A ‘Logistics in War’ primer: Logistics and the art of command

By David Beaumont.

For commanders, the objective and purpose of logistics is to establish and subsequently sustain the combat effectiveness of forces. Logistics shapes strategic and tactical decision making, and is an influence on the conduct of the operational art. However, commanders, and the ‘command climate’ they generate, can also have a profound influence of the efficiency of logistics. Through the authority we afford military leaders, the actions and decisions of commanders give logistics structure and control the human behaviours which contribute to inefficient logistics. Their attitudes are powerful influences on the preparedness of the logistics system. Trust, the ‘under-planning, over-planning’ response and other factors are raised as challenging phenomenon that must be addressed in war.

The second ‘Logistics in War’ primer, Logistics and the art of command, aims to challenge misconceptions we may have about logistics, and its relevance to commanders and their decisions.

‘Logistics is about winning battles and wars by assuring the existence of combat power, therefore underpinning much of what a commander must do, and what decision he or she must make. The responsibility for efficient logistics lies with the commander – at whatever level from the junior leader to the field marshal – who prioritises and allocates resources to create the situation which gives her or him the greatest combat potential and freedom of action. This component of the operational art postures the combat force in such a way that tactical objectives are actually achievable.’ 

You can find the primer here.

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

Originally published February, 2018.

‘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.

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

A ‘Logistics in War’ primer: Logistics and the art of command

By David Beaumont.

For commanders, the objective and purpose of logistics is to establish and subsequently sustain the combat effectiveness of forces. Logistics shapes strategic and tactical decision making, and is an influence on the conduct of the operational art. However, commanders, and the ‘command climate’ they generate, can also have a profound influence of the efficiency of logistics. Through the authority we afford military leaders, the actions and decisions of commanders give logistics structure and control the human behaviours which contribute to inefficient logistics. Their attitudes are powerful influences on the preparedness of the logistics system. Trust, the ‘under-planning, over-planning’ response and other factors are raised as challenging phenomenon that must be addressed in war.

The second ‘Logistics in War’ primer, Logistics and the art of command, aims to challenge misconceptions we may have about logistics, and its relevance to commanders and their decisions.

‘Logistics is about winning battles and wars by assuring the existence of combat power, therefore underpinning much of what a commander must do, and what decision he or she must make. The responsibility for efficient logistics lies with the commander – at whatever level from the junior leader to the field marshal – who prioritises and allocates resources to create the situation which gives her or him the greatest combat potential and freedom of action. This component of the operational art postures the combat force in such a way that tactical objectives are actually achievable.’ 

You can find the primer here.

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

The roots of readiness – the six logistics factors shaping strategic choice

By David Beaumont.

When we think of readiness, we tend to confuse it with preparedness terms such as a ‘notice to move’. However, it is common to find that despite a unit being well within its designated ‘notice’ when time comes for action, the unit is constrained because of the availability of kit, a lack of enabling elements available in supporting formations, the slow activation of national commercial resources by strategic organisations as well as a variety of other logistics factors. In some cases, strategic-level decisions result simply because available capabilities cannot be appropriately sustained and, accordingly, are unable to be deployed. Sometimes conscious decisions result in considerable advance moves based on combat forces being available, only to find these forces combat ineffective until the logistics ‘tail’ catches up. Operational experiences from Operations Desert Shield and Storm exemplify this problem; although there was reason to have coalition forces available soon after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 as a disincentive to further aggression, it took six months before the coalition force was logistically ready for a major combat operation.

In other situations, we can see a litany of logistics readiness issues transpire directly onto operational outcomes. This is especially the case for expeditionary operations and campaigns that require the deploying force to conduct operations virtually instantaneously. During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 the US Government Accountability Office saw massive discrepancies in stocks due to visibility issues, equipment was being cannibalised because materiel readiness was at a poor level, and the supply chain was in discord. Similar concerns, albeit on a smaller scale, had been identified by Australian Government auditors with reference to deployments to East Timor at the turn of the century. No operation is free of friction caused by logistics, but in each of these examples the readiness of respective logistics systems was inadequate, under-resourced and inefficient.

