The trust deficit – why do we expect logistics to fail us?

By Gabrielle M. Follett.

Trust. The willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability of the ability to monitor or control that other party[1].

In a recent post in ‘From the Green Notebook’ David Beaumont noted that, for the sustainment of decisive action to be effective, logistics must be characterised by ‘trust between commanders, combat forces and logisticians’.  Almost every military logistician – and no doubt the majority of our combat arms brethren – would agree.

If we accept that trust between all parties is essential to effective military logistics, why then do tactical commanders in the Australian Army generally adopt a policy of self-reliance when it comes to combat service support? At every level of the Combat Brigade supply chain – from the F Echelon through to the logistic battalion – we assume that the logistic system is almost certainly going to fail us. Moreover, as we reach back to third line logistics and beyond to the National Support Base, the decline in trust is almost proportional to the increasing geographic and C2 ‘distances’ between the elements who are supported and those supporting.

As a result, at the tactical level we deploy with a stockholding based on ‘everything we can fit in’ rather than the science of logistic planning. The repercussions are self-fulfilling: we take so much equipment and stores on our training exercises that we don’t test the logistic continuum, failing to find where it breaks and thus missing the opportunity to fix it. The lack of trust in logistic units and the supply chain is reflected in wasteful activities, hoarding of limited resources and failure to accept prudent risk. In terms of collective capability, we lose the opportunity to actually train combat and combat service support elements together, failing to build mutual understanding or respect and never affording ourselves the fortuity to be pleasantly surprised when the logistic system delivers. The result is a cultural bias that is deeply ingrained, perpetuating an often unfounded belief that our combat service support units can’t or won’t deliver what the combat arms need.

Ammo distribution

Photo by 3rd Combat Service Support Battalion, Australian Army

As logisticians, the lack of faith in the ability and skills of our logistic continuum and those of us charged with providing the support feels like enduring ‘trust deficit’. While it is generally accepted that the success or failure of combat action is dependent on a range of factors – including acceptance that the ‘enemy gets a vote’ – we approach support operations in an entirely different way.  When combat operations fail, it’s because we missed information requirement X or factor Y was not available. When resupply or battlefield repair fails, it is inevitably chalked up to the perceived incompetence of the logistic unit or the inbuilt inflexibility of the system. Trust – a subjective, transactional emotion – in military logistics at the tactical level is at least partly founded on group-based stereotypes rather than heuristic experience.

In our tactical commanders there is a clear approach of ‘trust is good, but control is better’ manifesting itself in a desire not to depend on the next level of support. This has been brought to the fore in the Australian Army’s tactical combat service support restructure[2], which in January 2017 shifted part of the combat service support personnel establishment from units into the second line logistic battalion. The premise behind the new apportionment of logistic resource is that the Army cannot afford to have all of the logistic personnel it thinks it needs, and that concentrating them at Brigade level enables prioritisation and technical efficiencies for formation operations. This disposition is analogous to how mobility support and indirect fires have been managed for decades, an arrangement that comes with apparent acceptance and trust from battle group and combat team commanders. Combat commanders are comfortable – and trust that – they will receive indirect fires when they need it and if the Brigade’s apportionment of the assets is in their favour. Yet the same command and control arrangements applied to combat service support have been met with skepticism, distrust and fear.


It is not just our combat brethren that perpetuate the expectation that the military logistic system is, more than likely, going to fail its dependencies. As logisticians in first line units we promote a lack of reliance on the next level of support. We focus on ensuring our own efforts support our unit so that we mitigate any deficiencies further up the distribution or repair chain. This facet of distrust in the system stems in part from the tribal nature of our Army. The same corps and unit identities that we develop as a component of morale and combat effectiveness lead us to distrust those who are not like us. The fact that combat service support personnel in combat units give way to a form of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and agree wholeheartedly that units can only depend on the logistics that they own and control means we are doing little to assuage or defeat the lack of trust in the complete logistic continuum. The same approach is perpetuated in second line logistic units, where cynicism about the reliability of third line support abounds.

Compounding our ingrained cultural skepticism is a lack of proof that our logistic system can deliver the goods.  We talk of exercising our logistic systems and ‘pushing them to breaking point’.  Yet in our major field training activities we prioritise objectives more tangibly linked with joint land combat at the expense of actually testing our combat service support. Instead of considering the ‘four Ds’[3] during exercise design, we can rarely afford the funding to position our third line logistics at the distance needed to generate realistic lines of communication, meaning that the force support and brigade support elements end up in close proximity to each other. The exercise duration– driven by concern about how long we are away from home locations – is short and finite, inevitably supporting a self-sufficient approach. Our ‘destinations’ are well known to us through the geography of well-trodden training areas, meanwhile ‘demand’ is shaped by the finite nature of the activity and set training objectives. But it’s a false economy; the fact is the cost of not training with realistic lines of supply, reasonable demand and extended duration will be felt when Australia is next required to lead an expeditionary multinational force in our region. What we don’t learn now in training will be painfully apparent on operations when the consequences are much higher.


