Crafting Effective Logistics Readiness: A Core Combat Capability
Logistics readiness refers to the ability to undertake, to build up and thereafter to sustain, combat operations at the full combat potential of forces.1
Logistics readiness is not just a matter of prioritising Defence resources.
Of course additional funding and attention can improve the capability and capacity of any military force to sustain itself in peace and on operations. Preparedness metrics, strategic goal-setting and policy making also help.
However, as logistics is a comprehensive system of activities and tasks, logistics readiness can only be assured by combining effective resource use with efficient processes, good governance, well-designed organisations with articulated authorities, and a willingness to address often unglamorous issues.
Moreover, the attitude of commanders and leaders, logisticians and staff planners to comprehensively and critically assess the Defence organisation – a ‘blue force analysis’ – also influences the logistics system to function as intended.
When capability and attitude are misaligned, and where understanding is deficient, it is inevitable that the investment of time, effort and resources into military readiness is wasted.
In Part One of this series asking the question, ‘how much readiness is enough?’ I described the interplay between logistics and readiness.
Part Two offered examples where militaries get it right, and a number of examples where events did not transpire as well as they might.
These articles might suggest to some that any attempts to devote time to addressing logistics readiness are likely to fail.
For those that do, consider what might have happened without the attempt?
Strategic responsiveness would suffer, and a slow mobilisation process to correct a lack of effort and rigour in peacetime could result.
The first step towards improving logistics readiness is recognising that it is a product of routine and organisational behaviour, as much as it is about the appropriate allocation of resources to assigned strategic goals and the development of capabilities.
This takes the matter well beyond basic preparedness requirements such as the identification of commonly used, but routinely compromised, preparedness metrics including ‘notices to move’ for logistics forces and capabilities.
Logistics readiness is a function of total organisational performance and efficiency.
Logistics readiness is therefore achieved by addressing six key factors that are applicable at all levels – from the strategic to the tactical. These factors are as follows:
Balance between logistics and combat resources and elements
You cannot escape a discussion on logistics capability without raising the concept of the ‘tooth to tail’. Defence organisations habitually compare combat forces to support forces.
At times, these organisations can consider support forces as ‘non-core’ to operational outcomes. In the Australian example, this ratio has featured in every review of Defence undertaken in the forty years since the ADF was formed.
As the ADF’s deployment to East Timor described in Part Two showed, it’s very difficult to get a balance between logistics and combat forces right.
Force structure requirements can change with different ‘demand, dependency, duration and distance.’
Eccles argued that ‘no problem presents more difficulty than trying to determine in advance the most efficient balance of logistics resources and combat forces that will be needed for any campaign’.2
In reality, however, we don’t tend to start with the right question in the first place.
What we should be asking before we embark on any ‘tooth to tail’ discussion is ‘how do we deliver the most combat potential or firepower at the time and place of our choosing, and in such a state we will be successful?’
Rather than a ‘tooth to tail’, perhaps we really have an ‘arm and a spear’.
As Dr Peter Layton wrote a very good summation of ‘balance’ for ASPI in 2013;
‘The planned duration of a war is an important consideration, although it can be very different from the actual duration, as recent conflicts have amply demonstrated.
If a short war is anticipated, the focus can be on the ‘teeth’ as the ‘tail’ is much less important. The combat force becomes a ‘one-shot wonder’ with little in reserve or in the training pipeline.
For a long war, a larger and more costly logistic system needs to be built up, a training system maintained while combat is underway and sufficient trained personnel held in reserve to allow rotations into theatre.’
We have to be realistic about solutions to resolving military force structure problems, as the answer cannot be a trite ‘add more logistics troops’.
There’s no easy answer to achieving the right balance, especially when defence funding cannot be increased and more staff or capabilities directed to the task.
As technology becomes increasingly sophisticated we are finding our capacity to perform organic support functions diminishing.
Our ‘tail’ now incorporates partners whose efforts are instrumental to our successes, and for our operations in the future, we will have to develop plans, policies and arrangements to ensure that a high standard of logistics readiness and operational flexibility is maintained.
Logistics plans and policies
Assuming we do get the force structure balance right, we must also introduce the doctrine, plans and policies to use it appropriately. We must be serious about the possible wars of the future and start developing concepts and doctrine to suit.
Governance and logistics reliability and assurance frameworks which ensure strategic and tactical concepts are viable depend on this analysis.
This effort shouldn’t be dismissed as bureaucracy, as it is the basis for accurate logistics planning – the quality of which determines exactly what resources will be needed and when.
In the case of rapid force projection, there will simply not be the time to redesign logistics systems without severely disrupting the way in which the force will deploy.
Sometime adaptation will win us victory, other times it will do quite the opposite.
There are a few areas that do require additional attention.
As I inferred earlier, one area most militaries are grappling with is the changing nature of its workforce and the integration of its intrinsic sustainment capabilities within the national economic infrastructure.
We’re good at working with partners, but a technology-centric future force will have to be informed by good policies and doctrine that supports the flexible and scalable logistics support we require operationally.
If logistics readiness is maintained through organisation stability, it is appropriate that plans and policies be developed to accommodate rapid changes to that stability.
