Contested logistics is gaining traction across the DOD, specifically in the Indo-Pacific theater, as the threat of conflict with strategic competitors seems likely in the foreseeable future. Due to its geography and contested environment, the Indo-Pacific theater presents one of the most complex problem sets for the joint force and its unified action partners. The theater is home to more than half of the world’s population and covers half the earth’s surface, comprising archipelagos, oceans, and seas. Near-peer competitors like China and Russia reside in the region, which makes the Indo-Pacific the priority theater for the DOD.
Leaders and organizations across the DOD are focused on the Indo-Pacific and working to address the challenges posed by contested logistics. Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth addressed the logistics and sustainment challenges in the Indo-Pacific theater at the 2022 Association of the United States Army conference. Wormuth tasked the joint logistics enterprise (JLEnt) and commercial industry with capitalizing on emerging technologies to enhance logistics capabilities across the region. Wormuth also tasked Army Material Command with leading efforts at the strategic and operational levels. In addition, Army Futures Command was tasked with establishing a cross-functional team to focus on contested logistics. As near-peer competitors continue to expand military capabilities and regional influence, mitigating the challenges of contested logistics will determine the success of future operations in the Indo-Pacific. Addressing contested logistics increases military readiness, enables strategic advantage, and provides operational flexibility during large-scale multidomain operations. Operations and logistics are intrinsically linked.
Contested logistics is not a new phenomenon; logistics has always been contested. However, growing technological advancements continue to create dilemmas in executing logistics operations globally. Innovations like artificial intelligence, autonomy, and machine learning are changing logistics operations. In the Indo-Pacific region, logistics operations will be challenged by the proliferation of advanced anti-access/area-denial capabilities, increasing cyber threats, disrupted supply chains, and constrained resources. Addressing and mitigating the challenges posed by contested logistics in the region is a joint multinational effort. This challenge will demand the unified action of the JLEnt, joint force, allies and partners, and host nations. A conflict in the Indo-Pacific region will call for logistics to be delivered at speed and scale regardless of the contested environment. Contested logistics in the Indo-Pacific must be addressed using a whole-of-government approach focused on partnership, presence, posture, and interoperability.
Access, Presence, and Posture
Contested logistics in the Indo-Pacific requires partnerships that enable access, presence, and posture throughout the theater. The Indo-Pacific Strategy of 2022 calls for increased partner capacity within and beyond the region. The U.S. has longstanding relationships with countries like Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. As a result, the joint force has access, presence, and posture in each of these countries. There are 40 countries within the Indo-Pacific, and diplomacy must continue across the region to set conditions for competition, crisis, and conflict. Within the region, the State Department is the lead for diplomatic efforts, including diplomatic engagements, economic development, security cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges. Building partner capacity throughout the region is vital to countering contested logistics and increasing the logistic capabilities of joint multinational forces. However, country access is first needed to build partner capacity within the region.
The first step in addressing contested logistics in the Indo-Pacific region is gaining access during competition. Joint force access is needed across the region to build partner capacity, mitigate the tyranny of distance, establish sustainment posture, and enable a distributed sustainment network. Country access throughout the region facilitates the establishment of logistics nodes. These logistics nodes enable multidomain joint force operations’ operational reach and prolonged endurance. Logistics nodes can only be established upon the approval of host nation country access, achieved through host nation agreements established through the State Department. Three agreements that enable access, enhance interoperability, and streamline logistics support during military operations include:
- Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA)
- Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)
- Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA)
An MLSA enables mutual logistic support, supplies, and services during military operations. A SOFA establishes the legal status and rights of military personnel deployed in a host country and addresses logistics. Finally, an ACSA enables the exchange of goods and services during military operations and exercises. It is important to note each agreement is unique and increases joint multinational logistics capabilities within the region. Access across the region is essential to addressing contested logistics in the Indo-Pacific. Initial access enables presence and posture across the theater.
Presence within the Indo-Pacific region prepares joint multinational forces to operate in a contested logistics environment. Joint force presence throughout theater is a deterrent effect that demonstrates joint readiness. Persistent presence in the region through campaigns like Operation Pathways enables human and procedural sustainment interoperability among the joint force, allies and partners, and host nations. Rehearsing joint multinational sustainment operations through annual and bi-annual exercises sets conditions for crisis and conflict. Furthermore, executing these exercises provides opportunities for the JLEnt to execute joint planning and rehearse concepts to counter contested logistics through experimentation. Most importantly, joint force presence within the region facilitates future posture initiatives, which is critical to setting the theater.
