Every logistician must write

By David Beaumont.

Logistics in War has been online for nearly one and a half years. This post, shared with the Australian Army’s ‘Cove’, gives three reasons why military professionals should write. It is based upon experiences learned from those eighteen months. The three reasons to write apply to logisticians in particular, for if logisticians are to be taken seriously, they must come, seriously, to the debate. Writing is valuable, and valued.

Major-General Chris Field recently wrote of his two reasons to write; education and humility. His insights were based on a view that ‘standard officer training, education and experience’ was not enough and that ‘doing more was a personal responsibility’. He regards ‘humility’ as coming from the recognition you do not know as much as you think you know, and that writing and learning lessens the gap between the two. I have read many articles on why, as a member of the profession of arms, it is important that we write. To be frank, I have felt that more people have been recently writing about writing and emphasising the importance self-paced professional military education than engaging in debate and discussion within military circles. However, I found Major-General Field’s comments articulated the two fundamental reasons I write, but probably more importantly, allude to the importance of self-research and self-education. I would like to offer some additional points for you to consider.

Before I do, and at the risk of self-indulgence, it is worth understanding where I have come from as a writer. Like Major-General Field, I have written extensively on my chosen topic area – military logistics – through blogs, journal articles and academic-level papers. While I get personal satisfaction in developing a deep understanding for the subject area, I have also found the writing has been professionally important to raise and discuss issues that may otherwise have remained cloistered away in an obscure logistics-oriented conference. I think the introduction to Logistics in War says it enough:

‘The conclusion is irresistible that the military themselves know next to nothing about logistics’.– United States Marine Corps Colonel George C Thorpe, Pure Logistics, 1917.

Logistics In War’ seeks to instigate and inspire, continue and create, a professional discussion on military logistics that is sorely lacking. Furthermore, ‘Logistics In War’ supports the development of an international community of military logisticians that can share ideas, concepts and useful material in an insightful, courteous and professional manner reflective of the values of the militaries and Defence organisations that its readers may serve in.

The act of writing, and my experiences that have followed, have absolutely confirmed to me that Army and Defence wants to read. It wants to learn, and where it might not have the capacity to innovate or alleviate systemic problems, it wants to understand where risks lie. Sometimes Army just wants to know what the question should be! This is especially relevant to the topic of logistics which has the real potential to destroy our operational plans, disrupt tactical execution and challenge Army’s sustainment budget if we fail to give it the attention it deserves. Although individuals may not see the value in writing, at an organisational level, I have found nothing but support from the Service and in Defence more broadly. With this in mind, I would like to introduce three ideas as reasons to professionally write.

It brings greater understanding, and from understanding, professional relevance

The importance of researching and writing as an activity of personal professional military has been described ad nauseum. It fills the gaping hole in our professional knowledge that the individual and collective training on offer can never overcome. Army will try to offer us all experiences as a compensation for the inability to prepare people any other way as they assume particular appointments, or ascend to higher ranks. However, this is usually not enough. The research and writing process, as Major-General Field describes, comes a substantial part of the way to identify gaps in knowledge, enabling us to respond to those gaps accordingly.

It is to your own personal benefit that you write. You will gain authority and respect for eloquent and literate debate on issues, demonstrating your competence in the most public of ways. Occasionally you will get a personal email of support, or contacted by a distinguished reader who offers you an encouraging word. Army desires writers from within the profession of arms, and has been quite active in recent years in facilitating constructive and considerate debate on a variety of topics. It is therefore a great time to contribute. Writing can be your opportunity to leave a mark on the Army, and a way in which you will be recognised for a permanent contribution to the profession of arms.

To write is to convince and influence

Another important reason to write is to influence and to convince others to see your point of view. In this regard there is a place for contemporary short form articles (blogs) just as there is for much longer and detailed papers and books. I believe we are in a time where both are required to balance quality and depth of content with the accessibility. If you seek to engage with, and ultimately convince, as broad an audience as possible, be prepared to do both. However, there is little doubt that a well-researched paper creates a greater gravity, and its contents considered with greater seriousness.

Don’t worry yourself with a fear that your work is not being read. I have had many conversations with people who contend that papers rarely get read, and that we should instead focus on making writing more accessible. The recent explosion of blogs including my own Logistics in War, professional military education sites such as The Cove, and other forms of ‘accessible’ writing are all part of this trend. Even then, there is always a niggling doubt as to whether material is being read, including in those times when social media analytics reinforces your concerns as to whether your work may be popular or not.