Most large restructures of Defence organisations – such as the First Principles Review – are heavily influenced by the need to more efficiently and effectively organise logistics processes.
In the wake of the First Principles Review, Defence has made progress in the way it modernises as a joint force. Defence and the ADF has adapted to operational needs over twenty years, and has a well-established ‘joint logistics enterprises’, an appointed strategic logistician and medical officer with articulated responsibilities, and Services who have acceptability responsibility for raising, training and sustaining the operational components of the joint force.
Time will tell how effective this organisation will be.
In the meantime, we should study its strengths and weaknesses, and the how and why of its present design.
This is because organisation influences the flow of information and will impact upon the quality and number of logistics staff devoted to the different tasks and efforts.
Moreover, it will enable us to identify the right responsibilities for each component of the logistics process; given there is no one owner for logistics within Defence, accountability and authority are incredibly important.
It may be self-evident, but the state of our equipment has as much an influence on preparedness as that of our people. Militaries ‘limp’ to war.
The reason they do is what Dr Robert Betts describes as the ‘paradox of more is less.’
The act of staying in a state of heightened readiness is not only expensive, but it can result in ‘evanescence and self-destruction.’
Readiness literally consumes a military waiting for war.
There comes a point where materiel and personnel become run down, supplies are exhausted and organisations are pushed to their limits.
Sometimes the best thing a preparing military might do is wait otherwise limit the use of its capabilities if it wants its technologies to be available when they are required.
Logistics organisation must be tested
It is impossible to understand logistics constraints and limitations if they lie un-examined.
All militaries enjoy large-scale exercises, simulations and desk-top analyses but very rarely do they focus upon the logistics process.
When a logistics exercises does occur, they are often confined to bespoke activities with limited participation, or results ignored for the questions they raise.
In writing Logistics In the National Defense seventy years ago, and even after the lessons of the Second World War, Eccles described that ‘[t]oo seldom have the reports of these exercises included a realistic appraisal of the logistics problems and situations that would have been encountered under wartime conditions.’3
Most logistics activities conducted during exercises primarily occur such that the exercise can actually be conducted!
It is important that when exercises do occur that opportunities are taken to assess logistics performance, especially in the preparation for these training events.
Logistics is sufficiently complex that it is only through observing the system in action that gaps be identified and risks adequately prepared for.
Finally, and most importantly, logistics readiness is underpinned by the acceptance that it is a ‘shared problem’ that is only solvable through the mutual efforts of commanders and logisticians. Many documented problems experienced in ADF responses in the latter have of the 1990s and early 2000’s came from conspicuous, self-admitted, failures in the sharing of knowledge.
Information and concerns become vital when managing risks; and managing risks is what military preparedness systems are fundamentally about.
When any future force is designed, or as operational concepts and plans developed, it is essential that conceptual problems are clearly articulated and issues shared widely.
This sets expectations and better prepares one another for challenges when they inevitably arrive.
Specifics will change in war, but effective logistics readiness can make a combat force worth the organisational effort to raise or comprise it’s design entirely. Too many highly professional militaries have dismissed logistics readiness as a higher-order issue, and operations did not proceed as well as they might have otherwise.
There is always a temptation to focus attention inward and on what militaries such as our own do very well – preparing the elements at the forward edge of the operational area so that they may be re as ready as practicable.
Yet doing so risks compromises with respect to the preparedness of the logistics ‘system’ as a whole, or creates a logistics process that is inefficient or ineffective due to poor practices and inadequate discipline across the military.
Either way, the ability of force to rapidly respond to a crisis or threat will be constrained as a consequence.
There is a need for a much more detailed study of logistics readiness than the three articles of this series allows. That being said, most militaries already know where their problems lie. Readiness cannot be treated as a ‘buzz-word’ in a professional force.
Actionable recommendations and actions have to eventuate in a future discussion about preparedness, conducted in a strategic environment where threats are indeed ‘accelerating’ in scale and magnitude.
I can only emphasise that effective logistics readiness comes from a realistic appraisal of force structure, sensible operational concepts and doctrine, good policies and governance, and above all, an acceptance that our logistics problems require all to work together to solve.
It must be supported by adequate resourcing, an investment of technology that is sorely needed, and with a critical mind applied to practices that might have to change as we face the future.
We may never know of the command decisions that might have changed wars had the impact of logistics on preparedness been better articulated and overcome prior to war beginning.
In this regard, we start to venture into the realm of strategic decision making. In this realm logistics truly defines opportunities and choices, and can often be the true measure of whether a military is ready for combat.
Almost never will all logistics requirements be satisfied in an exact balance, and as long as this is true, and as long as military operations are governed by the finite, some phase of logistics is bound to be a limiting factor.
– Dr James A. Huston, Sinews of War
This is an edited adaption of a presentation given at the Australian Defence Force conference ‘Rapid Force Projection’ in April 2019.
It has substantially altered to suit the format here.
The thoughts are those of the author alone.
See also the following:
The Strategic Shift and Rethinking the National Support Base
- See Eccles, H., 1959, Logistics in the National Defense, The Stackpole Company, USA, p 290 available courtesy of the USMC here.
- Eccles, p 291
- Eccles, p 300