After 20 years of entrenched counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism fights, every service is conducting an operational overhaul reorienting towards large-scale conflict against a near-peer threat. The Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force tactics and technology require significant revamp from the permanent basing, air superiority, and uncontested logistics we enjoyed for most of the Global War on Terror. One major emerging theme is a switch to decentralized operations to offset new adversarial deep-strike capabilities despite our different approaches.
In December 2021, the Air Force published Doctrine Note (AFDN) 1-21, outlining their new Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept. From AFDN 1-21, “… ACE shifts operations from centralized physical infrastructures to a network of smaller, dispersed locations that can complicate adversary planning and provide more options for joint force commanders.” This concept is not unique to the Air Force, but the logistical challenges, specifically transportation, associated with decentralized operations for the Air Force are unique.
The ACE concept attempts to address main operating bases (MOB) vulnerabilities by dispersing small amounts of aircraft and associated support personnel to airfields across the area of operations for short durations. However, one of the main logistical shortfalls is the lack of organic Air Force transportation assets to move support packages between the MOB to a contingency landing site. In addition to the initial support package, decentralized sites may require additional Class III, V, or IX deliveries, depending on the length of stay. AFDN 1-21 recognizes that this level of decentralization and associated transportation requirements have never been within their organic capability. As such, they have highlighted the sustainment core element as a joint function.
ACE sustainment requirements will have to be theater specific to fit the unique challenges and assets of the region. Specific to U.S. European Command (EUCOM), the Army could use the extensive land networks in Europe and provide rapid response transportation assets to make ACE a reality. ACE operations are currently delegated to wing commanders (O-6 command). The average wheeled transportation availability for the command is somewhere below 15 platforms total, which will be expected to support the distributed operations and the MOB. These assets are likely barely enough to handle transportation requirements on the base, let alone assisting in force projection.
Based on their EUCOM requirements, Army Transportation can assist with a combat sustainment support battalion (CSSB) with transportation platforms and traffic management assets. An example construct and command relationship could consist of two composite truck companies (CTC) (Light), one support maintenance company (SMC), and a movement control team (MCT) aligned under the 21st Theater Sustainment Command and tactical control to 3rd Air Force. The CTCs have cargo-carrying capabilities, the SMC provides maintenance support to the wheeled vehicle fleet, and the MCT will coordinate and manage transportation support for the movements. If we transition to large-scale conflict, CTCs also come with organic security to protect the logistics convoys traveling between airfields. For an even more modular approach, the aligned CSSB could generate forward logistics elements tailor-made to provide the movement coordination and platforms for a wing commander to execute ACE operations. At the same time, the maintenance assets remain centrally located. ACE is still a new concept, and the exact transportation requirements will differ depending on the aircraft manifest, airfield capabilities, and duration of stay.
Before committing to support, the Army has opportunities to test this support model at a version of the Rapid Forge exercise the Air Force conducted in 2019 where, in addition to multinational interoperability tests, members of the 4th Fighter Wing set up austere command and control and maintenance assets to practice decentralized operations. A good secondary option is designing one of the several annual Red Flag exercises held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to test whether this Army structure is an efficient fit for their transportation needs.
Assuming this model is taken to the operational phase in EUCOM, the Army stands to gain considerable experience through coordinating and executing transportation missions using both organic and host capabilities on multinational routes. In addition to operational experience, our sustainment units can begin understanding the types of international support and cooperative agreements necessary to streamline coalition logistics during large-scale combat operations. Whether this model runs for one deployment or many, the lessons learned could be valuable insights that save time, effort, and lives if we are forced to fight in Europe again.
Maj. Bradley Mejean is currently a Joint All Domain Strategist student at the Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He was commissioned into the Transportation Corps in 2011. He has completed assignments in the 1st Cavalry at Fort Hood, Texas, and the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
This article was published in the Spring 2022 issue of Army Sustainment.