By Todd Ashurst and David Beaumont.
In 2018, Australia and the United States finished celebrating ‘100 years of Mateship,’ noting our distinguished history of operating alongside each other since World War I. A key factor of success in our early engagement was thanks to logisticians. Ever-resourceful and seeking to give commanders and their combat operations the best chance of success, logisticians drove a support culture across the Western Front and enabled cooperation and combined arms action on the battlefield. This has continued throughout the decades to the point that it is rare that the two armies do not support nor assist in sustaining one another at the tactical and operational level whilst deployed. Doing so has offered opportunities, force multipliers, and enabled ‘coalitions of the willing’ that might not have existed had partners had to operate independently. As a consequence, we invest considerable time and effort discussing and improving combat service support (CSS) interoperability through forms like Army-to-Army staff talks, as well as many other regional; engagements, with outcomes ensuring increased effectiveness, efficiency, and preparedness.
While the emphasis toward CSS supportability has served both armies well for the last twenty years, it has potentially limited our view of interoperability to standardizing doctrine, preparing interoperability handbooks, and enabling tactical integration. This emphasis must now expand to face the needs of the next twenty years. We believe that in a contested and competitive strategic environment, at a time where preparedness will differentiate a relevant military from one not so, true logistics interoperability will be a strategic strength. Both the U.S. and Australia, and their partners, need to now concentrate on concepts, behaviours, and agreements which create resilience and redundancy through integration and opacity of strategic sustainment capability and capacity. What follows are a few ideas that our armies should consider as they modernize to meet the needs of the future.
Why is strategic logistics interoperability important to us now?
Strategic logistics underwrites preparedness by resourcing the military machine (and therefore future options of military commanders) while tying directly into the economic power of the nation-state. The logistics and sustainment arrangements made now determine what is practically possible when military options are ultimately required by governments. This understanding is of vital importance, as we are unsure where and when military power will be required. The Australian army recently released the futures statement Accelerated Warfare in recognition of the strategic uncertainty Australia faces, with the Chief of Staff of the Army describing partnerships as a way of contributing to success in times of competition. Effective logistics supports the development of offsets and deterrence pre-crisis and empowers flexible responses during one. Military partnerships exponentially improve the depth of logistics capacity available, creating force posture options that may not have existed before, shape regional capability, and influence long-term commitment through the sharing of organic and non-organic national industrial capability. Interoperable and integrated logistics networks, capabilities and systems can be leveraged to create situations of tremendous advantage.
Maj. Gen. Edward Dorman, combatant command director for Logistics and Engineering at U.S. Central Command, recently wrote on the importance of strategic logistics. “Nothing creates the flexibility for deterrent options and decision space more than national logistics that are underpinned by a vibrant, thriving economy that in turn is linked to partners and allies …” (p21.) He saw this outcome being delivered through preparing the environment with regional partners and ensuring the right coalition resources were in the right place at the right time; and by pursuing opportunities to strengthen alliances such that partners are able to provide one another support. Partners who conceive of logistics as a shared capability can more flexibly “develop, produce, deploy, distribute, store, and execute the acquisitions, logistics and distribution that underpin successful deterrence.” More specifically, interoperable forces will have greater redundancy and resilience in allowing a response than they might ever have had alone.
It is easier, of course, to provide a case for improved logistics interoperability than it is to deliver it. There are numerous barriers to logistics interoperability. The Australian and U.S. armies, as well as other partners, operate an enormous range of different materiel with different sustainment requirements. They’re bound by different procedures and constraints, some of which are based upon government industry and economic policies. Each defence force has different priorities, demonstrably different capabilities and capacities, and unique needs that must be met. Aligning multiple strategic logistics systems to work effectively without disrupting that of a partner is unequivocally an art. Improving the way a coalition may sustain itself, as difficult as it is, is a reflection of a capacity of that coalition to be operationally meaningful, if not sustainable. What follows are suggestions on where the Australian and U.S. armies may wish to start.
How can we improve resilience, redundancy, and relationships through strategic logistics interoperability?
Firstly, we can look at the direct benefits to the Australian and US armies through interoperability. It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that the first step to achieving greater logistics interoperability is to embrace strategic self-reliance. There are two principle reasons why this is the case. The first is that each army must ensure its bespoke capabilities are appropriately supported such that coalition resources do not become essential for these capabilities to be operationally useful. Secondly, a level of self-reliance is warranted to ensure that when forces do deploy, they can be sustained effectively until the coalition’s strategic sustainment system is active. The objective in both cases is that neither army becomes a logistics liability for the other, but better coordinates effort where it is most required.
