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A historical perspective on the future of military logistics.

The battle is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins. (1)

--Field Marshall Erwin Rommel

No matter their nationality or specific service, military logisticians throughout history have understood the absolute truth represented in the above quote. Whether they were charged with supplying food for soldiers, fodder for horses or the sinews of modern war--petroleum, oil and lubricants (POLL they have understood that victory is impossible without them--even if, sometimes, it seemed their vital contributions were forgotten or ignored. None of the great military captains of history were ignorant of logistics. From Frederick the Great to Napoleon to Patton, they all understood the link between their operations and logistics. The great captains also have all understood that history had much to teach them about the nature of the military profession. Yet, military logisticians do not often spend time studying the history of military logistics.

This article is an attempt by one military logistician to derive relevant general lessons from history that might prove of some use in understanding how best to prepare for the future. There are at least three such general lessons. The first of these is the best case operationally is often the worst case logistically. The second is promises to eliminate friction and uncertainty have never come to fruition. And the third is technological change must be accompanied by organizational and intellectual change to take full advantage of new capabilities. While these lessons are not exclusive to logistics, when applied to the understanding and practice of military logistics, they provide a framework for understanding the past and planning for the future.

Such a framework is vital, now more than ever. Documents such as Joint Vision 2010 (2) and the follow-on work supporting it are designed to set the course for the US military for the next 15-25 years. Logisticians must not only be proactive in helping set that course, they must use all resources available to ensure it is the right course. A thorough understanding of these three lessons will be of use in this regard.

The Lesson of the Best Case

The truth of the sentiment expressed by Field Marshall Rommel was no more apparent than on 2 September 1944 when General George S. Patton's Third Army ground to a halt from lack of fuel. The subsequent pause by Allied forces after their breathtaking race across France allowed the Germans to regroup and reconstitute their defenses and contributed to the extension of the war by another 8 months. Given the logistical riches of the Allies, one is forced to ask why they allowed this to happen. The answer is their failure to plan for the best case.

The historical record shows that September 1944 was not the only instance of logistical failure in spite of logistical riches. Logistics planning for best case possibilities is just as important as planning for the worst case in supporting military operations. In fact, the best case operationally is often the worst case logistically, and the following historical examples support this assertion.

The first historical example is provided by the German invasion of France through Belgium in 1914. The German troops marched farther and faster than the peacetime planners had calculated. Since other logistics calculations were predicated on the estimated rate of advance, they were also in error. As a result, the railheads could not be kept within supporting distance of the advancing armies, and heavy transport companies were totally inadequate. The failure to plan for the operational best case--a quick breakthrough and advance--could have had a serious impact on the capabilities of the combat forces. In this particular case, it did not because the French halted the German advance before logistics difficulties could. Be that as it may, the evidence indicates the Germans would have had to halt due to logistics problems, and they got as far as they did only through furious improvisation. (3) The second example of failure to plan for the best case is from the North African campaigns of World War II. Both Rommel and the Allies succeeded in putting their operational best case into motion, but ultimately failed because these proved to be the logistical worst case. On at least two occasions, Rommel's offensives achieved massive breakthroughs against the British in the east. He was, however, unable to translate these tactical successes into lasting operational or strategic success because he had completely outstripped his logistics system. Given the distances involved, the primitive transportation infrastructure, the lack of coastal transport capabilities, British air superiority and the lack of effort in correcting these deficiencies, his actions were logistically unsupportable?

Allied efforts in the west after the landings of Operation TORCH were similarly hindered. The failure to effectively plan for the best case was even more egregious in this instance, however, since they were operating from a position of abundance rather than scarcity. The key objective after the landings was to occupy Tunis before the Germans. The best case operationally was no resistance from French forces and a lightning advance to the east. In order to support this logistically, the Allies would have had to reconstitute and augment the existing rail system and bring enough trucks to fully exploit the limited road network. Yet, they did not allocate enough resources to accomplish the task and support the advance. The number of vehicles transported with each convoy was successively reduced with each iteration of the plan. The focus was on the mere accumulation of supplies--to the point that by the time the plan was executed, the port capacity was approximately two and a half times the combined rail and road capacity?

The third example of the best case planning error, and perhaps the most inexcusable from the standpoint of not having learned from experience, is the Allied advance across France. On 25 July 1944, the Allies were 44 days behind schedule. On 31 August, Patton was 150 miles and 5 months ahead of schedule. The 6,000 trucks of the Red Ball Express were using 300,000 gallons of gasoline daily to bring him the 350,000 gallons a day that he needed. By 2 September, he had to stop when the entire improvised system collapsed. (6)

Logistics planning for the breakout from the Normandy beachheads was based on the assumption of a slow, deliberate advance in the face of an orderly German withdrawal. The supply sequence entailed arrival at beach, port or harbor and then transport by rail and truck to supply dumps within tactical distance of the advancing forces. The worst case planning of the logisticians involved the possibility of higher consumption rates than projected. Consequently, the actions taken to preclude the worst case were focused on the accumulation of supplies. As noted above, the actual worst case logistically resulted from the best case operationally. The advance far outstripped the schedule, and transportation capability became the limiting factor. By the time Patton had to halt, POL and ammunition stocks were increasing on a daily basis at the beaches and ports but could not be brought forward. (7)

The lesson of these three examples can be summarized as follows. World War I marked a turning point for military logistics. Prior to this time, a moving army was easier to supply than a stationary one because food (for men and animals) was the critical element, and the means to obtain it was through foraging. After 1914, the moving army was much more difficult to supply because the critical element was ammunition (and subsequently, POL), for which foraging is not a viable option. (8) The logisticians learned this lesson almost too well. Their focus became the accumulation of supplies before the beginning of operations and their worst case became the point when consumption outstripped accumulation. These examples show, however, that accumulation is only half the equation; the other half is transportation. And in modern mobile warfare, the best case for the tactical forces, for example, the greatest rate of advance, is often the worst case for the logisticians supporting them because of limited transportation capability.

