by Air Commodore Hayden Marshall (Ret’d)
In my new found (and very welcomed) capacity as an observer of life, I was agog (amongst others) at the recent behaviour of consumers and the “hoard mentality” that gripped the psyche of a significant number of people in response to COVID19 fears. What was the basis of their concerns? What were the indicators/warnings of an impending supply shortage? Why were some many people behaving in a manner that potentially jeopardised the welfare of others and for no apparent reason? There was no logic to the unprecedented demand for basic consumer goods that was later replicated in increased demand for selected pharmaceutical goods and packaged alcohol.
Despite the pleas from the major supermarket chains that there were no supply issues, consumer hoarding continued at dangerous levels. Interestingly, supermarket shelves remained well stocked with razors, deodorant and shampoo – obviously good grooming is not considered to be an essential feature in a post-apocalyptic world. The primary desire to protect Number One at the potentially expense of others appears to have been the primary motivator, regardless of strong and well supported messages from senior officials.
Consequently, I read with fascinated interest David Beaumont’s recent post “Toilet Paper and Total War”, which unfortunately also refreshed a number of other instances in recent history where competition for limited resources to support military activities led to a series of unintended consequences. I recall that pricing for building materials in Dili (Timor-Leste) reflected the influence of an extended presence of the United Nations and several large deployed western military forces, which not only impacted the local population and there ability to procure basic needs, but also the capacity of the Timor-Leste Government to fund important redevelopment programs. The ADF also found itself on the wrong side of a bidding war for ferry services during OP RAMP when Canada managed to guzzump an Australian ferry contract for the movement of Australian personnel from Lebanon to Cypress during a peak in internal hostilities – fortunately the impact was limited, but the risk to the safety and security of Australians was very real.
The desire to hoard goods is a natural default position, given the potential consequences of failure, regardless of the impact on others. In most instances, limits to budgets and storage capacities prevent hoarding to a great extent. So why do we see hoarding behaviour on operational deployments? In most instances, the shackles of budgets and storage capacities are removed and the demand requirements from deployed forces are often subject to less scrutiny. If the operational commander endorses the requirement, the enabling organisations will make sure that the material/service (and some) is made available as a priority. A lack of confidence in the capability of the supply chain by operational commanders to deliver timely results often results in a “store forward” mandate, regardless of downstream consequences.
I recall instances where repair pipelines were thrown into complete disarray due to formal direction to “store forward” unrealistic quantities of critical spares and repair parts – just in case. While the immediate operational requirement was perceived to have been satisfied, the long-term sustainment of the capability was often compromised to a significantly detrimental extent.
Whilst I understand that in most operational situations the “enemy vote” needs to influence stock holding considerations, the answer is not always to “store forward”. Those who were intimately involved in the redeployment of Australian combat elements from Afghanistan in 2013 will have no troubles in citing examples of huge stockpiles of stuff that were created through over ordering, poor stock management, risk adverse planning and a failure to recognise changing security conditions. All the accumulated stuff had to be managed through a variety of redeployment options at not inconsiderable time and cost. At the time the demands that were placed that lead to this inflation in stock holding levels, were other solutions given due consideration, or was the fact that stock was available off-the-shelf given priority before other options where effectively assessed? The obvious absence of competition from other operational imperatives made some decisions a little easier.
So how do we build sufficient confidence into the supply chain to avoid the implications of contradictory behaviours that artificially burden deployed elements with sustainment liabilities that are greater than their assigned capability? The key is effective data analysis, trusted modelling tools and a systematic approach that provides total visibility across the entire supply network. This will support an effective demonstration of probable outcomes during the planning phase based on selected COAs, supported by an ability to intervene where required. The “just in case” requirement is often applied without a full understanding of the implications. Whilst it is nice to be prepared for everything, this comes at a considerable cost that may well have been avoided where an effective assessment of history and predictive (intelligence) data can support other options.
The obvious need to routinely exercise the logistics system in parallel with the exercising of deployable military capabilities is paramount in order to effectively influence (and inform) tactical, operational and strategic logistics outcomes to an extent where (future) operational commanders have a full appreciation of the extent of logistics issues. Otherwise, the default option of “operational hoarding” to satisfy immediate command interests will continue to prove to be both expensive and unsustainable. The last time I checked, the global supply of “magic fairy dust” was in very limited availability.
Air Commodore Hayden Marshall retired from the PAF in March 2018 after 36 years of service in a range of logistics roles. He is currently unable to enjoy recreational travel, sightseeing and golf, but is spending his time in isolation catching-up on reading and reflecting on issues that may be of interest for the next generation of military logisticians.