Logistics, Digital Transformation and Future Logisticians

By Peter Layton.

In his seminal work, Logistics in the National Defense, Henry Eccles writes: “Logistics is the bridge between our national economy and the actual operations of our combat forces in the field.” It’s a pithy description that gets to the heart of the matter, stimulating thinking. Crucially the bridge has two ends: one in society and the other at the frontline. This post concerns the former: the end located within the national support base. That end of our logistic bridge needs to start transforming.

The Australian national support base is changing. Digital transformation is impacting Australia’s major seaports, supermarket chains, package distribution, construction industry and even deep into our homes. The path that such transformation can take is becoming evident in Australia’s mining industry, a world-leader in digital transformation. A recent study sees the application of digital technology in this industry sector across this decade in three stages.

In today’s mining industry many companies have embraced automation involving individual, semi-autonomous vehicles developed as proprietary products by a handful of Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) and which are not interoperable. By 2025, mines will include smart sensors, autonomous vehicles, limited self-learning systems and some equipment from different OEMs that can operate together. By 2030 and beyond, mines will feature autonomous machines working with other autonomous machines to complete tasks. Open source platforms will integrate readily with other similar platforms allowing machine-to-machine communications and real-time data exchange so they can self-learn and make decisions. Imagine if Defence’s facilities could be like that?

Keeping up with the surrounding society is not necessarily a good argument for Defence logistics embracing digital disruption. However, it does raise the likelihood that by 2030 Defence’s facilities may be lonely outposts of 20th Century technology in a 21st Century world. The capabilities of the digitally transformed Australian defence national support base will need to be dumbed down when crossing the wire into Defence’s facilities. With such incompatibilities, Defence overall will be unable to obtain the full benefits of the fourth industrial revolution. Technological stagnation will cost. The end of Henry Eccles’s defence logistics bridge that is embedded in Australian society might be a technological antique.

As we all know, the numerous Australian industry sectors are embracing digital transformation principally to improve productivity; the ‘doing more with less’ mantra. The application of advanced digital technologies to defence facilities would be similar in that the aim would be to generate greater logistics power from fewer numbers of people. Defence always wants – and often needs – to do more than its limited size military, civilian and contractor workforce can allow.

Digital transformation involves combining numerous new technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), big data, cloud computing, the internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, robotics, 3D printing and human augmentation. Operating together, these technologies can generate more than the sum of the parts, boosting the capability and impact of each technology far more than if they are used in isolation. This can create exponential change, where the rate of change rapidly escalates as more and more new technologies join the mix. The next fifteen years could be an exciting period of non-linear change on Eccles’s logistics bridge.

The future integrated defence base might then be envisaged as a complicated machine comprising deeply interconnected hardware, software and humans. Such a machine metaphor will doubtlessly appeal to engineers but logisticians may find it less alluring. That may be a mistake, as state-of-the-art warehouses are in some respects miniature versions of what future facilities might be. Logisticians working in this specialty field may be in front: they may be the harbingers of a digital defence facility spring.

Warehouses have traditionally involved mainly manual, ‘blue collar’ occupations with some limited management positions. However, with manual occupations being transformed through digital technology, this balance shifts. The future warehousing staff will need to be skilled in the operation and maintenance of machines rather than in receiving goods, sorting, stacking, loading and delivery themselves. State-of-the-art warehouses already feature real-time monitoring of inventory; real-time ordering using technologies such as AI machine learning, the cloud, big data and IoT; order picking by advanced robotics; and stock movement by autonomous vehicles. Some warehouses are now embracing 3D printing to meet the numerous, but erratic, one-time requests for spare parts and so save on carrying large part inventories for older equipment. Logistics control towers have been introduced that integrate digital information from numerous sources and use big data analytics to provide a real-time ‘big picture’ of the complete supply chain, including transportation activities. Logistics drone delivery is in the final trial stage in several industries (including in Australia) and there is now movement towards human augmentation through logistics staff using advanced wearables and exoskeletons.

In the civilian world, the logistics’ workforce is becoming more specialised, requiring widespread digital literacy and involving new occupations. Given this technological push, there are several key roles future defence logisticians may be working in including:

  1. systems of systems networks,
  2. big data and machine learning,
  3. robotics and autonomous vehicles,
  4. augmented workforce technologies including exoskeletons,
  5. 3D printing, and
  6. electrification.

For those working on today’s defence facilities having such technologies present in the workplace might sound like science fiction and a matter for the distant future. They are though being applied today elsewhere across Australia. Why not also in Defence? It means that future logisticians will need different knowledge, skills and attributes; perhaps like the table below suggests:

 

Continuing Requirement Greater emphasis needed in future
Technical expertise (balanced equally across hardware and software aspects) Human-focused, big picture systems of systems thinking
Problem definition

Problem solving

Problem finding, including critical thinking and design thinking

Creativity and innovation

Digital intelligence

Collaboration

We are hoping all this stimulates your thinking about what future logisticians might be doing, should be doing and how they could be trained and educated. A new publication from the Air Power Development Centre, Surfing the Digital Wave, goes into much greater depth on all these issues. It uses airbases as a hook to grab the reader. However, the basic ideas apply across all the Australian national support end of Eccles’s logistics bridge.

The ideas in this post and publication are a minor part of the work of a small Air Force review team busily thinking about the future of logisticians across the next ten years and beyond. The team would like to hear your ideas, especially if you have new insights and certainly if you disagree with the future just painted. They may be found at: AIRFORCE.ENGLOGSWR@defence.gov.au Please contribute and join the logistician revolution.


Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and a RAAF Reserve Group Captain. He has extensive aviation and defence experience and, for his work at the Pentagon on force structure matters was awarded the US Secretary of Defense’s Exceptional Public Service Medal. He has a doctorate from the University of New South Wales on grand strategy and has taught on the topic at the Eisenhower College, US National Defence University. For his academic work, he was awarded a Fellowship to the European University Institute, Fiesole, Italy. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

What we need to be. Building the Defence logistician – Part Two

By David Beaumont.

Over the next month we’ll be publishing a number of popular posts on as broad a range of topics as possible. This transcript is the final half of a speech given at the 2018 Australian and New Zealand Defence Logistics Conference. The session was titled ‘The Future Logistician’.

The first half can be found here.

What we need to be

The fundamental nature of logistics and the complicated organisational history of Australian Defence conspire against the development of logisticians. They are reasons that none of us will ever truly master logistics. None of us can be trained to the depth we require; the attempts that Defence has made over the last thirty years of effort have achieved the best that could be expected, but we all know that it is still not enough. As a Chief Instructor of a training institution, I can vouch that we are doing as much as is practically possible with the resources we have to prepare logisticians for the future.

Looking into the future, there are four key traits relevant to our future successes.

Firstly, and as I am sure you all agree, our logisticians must have a wide variety of experiences across the logistics enterprise. We must accept that technical skills are at the foundation of performance as logisticians. There is a difference between a technician and a logistician, however. The former is defined by their deep professional knowledge. The latter – the logistician – by their capacity to integrate a variety of specialised functions into the desired operational outcome.  Without broad experience we fail to appreciate context and nuance, and remain technical specialists of ultimately niche functions.

