The Army’s small unit tactical sustainers are ill-prepared to conduct required forward supply operations and survive in high-intensity, fast-paced, long-distance large-scale combat operations (LSCO) that could typify future great power conflict. Arguably, the last actual wartime experience in which U.S. military sustainers had to plan and support LSCO was the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, the last time the U.S. maneuvered multiple division-sized elements as fighting forces. However, Operation Iraqi Freedom I and the previous corps-sized experience in Operation Desert Storm were against non-peer enemies and conducted in a limited contested environment. The U.S. military and coalition controlled the air and sea indisputably and established massive stockpiles of supplies. This would likely not be the case in a future conflict with a near-peer or peer threat like Russia or China. The traditional domains of sea, land, and air will be highly and violently contested, affecting the ability of Army sustainers to support the maneuver of forces. These domains now include cyber, space, and information that will significantly impact sustainment and the ability to get to the theater through disruptive tracking and communication, which provide adversaries early warning.
In the opening phase of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine War, Russian forces accomplished fewer territorial gains and successes than anticipated. While multiple factors influenced this, logistics indisputably played a large role. Combat units ran out of fuel and munitions, while logistics formations suffered losses from enemy actions. Massive logistics convoys remained vulnerable and out of contact with their customers, at times stretching for miles. Ukrainian artillery, small team ambushes, air strikes, and unmanned aircraft system (UAS) attacks devastated these convoys and interrupted the resupply of forward combat elements, directly impacting the operational efforts of the Russian forces.
Practitioners and theorists can debate the semantics of where and how wars, battles, and conflicts are won, but history shows they certainly are, and always have been, a full team effort across warfighters, sustainers, and combat multipliers. Some warfighters’ supporting casts are more integral than others, while many combat multipliers provide a critical edge in battle. The combined combat arms formations do their job regardless of whether the rest of the team supports them. In an LSCO environment, where entire combat battalions face destruction in battle due to shortages of fuel or ammunition, or their supporting arms are out of munitions, the U.S. military should strive to attain victory because of sustainment support, not despite a lack of it.
Recognizing the Problem
The previous decade of irregular warfare atrophied many sustainment skills, limiting experience due to the inherent and predictable known demands of stability and security operations, the stagnant environmental influence and distances, the large-scale contracting of support, and the relatively low demand from the warfighters as compared to high-intensity conflict. A generation of sustainment community leaders came of age in this era, and the next generation joined it. For the smaller forward support elements, it is more a question of refining and honing foundational sustainment skills while instilling and crafting the ability for them to fight and survive. If the sustainers do not possess survivability and the ability to deliver the goods to the end user in a fast-paced, long-distance, and highly contested environment, then how skilled or well-planned the logistical support is matters far less in the end. The fire and maneuver forces will go without the required supplies, possibly lose some of their combat multipliers to other logistical efforts, such as aviation and reconnaissance assets, or lose combat power required for further operations to support, save, and secure their logistical elements. At the very least, it shifts focus from combat operations and, at worst, leads to culmination and operational defeat.
Protecting the Sustainers
A change in mindset and shift in paradigm is required for sustainment protection. Sustainers must be viewed, and view themselves, as direct combat forces. This does not mean they are expected to close with and destroy the enemy, but it does mean they are trained, equipped, and prepared to enter an engagement with as little outside combat power as possible dedicated to their protection. Self-protection and survivability must become an equally core competency and traditional sustainment competencies. These are legacy skills from the recent counterinsurgency conflicts but also go back to the Cold War conflicts of Korea and Vietnam, which apply in a LSCO fight.
The second step is to properly train and equip sustainers to achieve the organic internal protection and survivability required of them on the fluid LSCO battlefield as they become prioritized targets for enemy deep operations. Threats come from small ambush teams with small arms and rockets, long-range artillery fires, UASs, loitering munitions, and air strikes (rotary and fixed wing). They need dedicated convoy escort equipment to secure logistics nodes and provide security when lines of communication stretch during offensive operations. Additional improvements, possible through the incorporation of newer technologies like leader-follower, can only increase the logistics capacity by freeing personnel to provide security for self-driving supply vehicles, reducing the cost of equipment lost to long-range precision fires. As enemy air assets contest U.S. air superiority, the need to provide maneuver short-range air defense (M-SHORAD) anti-aircraft protection to counter enemy aircraft and UAS to logistics convoys increases.