Results in logistics are a consequence of a process; a process involving numerous capabilities, agencies and organisations and takes resources made available to the military at the strategic level of war and converts them to combat power at the tactical. Or, to paraphrase Rear Admiral Henry Eccles, logistics is the ‘bridge’ which takes national resources and applies them on the battlefield.[1] In times of peace all activities which occur within this ‘bridge’, properly controlled and coordinated, ultimately contribute to the overall ‘readiness’ of the logistics system to act when it is required. Many of the operational issues alluded to above directly resulted from how the logistics process was ill-suited to the demands of the operation which eventuated. Some of the logistics deficiencies identified might have been directly addressed through improvements in resourcing.  However, there are other equally influential factors that are essential for logistics readiness, and the early performance of the logistics process at during an operation.

Fundamentally, logistics readiness refers to the ability to undertake, to build up and thereafter to sustain, combat operations at the full combat potential of forces.[2]  It comprises actions undertaken during operations, but is predominantly a consequence of routines and practices set in organisation behaviour long before deployment. It is not a simple matter of issuing logistics units their own ‘notice to move’ or applying some other metric that will inevitably be ‘crashed’ through in a time of crisis; rather logistics readiness is a function of total organisational performance and efficiency. This standard of performance is achieved by addressing six key factors that are applicable at all levels – from the strategic to the tactical. These factors are as follows:

Mutual Understanding: There must be a mutual understanding between commanders and the logistics units, agencies and organisations that support them. This is founded on a clear enunciation of commander’s intent, but also the culture of cooperation set within the military or formation. It also recognises that there must be timely exchanges of information; one of perennial challenges in supporting operations is knowing how far to compartment operational information, especially with commercial partners.

Balance between logistics and combat resources and elements. There must be an appropriate balance of logistics resources to the combat elements. This is captured in the idea of the ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio, and will be discussed later. However, logistics resources can be appropriated by a variety of means and may include public service or commercial operations as well as those in uniforms. Furthermore, we should not forget Dr James Huston’s (Sinews of War) view, ‘the important factor is the total amount of firepower which can brought to bear …. If the greatest total of effective power can be delivered with on combat man for each service man, then this is the desirable ratio; but if 1000 service troops for one combat man are needed to achieve that maximum, then that is the desirable ratio.’[3]

Logistics plans and policies. Logistics plans and policies, from stockholding policies at the unit and formation level right up to national mobilisation plans at the grand strategic / economic level must be available. Format and bulk of plans are less important than those that are developed through interagency effort, and reflecting the nature of an efficient and effective logistics process.

Logistics organisation. Logistics organisations must be structured to support operational requirements rather than bureaucratic needs. Although organisations may not need to be resourced to their full wartime capability during most periods (and rarely are because to do so would be cost prohibitive), the organisational architecture must be established to enable the transition to an operational footing and policies in place to enable such a transition to occur rapidly.

Materiel readiness. There must be a high state of materiel readiness across the force. In addition to appropriately funding the sustainment of equipment, and the establishment of appropriate stockholdings in appropriate areas to enable operational contingencies, the means of sustaining equipment must be as appropriate for support operations as they are for efficiency in garrison. Failures in materiel readiness in garrison are often replicated in major sustainability issues on operations, and necessitate consequential actions such as cannibalisation to achieve desired operational readiness outcomes.

Testing the logistics organisation. The logistics process, capabilities and organisations must be systematically assessed for its readiness. Every military activity or exercise is an opportunity for assessing logistics performance, but it is rare that military exercises comprehensively test and assess operational sustainability and logistics readiness with rigour. Fewer still are those exercises that test logistics readiness through a major deployment performed at short-notice; a phase of an operation that demands all supporting agencies are ready.


1st Cavalry Division_Tank Assault.jpg

US Army 1st Cavalry Division preparing to attack, Operation Desert Storm, 1991


Of course, it is hard to remove any discussion on logistics readiness without referring to the capacity of the logistics ‘tail’. It may seem that it is easier to build up logistics forces, and support organisations, than it is to have combat forces at national disposal.  This is because it is generally easier to procure equipment for logistics purposes than it is for combat forces, there is assumed familiarity between logistics operations and industrial activities which suggests that any conversion between the two is relatively simple, and there is always the possibility that the commercial sector can be turned to overcome any deficiencies there may be in organic logistics capabilities. Programs such as the US Army’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), employed extensively in operations in the Middle-east since 2002, are a manifestation of these perceptions. But they are also perceptions which tend to ignore the importance of logistics readiness to the overall employability of the force. Even if the ease of raising these logistic capabilities were a simple task, to take it for granted that operational deficiencies can be overcome at short notice is folly. If military forces are to be responsive, fully trained and equipped logistics forces must be available; processes ranging from strategic activity to tactical action must be coherent and well-practiced. A combat force without efficient and effective logistic support is ineffectual and, in the end, a waste of organisational effort.

