Feeding the Forge: Sustaining Large-Scale Combat Operations

By Lt. Gen. Michael Lundy, Col. Richard Creed, and Lt. Col. Scott PenceJuly 18, 2019

Feeding the Forge
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

In sword making, a forge requires a steady supply of fuel to increase temperatures enough to bring solid metal to a malleable state. Bellows transport air to the fire, which consumes more fuel and makes the hearth burn hotter. It is a simple process, perfected centuries ago. Without a sustained supply of fuel and air, the most capable swordsmiths cannot forge metal into a worthy weapon.

Similar to a forge, the lethality, tempo, and endurance of an army is limited by its ability to sustain itself. The next "first battle" will not be lost for lack of courage. It will not be lost for lack of valor either. In actuality, the next first battle could be lost before it even begins.

Without adequate sustainment capability and capacity to sustain our maneuver formations, we are at risk of being unable to close with peer threats or face early culmination if we do. Multicorps large-scale combat operations require tens of thousands of vehicles and hundreds of thousands of

Soldiers employed across hundreds of miles. Operations under these conditions require massive amounts of fuel and ammunition, maintenance and medical care in depth, and the ability to reconstitute combat power beyond what our Army can currently provide. Scale matters, and the ability to sustain forces at scale is something only a handful of armies can do. This is not a future theoretical problem; it is a problem our Army faces today.

This article is in the wrong publication. By that we mean that its intended audience is broader than the sustainment community. Understanding sustainment, knowing how to plan for it, and making it central to operational art is the responsibility of all military professionals. Sustainment is critical to our business and, as such, is too important to be relegated to the care and concern of just one proponent of the Army. For decades there have been uninformed assertions about tooth-to-tail ratios, which do not account for the reality that the Army must sustain itself and the joint force anywhere in the world, across the range of military operations. In some ways, we have cut well past our "tail" to the point we cannot bring our "teeth" to bear on the most dangerous threats the operational environment is likely to present.

Twenty years of operations in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan coincided with institutional efforts to reduce sustainment force structure in the pursuit of efficiency.

Supporting limited contingency operations exclusively for more than a decade disguised the risks that accumulated as the reductions occurred. The relatively permissive threat environments in those theaters do not resemble the threat environment of large-scale ground combat operations (LSGCO) against peer threats.

Risks we could mitigate during limited contingency operations become untenable when the possibility of LSCO is no longer far-fetched. The bottom line is that significant reductions in sustainment force structure, mitigated by the availability of contractor support and coupled with a focus on brigade and below operations, resulted in an Army-wide lack of capability, capacity, and experience for the requirements of LSCO.


The current operational environment makes sustaining Army forces a challenging, complex problem. Our allied and partner-nation ports, which have remained reliable sources for reception, staging, onward movement, and integration, are within range of adversarial long-range fires, including chemical munitions. The most capable ports may be rendered incapable of off-loading shipments of supplies and equipment, forcing us to use different ports that result in significantly longer lines of communication.

Longer lines of communication generally require more vehicles and alternative methods of delivery. Some of the solutions could be contracted, depending upon the proximity to the forward line of troops and enemy activity, but contract support in LSCO is much less assured than it was in limited contingency operations.

Contracted sustainment plays an important role, but assuming we can contract our way to winning the next war brings high risk. A large portion of our sustainment capacity came from contracted logistics over the past 20 years through the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program.

Against a peer or near-peer enemy, contracted support vehicles are vulnerable targets. Likewise, few host-nation trucking firms will have excess capacity, at any price, available to adequately cover the scale of the sustainment requirements for large-scale combat--especially if their own national armies are fighting alongside us.

Assuming that we take operational security, camouflage, and deception activities seriously and train our forces to become experts in passive protection, our sustainers will need to keep most supply commodities mobile enough to avoid destruction. Bulk storage of commodities in centralized locations will incur significant risk, particularly at the division level and below.

Due to the reach of the adversary's indirect fires, tactical resupply missions will be done while in contact with the enemy. According to a July 2017 Popular Mechanics article by Kyle Mikokami, in 2015, a Russian-made unmanned aerial vehicle dropped a single thermite grenade on a Ukrainian ammunition supply point. The subsequent explosion destroyed nearly all of the Ukrainian multiple-rocket launcher ammunition.

While sustainment underpins all elements of operational art, it directly enables tempo, extends operational reach, and prevents early culmination. Investments in fuel and transportation capacity enable tempo during the most critical phases of operations when forces require rapid repositioning to occupy advantageous positions before the enemy does.

Extending operational reach requires a mastery of logistics science and skillful anticipation. Bold plans ungrounded in sustainment realities are generally remembered as historical debacles. During LSCO against a near-peer enemy who is looking to mass fires at long ranges, operating at reduced tempo or culminating early can quickly place the force at a critical disadvantage.

The best operational artists in history, from Alexander the Great to Gen. George S. Patton, fully understood the criticality of sustainment. The level of mobility, tempo, and operational reach required to prevail against integrated fires during LSCO requires simultaneity of operations and is only achievable with adequate transportation, maintenance, logistics, and medical support to enable flexibility, speed, and freedom of action.


