Logistics, Mobility and Resilient Infrastructure: Bedrock of an Effective Warfighting and Deterrent Force

By Defense.info Media Team

Articles by John Coyne of ASPI published this month and by Col. David Beaumont of the Australian Army published in 2018 provide key insights with regard to the key role of logistics — mobility, sustainability and infrastructure — to a robust defense and deterrent capability for a nation.

Having an arsenal of democracy and a sustainable force supported by an ability to move supplies to the operating force is crucial to combat success for the United States and its allies.

And as the U.S. and allied forces focus on force mobility and operating distributed but integratability forces to enhance their survivability, projecting logistical  support to such a force becomes more challenging, but central to combat success.

In his August 23, 2022 article, John Coyne underscored that a key consideration for the new strategic defense review is the crucial importance of securing Australia’s northern defense infrastructure.

This is how he put it:

The Russo-Ukrainian war has burst the bubble of those who had assumed that future wars would be fast and furious affairs. While we have many lessons to learn from the first six months of this war, it seems clear that logistics and infrastructure matter as much in major conflict today as they did in World War II. This lesson isn’t good news for Australia’s defence organisation, which is too comfortable with relying on ‘plugging in’ to US infrastructure. The three decades of relative peace Australia has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War has degraded our prioritisation of and investment in future-ready defence and multi-use strategic infrastructure.

The strategic uncertainty we now face requires a paradigm shift in our way of thinking about this infrastructure, especially in Australia’s north. The recently announced defence strategic review provides the perfect opportunity to get that process started.

The government needs to take a longer term perspective on defence and multi-user infrastructure that considers a range of future contingencies. The upgrades to the airfield in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands under Defence Project 8219 to support the operation of the Royal Australian Air Force’s P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft show our siloed, short-term thinking in action. This critical investment will ensure the airfield is long and wide enough to support P-8s. However, Defence hasn’t synchronised the project with other requirements, which means a lost opportunity. Nor is this investment focused on ensuring that defence infrastructure on Cocos (Keeling) Islands is future-ready; instead, it will just be good enough for now.

Defence needs to revisit its assumptions about infrastructure. An example of this issue is Defence’s bare bases: RAAF Base Scherger near Weipa in Queensland, RAAF Base Curtin near Derby in Western Australia and RAAF Base Learmonth near Exmouth, also in WA. These bases, built in the 1980s and 1990s, were constructed to enhance the air force’s ability to mount operations in defence of Australia. Today, these facilities are more important than ever. But their full utility can’t yet be realised because they’re plagued by challenges, including poorly maintained roads and untested supply-chain assumptions.

Defence needs to reacquaint itself with the forgotten multi-user infrastructure in northern Australia. Across the region, many pieces of infrastructure have national-security significance. Some of these sites have slipped from strategists’ calculus, like the fuel storage on Melville Island near Darwin. Planners also take many pieces of infrastructure, like some of the smaller jetties and piers in northern Queensland, for granted. Defence needs to take on a greater role in ensuring these facilities continue to operate.

There are also cases where potentially strategically important facilities and infrastructure are no longer commercially viable, so they risk falling into disrepair. In Gove in the Northern Territory, the Nhulunbuy Rio Tinto mine will close within a decade. And with it will go a potentially important fuel storage facility.

In northern WA, the Mungalalu Truscott Airbase is a sealed, all-weather runway that’s 1,800 metres long and 30 metres wide and provides significant efficiencies for aviation operations in the Kimberley region and the Timor Sea. It played a critical role in the defence of Australia during the Second World War. The airfield runs the risk of being shut down as WA government policies focused on making Broome (more than 600 kilometres to the southwest) a hub airport for the mining industry diminish Mungalalu Truscott’s commercial viability.

Ownership of our infrastructure is also an issue that the government ought to consider in more detail for multi-user infrastructure. Much has been written about the lease of Darwin Port to Chinese-owned company Landbridge. The public debate on the lease often doesn’t consider Landbridge’s control over the port’s future development. Especially where the future development interests of the lessee and the Australian government might be divergent.

Finally, Australia’s strategic circumstances are rapidly evolving. The recent signing of the security pact between Solomon Islands and China is a case in point. Darwin has long been considered a forward operating base in a time of crisis. Our approach to infrastructure in Darwin is focused on achieving a higher degree of readiness than in Townsville or Cairns, which have long been garrison towns—places where capabilities are raised, trained and sustained. The Solomon Islands security pact may indeed change this strategic calculation. We must consider whether Cairns and Townsville should also be potential forward operating bases in light of this development. If so, much will need to be done in these cities to support target hardening, supply-chain resilience, and defence and multi-user infrastructure.

