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

Toilet paper and total war – the psychology of shortages and what it means for resilience

By David Beaumont.

The lessons that prepare defence forces and government institutions for crisis responses need not come from history books. Lessons can come from extrapolating what we witness every day; from events that capture tangible and intangible aspects of sustaining normal life. From natural disasters to global pandemics, Australia has had a tumultuous beginning of the year. This time has been socially, economically and politically testing. The impact of this turbulence on essentially fragile national logistics, commerce and industry capability is starkly evident and has forced the nation to consider its national resilience. The difficulty experienced in obtaining basic household products – toilet paper for example – as consumers buy in preparation for a state of quarantine that may never come, as trite an issue as it may be, starkly demonstrates how critical human behaviour is in the calculus. It is a perfect analogy with which to consider military preparedness and strategic resilience.

People naturally gravitate towards the idea that strategic resilience is about maintaining a buffer for emergencies. Inevitably, and for sensible reasons, the topic of national reserves or stocks (or, in the military’s case, ‘war stocks’) is raised. Enough stockholdings of strategically significant commodities is critically important for national resilience, just as they are for military operations. The absence of stock is, however, only the ‘front-end’ of the problem in a major crisis. In some cases, the maintenance of unnecessary stock levels may actually detract from preparedness and resilience; vast quantities of inappropriate strategic reserves consume money and other resources that can be used in other critical areas. Buffers, insurance and assurance (through planning and governance) are important for resilience, but there are intangible factors that need to be understood.

In military logistics, the greatest behaviour-based harm to logistics performance relates to trust that the logistics system will deliver, and from the impact of ‘psychological effects induced by the [original] deficiency.’[1] Even if the situation improves commanders will ‘certainly place pressure on their planners and on their own superiors to insure future adequacy of support.’[2] Commanders and logisticians at all levels will arbitrarily increase their demands, and others will do their best to meet the new requirement. Hoarding will occur. The military organisation – perhaps even government and industry – will rapidly try to respond to rapidly growing military requirements.

This sounds like a good problem to have; while having surplus production and availability certainly beats dealing with systemic shortages, logistics ‘scaling’ rarely occurs without problems. This ‘under-planning / over-planning’ sequence generally results in oversupply; wasting transport, clogging warehouses, limiting strategic mobility and costing resources that the force can’t spare.[3] It was a problem recently seen in the initial operations of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and was one reason for the ‘iron mountains’ of Operation Desert Storm over a decade earlier. If production or availability cannot increase, an inefficient transfer of resources from one area of the battlefield to the other can upend strategy. In these circumstances it becomes difficult for planners to direct resources to the right place, and what can be termed ‘brute force logistics’ – get as much as you can to the place what you believe is of the greatest need – comes.

The parallel with what is going on now with COVID-19 (coronavirus), or what was seen in the shortages of air purifiers and face masks during the Australian bushfire crisis this year, is clear. Australian consumers are fearful. A normally stable balance of supply and demand is upset by events, with consumer behaviour in panic-buying magnifying the problem. The ‘world’ is only at the beginning of its industrial and supply-chain response to the virus. Given that it is likely to have a pandemic on its hands, the production, transfer and management of resources globally is, quite obviously, going to be chaotic.

We’re waiting to find out what happens next. Some economists are predicting the global production output loss to enter the trillions of dollars, with global economic conditions likely to become recessionary. It is also possible that a huge multi-lateral economic response will lead to a version of the ‘under-planning / over-planning sequence.’ Governments may launch economic stimulus packages to deploy funding and offset a precipitous decline in trade. While I won’t pretend to know the answer as to what might happen in a pandemic situation, the ideas of military logistics can offer a window through which to observe the situation. We can, however, use the events before us as a window of our own to consider military preparedness.

