‘The furthest, the weakest’ – how logistics creates national power

By David Beaumont.

This article follows-up last week’s post on logistics in deterrence. 

The nature and characteristics of strategic competition has been given new life in recent months. Theorists, writers, military professionals and many others are looking for indicators of strategic activity, some obvious and some not so conspicuous. One of the more abstract ideas prevalent in this discussion is the concept of national power. The Lowy Institute recently described ‘power is a relational quantity’.[1] It gives a point of reference between two or more nations in their capacity to exert influence upon one another. It is unsurprising to see that military capability forms one of eight measures of power used in an outstanding statistical reference produced recently by the Lowy Institute – the Asia Power Index. The ability to apply military power to influence strategic decision making, if not through direct and forceful coercion, is an ultimate expression of national strength. In a time of persistent conflict and heightened competition between States, military power is becoming increasingly important – so much so that the US Joint Chiefs of Staff have developed a new concept defining its use in the competitive environment outside of armed conflict.

The importance of logistics, an internal military activity which raises and sustains forces operationally, to military power is self-evident. Its influence, however, is also highly understated. At the risk of sounding overly critical of Lowy’s impressive resource, the ability of an ‘armed force to deploy rapidly and for a sustained period’ probably deserves a greater weighting than 10% of total military capability. John Louth once wrote of a widespread tendency to misread the significance of lift and sustainment to operational scenarios.[2] In part one of a series of posts – Defining strategic competition – when logistics becomes a strategic weaponI outlined logistics factors are at the heart of military capability and power, if not military credibility. What use are sophisticated combat platforms when they cannot be sustained, replaced or repaired, deployed in an acceptable timeframe or readied for war? The threat of use of these capabilities as a means of coercion, or their actual use operationally, is compromised when logistics matters fall by the wayside. Approaching military capability and power from the basis of an understanding of likely sustained effectiveness rather than the potential of a platform is therefore the acme of military preparedness.

The Lowy Institute is certainly not alone in analysing the nature of military power. This article examines military power from the position of a theorist who saw geography and logistics as central to his vision of national power. Kenneth Boulding, in Conflict and defense, saw power ultimately defined by how it can be practically used; military power (or strength in Boulding’s own terms), in this case, is a function of the cost of transporting it to and from the conflict space or operational area.[3] Geography, naturally, plays a leading role in determining exactly how much of a nation’s military power can be brought to bear upon an adversary. The further one nation has to operate from its bases, the longer and more complex are its lines of communication, and the less strength it can put into the field.[4] In mapping the proximity and power relationship as the loss of strength gradient, Boulding also showed the dilemma that ‘expeditionary’ militaries face when they consider the relationship between force structure and posture. Either you forward position your troops to make the task of sustaining them easier, or you maintain a capable, logistically sustainable, expeditionary force. One of the most important strategic policy decisions for any military, therefore, is to rationalise (perhaps even cost) the trade-off between force posture and the development of rapidly deployable capabilities.

Boulding’s theory primarily looked at the relationship from the perspective of transportation capability counterbalanced against the capacity to deliver firepower from afar. He would later argue that the importance of forward basing was diminishing because the ‘cost’ of transportation, measured in speed and danger to deploying forces, was reducing and there had been ‘an enormous increase in the range of the deadly projectile’ through airpower and rocketry.[5] The closure of American and partner overseas military bases in the wake of the Cold War, the subsequent expansion of expeditionary forces in many militaries, and striking expeditionary successes by these forces since the 1991 Gulf War could be seen as part of this trend. That is, until the dramatic reversal of strategic fortune as the ‘cost’ of transportation increased with ‘anti-access, area-denial’ threats, and a competitive force posture approach of rising (or ‘re-rising’) military powers. Distance, once again, became important to the military mind. Western militaries now face a considerable reduction in their freedom for strategic manoeuvre, and the inevitable rebalancing between force posture and developing expeditionary capability accordingly. It is unsurprising that a recent USPACOM exercise highlights the vital importance of strategic and operational lift in this environment.

