The Strategic Shift and Crafting a 21st Century Sustainment Capability

By Robbin Laird

The liberal democracies are facing a demanding shift from fighting the land wars in the Middle East to completely reshaping their forces for crisis management challenges with peer competitors.

On the one hand, military capabilities are being reshaped to operate in such an environment, and there is a clear opportunity to leverage new platforms and systems to shape a military structure more aligned with the new strategic environment.

On the other hand, the civilian side of the equation needs even more significant change to get into the world of crisis management where hybrid war, mult-domain conflict and modern combat tools are used.

While preparing for large-scale conflict is an important metric, and even more important one is to reshape the capabilities of the liberal democracies to understand, prepare for, and learn how to use military tools most appropriate to conflict management.

This means putting the force packages together which can gain an advantage, but also learning how to terminate conflict.

At the heart of the challenge of rebuilding an effective force package to deal with peer competitors is the underlying need to build a 21stcentury infrastructure capability to support military operations in a contested environment. 

With the focus on the Middle East, logistical systems in the United States, in the West and in the Pacific were lightly protected and operated through either using commercial systems or systems which operated similar to Fed Ex.

When dealing with a peer competitor, one can expect those systems to be targeted early on.

The challenge then is to build hardened shelters, active defense and to find ways to stockpile the parts, and repair capabilities, which can allow US and allied forces to sustain an ops tempo which allows us to prevail in a significant crisis.

The German Case

My recent trip to Germany highlighted how difficult the rebuild process will be.

The Germans are projected by NATO to be the logistical hub for NATO in the support of operations to the new members of NATO to the East. Germany is where forces will move through and forward to support combat or deterrent operations against the Russians.

But according to several retired senior Bundeswehr officers with whom I spoke during my February 2019 visit, the German military simply has no such hardened supply capabilities today.

A good example of the thinking is the support center for the Eurofighter in Munich.  The center is above ground, and a centralized support facility.

There is no active defense; there is no bunkering of parts or anything remotely connected to the needs of a strategic shift.

Obviously, the Germans are not alone and there is the broader question of the significant rebuild in European infrastructure, which is necessary to prepare for sustained operations in the face of Russian aggression.

Shaping a New Approach

It was very clear from discussions during my visits to Finland, Norway and Denmark this past year that the return of direct defense is not really about a return to the Cold War and the Soviet-Western conflict.

Direct defense has changed as the tools available to the Russians have changed, notably with an ability to leverage cyber tools to leverage Western digital society. and, more generally, to be able to achieve military and political objectives with means other than direct use of lethal force.

This is why the West needs to shape new approaches and evolve thinking about crisis management in the digital age.

It means that NATO countries need to work as hard at infrastructure defense in the digital age as they have been working on counter-terrorism since September 11th.

The Finnish Case

There is little doubt that the Finns provide significant domain expertise into how to operate a force under duress from the Russians.

They have some significant history on their side and during my visit last year to Finland I had many discussions with Finnish officials about the central importance of hardened facilitates and the need to operate a distributed force while under the threat or under actual attack.

For example, Jukka Juuisti, Permanent Secretary in the Finnish Ministry of Defence underscored:

“If you look at the map of Finland, it’s not an island but in practice we are an island.

“The vast majority of our trade is coming by ships.

“In that sense we are an island and this means that we have taken the security of supply always very seriously.

“It is the nature of Finland that we believe that we have to be able to take care of some of the most vital things by ourselves.

“That’s the reason for example that security of supply is so important for us.

“For example, with regard to ammunition and those kinds of supplies, we have a lot of stocks here in Finland.

“Of course, with regard to some of the equipment we never can have enough in our own resources.

“The security of supply has got another respect also, which is the civilian side of the aspect.

“We have a security of supply agency, which is extremely important for us and it takes care of the civilian part of the security of supply.

“For example, electricity and telecommunications are vital for the survival of the nation, and one needs have to have the security of supply in those areas. Security of supply agency collects the money in such a way that they are financially safeguarded.

“Whenever we buy some gasoline, they collect some part of that purchase for the security of supply funds.

“It is organized in that way.

“We are continuously investing, in effect, in security of supply for the civilian sector.”

“And we think broadly about civilian defense as part of our mobilization strategy.

“That’s the reason we were still building shelters for the civilians, both to maintain infrastructure in times of crisis and for civilian protection as well.”

Shaping a Way Ahead

New paradigms, new tools, new training and new thinking is required to shape various ways ahead to shape a more robust infrastructure notably in a digital age.