The ‘accessibility’ of your writing, however, is only partially relevant. What matters is who reads it, and the way in which your writing convinces. Reliability, quality and depth of information is often more important to an audience, especially if that audience is testing your credibility. Furthermore, it may matter more to convince and influence others and the organisation if greater effort is applied to your research and writing. If you are trying to improve your own ability, practice with short articles and work towards the long-term goal of producing a more substantial work. Writing, like most things, is a skill that you can improve.

It is part of organisational renewal

Writing for yourself is important for your own education. Writing to improve that of others is contributing to your profession. We are raised, and often measured, as officers by our ability to convince others through inspiration and engaging with our soldiers at a personal level. This is an essential aspect of command, which is rightly and irrevocably about people. Although memories and reputation follow us all through our military careers, the improvement of the profession of arms requires something more permanent. There is nothing more permanent than words when it comes to communication, especially when those words synthesise problems through research and lead to alternative points of view than the normal. Rather than convincing individuals, your team, even your formation, with writing you are contributing to something much larger.

If we no longer take the time to research and write, our understanding of war will diminish, history’s lessons forgotten, and our exploration of the future will be left to others. Army would be in a state of decline, bereft of intellectual debate or direction, and unable to break the hold of myopic ideas and outdated concepts. The Chief of Army recently challenged Army’s senior leaders (and by extension, all in Army) to consider what Army’s next ‘big idea’ should be. Discussion may be important, but the debate must be manifested on paper and by electrons if it is to encourage a broad-based renewal and stimulate collective involvement and critique. Many of Army’s senior leaders have already contributed to public discussion and support those that write. Take that as a hint that there is no better time than the present to contribute to blogs, journals or larger research papers which can influence, even if only in a small way, the future of Army.

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

Have a spare 30 minutes?

By David Beaumont.

Joe Byerly, in an excellent post at his blog ‘From the Green Notebook’, reminds us of the importance of continual reading. He promotes 20-30 minutes of reading in a day (or night) as part of a ‘consistent practice of self-study’.  Reading about logistics, the difficulties encountered in sustaining and moving armies, should be part of this study. Yet very few people know about the important works on military logistics or know where to start. I am often asked by people which logistics books I would recommend to anyone who might be time-poor, or had only just made the decision to start reading on the topic. Byerly’s piece compelled me to answer this question properly (if a little evasively).

I maintain the view given at the time I was questioned; it ‘depends what you are after’. Because logistics is a process that includes so many different functions from the tactical to the national-economic, it is experienced in different ways by different people. Furthermore, with the term ‘logistics’ being so conflated, it is hard to find one particular book which describes logistics holistically. For those in capability development, logistics is about efficiency, production and acquisition, whereas those in tactical formations see logistics as a variety of ‘small’, yet all-too-often ‘big’, things that give the formation the capacity to fight. A book such as Clements, The Lieutenant Don’t Know, therefore examines an experience of logistics worlds apart from Eccles, Logistics in the national defense.

With this in mind, I thought I should summarise what might be learned from what I feel are the most important works on military logistics. The choice with respect to relevancy is therefore your own. I have already gone a substantial part of the way here to outlining the basic principles of the literature, but for the sake of identifying who might benefit the most from reading each text:

