Sustaining the multi-domain battle

‘Multi-domain battle’ is the topic of the moment amongst land force (Army and Marine) concept writers in a number of Western armies.  ‘Multi-domain battle’ is an evolution of joint warfare which exploits the capacity of domain ‘owners’ (land, sea, air and now space and cyber) to synchronise their operations. However, multi-domain battle has also emerged as the consequence of new technologies which increasingly enable domain ‘owners’ to influence outcomes in other domains. For example, with new computing and sensor capabilities, long-range precision strike weapons and other capabilities, land forces find themselves able to create opportunities for the joint force, rather than being a recipient of assistance in a joint fight. Secondly, multi-domain battle also comes with the development of capabilities that can integrate effectively across the domains to better the queueing of combat power onto an adversary. For example, if every vehicle, aircraft and ship is considered a sensor in this version of ‘hyper war’, operating in unison through modernised command and control systems, the greatly improved ability of militaries to detect and utilise joint fires promises to fundamentally change the way the force fights.

However, technological reasons are not the only reason that multi-domain battle exists as a concept, nor are they necessarily why Armies are so interested in promoting it. With near-peer conflict an increasing possibility, and with the proliferation of precision rocketry, a flourishing debate on operations within an ‘anti-access, aerial-denial’ (A2AD) environment forced Western militaries to reconsider their concepts. Initial responses such as ‘Air-Sea Battle’ gained broad interest, but as concept writers realised that such stand-off strategies gave the enemy the operational initiative, an expectation that land forces would be required to operate in ‘the keep-out zone’ became evident. Furthermore, it was also realised that A2AD zones could be penetrated and defeated by land forces, and integrated with the effects provided from other domain ‘owners’, A2AD could be systemically defeated. To do this land forces would operate in a dispersed fashion, exploiting brief periods of ‘domain superiority’ to ultimately defeat the adversary.

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Photo by Stars and Stripes – Multiple-Launch Rocket System attack in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War

Despite the contention that exists with the concept as a whole, multi-domain battle poses a variety of intellectual challenges for those interested in the methods to sustain it. Multi-domain battle may have emerged from the conceptual ether only recently, but many of the logistical challenges the concept poses are familiar ones. However, as sustainment and capability plans slowly coalesce from the efforts of concept developers, tested through a variety of experiments and exercises conducted over the last year, the magnitude of these challenges is becoming evident. Assumptions are increasingly being challenged in land forces with commensurate changes underway with respect to logistics forces, but there is a convincing case for a greater transformation to be undertaken.

In most Western militaries, and for reasons of efficiency, operational logistics has been at the forefront of modern jointery. The improved integration of effects envisaged under multi-domain battle only supports the further progression to joint methods of movement and sustainment. The current epoch of thinking on logistics demands adaptive yet efficient supply chains, and emphases joint management of process so to prevent the ‘snowballing’ of logistic forces required in theatre. To maintain a high volume of supply to whichever domain owner might have the lead at any one time will depend upon effective information systems as capable as those which support the synchronisation of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and joint fires.

Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons worth exploring in detail another time, militaries have had a mixed track record of success in establishing such efficient supply chains in operations, or in introducing the logistics information systems required to coordinate them. Ideas such as ‘distribution-based logistics’ in support of major combat operations haven’t always led to effective operational outcomes, and logistics information systems programs are often a soft target for cost-cutting and it is rare they are introduced as originally intended. This has to change if multi-domain battle is to be sustained effectively.

In terms of improved ‘jointery’, the multi-domain battle concept is likely to require military Services to rethink who might do what to whom at the tactical level. Dispersal could very well result forces in one Service sustaining another; a practice which, historically speaking, occurs frequently. Domain owners should not necessarily abandon their own integral logistic capabilities to create permanent joint arrangements, but it should require them to train and prepare with this outcome in mind. This problem may be of less a concern for forces such as the United States Marine Corps whose force structure and recent concepts such as ‘Expeditionary Advanced Bases’ inherently achieve a joint effect at the tactical level. But for others, the thought of a combat unit receiving logistic support from another Service might exposes institutional shibboleths that shouldn’t be tolerated.

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Photo by Australian Department of Defence – Operation Tor Ghar 4 (2010), Afghanistan

The most significant land-force logistic challenges to multi-domain battle are, without a doubt, those that emerge as the consequence of land forces operating within the A2AD zone. Without repeating these well-known challenges in detail, to sustain dispersed combat forces for transitory periods in highly-lethal environments requires a lot from logistics elements. Logistics forces are seen to have to be able to hide alongside the combat forces, with an ability to move with speed and to disperse and coalesce when and where support is required. These are not small challenges to overcome; operating in a highly complex and ever-changing distribution network poses major risks when to move is to invite detection, and detection to lead to destruction. Efficiencies gained through economies of scale offered by bases, fixed supply points and routine logistic traffic will be lost as logistics elements are spread thin. A fine balance of logistics capabilities close to dispersed combat forces must be achieved to ensure they do not become a liability on manoeuvre, or at its worst, indicate to an enemy – or become themselves – a target.

