Winning the war for prosperity – the military, supply chain security and the post-pandemic world

By David Beaumont.

Supply chain security is the concept which encompasses the programs, systems, procedures, technologies and solutions applied to address threats to the supply chain and the consequent threats to economic, social and physical well-being of citizens and organised society. – World Bank, 2009

Deborah Cowen’s book, The deadly life of logistics, describes the intertwined relationship between commercial logistics and security. ‘With logistics comes new kinds of crises, new paradigms of security’, Cowen opens, describing how the global logistics enterprise developed from Second World War experience has been employed by government and business to define the modern world.[1] The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to end the fragile order of international supply and industrial production for the short term at least. This event has direct existential and strategic consequences for Western militaries, but also requires them to be part of national economic responses.

This article is an attempt to consider a few aspects of this ‘new world’. It is an attempt to describe its implications for national security as it pertains to supply and industry, and otherwise initiate a conversation about how Western militaries might prepare for the post-COVID-19 future.

Supply chain security came upon us in the last decades of the twentieth century. A confluence of factors started the way the new world did its business. Globalisation was well in train, but economies adjusted to the opening of borders. During the 1980’s, a wave of deregulation washed over the Western world and national economies were exposed to global forces. Production shifted to those regions of the world where costs were low, and global supply chains became the veins of a system of wealth generation that stretched across the planet. A ‘revolution in logistics’, one shared by business but also the military as deployments moved rapidly across the global commons, was accelerated by ‘just in time’ view of supply. More stuff was moving, more quickly and to more destinations. It was a time of tremendous economic opportunity for those countries that could take advantage.

Supply chain security was not an idea developed by militaries to chart threats; it was an economic concept conceived to describe emerging vulnerabilities to normal patterns of human (Western human, mind you) existence. It has become militarised over time, a consequence of expeditionary wars in the Middle-east, the blurring of civil and military industry in a number of critical industries resident in certain countries, and in consideration of new challenges to the existing global order. There were numerous ways in which militaries have experienced this problem and concept, two of which I will describe here.

Firstly, like everyone else, governments and their militaries became wedded to lower-cost procurement options which became possible with componentry sourced and products manufactured where labour costs were low. In classical military parlance, the supply lines of most Western militaries moved from the ‘interior’ to the ‘exterior’; where parts where moved directly through geographic regions that had only years before (and now) been considered potential ‘battlezones’ versus the depots and production facilities within the national support base. Secondly, and maybe even unwittingly, internationalised production and logistics caused national strategic interests to expand outwards. This was not just a concern for military logisticians who were interested in where sources of ammunition and parts may originate, but for those interested in protecting domestic prosperity.

It is now naïve to think that geoeconomics and commerce is not a national security issue. It probably is the national security issue of our time, the driving force behind a veneer of ‘hard power’ concerns and other military-strategic problems. Prosperity is what nations ultimately strive to protect. While military strategists haven’t been particularly fixed on global economics, the problem of supply chain security has certainly been fixed on them.

Problems crept up on a new generation of Western national security and military planners slowly. Operations off the ‘horn’ of Africa to protect traffic from Somali pirates gave way to concerns about ‘anti-access, area-denial’ weaponry on significant maritime choke-points, which in turn gave way to the implications of man-made island building in the South China Sea, and cyber-attacks on defence industry. People understood the strategic implications of trade, but now its importance was re-emerging, almost subliminally, in often unrelated discussions. Sources of production were also becoming a critical part of the conversation. Volcanic eruptions in Iceland in 2010 and the Fukashima nuclear accident created shudders throughout the global economy, and all soon learned how vulnerable the connective tissue of the World truly was. Localised disruption to manufacturing now had global effects.

The economic cataclysm wrought by purposeful government decisions to slow the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new blend of the economic and military. An alarming lack of resilience in the commercial systems society has created for itself has been revealed. Military logisticians were already becoming increasingly concerned with the implications of limited sources of supply for the purposes of the armies, navies and air forces they belonged to. Now this problem has moved beyond a challenge to military supply and into challenges to ‘normal’ human patterns of existence. Although admittedly a guess, it seems a certainty to me that the strategic calculus about supply-chains, along with concerns for national resilience, will change. This will have considerable implications for what militaries must do for their nations, if not how they create capability in the first place.

Furthermore, the nature of military and industrial / economic relationships in Western countries will necessarily evolve. Militaries receive sizable budgets for the purpose of preparedness for war, and it is evident that governments will turn to the military to deliver some return during a time of national crisis. Militaries around the world are performing tasks they were patently not expecting to be performing; from supplementing hospitals to producing medical supplies. However, militaries are being seen to offer governments a point of leverage into the national economy. Defence activities such as procurement and capability development can be rushed ahead – albeit inefficiently and with excessive costs – of timelines to stimulate some form of local economic activity. At one end of the spectrum planned expenses will simply be brought forward. At the other end, it is possible that future capability decisions will be seen to renew, even re-establish, national industries that have withered since globalisation accelerated.

As we are seeing with the recent declaration of the US President Trump to invoke the Defence Production Act (DPA), governments are willing to co-opt existing military systems and processes to deliver economic outcomes. This is an opportunity that must be taken if the situation demands it. In the case of the DPA, an Act conceived to support mobilisation, industry is being directed to produce commercial products for national security purposes. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, and as nations recover, it will be critical that defence planners consider ways in which seemingly natural links between the military and national support base can be appropriately leveraged for highly unusual crisis as is being witnessed right now. Defence industry policy and other Acts of government can be the bedrock upon which national security responses can be formed.

It may be that at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and after the economic recovery erases our memory of the cost of seizing international trade, behaviours and the interests of military and other national security organisations will return to normal. Now, amid a pandemic, it seems incredulous to suggest life will be so kind. National security is fundamentally about the preservation of normality, and militaries will have an important role in assisting their society assure it.

It is an unwritten rule of military logistics start preparing for the time in which forces will return home just as they arrive on a military operation. Perhaps it is time to start planning now for ‘what comes next’, and to reconsider the national security implications of the globalised international economy. Speaking of Western military forces, they will look out on a world that faces great uncertainty as nations strive to quickly regenerate their wealth and ensure prosperity. They will be viewed as institutions of order and support, and their people as a symbol of assurance. But they must also start thinking about the next threats to prosperity.

In this environment we shouldn’t forget commerce and military practice in war has always been entangled. Alternatively, and as this article has sought to do, we shouldn’t forget that this rule applies outside of the fighting as well.

[1] Cowen, D., The deadly life of logistics: mapping violence in global trade, University of Minnesota Press, USA, 2014, p1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s