Logistics and Sustainment for an Evolving Defence of Australia Strategy

By Robbin Laird

There is no more daunting challenge facing a credible Australian defence strategy in it is region than that of logistics and sustainment. Australia is so dependent on imports of supplies, and overseas production of military equipment that the nation is very exposed to its logistics and sustainment shortfalls.

And when looks at the wider world of its allies, the picture is not brilliant. The war in Ukraine and the challenge for Europe and the United States to provide basic supplies has been daunting.

Bluntly put, the democracies have moved from their industrial base and have not built defense in depth. The only country in the West that remained committed to national mobilization was Finland, where I conducted several interviews during a past visit precisely on how they have addressed how they have built in mobilization from the ground up.

If Australia is to have a credible logistics and sustainment foundation, investments need to be made in supplies and stockpiles, in the building of industrial base – probably through joint efforts with allies – accepting the need for industrialization in key areas, an energy policy that leverages their natural supplies and capabilities, and working with South Korea, Japan and the United States on an innovative way to enhance Australia’s potential role as a strategic bastion in the Pacific based on enhanced supplies, support structures and production capabilities in Australia which allies invest in as well.

But whether or not Australia can achieve this is a major challenge which will require investments significantly beyond what the government is contemplating and an engagement with industry that requires a major shift in how the defense industrial base is built, sustained, and how the ADF can work much more directly in the development of evolving capabilities, such as autonomous weapons.

MAJGEN Jason Walk, Commander Joint Logistics, addressing the April 11, 2024 Williams Foundation Seminar.

At the April 11, 2024 Williams Foundation seminar, MAJGEN Jason Walk, Commander Joint Logistics, provided an overview of how the logistics challenge is being defined and focused on in the wake of the Defence Strategic Review.

This is how characterized the change: “The DSR directed that the defence logistics network be adequately resourced to deliver persistent support and sustainment for operations. This considered by itself is a step change in defence capability and capacity, demanding first, that defence first confirm its logistics gaps before embarking upon the most substantial investment in the defence logistics network, arguably since World War Two.”

After discussing the need for robust cyber defence to protect the network, and shaping space based capabilities to support such a network, he then turned to the question of the near-term focus.

“So what are the problems we’re trying to address within the defence logistics network?

“The log network underpins defence’s force posture, ensuring the right stuff gets to the right location at the right time. Accordingly, the defense strategic review required the ADF to develop a Northern Australian network of bases to provide a platform of logistic support for denial and deterrence. To address this, defence’s ambition for the defence logistics network can be summarized as making a more a more agile, effective, integrated and resilient network.”

I have spent a great deal of time with the various logistics commands in the United States and seen over the last thirty years significant change in multi-modal logistics. But the ability of the U.S. to deploy military power relies very heavily upon commercial systems which will be difficult to depend on in times of crisis, more limited air lift and tanker capacity than would be needed for the USAF alone, let alone for the US Army, and a Military Sealift Command whose capability is limited by the decline of the US merchant marine, for MSC is operated by mariners not the U.S. Navy. The Navy is buying Ospreys because of the limited lift capabilities available to the Navy.

So what then about Australia? Will we see an upsurge of the means to provide for the support a distributed and more mobile force will need.

MAJGEN Jason Walk addressed this challenge as follows:

“First of all, to an agile and multi modal logistics. A key logistics problem that we face is the paucity of strategic maritime lift capabilities to enable the projection and sustainment of forces. The solution is to build a diverse multi modal logistics network that leverages a mix of transportation capabilities across land, sea and air. This will allow the agility to rapidly reorganize reprioritize and adapt the delivery of logistics effects in response to changing requirements or threats.

“Leveraging industry support in areas of reduced threat will enable the focused application of limited ADF strategic lift assets.

“One initiative under consideration by government is the establishment of a maritime strategic fleet. Importantly, this reflects our support and sustainment of military capability will require a whole of government indeed a whole of nation endeavor. Effective logistics with increased stocks, the ADF in Australia at large lacks sufficient stocks of critical commodities, like explosive ordnance fuel to sustain operations, especially in our northern regions. The solution is to invest in depth and redundancy to build up strategic reserves and material stocks to meet the demands of the integrated force.

“In conflict, these critical supplies must be replenished and forward positioned to optimize operational availability and freedom of action of our deployed forces. This is a focus of a number of defense projects moving forward and we are establishing closer linkage with other government agencies and industry.

“The National Fuel Council which had its inaugural meeting early last year or mid last year is an example of that. The integration of logistics across all domains and coalition’s is equally important, logistics interoperability that can support an integrated force and operations in coalition with allies is critical.

“The solution is to design an integrated logistics network that reduces friction and complexity. The defence logistics network seeks to minimize organizational seams across the defence enterprise and reinforce interfaces with industry, whole of government, allies and partners.”

The speaker provided a good description of the challenge.

But frankly, this is a daunting one, in which phases needed to be shaped and credibly funded. This will not be critical just for the ADF but for an credible cooperation policy in which South Korea, Japan and the United States would participate in effectively.

And let me be blunt: this would have to be addressed in real terms by investments and policy changes by those allies as well. This is not about simply about AUKUS – this is about building a credible and real arsenal of democracy in our time.

AUKUS can too easily be used as a rorschach image where one can see what one wants. It is not an end in itself. If meaningful, it is a gateway to solving a strategic challenge such as that discussed by the speaker.