The character of war has experienced significant changes since the conclusion of the Cold War. After decades of focus on large-scale combat operations (LSCO), culminating with Operation Desert Storm, most of our current forces have trained and deployed for a counter-insurgency environment. The past two decades of conflict resulted in marked changes to the Army’s force structure and organizational design. But of all the major military changes, the character of sustainment has not yet evolved. The preferred American sustainment approach to war has long been described with the formula of “P for plenty.”
From the need for the Red Ball Express in World War II to the force’s build-up and “Moving Mountains” required for Operation Desert Storm, the United States military is a mass consumer of logistical supplies. This approach to sustainment support has generally resulted in significant demands for resource management, distribution, and large footprints on the battlefield. Regrettably, the last two decades of war have reinforced this tradition as some could argue we have become a demand-desired instead of demand-needed Army. This article will describe the characteristics of the future battlefield and offer thoughts on the sustainment approach required to enable successful operations against future adversaries.
The Army’s Chief of Staff (CSA) has provided his vision on how sustainment will support the Army’s multi-domain transformation and extend sustainment support toward the joint force by 2035. The CSA’s HQDA Paper #1 clearly states that, “By 2035, sustainment nodes will be survivable and capable of rapidly moving logistics to enable the joint force. The Army will provide the foundation for the joint force theater sustainment system that is integrated in real-time, enabled by data-informed decision making, and coupled with an anticipatory intuition for Army and joint sustainment requirements.” To meet this vision, the Army is challenged to adapt its doctrine to address the evolving nature of peer competition within a multi-domain operational (MDO) environment. A major challenge moving forward toward modernizing the Army is developing and fielding future organizations and capabilities that minimize logistical resupply requirements. This challenge is further compounded by the reality of providing sustainment support to existing legacy equipment that will be retained well into the future. Ultimately, sustaining future LSCO at increased range and speed will require a deliberate and holistic overhaul of existing expeditionary basing, distribution, and storage doctrine.
Sustainment Challenges: Time and Distance
As the U.S. Army moves well into the 21st century, it can no longer be assured of uncontested sustainment operations that benefit from protected lines of communication (LOCs) to include air superiority and uninterrupted access to permissive ports of debarkation. Strategic competitors, such as China and Russia, are deploying multiple layers of stand-off capabilities in all domains designed to prevent the U.S. military from reaching the fight. With almost ubiquitous sensors and long-range precision strike capabilities, the ability to maintain the coherence of joint and combined operations will inherently influence how military planners, especially for sustainment, develop future operations. It is reasonable to expect that future adversaries will no longer allow ground forces the time to build combat power. Instead, competitors will now employ threats throughout LOCs, beginning from home stations, industrial support, and forward to deployed forces. Existing and emerging technologies are already impacting future military operations at a rapid pace which include: swarming unmanned aircraft system (UAS) attacks, UAS surveillance and targeting, long-range precision fires, and anti-ship ballistic missiles. The increasing range of enemy systems alone will create contested LOCs, resulting in disrupted operations via lethal and non-lethal effects. Once ground forces are employed, adversaries will likely exploit these same capabilities to further restrict joint and coalition operational reach and freedom of action. These adversary actions will impede essential operational and tactical endurance by disrupting existing sustainment doctrine, composition, tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Given the aforementioned environment, the Army is presented with two fundamental challenges to sustaining the joint force: time and distance. Adversaries understand the expeditionary abilities of the U.S. military and will seek to exploit these challenges against the joint force to rapidly seize objectives before the U.S. can mount an effective response. Once conflict begins, it is expected that adversaries will attempt to globally contest the U.S. military’s ability to deploy. This action creates a stand-off to buy time to consolidate gains and de-escalate crises before U.S. expeditionary forces arrive. The reality of time and distance factors, and the corresponding time required to marshal and deploy forces into a theater cannot be resolved with technological advancement alone. Where domain superiority cannot be assured, sustainment units are required to increase their expeditionary abilities to deploy more rapidly into an area of operations than in previous conflicts. In addition, sustainment formations will be required to support operations at greater ranges, in decreased response times, and in environments with denied, degraded, intermittent, or limited network communications. To achieve this goal, reducing customer demands, improving distribution operations, improving predictive maintenance and anticipatory demand, and exploring alternative power source generation are essential.
Approaches to Solving Sustainment Challenges
The Joint Warfighting Concept and the Joint Concept for Contested Logistics (JCCL) are instrumental in solving the future operating environment’s sustainment challenges. The JCCL frames how the Army, including its support of the joint force, sustains combat operations; how the Army will organize to sustain; and what future capabilities will be needed to support future sustainment operations. This conceptual development will help inform decisions concerning the skills and attributes future sustainment leaders must possess. Insights such as these are also informing the forthcoming Army Futures Command Concept for Sustainment (AFCC-S). The AFCC-S will outline how the Army will sustain operations as part of an MDO force in 2028 and also will support the Combined Arms Center’s (CAC’s) development of FM 3-0 titled, “The Army in Multi-Domain Operations.”
