Burying the hero – how logistics and readiness changed war

By David Beaumont.

This is part two of a three-part series on logistics and logistics readiness.

In ‘The water in the well – how much logistics readiness is enough?’ I described the idea of logistics readiness as the ability of a military force to build up and sustain combat power at their full potential. Logistics, as a process, is the system of activities which begins in the economy and fills the ‘well’ with ‘water’. Through capability acquisition and integration with the national support base, through multiple Defence and military echelons, right to the battlefield; ineffective activities at any stage along this long line will compromise the logistics readiness of the force as a whole.

That’s the theory. In practice, however, attempts by militaries to develop logistics readiness have led to mixed results. Too few commanders have realised that logistics readiness underpins their strategies, or defines capabilities or the way their forces will fight. Some get it right, and base strategies on the capacity given to forces by their sustaining echelons, bases or auxiliary vessels. This article looks at how logistics readiness has shaped military success and failures, created the nature of operations, and most certainly the capacity of militaries to be viable as a force.

Well before petroleum and gunpowder, logistics grasped on armies and their expeditions. Donald Engels, in Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, echoes the words of Major General J.F.C. Fuller in his biopic of Alexander; supply was the basis for operational – if not strategic – mobility.[1] Alexander’s approach to logistics readiness shaped strategy, and the design of a force that could achieve such a strategy.[2] Engels attributes the successes of the Macedonian advance through Asia due to a focus upon movements to and from sources of supply, a reduction in the number of horses on campaigns to reduce logistics requirements, insisting troops carried as much of their own equipment as possible, and eliminating the practice of soldiers deploying with family members accompanying.[3] It was an expeditionary army designed with logistics in mind.

Roman advances through Europe and Asia similarly show what logistically ready armies can achieve. Jonathon Roth in The logistics of the Roman Army at war (264 BC – AD 235) argued that the Roman’s success didn’t just come from military culture, training or weaponry. Rome’s ability to provision large armies and shift resources at continental distances was the preeminent factor in the projection of military power. It came from the organisation of servants, soldiers, infrastructure and an expansion based upon access to private markets. Logistics drove the strategy of the most powerful nation of the time. In fact the logistician might have been more important than the strategist given that ‘the necessities of military supplies influenced and often determined the decision of Roman commanders at war.’[4]

The military profession became more aware of the link between a new conception of logistics, readiness, organisation and force projection as our root theories of war were written. Clausewitz’s survey of history, as well as the Napoleonic Wars, led him to write that ‘[t]he end for which a soldier is recruited, clothed, armed and trained, the whole object of his sleeping is simply that he should fight at the right place and the right time’.[5] In his chapter describing the ‘problem of supply’ he articulated that the means of supply could change the ‘form and factor’ of operations.[6] What was possible was shaped by what was immediately practical.

Clausewitz’s contemporary, Jomini, articulated that logistics occupied a leading position in the organisation and execution of strategy and tactics, and that logistics was not just the purview of staff, but of generals. In getting ‘men and materials’ to the front, logistics was centrally concerned with how war was forced upon an enemy. For example, Napoleon’s ability to organise his Army on the basis of administrative necessity by dividing it to support local subsistence shows cognisance of logistics concerns in designing the French Army – at least until he seemingly ignored it all and nearly led his armies to their end.

The transformation in the way that war was being fuelled and fought was definitive in logistics moving from the margins to one of the most significant influences upon success. No longer could a commander assume that the soldier could survive by foraging off the land. Supply was no longer part of a Clausewitzian ‘paper war’ but shaped important strategic and tactical choices. Technology – from the rifle, steam engine, gun to the internal combusting engine had changed the ways armies operated. But military commanders were increasingly pressured with logistics constraints when commanding these soldiers on the battlefield. Technicians began to be required in readiness, and forces designed around their logistics echelon.