Secondly, logisticians must be able to analyse the system in both operational planning and in program development. We are in a paradigm that seeks to replace inventories with information – stock on hand versus a supply-chain responsiveness enabled by knowledge management. Technologies such as enterprise resource planners, machine learning and AI offer us considerable opportunities. But we must not forgo the capacity for systemic thinking to machines or make information management so specialist a function it is no longer possible to provide advice based on judgement and set by the context.

Thirdly, because effective logistics requires collective effort, logisticians must be consensus builders. This applies to the interactions among ourselves as well as with those we support. This has proven difficult to achieve in environments and times where authorities have been spread throughout the organisation, and where priorities and emphasis in responsibility have not been given.

Finally, logisticians must accept their professional, intellectual, responsibilities. We must own our own problems, be responsible for our solutions and proactive in intellectual leadership and engagement. There are many instances where we have not and have paid the price accordingly. Passion and courage of conviction are essential to preserve, if not enhance, capability.

I would also like to offer a few more qualified thoughts on professional requirements. Lieutenant General William Tuttle, a former US Army G4 during the ‘revolution of military logistics’, describes five principles for the professional development of logisticians in his book Defense logistics for the 21st century:

  1. Accountability. Logisticians must understand logistics deeply and be held to be account. This the basis of a professional approach. Accountability should not be feared as it is an opportunity to take ownership of a problem that might otherwise have been confounded by complex inter-organisational relationships.
  2. Continuously shared knowledge. We should be clamouring for shared knowledge and should be equipped and trained to make the most of technology and efficient processes. Yet, and as I have stated earlier, we must also ensure that we remain capable of being systemic thinkers, to be prepared through experience and education that enables us to rely upon an insight or a ‘hunch’.
  3. Know commercial business practices. This should be self-evident to any logistician conscious of the dramatic changes in acquisition and sustainment. I propose that training needs to be less idiosyncratic, and well-designed in its own ‘professional continuum’. Logisticians don’t just need a procurement course; they need a PME environment which informs them about issues such as industry policy and requirements, national support, acquisition and sustainment, different types of commercial relationships, relationship building and management.
  4. Exploit comparative advantage through coalition logistics, but also through working with one another. Logistics is, as I have argued, a shared endeavour.
  5. Simplicity. This should follow from all other professional development experiences, all of which should contribute to simplify management, command and control and funding arrangements. Whatever we do, we must focus on simplification because if the logistics process we are responsible for is complex, it will become inefficient and ineffective.

What we might become

Although a ‘professionalisation’ agenda is not new to logisticians, with training, education and professional standards a topic for logistics leadership within Services, Groups and the Joint domain, there have been several reasons we have been unable to capitalise on a gaining momentum and interest in logistics. Insufficiency of resources is an obvious factor and the priority of effort in Defence significant influences our capacity to deliver outcomes for the benefit of Defence capability. However, just as there are desired behavioural attributes for the future logistician, so too are their potential areas of risk which might impede change and development.

Firstly, we have routinely resorted to organisational change and discussing the profession without reshaping processes to suit the proposed new order. This allows sources of power to be maintained, ultimately leading to a reversion in behaviour. There have been circumstances where we have sought to reshape processes and create efficiencies without changing the organisation or profession enough.

This leads onto my second point. If we are going to use technology to improve our performance or enable efficient processes, we must be prepared to change organisational culture. Workarounds rarely create efficiencies. For example, abortive attempts to introduce logistics information systems technology and tracking in the past have resulted from choices made by logisticians based on our own comfort. One wonders if the same will happen when new enterprise resource planning software is brought into use.

Thirdly, we might choose not to invest the considerable time and effort required to support a nascent approach to joint professional military education, or support reform in individual training conducted throughout the organisation. It is easy to generate a framework to support professional development; we have to follow through with developing the training and education that we know our logisticians need. Without doing so, however, training will be largely idiosyncratic, and we will maintain an over-reliance on experience and career management to solve professionalisation issues.

Fourthly, we must work to develop to a shared vision that reflects the reality of how logistics works as a system connecting the national economy to the battlefield. The elevation of any one component of the process over another risks upending it all, or creating complexity, inefficiency and waste. Engage with the leadership of Defence institutions with your mind on the logistics process as a whole.

Finally, and perhaps because of these risks, we may simply remain unmoved as the rest of the world changes. What is the point of any attempts to better position the future logistician if we don’t consider the future? What is the environment we are going to operate in? What does the future combat force look like, and what is the consequence of this outlook on logistics performance and requirements?

Making the future Defence logistician 

We must accept that overinvesting in one group is not the answer. Talent management is undoubtedly important to any organisation. But our efforts in mentoring, leadership and our training and education regime must not be focussed on the select few. A few, brave, logistics heroes will not overcome problems caused or perpetuated by an undertrained and underprepared workforce. One of the leading factors in operational underperformance – if not the expansion in the number of logistics personnel required on operations – is that the workforce lacks the skills to perform their tasks as efficiently as they can.

It is unsurprising that I might advocate that a synchronised approach to PME is essential. Joint courses, at the very least, offer an opportunity for logisticians of different backgrounds to learn to work together. There is momentum gathering with respect to joint education and training for logisticians; we should support this endeavour as it is a real opportunity to do something beneficial for the future.

Any approach must focus on setting behaviours, and providing experience, training and education. Mentorship must be offered, and leadership given. Technology should be embraced, but we must also provide the skills and approach to use it appropriately. It must emphasise collective effort, for the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Finally, it must all staff to be mobile, but also well prepared for different roles within a incredibly broad logistics enterprise.

We have a bright future, and it is always a good time for us to consider how we can shape it for our own benefit, and those that follow on from us. In this venture it is not important for us all to be the same. Different proficiencies, different subjects of professional mastery, different expertise; these bring with them a distinct perspective that is relevant in finding the best ways to solve problems. What really matters is how we make the most of these differences from a professional perspective. Logisticians must bring together the technical experts, synthesise their efforts, and guide their tasks to completion.

The logistician

‘In each of the functional categories there is an extensive technical literature. In each, the technical staff specialist is essential. However, there is a subtle distinction. The technical specialist is chiefly interested in perfecting the importance of that particular speciality in which he makes his professional career. On the other hand, the commander and logistics officer must always be thinking of how a variety of specialised functions can be most effectively combined in accomplishing the mission of the command. It is not a question of exclusiveness in thinking, it is rather a question of relative emphasis and primary responsibility.’

               – Rear Admiral Henry Eccles, Logistics in the National Defense, pp 55-56

Being a logistician is difficult. As logisticians we have faced innumerable organisational pressures and felt the brunt of decades of rationalisation and cost cutting. As logisticians we deal with an immensely challenging pan-organisational and operational problem that can only be dealt with through trust and competency. As logisticians we know we need to invest in training and education but are faced with too many choices about where our attention (and the little resources available) should be directed.

We are told how volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous the contemporary operating and enterprise environment is, yet an approach to adequately prepare seems elusive or impossible. The problem seems so vast, the prospect of success so small, or the future for logisticians believed to be so bleak and unappealing, that the effort to progress might simply be viewed as a waste of time in our already busy lives.

As I said above, being a logistician is difficult. Yet we can make it easier for ourselves; as leaders we are obliged to make being a logistician easier for those that follow us. If you cut the hyperbole, this is what the professionalisation ‘journey’ is about. Just as effective logistics is a shared endeavour, so should our approach to professionalisation – the creation of the future logistician – be a collective effort. Common language, concepts and ideas will be vital. Leadership will be vital.