What if the scenario was a military crisis rather than a response to natural disaster or pandemic? Imagine we were talking about spare-parts or precision weapons rather than face-masks or toilet paper. The simultaneous draw upon shared industrial resources by coalition partners might create ‘runs’ on necessary resources and stocks, for without these stocks military forces will be little more than a short-term buffer against the encountered strategic shock. Preparedness systems fail, logistics processes collapse, and command struggles to regain control. The purpose of Martin Van Creveld’s Supplying War seems to be found in displaying militaries in disarray, and Richard Betts writes of the ‘unreadiness’ of the US military as its first tradition in the book Military Readiness: concepts, choices, consequences.[4]

The ADF has experienced this ‘tradition’ in the past. Two examples in recent Australian military history spring to mind. The first was during the deployment of International Forces East Timor in 1999 when a massing coalition force drained the city of Darwin of hardware and deployable consumables, necessitating an ad hoc and inefficient procurement plan to be developed. The second was during the deployment of the US-led coalition to Iraq in 2003 where because Australia lacked the competitive buying power to procure commercial airlift to support the deployment, it arranged with the US that its Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) would facilitate airlift.

What if the scenario was severe still, and a level of national mobilisation required? Naturally we would see proportionally severe exacerbation of the problems above. Histories of the First and Second World war attest to the problem of over-mobilisation; where the rush to put personnel in the field, on the ocean and in the air outpaces the capacity of industry to provide them with the materiel of war. The increasing sophistication of modern weaponry, the high standard of materiel modern militaries expect themselves to operate with, the presence of an increasingly specialist workforce, and with lean force structures characteristic of periods of structural demobilisation, will make an incredibly difficult resilience challenge for a modern Western military.

The first losses of battle make the demand for materiel much more critical than the demand for manpower. It takes years to establish production runs capable of supporting the largest forces, especially as the manpower draw to the military draw is the same as to industry. But when industry starts to fulfil the need, it tends to do so in such excess that it is wasteful and a needless draw on limited national resources. The wrong things are produced at the wrong time and delivered to the wrong place.[5] The systems of prioritisation and allocation fail, and in the rush to do something good, the best intentions create unforeseen and unwanted problems.

Logistics and preparedness are defined by ‘tangibles’ and ‘intangibles’. These two factors conspire to create complex systems that are difficult to control, especially when the impact of human decisions and behaviours is taken to account. Until we have quantum computers and artificial intelligence to do the thinking for us, the best we may be able to do is research, study and observe the events before us. What we may witness in consumer behaviour in highly unusual situations is like what might be witnessed with respect to ‘military behaviour’ in a war or a military crisis. As ultimately innocuous as a consumer run on toilet paper might be to us now, the situation does tell a story as to how we might see our military logistics systems act in a time of strategic shock. Understanding how they may act ultimately underwrites military preparedness and, in the case of strategy and national power, creates the national resilience that ultimately determines success in war.


[1] Eccles, H., Logistics in the national defense, The Stackpole Company, USA, 1959, p 109

[2] Ibid., p 109

[3] Ibid., p 109

[4] See Van Creveld, M., Supplying War, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2004 (4th edition); Betts, R., Military readiness: concepts, choices, consequences, Brookings, USA, 1995

[5] It was these observations of the Second World War that led Eccles to develop his theory of the logistics snowball, often caused by the under-planning, over-planning sequence.

Preparing for preparedness – how should we begin?

By David Beaumont.

Logistics readiness refers to the ability to undertake, to build up and thereafter to sustain, combat operations at the full combat potential of forces.[1]

Logistics readiness is not just a matter of prioritising Defence resources. Of course additional funding and attention can improve the capability and capacity of any military force to sustain itself in peace and on operations. Preparedness metrics, strategic goal-setting and policy making also help. However, as logistics is a comprehensive system of activities and tasks, logistics readiness can only be assured by combining effective resource use with efficient processes, good governance, well-designed organisations with articulated authorities, and a willingness to address often unglamorous issues. Moreover, the attitude of commanders and leaders, logisticians and staff planners to comprehensively and critically assess the Defence organisation – a ‘blue force analysis’ – also influences the logistics system to function as intended. When capability and attitude are misaligned, and where understanding is deficient, it is inevitable that the investment of time, effort and resources into military readiness is wasted.

In Part One of this series asking the question, ‘how much readiness is enough?’ I described the interplay between logistics and readiness. Part Two offered examples where militaries get it right, and a number of examples where events did not transpire as well as they might. These articles might suggest to some that any attempts to devote time to addressing logistics readiness are likely to fail. For those that do, consider what might have happened without the attempt? Strategic responsiveness would suffer, and a slow mobilisation process to correct a lack of effort and rigour in peacetime could result.

