The Challenge of American Military Logistics


“Plan properly, or die”

-Julian Thompson, The Lifeblood of War 

If there is one military truism which is as universal as it is unsexy, it is the fact that the limits of warfare are defined by the logistics that power it. If we think of strategy as the art of directing our means to our ends or vice versa, then logistics is the most essential underpinning of our means, which is to say that everything from feeding troops to ensuring regular deliveries so there are enough lugnuts for our mechanics to keep our vehicles together falls into the realm of logistics. “He conquers who endures” as the Roman writer Flaccus said, and logistics is, at its core, the art of making the entire military function not only effectively, but consistently.

The last two centuries have seen the entire enterprise of logistics evolve into a more wholesale and what some term “holistic” process. While basic acting principles of foresight, sustainability, flexibility, and economy remain roughly the same, (this being a modified form of the principles named by Julian Thompson OBE in his book) the entire scope of logistics from production of essential items and consumable goods to their deployment and extirpation from the field of combat, and even to their disposal, has become a carefully managed commodity and element of national security.

While, in a sense, t’was ever thus, the efforts to achieve the sole control of organized violence by European-modeled states and state bureaucracy since the Middle Ages has increasingly put the entire life of an item or consumable good into regulation in some way. The process arguably reached a high point in the mid-twentieth century with the nationalization and subordination of entire economic sectors to war requirements, and the direction of entire national strategies to achieve logistical certainties, even in peacetime. Anyone looking for evidence need only read The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food by Elizabeth Collingham to get a sense of the intense magnitude of the effort to feed the millions of men and women who fought and who supplied the Second World War, and how the desire to achieve an average daily calorie count led directly to staggering mortality on and behind the front lines. A similar issue, rubber and petroleum requirements, directed Japanese and German strategies over vast areas of the globe; Asahi Shimbum, reflecting on the Pacific theater, wrote “It was a war begun as a fight for oil, and ended by the lack of it.”

Logistics and American Strategic Requirements 

The extent to which logistics has dictated the conduct and the limits of wars and the adverse effect of how the requirements of war has dictated the conduct and limits of logistics is a rather complex continuum, and is probably best understood on a case by case basis. When talking about the United States in 2015, the overall shape of military logistics is best understood as a matrix of military necessity guided by national strategy, liberal free market economics which direct the practice of contemporary logistics, and the important factor of public choice and political rationalization which directs strategies and money spent.

The first, military necessity as dictated by national strategy, is the hard requirement directed by the desired effect. America’s national security goals, as last defined in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, involve the defense of American citizens and American territory (the Continental United States and its Pacific extensions), as well as “advancing” the global order along the lines of economic prosperity for Americans and, guided by our liberal sensibilities, the general betterment in the economic opportunity and condition of humanity as a whole. This has been our clarion call for the better part of a century of global engagement, a morality roughly defined as Wilsonian, though the actual part we play in global affairs, as partner or leader, portion or exception, is several thousand undergraduate IR and Poli-Sci dissertations unto itself. Regardless, the requirement of global engagement in defense or in deterrence of conventional attacks or targeted terrorist threats to economic or physical security is the ability to project military force forward from the United States.

Logistics to achieve this for an organization the size of the American military, over 1 million personnel,  is to vast to even begin to be covered in a blog post. It involves supplying operations on land, sea, air, and space.  However, to understand it generally (as is my aim), one must factor in the latter two determinants of the matrices, the effect of global economics and the effect of political rationalization, as this generally governs the how and the why.

Logistics and American Economic Preferences 

For the first, it is important to recall that the United States is a power whose liberal social and economic interests have in no small part dominated its doings in nearly everything, especially military; for the fear of economic burdens due to taxation and eclipses of civil liberties, the United States did not keep a military commensurate to European or Asian powers until the end of the Second World War, and its earlier and more aggressive naval expansion served mostly to be a guarantor of economic interests for American mercantile activity. In the realm of logistics, this meant that much of the logistics and support/sustain activity was handled by contracting to private enterprise, and even at the point at which this trend was even partially eclipsed during the demands of the large wars of the early to mid-twentieth century, the industrial shift to war production was managed by government subsidy and an increase in spending/taxation, as opposed to outright seizure or the nationalization of industry and agriculture. Even where there is regular government interference in private industry, during the stages of development and procurement of new systems and carefully guarded regulation of certain high-value technologies, industry still retains leeway and usually turns a handsome profit.