Partnered armies must be prepared to share knowledge concerning logistics capabilities and resources and must signal one another when a shared supply chain is likely to be required. Strategic risks must be examined collectively, and both armies must be open about problems that afflict the supply-chains and processes that impact upon the materiel each army depends upon. This will assist in identifying areas in which each army can best contribute, with resources and responsibilities earmarked for later use. Triggers and demand signals might also be agreed upon, allowing partners new ways to alert each other to logistics needs or opportunities. All this must be exercised; it is noteworthy that the Australian and U.S. armies do not presently share a major strategic logistics exercise in which to consider how they might respond, together, in a crisis. Without testing the collaborative logistics enterprise, it will be difficult to conclude where the most pressing problems to address are.
Integrated approaches to sustainment should, where possible, become normal. Interoperable acquisition and sustainment programs would see planning increasingly global but provision potentially local. Investment or clear demand signals of sovereign industries to credibly contribute to meeting coalition as well as national demands would support the development of regional capability, providing alternative and potentially shorter supply chains. This would also makes it easier to assure delivery. A new approach to intellectual property (IP) rights is warranted, allowing for greater flexibility within a coalition and transparency across the supply chain writ large. This may require both armies to accept a greater level of risk in their materiel worthiness regimes to allow for greater sharing in componentry or commodities. But this risk is rewarded by diversifying supply chains for common parts manufacture, repair, or refurbishment providing greater strategic resilience and operational sustainability. Perhaps it is time to move beyond industry resource base recognition to combined planning and execute national industry options in order to become a truly shared, integrated endeavour. If one nation struggles with insufficient capacity to manufacture or produce, then clear demand signals and ready IP access would enable trusted nations to supplement supply chains for each and other trusted allies.
Neither the U.S. or Australian army, nor the defence forces they belong to, can achieve these outcomes without government policy in support. Political and policy levers must be in place to set in motion endeavours that manifest in interoperability outcomes. Negotiation will be required between governments to facilitate non-indigenous support of materiel. Barriers will need to be reduced, especially those that influence export controls or any other regulation that constrains the ability of either army from establishing business arrangements with the other. The corollary is that more flexible regulations will need to be put in place to allow defence industries to work across national borders. This will induce greater sharing between defence industries underpinning land forces, enabled by policies allowing the sharing of technologies, techniques, and skills between the partner nations. Strategic logisticians must provide a way forward to governments on these issues.
Finally, we can look to interoperable strategic logistics as a way of supporting national and regional security. Success in regional strategic competition must include a logistics component. Logistics, as a critical component of ‘setting the region’ in that it normalizes consultative and respectful long-term behaviour, supports the capacity of regional partners to sustain themselves and helps with the establishment of economic infrastructure. For example, Australia has recently established a $1 billion (Australian dollar) export financing agency to assist developing regional industries. In doing so, mutually beneficial supply chain options are created, and a grounding in logistics interoperability can be established. Similarly, continued effort towards refining ‘Mutual Logistics Support Arrangements,’ ‘Standing Offer Panels,’ and host-nation support arrangements can also enhance the capability of regional partners and any military coalition.
The environment is such that we need to not only broaden our views on what constitutes the ‘national support base’ or ‘defence technology and industrial base,’ but create action to enable the benefits of close national relationships. If strategic requirements necessitate us imagining greater interoperability, it is similarly important that the same apply to the leveraging of national industrial capability and capacity. As we wrote above, it is important that the Australian and U.S. armies are able to operate independently, and with national resources available to suite the contingencies and crises that demand this approach. However, it is equally important that we have considered how national resources can be better integrated to more effectively and efficiently respond to threats to shared interests. A coalition can ill-afford ‘logistics fratricide’ by competing for available resources, driving up costs and increasing supply chain risks, particularly when seeking the support from allies and partners critical to success in a time of competition.
Interoperable logistics creates strategic resilience and responsiveness. However, it will not be improved unless we take time to resource its achievement. The U.S. and Australian Armies, and their many partners, have concluded that interoperability is operationally important. All have a proud legacy in supporting one another on a wide variety of operations. It is important that interoperability should now take an increasingly strategic tone at a time where we are preparing for the next operation. Improved strategic logistics interoperability is not a way to avoid the development costly logistics capabilities. It’s a way that partners can support one another more readily, giving them options before, during and post-crisis that they may not have had before. In a particularly competitive strategic environment, this approach is not only important but patently necessary, and a means to gain advantage over potential adversaries.
Even as a smaller military with a lower scale of logistics capabilities, the Australian Army can meaningfully contribute to a broader coalition effort especially within its immediate geographic region. It may be possible that another partner deploying nearby can more readily draw upon Australian resources to avoid vulnerable global supply chains, and vice versa. A strategically wise approach to interoperability is one in which problems are shared, resources efficiently planned, and key acquisition and sustainment are decisions are made such that the right support is delivered, in the right place, as fast as practically possible. Logistics interoperability will create a new source of leverage at a time when every strategic advantage may just make a tremendous difference.
This article was originally published in the Jan-Mar edition of the US Army’s ‘Army Sustainment’ professional journal as ‘Logistics interoperability, a value asset, strategic enabler’. It was originally published here in January 2020 with permission and can also be found here.