Strategists and logisticians alike need to be innovative at this time. Not only must they plan for the significant challenge of projecting force into a threat zone against a potentially highly-capable adversary, but they must do so at a time where heavier forces with greater sustainment burdens are make transportation more difficult. While reflecting on abstract measures of power, whether it be the Lowy Institute’s Index or Boulding’s theoretical model, we can’t forget that what really matters is not the size of a distant force, but the relative military power that can be generated against an adversary in a given period. Strategic mobility is therefore a major factor, but the ability to generate military strength in any location also depends on many other logistics inputs.

Transportation capacity, the ability to efficiently deliver materiel, the capacity to minimise sustainment requirements, the physical characteristics of equipment, and the ability to procure support locally ….. all are equally relevant to generating military power at a time and place of one’s choosing. One need only refer to Kenneth Privratsky’s Logistics in the Falklands War: A case study in expeditionary warfare to get a sense of the logistics factors at play. Logistics austerity is now an operational necessity, and the luxuries military forces are used to in many circumstances will simply compromise military strength operationally. Similarly, it is imperative that Western militaries seriously work at reducing their logistics bill or making strategic mobility a higher priority in capability decisions.

The mobilisation of logistics resources and the ability to sustain forces in a distant area is thus important to any conception of national military power. It is important that these concerns are not understated. When considering how wars might unfold, or how military forces might be used to coerce outside of armed conflict, perhaps it is best to start with a thorough logistics analysis of how such forces are to be sustained. Strategic concepts and policies that rely upon assessments of relative strengths between one’s own nation and a potential adversary would greatly benefit from the results. As will the generation of military capabilities that will be expected to provide the means of national military power; capabilities that will be expected to traverse the divide and go to war.

This article was originally published at LIW in early 2018.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer. The thoughts here are his own. The title is construed from Boulding’s book, Conflict and Defense, p 231.

[1] Lowy Institute, Asia Pacific Index 2018 Methodology, https://power.lowyinstitute.org/downloads/Asia-Power-Index-Methodology.pdf, p3 [accessed 15 May 18]

[2] Louth, J., ‘Logistics as a force enabler’ from RUSI Journal, June / July 2015, vol. 160, no. 3, Royal United Services Institute, UK, 2015, p 60

[3] Boulding, K., Conflict and defense, Harper & Brothers, USA, 1962, p 78

[4] Ibid., p 231.

[5] Cited in Webb, K., ‘The continued importance of geographic distance and Boulding’s loss of strength gradient’ from Comparative Strategy, University of Reading, UK, 2007, p 295. Strategic weapons such as those defined by the Lowy Institute as ‘signature weapons’ are a notable exclusion here – these include such things as nuclear weapons and the strategic use of cyber capability.

‘The furthest, the weakest’ – how logistics and distance influence national power

By David Beaumont.

This article is part two of a series of posts examining logistics and strategic competition.

The nature and characteristics of strategic competition has been given new life in recent months. Theorists, writers, military professionals and many others are looking for indicators of strategic activity, some obvious and some not so conspicuous. One of the more abstract ideas prevalent in this discussion is the concept of national power. The Lowy Institute recently described ‘power is a relational quantity’.[1] It gives a point of reference between two or more nations in their capacity to exert influence upon one another. It is unsurprising to see that military capability forms one of eight measures of power used in an outstanding statistical reference produced recently by the Lowy Institute – the Asia Power Index. The ability to apply military power to influence strategic decision making, if not through direct and forceful coercion, is an ultimate expression of national strength. In a time of persistent conflict and heightened competition between States, military power is becoming increasingly important – so much so that the US Joint Chiefs of Staff have developed a new concept defining its use in the competitive environment outside of armed conflict.

The importance of logistics, an internal military activity which raises and sustains forces operationally, to military power is self-evident. Its influence, however, is also highly understated. At the risk of sounding overly critical of Lowy’s impressive resource, the ability of an ‘armed force to deploy rapidly and for a sustained period’ probably deserves a greater weighting than 10% of total military capability. John Louth once wrote of a widespread tendency to misread the significance of lift and sustainment to operational scenarios.[2] In part one of a series of posts – Defining strategic competition – when logistics becomes a strategic weaponI outlined logistics factors are at the heart of military capability and power, if not military credibility. What use are sophisticated combat platforms when they cannot be sustained, replaced or repaired, deployed in an acceptable timeframe or readied for war? The threat of use of these capabilities as a means of coercion, or their actual use operationally, is compromised when logistics matters fall by the wayside. Approaching military capability and power from the basis of an understanding of likely sustained effectiveness rather than the potential of a platform is therefore the acme of military preparedness.

