Training for decisive action is the perfect place to focus on sharpening the spearhead of logistics. After 12 years of materiel-focused counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, tactical transportation must regain its former relevance.

The time and intensity of training devoted to COIN has left company- and field-grade logisticians with deficits in decisive action planning, simulated experience, and combat events. The community is at risk of losing the ability and expertise to support the demands of distribution-focused decisive action.

Visionary leaders must deconstruct the differences between COIN and decisive action and resolve to visualize future fights differently. Leaders in decisive action must visualize distribution as a targeted battlefield effect instead of a requested service or commodity. This paradigm shift is significant; it places enormous emphasis on directed distribution at the outset of major combat operations. The new paradigm will inform and influence the future of all tactical sustainment formations

During a presentation to Pre-Command Course students at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, then the commanding general of the Forces Command, suggested that leaders at every level should "know what they are for." Reflecting on this, there are two key questions leaders should ask themselves. The first is a function of purpose. Why does your unit exist? The second is a function of resolve. What are your values, and how will you inculcate them into the unit ethos?

Likewise, logisticians at every level should consider what tactical transportation is for. What is the purpose of tactical distribution, and how is it different from distribution at the operational or strategic levels of war? Warfighter Exercise (WFX) 17-04 provided an opportunity to reflect upon operational-level distribution during decisive action and led to two conclusions about purpose and resolve. Tactical distribution exists to anticipate (and then set) sustainment conditions to maintain operational reach and endurance for maneuver units.

Our ethos as sustainment leaders must be to visualize these conditions and lead our profession toward developing more agile, lethal, junior leaders. Visionary leaders will resolve to develop their formations differently. Sustainment in decisive action is not the same as it was in a COIN environment. It begins with challenging assumptions. This article revises the reactive movement request process in favor of a proactive, targeted (top-down, often directed) distribution system that focuses commanders on their planning horizons.

The 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC) identified and validated a way to target distribution 96 hours ahead of execution during decisive action WFX 17-04. This method identified the differences between critical sustainment vulnerabilities in COIN and decisive action.


COIN operations are materiel-focused. A force that executes missions from fixed facilities at low intensity for years at a time is rightly focused on maintaining and modernizing equipment and tactics to match the threat.

Decisive action is a distribution fight. A mobile maneuver force compels enemy action through forward fire and maneuver. The sustainment force fights a battle against time, distance, and enemy units across an enormous rear area.

To accommodate the size of the rear area, the 593rd ESC's distribution targeting system visualized four dimensions of distribution: the supply point, unit distribution, aerial distribution, and special purpose distribution. (See figure 1.) Air Force air-land and air-drop options are available as primary or redundant delivery methods, depending on the type of item and the delivery location.

These dimensions do not distinguish who executes distribution. Contracted unit distribution is nested under the same umbrella because it may achieve the same tactical and operational effects.

Distribution is an effectiveness model at the tactical level and an efficiency model at the strategic level. Tactical distribution relies on some amount of waste, either in conveyances or in time, to deliver operational reach. Logisticians are willing to over-deliver in order to ensure that units always have some remaining capability.

In contrast, strategic transportation units (for example, from the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command and the U.S. Transportation Command) operate under an efficiency model in a working capital arrangement. Requests generate missions on the behalf of units, and those units pay for the services they receive.

Applying a strategic efficiency paradigm to a tactical or operational unit can be very damaging. Those units exist to enable operational reach and prolong endurance and must anticipate maneuver needs before those needs create emergencies.

Tactical units cannot live in the strategic space where distribution reacts to a request for support. In order to be anticipatory (planning ahead of a maneuver unit) and responsive (altering volume, speed, or conveyance to suit maneuver requirements), distribution at the tactical level must be a battlefield effect.

Targeted distribution requires that the concept of distribution include a prioritized, integrated, and redundant mix of multimodal emergency, unit-scheduled, and directed deliveries.


Figure 2 highlights how the paradigm shift to targeted distribution affected execution during WFX 17-04. At the outset of the exercise, unit requests for distribution fell far below the staff estimates for unit requirements. In short, operational-level distribution assets were asked to deliver far less than what maneuver units would actually require.

Without targeting distribution to exceed staff estimates, the 593rd ESC staff expected that vehicle utilization would decline while the number of emergency requests would skyrocket as units made more consistent contact with the enemy.

To mitigate this, the 593rd ESC put its 96-hour distribution targeting cycle in place. The 96-hour distribution targeting cycle models that of the Air Force air delivery cycle. This method projects the requirements of the maneuver force based on the maneuver commander's intent and key tasks. Moves are scheduled and directed without specific requests.

As shown in figure 2, targeted distribution shrinks the number of emergency requests because higher level staffs anticipate maneuver requirements at the macro level. In the absence of consistent demand, the ESC support operations officer directed movements based upon aggregate tonnage requirements for each class of supply. This system increased vehicle use and assisted maneuver division and sustainment brigade staffs with planning future distribution missions.

Targeted distribution places additional stress on staffs; it isn't a cure-all for weak staff work at any level. The goal of targeted distribution is to provide top-down direction only until subordinate supporting units have firm and consistent demand histories from their supported units. Consistent consumption data allows both senior and subordinate staffs to adjust their estimates for future deliveries.