Article III within the NATO treaty underscores the importance of each state focusing resources on the defense of its nation.

In the world we are facing now, this may well mean much more attention to security of supply chains, robust infrastructure defense and taking a hard look at the vulnerabilities which globalization has introduced within NATO nations.

Put in other terms, robustness in infrastructure can provide a key element of defense in dealing with 21st century adversaries, as important as the build up of kinetic capabilities.

The return of direct defense but with the challenge of shaping more robust national and coalition infrastructure also means that the classic distinction between counter-value and counter-force targeting is changing.

Eroding infrastructure with non-lethal means is as much counter-force as it is counter-value.

We need to find new vocabulary as well to describe the various routes to enhanced direct defense for core NATO nations.

The F-35 Opportunity

There is no one path to solving the challenge of a 21stcentury robust infrastructure and sustainment set of capabilities.

But given the commitment of several key allies to the F-35, the emerging F-35 global enterprise does provide an opportunity to shape a new approach.

First, there is the various national approaches which key nations can take.

For example, at Orland Air Base, the Norwegians are building a hardened air base to support F-35 operations.

Force protection is a key part of building out the base, and, indeed, the center of excellence both for ground based air defence, force protection and mobile logistic support operates currently from the base.

Second, cross learning among the European Air Forces in the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium and Italy as well as US-facilities in Europe will allow the creation of effective templates for sustained operations and support necessary for the F-35 to play its key role of providing the tip of the spear for deterrence operations.

Third, the inherent sustainment capabilities built into the F-35 as an air system could allow the US and the allies to shape a new approach to sustained engagement.

The common systems throughout the global fleet and the cross training and cross operations of the aircraft can allow stockpiling of common parts in allied locations closer to potential areas of interest than being warehoused in the United States or at fixed and well known locations.

Allied maintainers certainly could work with US maintainers to cross maintain US and allied F-35s at an allied location.

This would dramatically change the ability of the US and allies to fly to an allied base or location and shape a strike or defense force which could make a decisive difference in a crisis.

And the Fed Ex model could be put to bed with the large number of airlifters and tankers needed to supply forward bases in a crises; in place of this, the US and allies could invest in advance in capabilities at a common allied location likely to be most relevant to a crisis situation.

For example, the Aussies are standing up a significant support structure in Australia for regional support.

As they do so, allies such as the US and Japan can shape an approach to what I would call sustained engagement.

With crises to come in which the F-35s will play a key role, the Australians can provide operating locations for allies, without having to base those allies on a long term basis.

This allows Australia its sovereignty but also allows allies like the United States and Japan to gain operational depth which will be crucial for deterrence in the region.

Because they are flying virtually the same aircraft, stockpiling parts and leveraging an expanded sustainment base with the Australian maintainers leading the way for the USAF to move to a new approach to operations which does not require them to operate like Fed Ex flying in resources to then stand up support in a crisis.

The USAF or the Japanese could fly to Australia and be supported by Australian based supplies and maintainers supplemented by Japanese and US maintainers and could operate rapidly in a crisis, rather than engaging in a significant airlift and tanking support set of missions to stand up aircraft in Australia on a case by case basis.

It is not about just showing up; it is about being able to do sustained engagement with an agile expeditionary support structure to establish and operate from a solid operational footprint.

An allied approach towards sustained engagement when married with Aussie rethinking about how to use their geography as well as base mobility creativity would significantly enhance deterrence and operational flexibility in a crisis.

Fourth, realizing a capability for the US or another ally of a given country to fly in, operate, and be sustained through a significant ops cycle also allows for another key enabler for engaging in the kinds of operations facing the liberal democracies.

Shaping a Mobile Basing Capability for Crisis Management

Clearly, mobile basing is required to operate against peer competitors like Russia or China who have prioritized a missile strike force as a major part of their crisis dominance or shock and awe strategy against us.

The Finns have lived this already so there is no shock in a possible shock and awe strategy against them.

According to Lt. General Kim Jäämeri in my interview with him last year:

“It is becoming clear to our partners that you cannot run air operations in a legacy manner under the threat of missile barrages of long range weapons.

“The legacy approach to operating from air bases just won’t work in these conditions.

“For many of our partners, this is a revelation; for us it has been a fact of life for a long time, and we have operated with this threat in the forefront of operations for a long time.”

The importance of shift to mobile basing will only happen if a shift from the legacy sustainment approach is realized.

The nature of this shift was highlighted during visits with the Marines at Yuma Marine Corps Air Station, in Australia and in the United Kingdom.