The Lowy Institute is certainly not alone in analysing the nature of military power. This article examines military power from the position of a theorist who saw geography and logistics as central to his vision of national power. Kenneth Boulding, in Conflict and defense, saw power ultimately defined by how it can be practically used; military power (or strength in Boulding’s own terms), in this case, is a function of the cost of transporting it to and from the conflict space or operational area.[3] Geography, naturally, plays a leading role in determining exactly how much of a nation’s military power can be brought to bear upon an adversary. The further one nation has to operate from its bases, the longer and more complex are its lines of communication, and the less strength it can put into the field.[4] In mapping the proximity and power relationship as the loss of strength gradient, Boulding also showed the dilemma that ‘expeditionary’ militaries face when they consider the relationship between force structure and posture. Either you forward position your troops to make the task of sustaining them easier, or you maintain a capable, logistically sustainable, expeditionary force. One of the most important strategic policy decisions for any military, therefore, is to rationalise (perhaps even cost) the trade-off between force posture and the development of rapidly deployable capabilities.

Boulding’s theory primarily looked at the relationship from the perspective of transportation capability counterbalanced against the capacity to deliver firepower from afar. He would later argue that the importance of forward basing was diminishing because the ‘cost’ of transportation, measured in speed and danger to deploying forces, was reducing and there had been ‘an enormous increase in the range of the deadly projectile’ through airpower and rocketry.[5] The closure of American and partner overseas military bases in the wake of the Cold War, the subsequent expansion of expeditionary forces in many militaries, and striking expeditionary successes by these forces since the 1991 Gulf War could be seen as part of this trend. That is, until the dramatic reversal of strategic fortune as the ‘cost’ of transportation increased with ‘anti-access, area-denial’ threats, and a competitive force posture approach of rising (or ‘re-rising’) military powers. Distance, once again, became important to the military mind. Western militaries now face a considerable reduction in their freedom for strategic manoeuvre, and the inevitable rebalancing between force posture and developing expeditionary capability accordingly. It is unsurprising that a recent USPACOM exercise highlights the vital importance of strategic and operational lift in this environment.

Strategists and logisticians alike need to be innovative at this time. Not only must they plan for the significant challenge of projecting force into a threat zone against a potentially highly-capable adversary, but they must do so at a time where heavier forces with greater sustainment burdens are make transportation more difficult. While reflecting on abstract measures of power, whether it be the Lowy Institute’s Index or Boulding’s theoretical model, we can’t forget that what really matters is not the size of a distant force, but the relative military power that can be generated against an adversary in a given period. Strategic mobility is therefore a major factor, but the ability to generate military strength in any location also depends on many other logistics inputs.

Transportation capacity, the ability to efficiently deliver materiel, the capacity to minimise sustainment requirements, the physical characteristics of equipment, and the ability to procure support locally ….. all are equally relevant to generating military power at a time and place of one’s choosing. One need only refer to Kenneth Privratsky’s Logistics in the Falklands War: A case study in expeditionary warfare to get a sense of the logistics factors at play. Logistics austerity is now an operational necessity, and the luxuries military forces are used to in many circumstances will simply compromise military strength operationally. Similarly, it is imperative that Western militaries seriously work at reducing their logistics bill or making strategic mobility a higher priority in capability decisions.

The mobilisation of logistics resources and the ability to sustain forces in a distant area is thus important to any conception of national military power. It is important that these concerns are not understated. When considering how wars might unfold, or how military forces might be used to coerce outside of armed conflict, perhaps it is best to start with a thorough logistics analysis of how such forces are to be sustained. Strategic concepts and policies that rely upon assessments of relative strengths between one’s own nation and a potential adversary would greatly benefit from the results. As will the generation of military capabilities that will be expected to provide the means of national military power; capabilities that will be expected to traverse the divide and go to war.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer. The thoughts here are his own. The title is construed from Boulding’s book, Conflict and Defense, p 231.

