Coping with mounting logistical complexity
As the Army begins once again to think seriously about the prospect of high-intensity warfare against a peer or near-peer opponent, as it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an old adage has resurfaced with a vengeance: While military amateurs debate tactics, military professionals worry more about logistics.
Speaking Thursday at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C., Army chief of staff Gen. Mark Milley warned that future military operations in an increasingly urbanized battlespace will confront the Army with an unprecedented logistical challenge.
"The fact of the matter is," he declared, "I don't think we're going to have the luxury of having this massive mountain of logistics behind us in future higher end, higher intensity conflict."
Instead, he argued, the Army must figure out how to operate free of the logistical "umbilical" to which large-scale combat operations traditionally ó and often painfully ó have been tethered.
That's an interesting claim, not least because it tends to ignore the Army's own new draft operations manual. In one of many thoughtful references to the criticality of logistics, that manual points out quite correctly that "SustainmentÖis key to sequencing the major operations of the campaign."
The notion that armies might somehow be able to operate free of logistical impediments has been a waking dream of soldiers for millennia.
But the operative word is "dream." From Alexander the Great to Operation Iraqi Freedom, logistics repeatedly have proved to be the crucial determinant of armies' freedom of action and operating tempo, and not infrequently of their very survival.
As the draft manual points out, for example, during the run-up to the first Gulf War, "each division required 345,000 gallons of diesel fuel, 50,000 gallons of aviation fuel, 213,000 gallons of water, and 208 40-foot tractor-trailers of other supplies each day, ranging from barrier material to ammunition."
Furnishing that materiel across thousands of ocean miles was a major challenge, and there's no reason whatever to expect it to diminish any time soon. On the contrary, defying Gen. Milley's prediction, the sensitivity of future high-intensity combat operations to logistics is likely only to increase.
In part, that reflects the increasing sustainment complexity that logistical support systems will have to manage, and in part the changing character of the environment in which they will have to manage it.
Concerning the first, the number and variety alone of disparate items with which modern armies must be supplied, from original components to repair parts, has grown steadily during the past century. And as weapon systems have become more sophisticated and their components more complex, fewer of those components have become interchangeable.
Acquiring, stocking, tracking, and distributing such an expanding inventory without interruption or delay would challenge even top-of-the-line mercantile corporations such as Amazon and Alibaba that enjoy a relatively benign operating environment.
Their military counterparts don't. Especially in the early stages of a conflict, facilities for what the military calls RSOI ó reception, staging, onward movement, and integration ó are very likely to be austere to non-existent. It would be as if Amazon were required to create from scratch a brand new distribution system even while trying to fulfill a growing backlog of orders.
And of course, that doesn't count efforts by the enemy to disrupt and degrade the logistical system. Recent concerns about what has come to be called A2/AD ó anti-access/area denial ó probably are a tad overblown. German U-boats did a pretty fair job of making A2/AD expensive during the first few years of World War II, and thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines died in the Pacific to deprive the Japanese of similar A2/AD capabilities.
But there's no question that emerging military technologies, from long-range precision attack to stealth and robotics, increase the threat to both trans-oceanic and intra-theater logistical support. Ironically, the submarine probably remains the single most serious such threat. No weapon is more dangerous than one that reveals itself only when it strikes.
But while the growing complexity of the sustainment challenge and the multiplication of threats to meeting it certainly argue for attempting in every possible way to simplify the logistical problem, from developing self-healing equipment to fielding less bulky fuels and munitions, none of these is likely to satisfy Gen. Milley's understandable but quixotic desire to cut the logistical cord altogether.
Instead, as was true forty years ago of an Army shocked out of its preoccupation with insurgency by the violence of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, today's Army needs to revisit and update what it once understood better than any other about the integration of operations and logistics on a lethal battlefield..
On first reading, the Army's new draft operations manual is a solid beginning. The Army's chief of staff might want to take some time to revisit it.