“The fighting, the direction, even the planning of the battles occupies in the whole seconds only to the hours of labor involved in the preparation & execution of marches.”
– Montgomery C. Meigs, US Army Quartermaster General, 1861–1882
Before taking command of an airborne infantry battalion’s forward support company, the company’s second-in-command revealed its soldiers had not qualified on their weapons systems in over a year. In a matter of days, our brigade would become the nation’s Global Response Force and my supported battalion would be the brigade’s first unit to respond to unknown crises across the globe. I was aware of the battalion’s maintenance backlogs, the newly fielded (but untouched) capabilities sets and mission command systems, and the company’s previous struggles to perform the simplest sustainment tasks; but over-simplified criticisms of previous leaders and management did not suffice to explain the full scope of the problems. These problems stemmed from four common dilemmas that young logisticians supporting tactical formations must confront daily.
In a message to cadets preparing to commission as officers across all of the Army’s career fields, Lt. Col. Charles Faint challenged cadets to “own” their respective branches. In the coming months over 660 United States Military Academy and Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets accessed into the quartermaster, ordnance, and transportation corps will report to their respective units. For these future logisticians, their ability to do four things might determine the Army’s success on future battlefields: find balance between training and support, advise their maneuver counterparts on logistical matters, think creatively about the existing capabilities in their formations, and effectively integrate complex technology.
The Gardens of Stone Dilemma
This dilemma speaks to the logistician’s apparent need to train for wartime self-sufficiency while simultaneously supporting others’ preparation for war. Characterized by an imbalance in training and support, the dilemma’s namesake is derived from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1987 film, Gardens of Stone. The film depicts combat-experienced, senior noncommissioned officers struggling to prepare members of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) for the crucible of the Vietnam War while simultaneously performing military honors and burials at Arlington National Cemetery.
Army logisticians face a very similar problem. They regularly lack the training for their combat roles. The maneuver unit’s missions and incessant pace of testing, fielding, and integrating new technology and capabilities impose a prodigious commitment in time and training. The logistician acknowledges and appreciates the combat unit’s extraordinary enterprise and expends enormous energy to ensure the maneuver unit’s readiness—normally at the expense of the sustainment unit’s own readiness.
Sustainment units’ wartime unpreparedness is nothing new. Logisticians were ill-prepared for the Korean War, the invasion of Grenada, and the intervention in Somalia. Only days before his unit supported the 1983 Grenada invasion, one support commander noted his unit was “rusty in the field” and lacked “the tactical training required to defend their positions.” In Somalia in 1992–1993, sustainment units “were not prepared or adequately trained to apply the ROE [rules of engagement]” during convoy operations. And only after the highly publicized ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in 2003 (in which eleven logisticians were killed in action in a convoy outside Nasiriya, Iraq) did the Army take measures to address the tactical shortfalls of sustainment units.
The Orange is the New Black Dilemma
This dilemma could be restated as the “if we’re amber on supplies, then we’re black” dilemma. “Amber” in military vernacular, is the orange-ish hue, part of the green-amber-red-black scale used as a metric for readiness, and is the unreasonably lowest level of logistical risk many commanders are willing to assume. Essentially, if supply limitations push a unit to an amber status on ammunition, fuel, rations, etc., many supported units will treat that as a need for immediate resupply.
The slapdash concern for logistical statuses threaten the Army’s future success, and future logisticians must hurdle this malpractice—occasionally at the risk of their careers. For decades units have relied on installation support at home station and the steadfast availability of supplies on forward operating bases (in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) to sustain the fight. The absence of highly effective, enemy interdiction operations meant units could operate relatively unhindered by logistical matters. The Vietnam War was well supplied; and ground combat portions of conflicts in Grenada and Panama in the 1980s and Iraq in 1991 lasted no more than a few days—hardly enough time to audition the Army’s advanced logistical apparatus (against much lesser foes, at that).