Today the trend has returned back to a system of contractor support under the protection of American arms, which are themselves secured by the activity of numerous contractors and private businesses. The supposed ratios of contractors to government personnel (military included) in Iraq was 1 to 1, and possibly higher than that in Afghanistan, and the actions of the contracting personnel have also expanded beyond merely coordinating from behind the lines. Today’s contract personnel do things well beyond the scope of logistics, but the primary role that the private business plays in sourcing most non-essential military products (and even ammunition depots are maintained by private companies), from medicine to building materials, into active war zones is pronounced. Contractors water the grass, make food, cut hair, deliver mail, and in many cases drive the trucks and fly the planes which deliver vital supplies to American soldiers.

The Iron Mountain vs. Just In Time 

With this has come a certain influence of private practice into public activity. Military logistics now, especially operational logistics (getting stuff from A to B, depot to soldier as the case may be), is constantly being told to take a hint from Walmart’s system of making sure they never run out of Tickle-Me-Elmos, or whatever is desperately required in certain locations.

The rise of “Just in Time” logistics, in which costs are managed by reducing inventories in favor of competitive sourcing to deliver things only where they are needed and “just in time” has definitely had effects on military practice since the end of the Cold War. The ancient depot system, lovingly referred to as “The Iron Mountain”, was a fundamentally “push”-based concept wherein materials needed were amassed in bulk and then pushed out in doses to all units. By the linear logic of military thinking, this is the best way of assuring your forces don’t run out of essentials, but in the paradoxical logic of military reality, this creates the necessity to put more people on board to manage more stuff being sent in and out, and also means you have to amass material (and space most certainly is a factor) in various points which become vulnerable to enemy action (especially as they go closer to the active frontline).

The efficiency of “just in time” logistics is that it eliminates the need to store materials and is more responsive to unit “pull”: a unit needs something, say more night-vision goggles, and through a system predicated on better technology (phones, computers, automobiles, etc) that demand can be more uniquely catered to straight from private industry via a service contract with the federal government, which sees a company do all the necessary procurement work and delivers it directly to the unit either out of government stores or directly from the companies that make it. Hence there is no need to maintain an inventory of more than a few night vision goggles as long as they can be sourced reliably.

The Benefits and Risks of Military “Just in Time Logistics”

There is a whole world of economic sense in commercial logistic practice: it eliminates paper work, reduces money spent on inventory management, puts more government employees and soldiers to work actually fighting the war, and allows the free hand of the market to do its work with all the sublime benefits it supposedly brings (the repeated and massive waste of taxpayer money by the avaricious notwithstanding). Yet, war does not necessarily follow linear logic, nor the defense industry. The increasing specialization of the market and the aggressive sourcing methods do have some negative repercussions, especially when one considers that even “just in time” is not necessarily fast enough. In lengthy peacekeeping operations, where operational risks for companies are low, it is a boon, but it can also set limits to operational logistics where risks become to high for companies to accept. At this point, soldiers must take over and accept the risks of operational sustenance.

At this point too, the supply chain question of the global economy becomes a vulnerability. Most logistic support to our forces overseas comes by way of international shipping on commercial vessels, and the predication of the current security relies on the continuation of shipping, much of which follows long-established lanes which can be attacked by terrorism or conventional means. The large US owned and leased maritime logistic fleets are pre-positioned to give immediate aid and be a bridge measure to the establishment of a safe and regular supply line. However, in terms of actually conducting an armed operation swiftly, we are still talking months to build up for a large operation, and it is hard to hide, especially in this networked world, the direction of so much commercial traffic to any one spot. Pre-existing infrastructure in the Gulf made this possible for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003; over a decade before the process of sending a significant portion of the American and allied militaries to the Gulf took months of preparation and the rapid (contracted) construction and expansion of  port facilities.