The first step towards improving logistics readiness is recognising that it is a product of routine and organisational behaviour, as much as it is about the appropriate allocation of resources to assigned strategic goals and the development of capabilities. This takes the matter well beyond basic preparedness requirements such as the identification of commonly used, but routinely compromised, preparedness metrics including ‘notices to move’ for logistics forces and capabilities. Logistics readiness is a function of total organisational performance and efficiency.

Logistics readiness is therefore achieved by addressing six key factors that are applicable at all levels – from the strategic to the tactical. These factors are as follows:

Balance between logistics and combat resources and elements. You cannot escape a discussion on logistics capability without raising the concept of the ‘tooth to tail’. Defence organisations habitually compare combat forces to support forces. At times, these organisations can consider support forces as ‘non-core’ to operational outcomes. In the Australian example, this ratio has featured in every review of Defence undertaken in the forty years since the ADF was formed. As the ADF’s deployment to East Timor described in Part Two showed, it’s very difficult to get a balance between logistics and combat forces right.  Force structure requirements can change with different ‘demand, dependency, duration and distance.’

Eccles argued that ‘no problem presents more difficulty than trying to determine in advance the most efficient balance of logistics resources and combat forces that will be needed for any campaign’.[2] In reality, however, we don’t tend to start with the right question in the first place. What we should be asking before we embark on any ‘tooth to tail’ discussion is ‘how do we deliver the most combat potential or firepower at the time and place of our choosing, and in such a state we will be successful?’ Rather than a ‘tooth to tail’, perhaps we really have an ‘arm and a spear’.

As Dr Peter Layton wrote a very good summation of ‘balance’ for ASPI in 2013;

The planned duration of a war is an important consideration, although it can be very different from the actual duration, as recent conflicts have amply demonstrated. If a short war is anticipated, the focus can be on the ‘teeth’ as the ‘tail’ is much less important. The combat force becomes a ‘one-shot wonder’ with little in reserve or in the training pipeline. For a long war, a larger and more costly logistic system needs to be built up, a training system maintained while combat is underway and sufficient trained personnel held in reserve to allow rotations into theatre.’

We have to be realistic about solutions to resolving military force structure problems, as the answer cannot be a trite ‘add more logistics troops’. There’s no easy answer to achieving the right balance, especially when defence funding cannot be increased and more staff or capabilities directed to the task. As technology becomes increasingly sophisticated we are finding our capacity to perform organic support functions diminishing. Our ‘tail’ now incorporates partners whose efforts are instrumental to our successes, and for our operations in the future, we will have to develop plans, policies and arrangements to ensure that a high standard of logistics readiness and operational flexibility is maintained.

Logistics plans and policies. Assuming we do get the force structure balance right, we must also introduce the doctrine, plans and policies to use it appropriately. We must be serious about the possible wars of the future and start developing concepts and doctrine to suit. Governance and logistics reliability and assurance frameworks which ensure strategic and tactical concepts are viable depend on this analysis. This effort shouldn’t be dismissed as bureaucracy, as it is the basis for accurate logistics planning – the quality of which determines exactly what resources will be needed and when. In the case of rapid force projection, there will simply not be the time to redesign logistics systems without severely disrupting the way in which the force will deploy. Sometime adaptation will win us victory, other times it will do quite the opposite.

There are a few areas that do require additional attention. As I inferred earlier, one area most militaries are grappling with is the changing nature of its workforce and the integration of its intrinsic sustainment capabilities within the national economic infrastructure. We’re good at working with partners, but a technology-centric future force will have to be informed by good policies and doctrine that supports the flexible and scalable logistics support we require operationally. If logistics readiness is maintained through organisation stability, it is appropriate that plans and policies be developed to accommodate rapid changes to that stability.

Logistics organisation. Most large restructures of Defence organisations – such as the First Principles Review – are heavily influenced by the need to more efficiently and effectively organise logistics processes. In the wake of the First Principles Review, Defence has made progress in the way it modernises as a joint force. Defence and the ADF has adapted to operational needs over twenty years, and has a well-established ‘joint logistics enterprises’, an appointed strategic logistician and medical officer with articulated responsibilities, and Services who have acceptability responsibility for raising, training and sustaining the operational components of the joint force.