Despite the concepts such as sea-basing that aspire to avoid the tactical challenge of logistics in the A2AD zone, and with every attempt being made to disperse logistics forces forwards, logisticians will have to remain prepared to operate in fear of the ‘artillery barrage’. Battlefields will be as complicated and complex for logisiticians to negotiate as they have ever been. Interdiction will be commonplace and at times impossible to counter with active measures. Forward operating bases will require a combination of defensive measures, such as anti-air weaponry and surveillance capabilities, forming vital but semi-secure nodes from which combat forces will be sustained. Proximity to logistics bases will determine sustainability, rather than the typical methods of sustainment armies currently learn through doctrine. Just as the ideas of ‘supporting’ and ‘supported’ might apply to joint fires in multi-domain battle, so too might this control method be applied to logistics.

The importance of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance picture to logistics movement  into the combat zone will be vital so to exploit gaps in the battle, and to reduce the distance combat forces will be required to move in order to be sustained. The dispersal of these combat forces will mean logistics elements will be required to take greater responsibility for self-protection than has been experienced on recent operations. However, and as described above, this will have to be conducted in a way so to keep the logistic footprint small and a difficult to detect as is practicably possible. Noting this, any discussion on logistic footprint must come second to the requirement for the distribution network to be survivable and with inbuilt redundancy; a requirement that may, in a battlefield irony, necessitate larger forward logistics elements. Staging bases may become the castles of the future, defensive stations essential to projecting power into an adjacent contested area.

Multi-domain battle is thought to be the best opportunity for land forces to succeed in contemporary warfare. This is all the reason that is required for logisticians to start exploring the topic with diligence and detail. As the concept is developed further, I believe that the importance of logistics to its successful execution at the tactical level will only become more and more evident. So too in increasing importance will be new technologies (yet another topic for later) which promise to offer options for operating in this environment, and are well worth the detailed consideration they are being given. However, until these technologies are introduced successfully, the problems of sustaining multi-domain battle will rest firmly in the realm of experimentation and exercising, concept development, and in doctrine. After all of this study and concept writing, multi-domain battle might simply prove to be little more than an intellectual diversion. However, understanding the concept and the context in which it has been developed better prepares the logistician, if not land forces in general, for the possibilities of the wars of the future.

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Fighting in the void – combat operations in the logistic vacuum

By David Beaumont.

Logistics has emerged from a decade-long hiatus to reassert its relevance. As Western militaries turn their attention from operations with a generally consistent logistic tempo, to strategic challenges that necessitate a substantial shift in force posture, logisticians are confronting a multitude of problems. We are seeing these problems emerge out of recent exercises conducted by the US Army in Europe. Recent commentary concerning exercises conducted in  January 2017 have revealed a variety of challenges that it must address to avoid bleak outcomes in future conflict. But such experiences are not confined to the US military, or to the European theatre. Changes in force posture and preparedness always require complicated logistics systems and supply chains to be adapted to suit new conditions.

Despite the challenges of adjusting to new force posture, we can expect logistics systems to be established quite effectively and efficiently. Many of these concerns expressed with relation to US Army force posture changes will undoubtedly abate as it re-learns lessons from the past. However, if we hypothetically look at how conflict might evolve in Europe, just as the American and European militaries did in developing concepts during the Cold War, we would be left with little comfort.  Despite the best of efforts, logistic preparations often fail to meet the expectations of planners when it comes to war. While the reasons for logistical failures may be self-evident given we all know how destruction can be quite disruptive, this post offers a theory – the ‘logistic vacuum’ – which reflects upon the impact.

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Photo by US Army Europe

As force posture changes, or as developments to enable the projection of force over vast distances progress, sustainment methods become optimised for specific and often localised conditions. Prepared forces are so because they have robust, and as efficient as practicably possible, logistics systems that are capable of sustaining them for extended periods of time. We see the effects of this luxury on military exercises regularly; it is rare to find a unit in most exercises without enough stores, supplies and equipment to last the exercises duration. Except in cases of extreme strategic surprise, logistics often becomes relatively unimportant to the well-prepared force at the outset of combat. Resources are plentiful, and firepower is assured. Unfortunately, and it is a general rule of war, this rapidly changes as combat and as the operation continues.