Ground transport to the ends of the earth is similarly inefficient where infrastructure is lacking or openly hostile, limiting the expanse of operations to where troops can be sustained for lengthy periods and thereby slowing the pace of operations. In Afghanistan goods have to come either by air, which is costly and inefficient, or by land from the port of Karachi in Pakistan, causing there to be continual risks with local contractors having to pay off armed groups for protection or, as has occurred, Pakistan actually closing the highway to Coalition traffic. All these inconveniences and halts in the system can be overcome by slowing operations, but in warfare, correct timing is of the essence. The requirement to halt the pace of 2003 Invasion of Iraq in order to allow logistics units to catch up to forward mobile units was time lost that, if the enemy had been better organized and more resilient, might have proved a very significant setback.

Theater Logistics and the Budget Crisis: An Imperfect Answer to a Hard Question 

Therein too lies the problem of political rationalization and public choice. This could also be dubbed the “power of the purse”, as logistics now works mostly on the assumption that the control of violence means the control of the supply of violence as well. In the past, armies usually dealt with shortfalls and even supported entire campaigns by the method of requisition or foraging from the local population near to their operations, with the result that the presence of armies usually meant that looting, rapine, and exhaustion of local resources followed.

In modern warfare, A. it is usually not possible to secure highly specialized components necessary to enable forces to be successful from local sources (while resourceful, a Helmandi mechanic will not often have a spare track for a Bradley Fighting Vehicle), and B.  the imposition of military requirements upon local people, especially in under-developed areas, can easily overwhelm local resources and cause additional resentment when the market is not equitable or is culturally alien to American practices.  Hence these days a significant portion of the military budget is spent on sourcing and operational logistics just to sustain the daily operations of forces both abroad and at home, allowing American forces to enjoy operational flexibility unhampered by resource deficits in areas of operation, a factor which was and is responsible for high rates of personnel wastage and operational limitations that resource-sensitive forces cannot overcome.

This cost is one of the reasons the budget for the American military is so high (first in the world and outspending the next five largest combined). Maintenance and Operations, notwithstanding the Contingency Operations budget to actually fight wars, represents the lion’s share. This is where political rationalization re-enters the schema.  When it comes to Congress and the Services, supporting the established military capability as broadly defined by the leadership while attempting to rectify the budgetary problems of the last few years (which includes offsetting a few years of boosted military spending to actually bring Iraq to what we thought at the time was a successful conclusion) has meant that hard choices have to be made for the purposes of continuing forward global engagement while reducing the budget.

The concept of military “readiness”, which used to be equated to a very specific set of circumstances involving the defense of West Germany and South Korea is now a worldwide phenomenon as China becomes a seapower and veins of the global economy sit astride weak states and interdiction-capable powers like Iran. The United States must be ready to fight nearly anywhere, usually moving with pre-stationed small task forces, while most of the surge forces will project forward from the United States.

Readiness has various components, but logistically it means having enough material forward positioned to hold the line and then rapidly expand it when the need arises. The logistics chain forward, even at its best “just in time” is still very expensive to maintain, as is the need (on the production logistics side) to give the companies in the increasingly specialized and monolithic defense economy enough work to keep their businesses going. Hence we are now trying to be ready to fight anywhere in the world at any time without having to maintain the forces stationed overseas at increasing cost.

The answer thus far has been to attempt to rein in the size of the military to avoid it becoming a hollow institution (and saving money wherever possible) and getting it to increasingly specialize to deal in one specific region or task. The Marines are working around a concept of basing their forces entirely at sea and on any craft available with the intention of acting solely as a rapid expeditionary intervention force, while the Army has introduced the concept of regionally-aligned forces, which deploy to joint training exercises on rotation in smaller batches and then co-base with allied forces in-country. The new model will aim to eliminate military forward stationing and basing, which is expensive, with efforts to build up local capabilities to work in concert with American forces. This, in theory, ensures that American and local forces can cooperate efficiently and manage security (presenting capable deterrence, especially in the Pacific) without having to deploy more American forces and keep them there on longer deployments (with all the necessary infrastructure that entails). To be sure, prepared bases will remain, especially in Korea and in the Persian Gulf, but forces will more often co-habitate and cooperate out of local facilities elsewhere, and even forward bases will see rotations, rather than permanently stationed forces (cutting down on additional costs on garrison-supporting infrastructure).