Accordingly, ground commanders detest (or fear) “amber” logistical statuses and call on sustainment units to respond, often without question, to their every need without much advising from logisticians. These excessive assignments put young logisticians in dilemmatic situations with maneuver commanders (who are sometimes their raters or senior raters) where they are forced to grapple with the question of whether they support by responding to every need, or should propose that resupply can wait based on the information provided by the supported unit.
The “War Rig” Dilemma
The “War Rig” dilemma transpires in the overlapping realms of war and money when logisticians entertain the need for updated equipment while simultaneously acknowledging that such innovation would negatively influence the warfighter’s capabilities. In the opening crucibles of conflict, logisticians quickly adapt their outdated capabilities to wartime realities in manners similar to vehicle modifications depicted in the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road.
The film’s most notable machine, aptly named “the War Rig,” was a heavily modified eighteen-wheeler with armored hub caps, a cow-catcher, modified turrets, and more. The War Rig’s crew refashioned the vehicle to address whatever need or threat surfaced in the chaotic, post-apocalyptic world of the unknown. Such improvisation has strong echoes in the field-level modifications such as the hedge-cutters in Normandy in World War II and customized armored gun trucks in Vietnam and in Iraq in 2003–2004.
Very little modernization occurs among sustainment formations during periods of peace. As one Small Wars Journal contributor stated:
Steeped in tradition, our US military has had a love-hate relationship with innovation and change. And while military leaders will enthusiastically embrace tactical innovation on the front line . . . during peacetime leadership is hesitant to support tactical or strategic innovation, especially in organizations more distant from the fight.
Ultimately, the logistician settles for what is provided. Young logisticians must recognize that they are taking charge of formations materially fitted for, at best, the last war. Lessons learned from previous conflicts are rarely translated into material improvements among sustainment formations during periods of peace. For example, the need for internal security (i.e., gun trucks) in sustainment units were identified as early as Vietnam and in Somalia. But by the late 1990s the Army issued its up-armored gun truck inventory to military police and cavalry units—the very type of units committed to their principal missions and unable to provide much assistance to sustainment units. Consequently, during the early months of Operation Iraqi Freedom, sustainment units made War Rig–like adaptions to compensate for their vehicles’ lack of protection and security. Under current equipment authorizations and the 2010 Tactical Wheeled Vehicle Strategy, sustainment units are as demilitarized as before but with an enduring expectation to self-secure by their maneuver counterparts.
The Hoverboard Dilemma
Unlike the previous three dilemmas that have endured in modern military history, the hoverboard dilemma is a budding challenge as the Army adopts more and more technology. This dilemma’s namesake is the craze of 2015 in which Americans across the country rushed to purchase hoverboards. Consumers became enamored with the new product, even though it did not offer the same experience that Marty McFly enjoyed in Back to the Future Part II. Many who purchased the product did not fully understand the challenges or dangers it presented. Arguably, the hoverboard’s most popular outcome were videos on social media of consumers attempting to use the product and subsequently falling and injuring themselves. Aside from the most visible safety risk, many hoverboards unexpectedly caught fire. As the craze dissolved, many hoverboards were thrown into closets after the novelty wore away and never used again.
Similar to the hoverboard craze, when the Army fields new technology and other capabilities, it is unlikely logisticians have adequate time dedicated to fully train and understand its applications. Nor does the Army authorize additional personnel to meet new logistical demands because an increase in sustainment personnel would entail a decrease in maneuver personnel. These facts inhibit successful integration of new capabilities and building the competencies necessary to maintain the equipment without considerable support from field service representatives. In addition, gaps in communications and other capabilities widen between the supported and supporting unit.
I observed this conundrum as a company commander while attempting to integrate capability sets, WIN-T system updates, and new mobility platforms into my formation. Despite new equipment training and numerous exercises, my company could hardly keep pace with our maneuver counterparts’ proficiency on the systems or the maintenance demands. Similar to the Gardens of Stone dilemma, I erred in favor of the maneuver element at a considerable cost to my own unit’s combat readiness. And as the Army’s technological advantages over near-peer threats decrease, logisticians will be put under additional stress to preserve and maintain our advantages.
