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