As we think about the future, and our role within it, I ask you to consider a few things.

It is of vital importance to us to understand that regardless of how logistics functions are assigned or divided, or categorised by naming conventions in doctrine, they remain logistics functions and they must be performed by qualified personnel. These functions must be supervised and coordinated by senior officers and Defence logisticians who not only understand the full implications of their responsibilities, but also the relationships involved therein.

For those with leadership responsibilities within logistics, you must not be exclusive in your thinking, and be willing to give emphasis and primary functions to those elements within the logistics process that need it. To do this requires a broad experience of the enterprise and a capacity for systems thinking, but also self-development and a desire to learn about the organisation. It requires our logisticians to be consensus-builders, and while we may not always agree with one another, we should do so respectfully and accept the reasons why we think differently from one another.

Secondly, I fundamentally believe we are in an environment of considerable opportunity. Logisticians are being listened to, and logistics issues are being addressed with greater seriousness than ever before. This has not always been the case. Two decades ago, logistics was certainly discussed – but it was in terms of rationalisation and unhealthy levels of commercialisation, and it was not necessarily because logisticians were driving the agenda. Similarly, Defence logisticians have long discussed professionalisation, training and education but had either been un-resourced or had difficulties in leading and implementing change.

Sources of leadership were disempowered by organisational confusion and change on a level that surpasses what we are experiencing today. We are much better prepared to engage with military commands, partners from other areas of Government or industry given nearly twenty years of continued operational experience which has improved Defence-level awareness of logistics issues.

So, we must be more than professional stewards. We must be professional leaders. This requires us to distinguish what being a logistician is versus what a technocrat might be. It requires us to assess and understand the environment in which we exist so that our knowledge can be applied. It requires us to adapt the professional standard to meet the environment, but also those we support. Finally, it requires us to align our professional development systems to produce experts with the right experience at the right time.

In answering the question ‘how we got here’, I hoped to inculcate a sense that now is the time to act on those issues we know need fixing. There is time available to think through what we need to prepare ourselves as Defence logisticians. We shouldn’t squander this operational pause and relative organisational calm. It is an exciting time, the future is promising, and we should treat it as such! Apply the effort now to meaningfully advance on issues relating to collective professionalisation, training and education. Make the most of the step-change in capability that will come with new tools and technology. I have no doubt that if this opportunity is not taken, the moment will prove fleeting and any transformation we intend will ultimately be compromised.

 

How did we get here? Building the Defence logistician – Part One

By David Beaumont.

Over the next month we’ll be publishing a number of popular posts on as broad a range of topics as possible. This transcript is the first half of a speech given at the 2018 Australian and New Zealand Defence Logistics Conference. The session was titled ‘The Future Logistician’.

So, how did we get here? What does it mean to be a logistician now, and what will a future logistician look like? These are big questions. Impossibly big questions.

To have a sense of a ‘profession’ you must first have an idea of what I mean by the term ‘we’. Everyone in the room is probably quite confident that they have a definition of what a logistician is; whether you agree with one another is another question. Are we talking about military staff only, does the definition include acquisition specialists, what about health professionals, and are we interested in Service logisticians operating at the tactical level?

Perhaps we could start by questioning what logistics is. We often choose to define a logistician in terms of a discrete capability. Logistics, much like strategy and tactics, is a process or a way of thinking. It is a comprehensive behaviour that combines science and art to achieve an outcome – the creation and sustainment of combat forces. Behind logistics is theory and practice, a confluence of activities that takes the raw material – often literally – and creates combat capability and actual firepower.

About the logistician – the logistician is the one that controls this activity, comprising many technical specialities at different levels of Defence, or facilitates the activities of others outside the enterprise. This might include industry partners, research institutions and other organisations. The logistics discipline is defined by systemic thinking, technical competencies, complexity, a balance between logistics organisation and command requirements, collective effort in a shared endeavour; but as we all know, in an environment usually defined by organisational disruption, resource limitations, lack of investment, tremendous oversight and sometimes even contempt, and without a doubt inter-agency conflict.

Now that I say it, it does sound like a difficult business to be in!

Why we are, what we are

It is a difficult business to be in. It is a business that has, in the context of Australian Defence at least, endured tremendous change in recent years. How did we get here, and where did the contemporary logistician come from?

Fortunately for you all, I won’t be giving a long and detailed history of logistics in warfare. Allow me to summarise two or three hundred years of major developments in creating and sustaining deployed forces by telling you that logistics has become increasingly important to the fulfilment of strategy. The industrialisation of war, invention of steam and later combustion engines, the electronic age, the post-WW2 invention of modern business science – all have contributed to increasing the importance of the logistician. Of course, with increased importance comes expectations and alongside these important technological, technical and theoretical changes have been investigations as to the role of logisticians in war, and what professional skills are required.

Let’s put the topic in our own context and in terms of our own experiences.  The first thing I will say is that we all come from different parts of the Defence organisation, but I feel quite confident in saying that the modern Defence logistician was born nearly thirty years ago.

This is not just because the senior-most members of the audience have been in the Services for about that long! It is because the world was changing, strategy was changing, and logistics was consequently changing. The spectre of great power conflict was receding, and force posture adjusting. The US commenced demobilisation, and forward positions underwritten by war-stocks and strategic reserves, supported by a supply-centric methodology and process, became untenable. Defence budgets began to decline, and strategy redeveloped to suit a ‘peace dividend’. Our militaries were faced by considerable pressure as modernisation and ‘block obsolescence’ required a substantial capital expenditure, and personnel expenses were beyond the capacity of defence forces to sustain.

Government pressure accelerated the rationalisation of strategic logistics systems, Services chose to bear the brunt of pressure in their logistics organisations and mass commercialisation began to occur through programs such as the Commercial Support Program. The 1991 Commercial Support program and 1997 Defence Efficiency Review (DER) had profound consequences for the ADF and Department. As General David Hurley describes in Nicholas Jans’s The Chiefs (p54), without a compelling intellectual argument to counter, outsourcing and commercialisation irrevocably changed the logistics and organisational landscape. Logisticians were compelled to be more efficient, and the language of the time echoed ‘best business practice’. Increased industry involvement and other factors created new professional requirements.

Operational experiences, set in this strategic and organisational climate, accentuated the evolutionary path. American performance in the 1991 Gulf War, an operation which truly showed how importance logistics was to the ability of a military to prosecute a war quickly, was a catalyst for even more reform. The ‘iron mountains’ that enabled a tremendous success in this war were perceived to be the vestiges of outdated supply-based concepts, and with the ‘revolution in military affairs’ came the ‘revolution in military logistics’ (RML). RML, originating in the US military, desired a revolution in process, organisation and skills relevant to logisticians. Professional pathways were efficiently amalgamated, distribution-based logistics instituted, centralisation emphasised, and the military and public service logistician increasingly compared to their private sector equivalents. These changes became a phenomenon among most Western militaries, who substantially adjusted their logistics force structures. This period truly defined the approach logisticians would take for the next twenty-five years.

This period resulted in a significant transfer of skills as jobs formerly performed by military logisticians were increasingly performed by public servants and industry partners. The establishment of the first truly joint logistics command in Support Command Australia as a key outcome of the DER was not just to improve the ADF’s operational effectiveness. Commander Support Command Australia, Lieutenant General Des Mueller, was directed to centralise, consolidate and outsource many strategic logistics functions. The subsequent consolidation of SCA, National Support Division and the Defence Acquisition Organisation into the Defence Materiel Organisation over the 2000-01 period cemented the expectations of whom would perform what.