Combat power may win battles, but sustainment wins wars. Throughout history, when great armies lost, inadequate sustainment was a key factor. In retired Col. Gregory Fontenot's book, The First Infantry Division and the U.S. Army Transformed: Road to Victory in Desert Storm, 1970--1991, he notes that in the Persian Gulf War "persistence and determination could do nothing to solve the problem of scarce and hard-to-deliver repair parts …. The problem reflected a systemic problem in Army logistics: parts arrived in Saudi Arabia and disappeared into a morass of storage sites."

This is not a new or novel problem. However, we can improve the organizations that manage parts flow and maintenance priorities to maximize the combat power of the force. Simply acquiring more resources is not enough to succeed. Resources must be employed by capable formations to generate the greatest return for money spent.

All Army leaders need to consider sustainment as fundamental to the combined arms approach to operational art and planning. Maneuver leaders cannot make informed decisions about operational and tactical risk without a deeply rooted appreciation for and professional understanding of sustainment. This should occur through sustainment education within each branch as well as a repetitive exposure during training events where there are penalties when culmination occurs because of poor sustainment planning and execution.

In a different era, when tracked vehicle commanders ran out of fuel during training, it was a professionally embarrassing event that could lead to administrative action. As a result, there was a strong incentive for leaders other than logisticians to pay close attention to fuel consumption, maintenance, and resupply.

Maneuver leaders grew up understanding that sustainment was their responsibility. Just as mission command is not a signaler's problem, sustaining operations to maintain tempo is not just a logistician's problem. Artillerymen need to understand controlled supply rates and movement in order to provide accurate and responsive fires. If armor and mounted infantry Soldiers do not conduct post-operations maintenance and forecast fuel requirements, they don't get to the fight, and every attack aviator is just a pedestrian without their fuel and ammunition platoon.

Due to multiple factors, sustainment tasks (fuel, maintenance, supply, personnel regeneration, and medical planning) have become less culturally ingrained into the maneuver community. "Other people" took care of those things, particularly during limited contingency operations, and everything worked out okay. The fact is other people are unlikely to be around to take care of sustainment during large-scale ground combat operations.


The revised Field Manual (FM) 4-0, Sustainment, outlines training considerations for the relentlessly lethal environment of LSCO. As the Army's capstone manual for the execution of sustainment, it is deliberately aligned with FM 3-0, Operations.

Its operational framework provides an expanded physical, virtual, cognitive, and temporal perspective to account for the multi-domain extended capabilities of friendly and enemy forces. FM 4-0 also includes critical considerations for planning and provides examples to illustrate the volume of materiel and sustainment capabilities required to maintain an expeditionary army.

As the Army modernizes to meet the challenges of LSCO, sustainment formations will change.

Expeditionary sustainment commands will be aligned with corps to enable operational-level logistics. Divisions will have sustainment brigades with tailored battalions to provide the enhanced capacity, mobility, and redundancy essential for increasing operational reach and raising culmination thresholds. These adjustments will enable the agility commanders require to seize fleeting opportunities to occupy and hold positions of advantage and consolidate gains.

Sustainment training and education must continue to increase its emphasis on LSCO-oriented curricula, historically relevant case studies, and comprehensive written and oral assessments to create deeper subject matter expertise. Sustainment leaders must develop a profound understanding of peer threat capabilities and be able to anticipate requirements in the LSCO environment.

Meanwhile, all of the centers of excellence must inculcate their leaders with a deeper understanding of sustainment planning across the range of military operations through each phase of professional military education. Logistics command and control is an interdependent and collaborative effort; it demands competent practitioners in all warfighting functions.

Reviewing the historical case studies in The Long Haul, from the Army University Press LSCO Book Set, enables leaders to understand and visualize the sustainment challenges of LSCO. The book contains 11 case studies of past sustainment operations with lessons applicable to LSCO.

Since most leader development occurs in units, commanders from every branch need to drive sustainment education and professional reading assignments. Professional development discussions on LSCO are simple ways to do so. Commander-driven leader training and development that is two levels down ensures subordinate leaders gain a broader perspective and are prepared for their next jobs. This training also identifies key self-development areas for individual leaders.

Sustaining LSCO requires cultural adaptation and evolution of our sustainment systems and organizations for a demanding operational environment. While limited contingency operations will always be with us, all Army professionals have an obligation to prepare for the unique requirements of wars against peer enemies. We cannot afford to wait until a crisis exists to prepare ourselves for what the nation expects us to do. The next first battle may be the last, and it is everybody's business to be prepared. Reigniting the forge of the American sustainment advantage is one of the most significant steps we can take to prevail in the next first battle.

Lt. Gen. Michael Lundy is the commanding general of the Combined Arms Center and the commandant of the Command and General Staff College on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He holds a master's degree in strategic studies and is a graduate of the Command and General Staff College and the Army War College.

Col. Richard Creed is the director of the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth. He holds a bachelor's degree from the United States Military Academy, a master's degree from the School of Advanced Military Studies, and a master's degree from the Army War College.

Lt. Col. Scott Pence is the executive officer to the commanding general of the Combined Arms Center. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, an MBA from Webster University, and a master's degree from the School of Advanced Military Studies.

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