Somewhere on the Eastern and Western Fronts of the First World War technology and logistics, hand in hand, buried heroic ideas of the soldier under spent ammunition cases, sacks of fodder, and equipment requisition orders. Industrialised, globalised, warfare saw the supply lines increasingly become the ‘how’ which shaped the ‘what’. We remember the First World War for its ‘storm troops’, the guns, aircraft and tanks, and the doctrinal revolution which gave us early combined arms tactics and intellectual reform in some militaries. But it was also won by raw economic power transformed through military logistics processes into tangible combat potential and eventual military strength. Industry had always been inseparable from warfare, but now the importance of it being ready prior to the first shots of war was blatant.

Supply continually occupied the minds of planners. Initially low levels of logistics readiness prevented strategic responses, despite the arms race that had preceded the war. This cost lives as it was much quicker to deploy soldiers into the field than it was to arm them properly. Initial ammunition shortages limited the ability of the British and allies to crack the Germans front-line; once mobilisation drove industry to full production two years later the problem shifted to one of available distribution capability. It took three years for the British to get in place before the guns could truly be unleashed.

Martin Van Creveld’s Supplying War describes that it was the mobility afforded by motorisation which logistics to the fore in war. The moment fuel was fed into an engine, the motorised or mechanised force became an arm of its logistics capability. Stalin reflected on the Second World War summing it by stating ‘the war was decided by engines and octane.’[7] Churchill exclaimed ‘above all, petrol governed every movement’. Fleet Admiral Ernest King, in 1946 to the US Secretary of the Navy, noted the Second World War as ‘variously termed as a war of production and a war of machines,’ but, ‘whatever else it is … it is a war of logistics.

In a world of rockets and torpedoes, aircraft and submarines, where superpower interests went global, force posture, mobility and preparedness made the connection between war and logistics more obvious. Logistics readiness was reflected in the ability to move forces at transcontinental distances, or through well-supplied forward positions and propositioning fleets of ships. Manuel DeLanda went so far to assert ‘modern tactics and strategy would seem to have become a special branch of logistics’ in 1991.[8] His statement was timely; in the same year the world witnessed a US-led coalition taking six months to move the US military’s strategic reserve to the Gulf region to set an operation which could be won in 100 hours in motion.

Operational deception and airpower might have been important in winning the war. In reality it was seven million tons of supplies and 5.2 billion litres of fuel that gave the ‘left hook’ of Operation Desert Storm form. The supply of refined fuels to Operation Desert Storm was that large, and the speed it was required so fast, it was highly unlikely that the operation could have occurred anywhere else in the world. Logistics readiness was a product of lucky strategic timing in this case. American logistics resources were at their zenith in the waning years of the Cold War, and the US had yet to comprehensively draw down its positions and supplies to reflect a new ‘peace’. General William ‘Gus’ Pagonis, the US Army logistics architect, popularised this episode as ‘moving mountains’ in his best-selling book.[9]

Treading into a time where strategic manoeuvre and mobility was vaunted, Western militaries recognised that the real purpose of logistics was to bring as much power to bear at any one point. The greater the level of logistics readiness, the easier it was to mobilise forces, and the easier it was to deliver a decisive outcome. Unfortunately, logistics readiness could no longer be based on the luxury of heightened resourcing and with the benefits of the forward positions of the Cold War had provided. Western militaries had to be mobile and lean, as had Alexander the Great’s centuries earlier, with a sustainment infrastructure capable of impossible flexibility.

In the US a ‘revolution in military affairs’ not only set in but was matched by a ‘revolution of logistics’ which sought to replace mass with velocity, where the ‘iron mountains’ of Desert Storm were replaced by a belief that adaptive distribution systems could supply a force in the necessary time. Logistics transformation was about reducing the logistics footprint.[10] The 1990s were a time where deregulation saw military organisations embracing organisational reform to reduce the cost of their back of house functions.

New business methods, outsourcing of organic capability, better professional skills and new technology characterised an approach to logistics that was believed to be cost efficient, but would also improve the mobility of the operational force. Rather than logistics readiness being underpinned by copious quantities of war-stocks or believed to be ‘bloated’ support organisations, Western militaries leapt at the possibility for a logistics system that employed what we viewed as ‘best-business practice’ and delivered the right resources, to the right place, at the right time. Logistics readiness would be underpinned by distribution rather than supply; computer-powered information networks that could tell what needed to be where and when rather than inefficient dumps of supplies ordered in sequential echelons of support.