At the root of logistics readiness is the marriage between acquiring and maintaining military capability to have it available, and the establishment of a logistics process which enables or constrains its use operationally. National economic capabilities, acquisition process, and military capability management typically executed by Service headquarters, limit the combat forces that can be created and made available. However, it is logistics capabilities and practices that limit the forces that may be actually employed on military operations. The combat unit that is formed and given the latest technology, best armour and capable of overmatch against any possible adversary will be ineffective – undeployable in practice – without a logistics system capable of sustaining it.  Logistics readiness is particularly vital for those militaries that consider themselves as expeditionary in nature, as most Western militaries like to do. Not only do robust logistics capabilities define the capacity of a military to project force, these same capabilities underwrite the ability of a military to respond quickly, affording them time to overcome the distance there may be to the operational area.

Militaries rarely assign logistics readiness issues as their highest priority to resolve. Instead they are typically consumed with ensuring that the elements at the forward edge of the operational area are as ready as practicable. Yet if compromises are made with regards to the preparedness of the logistics ‘system’ as a whole, or the logistics process is inefficient or ineffective due to poor practices and inadequate logistic discipline across the military, the readiness and preparedness of any unit destined for operations will itself be compromised. Operational reporting consistently identifies forces as having culminated as a consequence of system-wide logistics failures that may have been otherwise prevented. Less well known are the times in which senior commanders have had to make choices on which forces they chose not to deploy based on the readiness of the logistics forces and the logistics process more generally. In this regard, we start to venture into the realm of strategic decision making, where logistics truly becomes the ‘arbiter of opportunity’, if not the arbiter of choice, and the true measure of whether a military is ready for combat.[4]

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer, and the thoughts here are his own. He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics. Image by the Australian Department of Defence.

[1] Eccles, H., Logistics in the national defense, The Stackpole Company, USA, 1959, p 53

[2] ibid, p 290

[3] Huston, J. The sinews of war: Army logistics 1775-1953, Office of the Chief of Military History, US Army, USA, 1966, p 674

[4] See Kane, T.M., Military logistics and strategic performance, Psychology Press, USA, 2001

The ‘Headquarters Snowball’

By David Beaumont.

The scale of logistics and the size of headquarters are routinely considered alongside one another because of the belief that smaller headquarters and logistics forces means more combat troops and, more importantly, efficient processes. This can be seen at the organisational level; most militaries have experienced periods of reform where efficiency-seeking impacts the size and scale of organic logistic capabilities (usually strategic in focus) as well as that of headquarters. A modern Australian Defence Force (ADF) example of this is in practice can be seen the 1997 Defence Reform Program (DRP) which accelerated existing logistic outsourcing programs across Defence, and reduced the size of strategic headquarters (some ADF personnel or veterans may recall the ‘centurions’, a consequence of Service headquarters being limited to 100 personnel as an outcome of the DRP).

In recent years, and based on concerning observations from operations or exercise, many militaries have sought to change their logistics and headquarters footprints. A component of this relates to an arguably deleterious trend in which the proportion of both logistic and headquarters ‘forces’ have outgrown that of the combat arms in terms of the total force. John McGrath’s work with respect to the ‘tooth-to-tail ratio’ is an excellent read which examines this trend in detail.[1] To cite one of his examples: the 2005 US Army in Iraq comprised 36% logistics troops, 40% combat forces and 24% were HQ staff or administrators (McGrath, p 51). In terms of HQ size, this was a three-fold increase of what existed one hundred years before. We all know numbers don’t tell the whole story – to a great extent this trend can be accounted for the evolution of command and control and its technology over this time.

Even more recently the concern has migrated to the nature of tactical threats to logistics and headquarters elements in imagined future wars. As examined today in an article at the ‘Wavell Room’, and in a 2016 post at ‘Grounded Curiosity’ recirculated soon after, the size of tactical headquarters is described as a significant issue which demands an innovative response. A quick read of either piece confirms that logisticians and headquarters staff are looking at different aspects of largely the same problem relating to the way Western land forces fight, and the potential enemies that they may face.