Time will tell how effective this organisation will be. In the meantime, we should study its strengths and weaknesses, and the how and why of its present design. This is because organisation influences the flow of information and will impact upon the quality and number of logistics staff devoted to the different tasks and efforts. Moreover, it will enable us to identify the right responsibilities for each component of the logistics process; given there is no one owner for logistics within Defence, accountability and authority are incredibly important.

Materiel readiness. It may be self-evident, but the state of our equipment has as much an influence on preparedness as that of our people. Militaries ‘limp’ to war. The reason they do is what Dr Robert Betts describes as the ‘paradox of more is less.’ The act of staying in a state of heightened readiness is not only expensive, but it can result in ‘evanescence and self-destruction.’ Readiness literally consumes a military waiting for war. There comes a point where materiel and personnel become run down, supplies are exhausted and organisations are pushed to their limits. Sometimes the best thing a preparing military might do is wait otherwise limit the use of its capabilities if it wants its technologies to be available when they are required.

Logistics organisation must be tested. It is impossible to understand logistics constraints and limitations if they lie un-examined. All militaries enjoy large-scale exercises, simulations and desk-top analyses but very rarely do they focus upon the logistics process. When a logistics exercises does occur, they are often confined to bespoke activities with limited participation, or results ignored for the questions they raise. In writing Logistics In the National Defense seventy years ago, and even after the lessons of the Second World War, Eccles described that ‘[t]oo seldom have the reports of these exercises included a realistic appraisal of the logistics problems and situations that would have been encountered under wartime conditions’.[3] Most logistics activities conducted during exercises primarily occur such that the exercise can actually be conducted!

It is important that when exercises do occur that opportunities are taken to assess logistics performance, especially in the preparation for these training events. Logistics is sufficiently complex that it is only through observing the system in action that gaps be identified and risks adequately prepared for.

Professional culture: Finally, and most importantly, logistics readiness is underpinned by the acceptance that it is a ‘shared problem’ that is only solvable through the mutual efforts of commanders and logisticians. Many documented problems experienced in ADF responses in the latter have of the 1990s and early 2000’s came from conspicuous, self-admitted, failures in the sharing of knowledge. Information and concerns become vital when managing risks; and managing risks is what military preparedness systems are fundamentally about. When any future force is designed, or as operational concepts and plans developed, it is essential that conceptual problems are clearly articulated and issues shared widely. This sets expectations and better prepares one another for challenges when they inevitably arrive.

Conclusion

Specifics will change in war, but effective logistics readiness can make a combat force worth the organisational effort to raise or comprise it’s design entirely. Too many highly professional militaries have dismissed logistics readiness as a higher-order issue, and operations did not proceed as well as they might have otherwise. There is always a temptation to focus attention inward and on what militaries such as our own do very well – preparing the elements at the forward edge of the operational area so that they may be re as ready as practicable. Yet doing so risks compromises with respect to the preparedness of the logistics ‘system’ as a whole, or creates a logistics process that is inefficient or ineffective due to poor practices and inadequate discipline across the military. Either way, the ability of force to rapidly respond to a crisis or threat will be constrained as a consequence.

There is a need for a much more detailed study of logistics readiness than the three articles of this series allows. That being said, most militaries already know where their problems lie. Readiness cannot be treated as a ‘buzz-word’ in a professional force. Actionable recommendations and actions have to eventuate in a future discussion about preparedness, conducted in a strategic environment where threats are indeed ‘accelerating’ in scale and magnitude. I can only emphasise that effective logistics readiness comes from a realistic appraisal of force structure, sensible operational concepts and doctrine, good policies and governance, and above all, an acceptance that our logistics problems require all to work together to solve. It must be supported by adequate resourcing, an investment of technology that is sorely needed, and with a critical mind applied to practices that might have to change as we face the future.

We may never know of the command decisions that might have changed wars had the impact of logistics on preparedness been better articulated and overcome prior to war beginning. In this regard, we start to venture into the realm of strategic decision making. In this realm logistics truly defines opportunities and choices, and can often be the true measure of whether a military is ready for combat.

Almost never will all logistics requirements be satisfied in an exact balance, and as long as this is true, and as long as military operations are governed by the finite, some phase of logistics is bound to be a limiting factor.