Image 1

Photo by 3rd Combat Service Support Battalion, Australian Army

Trust is a belief in the reliability or ability of something and is the measure of the quality of a relationship. We work hard at unit and formation levels to build these relationships, training and planning together. Within a combat brigade, the relationships between commanding officers are almost universally very strong. As a logistic battalion commander, I often receive emails and calls from peers who tell me how professional and capable my soldiers are. Some of these calls carry a genuine (and perhaps concerning) tone of surprise, but all of them speak to the understanding that these commanders have of the importance of logistics. Likewise, our senior leaders frequently highlight how, as they become more senior, they increasingly spend more time focusing on logistics. Yet despite this leadership, emphasis and quality of relationships between commanders, our organisational belief in the reliability and ability of the logistic continuum remains low.

Why haven’t we built this trust? Firstly, trust must be based on demonstrated competence. As previously noted, we aren’t generating collective opportunities that enable combat service support units to demonstrate competence, or to quantifiably expose the shortfalls so we can win resources to fix them. This requires more than simply limiting what each unit deploys with on – it necessitates acceptance that if we do expose logistic shortfalls they may degrade or prevent the achievement of combat arms training objectives. While we collectively believe that our logistic resources are inadequate, we do not have the organisational maturity to accept that training to expose such shortfalls may be necessary to prove the requirement for resources to fix it.

At an individual level, we wait too long to teach our junior commanders that combat service support is a crucial part of the combined arms team, equal to the other components. The Australian Army Logistic Officers Intermediate Course and Combat Officers Advanced Course come together for a short period to conduct a staff planning activity. Although badged as combined training, the lead up lessons remain separate, the problem sets are not actually constrained by logistic culminating points and the simulation system does not consume logistic effort beyond a rudimentary level. Without a mature individual training framework that treats the combat and logistic elements of the problem equally, our combat arms officers walk away with the perception that logistics is a sideshow of limited consequence.

To address the trust deficit we would do well to note that the United Kingdom’s doctrine lists the first principle of logistics as ‘collective responsibility’[4].  As logisticians, the onus is on us to communicate the imperative and the risks and to create opportunities to show what combat service support elements can actually do. We must recognise that trust is reciprocal, transactional and based on demonstrated competence. We have to get past our own arrogance and believe that when a battle group demands for something at short notice, they have good reason for doing so. We are as guilty of distrusting our dependencies as they are of distrusting us. As the supporting arm, combat service support units must accept that inevitably and rightly, the dependency defines success.

Our collective challenge is to build trust in unpredictable environments, where we are part of a continuum in which we are not always the number one priority and definitely aren’t pulling all of the levers. Transparent honesty is essential to build trust so that when we truly do require lead times or genuinely can’t meet a requirement, our relationship with our dependencies is robust enough to accept that some things truly aren’t possible. Trust must be earned and earned quickly, as the cost of not demonstrating competence or exposing logistic capability shortfalls so they can be addressed could, without exaggeration, be counted in lives.

Gabrielle Follett is an Australian Army officer and a current logistic battalion commander in the 3rd Brigade. She has served in command appointments and staff appointments at formation and force level, as an instructor at the Royal Military College – Duntroon, and at the strategic level in Army Headquarters and Australian Defence Headquarters. She has operational experience as a combat service support team commander, operations officer, Joint Task Force J5, and as a task group S4 in Tarin Kot, Afghanistan.

Follow us at Twitter: @logisticsinwar and Facebook : @logisticsinwar. Share to grow the network and continue the discussion.

[1] Mayer, R.C., Davis, J.H., Schooman, F.D. An integrative model of organisational trust, The Academy of Management Review Vol 20, No 3 (July), 1995, pp 709-734

[2] Known as the ‘Combat Service Support Concept of Operations’ or ‘CSS CONOPs’.

[3] Australian land warfare doctrine describes logistic planning factors known as the ‘four Ds’ – destination, demand, distance and duration.  Developing doctrine expands this to ‘five Ds’ with the addition of ‘dependency’.

[4] UK Army Doctrine Publication Land Operations, Chapter 10 – Sustaining Operations

I, Logistician …..

‘Never make a specialist of the logistician … ‘

–        Duncan Ballantine, 1947[1]

There is nothing more an anathema to effective logistics in war than a military logistician who is an isolated, introverted, technical specialist.  Logistics is not a technical specialty, nor is it the ‘science of war’. It is a process of transforming resources into armies, and that which gives those armies their combat potential or capacity to fight. With this in mind, it is perhaps important to revise our beliefs as to what logisticians should be doing in war. What do, or should, logisticians functionally provide? Besides the technical functions of their day to day duties, or provision of advice with respect to the sustainment of forces, how to they truly contribute to the successes, or failures, of their commanders?