Ambition met reality south of Baghdad. In 2003 the US Army halted for an operational pause outside An Najaf.[11] Though the advance faltered in a desert storm of ‘biblical proportions’, such a pause was patently necessary as the combat force simply outran their supply lines. The promise of a logistics revolution gave way to the age-old impact of operational tempo without adequate supply. Some units lacked water, others food, certain commodities of ammunition had been all but consumed. There were insufficient vehicles to support the dispersed force, and the combination of a command desire to keep the force lean and a ‘just-in-time’ strategic approach to logistics flirted with disaster.

The communications systems essential for command decision-making on the priority and allocation of logistics resources were incoherently spread throughout the force in an abortive modernisation program. Had the wars intensity been maintained beyond the thirty-day mark, even the most powerful military might have run out of ammunition. The ability to project sustained military power over extended periods of time required quantities of the materiel of war that militaries had, ironically, fought so hard to keep from the theatre.

At the time this was happening, the ADF and Defence as a whole, was emerging from its own catharsis. In fact, the organisation was reforming itself about logistics and command problems which emerged in its own operational experiences. Operation Stabilise / Warden in East Timor in 1999 required a rapid response, but the logistics organisation to underpin the deployment had been incapable of anything other than operating in a state of permanent crisis.

Twenty-year old assumptions about what constituted the readiness of the ADF’s logistics – assumptions that had driven force structure and preparedness choices right from the interface with industry to the tactical approach to logistics in the operational area – were challenged and widely reported. The preceding two decades of force rationalisation saw many of the capabilities which enabled a rapid response reduced to woefully inadequate dimensions for the ADF’s largest operation since the Second World War.

Two decades after this operation, the ADF is a very different organisation. Substantial capability gaps were overcome in the years after East Timor, and over the period the West moved its attention to operations in the Middle-east. Will it be enough to prepare the ADF for future operations, even war? It’s incredibly hard to predict whether it will be logistically ready for its next operation. As this article shows, readiness is a consequence of context and even the most adept military and Defence professionals can be surprised by an unpredictable world.

You might infer from this article that logistics readiness is so elusive a topic that it’s pointless trying to speculate how war might be like, or what aspects of the logistics ‘well’ we should work to make more resilient. Perhaps we should rely on our personal experience and judgement, and hope we can get it right? That’s arguably more risky an approach than attempting to predict the future and trying to design and resource a logistically ready force. An in-depth examination of any of the cases mentioned earlier would attest to this fact. It’s therefore critical to ask the question ‘how much logistics readiness is enough?’ while we’ve got the opportunity to do so.

In Part Three, I’ll articulate a framework to help us when we do.

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.

The thoughts are those of the author alone.


[1] Engels, D., 1978, Alexander the Great and the logistics of the Macedonian Army, University of California Press, USA, p 1

[2] Ibid., see Chapter 1 ‘The Macedonian Army’ for a detailed description.

[3] Ibid., p 119

[4] Roth, J., 1999, The logistics of the Roman Army at war (264 BC – AD 235), Brill, USA, p 279

[5] Clausewitz, C. von, On War, edited by Howard, M. & Paret, P., 1976, Princeton University Press, USA, p95

[6] Ibid., p 330

[7] Cowen, D. The deadly life of logistics, University of Minnesota Press, USA, 2014, p29

[8] De Landa, M., 1991, War in the age of intelligent machines cited in Cowen, D. The deadly life of logistics, University of Minnesota Press, USA, 2014, p 30

[9] Pagonis, W., 1994, Moving mountains: lessons in leadership and logistics from the Gulf War, Harvard Business Review Press, USA

[10] Ransom, D., Logistics transformation – reducing the logistics footprint, Strategy Research Project, US Army War College, USA, 2002, pp 2-3 at https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a404441.pdf

[11] See Pelz, E., Halliday, J., Robbins, M. and Girardini, K., Sustainment of Army forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom: Battlefield logistics and effects on operations, RAND Corporation, 2005 at https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG344.html

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