By David Beaumont.
One of Martin Van Creveld’s most contentious, and subsequently debated, themes of Supplying War related to the persistent inability, if not unwillingness, of various militaries to adequately structure and prepare themselves for the rigours of sustained combat. Others have seen this as a consequence of unrealistic expectations being made of logistics capability, the inability of logisticians to argue a case for investment, the general unwillingness of the organisation to accept their advice once offered, and the widespread misreading of the significance of lift and sustainment capabilities to numerous operational scenarios.
Logistics is one of those topics where it easy to get lost in the magnitude of largely organisation-spanning problems. Strategic logistics issues can be so impenetrable, and the difficulty in bringing the many Defence and partner organisations required to resolve them so high, that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The risks accepted in not beginning are, of course, high and err towards a professional negligence that ultimately costs time, resources and people at the time of a future war.
Militaries routinely encounters cross-roads where decisions regarding structure, posture and preparedness must be made. Some can be made ‘in-stride’ and are ultimately superficial in nature, or so internally focussed they are largely inconsequential to its capacity to respond to the crises before it. Others, unfortunately, are the consequence of significant logistics readiness issues that must be addressed if forces are to be strategically relevant. These issues determine whether the capabilities militaries spend so much effort in acquiring and developing have the capacity to be useful, or pose a liability. The also influence how quickly they might respond.
Western militaries are waking to these problems. A major report to senior US Defence leadership recently cited significant shortfalls in the capacity of the US to project military power. It’s worth dwelling on what it found. Firstly, it recommended conducting realistic wargames and exercises to reflect threats and the capability of the ‘logistics enterprise’ to respond. Secondly, it advocated to ‘protect, modernise and leverage’ the mobility ‘triad’ of ‘surface, air and prepositioning’. Thirdly, it articulated the need to protect logistics data which is particularly vulnerable to espionage and manipulation. Finally, it recommended that the US must increase its funding to logistics programs to make anticipated future joint operating concepts viable. At present, they aren’t.
We are witnessing strategic competition and threats are ‘accelerating’ in scale and significance. Nations are jockeying for the freedom to move and act without contest. Militaries are asking themselves, ‘what does it take to undertake an expansion of forces?’ and others are investigating mobilisation. It is self-evident that militaries must be prepared for conflict, and responsive to crises that do not require the exchange of gunfire. But now, just as there was immediately after the Cold War ended, uncertainty prevails. In this lead-up to whatever comes these militaries will inevitably find that many of their strategic problems are logistics in nature; the substance which really gives a combat force its form.
Logistics and preparedness
Logistics is an easy idea to conflate, as is anything to do with preparedness or readiness. These ideas can mean different things to different people.
Logistics is not just a mere ‘enabler’, nor is it a collection of capabilities that is appropriately resourced and nurtured assure that a military is ‘logistically ready’. The answer to our logistics problems could very well come from a greater allocation of Defence resources to some notable deficiencies we have in deployable logistics capabilities. But it’s also important to understand that this only addresses the simplest part of the problem. This is because:
Logistics is a system of activities, capabilities and processes that connect the national economy to the battlefield; the outcome of this process is the establishment of a ‘well’ from which the force draws its combat potential or actual firepower.
Logistics is a consequence of many actions and many things. As I’ve discussed at Logistics in War over recent weeks, logistics relies upon activities within the military and in the national support base. It involves mobilising resources from the nation and moulding these resources to national strategic requirements and military effort. This complexity makes it difficult to find the right place to direct attention to, who is responsible for coordinating this attention, and what the nature of any reinvestment should be at any given point in time.
Equally confusing is the concept of ‘logistics readiness’:
Logistics readiness refers to the ability to undertake, to build up and thereafter to sustain, combat operations at the full combat potential of forces. It is the ‘water’ within the ‘well’ .
Achieving a ‘logistically ready’ force is the sum effort of many activities undertaken in peace – from the efficacy of the modernisation program, the economic resources available for defence activities, the way in which materiel is procured and sustained, the strength of defence industry and national support base in general, and the processes and policies set in place so that Government, policy-makers and military commanders can control economic and logistics processes. It truly is a national activity, and one that Defence leaders must be stewards of.
I’m sure you’ll agree that it is incredibly difficult to identify how much ‘logistics readiness’ is enough when – as the current Australian Chief of Defence Force, General Angus Campbell once said – the act of providing one bullet to the front-line might require one hundred logisticians and numerous capabilities on the path from the factory, through multiple Defence echelons over the course of weeks before it even gets into the unit magazine.
Nonetheless, ‘how much logistics readiness is enough?’ has been a question not too far from the lips of capability managers and commanders since war began. It’s a question that hits at the heart of strategic policy, if not national military strategy. It has been a question asked because any form of preparedness, whether it be coached in terms like ‘logistics readiness’ or not, is costly an investment in resources. A prepared military is a sizable investment for any nation to have.
Preparedness takes personnel, funding and time from where we would really like to see them go. It can cost capability development and modernisation programs underway as funds are directed to capability sustainment or to assured resupply of stocks. We must, sometimes, resource preparedness at the expense of better equipment or new weapons, however reluctantly we do so. What we think will decrease readiness, might just be the thing that matters in an emergency response. A soldier serves little purpose if they are unarmed and without supplies. Therefore, it is important that we are efficient in how we establish the preconditions for readiness, but avoid the consequence of creating significant logistics risks that manifest in real problems on the battlefield.
Part Two, in coming days, will turn to history to show how difficult it is to tread this particular line.
 See Eccles, H., 1959, Logistics in the National Defense, The Stackpole Company, USA, p 290 available courtesy of the USMC here.
This is an edited adaption of a presentation given at the Australian Defence Force conference ‘Rapid Force Projection’ in April 2019. It has been adjusted significantly to suit the format here. Imagery courtesy of Department of Defence.
The thoughts are those of the author alone.