               Dr James A. Huston, Sinews of War


This is an edited adaption of a presentation given at the Australian Defence Force conference ‘Rapid Force Projection’ in April 2019. It has substantially altered to suit the format here.

The thoughts are those of the author alone.

 

[1] See Eccles, H., 1959, Logistics in the National Defense, The Stackpole Company, USA, p 290 available courtesy of the USMC here.

[2] Eccles, p 291

[3] Eccles, p 300

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

The water in the well – how much readiness is enough?

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.

1. The Bridge ADF

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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.

Book release – ‘Feeding Victory’ – Jobie Turner

By editor.

You may have read a number of posts by Colonel Jobie Turner, USAF at Logistics in War and on other sites. Jobie has written on the criticality of strategic transportation (specifically air mobility) to contemporary concepts here, and its future here. We are keenly waiting on the impending release of his book – Feeding Victory: innovative military logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh. It gives me great pleasure to advertise his book; works on logistics are few with the last major release being Major General Ken Privratsky’s Logistics in the Falklands War: A case-study in expeditionary warfare in 2017. A summary of the book is:

“An army, Lewis Mumford once observed, “is a body of pure consumers”—and it is logistics that feeds this body’s insatiable appetite for men and materiel. Successful logistics, the transportation of supplies and combatants to battle, cannot guarantee victory but poor logistics portend defeat. In Feeding Victory, Jobie Turner asks how technical innovation has affected this connection over time—whether advances in technology, from the railroad and the airplane to the nuclear weapon and the computer, have altered the critical relationship between logistics and warfare, and, ultimately, geopolitical dynamics.

            Covering a span of three hundred years, Feeding Victory focuses on five distinct periods of technological change, from the pre-industrial era to the information age. For each era, Turner presents a case study: the campaign for Lake George from 1755-1759; the Western Front in 1917; the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942; the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-1943; and the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. In each of these cases, the logistics of the belligerents were at their limit because of geography or the vast material needs of war. With such limits, the case studies give a clear accounting of the logistics of the period, particularly with respect to the mode of transportation, whether air, land, and sea, and reveals the inflection points between success and failure.  

            What are the continuities between eras, Turner asks, and what can these campaigns tell us about the relationship of technology to logistics and logistics to geopolitics? In doing so, Turner discovers how critical the biological needs of the soldiers on the battlefield, tended to overwhelm firepower, even in the modern era. His work shows how logistics aptly represent technological shifts from the Enlightenment to the dawn of the twenty-first century, and how, in our time, ideas have come to trump the material forces of war.”

The book can be pre-ordered for a 20 Feb 20 release at online books stores. It looks to be a great publication.

Making ‘self-reliance’ meaningful – preparing the military to operate alone

By David Beaumont.

The concept of ‘self-reliance’ has resurged in over the last few years.  I use the term ‘concept’ with meaning to separate ‘self-reliance’ from strategic doctrine. It truly is an abstract term and can mean a lot of different things to different commentators. On one hand it harks back to the Australian strategic policy of the post-Vietnam War years, but it has also been raised in recent debates about the limits of the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) capability, or even the nations defence industrial capacity.  This narrow focus of this article is on the materiel aspects of ‘self-reliance’, and provides a starting point for a conversation that the ADF must have.

Discussions about self-reliance or military interoperability, like many other conversations among defence planners, infrequently begin with a conversation on supplies, maintenance and repair, or other logistics functions or capabilities. Often these conversations end when the scale of the logistics problem is revealed. Interest in ‘war-stocks’ has grown with commentators showing scepticism of the capacity of globalised supply chains to deliver. The ability of a military to conduct operations independently of another’s aid is intrinsically linked to the capacity to prepare, move, supply and support that force. But it would be a mistake to think that the ADF can go into a future large-scale conflict, especially one that tests the upper limits of its capabilities, without the support of others.

Australia’s military logistics is intertwined with the strategic fortunes of its coalition partners. Much of the ADF’s weapons, ammunition and components are acquired from other nations. We’re increasingly witnessing major capability programs producing weaponry in partnership with others. Interoperability  is exceptionally important for Australia and its allies to function with flexibility. It builds resilience within a coalition by creating new options for sustaining forces, and contributes to deterring potential aggressors who might otherwise act against an isolated nation. Naturally, even more effort should be applied towards improving interoperability.