This sort of readiness won’t just happen and can’t be left to market forces. But neither can it be left to Defence to start a multi-year analysis of the problem, which would delay real action even further. The government must include these considerations in its defence strategic review. Thankfully, that review is set to report back early next year and, if done right, its findings could set the ball rolling on positive developments for northern Australia and the defence of the continent more broadly.

The Coyne piece focused on the specific case of Northern Australia.

The 2018 article by Col. Beaumont argued more generally with regard to the key role of logistics as a key element for the deterrent force.

Nations are naturally competitive, and one of the principle roles for standing militaries is to deter others from undertaking military action within this competition. Recently Western militaries have contended that adversaries, real and potential, do not always distinguish peace and war.

In the recently released Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff argue that the ‘binary conception’ of peace and war is now obsolete, and a ‘competition continuum’ now applies.

Now these same Western militaries recognise they must act in times other than in armed conflict, offsetting the strengths of other nations or groups who have a very different interpretation of what defines war.

Deterrence, afforded by a range of military capabilities, is a core strategy taken within this offsetting. Although nuclear weapons may give an alternative, there is no deterrence, however, without logistics.

This is because logistics, where military activity meets the national economy, leads strategy by making the intent to use force reality.

Indeed, it is military logistics activity which truly defines a nations capacity to respond militarily to its challenges, and most certainly to deter adversaries – realistically – in a competitive environment.

Logistics and strategy are inseparable, each meaningless without the other. Logistics was ‘invented’ in war and has always had a ‘deadly life’. The architecture of global supply chains, siphoning national wealth through geographic areas of immense strategic interest to nations and others, are focal points for national action.

‘Logistics cities’, major trade hubs and economic routes attract the interest of Governments and have become of immense strategic value. All arms of Government can be seen in action, using diplomatic, informational, military and economic means to shape how both commercial and military logistics might be applied to their favour.

Supply chain security continues to occupy our minds as we intermingle our desire for national prosperity through global trade with our desire to prevent the loss of native capacity to build military capability, mobilise and sustain operations. Important military hardware such as the Joint Strike Fighter is underpinned by global arrangements, fragile supply chains and shared industrial capabilities that expose militaries to new areas of risk. In this environment it will take little effort for nations to exert influence or strangle the capacity of a nation to respond to threats militarily.

War might begin and end with logistics.

Logistics might be at the heart of strategy and competition, but its role in deterrence is understated. John Roth’s work on the logistics of the Roman Empire saw military success a factor of the capacity to provision over long distances, and not just because of military culture and training.

Having the ability to sustain forces effectively was both a tactical and strategic weapon. Highly potent legions armed with modern weaponry gave the Romans victory in battles, but logistics gave them Empire. The ability to project forces throughout Europe and Asia was recognised by others, and conflict sometimes avoided as a consequence.

Two thousand years later the same concept applies; beyond nuclear weapons it is the capacity of the mighty US military to project and sustain itself on a global scale that deters potential adversaries, and it is why Cold War exercises such as REFORGER and the contemporary alternatives such as Operation Atlantic Resolve are vital at a time of increasing competition. Core to deterrence are the capabilities most military women and men enjoy talking about; strike aircraft, long range artillery and naval task groups.

But it is logistics that determines the circumstances of their use; the time it takes for arming, when and where refuelling may occur, and how quickly the detritus of battle can be repaired. And so, amid the force posturing and acquisition programs, most Western militaries are now devoting attention to how their military logistics organisations sustaining these capabilities perform.

The proximity of forces also works to deter, if only because it reduces the logistics ‘cost’ of supporting operations. Economist Kenneth E. Boulding proposed the ‘loss of strength gradient’, in Conflict and Defense: a general theory, as a theory to define the relationship between geography and military power for the purpose of conflict and deterrence.   

Boulding’s theory primarily looked at the relationship from the perspective of transportation capability counterbalanced against the capacity to deliver firepower through strike capabilities from afar.

He later argued that the importance of forward basing was diminishing because the ‘cost’ of transportation, measured in speed and danger to deploying forces, was reducing and there had been ‘an enormous increase in the range of the deadly projectile’ through airpower and rocketry. ( Cited in Webb, K., ‘The continued importance of geographic distance and Boulding’s loss of strength gradient’ from Comparative Strategy, University of Reading, UK, 2007, p 295. Strategic weapons such as those defined by the Lowy Institute as ‘signature weapons’ are a notable exclusion here – these include such things as nuclear weapons and the strategic use of cyber capability.)