[1] Lowy Institute, Asia Pacific Index 2018 Methodology, https://power.lowyinstitute.org/downloads/Asia-Power-Index-Methodology.pdf, p3 [accessed 15 May 18]

[2] Louth, J., ‘Logistics as a force enabler’ from RUSI Journal, June / July 2015, vol. 160, no. 3, Royal United Services Institute, UK, 2015, p 60

[3] Boulding, K., Conflict and defense, Harper & Brothers, USA, 1962, p 78

[4] Ibid., p 231.

[5] Cited in Webb, K., ‘The continued importance of geographic distance and Boulding’s loss of strength gradient’ from Comparative Strategy, University of Reading, UK, 2007, p 295. Strategic weapons such as those defined by the Lowy Institute as ‘signature weapons’ are a notable exclusion here – these include such things as nuclear weapons and the strategic use of cyber capability.

Choosing forces in a crisis – logistics and the art of strategic decision making

By David Beaumont.

‘The quartermasters claim on history may, at its root, lie in the effect of logistics on timing …… the longer a nation requires to bring its force to bear, the more time its enemies have to seize whatever objectives they consider desirable.’
– Thomas Kane, Military Logistics and Strategic Performance

In 2017 there was much rhetoric, and undoubtedly planning, for significant military operations in the North Asian region. Such public discussion tends to focus the military mind on modern tactics and technology, and gives cause to exercise new operational concepts. It also compels them to reassess the preparedness of forces. There has been an understandable proliferation of military articles describing the need for forces to be ready, including logistics forces essential for any operational response. The impact of logistics on strategic decision making is much less discussed, as is the way logistics factors ultimately shape the choice of forces and strategy for a possible conflict.

When militaries are surprised, or a contingency operation is required, logistics capability and capacity is one of the most significant influences on the nature of the response. I will go so far, as I have done so before at Logistics in War, to argue logistics leads strategy in these instances. It shapes decisions and command direction, determining what is practical and most certainly what is possible. As Kane’s comments above identify, logistics reveals itself in timing and the ‘overcoming’ of geography, in preparedness, mobility and other areas. Moreover, logistics factors – enabling and constraining – determine the nature of the military commitment itself. For all the investment we, as military professionals, might make into understanding the art and science of tactics and strategy, it means very little when plans unravel as the cold truth of logistics factors which inform the way in which forces are actually employed.

The reality is that the impact of logistics on strategy and preparedness is easily found. That is, if you choose to look for it. In a contingency response by a military it is abundantly clear. This is because logistics features in many of the activities that establish the preparedness of forces, or when the established preparedness methods fail to match the operational requirement, logistics limitations and constraints begin to influence and decisions that strategic leaders might make. One of the most important issues for strategic leaders is the identification of forces required as a response to a contingency plan or unforeseen circumstance, as this in itself influences the strategy in which will be used. This article will briefly touch on three of the most relevant aspects which might influence the nature of any commitment.

Firstly, we see the impact of logistics in the preparedness methods undertaken during peace. Most Western militaries have applied a ‘force-generation’ model that has suited two decades of continuous military operations. Simply put, this approach identifies relevant capabilities to be ready for a specific period of time, resources and sustains them accordingly, before transitioning this level of preparedness to another element at a later time. I hope to discuss an often seen alternative, a ‘force-expansion’ model, at a later time. Although the model usually includes a ‘certification’ process to validate that the force is ready, at its core the preparedness model is concerned with the apportionment of resources to where it is needed to ensure that a force is ready to deploy. When a force-generation model is ‘broken’ to suit a contingency, significant logistics risks are incurred as a forces race to improve materiel standards, personnel requirements, indent for stores and equipment and so forth. These logistics risks are always factors in the decision making of leaders, the strategy chosen and the forces employed to successfully implement it.

Secondly, we see the impact of logistics in the decision making concerned with the choices of forces. In the case of contingencies, especially at times where the determination of a level of commitment is a freedom of action, logistics problems in areas such as materiel readiness can be avoided by an appropriate choice of forces. This is a feature of contributions made by smaller militaries to coalitions. Often specific capabilities that can be sustained by a coalition supply-chain or a national effort are chosen for the commitment. As an example, the ADF has historically contributed Special Forces, specific air force capabilities, naval shipping and other valuable but niche capabilities at the outset of conflicts given the relative ease by which they can be deployed or sustained once in the field. It is also why we tend to see less land combat forces deploy earlier, as they often prove more difficult to bring to a heightened state of preparedness and sustainable combat capability. This factor was a major consideration as to when the Australian Army deployed its Light Armoured Vehicles to Iraq, and conventional forces into Afghanistan.