These were immensely significant changes a decade in the making, conducted in a time of strategic and organisational turbulence we have not seen since. In my own Service, the training of military logisticians – reformed during the 1996 creation of the Army Logistics Training Centre – was largely focussed on military logistics operations. With this, the expectation of military logisticians to perform certain strategic and operational functions had certainly diminished. I don’t want to overstate the importance of these changes at the individual training level, but they were important indicators of the shifting ‘professional tide’ in terms of the expectations placed upon logisticians.

The operations came quickly, and with little opportunity to bed in changes. East Timor was an immensely challenging experience for the ADF and its coalition partners, but before adequate responses to capability and professional gaps could be addressed, we were part of a new coalition in the Middle-east. Much of the impetus to reform Defence logistics in an operational or professional context withered away. Keeping the pace with these operations was organisationally difficult, especially for those in the DMO which as was assailed by successive reviews. In the ADF, infant joint organisations stagnated as resources were directed to sustaining combat forces. Reform was attempted in the Air Force, and Army focussed upon relatively significant changes in its organisational structure and capability. There was little time to invest in professional development, little time to do much else than support the sustainment of operations, and few resources and people available to give substance to the intent of successive logistics commanders.

Why we are, where we are

The Defence logistician is built by training systems primarily focussed on tactical command or technical ability, an amorphous approach to professional military education, an over-reliance on experience, in an environment of fractured professional leadership, and often because of good luck.

Thirty years of change, including two decades of sustained operations, has impeded the development of a coherent approach to professionalisation. It has made it exceptionally difficult to approach skilling and technical expertise as a collective, and a variety of professional workarounds have consequently emerged. The preparation of logisticians is done so within federation of like-minded individuals. Although the Defence organisation may be increasingly centralised and joint in nature, its collective approach to professional development and training is immature. The shifting organisation has traditionally separated natural sources of leadership and made ownership of the ‘professional problem’ unclear. Without advocacy and engagement, gains achieved in logistics performance and capability development have been limited. Reform within the Services, sometimes because of responding to operational deficiencies and others in recovery from the lean 1990s, also meant some efforts undertaken in the enterprise had diverged from another. These points of divergence have been exacerbated by operational experiences.

The last decade and a half has been one in which the enterprise has done the best it can. However, while we have focussed on supporting individual achievement through an overemphasis on posting experiences (operational service, secondments and other activities) – the approach to training and educating the collective has been lacking. This approach has affected the basic level of competency of Defence logistics staff. We do not have a systemic approach to preparing Defence logisticians; a good training system is present, especially for our junior military members, but there is no agreed upon model to take the most junior military and public servant logistician to senior appointments. This is a symptom of fractured professional leadership and, for some time, no clear ‘owner’ of the task to prepare logisticians at the enterprise level.

A complex task

Our history reveals much about the reasons why the contemporary logistician ‘looks’ and ‘acts’ the way they do, what skills they possess, and how they relate to one another.

Of course, it is not the only reason we – as logisticians – are where we are. Logistics is an enormous problem. It is simply impossible to adequately prepare the logistician for the full range of tasks, employment opportunities and requirements across the full breadth of the Defence enterprise. A logistician, even at a junior level, faces a challenge that other career paths in military organisations will not be exposed to until senior ranks. It is massively complex, and to be successful as a logistician requires you to be able to navigate a substantial portion of the institution. It is an activity that begins with the national economy, with policy making and resourcing, and ends with the delivery of materiel and personnel to the combat force fighting at the forward edge of the battlefield. It comprises and enormous number of functions across the breadth of Defence – Department and ADF – performed by large numbers of technical specialists, generalist officers and public servants, industry partners and contractors and officials.

Slide1

The graphic above shows the generic logistics functions that are performed within the Defence enterprise. These functions are divided into two main areas. The bottom half of the slide shows that logistics is concerned with the development of the means for, and the sustainment of, military operations. It comprises a substantial proportion of the tasks a Defence logistician is expected to perform, as well as a number performed by others.

The second area relates to the formulation of strategy, including policy, and military tactics. You might think logisticians are only responsible for the provision of staff advice, but the real important work of the strategic logistician is in this space where their work sets in motion the Defence approach to industry policy and engagement, national support, acquisition inputs into strategy and other planning responsibilities. Logisticians are not the sole owners of these problems, but they are quite clearly critical in traversing the spectrum.

Success in this environment requires us all to understand which areas require emphasis given circumstances, and where the authority for decision making and activity lies. This, unfortunately, is hardly an easy task!

The second part of this transcript will be posted soon.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer and the thoughts here are is own.

What we need to be. Building the Defence logistician – Part Two

By David Beaumont.

This transcript is the final half of a speech given at the 2018 Australian and New Zealand Defence Logistics Conference. The session was titled ‘The Future Logistician’.

The first half can be found here.

What we need to be

The fundamental nature of logistics and the complicated organisational history of Australian Defence conspire against the development of logisticians. They are reasons that none of us will ever truly master logistics. None of us can be trained to the depth we require; the attempts that Defence has made over the last thirty years of effort have achieved the best that could be expected, but we all know that it is still not enough. As a Chief Instructor of a training institution, I can vouch that we are doing as much as is practically possible with the resources we have to prepare logisticians for the future.

Looking into the future, there are four key traits I believe are highly relevant to our future successes.

Firstly, and as I am sure you all expect, our logisticians must have a wide variety of experiences across the logistics enterprise. Of course, we must accept that even our most general officers and public servants will have some areas of expertise. Without experience we fail to appreciate context and nuance, and remain technical specialists of an important, but ultimately niche, function.

Secondly, logisticians must be able to analyse the system in both operational planning and in program development. We are in a paradigm that seeks to replace inventories with information – stock on hand versus a supply-chain responsiveness enabled by knowledge management. Technologies such as enterprise resource planners, machine learning and AI offer us considerable opportunities. But we must not forgo the capacity for systemic thinking to machines or make information management so specialist a function it is no longer possible to provide advice based on judgement and set by the context.

Thirdly, because effective logistics requires collective effort, logisticians must be consensus builders. This applies to the interactions among ourselves as well as with those we support. This has proven difficult to achieve in environments and times where authorities have been spread throughout the organisation, and where priorities and emphasis in responsibility have not been given.

Finally, logisticians must accept their professional, intellectual, responsibilities. We must own our own problems, be responsible for our solutions and proactive in intellectual leadership and engagement. There are many instances where we have not and have paid the price accordingly. Passion and courage of conviction are essential to preserve, if not enhance, capability.