One aspect of the change which I observed and discussed during my visits to Finland, the United Kingdom, and Australia and to MCAS Yuma is the importance of being able to do mobile basing.

At the Williams Foundation Seminar in Canberra in March 2018, the 11th Air Force Commander, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, highlighted the nature of the challenge requiring the shift to mobile basing.

“From a USAF standpoint, we are organized for efficiency, and in the high intensity conflict that we might find ourselves in, in the Pacific, that efficiency might be actually our Achilles heel, because it requires us to put massive amounts of equipment on a few bases.

“Those bases, as we most know, are within the weapons engagement zone of potential adversaries,” Wilsbach said.

“So, the United States Air Force, along with the Australian Air Force, has been working on a concept called Agile Combat Employment, which seeks to disperse the force, and make it difficult for the enemy to know where are you at, when are you going to be there, and how long are you are going to be there.

“We’re at the very preliminary stages of being able to do this but the organization is part of the problem for us, because we are very used to, over the last several decades, of being in very large bases, very large organizations, and we stovepipe the various career fields, and one commander is not in charge of the force that you need to disperse.

“We’re taking a look at this, of how we might reorganize, to be able to employ this concept in the Pacific, and other places.”

And during a visit to Amberley Airbase just before the Williams Foundation seminar in March 2018, I met with the Commander of the RAAF’s Combat Support Group.

“We are having to reacquaint ourselves with some tasks and challenges which we parked to the side a bit while we were in the Middle East for so long.

“We did not have to worry so much about mobile basing to counter the principal threats in that theatre,” Robinson said.

“The mindset is in transition now.”

He underscored that this clearly is an army and air force challenge.

“We are good at supporting maneuver with our tactical transport aircraft and Australia’s Army aviation capability, including the Tiger Reconnaissance Helicopter, but what we need to do is move to the next level of support to maneuver the most lethal part of our air power capability across a range of airfield options.”

Core capabilities such as providing fuel for air systems when operationalized for a mobile airbasing force on Australian territory are clearly different from supporting a fixed airbase.

For example, “expeditionary fuel capabilities is something that’s very much on the forefront of my mind.

“Lean and agile support packages to operate expeditionary airfields are also key, so that we can offer the best possible maneuver options to the aviators without tying down strategic airlift.”

Whether to pursue mobile basing or build greater depth in Australian territorial defense is one of the core choices facing Australia as it continues its force modernization.

Either they can emphasize going deeper into the air-maritime domain in the Pacific or significantly augment their mobile defense capabilities leveraging the vast Australian territory.

The role of active defenses working with airpower mobility would be a priority in this second case.

My visit last year to the United Kingdom where I saw again HMS Queen Elizabeth reinforced this point.

As the UK works through its post-Brexit defense policy, the role of the Nordic countries looms as increasingly significant.

The new Queen Elizabeth carriers are clearly very relevant to Northern Tier Defense and Mediterranean operations.

As a senior UK official put it during my visit in May to Portsmouth:

“The carriers will be the most protected air base which we will have.

“And we can move that base globally to affect the area of interest important to us.

“For example, with regard to Northern Europe, we could range up and down the coastlines in the area and hold at risk adversary forces.

“I think we can send a powerful message to any adversary.”

The Strategic Shift

The UK is working closely with the US Marines who have mobile basing in their DNA.

In recent Marine training exercises, which they call WTIs, have clearly emphasized the concept of mobility and strike from mobile bases.

The F-35B was at the heart of this, but mobility also requires a focus on support, which is integrated to the point of operation, rather than focused on having a series of Walmarts and maintainers with accounts at a Walmart store.

It is about reshaping logistics to enhance operations to the point of attack, and this will be a major challenge to how the US focuses on its support structure for F-35.

In short, the strategic shift to high-end warfighting will highlight core competencies and capabilities such as mobile basing.

The transition will not be easy, either for the warriors or the decision-makers in Washington or elsewhere.

The featured photo shows U.S. Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) and U.S. Marines with Marine Aviation Weapons and
Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) conducting a hot load on the F-35B Lightning II during Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course (WTI) 2-17 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., March 30, 2017. The ordnance loading exercise focused on loading the aircraft while the pilot is onboard and the engine is running which provides the Marine Corps with a capability to project Marine air power forward on the battlefield while decreasing aircraft turnaround time
and increasing sortie generation.



Photo by Staff Sgt. Artur Shvartsberg

Marine Aviation Weapons Tactics Squadron – 1