Establishing required supply levels is the most basic fundamental of successful logistical support. Sustainment planning and execution must establish the minimum requirements for units of action and have the means to actively monitor their stockage levels. Tools like the Sustainment Tactical Network are attempting to pursue this monitoring capability; however, we must ensure that the information is secured—for which significant efforts remain. Anticipating needs is another critical factor in maximizing operational reach for units, which can best be accomplished when requirements are codified and understood. Operational commanders can weigh the main effort as required, but supply discipline through required supply rates, controlled supply rates, and other processes will need to be re-institutionalized. Finally, losses must be planned for, making supply placement and protection critical.
Distribution will remain an essential requirement and challenge for sustainment operations. When facing peer competitors, the Army will require more diverse, reliable, and robust distribution modes and nodes to optimize a commander’s flexibility. Additionally, a balanced force structure will also ensure the right capability at the right location—from the strategic support area to the tactical point of need—reducing demand and increasing self-sufficiency. Mobile assets with sufficient endurance will prove essential to address logistical support requirements. Once again, anticipation is a critical necessity—the means to facilitate and target sustainment pushes are being developed, but a holistic accounting is needed. Emerging capabilities are designed to diagnose and repair through redundant autonomous distribution platforms, and the diagnostic capabilities of predictive and prognostic maintenance and logistics serve as a positive example of these pursued initiatives.
As operations increase in speed and range, the Army will need to reduce the resupply demands of new and legacy equipment through critical science and technology investments. This transformational change requires a whole-of-Army approach to educate on resource usage to economize distribution requirements. The operational benefits of demand reduction are significant and include increased operational reach, improved platform and device energy efficiency and endurance, and increased lethality with less dependence on logistics overhead. Pursuing capabilities such as leader-follower initiatives may provide some solutions to these challenges.
While not the sole factor in military innovation, integrating emerging technologies into concept work is essential for improving future combat effectiveness. Because of the speed at which our adversaries exploit technological advantages, the Army must develop improvements toward incorporating and employing innovative new technologies while pursuing multiple technological improvements and anticipating threat efforts to emulate or disrupt new capabilities. Maintaining the Army’s differential advantage over competitors will require continued integration of advanced technologies with skilled Soldiers and well-trained teams.
Planners must also consider how to modernize our processes, especially how we account for and reallocate resources while in the fight. Army leaders must have a common understanding and operational picture of sustainment across the force supported by tools that provide predictable and proactive adjustments during competition, crisis, and conflict. The future Army force requires a dynamic sustainment system that can rapidly reconfigure and reallocate units, weapon platforms, services, and supplies based upon changing conditions within the joint operational area that support the operational commander’s priorities.
From Concept to Capabilities
New capability gaps and requirements will require strong analytical underpinning. This analytical underpinning generally results from well-planned and executed campaigns of learning, capability-based assessments, experimentation, and exercises. To achieve validity, future sustainment must be supported by an aggressive and sustained campaign of learning that is based on understanding the future operational environment, emerging technologies—such as artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) and autonomous systems—from both red and blue perspectives, concept development, prototyping, iterative experimentation, testing, and Soldier touchpoints. Emerging capabilities that incorporate Al/ML, autonomy, and robotics will have decisive impacts on future sustainment, especially when combined with new innovations such as synthetic biology, quantum computing, energetics, electrification, and advanced manufacturing. These factors will influence the development of new models and simulations to better understand how sustainment planners will employ and deploy future technologies to support the joint force. Project Convergence, the Army’s campaign of learning, is an excellent program that offers various opportunities to examine and learn through evaluation and testing of sustainment ideas and future capabilities. Through various learning events, experimentation, and wargames, the Army will be postured to adjust future force designs to deliver essential capabilities needed for 2035 and beyond.
Sustaining operations at speed and range will require both operations and logistics leaders to transform current sustainment planning and execution to succeed in the assessed hyperactive battlefield of the near future. Sustainment leaders and units will be challenged to reassess their ability to enable joint and coalition commanders with necessary operational reach and freedom of action, providing operational and tactical endurance. Given the unpredictable nature of the operational environment and the increased lethality of threat capabilities, supported formations will become more distributed with highly contested LOCs. Joint and Army concepts, supported by a robust learning campaign, will provide the framework for developing sustainment capabilities that operate at increased speed and range. The next step for concept development is evaluated through a series of experiments and wargames to determine those that should be incorporated into doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities solutions. Ultimately, the transformation will provide future sustainment formations the ability to conduct independent, distributed, echeloned support from extended LOCs at a pace and consistency that adversaries cannot match during competition, conflict, and crisis.
Lt. Gen. Scott McKean serves as the deputy commanding general for U.S. Army Futures Command and Director of the Futures and Concepts Center. He is a 1990 graduate of the United States Military Academy and commissioned as an Armor Officer. He is also a graduate of the Naval War College. He has served in multiple joint and combined assignments in the Indo-Pacific and Central Command areas of responsibility.
This article was published in the July-Sept 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.