The Logistician’s Dilemmatic Responsibility
If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you take a fish from him, you leave him hungry for a day. But if you seize and retain the water source he and his comrades will starve, dehydrate, and lose the will to fight. In the most extreme circumstances, the army dies. Supply-line interdiction remains a tried-and-true means of depriving an army of its capacity to impose its will. Successful interdiction operations have ruined national economies, robbed armies of their sustenance and morale, and left a string of lessons learned for the professional soldier. Depicting these historic failures to protect logistical capacity on a map would resemble a remarkably complex, unfinished “connect-the-dots” puzzle: The Gedrosian desert (325 BCE). Guandu (200 BCE). Carrhae (53 BCE). The Horns of Hattin (1187). Tumu (1449). The Russian Campaign (1812). Holly Springs-Vicksburg (1862). Kalubara (1914). Singapore (1942). Wanat (2008). And many more. The ambitions and life of the armies and soldiers associated with these logistical shortfalls, in many respects, ended with emaciated warriors and nags, frostbitten appendages, dearths of weaponry, empty fuel tanks, a worn spirit—or a wicked combination of all these and more. And so long as the spear of Mars trembles, the record and body count resulting from poorly planned and executed logistics will grow.
Under peacetime fiscal constraints, the Army prioritizes its “teeth” over its “tail”; but as history illustrates military leaders must approach their sustainment units’ combat readiness with creativity and understanding during periods of peace and fiscal constraint. Consequently, tactical sustainment units cannot be trained for their wartime duties without some degree of (undesirable) sacrifice to combat units. “Support to the line” entails a great deal of risk to personnel and supplies, but few maneuver commanders would willingly sacrifice their units’ tactical competency and military expertise over “questions of supply.” Even fewer maneuver commanders would pull warfighters from the line to secure supplies if the supporting unit could manage itself. For these reasons, young logisticians should consider the following practices:
- Responsibly mitigate risk now for tomorrow’s war. When possible, design training that compels sustainment units to adapt and share lessons with other sustainment formations. Recognize that sustainment units are not equipped to fight the next war. Review range-control policies and coordinate with appropriate agencies to permit safe training with “adaptations” and unorthodox platforms. Sustainment units may appear ludicrous and primitive under this method, but they are training how they will truly fight.
- Make “administrative” and “notional” sustainment a malpractice of the past. Logisticians are in prime positions to enact change and employ sound doctrine in logistical matters. Carefully leverage logistical expertise, make the proper coordination to do what is right, and be responsible for the sustainment unit’s combat readiness—even if it causes minor frustration with the supported unit.
- Focus on small units and tactics. Sustainment leaders and literature place an unreasonable emphasis on sustainment perspectives from the operational and strategic levels of war. However, Brig. Gen. Jesse R. Cross, the fiftieth US Army quartermaster general, always boasted that he was a respectable captain before he was a general officer. Likewise, young logisticians must focus their energy to successfully prepare their crews and squads for war before attempting to grasp the complexities of well-designed, highly complex supply chains.
- Prioritize support. Priorities of support outlined in operations orders are rarely followed or practiced. If units are reporting an “amber” status and requesting an immediate resupply, learn to say “wait-out” instead of “roger.” This is an exercise of disciplined disobedience. A fully staffed distribution platoon supporting a light infantry battalion has no more than sixteen authorized personnel to support over a dozen platoons in four companies. Responding immediately to every call is unsustainable.
This depiction of Army sustainment should not be interpreted as an indictment of the Army, our government, or the logistician’s combat arms counterparts. It is a testament to the stamina, commitment, and professionalism of the Army’s logistics corps’s promise to sustain victory on any battlefield. For over 660 young logisticians entering the Army profession in 2019, their success will be measured by how well they negotiate the four dilemmas daily, in peace and war. They will find their greatest challenges will occur where these dilemmas intersect; and no single, universal solution may be applied when factors such as unit mission and culture can influence the success or failure of their attempts to negotiate these dilemmas. Supported units, too, might benefit from thinking about sustainment from this perspective. But it is the professional logistician’s responsibility to understand how these dilemmas might inhibit sustainment efforts and propose effective and efficient methods to confront them.