What militaries and commanders have demanded from their logisticians has changed considerably over time, but there is a trend. As the logistic ‘tail’ of armies, navies and air forces expanded in proportion to their lethality, particularly following the development of the ‘nation-state’ (and wars between them) and the invention of technologies such as the machinegun, artillery and the internal combustion engine; with it, the need for specialisation and technical mastery has been a centrepiece of developments in logistic capability. Rocketry, advanced health care, aircraft and the computer chip have created such complexity that it is virtually impossible to do without a swathe of technicians, supply planners and information system operators when preparing for war. New business science practices adopted in militaries, promoted by logisticians with the best of intent, have placed additional expectations and demands upon logisticians.

Literature, conversely and persistently, argues for the opposite with respect to military logisticians. It warns of the tendency of logisticians to be incomprehensible or disconnected from other staff functions through insularity.  Perhaps this is the consequence of whom has written on the topic of logistics. Most soldier-scholars on the topic have tended to come from the combat arms, and see logistics as a thing to be ‘controlled’, as an aspect of decision making, or as a ‘shaping’ influence on plans and objectives. From Clausewitz and Jomini, Colonel Charles Thorpe (Pure Logistics, 1919), Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (Rommel Papers, timings various), J.F.C Fuller (The Generalship of Alexander the Macedon, 1958) to Rear Admiral Henry Eccles (Logistics in the National Defense, 1959); each has commented upon logistics, not as a discrete function, but a constituent of strategy and tactics. Some have regarded it as the most important factor in operational success.

Most importantly, in these works logistics is considered as inseparable from the execution of command. It is in enabling commanders to effectively prioritise in war that the real value of logisticians, and the logistic staff in particular, is argued to be found.


The ability of commanders to prioritise and allocate the usually scarce logistic elements amongst his or her forces clearly places a substantial proportion of the logistic problem in the realm of command decision making. Where, then, does this leave the logistician? As a staff officer sitting in a Forward Operating Base coordinating contractors, supervising cargo delivery or ruminating over spreadsheets of daily replenishment statistics? That might be the basics of the job, but the routine tasks hardly capture the important relationship between logistician and the commander. Clearly, the answer is in supporting the decision-making process; thinking broadly about sustaining the operating force and advising commanders accordingly. The commander may fight the enemy, but the logistician fights for an armies capacity to simply exist.

Some authors of well-known works on logistics have been particularly critical of the way in which logisticians have engaged (or not) command, as well as their tendency to over-specialise; even moreso than Duncan Ballantine. US Army General Carter Magruder (Recurring logistic problems as I have observed them, repub. 1991) argued that every senior logistic commander should have served time in the combat arms to avoid either outcome. One could look at former UK Major General Julian Thompson, hero of the Falklands campaign and author of the excellent Lifeblood of War (1994) as verifying the case; serving time as a logistic adviser prior to leading combat forces in the UK’s Falkland Islands campaign. This is not, however, just a modern trend or view!

It is conceptually difficult to escape the orbit of the Napoleonic era when talking about war, but modern logistics emerged from the time ‘hand-in-hand’ with modern strategic theory. It was born from the idea of generalship, and the adoption of methods to sustain large forces in the field. In most European armies of the era and later, the second in command of a force was described in terms we would use to describe a logistician. Such appointed Generals were responsible for the sustainment of the forces; food, fodder, weapons and other necessitates of war in addition to operational command issues.  It is understandable that we might see armies such as the German Imperial Army give the title of ‘General Quartermaster’ to its senior operational commander (see Erich Ludendorff, for one).

Theorists were equally confused. Jomini’s description on logistics in the Art of War is suggestive of the idea of operational-level command, and Clausewitz barely extricates strategy from logistics through the definition of ‘paper-war’, despite a chapter of On War describing the impact of supply on operations. Both, incidentally, repeatedly revised the sections of their works with respect to logistics and supply, let alone the linkages either had to strategy and tactics. Logistics, even to these greats of theory, remained an uncertain topic. Nonetheless, because of the mixture of operational and logistics in command, it is unsurprising that we might see an army such as the German Imperial Army afterwards title an operational commander by the appointment ‘General Quartermaster’ (see Erich Ludendorff, for one).

The reality is that most contemporary logisticians come from more mundane backgrounds and are, like all other personnel, bred to meet specific force requirements. While over-specialisation may be detrimental to operational outcomes, the proficiency achieved by logisticians is critical to the effective decision making of commanders. In any case, no commander will ever benefit from myopia or professional ‘stove-piping’, or a cultivated perception that logistics is a ‘black art’. Logistics, despite its technical nature, has simple principles and theories that rest upon its role in decision making.  These ideas should be accesible to all. Very few logisticians will ever be operational commanders, and equally few operational commanders will ever become experts on logistics. The wisest commanders, however, know what they don’t know – and they always know to whom they should turn.


[1] D Ballantine, US Naval logistics in the Second World War, Princeton Univeristy Press, USA, 1947