This is an admirable solution with an imperfect logistics component. Regular rotation of forces drives up transportation costs (deploying with all the things you need to train and be prepared to fight) and can delay the establishment of a consistent supply chain (training can also be hard on your stuff) unless there is considerable forward presence of logistics personnel and equipment within a region to be used already. This approach, what is known as “theater logistics”, will involve the careful positioning of select equipment in delineated geographic area to allow forces to use it on rotation or to suddenly send an additional force to back up a pre-existing force. In Korea, for example, Army Pre-positioned Stocks #4 contain enough items to equip and sustain an Armored Brigade Combat Team (that’s vehicles, spares, ammo, the works) or roughly 2,000-5,000 personnel for a set time (30 days usually), as well as additional smaller units and specialty items.  The forward presence consists of both an Army Field Sustainment Brigade and contractors who actually do all the repairs and maintenance on the parts used. For the purposes of maintaining a consistent force to deter enemies (convincing North Korea it is not worth it to shell Seoul into rubble) this works in theory. It also works to quickly deploy assets to a disaster zone: entire field hospitals pre-positioned in Italy were rapidly deployed to assist American medical personnel deployed to Liberia earlier this year to battle Ebola.

Logistical Inflexibility: The Question of Failed Deterrence and Catastrophe

What is not known, and what is worrisome on a practical operational level, is how well this would hold up to surprise attack or a situation that evolved at an accelerated rate into a conventional attack. Our assumptions about what will and will not happen in terms of conventional warfare have been somewhat shaken as of late. The sudden collapse of Ukrainian conventional forces in front of Russian hybrid “non-linear war” and the current situations in Iraq and Yemen highlight how unstable the regional divides of our world can be, and how quickly they can split open when not constantly monitored. Pre-positioned stocks may be sufficient if America intervenes in a regional struggle as a powerful local arbiter, but once the situation overwhelms local pre-positioned resources we have to rely on the global supply chain to kick in. In small emergencies and disaster relief when not dealing with an aggressive or capable enemy, this can and has worked.

In terms of a more catastrophic conventional attack, however, it is unclear. I picture the situation in Korea in 1950. American forces were not on the peninsula when the North attacked the South, and the logistics network for American forces in the Far East operated out of Japan, which was luckily out of range of Communist interdiction. The force sent against the North Koreans originally, the dismal Task Force Smith, lacked consistent operational support (lacking weapons that could penetrate North Korean tanks for example), save from the port city of Pusan, the only port capable of supporting an American deployment in the region large enough to actually halt the Communist advance, and indeed, before MacArthur’s brilliant counterstroke at Inchon, the defense of Korea ultimately rested on Pusan, where every available soldier and shell was fed into the line as soon as they became available. Task Force Smith was too small and too ill-supported to halt the North Korean advance.

America is far better prepared overall to fight then it in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, but the point stands that a few good men can only do so much unless they are supported and reinforced. If Iran were to use a combination of irregular warfare via conduits in southern Iraq and conventional forces to attack Saudi Arabia (and presumably the United States’ Gulf Bases and Carriers as well), American forces on deployment would undoubtedly put up a good fight and, presumably, rapidly-surged Army and Marine elements to the Gulf would find pre-positioned equipment waiting, and would be ready to fight in a matter of days, not weeks or months. Yet, should the initial attacks be unexpectedly successful, the forces and the pre-positioned stocks may be rapidly exhausted. This limits the options we have to commence operations, save that we will have hopefully dealt Iran enough of a blow to halt their operational plans within the first day or so and allow the Saudis to defend themselves or hit back.  So too would the aggression likely open conduits (however risky) for American forces through Egypt or Jordan. The Marines could arguably be there within days and use seabasing to maintain some forces for up to a month before requiring a port in the region (potentially allowing for an attack on anti-ship missiles and re-opening the Gulf), but the concept is still in development.