I would also like to offer a few more qualified thoughts on professional requirements. Lieutenant General William Tuttle, a former US Army G4 during the ‘revolution of military logistics’, describes five principles for the professional development of logisticians in his book Defense logistics for the 21st century:

  1. Accountability. Logisticians must understand logistics deeply and be held to be account. This the basis of a professional approach. Accountability should not be feared as it is an opportunity to take ownership of a problem that might otherwise have been confounded by complex inter-organisational relationships.
  2. Continuously shared knowledge. We should be clamouring for shared knowledge and should be equipped and trained to make the most of technology and efficient processes. Yet, and as I have stated earlier, we must also ensure that we remain capable of being systemic thinkers, to be prepared through experience and education that enables us to rely upon an insight or a ‘hunch’.
  3. Know commercial business practices. This should be self-evident to any logistician conscious of the dramatic changes in acquisition and sustainment. I propose that training needs to be less idiosyncratic, and well-designed in its own ‘professional continuum’. Logisticians don’t just need a procurement course; they need a PME environment which informs them about issues such as industry policy and requirements, national support, acquisition and sustainment, different types of commercial relationships, relationship building and management.
  4. Exploit comparative advantage through coalition logistics, but also through working with one another. Logistics is, as I have argued, a shared endeavour.
  5. Simplicity. This should follow from all other professional development experiences, all of which should contribute to simplify management, command and control and funding arrangements. Whatever we do, we must focus on simplification because if the logistics process we are responsible for is complex, it will become inefficient and ineffective.

What we might become

Although a ‘professionalisation’ agenda is not new to logisticians, with training, education and professional standards a topic for logistics leadership within Services, Groups and the Joint domain, there have been several reasons we have been unable to capitalise on a gaining momentum and interest in logistics. Insufficiency of resources is an obvious factor and the priority of effort in Defence significant influences our capacity to deliver outcomes for the benefit of Defence capability. However, just as there are desired behavioural attributes for the future logistician, so too are their potential areas of risk which might impede change and development.

Firstly, we have routinely resorted to organisational change and discussing the profession without reshaping processes to suit the proposed new order. This allows sources of power to be maintained, ultimately leading to a reversion in behaviour. There have been circumstances where we have sought to reshape processes and create efficiencies without changing the organisation or profession enough.

This leads onto my second point. If we are going to use technology to improve our performance or enable efficient processes, we must be prepared to change organisational culture. Workarounds rarely create efficiencies. For example, abortive attempts to introduce logistics information systems technology and tracking in the past have resulted from choices made by logisticians based on our own comfort. One wonders if the same will happen when new enterprise resource planning software is brought into use.

Thirdly, we might choose not to invest the considerable time and effort required to support a nascent approach to joint PME, or support reform in individual training conducted throughout the organisation. It is easy to generate a framework to support professional development; it is much harder to sustain the conduct of courses. Without doing so, however, training will be largely idiosyncratic, and we will maintain an over-reliance on experience and career management to solve professionalisation issues.

Fourthly, without a shared and consistent approach on major issues affecting logistics we are likely to see a deterioration of capability. There are few opportunities to intervene in strategic decision making, and for the benefit of ADF capability, when logisticians are engaged, they must ensure that the engagement is made meaningful.

Finally, and perhaps because of these risks, we may simply remain unmoved as the rest of the world changes. What is the point of any attempts to better position the future logistician if we don’t consider the future? What is the environment we are going to operate in? What does the future combat force look like, and what is the consequence of this outlook on logistics performance and requirements?

Making the future Defence logistician 

We must accept that overinvesting in one group is not the answer. Talent management is undoubtedly important to any organisation. But our efforts in mentoring, leadership and our training and education regime must not be focussed on the select few. A few, brave, logistics heroes will not overcome problems caused or perpetuated by an undertrained and underprepared workforce. One of the leading factors in operational underperformance – if not the expansion in the number of logistics personnel required on operations – is that the workforce lacks the skills to perform their tasks as efficiently as they can.

It is unsurprising that I might advocate that a synchronised approach to PME is essential. Joint courses, at the very least, offer an opportunity for logisticians of different backgrounds to learn to work together. There is momentum gathering with respect to joint education and training for logisticians; we should support this endeavour as it is a real opportunity to do something beneficial for the future.

Any approach must focus on setting behaviours, and providing experience, training and education. Mentorship must be offered, and leadership given. Technology should be embraced, but we must also provide the skills and approach to use it appropriately. It must emphasise collective effort, for the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Finally, it must all staff to be mobile, but also well prepared for different roles within a incredibly broad logistics enterprise.

We have a bright future, and it is always a good time for us to consider how we can shape it for our own benefit, and those that follow on from us. In this venture it is not important for us all to be the same. Different proficiencies, different subjects of professional mastery, different expertise; these bring with them a distinct perspective that is relevant in finding the best ways to solve problems. What really matters is how we make the most of these differences from a professional perspective. Logisticians must bring together the technical experts, synthesise their efforts, and guide their tasks to completion.

The logistician

‘In each of the functional categories there is an extensive technical literature. In each, the technical staff specialist is essential. However, there is a subtle distinction. The technical specialist is chiefly interested in perfecting the importance of that particular speciality in which he makes his professional career. On the other hand, the commander and logistics officer must always be thinking of how a variety of specialised functions can be most effectively combined in accomplishing the mission of the command. It is not a question of exclusiveness in thinking, it is rather a question of relative emphasis and primary responsibility.’

               – Rear Admiral Henry Eccles, Logistics in the National Defense, pp 55-56

Being a logistician is difficult. As logisticians we have faced innumerable organisational pressures and felt the brunt of decades of rationalisation and cost cutting. As logisticians we deal with an immensely challenging pan-organisational and operational problem that can only be dealt with through trust and competency. As logisticians we know we need to invest in training and education but are faced with too many choices about where our attention (and the little resources available) should be directed. We are told how volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous the contemporary operating and enterprise environment is, yet an approach to adequately prepare seems elusive or impossible. The problem seems so vast, the prospect of success so small, or the future for logisticians believed to be so bleak and unappealing, that the effort to progress might simply be viewed as a waste of time in our already busy lives.

Being a logistician is difficult. Yet we can make it easier for ourselves, and as leaders we are obliged to make being a logistician easier for those that follow us. If you cut the hyperbole, this is what the professionalisation ‘journey’ is about. Just as effective logistics is a shared endeavour, so should our approach to professionalisation – the creation of the future logistician – be a collective effort. Common language, concepts and ideas will be vital. Leadership will be vital.

As we think about the future, and our role within it, I ask you to consider a few things.

It is of vital importance to us to understand that regardless of how logistics functions are assigned or divided, or categorised by naming conventions in doctrine, they remain logistics functions and they must be performed by qualified personnel. These functions must be supervised and coordinated by senior officers and Defence logisticians who not only understand the full implications of their responsibilities, but also the relationships involved therein. For those with leadership responsibilities within logistics, you must not be exclusive in your thinking, and be willing to give emphasis and primary functions to those elements within the logistics process that need it. To do this requires a broad experience of the enterprise and a capacity for systems thinking, but also self-development and a desire to learn about the organisation. It requires our logisticians to be consensus-builders, and while we may not always agree with one another, we should do so respectfully and accept the reasons why we think differently from one another.

Secondly, I fundamentally believe we are in an environment of considerable opportunity. Logisticians are being listened to, and logistics issues are being addressed with greater seriousness than ever before. This has not always been the case. Two decades ago, logistics was certainly discussed – but it was in terms of rationalisation and unhealthy levels of commercialisation, and it was not necessarily because logisticians were driving the agenda. Similarly, Defence logisticians have long discussed professionalisation, training and education but had either been un-resourced or had difficulties in leading and implementing change. Sources of leadership were disempowered by organisational confusion and change on a level that surpasses what we are experiencing today. We are much better prepared to engage with military commands, partners from other areas of Government or industry given nearly twenty years of continued operational experience which has improved Defence-level awareness of logistics issues.

