Compressing the Spring: How III Armored Corps Sustains Large-Scale Combat Operations

By Maj. Jeffrey D. HorningFebruary 1, 2024

(Photo Credit: Sarah Lancia) VIEW ORIGINAL

"The line between disorder and order lies in logistics." - Sun Tzu

Early in the military decision-making process (MDMP) for Warfighter Exercise (WFX) 23-4, Lt. Gen. Sean C. Bernabe, commander of III Armored Corps (IIIAC), provided his intent. As a key task, Bernabe directed the staff to spring-load the corps. He described spring-loading as a warfighting function agnostic concept that physically and mentally maximizes operational reach and enables corps endurance through the depth of an operation. This non-doctrinal concept rapidly subsumed the collective conscience of the IIIAC sustainment enterprise as the staff sought to understand and implement the tactics and techniques required to achieve operational success.

What is Spring-Loading?

In implementation, spring-loading is the physical, temporal, and mental conditions set by a higher command, enabling subordinate units to advance rapidly and conserve as much energy as possible prior to enemy contact. Think of a spring rapidly expanding and pushing a force on the battlefield as it is launched forward. Physically, sustainment units spring-load a supported unit by posturing rear-echelon sustainment forward, task-organizing critical capabilities to the supported unit, and providing throughput distribution at decisive points. Temporally, the higher command spring-loads through deliberate synchronization of efforts, including absorption of subordinate rear areas as the forward line of troops advances. Mentally, spring-loading is an established mindset where commanders and their staffs always press harder, faster, or further to beat an enemy to the decisive point and achieve a position of relative advantage.

Critical to the spring-load concept is recompressing the spring. A command must continuously seek to recompress to maintain tempo, maximize endurance, and prevent culmination. As a force loses momentum, the higher echelon recompresses and propels the force forward once more. The absorption of rear areas is part of recompression, enabling subordinates to remain forward-focused. Commands must continuously shift sustainment forward on the battlefield and remain tightly linked with subordinate commands, shortening their lines of communication (LOCs) and accepting (and mitigating) risk with survivability and precision. Successful spring-loading maximizes a force’s endurance and provides commanders at echelon with agile options to achieve success.

Spring-Loading in Doctrine

Spring-loading is non-doctrinal, but the concept is grounded in the Army’s capstone doctrine, Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations, and the in-revision FM 4-0, Sustainment Operations. Within doctrine, spring-loading is a sustainment-centric effort to describe maximizing operational reach to prolong endurance. FM 4-0 defines operational reach as the “distance and duration across which a joint force can successfully employ military capabilities.” Operational reach provides a spatial and temporal measure for the sustainment enterprise to gauge capacity at echelon. Spring-loading increases capacity and forward positions capacity while synchronizing efforts, enabling units to fight deeper across the battlefield.

Maximizing operational reach is half the problem; units must also maximize endurance. FM 3-0 defines endurance as “the ability to persevere over time throughout the depth of an operational environment.” While spring-loading sets conditions for initial operational reach, recompressing the spring enables a force to extend the endurance of its operations through the operational environment (OE).

Maximizing Operational Reach

During WFX 23-4, IIIAC maximized operational reach through several methods. Through mission analysis, IIIAC identified critical capability gaps and task-organized key transportation systems to increase capacity at forward echelons. IIIAC ensured corps and division capacity remained at maximum capacity upon initiating the ground offensive by coordinating throughput distribution from the 21st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC). Combined, these efforts set the spring for IIIAC’s forces to seize the initiative from the enemy and maneuver to positions of relative advantage.

Mission-Oriented Sustainment Task Organization

IIIAC required divisions to maneuver farther in this OE than in any recent operation, driving an increased need for forward haul capacity and critical distribution assets. The 13th Armored Corps Sustainment Command (13th ACSC) provided 1st Armored Division (1AD) and 1st Cavalry Division (1CD) operational control (OPCON) of a 5k-gallon fuel distribution platoon and a palletized load system (PLS) platoon, thereby increasing division capacity by 150k gallons of fuel distribution and 30 PLS systems. In turn, 1AD and 1CD attached these capabilities to their distribution companies. The 13th ACSC also established a fires support logistics detachment to support the two field artillery brigades (FABs), providing OPCON to the force field artillery headquarters (75th FAB). The fires support logistics detachment consisted of a PLS platoon, medium tactical vehicle platoon, 60k gallons in fuel distribution, 20k gallons in water distribution, and recovery capabilities to fill capability gaps within its brigade support battalion, enabling the FAB to carry an additional basic load of critical rocket munitions.