It is, of course, prudent to be as self-reliant as practicable. The Second World War proved, even in a coalition conflict there will be times the ADF will need to ‘go it alone’ and sustain itself as our allies resources are drawn elsewhere. We should expect the same in the future. Uncertain times – where threats can manifest themselves quickly and from unforeseen quarters – require the military to be as prepared as possible to react at short notice. Waiting for a friend to provide the necessary supplies to deploy may be impossible. 

It is therefore important for planners and policy makers to understand, right now,  what the limits to self-reliance are. How else can good strategic decisions be made if the limits of the ADF’s combat effectiveness and sustainability are misunderstood?

Part of the problem with the contemporary discussion on national self-reliance is that it has been dominated by monumental problems; problems that are beyond the ability of most to influence. National fuel supplies, prioritised sovereign defence industries and national manufacturing capacity, economic resilience in an era of globalisation; these contemporary, popularised, topics give us pause to consider major national security concerns in a time of increasing strategic competition. They have been topics of interest to Australian governments and strategists for decades, beyond the period in which self-reliance was ensconced in the strategic doctrine of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, and to the interwar period where lessons from the First World War reminded them to be prepared for national mobilisation.

The ADF, its partners in academic, industry and government, are at a point where they can afford to be specific. Commentators should help to reduce problems to the point that are actionable by the groups that can devote time and effort to resolving the problems of self-reliance. Importantly, this discussion must tread into the deep, dark, recesses of Defence modernisation with questions asked as to how long our impressive new capabilities, from the RAAF’s F-35 to the Army’s Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle, can endure on the battlefield of the future when our friends are far away. This article will briefly touch upon some areas which the professionally interested will have to tread.

Logistics has long been regarded as a crucial component of military capability, and the supply and support given to armed forces a major constituent of operational success. Logistics constraints and strengths can shape strategy, determine the form and means of operations, and if given nothing more than a passing glance by military commanders and civilian planners, will prevent combat forces from ever achieving their full potential in the air, and on the sea and land.

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As we seek to answer the question, ‘what can we achieve on our own?’, a really difficult question to answer, solutions to our logistics problems and concerns must be front and centre. A suborned view of logistics in this discussion about self-reliance is way out of step with the strategic reality facing the ADF. In engaging with this reality we might see that logistics is, in fact, a strategic capability in its own right.

What are the big logistics challenges to confirming our limits and freedoms of action in terms of self-reliance then? I’ve already mentioned some of the primary national security and strategic concerns above. Without necessarily delving too deep into national security infrastructure, what is arguably more important are the political and policy levers which set in motion the national endeavours that ultimately manifest in military logistics.

In recent years we’ve seen defence industry policy renewed alongside strategic policy, we’ve seen the Services develop close and valuable ties with industry partners, and we’ve seen a commitment to sovereign defence industries. Only time will tell whether this will be enough in a time of significant crisis. It may be a time to seriously question what full or partial industrial mobilisation might entail for the nation – or more importantly how to actually do it. Many years ago the Minister for Defence held a ‘War Book’ which set the ground rules for the process of mobilisation at the highest national levels; while a War Book or a revised approach to national security apparatus might be worth considering, this should not stop the military from developing its own plans if it must ‘go it alone’. In fact, it is it’s job.

A productive first step may be found in the understanding of exactly how long the ADF can sustain itself for certain contingencies based upon the resources it has at hand now. At the military strategic level, the ADF’s capacity for ‘self-reliance’ will be measured in the time it can sustain operations without replenishment from other quarters. If it lacks the warstocks or support capabilities to sustain its materiel, the capacity of the global supply chain to support the operational requirements will be crucial. There are some commodities essential for our way of war that we can’t produce nationally such as precision weapons and ammunition.

The problem for Defence is that it is very difficult to determine how self-reliant the ADF might be while global supply-chains are opaque and Australia lacks the levers and economic scale to advantageously intervene in global markets. It may be that in a time of crisis traditional boundaries such as intellectual property rights will need to be challenged, industry capacity seconded to defence interests, and projects redirected in new directions at very short notice (see here). At the very least ADF and industry should discuss how industry ‘scales’ in parallel with any adjustment in the roles, tasks and size of the fielded force.

