Rethinking logistics – challenges of the modern battlefield

At the end of 2016 the Chief of the Australian Army, through conversations with senior logisticians, asked the logistic community to rethink assumptions made about logistics. This challenge, a part of other force structure reforms in Army, formed the basis of a variety of presentations and discussions at the subsequent ‘Army Logistics Leaders Symposium’ held at the Army Logistics Training Centre (ALTC) in November that year. This event was an initiative of ALTC and a means over overcoming the traditional organisational divisions that exist between Army’s logistics corps and units, and it was a really positive experience to be able to discuss a variety of issues with respect to the future in such a frank manner.

While it is not my prerogative to outline the contents of the discussions, many challenges facing the logistic community were discussed. These issues were both functional (how logistics should work on operations) and institutional (how it is organised to effectively and efficiently sustain Army in peace and war). No conclusions were made during the Symposium to overcome the challenges – such to be part of a subsequent consultative review – but a good starting point to an intended dialogue was made.

I thought, for a start, I would raise my views of what some of the ‘functional’, externally and environmentally delivered, challenges for logisticians.  For any non-Australian Army readers, I think you might find this basic list consistent with the views of forces and militaries world-wide.

  • The battlefield may be dispersing, but not as much as people might think. This is the predominantly the consequence of two factors: the supply requirements of forward elements which are in an up-trend, and the historical paucity (see next point) of transportation capabilities available to deliver to them in the required timeframe. This means logistics units and capabilities cannot withdraw from the battlefield and away from the weapons designed to obliterate them: long-range artillery, airborne weapons and precision rocketry. Geography, particularly in and around cities, will also reduce the dispersion of forces (although decrease their visibility). In lower scales of conflict other forms of interdiction will ensure self-protection is necessary remembering offensive capabilities tend to asymmetrically evolve quicker than defensive capabilities. Both scenarios require tactical concepts and doctrine to continue to be developed.
  • Transportation concepts will continue to determine the structure of the battlefield and not just where logistic units will be sited. In every modern campaign and war, transportation has been argued as the determinant of successful logistics and tactical plans will adjust to suit transport capacity. Where transport capacity is greatest, the commander will have the greatest tactical flexibility thus the need to mass transportation at a decisive point will remain a key force design principle. The logisticians and tacticians must plan and train together.
  • Modern threats will require logisticians to work alongside air-defence, engineering and communications capabilities. Habitual relationships will need to be established prior to deployment.
  • The increasing combat weight of forces will slow the rate of deployment of the force. There will be greater competition for transport resources as a consequence. Logistic units may deploy later than historical example may show accordingly. This may necessitate that the amount of stock initial deploying units carry will be larger than otherwise desired.
  • Battlefield manufacturing (aka 3D printing) will become increasingly useful, particularly for repair parts and some supplies, but petrol, oils and lubricants and ammunition will continue to pose the biggest challenges for supply. This will not change until new forms of engine are introduced. Demand for both has increased as armies have become heavier, and enabled with greater means of firepower.
  • Logistic information systems and ‘common operating pictures’ are one of the most fundamental technologies that if introduced correctly will allow for the efficient use of resources in war. However, these will not be a panacea. Very successful militaries have had lower quality systems of communications (the tactical successes of the German Army in the early Second World War attest to that), and there has to be an expectation that any logistic information system is vulnerable to cyber or electronic warfare attack.
  • Technology is becoming so sophisticated that, at some point, it will be beyond the capacity of military technicians to be reasonably expected to be trained to repair it. If armies can’t expand the size of their engineering support, a greater presence of contractor support forward will be required. Alternatively, the need to transport damaged and unrepairable equipment rearward will place an additional burden on the distribution system as equipment will have to be transported to safe points of repair.
  • Armies never have, and probably never will, go to war without contractors. Understanding where they are appropriate, how they can be best employed and what the tolerance for operational risk is due to their presence is the key. It will be impossible to leave contract management to a select cadre of specialists; it must become a core skill set of the majority of logisticians.
  • The proportion of the ‘tail’ to the ‘teeth’ of military forces has, and will continue to, increase unless the needs of the combat force decrease. It is (should be?) self-evident that a light infantry brigade has a smaller logistic ‘tail’ than an armoured brigade. However, logistic activities always escalate and inefficiencies, if allowed, make the ‘tail’ become disproportionally large and sluggish. To avoid this, any concepts developed prior to deployment must to be meticulous in their detail. Commanders, and their logisticians, must always pursue opportunities to remove waste – including any institutional ‘sacred cows’ preventing change.
  • If the battlefield becomes more dispersed, logistic forces must be designed to be organisationally flexible. Modular ‘capability bricks’ may not be the only answer; indeed this solution has been pursued by militaries for years.
  • Caveat emptor. Logistics will continue to be driven by context. All the above points could be utterly irrelevant to the conflicts of the future.

Many of these points shouldn’t be surprising, and the list is by no means exhaustive. I believe most military logisticians are already well aware of the problems that they will face on the future battlefield. With this in mind, feel free to correct me or enhance my list.

In any case, as with all force design planning, it is always the solutions to problems that prove the most contentious.