Strike capabilities, especially those emanating from the then 3rd-generation air domain, led him to this revelation.

The non-nuclear deterrence of the late twentieth century came from mobility and long-distance firepower. The closure of American and partner overseas military bases in the wake of the Cold War, the subsequent expansion of expeditionary forces and long-distance strike capabilities in many militaries, and startling tactical successes by these forces since the 1991 Gulf War reflect this trend.

That is, until the dramatic reversal of strategic fortune as the ‘cost’ of transportation increased with ‘anti-access, area-denial’ threats, and a competitive force posture approach of rising (or ‘re-rising’) military powers.

Distance, once again, became important to the military mind. As did the cost of maintaining the expensive, modern, strike capabilities procured to pierce the enemies operational shield. Western militaries now face a considerable reduction in their freedom for strategic manoeuvre, and the inevitable rebalancing between force posture and developing expeditionary and strike capability accordingly.

Beyond the unequivocal nature of logistics in force posture or capability development there are the most important logistics factors in strategic competition of all. Though the degree may differ given the circumstances, nations are always mobilised. The manner by which the logistics process can translate national economic power into tactical combat potential is a reflection of a national capacity to compete, deter, and to demonstrate an ability to militarily respond. Industry policy and the organisation of strategic logistics capability, the appointment of commanders to oversee sustainment and the presence of mobilisation plans and doctrine, reveal much about the quality of any military offset.

If you don’t believe that these comprise the ultimate joint strike weapon, it is impossible to argue that they aren’t essential to those strike capabilities that you do. These are not areas we typically look at when we consider deterrence, but they will discriminate between the successful and unsuccessful in the earliest stages of conflict when it comes.

For these reasons we will see competition and military deterrence play out in different ways, and for reasons that are often logistical in nature. One nation might build an island where there was none before, while another will procure air mobility platforms or ships for afloat support to support their strike capabilities.

Others will examine force posture from first principles, while another will establish arrangements and agreements that might support a friendly force at short noticeMilitaries might be restructured so that the acquisition and sustainment of capability improves preparedness, or eventual operational performance, more effectively.

Just as there will be an unending competition in the development offensive and defensive capabilities between nations, so too will there be unending shifts in the way opposing military forces will offset one another through logistics means. It will not always be about new aircraft, tanks and ships. It will always be about how these strike and other combat capabilities are sustained.

Effective deterrence requires effective logistics. The threat of armed conflict is always a factor in strategic competition, but logistics capacity and capability are an important, if understated, part of the calculus. This must be kept in mind by those procuring the next generation of equipment that ostensibly serves as a deterrent to others. If we are to have a military deterrent, underpinned by impressive strike capabilities, it must also be underpinned by a logistics system that can support them.

It may be easy to see the beginning of conflict in national economic systems, but it can also be seen in the seriousness given to shoring the gaps with respects to military logistics and more specifically, the sustainment of capabilities. Strategy has been rapidly becoming an appendix of logistics, if it hasn’t been so all along, and logistics activities can be profoundly important well before the ‘conflict continuum’ approaches its zenith in armed conflict. 

This applies to deterrence where logistics, and potential logistics capacity, can sway the mind of a potential adversary. And when armed conflict does eventuate, it will be as much about the fight to supply – the defence of the supply chain and the efficiency of the logistics process – as it is about winning on the battlefield.

Sources cited by Beaumont:

US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint concept for integrated campaigning, March 2018, http://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/concepts/joint_concept_integrated_campaign.pdf?ver=2018-03-28-102833-257, p 4, 7

Cowen, D., The deadly life of logistics, University of Minnesota Press, USA, 2014.

Roth, J., The logistics of the Roman Army at war, BRILL, USA, p 279.

Boulding, K.E. Conflict and defense: a general theory, Harper and Brothers, USA, 1962, pp. 260-262.

The featured photo highlights the latest plus up of logistics mobility for the USMC, namely, the CH-53K.

U.S. Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 461 and 2nd Landing Support Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, practice heavy lifting with CH-53K King Stallions at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Aug. 15-17, 2022.

This was the first time the Marine Corps deployed the King Stallion in an exercise. HMH-461 is a subordinate unit of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the aviation combat element of II Marine Expeditionary Force.

Video by Cpl. Adam Henke
2nd Marine Aircraft Wing