This situation is unlikely (though intelligence failures about issues like this have happened), but it raises some key issues about pre-positioning and the logistics continuum to any one region. With the length of American engagement in the Persian Gulf, the port facilities and bases in Kuwait and Qatar are obviously tempting targets, if very well defended. Will pre-positioned material survive first contact with the enemy, especially if in fixed facilities? Will it be possible to source more material to the region if, heaven forbid, Iranian missiles make the Gulf extremely inaccessible to American shipping? Logistically speaking, this will define not only the first engagement but also the response and continuation of hostilities. The human element is important: where coordination and personnel are incapacitated or unavailable, then the pre-positioned stocks are of limited use, and the ability to quickly keep our forces supplied from the United States and other dispersed international stocks is a strategic imperative, but not one often discussed. In war, especially high-intensity conventional war, people can die very fast and forces rapidly become exhausted, and the US supremacy in “high-tech” arms will not be an indefinite solution if these are exhausted or break-down, which happens regularly as vehicles and weapons age.

This is not the first time that “first bound” options are the only ones planned for in concrete detail. As it was assumed during the Cold War that Western forces would not be the aggressors, merely the shield of Western Europe buying at most a few days before the West resorted to nuclear arms, the actual logistics for NATO forces (as it remains to this day) respected national sovereignty from production to delivery over actual military utility. The British, American, German, and Dutch-Belgian forces all used different equipment to national specifications, and did not have a single line of cooperation or delivery outside Supreme Allied HQ. Hence, if the Russians had actually attacked, resistance was essentially futile because there were not nearly enough roads and railway lines connecting specific national forces to their depots to resupply them to survive further Russian assaults, even if they had managed to stymie the first one. I once read of a British Sergeant cheerfully responding to a senior NCO who expressed concern about the forward-positioned stocks of ammunition lasting only three days, “Don’t worry, Sir, we won’t be needing any more than that.”

While something must be said for needing flexibility from instance to instance, planning is still key. If a crisis similar would develop in the American system now, expeditionary units from the United States and elsewhere would be arriving with their own support mechanisms within a week or two, then sourcing back along rapidly established supply chains to the United States or elsewhere. There is in this, I believe, a tacit assumption that money would then be no object, which if deterrence failed for China, North Korean, or Iran, is probably right.

Then again, the alternatives of nationalized industry or a unbelievably bloated defense budget are not more palatable in the meantime, especially if America wants to maintain economic and political freedoms she has enjoyed since rationing and the draft ended. Strategically, America could delineate her aims and focus on specific requirements, but the debounded nature of terrorism and suddenly collapsing states have made it hard to say where interests begin and end.

Contracting has given America some latitude to put some of the money spent back into the domestic market (and theoretically tax it), and it is evident from the success Private Security/Military Companies/Firms have had that global sourcing for military requirements can work up to a point, but the standards that American maneuver forces have mean that military logistics will have to maintain robust lines of supply where and if the global supply chain and contracting fails, and be prepared to push it out into attrition warfare in the first round of fighting. The issues presented by a failure in commercial contracting to source required equipment and shipping to deliver it ultimately could prove a fatal constraint only overcome by massive spending.


In conclusion, the tasks American security interests face are great, and this is only a general summary of the varied national and international dimensions of the problem. Especially now that timely engagement has become a global concern, the stocks required to do any given task in a theater, especially one like the Pacific Ocean, which covers of 50% of Earth, have to be distributed across a fairly wide area of operations with a lot of space (water) in between. The future projections of the Army’s Pre-positioning Plan foresees special smaller “activity sets” placed across the Pacific in Southeast Asia, Australia, Guam, Japan, and Korea, and similar diverse capabilities pre-stocked around the world. Efficient packaging, reliable sourcing, and expeditionary capability will be needed to enable this to work.

It is all about the process of managing risk and not sinking the economy or the government while trying to do it. I am relieved to say that I believe it can work, especially in crisis response, due to the innovative technologies available via the commercial market, including the potential for drones and automatic delivery technologies to reduce risks for personnel. I believe, however, that the risks of over-reliance on contractor support leaves the military vulnerable to a failure to fulfill contracts in event of emergency or economic crisis, limiting how quickly and how far we can go should the US have to. Hopefully, it won’t.

As always, the distances are great and the time is short, the essential challenge that logisticians throughout history have sought to overcome. Yet for the defense of American interests and the American people, the man behind the man behind the gun is still the essential figure who makes security policy into reality, and will for as long as we continue to fight abroad.

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