It’s impossible to talk about coordinating this activity without commenting on the nature of strategic logistics control in the Defence organisation. Because the problems are large, the ways in which concerns on self-reliance will be addressed will invariably be pan-organisational in nature. Commander Joint Logistics Command might be the CDF’s ‘strategic J4’ or key logistics commander, but he or she must partner with the Capability, Acquisition and Sustainment Group, Estate and Infrastructure Group, the Services and others within what’s called the ‘Defence Logistics Enterprise’. Further into the military organisation, there are operational commands and those headquarters responsibility for preparing force (what might be called ‘force-generation’). Then there are a range of other units and users of resources.

Each organisation naturally has a different perspective as to what ‘self-reliance’ means, and there is always a risk that Defence will have difficulty identifying where its preparedness risks and opportunities truly lie in this context. Quite clearly the analysis of what the ADF’s ‘logistics limits’ are requires a coherent effort with solutions achieved through mutually supporting activities conducted across the organisation.

In the 1990’s, the ADF developed a prescriptive ‘Defence Strategic Logistics Planning Guide’ – a ‘Chiefs of Service Committee’ level document – that provided explicit guidance to each organisation contributing to national defence. This guide was based upon the ‘Chief of Defence Force’s Operational Readiness Document (CORD)’ that stipulated the scenarios the ADF should prepare for, and hinted at what resources would be required.  Perhaps a similar guide, issued at the highest level,  before embarking on any future analysis.

The strategic level challenges to self-reliance might fundamentally shape whether the ADF could perform in the way intended, but we can’t forget the challenges to operational self-reliance either. The most significant operational-level challenge to self-reliance, I argue, is with respect to strategic mobility. The ADF regularly seeks operational-level support in terms of intelligence and a wide range of capabilities that a military of our size simply could not realistically produce.

Perhaps there will be a time in which very long-distance fires will overcome the geography between Australian and an adversary, but until they do to a level that satisfies the desired military outcome strategic mobility capabilities will be continue to be critical to the ADF. Until then, the ADF’s strategic mobility will be critical to achieving a persistent response (whether that be on land or at sea) to an offshore threat.

Lift aircraft, helicopters, watercraft are all necessary if the ADF operates anywhere within Australia’s immediate region. Most of our partners declare their own paucity in strategic mobility capacity which suggests that even if our future conflicts are shared, we might still need to invest heavily in order to meet our own requirements.

On top of the mobility capabilities themselves, the aircraft and the ships and the contracted support we can muster from the nation, we cannot forget the ‘small’ enablers that support a deployed force. In our recent campaigns in the Middle-east, we have been heavily dependent upon our coalition partners for the subsistence of our forces. There is a real risk that our operational habits may have created an environment which gives false expectations of the logistics risk resident within the ADF, especially when it comes to conducting operations without coalition support.

As the Services look to their future force structure, it will serve them well to scrutinise not only those capabilities essential for basic standards of life, but the wide spread of logistics capabilities are essential complements to their major platforms. These include over-the-shore logistics capabilities for amphibious operations, expeditionary base capabilities as well those elements of the force that receive, integrate and onforward soldiers, sailors and airmen and women into the operational area. These will enable the ADF to sustain forces that are working with neighbours, create force posture options, and give the ADF the flexibility to manoeuvre to where its forces are required.

You don’t have to deeply analyse Defence logistics to understand that self-reliance is underpinned by the ADF’s – if not the nations – capacity to sustain and support its operations. The comments here are certainly not revelatory, nor are the allusions to the limits of ADF’s capability particularly surprising. For the ADF to be effective in a major war there is still a way to go yet, irrespective of whether it deploys within a coalition or not.

There is every chance that even if the ADF does deploy as part of a coalition, it will still be necessary for it to have a capacity to support itself. It is understandably important that we have a conversation about the limits to self-reliance in the current time of peace and think deeply about establishing the policy infrastructure and organisational arrangements that will enable us to make good judgements on what the ADF can or can’t do alone. Without doing so we risk logistics capability being reveals as a constraint on ADF operations, not a source of opportunity and the well from which the joint force draws its strength to fight.


This article is an expansion of an article originally published at ‘The Central Blue’ in 2019.