Thirdly, there are a range logistics problems and issues that weigh on the minds of senior leaders as they decide upon operational options. These concerns reflect the accepted doctrinal view that strategic activity is predominantly concerned with logistics and intelligence. In most cases, they are consistent across many operations as seen in the decision making about Australian commitments to East Timor in 1999, Iraq operations in 2003 and to a variety of humanitarian assistance operations over the last decade:

– What are the arrangements to evacuate nationals, and how does this impact deployment of forces?
– What are the financial costs to increasing preparedness?
– How much time is required to increase the preparedness level as it applies to stockholdings of repair parts and consumables?
– What are the consequences of increasing preparedness to the existing force generation process?
– What is the availability of strategic (war) commodities such as fuel and natures of ammunition, and what constraints exist in terms of access to global supply?
– How fast can forces deploy with available transportation capabilities, or those obtained through industry or from coalition partners?
– What are the constraints on mobilising specific components of the Reserve capability (such as medical specialists)?
– What is the national support capacity and capability to support military operations?
– What logistics activities can we perform ourselves, or what do we need to ask for?

These questions by no means represent an exhaustive list. Moreover, they were considerations for commitments other than a major conflict scenario. When such a major war is initiated logistics additionally shapes discussions and choices about force expansion and mobilisation, the exposure of supply to interdiction by the adversary, the defining of an operational area, and mobilising national industrial capacity. Having the right strategic and logistics command architecture to enable sensible decisions to be made is an essential criteria for success in the subsequent war. Strategic leadership will be nearly completely focussed on identifying, appropriating and ultimately employing resources to ensure that any strategy will be successful.

An understanding of logistics has always been an essential component of effective ‘generalship’ and staff planning at the strategic level. Decisions on strategy and force commitment depend upon it. This is not an excuse for logisticians to be lazy, as their actions in contributing to preparedness give strategic decision makers a freedom of choice given the availability of resources. Colin Gray, a modern-day doyen of strategy who most readers will be familiar with, closes his introduction to Kane’s book with the ‘the key to offensive success is not the mindless maximisation of supply, but rather the timely reliability of sufficient supply, yielding the opportunity for the art of strategy to show its true magic’. This reminds us of the obligations of both strategist and logistician to understand each other’s work, and the role each plays in establishing the strategic options from which leaders can choose.

Defining strategic competition – when logistics becomes a strategic weapon

By David Beaumont.

We are in an era of strategic competition. Then again, we have always been in an era of strategic competition. Recently Western militaries have contended that adversaries, real and potential, do not always distinguish peace and war. In the recently released Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff argue that the ‘binary conception’ of peace and war is now obsolete, and a ‘competition continuum’ now applies.[1] Now these same Western militaries recognise they must act in times other than in armed conflict, offsetting the strengths of other nations or groups who have a very different interpretation of what defines war. The reality is that they have always been acting within a competitive environment through a variety of measures. Above all else is logistics, which begins where military activity meets the national economy, and fundamentally leads strategy and any intent to use force. Indeed, it is military logistic activity which truly defines a nations capacity to respond militarily to its challenges, and most certainly to deter adversaries in a competitive environment.

The logistics systems which sustain nations and their military forces have always had a ‘deadly life’.[2] The architecture of global supply chains, siphoning national wealth through geographic areas of immense strategic interest to nations and others, have become focal points for national action. ‘Logistics cities’, major trade hubs and economic routes attract the interest of Governments and have become of immense strategic relevance. All arms of Government can be seen in action, using diplomatic, informational, military and economic means to shape how both commercial and military logistics might be applied to their favour. Supply chain security continues to occupy our minds as we intermingle our desire for national prosperity through global trade with our desire to prevent the loss of native capacity to build military capability, mobilise and sustain operations. In this environment it will take little effort for nations to exert influence, or strangle the capacity of a nation to respond to threats militarily. War won’t always begin when the first shots are fired.

