By Capt. Travis MichelenaFebruary 28, 2017
Throughout history, each powerful military either has learned to master logistics or has withered without it. Keen military strategists such as Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan recognized that if they cut off the supply lines, they could simply wait for the enemy to weaken or grind to a halt as the flow of logistics trickled to a stop.
Likewise, early in World War II, the German army swept across Europe with unmitigated success thanks to its strong supply lines. However, the targeted Allied bombing of German fuel storage and production facilities eventually immobilized German forces, paving the way to Allied victory. As the Germans discovered, one of the best ways to defeat a powerful combat force is to attack its support structure.
As the Army shifts its training focus from fighting counterinsurgency to combating a hybrid threat, it is increasingly important to address how the Army's logistics infrastructure, security, and training maintain the continued superiority of its combat forces.
QUESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE FIGHT
During World Wars I and II, U.S. forces had advance warning and a period of protection in which to mobilize. Facilities had years to ramp up production to support the war effort. As the wars progressed, the relative isolation of the United States kept its manufacturing resources safe. This may not be the case in the next major conflict. How long will U.S. stockpiles of materiel last? Are the nation's logistics assets ready to provide continual support across the world?
Current operational logistics training includes abundant supply that is usually within close proximity to warfighters and is provided with little regard to time, distance, priorities, repair, or limitations. This raises the following questions: Can combat leaders function with limited supply? When was the last time they did? Are U.S. forces conditioned to expect bottomless supply?
Protecting the supply lines is of the utmost importance in sustained conflicts. No amount of combat power can win a battle while it waits for fuel and ammunition.
The current Army training structure focuses on preparing the combat arms branches for conflict anywhere in the world. The first-class training facilities and personnel at the National Training Center (NTC) in California, the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana, and the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Germany do an excellent job of preparing forces for combat. However, they fail to stress logistics infrastructure or to teach vital lessons in resource management and expectations.
While there are challenges, there are no true limits on available supply, no consequences exist for losing supplies during enemy action, and support moves over hours, not days.
I propose that because our logistics system is so reliable, some combat leaders dismiss proper logistics planning and have not experienced the effects of limited or lost supply. It is vital during training to stretch logistics capabilities and allow limited disruption of the supply chain in order to reinforce proper contingency planning and resource management.
TRAINING FOR DISTANCE
Logistics systems and units are designed to move supplies over the long distances that contingency operations will likely present, yet the Army trains with logistics in relatively close proximity. During training, even long-haul assets drive just a few miles to resupply a combat sustainment support battalion (CSSB) or a brigade support battalion. The availability diminishes the need for correct tracking and reporting because resupply is never far away.
What happens when the CSSB is located hundreds of miles from the front lines and has to support several brigade combat teams, as outlined in doctrine? There is no perfect solution, but it would add training value for both the logisticians and their customers to put the CSSB and higher echelons of support much farther away.
At the NTC, the CSSB could be placed at Fort Hunter-Liggett, California. For the JRTC, locating the CSSB at Fort Hood, Texas, or Camp Shelby, Mississippi, would create distances of over 300 miles. The extended distances would benefit both the supporting and supported units because it would ensure each forecasts and validates requirements prior to logistics convoys, and it would allow convoy commanders to gain experience with complex long-distance moves.
TRAINING FOR LIMITED SUPPLY
It is hard to imagine having a lack of fuel, ammunition, or parts. From my experience as a forward support company (FSC) commander, the FSC did its best to provide as many supplies as possible. The logistics status reports sent from the supported companies were not accurate, but it did not matter that much. The FSC pushed fuel and food daily and mission configured loads of ammunition any time there was a firefight.
The FSC's Soldiers took a lot of pride in not allowing logistics to be the point of failure. However, this is not realistic and does not teach the supported company executive officers how to or why they should track their internal supplies, especially fuel.
There is value in limiting available supplies. For one, it would save thousands of dollars each exercise, but more importantly, it would give the senior leaders a supply "budget" to manage. For instance, given a limited amount of fuel and ammunition, which units have priority for the next mission? How much fuel is held in reserve? I would wager that in this scenario the senior commanders would pay more attention to logistics movements and distribution, which in turn, would result in more well-rounded leaders.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOSS
Perhaps the most important element missing in training logistics is the consequences of loss. Too often, logistics assets are soft targets with limited radio or battlefield tracking systems. Units are frequently left to defend their own convoys even though they do not have the equipment or personnel to do so. Vehicles are retrofitted with radio mounts and machine-gun ring mounts, but security has not been made a priority.
The combat battalions resist losing forward assets to defend supply routes and convoys. Logistics units are most often left to defend themselves and, for the most part, do a fine job executing missions. However, they are also left relatively undisturbed during combat training center rotations. There may be an improvised explosive device here or there, or maybe some small-arms fire, or civilians blocking the road, but the supplies never stop.
If a convoy is attacked and the observer-coach/trainer assesses that one fuel truck and one palletized load system carrying meals ready-to-eat have been destroyed, then why allow the resupply to continue to its destination? If that destruction were reality, then the logistics planners would have to work together to develop a resupply plan.
They would have to put thought into alternate routes, various start point times, and asset management. No Soldiers would starve, but they may have to eat two meals ready-to-eat that day instead of three.
The loss of fuel might require tanks to be turned off instead of idling all day or scouts to use humvees instead of Bradley fighting vehicles for reconnaissance missions. Interrupting supply chains will not stop the combat missions, but it will broaden the scope for the commanders and staff officers taking part.
The goal is to get commanders to think through all the problems, not just the combat one. There is truth to the military adage "amateurs talk tactics, while professionals talk logistics," but we continue to ignore the potential weaknesses in our support structure.
In the current structured training scenarios, the supply flow is not touched for fear that it will interrupt the combat training. Disruption is exactly what will happen, but when properly administered, it will have positive training value for both logistics and combat leaders.
History implores us to train, build, and protect the tail of the tiger as much as we do the teeth, and it is imperative that we do not wait. While both offensive and defensive tactics and technology perpetually seek to counter one another, logistics remains the true linchpin in victory or defeat.
Capt. Travis Michelena is a senior observer-coach/trainer and the Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander for the 181st Multifunctional Training Brigade at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. He is currently completing his master's degree in emergency management through Arizona State University.
This article was published in the March-April 2017 issue of Army Sustainment magazine.