So, we must be more than professional stewards. We must be professional leaders. This requires us to distinguish what being a logistician is versus what a technocrat might be. It requires us to assess and understand the environment in which we exist so that our knowledge can be applied. It requires us to adapt the professional standard to meet the environment, but also those we support. Finally, it requires us to align our professional development systems to produce experts with the right experience at the right time.

In answering the question ‘how we got here’, I hoped to inculcate a sense that now is the time to act on those issues we know need fixing. There is time available to think through what we need to prepare ourselves as Defence logisticians. We shouldn’t squander this operational pause and relative organisational calm. It is an exciting time, the future is promising, and we should treat it as such! Apply the effort now to meaningfully advance on issues relating to collective professionalisation, training and education. Make the most of the step-change in capability that will come with new tools and technology. I have no doubt that if this opportunity is not taken, the moment will prove fleeting and any transformation we intend will ultimately be compromised.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer. The thoughts here are his own.

The strategic logistician and professional possibility

By David Beaumont.

During a logistics course in late 2017, I was asked to consider what the traits and behaviours of the strategic ‘future logistician’ might be.[1] It was a difficult question to answer without straying into explanations about strategic leadership in general. In both cases, like the rocket in the picture above, strategic logistics and leaders are ‘shot’ into the wide-blue sky with surprisingly little preparation. The topic of the ‘future logisitian’ will be discussed during the upcoming Australian and New Zealand Defence Logistics Conference in just over two weeks, and I thought it would be worthwhile touching on the points raised last year.

The requirements for logisticians operating at the strategic level of militaries has been an explicitly addressed topic by senior leaders on Logistics In War, noting many posts implicitly support the conclusion that logisticians must adapt in some way to face what is known about the future. Skills must be taught, modern technologies introduced and mastered, and logisticians exposed to business ‘best practice’. Alternatively, a number of posts (see parts one and two on educating logisticians) tackle the problem of preparing logisticians in an abstract manner and contend that because the future is unknowable, the ‘future logistician’ must be conditioned to operate where nothing is certain. Preparing the ‘future logistician’ with this in mind will not be easy.

Whichever way you look at it, there are many competing demands being placed upon the logistician expected to perform at the strategic level of defence forces. This article will attempt to describe a some of these demands, as discussed during the seminar, to highlight the complexity of the professional challenge.

Perhaps the most notable change for a strategic logistician comes with an expansion of their role within the logistics process – the process which takes national economic resources provided to Defence by Government, translating them into preparedness outcomes or operational effect. This is a process that incorporates everything from acquisition to operational sustainment, and involves uniformed personnel, public servants and industry partners. The increasing importance of commercial enterprise in sustain operations in a deployed environment, as well as increasing levels of integration of industry into acquisition and materiel sustainment functions, confirms how diverse the contemporary strategic logistics environment is. While a logistician acting in a Service tactical or technical position might influence a discrete function or activity, a strategic logistician is expected to have an effect across the many boundaries within the logistics process. In most cases, accordingly, they will not own nor control the people or capabilities that will lead to their success.

The acronym ‘VUCA’ – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – is a worthy term to describe the environment in which a joint or strategic logistician must act. In some ways, however, VUCA is a euphemism. At the strategic level, logistics problems are simply too large for one person, irrespective of their rank, influence or training, to be able to resolve them independently. With more people and agencies involved in logistics problems, and given the nature of human and bureaucratic interactions, a VUCA environment is a virtual given. The biggest philosophical problem for logisticians as they approach the strategic levels of the organisation is not that they must adjust to an ever-changing environment. Rather, it is in admitting that there are limits to their capacity to control events and processes. Just as one increases in seniority and experience, attaining the credibility and capacity to independently address the typically Service issues that have defined the earliest stages of a career, logisticians inevitably conclude that the most significant, strategic, problems in Defence can only be resolved by a whole of enterprise approach.

Logisticians at the operational and strategic level must therefore become expert mediators, be pragmatic and team-oriented, with ‘soft skills’ that contrast to directive approaches that may be successful other appointments. They need to balance their own technical specialty and cultural biases with the generalist traits necessary to engage others who may have differing approaches to problem solving. They must be oriented towards joint outcomes, and able to interact effectively with public servants, government officials and members of industry. This will require them to possess what is loosely described as ‘commercial acumen’, but also have a more valued ability to form sustainable relationships with industry that are mutually productive and cost effective.

It will be impossible for logisticians to be trained and educated so to address all facets of logistics, yet they must be able to get the most from the highly capable logisticians and technical support staff that support them. Furthermore, strategic logisticians must bridge the divide between operational logistics, and capability, acquisition and sustainment. This means they must be adaptable, their self-awareness such that can identify their own knowledge gaps and subsequently seek appropriate advice from elsewhere in Defence, with a relentless attitude to achieving efficiencies which preserve effectiveness, and be able to demonstrate vision and leadership. The leadership required will be bureaucratic in nature, which is not an approach many military leaders apply natively.

Is it actually possible to adequately prepare logisticians for all of these requirements? Are our expectations of strategic logisticians impossibly high?

Militaries certainly try to develop their logisticians to operate effectively at all levels, and have been very effective at ensuring logisticians are ready for operations. Yet there is still a way to go with respect to preparing strategic logisticians, especially at the mid-career level where most will make the transition into an unfamiliar environment. Education and training opportunities at this level are limited by virtue of the lack of a clear ‘owner’ of the problem, in contrast to the domain-based logistics schools operated by different Services and groups. Mentorship is a highly useful alternative, as are the experiences by which personnel are periodically posted into strategic agencies and organisations at various stages of their career. Both, however, should complement a broader strategy which addresses the education and training requirement in more general terms. An unstructured approach involving courses, self-paced education and learning, mixed with much-desired industry outplacements is not ideal for producing best results.

Solutions may be difficult to define, but they are being discussed. The conversation around this topic is a good indication that there is a level of dissatisfaction concerning the way in which logisticians are prepared for more senior roles. Some might view that addressing the problem is a case of ‘logistician exceptionalism’ which argues for the redirection of limited resources, funding and time, towards senior logisticians at the expense of other elements within Defence who are also called upon to operate at the strategic levels of the institution. It is, however, undeniable that as a prerequisite logisticians must be able to perform effectively in pan-organisational environment; such performance is essential for the achievement of efficiencies and effectiveness across all aspects of the logistics process. More optimistically, the fact that this discussion exists is a good sign that logisticians – certainly within the Australian Defence Force – are collectively interested in improving their own performance, their profession, and that of the broader Defence organisation. This sense of professionalism is vital to any future solution.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer. He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics. Image by Australian Department of Defence.

[1] The activity was the Royal Australian Air Force ‘Logistics Officers Advanced Course’, a seminar based opportunity to engage with senior Australian Defence Force logistics leaders and to prepare for appointments at the Lieutenant Colonel (and equivalent, both military and civilian) level.

The strategic logistician and professional possibility

By David Beaumont.

As a participant of a recent seminar-base course designed to prepare logistics officers for appointments within strategic and joint agencies and commands in Defence, I was asked to consider what the traits and behaviours of the strategic ‘future logistician’ might be.[1]  The requirements for logisticians operating at the strategic level of defence forces has been an explicitly addressed topic by senior leaders on Logistics In War, noting many posts implicitly support the conclusion that logisticians must adapt in some wat to face what is known about the future. Skills must be taught, modern technologies introduced and mastered, and logisticians exposed to business ‘best practice’. Alternatively, a number of posts (see parts one and two on educating logisticians) tackle the problem of preparing logisticians in an abstract manner and contend that because the future is unknowable, the ‘future logistician’ must be conditioned to operate where nothing is certain. Preparing the ‘future logistician’ with this in mind will not be easy.