Strategic competition has always been defined by logistics, and the credibility of a nation to deploy and sustain force is important not just for strategy, but for deterrence. John Roth’s work on the logistics of the Roman Empire saw military success a factor of the capacity to provision over long distances, and not just because of the virtue inherent in Roman military culture and training.[3] Having the ability to sustain forces effectively was both a tactical and strategic weapon. The ability to project forces throughout Europe and Asia was recognised by others, and conflict in a competitive environment sometimes avoided as a consequence. Two thousand years later the same concept applies; it is the capacity of the mighty US military to project itself on a global scale that deters potential adversaries, and it is why Cold War exercises such as REFORGER and the contemporary alternatives such as Operation Atlantic Resolve are vital at a time of increasing competition. It is also why aligned militaries watch intently as adversaries in competition develop new ways to move their forces or restructure their military logistics organisations.

The proximity of forces also works to deter and change the nature of competition, if only because it eliminates the challenge of strategic transportation from the equation. As economist Kenneth E. Boulding proposed with his idea, the ‘loss of strength gradient’, in Conflict and Defense: a general theory it is the overcoming of distance (but also time) through transportation which really determines relative military power against an adversary.[4] If it is impossible to project force from a homeland in a meaningful way, the next option for a motivated nation is to stockpile military resources locally or – better still – posture forces as close to national borders as is practical. These bases can be defensive, but most certainly also offensive, in nature. Behind the obviousness that a great source of competitive advantage comes from having ‘boots on the ground’ near a national border is the reality that the strategic thought process which led them to be in that location is largely, if not entirely, a response to logistic analysis.

Force posture or capability development are important in strategic competition, but the way in which nations mobilise logistics is vital. Though the degree may differ given the circumstances, nations are always mobilised and the logistics system takes resources from the economy to create military capability. In peace this system is generally stable and allosw for predictable results. When uncertainty becomes prevalent, or a crisis begins, this logistics system must be altered to direct economic and logistics resources to where they are most required. An adaptable system of mobilisation is thus an important criteria in any strategic offset. The manner by which the logistics process can translate national economic power into tactical combat potential is a reflection of a national capacity to compete, deter, and to demonstrate an ability to militarily respond. Therefore the presence of robust industry policy, the organisation of strategic logistics capability, the appointment of commanders to oversee sustainment and the presence of mobilisation plans and doctrine, attest to the likelihood of future military success.  These are not areas we typically look at when we consider how belligerents may compete, but they will certainly discriminate between the successful and unsuccessful in conflict.

And so we see competition play out in different ways, and for reasons that are often logistical in nature. One nation might build an island where there was none before, while another will procure air mobility platforms or ships for afloat support. Others will examine force posture from first principles, while another will establish arrangements and agreements that might support a friendly force at short notice. Militaries might be restructured so that the acquisition and sustainment of capability improves preparedness, or eventual operational performance, more effectively. Just as there will be an unending competition in the development offensive and defensive capabilities between nations, so too will there be unending shifts in the way military forces will offset one another through logistic means. At the height of non-armed competition, these changes in logistics systems will manifest in mobilisation.

As I mentioned above, wars won’t always begin when the first shots are fired.  The threat of armed conflict is always a factor in strategic competition; logistics capacity and capability is an important part of the calculus. It is vital in making a military a credible threat. It may be easy to see the beginning of conflict in national economic systems, but it can also be seen in the seriousness given to logistics within militaries, and in the context of how logistics informs, or conforms to, national strategic objectives. Strategy has been rapidly becoming an appendix of logistics, if it hasn’t been so all along, and logistics activities can be profoundly important well before the ‘conflict continuum’ approaches its zenith in armed conflict. And when armed conflict does eventuate, it will be as much about the fight to supply – the defence of the supply chain and the efficiency of the logistics process – as it is about winning on the battlefield.

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


[1] US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint concept for integrated campaigning, March 2018, http://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/concepts/joint_concept_integrated_campaign.pdf?ver=2018-03-28-102833-257, p 4, 7

[2] See Cowen, D., The deadly life of logistics, University of Minnesota Press, USA, 2014

[3] Roth, J., The logistics of the Roman Army at war, BRILL, USA, p 279

[4] Boulding, K.E. Conflict and defense: a general theory, Harper and Brothers, USA, 1962, pp 260-262