Given the natural affiliation and similarities of the ‘logistics’ and ‘headquarters’ problem as described above, what lessons from logistic history and theory could apply with respect to the growing size of headquarters? Although headquarters size reflected the nature of technologies, functions and systems available to modern land forces, were there other lessons from logistics theory regarding efficiency which could be offered into the debate? One theory that sprang to mind was the idea of the ‘logistic snowball’.

I once again refer you to Logistics in the national defence by USN Rear Admiral Henry Eccles.[2] He has been recognised for a variety of theories and concepts, but the idea of the ‘logistic snowball’ is perhaps his most important. Eccles viewed that as a process, ‘logistic activities tend to grow to inordinate size like a snowball, that they tend to become rigid, and they tend to acquire a very real physical momentum’ (p103). In terms of the logistic process, and what he called ‘command control’ of it, Eccles referred to the criteria (p 102):

  1. The organisational structure of command and the impact of administration.
  2. The basic design of the logistic system.
  3. The way in which resources were prioritised or allocated.
  4. The sense of discipline across the force.

The snowball itself was a creation of the ever-increasing ratio of logistic support to sustain operations (i.e. a reflection of the logistic needs of modern warfare); a high standard of modern living (i.e. the expectations and basic requirements of the system), coupled with a general lack of discipline in the use of logistics; and the failure of commander and staff to understand the nature and implications of the snowball (p 104).

Poorly disciplined, mediocre quality and inefficient logistics personnel or capabilities are also factors contributing to the growth of a ‘snowball’. In each of these circumstances, it was seen that a greater number of personnel or capability would be required to achieve the ends desired; a more efficient, well-trained and equipped logistic element avoided a spiralling of force size. In the Second World War, Eccles saw that if initial logistic support proved inadequate, the tactical commanders would ‘naturally exert the greatest pressure to ask for more’ and would usually be obliged (p104). Another complication is described as the ‘under-planning-over-planning sequence’ (p108). This refers to the basic human tendency to begin with an extreme of austerity prior to an inevitable overcompensation. An initial desire to deploy lightly results in inadequacy, and to correct initial deficiencies, deployed forces tend to over-compensate accordingly. In other words, if a commander experiences a logistic organisation that is insufficient in quantity or quality, in successive operations they are likely to seek greater numbers as a compensator.

Imagine, for a moment, the process he was referring to the exertion of command over a force, and the size of a logistic force instead the scale of headquarters across a deployed force. The flow of information through a force is much like supply, progressing through nodes at which decisions are made or analysis occurs. If this process is inefficient, ill-designed, lacked appropriate control methods and there was little discipline applied to prioritising what was necessary or required, there would exist a tendency for these nodes (re headquarters) to grow just as in logistics supplies might build up, process ossify, etc.  If the characteristics of war have evolved so that this ‘commodity’, information, is required in ever-increasing volume you would expect that the risk of a ‘headquarters snowball’ would be also be commensurately greater. Furthermore, a commander’s experience in war might be such that a larger headquarters is required to assuage fears that the force has been denied intelligence, information or a capacity to communicate. Such factors give cause to the idea that there might be a ‘snowballing’ effect as relevant to understanding the nature of modern command and control as it is with respect to logistics.

Inefficiency is only one cause of an increasing size of headquarters in Western land forces. Nonetheless, there are lessons from logistics – a field which routinely responds to questions of efficiency and scale – which are worth studying in parallel. There is one more I would like to describe in closing. US Army General Carter Magruder from Recurring logistic problems as I have observed them commenced a chapter on the topic of ‘Logistics Troop Requirements’ by unequivocally arguing that ‘requirements usually are, and I believe should be, under attack’, however, ‘after a critical review has been made’ and the numbers justified, those troops should be considered as essential to the success of combat operations (p 25).[3] Just as we may look at the size of a headquarters as an impediment or a threat, it is important to understand why it needed to be that size in the first place. If we choose to do anything different, it may be that some vital function is lost – a function that cannot be replaced any other way.

[1] McGrath, J., The other end of the spear: the tooth-to-tail ratio (T3R) in modern military operations, The Long War Occasional Paper 23, Combat Studies Institute Press, US Army, USA, 2007

[2] Eccles, H., Logistics in the national defense, Stackpole Company, USA, 1959 republished online by USMC, FMFRP 12-14, USA, 1989

[3] Magruder, C. Gen (retd), Recurring logistics problems as I have observed them, Centre of Military History, US Army, USA, 1991