Whichever way you look at it, there are many competing demands being placed upon the logistician expected to perform at the strategic level of defence forces. This article will attempt to describe a some of these demands, as discussed during the seminar, to highlight the complexity of the professional challenge.

Perhaps the most notable change for a strategic logistician comes with an expansion of their role within the logistics process – the process which takes national economic resources provided to Defence by Government, translating them into preparedness outcomes or operational effect. This is a process that incorporates everything from acquisition to operational sustainment, and involves uniformed personnel, public servants and industry partners. The increasing importance of commercial enterprise in sustain operations in a deployed environment, as well as increasing levels of integration of industry into acquisition and materiel sustainment functions, confirms how diverse the contemporary strategic logistics environment is. While a logistician acting in a Service tactical or technical position might influence a discrete function or activity, a strategic logistician is expected to have an effect across the many boundaries within the logistics process. In most cases, accordingly, they will not own nor control the people or capabilities that will lead to their success.

The acronym ‘VUCA’ – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – is a worthy term to describe the environment in which a joint or strategic logistician must act. In some ways, however, VUCA is a euphemism. At the strategic level, logistics problems are simply too large for one person, irrespective of their rank, influence or training, to be able to resolve them independently. With more people and agencies involved in logistics problems, and given the nature of human and bureaucratic interactions, a VUCA environment is a virtual given. The biggest philosophical problem for logisticians as they approach the strategic levels of the organisation is not that they must adjust to an ever-changing environment. Rather, it is in admitting that there are limits to their capacity to control events and processes. Just as one increases in seniority and experience, attaining the credibility and capacity to independently address the typically Service issues that have defined the earliest stages of a career, logisticians inevitably conclude that the most significant, strategic, problems in Defence can only be resolved by a whole of enterprise approach.

Logisticians at the operational and strategic level must therefore become expert mediators, be pragmatic and team-oriented, with ‘soft skills’ that contrast to directive approaches that may be successful other appointments. They need to balance their own technical specialty and cultural biases with the generalist traits necessary to engage others who may have differing approaches to problem solving. They must be oriented towards joint outcomes, and able to interact effectively with public servants, government officials and members of industry. This will require them to possess what is loosely described as ‘commercial acumen’, but also have a more valued ability to form sustainable relationships with industry that are mutually productive and cost effective.

It will be impossible for logisticians to be trained and educated so to address all facets of logistics, yet they must be able to get the most from the highly capable logisticians and technical support staff that support them. Furthermore, strategic logisticians must bridge the divide between operational logistics, and capability, acquisition and sustainment. This means they must be adaptable, their self-awareness such that can identify their own knowledge gaps and subsequently seek appropriate advice from elsewhere in Defence, with a relentless attitude to achieving efficiencies which preserve effectiveness, and be able to demonstrate vision and leadership. The leadership required will be bureaucratic in nature, which is not an approach many military leaders apply natively.

Is it actually possible to adequately prepare logisticians for all of these requirements? Are our expectations of strategic logisticians impossibly high?

Militaries certainly try to develop their logisticians to operate effectively at all levels, and have been very effective at ensuring logisticians are ready for operations. Yet there is still a way to go with respect to preparing strategic logisticians, especially at the mid-career level where most will make the transition into an unfamiliar environment. Education and training opportunities at this level are limited by virtue of the lack of a clear ‘owner’ of the problem, in contrast to the domain-based logistics schools operated by different Services and groups. Mentorship is a highly useful alternative, as are the experiences by which personnel are periodically posted into strategic agencies and organisations at various stages of their career. Both, however, should complement a broader strategy which addresses the education and training requirement in more general terms. An unstructured approach involving courses, self-paced education and learning, mixed with much-desired industry outplacements is not ideal for producing best results.

Solutions may be difficult to define, but they are being discussed. The conversation around this topic is a good indication that there is a level of dissatisfaction concerning the way in which logisticians are prepared for more senior roles. Some might view that addressing the problem is a case of ‘logistician exceptionalism’ which argues for the redirection of limited resources, funding and time, towards senior logisticians at the expense of other elements within Defence who are also called upon to operate at the strategic levels of the institution. It is, however, undeniable that as a prerequisite logisticians must be able to perform effectively in pan-organisational environment; such performance is essential for the achievement of efficiencies and effectiveness across all aspects of the logistics process. More optimistically, the fact that this discussion exists is a good sign that logisticians – certainly within the Australian Defence Force – are collectively interested in improving their own performance, their profession, and that of the broader Defence organisation. This sense of professionalism is vital to any future solution.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer, logistician and editor of Logistics In War. He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics. Image by Australian Department of Defence.

[1] The activity was the Royal Australian Air Force ‘Logistics Officers Advanced Course’, a seminar based opportunity to engage with senior Australian Defence Force logistics leaders and to prepare for appointments at the Lieutenant Colonel (and equivalent, both military and civilian) level.

Intellectual irrelevance and the ownership of military logistics

By David Beaumont.

This post is an update of a popular post from the #LIWArchives.

The professionalisation of logisticians is a topic that has once again emerged, as strategic-level organisations in a number of different militaries seek to improve, and ‘intellectualise’, military logistics.  The desire for ‘intellectualisation’ appeals to one of the three pillars of Samuel Huntington’s criteria of a profession – expertise – in addition to enabling military logisticians to articulate, educate and perform.[1]  However, modern military logisticians have tended to look outside of their own organisation for the architecture of their professionalisation. There is an belief in various circles that logistic innovation will primarily come from industry or the business sciences, as is there an assumption that the military can no longer generate truly meaningful contributions to  contemporary logistic theory or ideas. This is quite clearly untrue, but if militaries truly seek to professionalise logisticians and the ideas of military logistics, they must strive to once again intellectually ‘own’ the subject.

Although the line between industry and military has always been blurred, the basic theory and ideas of logistics came from military, and not commercial, grounds. Commerce and war has intermingled since the first club was picked up, and as we are reminded through many of the great modern works on strategy prepared by theorists such as Clausewitz, Mahan and Corbett. Certainly, as war became larger and requiring a greater proportion of national economies to sustain, the relationship between the two grew especially close. In 1917 Colonel George Thorpe explicitly addressed this topic in Pure Logistics:

‘we find modern war losing its mystery and chivalry, we find it ranging itself in close alliance with industry of the commercial kind, from which war is acquiring “business methods”.[2]

Fifty years after Thorpe’s work on logistic theory was published, this relationship between commerce and war was confirmed in global conflict. [3]  The experiences of the Allied powers, and in particular the United States, in projecting military power into the maritime environment and to continents far away ensured logistics captured the interest of many military commanders. Some, such as Rear Admiral Henry Eccles, would devote the latter years of their military careers to write about logistics and its role in war; he subsequently described logistics as ‘the bridge’ from the economy to the battlefield. This ‘bridge’, in part, comprised the supply chain, and with new technologies such as standardised containers enabling expeditionary logistics on a global scale and ideas including ‘total cost of ownership’ starting to emerge, interest in understanding the logistics exploded beyond its military use.