This is not to say the solution is to provide multiple new detachments to sustainment units, such as their own artillery or their own combat arms for security. It is meant to provide a democratization of capability, capacity, and training to these formations to allow them to be as self-sufficient in survivability as possible, minimizing the additional assets needed to be assigned to them for protection. For example, M-SHORAD is a capability that cannot be simply given to sustainers; deliberate air defense protection would likely come from an air defense artillery (ADA) unit. However, man-portable air defense systems (MANPADSs), such as the FIM-92 Stinger missile, can be provided to sustainment units with individuals trained on their employment and use. MANPADSs do not need to be employed solely by ADA occupational specialties. Likewise, reflecting on lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq and even more so in the Vietnam conflict, convoy security does not need to be conducted by deliberate security forces such as combat arms or military police. When properly trained, manned, and equipped, sustainment units can employ gun trucks and provide their own close combat security. Importantly, this needs to be reflected in their force structure.
Rather than this being an ad hoc capability or assignment within a sustainment unit, these detachments of sustainers should be specifically trained and equipped as an organic security detail. An additional capability for consideration is the direct incorporation of UASs and loitering munitions into the sustainment formations. The sustainers need multiple reconnaissance-type small unit UASs with trained sustainers assigned to the unit as operators. These UASs would provide the sustainers with the necessary early warning to protect key nodes and convoys. Further development and research applicability for loitering munitions assigned to sustainment formations provide additional immediate, effective protection. For example, a pair of loitering munitions could be launched and programmed to circle a logistical sustainment convoy with overlapping loops creating a bubble for the traveling convoy. These munitions could be connected to a sensor on a specific vehicle in a convoy around which they base their circling patrols, continually seeking hidden ambushes and neutralizing them once identified. In addition, with the adversaries targeting friendly sustainment as a crucial vulnerability, the counter-UAS capability is also a modern warfare LSCO requirement for sustainment forces.
Suppose the sustainers and their critical sustainment nodes are not protected and cannot survive distribution to units in contact. In that case, the friendly scheme of maneuver is derailed, and operations face early culmination. Limitations on basing and operational reach are directly tied to the survivability and protection of sustainment formations and significantly impact the success of combined arms operations. Without the logistical tail, the teeth cannot continue fighting, and the difficulty and costliness of the battle are increased, with loss as a possible result.
Training the Sustainers for LSCO
In a fiscally constrained environment, maximizing available training is imperative. The sustainment community cannot create new exercises or make themselves a combat training center (CTC)-like event for themselves. First, they need the end user as part of their exercise. Without the consumer, any training, planning, or drills they do would be purely hypothetical. Too often, distribution is executed as a primarily administrative move to prevent disruption to the larger training event. Not only does the sustainment formation miss out on the tactical coordination and movement experience from that decision, but the unit they support also misses out on the struggles of coordinating actions, link-up procedures, and even impromptu support to tactical sustainment operations. The idea behind this is logistics is a component of training, not simply a supporter of training. Second, they need a vigorous, thinking, challenging opposing force that drives training experiences and the action-reaction dynamic. These circumstances are readily available in current training exercises involving fire and maneuver forces. It only takes a slight change from focusing exclusively on the maneuver and fire units’ training to also focusing on the inclusion of specifically sustainment driven training. For the sustainment community, inclusion is typically a secondary effect, functioning as a training aid to the fire and maneuver training audience. In the proposed scenario, the exercise becomes a sustainment exercise with fire and maneuver forces as the training aid. More balance in current training exercises is an easily achievable step, dependent on proper staff planning and leadership emphasis.
The blending of virtual, distributed, and live training needs to be maximized largely for the sustainment community. Combine a command post exercise for the higher headquarters sustainment command, with its broader theater injects and fluid and challenging support, to a tactical field level unit conducting a CTC rotation. Alternately, coordinate a battalion and below field training exercise that conducts actual ground training missions based on the simulations with their higher echelon command conducting a simulated, mission command-focused warfighter exercise. These are more beneficial if over long distances, adding a realism dynamic. The key is maximizing real life impacts that sustainment planners must react to, actual consumption rates, problems, and staff coordination with actual warfighters they will possibly work with in combat, rather than simulations or rehearsals and training in a vacuum separate from the interactions and dealings with actual unit staffs and demands. Extending time at the CTCs also helps pressure the sustainers in their ability to continue supporting the high tempo and demands of LSCO rather than only testing their adaptability to create short-term solutions to carry the unit through an intense but short period of operations to get to the end of the rotation.