When combat commences robust logistic systems allow for a high intensity of engagement – at least initially. However, this changes quickly soon after the first shots are fired. We can look at a European scenario from the past to understand why. Western concepts including Air-Land battle that were developed in the Cold War explicitly targeted logistic infrastructure; however, other issues would also mount upon any force engaged in battle. Forces would soon outrun their lines of supply, materiel might be lost in the confusion, health care inevitably overwhelmed and distribution capabilities overstretched.  When logistic support fails to materialise combat forces would be forced to adapt their tactical activities and the intensity of warfare would decrease commensurately. As seen routinely in Europe during the Second World War, combat forces resorted to using enemy materiel and supplies, local sources of supply were permanently borrowed, and rationing was introduced to overcome such deficiencies. In such circumstances the flexibility of and logistics forces remaining after the initial firefight becomes crucial to recovering any aspect of the initiative, and restoring tempo to the operation.

Vladimir Prebelic described this phenomenon as the ‘logistic vacuum’.[i] He saw it as a general feature of war because logistics elements and systems are typically and extensively targeted by adversaries, particularly as their initial targets, so to create this very condition! Many different types of weapons have been developed to achieve this effect in modern operations; from ‘anti-access, area-denial’ missiles used in the maritime domain to target ‘sea-bases’ and other vessels, to the rocket-based artillery we famously saw in Desert Storm (1991) and more recently in ongoing conflict in the Ukraine. Despite the best attempts to improvise solutions and disperse logistic capabilities without compromising the support available to the combat force, a challenge noted recently on the Grounded Curiosity blog in a piece by Kane Wright, offensive methods can be expected to find a way to overcome these defensive measures.

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Photo by Australian Army

However, the concept of the ‘logistic vacuum’ goes beyond its relationship with major combat operations. As I argued in a previous post , commanders often make operational decisions which result in significant disruption to logistics systems. In most instances these decisions are made for vitally important reasons. But such decisions have consequences, in a process of compromise and risk management that is necessary in war. Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Warden demonstrated that the act of deploying produces its own ‘logistic vacuum’ as forces adapt to new situations. In these examples the uncertain nature of supply chains, and the impact of capacity constraints introduced by the desire to deploy with a light logistic ‘tail’, conspired to introduce temporary (and in some cases enduring) logistic shortcomings.  The problem is particularly significant for operational and tactical-level logistics organisations who must establish in-theatre logistics infrastructure where there was previously none. Despite this applicability of the idea of the ‘logistic vacuum’ to more benign deployments, it is really in major combat operations that the ‘vacuum’ is at its most pernicious.

The ability of logisticians and commanders to overcome the ‘logistic vacuum’ by working a logistic system out of the remnants of what existed in peacetime will often determine the operational initiative. Armies have typically sought to prevent the vacuum from appearing by conceiving ways to the defend logistic elements, than examining what happens after such systems fail. Options proposed include defensive measures such as ‘rear area security operations’, the reinforcement of logistics elements and patrols with self-protection capabilities such as anti-air systems, protection of logistics infrastructure via the establishment of operating bases, and through distance and dispersal. Such measures are essential to providing resiliency to the logistic system that, if attacked, will prevent a catastrophic collapse of support.  However, these measures are also only part of the problem. Reassessing doctrine, training and thinking – perhaps even the study of history – to admit the existence of the vacuum will be fundamental to the logistician and commander in their mental preparations for war.

We can try to ‘force-design’ ourselves out of the problem. History, unfortunately, suggests we won’t be overly successful. The ‘logistic vacuum’ is an oft-repeated feature of warfare, and many smart people before you and I have failed to conceptualise a way out of it. What really matter is that military planners design forces that are able to emerge from the ‘vacuum’ quickly, and with the initiative. All attention should be given to the ways in which risks can be reduced, the resiliency of the logistic system improved and flexibility of logistics forces enhanced. The perfect solution would be to provide logistic support in an over-abundance, particularly to forward units, but that isn’t a realistic expectation to have. Forces must be prepared to operate austerely, logisticians better empowered to prioritise resources, and all must plan and rehearse accordingly. In this regard technology offers all sorts of possibilities, many of which will lead to positive outcome. However, we shouldn’t be overconfident in our attempts to avoid the inevitable.

Any war between great powers, such as the nightmarish scenario in Europe as hypothesised above, would be tremendously destructive. After the first strike, logistic concepts that purport to support their armies will rapidly give way to practical reality and absolute necessity. Combat forces shouldn’t have a misplaced faith that they would be able to operate with everything they need, nor should any logisticians make claims as to their capacity to eradicate the ‘logistics vacuum’ through conceptual perfection. Ultimately, the ‘logistic vacuum’ is a reality of war that both logistician and commander must accept and prepare themselves for.

The feature photo is of 3ABCT undertaking training, photo by US Army Europe and available on Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/usarmyeurope_images/31544722004/)

[i] Prebelic, V., ‘ Theoretical aspects of military logistics’ from Defence and security analysis, Vol. 22, No. 2, Routledge, USA, 2006