ww2-ammunition-stockpile

US military ammunition point, WW2 – from Ruppenthal, Logistics in support of the armies

Modern ideas of logistics began to filter into commerce, and were rapidly assimilated as the world recovered from the after-effects of global conflict. As the employment of military forces changed over time, and globalisation took root, the business sciences started to take the lead when it came to ‘intellectualising’ logistics. Initially military-oriented ‘think tanks’ seized the opportunity to command the intellectualisation of logistics through modern operational analysis.  Murray Geisler, describing the RAND Corporation’s logistic program which he headed in 1966, stated that business sciences had much to learn from military logistics and vice versa. General Carter Magruder, a senior US Army logistician of the time and subsequent RAND recruit, also commented on the importance of considering ‘new and successful commercial management practices’ as well as examining the importance of militaries revising, or abandoning, current practices.[4]

But it was the efforts of the management doyen Peter Drucker in the 1960’s that saw the study of logistics transition to a corporate matter. Drucker fundamentally redefined supply-chain management into a form usable in modern commerce, and in doing so, the business community subsumed military ‘ownership’ of the logistic problem. By the time General Gus Pagonis wrote Moving Mountains, his experiences as the senior theatre logistician of the 1991 Gulf War, military histories and biographies concerned with logistical efforts were actively promoting their worth to a business audience.[5] Militaries had begun to increase the emphasis on modern business principles and technical skills in their professional military education. Among logisticians business courses became increasingly popular. I should know – I was one of those who took such opportunities to obtain a business degree as part of my professional development.

However, with greater operational experience, there has come increased scepticism of the slavish adoption of business practices and ideas within the military environment. The closer one gets to the tactical level of war, the more palpable the scepticism becomes. In most cases, the doubt springs from the misapplication of the many ideas concerned with achieving greater supply-chain efficiency; these include  the now familiar ‘just-in-time logistics’, ‘lean logistics’, and ‘distribution-based logistics’. Such concepts have had a vital role in introducing supply chain improvements in militaries. However, it hasn’t helped the level of faith logisticians have in them when they are introduced or imposed at times when logistic organisations bear the brunt of organisational rationalisations or manpower cuts. But it is the operational examples that stick the most in the minds of most military logisticians, and their commanders.

Without wanting to infer too much by basing this discussion on few examples, history doesn’t treat an over-enthusiastic importation of business ideas into war well. While always well intended when implemented in peace-time, a business-like efficiency in military logistics has, in numerous examples, inflicted upon deployed forces a self-induced austerity. This austerity can have significant operational consequences. Major General Hartley, Australian Land Commander, on viewing the extremely austere situation on the ground during the Australian deployment to East Timor in 1999, Operation Warden, made particular effort in the last paragraph of his visit report to emphasise that logistic initiatives such as ‘just-in-time logistics are not working’.[6] Similar conclusions were made in studies of Operation Iraqi Freedom where the attempt to eliminate Desert Storm-esque ‘iron mountains’ led to numerous logistics issues. It is, however, important not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ when it comes to such ideas, and others, from the business domain. When implemented in the right way, and in the right environments, great achievements in lowering logistic costs can be achieved and resources better distributed across a deployed force.

To better employ ideas imported from outside military institutions, it is useful to logisticians that they first devote their time to understanding the military theories, and the insightful histories, which more directly apply to their profession. This enables them to better judge what can work, and more importantly, when it will work. In most cases, they will find that there is nothing intrinsically flawed with the ideas of business practice. In reviewing the military literature of logistics, logisticians will soon see that many key business practices now taken for granted were in fact first developed and practiced by military logisticians! However, very few of the key works in military logistics are commonly read nor referred to, let alone widely taught in military schoolhouses. It is therefore understandable why militaries have looked beyond the military environment with respect to validating their attempts to professionalise logisticians, or in search of new ideas.

In the past defence forces have relied upon training, typically conducted in the junior years of a soldiers and officers career, followed by an accumulation of experience through routine, exercises and operations, to prepare their logisticians. Most look to the future and contend new forms of training and education will be required to chance the complexities the contemporary logistician faces in war ad peace. The fact that a many of these forces are now actively seeking ways in which to improve the ‘intellectualisation’ and ‘professionalisation’ of their logisticians is a highly positive next step for the future. But there are numerous obstacles that must be overcome.

In-house education opportunities for logisticians remain few in all but the best resourced militaries, and logistic leaders have yet to fully break from outdated paradigms of thinking about how to develop a professionalised logistician.  The practice of cycling military staff through business degrees, outplacements in the commercial sector, or engaging them with a professional certification within a civilian logistics professional body or authority must give way to better alternatives. As difficult and costly as it may be to implement, it is my suspicion that militaries will only ever be truly satisfied with the intellectual direction of military logisticians if they conduct all aspects of the training and education themselves.

It was from the military that logistics emerged, and it is time that military logisticians strive to regain an intellectual ‘ownership’ of the topic. The development of the theories and ideas of logistics should not be outsourced to other groups and institutions. Nor should ideas optimised for business circumstances be the keystones of all logistic thought. But logisticians can’t afford to assume they know all the answers either. The sheer complexity of the logistic process means we won’t find professional mastery in the isolated works and ideas of the military, industry, or in academia. Instead, it is the diversity of opinion that is important, as is the manner by which the military logistic community catalyses these various opinions and ideas into tangible, and effective, logistic concepts. It is not sufficient that we have logisticians with skills learned from commerce; we need logisticians that can translate business best-practice into military best-practice. This requires logisticians to be respectful of the tenets and theories which military logisticians, in times past, have taken the time to write. Such ideas enable effective and useful comparisons or inclusions to be made.

Professional logisticians have a responsibility to steward the ideas found in business theory into a ways that are operationally useful, to actively promote discussion and critique, mentor others to do the same, and develop the new ideas of logistics that will find their way into doctrine and concepts. A failure to do this now will undo efforts currently being undertaken in different militaries to ‘professionalise’ logisticians, will likely promote an unhealthy culture of imitation of concepts designed to work in non-military environments, and will ultimately lead to intellectual irrelevance.  Truly professional logisticians shouldn’t let this happen, and most will certainly try their hardest to avoid it. But they shouldn’t feel that there are no guides to help them in this task. Most of the key works of logistic literature contain chapters or sections specifically addressing the issue of professionalisation; a problem that appears to be virtually timeless and unsolved. Given most things in military logistics are not new, perhaps it is a good time to revisit these works and apply the lessons within.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer, logistician and editor of Logistics In War. Like many other military logisticians, he earned a business degree early in his career.  He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics.

Follow us at Twitter: @logisticsinwar and Facebook : @logisticsinwar. Share to grow the network and continue the discussion.

[1] Huntington, S., Solder and the State, Harvard University Press, USA, 1957

[2] Thorpe, G.C. (reprinted from 1917), Pure logistics, National Defense University, USA, 1986, p 4

[3] Cowen, D., The deadly life of logistics, University of Minneapolis Press, USA, 2014, p 30

[4] Magruder, C.B., , Recurring logistic problems as I have observed them, Center of Military History, United States Army, USA, 1991 (reprinted from 1970), p 73

[5] Pagonis, W.G., 1992, Moving mountains: lessons in leadership and logistics from the Gulf War, Harvard Business School Press, USA

[6] Hartley, J., LCAUST Post-visit report: Operation Warden, November 1999 (currently in the process of being registered into the Australian War Memorial)