Posture is key in addressing the challenges associated with contested logistics in the Indo-Pacific. Pre-positioning supplies and equipment during competition reduces the demand required to maintain supply lines over long distances, reduces response time, and increases the efficiency of logistics operations during crises and conflicts. In addition, pre-positioned stocks serve as a deterrent effect, illustrating joint readiness to potential adversaries within the region. Posture initiatives like the forward positioning of pre-positioned stocks enable decentralized logistics through a distributed sustainment network. The benefits of pre-positioning logistics in the Indo-Pacific to counter a future contested logistics environment outweigh the risks. However, every posture decision must be assessed due to the possible escalation of tensions, perception of threat, and fiscal requirements.
Sustaining conflict in a contested logistics environment requires interoperability among allies and partners, host nations, and the joint force. Interoperability is required to strengthen relationships with regional partners and execute joint multinational exercises. Interoperability is not easy to achieve; it occurs over time and is needed in multiple domains, including the technical, human, and procedural domains. As mentioned previously, human and procedural interoperability is achieved through security cooperation activities and joint multinational exercises over time. The importance of technical interoperability is often overshadowed by the need for human interoperability. However, technical interoperability is an important aspect of logistics operations in a contested environment.
Logistics is a data-centric operation involving the processing of data into information. This data is later used to make strategic and operational decisions. Having the right data at the right time enables informed decision-making, provides real-time supply chain visibility, and increases the efficiency of logistics operations. In a recent issue of Army Sustainment, Gen. Charles R. Hamilton, commanding general of Army Materiel Command, wrote, “Data-enabled decisions will decide future battles.” Technical interoperability enables information sharing and data exchange in a contested logistics environment. As technology advances, the importance of data superiority continues to increase within the JLENt. The Army has recently advanced its predictive logistics initiatives, leveraging artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to optimize logistics operations. Despite investments in emerging technologies to modernize and improve logistics operations, interoperability remains challenging.
During large-scale multidomain operations, technical interoperability is an important element in the ability to outpace adversaries. Data is only as good as the network and systems it is transmitted through. The current sustainment network is unclassified and vulnerable to cyber threats that could result in the targeting and disruption of logistics operations. Furthermore, the current unclassified sustainment network does not enable interoperability among the joint force, allies and partners, host nations, and unified action partners. The Army sustainment enterprise continues efforts to address interoperability challenges with initiatives like Project Convergence and Advana. Project Convergence began in 2020 to initially evaluate modernization efforts, and its scope and scale continue to expand with joint force and coalition partner participation. Project Convergence evaluates technologies across warfighting functions, focusing on advancing joint and multinational interoperability. Advana is a data analytics platform for data interoperability used by national agencies during the COVID-19 crisis. Technical interoperability is the linchpin of logistics operations in a contested environment. The joint force must continue to explore and develop initiatives like Project Convergence and Advana to ensure joint multinational technical interoperability in future contested environments like the Indo-Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific may be the most contested region in the world. However, the JLEnt can set conditions to operate in a contested logistics environment. A whole-of-government approach is needed to gain access to countries across the region to build partner capacity. The joint force must continue exploring ways to work alongside allies and partners to develop human and procedural interoperability through campaigns like Operation Pathways. The joint force must make calculated decisions on posture initiatives, ensuring conditions are set for potential conflict and maintaining a deterrent effect. Lastly, the Army sustainment enterprise, JLEnt, and industry partners must continue efforts to achieve technical interoperability on a classified sustainment network. Access, presence, posture, and interoperability must remain priorities of the joint force, allies and partners, and DOD to set conditions for the contested Indo-Pacific environment.
Maj. Tanya Leonard serves as a joint logistics planner in Special Operations Command Pacific. She previously served as the executive officer for Maj. Gen. Jered P. Helwig and as the commander’s initiative group officer for Maj. Gen. David Wilson. She was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps. She holds a master’s degree in general administration from Central Michigan University.
This article was published in the Winter 2024 issue of Army Sustainment.