Contested Logistics Environment Defined

By Maj. Jon Michael KingFebruary 1, 2024

Army Reserve Soldiers assigned to South Carolina’s 414th Transportation Company, currently deployed as part of the 3rd Division Sustainment Brigade’s Task Force Provider, depart a field logistics base for combat convoy training in Karliki,...
Army Reserve Soldiers assigned to South Carolina’s 414th Transportation Company, currently deployed as part of the 3rd Division Sustainment Brigade’s Task Force Provider, depart a field logistics base for combat convoy training in Karliki, Poland, on Dec. 28, 2023. (Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Jason Hull) VIEW ORIGINAL

As of this writing, the Army and DOD have yet to codify the terms contested logistics and contested logistics environment in doctrine. The military must define these terms to create a shared understanding and provide valuable constructs to assist military professionals in understanding where they exist within the competition continuum. Common terms allow U.S. forces to communicate within the profession easily. Moreover, senior military leaders can more easily covey these pressing concepts, which have operational and strategic implications for national security, U.S. citizens, and federal government members. Before establishing the terms in doctrine like Field Manual (FM) 1-02.1, Operational Terms, the U.S. military must evaluate how sustainment professionals currently employ these concepts. Military doctrine writers can approach the task by considering the most extreme ends of the definition and include nuanced perspectives before refining the terms to fit within current operating concepts.

On one end of the spectrum, bodies of work posit threats to supply chains, constrained resources, and austere milieu typify the contested logistics environment. This concept centers the contested logistics environment on non-ideal circumstances. Generally, authors only articulate and focus on the challenges and complexities of contested logistics. However, this method of concentrating on conditions generates two problems. Foremost, it is indistinguishable from most forms of logistics operations. Additionally, the method does not express the root cause of what makes the environment contested. The U.S. military should demarcate the definition from other terms and identify not just conditions but also the causes of the contested logistics environment.

For further elaboration, these non-ideal conditions stated within the definition can be a byproduct of anything within the operating environment and thus do not assist in differentiating the term from logistics. One could easily analyze multiple variables to identify the virtually limitless conditions hindering logistics. For instance, one could include uncontrollable force majeure effects such as adverse weather or relatively unchanging features to the physical environment like mountains, rivers, and other restrictive terrain. Professionals employing this terminology account for infrastructure and economic factors like poor road networks, short runways at airports, inadequate rail yards, and limited commercial line haul distribution capacity due to a struggling economy. Each facet poses challenges and threats to a robust and functioning supply chain necessary to sustain a fight in a multidomain large-scale combat operations environment.

However, hardship, challenges, and complexity are insufficient to distinguish contested logistics from any other form. All supply chains must overcome friction and non-ideal circumstances. Doctrine must set the term apart. If professionals define contested logistics as operating under complex and challenging conditions or within austere environments, the definition is too broad, vague, and all-encompassing. For the doctrine to ascribe the qualifier of contested to logistics operations, it must include another entity within the system to create a contest: a competitor. However, this addition is only partially beneficial because most markets have competitors. Hence, doctrine must provide not only the cause of a contested logistics environment (a competitor/adversary) but also what distinguishes a military adversary from a marketplace competitor. Doctrine can accomplish this task of delineation by describing adversarial effects, intent, or purpose.

In all marketplaces, competitors and adversaries seek to accomplish similar goals: gain and maintain a relative advantage. However, the mechanisms and methods for achieving these goals are different and noteworthy. Both groups seek this comparative advantage by posturing capabilities and resources and denying other contestants within the environment from gaining an advantage. Per FM 1-02.1, to deny is “to hinder or prevent the enemy from using terrain, space, personnel, supplies, or facilities.” Marketplace competitors and military adversaries employ techniques in various ways to accomplish this task, like renting premium land rights, purchasing required commodities, or lobbying governments to establish laws advantageous for themselves while hampering competitors. Military adversaries have other means available than simply denial techniques. Adversaries may also seek to disrupt through the integration of direct and indirect fires, terrain, and obstacles to upset formations or tempo, interrupt timetables, or cause enemy forces to commit prematurely. Additionally, an adversary can seek to destroy, rendering a force or asset incapable of achieving its objectives, something marketplace competitors may wish they had at their disposal, but an activity in which they cannot lawfully participate. These last two adversarial methods, disrupt and destroy, are what most military professionals envision when thinking of the contested logistics environment and formulate the other frequently described concept for the term.

The other contested logistics environment notion is that contested logistics occur during the conflict phase, when logistics nodes and lines of communication are targeted, generally with lethal effects. A relevant reference point for the DOD is 10 U.S. Code § 2926 - Operational energy, which describes the contested logistics environment as an “environment in which the armed forces engage in conflict with an adversary that presents challenges in all domains and directly targets logistics operations, facilities, and activities in the United States, abroad, or in transit from one location to the other.” This definition is helpful but perhaps too restrictive for the military. The term’s rendition can potentially focus professionals only on the conflict phase of the operation. The interpretation suffers from the opposite effect than the former version. Instead of being indistinguishable and so broad to the point of being useless, this definition is overly constraining to the point of stunting creative understanding of how adversaries attempt to hinder U.S. logistics operations before reaching the conflict phase of operations.