  1. From Clausewitz, On War, the strategist will learn how logistics determines the ‘form or factor’ of operations.
  2. From Jomini, The Art of War, the commander will see how logistics is the ‘means and arrangements which work out the plans of strategy and tactics’.
  3. From Thorpe, Pure logistics, the commander will see way in which logistics ‘sets the stage’ for operations.
  4. From Eccles, Logistics in the national defense, the strategic logistician will learn of the processes of connecting the economy to the battlefield. The operational commander will learn that logistics requires control and oversight for it to be efficient and effective.
  5. From Macgruder, Recurring logistics problems as I have observed them, the tactical commander will be shown the importance of well-trained logistics troops, and that time is won in conflict by having effective advance / forward logistics early.
  6. From Van Creveld, Supplying War, you will be persuaded that strategy is second to logistics in modern war. However, because militaries rarely plan on this basis, logistics often seems ‘an overcoming of a series of difficulties’.
  7. From Lynn, Feeding Mars; Thomspon, Lifeblood of War, the operational and tactical commander will learn how contextual logistics is, and the need for adaptation in battle.
  8. From Huston, Sinews of War, the tactical and operational commander or logistician will learn of major principles of logistics as it applies to delivering ‘firepower or shock’, based upon a comprehensive study of centuries of conflict. Pagonis, Moving Mountains is a natural complement.
  9. From Macksey, For want of a nail, the commander and logistician will learn of the expansion of the ‘tail’ as compared to the ‘tooth’ with new technologies, and that logistics is fundamentally about affecting mobility (and thus time and space).
  10. From Tuttle, Defense logistics for the 21st century, the logistician will learn of the modern inputs to logistics capability and how they relate to expeditionary warfare.
  11. From Kane, Military logistics and strategic performance, the strategist will learn how logistics creates the circumstances for strategy and tactics, and is the ‘arbiter of opportunity’.
  12. From Engels, Alexander the Great and the logistics of the Macedonian army, and Roth, The logistics of the Roman army at war, the strategist will see how the basis of their work is found in logistics.
  13. From Cowen, The deadly life of logistics, the strategist will see how the geography of logistics, supply chains in all their complexity, govern national interest and strategic policy.
  14. From Privatsky, Logistics of the Falklands War, all will learn how logistics truly is the arbiter of strategy, how it defines operations and that it is critical to tactical success – especially in expeditionary warfare.

The books I have briefly described above are independently valuable, and each contribute their own perspective to a vital aspect of war. Some readers are likely to value certain books over others, or different books entirely. However, I have found the list reflects the most important to how I have formed my opinion and understanding of logistics. After reading, and re-reading, the list of books above, I was left with the following conclusions about logistics:

  1. Logistics is essentially moving, supplying and maintaining forces. It is above all else concerned about the practical existence of forces as distinct from their employment.
  2. Logistics, as a process, connects the economy to the battlefield. In raising and sustaining forces, logistics comprises a vast proportion of a military’s time.
  3. Logistics is the application of time and space factors to operations. It is concerned with what can be moved and when. It is therefore the substance of strategy, and ‘sets the stage’ for tactics.
  4. Logistics is a self-sustaining system of many elements and countless, often contextual, inputs. If left ‘uncontrolled’ in war it has a tendency to grow inefficient, and in doing so, forces allocated to logistics tasks swell in size.
  5. War can be prepared for, and in this capacity, logistics influences all options. However, once battle commences, it is virtually impossible to plan logistics efficiently. ‘Brute force’ logistics often prevails.

Each book on logistics, including those many I have not mentioned here, deserves to be read. Twenty to thirty minutes of reading about military logistics is such a small proportion of time to devote to a topic so fundamentally relevant to success in war.

What can you expect? You will be left concerned with repetition of problems throughout history, and certainly the propensity of armies to outrun their means of supply with regularity. But you will also be left with a sense of the ingenuity of logisticians, commanders and soldiers to overcome logistics issues through a variety of means unforseen prior to war. You will see how logistics does indeed shape how forces will fight, and that logistics leads strategy to its ultimate conclusion.

But most of all, you will also be left to question why so few of these works are on professional reading lists.

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

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)

Intellectual irrelevance and the ownership of military logistics

By David Beaumont

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. 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)

Have a spare 30 minutes?

By David Beaumont.

Joe Byerly, in an excellent post at his blog ‘From the Green Notebook’, reminds us of the importance of continual reading. He promotes 20-30 minutes of reading in a day (or night) as part of a ‘consistent practice of self-study’.  Reading about logistics, the difficulties encountered in sustaining and moving armies, should be part of this study. Yet very few people know about the important works on military logistics or know where to start. I am often asked by people which logistics books I would recommend to anyone who might be time-poor, or had only just made the decision to start reading on the topic. Byerly’s piece compelled me to answer this question properly (if a little evasively).

I maintain the view given at the time I was questioned; it ‘depends what you are after’. Because logistics is a process that includes so many different functions from the tactical to the national-economic, it is experienced in different ways by different people. Furthermore, with the term ‘logistics’ being so conflated, it is hard to find one particular book which describes logistics holistically. For those in capability development, logistics is about efficiency, production and acquisition, whereas those in tactical formations see logistics as a variety of ‘small’, yet all-too-often ‘big’, things that give the formation the capacity to fight. A book such as Clements, The Lieutenant Don’t Know, therefore examines an experience of logistics worlds apart from Eccles, Logistics in the national defense.