Providing capacity to forward echelons is only useful if the capacity is filled. IIIAC provided all stockages of critical Class V rocket munitions to the FABs and divisions, leaving nothing in reserve with the ACSC. Additionally, IIIAC continuously pursued support from the enterprise to provide more than the controlled supply rate of munitions, enabling subordinate commanders to manage available stocks without constraint. Commanders understood on-hand stocks equaled available stocks and leveraged them accordingly.

As part of MDMP, corps planners coordinated with the ACSC to manage command and control of the significant sustainment assets available. Through MDMP, the 13th ACSC tasks were organized into two mission-oriented sustainment brigades. The first focused on general support (GS) within the corps support area (CSA) using supply point distribution, and the second focused on direct and reinforcing support to the divisions through unit distribution and throughput. The GS sustainment brigade maintained distribution capacity to support the separate brigades, which was critical to rapidly position assets forward as the corps’ rear area expanded. The direct support/reinforcing support sustainment brigade consisted of predominantly transportation assets conducting transfers between stocks held at the GS brigade and the supported divisions.

Throughput Distribution

IIIAC coordinated with 21st TSC for throughput distribution of fuel. IIIAC recognized maximum endurance can only be achieved if all corps and below assets complete a forward passage of lines (FPOL) at 100% of uploaded Class III capacity. The 21st TSC’s critical support to this effort included fuel system supply point (FSSP) bags delivered and filled at divisional tactical assembly areas (TAAs) and throughput to each brigade combat team as they passed through Polish II Corps.

Leveraging 21st TSC fuel bags at the TAA enabled division assets to remain uploaded while they drew from the TSC bags. Once the divisions completed FPOL, the bags were returned to 21st TSC for use at future CSA nodes. Similarly, throughput from 21st TSC at FPOL enabled divisions’ and corps’ assets to cross the line of departure at max capacity, adding critical hours to their endurance as they raced northward. While establishing the various CSA nodes, the TSC throughput to the FSSPs provided the direct support/reinforcing support sustainment brigade with the freedom to focus on unit distribution to the divisions.

Prolonging Endurance

Endurance’s focus on operations over time through depth requires sustainment forces to recompress the spring repeatedly or face culmination. To prevent culmination, the corps rear must continuously expand forward to reduce the division rear area and enable divisions to remain maneuver-focused. Support areas must remain agile, redundant, and non-contiguous to ensure survivability against enemy precision fires. Lastly, planners must identify opportunities to seize and leverage critical infrastructure to enable shortened LOCs. Successful execution of these efforts will prolong endurance and enable forces to recompress the spring continuously.

Multi-Nodal Echeloned Sustainment

During WFX 23-4, IIIAC developed an agile sustainment plan for spring-loaded distribution from a multi-nodal CSA cluster. IIIAC planned five purpose-built CSA nodes throughout the area of operations (AO). Up to four nodes would be open anytime, though the scope and purpose would adjust throughout the operation. IIIAC planned two forward logistics elements (FLEs) oriented toward each U.S. division to expand the nodes’ reach.

In execution, IIIAC leveraged a C-130 airfield within Poland (CSA 1) for the initial reception of personnel and equipment, then rapidly expanded to a standard gauge intermodal terminal just across the Lithuanian border (CSA 2). CSA 2 enabled 21st TSC to throughput directly to the furthest forward standard gauge rail terminal, shortening ground LOCs by three hours one way. The intermodal terminal became the primary logistics hub in Lithuania during the early phases of the operation.

As divisions expanded north, 13th ACSC established FLEs in the 1CD and 1AD AOs, focused on forward positioning sustainment and relieving divisions of the growing LOCs. As IIIAC established a hasty defense, these temporary FLEs became semi-permanent CSA nodes (CSA 3 and 4) focused on sustaining the division fight. Centered on critical road junctions, these sites enabled forward positioning of corps sustainment assets tucked within the division rear.

As the Air Force completed an assessment of a critical C-17 capable airfield, the 13th ACSC established the last CSA node (CSA 5), immediately receiving C-130 and C-17 resupply from this forward location. Had operations continued, the former FLE sites would have collapsed into a further forward node (CSA 6), enabling IIIAC to leverage a C-5 capable airfield, broad gauge intermodal terminal, and critical main supply route junction in central Lithuania.

IIIAC’s nodal construct enabled the sustainment enterprise to remain agile to the needs on the battlefield at risk of an ever-expanding rear area. Divisions were relieved of looking rearward as the corps remained tucked in behind their formations, pushing them forward with overwhelming sustainment capacity. While each node was purpose-built, they remained multifunctional, and their forward presence enabled both division endurance and corps consolidation of gains.