The start of a decisive action exercise, whether simulated or not, bears a strong resemblance to transitioning to actual phase III major combat operations. In both cases, the absence of consistent consumption data places tactical units at risk. Under-delivery may cause a shockwave for the remainder of phase III; once behind schedule, the distribution network may be unable to catch up with actual demand.

While there are several tools for estimating consumption, the Operational Logistics Planner, the Logistics Estimation Workbook, and the Quick Logistics Estimation Tool share the same limitations. They vary widely among each other, depend greatly on the veracity of the inputs, and rely heavily on historical data.

Peer-level decisive action in armored formations has not occurred in 70 years, and comparing or extrapolating decisive action consumption rates from a more or less static COIN environment would be like comparing apples to oranges. This presents two challenges. First, the data used to build the estimating tool may not be accurate. Second, two units using different tools will arrive at different estimates, which may result in informational fratricide.

Acknowledging those challenges, the best way to target distribution at the outset of phase III is to settle on a single estimating tool during collaborative planning and to develop directed movements of cargo based upon a single source of data.


The initial 96-hour distribution schedule is a collaborative effort. After commanders have chosen their courses of action for maneuver and sustainment, planners from higher and lower echelons must begin the process of building the first 96 hours of distribution. Done correctly, every convoy is allocated against a commodity and the movement control battalion planners can use the schedule to confirm the highway regulation plan.

Completing this schedule before publishing the operation order gives tactical units the rest of the planning time to adjust schedules for threats and access to combat support enablers. This system does not work in a vacuum. At a minimum, collaborative work requires a shared distribution picture from the outset.

Visualizing how to implement the distribution targeting system, as well as how a unit will make distribution decisions and set future priorities, determines the unit's distribution success. Figure 3 describes how the 593rd ESC deconstructed the next 96 hours of sustainment planning and distribution execution. The figure's waterfall effect highlights that a new distribution tasking order (DTO) is published each day to add to and modify the next 96 hours of distribution. The yellow box denotes the day of transition to phase III, or the start of an exercise, and shares the same day codes that the Air Force uses for the air tasking order (ATO) cycle.

Each of the blocks is separated into air, sea, and land transportation modes. Each box describes unit actions for planning and executing distribution. Using the land area as an example, units would execute missions planned for today, load vehicles for missions planned for tomorrow, allocate vehicles against planned and directed missions for day three, and so forth. The ATO cycle is relatively consistent, but the vessel visualization is not. The vessel model, which begins on April 4 in the figure, was specifically built for WFX 17-04, which used Caspian Sea geography.

The bottom of figure 3 shows the critical path of staff actions that end with a published DTO for the next 96 hours. This model amalgamates the outputs of all of the warfighting function working groups. The data provided from units to the ESC during the mobility working group adjusts scheduled missions and projects new missions out through the next 96 hours.

Ideally, units would add missions four days ahead of schedule, and few other changes would be required. The mobility section takes the draft DTO and receives information and analysis from the protection and maintenance working groups that the ESC commander may require to make informed decisions.

The distribution targeting cycle provided a way to graphically depict a single maneuver-focused picture of distribution during the distribution management board (DMB) and joint movements board (JMB). In the 593rd ESC model, the targeting cycle is 96 hours. A slide highlighting past deliveries (as confirmation), current missions (as information), and future targets (for affirmation) was used during the DMB and JMB to inform maneuver leaders on the broad spectrum of items and classes of supply. This slide was used as a planning tool during the military decisionmaking process and as an accountability tool during execution.

Providing higher and lower staffs with a common view of distribution priorities enabled a succinct review of whether the ESC was setting the right targets at the right time in the right order. Perhaps more importantly, it highlighted how effectively the ESC staff estimated and targeted sustainment for the future maneuver fight.

The JMB was the commander's opportunity to approve the DTO. The G-3 then reviewed and published the approved DTO through the operations synchronization meeting each evening.

Targeted distribution is a key task in any decisive action environment. The length of the targeting cycle should extend beyond two delivery cycles so that commanders can visualize the difference between allocating vehicles, planning missions, and projecting requirements.

The 593rd ESC's method for targeting specific items and classes of supply is a best practice discovered during planning and validated through decisive action at WFX 17-04. Other units with different mission sets could easily adapt this method to accommodate longer or shorter delivery cycles.

The goal is to closely match the DTO with the ATO in terms of planning horizons and predictability. The DTO reduces the need for emergency resupply missions by creating a process for a higher headquarters to direct movements in advance of requirements. Additionally, this arrangement supports a highway regulation plan by equalizing vehicle use.

By visualizing distribution as a proactive effect, rather than a reactive commodity, tactical- and operational-level logistics is better synchronized. Using this method drives data that can validate or sharpen current staff estimating tools and better sustains operational reach for maneuver forces in decisive action.

Maj. Daniel J. N. Belzer is the executive officer of the 308th Brigade Support Battalion, 17th Fires Brigade. He was previously the lead support operations planner for Warfighter Exercise 17-04 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the Virginia Military Institute and a master's degree in supply chain management from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a graduate of the Red Team, National Security Policy, and Theater Logistics courses.

Brig. Gen. Jack Haley, Col. Dennis Kerwood, retired Col. Dave Saffold, Capt. Jon-Michael King, and many other members of the 593rd ESC contributed to this article.
This article is an Army Sustainment product.