Captain Fred Brown is an Army logistics officer and Instructor at the United States Military Academy’s Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. He is currently writing a book detailing accounts of logistics on the frontlines titled Support to the Line: True Stories of Valor, Courage, and Logistics.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell, US Army
Great overview of a problem set that has always been around and that won't go away – but can be mitigated. It is the responsibility of the logistician to do it. Yes, there is risk. But get over it. I have a piece in the upcoming Dec issue of Army magazine that addresses a few of the issues CPT Brown highlights here. Sustainment soldiers should be as nearly as proficient in tactics as their supported customer. Years ago in USAREUR, when I commanded a non-div maintenance company with 4 separate detachments supporting an FA BDE and a large base operation with an SSA, I conducted PLT-level tactical FTXs and simply told my customer O6 that I could not support him against the Warsaw Pact (I said years ago…) if my soldiers were unable to defend themselves. My fellow company commanders thought I was crazy for risking production numbers (read-OER). My battalion commander to his credit was very supportive. Today one must ask what's changed?
this is Atypical in any military organization. only continuous training can resolve the logistical issues.
All good arguments, and the point about log interdiction historically, which has led to campaign failures like Moscow in 1812, is particularly apt given A2AD challenges today. One thing the author missed, however, is that logisticians need to assert some responsibility in the design of new combat systems for the impact of growing logistics demands per system. The demand for fuel and maintenance are tradespace variables that combat arms folks will always discount, if they're assuming robust log flow is assured and not their problem (which they almost always do). This goes to how requirements are set in the Service and how scenarios, M&S and other planning are done in the Service. A2AD capabilities are more effective against log and other support than combatants because they can destroy or delay log, but they also siphon off combat forces for protection. That's a huge opportunity cost most in the force development community don't bother to include in analyses or doctrine or force plans. Hence 70+ ton GCV requirements and LCS ships with 40+ knot speed requirements and F-35s with bigger tanker dependency that everyone later admits reduced their relevance. Loggies can do more at HQs to influence demand, as well as supply capacity and readiness, even if it shouldn't be their responsibility.
"Every soldier a rifleman"
Because it can happen and often does. The concept of a front line is long obsolete.
How about the training NCO's of the logistics units coordinate piggy-backing when their line doggies are going to the range? I learned this 40+ years ago. Every task in the soldier's manual is someone's particular area of expertise, USE IT! A grunt company needs to train on convoy procedures- pair up with the DS transport company. That same transport company can fall in with the grunts when they go to the range for individual qual, if not that company, another in the brigade. A grunt company doing an FTX patrolling for a week, should be able to test against the signal company that's doing a CPX, as the patrols test & recon the perimeter. The med company can cover their slice of the pie across the brigade. SHARE TRAINING SCHEDULES. Its done routinely for keeping jump pay status, or it was back in my day. use it across the board for everything.
Though most of my career has been in combat arms (artillery and infantry) I gained an appreciation for logistics as an intel officer in a logistics battalion HQ. I see many of these issues from an outside perspective in an infantry battalion while our forward support company tries to balance supporting the maneuver forces with maintaining proficiency in their own areas. Generally, the support to maneuver forces wins out and the cooks, truck drivers, and supply clerks are not out at the range but making sure the meals are prepared, ammo is supplied, etc. However, I don't see the logisticians making much effort to try and change that – at least in my limited experience.
There is often a wide gulf between the combat arms and combat support. I saw the same thing in the intelligence world where a battalion or brigade intel officer with no maneuver background would often be unable to provide relevant and actionable information to the combat arms units they were supporting. The same thing happens with logisticians. Implementing some cross-training, whether formally or informally, could certainly help bridge the divide. Having an infantry officer spend a couple of days planning and running resupply convoys might give them an appreciation of how getting urgent requests for supplies can disrupt an efficient plan. Or being forced to march for miles when promised vehicles don't show up could give logisticians an appreciation for the importance of providing adequate and timely support.