Survivability Leveraging Fires Doctrine

The multi-nodal construct successfully supported IIIAC’s operations, but the forward positioning created significant risk in the face of enemy precision fires. As mitigation, IIIAC adopted a field artillery concept to enable sustainment survivability. Per FM 3-09, Fire Support and Field Artillery Operations, in field artillery terminology, the position area for artillery (PAA) is “an area assigned to an artillery unit where individual artillery systems can maneuver to increase their survivability.” The PAA enables an artillery force to fire and then maneuver before enemy counterbattery fire arrives. IIIAC and 13th ACSC modified this concept for sustainment, creating the position area for sustainment (PAS).

The PAS became the battlefield framework sustainment component that enabled divisions to become unencumbered from managing large rear areas. Essentially, the PAS is a geographic area within which a tailorable FLE conducts survivability moves. The PAS enables an FLE to cache assets for pre-coordinated use while critical assets, personnel, and mobile equipment remain in a survivable location.

In a multidomain fight, sustainment will always be under surveillance, and the PAS provides some mitigation to the pattern-forming habits of sustainment operations. The PAS can be used between subordinates and the FLE or internal to a single echelon. For example, the PAS may have four pre-identified logistics release points (LRPs) that may or may not have equipment. These LRPs are unmanned, unsecured, and essentially sitting in a cold status. Two units coordinate to change an LRP’s status within the PAS to hot and meet at that location to conduct distribution. After the resupply is complete, they return to their separate locations.

Suppose the enemy continues watching that LRP; it may be days before those units use that location again. Instead, they are leveraging the other LRPs within the PAS. Intelligence collection becomes resource-intensive for the enemy as they have multiple locations to collect on. Additionally, targeting becomes less effective due to the smaller scope of each LRP within the PAS. A single PAS may contain a full FSSP, but each LRP only has a 50k bag with the pump held separately with the personnel. If the enemy does target an LRP, loss of personnel and assets would be minimal compared to a strike on a standard corps support/division support area, and the enemy would have exposed a critical fires asset to friendly counterbattery fire.

Organizing and Training the Spring

During LSCO, commanders must organize their forces to increase capacity at echelon. The corps cannot simply meet subordinate requirements; they must exceed them to enable compression of the spring. Mission dictates the specific assets, but the corps must task-organize divisions with the capacity for a full day of supply of every commodity in a single lift. As demonstrated by the fires support logistics detachment, the FAB requires organic lift capacity to enable agile positioning of Class V. Lastly, companies within the corps sustainment command must organize for multifunctional operations. The Army should develop a composite logistics company akin to the composite supply and composite truck companies, which would be distribution-focused with multifunctional assets capable of operating as FLEs across multiple PASs. Regardless, the Army must develop a multifunctional company-level solution to enable sustainment survivability across a dispersed environment.

Spring-loading introduces complexity, and commanders must train to simplify the concepts described here. Sustainment forces must be capable of cross-boundary communication and rapid relocation during phase transitions. The corps sustainment command must train with division sustainment brigades to build relationships and streamline operations within the division rear area. Survivability demands the base cluster become the norm for sustainment operations. Lastly, sustainers must train as a task-organized force, including Compo 2 and 3 partners, when available, to build resilience to the inherent friction of multifunctional operations.


Multidomain operations require experimental solutions to rapidly changing problems, or else the Army faces outpacing by its competitors. IIIAC developed the concept of spring-loading to solve one of these problems: how does the corps maximize operational reach and prolong endurance across a multidomain contested OE? Mission-oriented task organization, throughput distribution, multi-nodal support areas, and the advent of the PAS combined to set and recompress the spring throughout WFX 23-4. The spring-load concept enabled divisions to advance over 150 kilometers in under two days before enemy resistance forced a hasty defense.

Sustainers at echelon should consider and replicate these radical and non-doctrinal efforts to determine their feasibility for inclusion in future sustainment doctrine: continue to task organize forward and enhance subordinate capacity, distribute sustainment across multiple tailored and agile nodes, leverage the capabilities of higher echelon sustainment forces to maintain forward capacity, and ensure survivability through use of the PAS and mobile LRPs. Through continued anticipation and improvisation, sustainers can keep pace with their maneuver counterparts and ensure supported commanders have the endurance to achieve victory.


Maj. Jeffrey D. Horning currently serves as the 553d Division Sustainment Support Battalion support operations officer. He previously served as the III Armored Corps sustainment plans officer at Fort Cavazos, Texas. Commissioned to the Army Quartermaster Corps in 2011, his formal education includes a Master of Business in supply chain management from the University of Kansas. He has completed the Theater Sustainment Planners Program and is a distinguished graduate of the Command and General Staff Officer’s Course.


This article was published in the Winter 2024 issue of Army Sustainment.


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