For the reserve component, there are additional opportunities to capitalize on. The National Guard has the exportable combat training center (XCTC), which is the equivalent of a brigade combat team’s three-week field training exercise to develop platoon-level proficiencies. This incorporates outside echelons above brigade sustainment assets in a blended digital and simulated manner for the staffs to work with both the combat elements in the XCTC and to stimulate and expand experience of the brigade’s logistical elements. The National Guard also conducts Northern Strike (Camp Grayling, Michigan) and Western Strike (Camp Guernsey, Wyoming) exercises that both involve maneuver and extensive field artillery drills and training. These pose an ideal opportunity for sustainers to practice attributes and skills necessary for survival and success in large-scale ground combat. The sustainers can come from miles away, even states away, forcing their commands to manage and support a warfighter’s mass consumption and dynamic needs over long distances. From the sustainment staff to the small-unit tactical leaders, plans must account for long distances, anticipating needs, and preparing for enemy contact. These can become simulated once the sustainers make the many miles and enter the training area.
The combined National Guard and Army Reserve encompass a significant percentage of the Army’s sustainment community, and it is imperative they are trained. In many cases, they are the first units from the reserve component mobilized in support of the LSCO operational plans, due in part to the predominant percentage of the sustainment force in the reserve component but also because of the low density and high demand of certain types, such as theater opening and operating units. While still acting responsibly within the fiscal constraints, these units need to be highly trained and highly responsive. The dual-planned Defender exercises, alternately scheduled for Europe and Indo-Pacific regions, are incredible opportunities for these units. While the cost of utilizing reserve component units can be seen as a hindrance and a negative factor for their inclusion, participation in these expensive and high-profile exercises must be balanced with national defense responsibility. Participation in these large-scale multinational exercises is critical because the interoperability between the sustainment community and their interdependency with multinational allies and partners is crucial to success and must be built, facilitated, and practiced. Ruthless prioritization based on planning and logic is not only called for but demanded in a fiscally constrained and dynamic threat environment.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine demonstrates the distinct vulnerabilities of logistical sustainment in high-intensity LSCO. Russia’s losses from multidomain Ukrainian attacks provide a cautionary warning for modern ground forces. It impacted Russian logistical practice. Their lack of protection against Ukrainian multifaceted attacks stalled tactical actions, limiting commanders’ options as they ran out of fuel and munitions or replacements. The delayed tactical actions derailed larger Russian operations, upsetting critical timelines and efforts, leading to a change in strategic direction. The Army accepts significant risk if it does not improve its protection and support to the sustainment forces, with potential tactical setbacks leading to operational disruption with strategic effects. Historically, the sustainment community has proven its ability to protect itself. Even in this evolving character of war, with the proper manning, training, and equipping, the logistics community can protect itself organically, allowing for sustained combat operations. The sustainment community must be a priority for training, equipping, and fielding the latest technology and assets for survival in the multidomain fight. If not, it will not matter how effective, modernized, and trained the combat forces are if the warfighters are not sustained due to losses to the sustainment forces, and the campaign will be lost.
Maj. Michael G. Anderson is a U.S. Army infantry officer with four overseas deployments, including Afghanistan, Kuwait, and East and Central Africa. He’s a graduate of the USMC Command and Staff College and a 2022 graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida in history and political science (international relations) and a master’s degree from Norwich University in military history. He has published a dozen articles, including in the Journal of Strategic Security, Journal of Advanced Military Studies, and Military Review, and is the author of Mustering for War (Army University Press).
Capt. Megan J. Wood currently serves as the Mission Training Center-Leavenworth S-4 officer in charge and previously served as a Forward Support Company Commander. She is a U.S. Army logistics officer with two overseas deployments to Iraq. She is a graduate of the Support Operations Course at Fort Lee, Virginia, and has a bachelor’s degree from Rhode Island College in anthropology.
This article was published in the Winter 23 issue of Army Sustainment.