of logisticians who attempt to control a ‘system of activities, capabilities and processes that connect the national economy to the battlefield’, establishing a ‘well’ from which the force draws its combat potential or firepower. Together, with a range of others who contribute in the policy-space to the commanders who provide direction and intent, they establish logistics readiness being:

The ability to undertake, to build up and thereafter to sustain combat operations at the full potential of forces.

So, how successful have militaries been at working out a satisfactory level of logistics readiness? In part two of the series, ‘Burying the hero – how logistics and readiness changed war, we confirmed that in the context of Western militaries the answer is a reserved ‘well enough’. Perhaps the conclusion is that these Western militaries have learned that logistics increasingly influences operations as forces become more technical, as combat power per person increases, and force projection is incredibly logistically demanding. The assumptions we make based upon our views of the sustainment requirements of earlier wars might not meet the new requirements of militaries that are simply getting more resource-intensive and difficult to sustain. I encourage you to read the article to see the important trend driving the sustainment of militaries at play.

Part three, ‘Preparing for preparedness – how should we begin?’, summarises six factors that should be considered to have any chance of meeting a high standard of logistics readiness. Militaries must get the force balance right – and the ‘tooth to tail’ ratio is important. We do, however, have to recognised that the ‘tooth’ and the ‘tail’ does not just constitute capability organic to militaries. Secondly, they must have the right plans and policies in place to support effective planning. More on this later. Thirdly, they must understand that ‘militaries limp to war’ meaning materiel readiness must be managed so that equipment and supplies are available when required. Fourthly, the logistics organisation must be exercised and be the subject of experiments which qualify risks. Finally, militaries must have a professional culture that shares knowledge and risks. They must be able to work with partners to clearly articulate issues and develop solutions collegiately.

Return of HMAS Farncomb to FBW

In concluding the series, I thought I would address some of the major problems and shortcomings that prevent effective and efficient solutions regarding logistics readiness. Arguably, they are problems germane to preparedness more generally. Quite a few issues are raised through previous articles, so the focus here will be on resourcing readiness. Furthermore, they relate to how requirements are articulated so any investment is worthwhile.

Rational decision-making concerning preparedness suffers when the operational requirements guidance for the logistics system is inadequate. There comes a point where vacillating about the likelihood of a contingency or crisis starts to consume readiness, or when a concept full of non-committal jargon detracts from efficient logistics planning. This problem is exacerbated by inadequate or compromised logistics information systems and analytical tools that would normally be used to react effectively and efficiently to any requirements given, or contingency requirements encountered. Because logistics is a product of context, the more specific any guidance given, the better. There is good reason to give it, even discounting the operational or preparedness needs. When guidance is imprecise there is little reason for logistics system to be refined by military organisations, nor the logistics system held to the strategic requirements desired.

Secondly, it is reasonable that military leaders – even Governments – ask what the value of an investment in logistics preparedness gives them. This is a question that is often considered in terms of the maintenance of reserve stocks of materiel where the value is not always evident to senior decision-makers. These leaders must make trade-offs with respect to Defence resources and vacuous analysis provided by logisticians and others offers nothing to them in decision-making. It is not easy to answer this question without giving logistics capability and outputs a value such that comparisons can be made. This value might be set by preparedness policy, or other logistics plans and policies that prioritise the maintenance of capability. Whatever the case, any tools used to assist decision-makers must also provide the means to express the value or impact of logistics shortfalls.

Thirdly, logistics communities need to be able to respond well to external scrutiny. This means that they must be able to explain any rationale or justification for maintaining a high state of logistics readiness above all other factors. The series concluding here shows that this is not an easy thing to do. Irrespective, logisticians must be able to demonstrate the value of logistics readiness in a way that is operationally meaningful. Without doing this, how else can it be expected that an investment in logistics is meaningful?

Finally, there is the problem of contingency in logistics readiness. There has been a tendency in recent times to confuse major strategic supply chain issues with the day-to-day problems with supporting short-notice responses to contingencies. It is incredibly tempting to view readiness with the glaring light shining from the huge problems blinding out the many smaller challenges before militaries. National fuel supplies, global supply chain vulnerabilities and other vitally important issues in an environment of increased strategic competition cannot be let to obscure the things that are most likely needed a short-notice for the highly credible contingencies that might be faced. The things that matter most of the time will be high-use supplies and commodities, transport, pool items, communications equipment; the list is virtually endless. But it is an important list as tedious a list of logistics tasks it may be.

I hope you have enjoyed the series on preparedness and logistics. Preparedness is an organisational responsibility, but it plays on the mind of logisticians the most. It is important to understand the links between the two, and the fault lines that may lead to an unready force. This is the difference between a military that is able, and one that is little more than an ornament.

The thoughts are those of the author alone.

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