With this in mind, I thought I should summarise what might be learned from what I feel are the most important works on military logistics. The choice with respect to relevancy is therefore your own. I have already gone a substantial part of the way here to outlining the basic principles of the literature, but for the sake of identifying who might benefit the most from reading each text:

  1. From Clausewitz, On War, the strategist will learn how logistics determines the ‘form or factor’ of operations.
  2. From Jomini, The Art of War, the commander will see how logistics is the ‘means and arrangements which work out the plans of strategy and tactics’.
  3. From Thorpe, Pure logistics, the commander will see way in which logistics ‘sets the stage’ for operations.
  4. From Eccles, Logistics in the national defense, the strategic logistician will learn of the processes of connecting the economy to the battlefield. The operational commander will learn that logistics requires control and oversight for it to be efficient and effective.
  5. From Macgruder, Recurring logistics problems as I have observed them, the tactical commander will be shown the importance of well-trained logistics troops, and that time is won in conflict by having effective advance / forward logistics early.
  6. From Van Creveld, Supplying War, you will be persuaded that strategy is second to logistics in modern war. However, because militaries rarely plan on this basis, logistics often seems ‘an overcoming of a series of difficulties’.
  7. From Lynn, Feeding Mars; Thomspon, Lifeblood of War, the operational and tactical commander will learn how contextual logistics is, and the need for adaptation in battle.
  8. From Huston, Sinews of War, the tactical and operational commander or logistician will learn of major principles of logistics as it applies to delivering ‘firepower or shock’, based upon a comprehensive study of centuries of conflict. Pagonis, Moving Mountains is a natural complement.
  9. From Macksey, For want of a nail, the commander and logistician will learn of the expansion of the ‘tail’ as compared to the ‘tooth’ with new technologies, and that logistics is fundamentally about affecting mobility (and thus time and space).
  10. From Tuttle, Defense logistics for the 21st century, the logistician will learn of the modern inputs to logistics capability and how they relate to expeditionary warfare.
  11. From Kane, Military logistics and strategic performance, the strategist will learn how logistics creates the circumstances for strategy and tactics, and is the ‘arbiter of opportunity’.
  12. From Engels, Alexander the Great and the logistics of the Macedonian army, and Roth, The logistics of the Roman army at war, the strategist will see how the basis of their work is found in logistics.
  13. From Cowen, The deadly life of logistics, the strategist will see how the geography of logistics, supply chains in all their complexity, govern national interest and strategic policy.
  14. From Privatsky, Logistics of the Falklands War, all will learn how logistics truly is the arbiter of strategy, how it defines operations and that it is critical to tactical success – especially in expeditionary warfare.

The books I have briefly described above are independently valuable, and each contribute their own perspective to a vital aspect of war. Some readers are likely to value certain books over others, or different books entirely. However, I have found the list reflects the most important to how I have formed my opinion and understanding of logistics. After reading, and re-reading, the list of books above, I was left with the following conclusions about logistics:

  1. Logistics is essentially moving, supplying and maintaining forces. It is above all else concerned about the practical existence of forces as distinct from their employment.
  2. Logistics, as a process, connects the economy to the battlefield. In raising and sustaining forces, logistics comprises a vast proportion of a military’s time.
  3. Logistics is the application of time and space factors to operations. It is concerned with what can be moved and when. It is therefore the substance of strategy, and ‘sets the stage’ for tactics.
  4. Logistics is a self-sustaining system of many elements and countless, often contextual, inputs. If left ‘uncontrolled’ in war it has a tendency to grow inefficient, and in doing so, forces allocated to logistics tasks swell in size.
  5. War can be prepared for, and in this capacity, logistics influences all options. However, once battle commences, it is virtually impossible to plan logistics efficiently. ‘Brute force’ logistics often prevails.

Each book on logistics, including those many I have not mentioned here, deserves to be read. Twenty to thirty minutes of reading about military logistics is such a small proportion of time to devote to a topic so fundamentally relevant to success in war.

What can you expect? You will be left concerned with repetition of problems throughout history, and certainly the propensity of armies to outrun their means of supply with regularity. But you will also be left with a sense of the ingenuity of logisticians, commanders and soldiers to overcome logistics issues through a variety of means unforseen prior to war. You will see how logistics does indeed shape how forces will fight, and that logistics leads strategy to its ultimate conclusion.

But most of all, you will also be left to question why so few of these works are on professional reading lists.

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