CPT Brown, while I agree with much of what you have written I am appalled by the lack of depth in research of what our senior leadership does to the sustainment corps each and every day. The Army has the propensity to "reward" killers that performed well in their field but not quite good enough to make it in killer specialties with Bn and Bde command positions in all logistics fields. The problems associated with these "rewards" is two fold. First, killers are all about supporting their brethren in the killer specialties at the expense of lifetime logistics and second, force aligned commanders have little to zero experience with overall log functions which results in a reinventing of the wheel in log communities.
I was the CFLCC CLV manager during the surge. I had many, many ridiculous requests for CLV resupply for "black" units throughout the theater when expenditure rates and storage records showed that the unit had enough CLV. Here's two examples, though I could give many more, of the waste of tax payer dollars. One, Falcon FOB was attacked one evening and a "lucky" shot his the ammo supply point one night. Every munition was lost. The night battle CPT sent a runner to my room and asked me to come see what needed to be done. I simply replied that I would be in the CLV shop at 0530 that morning. Why? Because EVERY FOB was overloaded with UBL and hidden munitions that I knew a cross leveling would mean all units using Falcon as a resupply would never go black. Next morning the C4, ESC Cdr, and CFLCC Cdr wanted to know what I was going to do to get "much" needed CLV to units in the area. I simply told them that cross leveling would occur and everyone would be green in 24 hours because though I had bitched constantly that FOBs were running at nearly 200% capacity they always requested more CLV. I would reject the request only to have a GO sign off that it was imperative that we ship ammo. Needless to say, within 24 hours every unit was green. Of course I looked like a genius but it was all simple math – everyone had plenty. Why did we get to this point? It's because of the force aligned genius' into the log field that blindly accepted what the commanders on the ground were saying. I actually had a Stryker Bde commander in Baghdad request more small arms ammo though he already had 7 years of small arms on hand based on expenditure rates. Oh, I mean 7 years of ammunition for the ENTIRE theater! I had a running gun battle with a force aligned GO in Iraq about CLV resupply issues. He was upset that I routinely declined CLV requests from Iraq based on expenditure rates and CLV on hand. He actually said during a CFLCC BUB that he would manage CLV for the theater and to send all CLV stock to Baghdad – which resulted in my jumping to my feet in the BUB and exclaiming quite loudly that was, "… possibly the dumbest thing I've ever heard a General Officer say". That episode endeared me to all of the GOs in the BUB – not. And one more issue since I've now taken to drinking a beer while typing this … who in the hell allows CLV contractors on the field to peddle their wares??? Though I refused routinely to fly CLV (yes, that is correct, FLY) at the request of commanders wanting CLV that would "end the war sooner", I would be routinely directed by GOs to fly in experimental CLV. For instance (and this is only one example) the aviation brigades in Iraq were demanding that I order N model hellfire missiles. ??? Why, there are no bunkers left to shoot? Because the producer of the hellfire missile was telling these commanders that N model hellfire would kill insurgents in the open, which of course is not true, They are bunker busters. What they needed was the M model hellfire. However, I was forced to fly in N model hellfire missiles. Pilots began complaining that something was wrong because they would embed themselves in the ground before detonating. Nope, nothing wrong, they are designed to breach a wall, expel their payload, and then detonate. In the end we ordered more M model hellfire but us taxpayers were fleeced for millions.
I remember a time when killers used to work with logisticians. Now they simply put their hand out and demand more regardless of cost or need.
I 100% agree. What I find surprising is the lack of uptake of Electric Vehicle (EV) technology by land systems manufacturers. The fuel consumption of the heavily armoured platforms being fielded today is staggering. The Army needs to ensure that specifications for new platforms include minimising logistical footprint to drive innovation. The ability to draw power from a variety of sources could prove to be a game changer where supply chains are contested.