As illustrated in FM 3-0, Operations, adversaries seek to create a contested logistics environment not only in conflict but also in the competition continuum’s other broad categories. U.S. adversaries are active in the competition and crisis categories to set conditions for success in future operations, deny U.S. access, and create multiple dilemmas for U.S. military operations. Adversaries may seek to deny U.S. forces access to a port of debarkation by securing exclusive usage rights during competition before conflict occurs. Likewise, an adversary may seek opportunities during crises, disrupting U.S. sustainment networks through an electronic warfare attack during a non-combatant evacuation operation. Hence, U.S. forces must contend with the contested logistics environment throughout the military operations depicted in doctrine. Doctrine must account for these adversarial actions in each competition continuum category.

One of the more nuanced adaptations sustainment professionals employ when discussing the contested logistics environment centers on ally and partner force actions. This version of the concept asserts primary elements of contested logistics are allies and partners competing for the same resources as U.S. forces. While it is true U.S. allies and partners are expected to compete for the same resources (rail cars, commercial linehaul assets, subsistence commodities, etc.), and this competition may have a debilitating impact on U.S. forces’ ability to provide uninterrupted logistics, these factors do not make an environment contested ipso facto. This argument is akin to stating because other drivers are on the road competing for the same space, they create a contested environment in which others must operate. The reality is this is the status quo for all markets. Entities within the market almost always compete for the same resources if the resources are limited and desirable. Once again, this understanding is so broad that using ally and partner force competition as a qualifying condition makes the concept useless.

Is it essential for U.S. forces to consider the actions of allies and partners and the consequences of those actions? Certainly. Along with Army doctrine, Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Planning, describes the necessity for unified action and unity of effort to reduce the likelihood the military units, the federal government, and coalition nations will create new dilemmas based on uncoordinated decisions or desynchronized plans. However, the U.S. military should abstain from including these entities, all of which share similar objectives, as precipitating or prerequisite conditions to the concept of a contested logistics environment. These groups, along with their plans and decisions, are considerations but not the forces that create a contested logistics environment.

How can the military define contested logistics and the contested logistics environment? This article establishes the specific criteria the doctrinal definitions need to be valuable: the terms must be distinguishable from other forms of logistics; they must articulate the root cause of the conditions, namely an adversary; they must differentiate an adversary from a competitor; and they must be broad enough to consider adversary actions across the competition continuum and in multiple domains. The U.S. Code provides the U.S. military with a helpful starting point for a doctrinal definition. However, doctrine must expand the description to meet the established criteria.

The U.S. military can define the contested logistics environment as “the environment in which an adversary or competitor intentionally engages in activities or generates conditions, across any domain, to deny, disrupt, destroy, or defeat friendly force logistics operations, facilities, and activities.”

Therefore, the U.S. military can define contested logistics as “logistics that occur under conditions wherein an adversary or competitor deliberately seeks or has sought to deny, disrupt, destroy, or defeat friendly force logistics operations, facilities, and activities across any of the multiple domains.”

These proposed definitions meet the established criteria and provide value to the force. They determine conditions that differentiate the contested environment from the typical, though still challenging, logistics operating environment. These definitional conditions, foremost the activities of adversaries, constrain it enough to distinguish it from almost all other logistics operations, specifically those in the civilian sector. Additionally, FM 1-02.1’s definition of the doctrinal term defeat, “to render a force incapable of achieving its objectives,” provides a catch-all method to explain multidomain effects, such as cyber, more easily. The proposed explanations are also valuable because they are broad enough to include adversary activities and conditions across the competition continuum without outright stating those categories.

Military logisticians may still need to refine these definitions before admission into doctrine. For one, the terms ascribe adversary intentions, and intention is tough to prove. Also, the adversary actions of disrupt and destroy are tactical tasks, including direct and indirect fires. Adversaries may refrain from resorting to fires to create a contested logistics environment. Therefore, the military may eschew these terms and consider other options like older terms of harass/harassment, which do not always include fires. Older joint doctrine, like JP 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, defined harassment as actions with the primary objective to “disrupt the activities of a unit, installation, or ship, rather than to inflict serious casualties or damage.” The U.S. military should refine the proposed terminology to not only cover the broad range of adversarial actions but also to account for likely adversarial actions.

The article proposes definitions not to close the book on the subject but to provide a starting point from which the Army and joint force can develop doctrine. Sustainment professionals, warfighters, and policymakers require a common and shared understanding of logistics within a contested environment. The aim is to distinguish contested logistics activities from those of the civilian sector and military operations without an active adversary seeking to deny, disrupt, destroy, or defeat U.S. sustainment operations. Moreover, the goal is to provide enough flexibility for leaders to anticipate and account for adversary actions during all stages of the competition continuum, within all domains, and at all echelons of warfare.


Maj. Jon Michael King serves as the 16th Sustainment Brigade (SB) executive officer. He previously served as the 16th SB’s operations officer, support operations officer, and the support operations distribution integration branch chief. He holds a Master of Science in business in supply chain management from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in military operations from the Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies, Kansas.


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


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