The Lesson of Friction and Uncertainty

The second historical lesson for logisticians involves the nature of friction and uncertainty. Throughout history, military planners have sought to reduce and even eliminate these two facts of life. The side that has made the greatest strides toward doing so, or at least made greater strides than its enemy, has also taken great strides towards winning. It has become increasingly tempting with our modem technologies to claim proximity to the Holy Grail of their actual elimination. Joint Vision 2010 uses phrases such as dominant battlespace awareness, the uninterrupted flow of information, and full dimensional protection. (9) An even more insidious problem occurs when friction and uncertainty are assumed away without even a cursory reference. Logisticians must be aware of and avoid the pitfalls inherent in this approach.

In On War, Carl von Clausewitz first applied the concept of friction to the analysis of war. A series of quotes will serve to illustrate his meaning.
   Friction ... is the force that makes the apparently easy so
   difficult ... friction ... is everywhere in contact with chance,
   and brings about effects that cannot be measured.... The good
   general must know friction in order to overcome it whenever
   possible, and in order not to expect a standard of achievement in
   his operations which this very friction makes impossible. (10)
   [emphasis added]

Friction, in other words, is a rather more elegant expression of Murphy's Law. Clausewitz was trying to tell us that military operations exist in the realm of Murphy' s Law, and good commanders adjust their plans accordingly, rather than trying to eliminate it.

Logisticians are subject to the effects of friction and uncertainty almost every day, and yet, often forget their effects when planning--or, conversely, try to anticipate and plan around every possible contingency. The earlier discussion of the best case-worst case dichotomy serves to illustrate this point as well. Another example occurred during British operations against the Argentines in the Falklands. The ship Atlantic Conveyor was sunk by the Argentine Air Force before she was able to unload her cargo of helicopters, airfield construction equipment, and tents. The British plan was predicated on concluding operations as quickly as possible--primarily because of the long lines of communication and the weather. The cargo sunk with Atlantic Conveyor constituted a large part of their capability to do so. "Her loss, while removing the means to speed up the operation, made an early termination even more imperative."" One is forced to ask why all such vital cargo was loaded on one ship; apparently no one anticipated the effects of such a loss.

The converse sin of trying to eliminate friction by anticipating and planning for all possible contingencies can lead to such rigidity that an unanticipated event or last-minute change is completely disastrous. The most obvious example of such a circumstance is the German mobilization for World War I. German logisticians had planned their two-front war in impeccable detail--right down to the number of trains over each bridge in a given time. And when the Kaiser asked Von Moltke to fight only to the east, against the Russians, Von Moltke answered, "it cannot be done ... if Your Majesty insists ... [the army] will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganized mob ... with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete." (12)

It is tempting to think that we would never do such things. It is tempting to think that it is a different age, that such rigidity is unnecessary now. It is tempting to think that Murphy's Law is not as bad as it used to be because we have such wonderful technology. It is tempting, but we would be wrong to draw such conclusions. Friction and uncertainty will remain with us because of three immutable factors.

First, human beings are still an integral part of the logistics system--and human beings make mistakes, and sometimes they act irrationally. They get bored and enter data into their computers incorrectly. They work for 4 or 5 days with minimum sleep and then fail to secure a load properly--and it falls off the truck and is lost. They feel the pressure of ongoing operations where mistakes can cost lives and make even more mistakes. Our friend Clausewitz pointed out that the military machine "is composed of individuals, every one of whom retains his potential of friction." (13)

The second reason that friction and uncertainty will remain with us is that the military is a complex system, in the scientific use of the term. According to Charles Perrow, complex systems are those systems with multiple interactions among parts, procedures and operators. These systems are subject to interactive failures because their designers and users cannot anticipate all the possible interactions and are, therefore, unable to predict all the possible outcomes of any given decision. (14) Such complexity produces surprise. Unforeseen outcomes result when minor variations lead to some unpredictable total. Organizations typically react to these unpredictable results by adding more complexity, thereby exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. (15) One needs only examine the examples discussed earlier, or the surprise achieved by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, in light of this definition, to see how it holds true for military organizations.

The final reason military logisticians cannot escape friction and uncertainty is that the ultimate consumer of military logistics is an enemy who has a vested interest in ensuring the logistics system fails. Again, Clausewitz has captured the fundamental idea: "The whole of military activity must ... relate directly or indirectly to the engagement. The end for which a soldier is recruited, clothed, armed, and trained, the whole object of his sleeping, eating, drinking, and marching is simply that he should fight at the fight place and the right time." (16) The whole object of the logistics system is the same, and the leaner we make the system, the scarcer the resources become, the more dependent we are on critical information nodes, the more lucrative a target we have created. The Atlantic Conveyor is an example of such a target.

The Lesson of Change and Innovation

The third historical lesson for logisticians is organizational and intellectual change must accompany technological change in order to take full advantage of new capabilities. Innovations do not necessarily result from new technologies. New technologies may simply be used to do existing missions better. Innovations occur when new procedures are built around changes in the way organizations relate to each other and to the enemy. (17) Again, the best case-worst case dichotomy discussed previously is applicable. For example, the problems experienced by Allied logisticians in supporting the breakout and pursuit across France were as much a failure to adapt intellectually and organizationally as anything else. The planners had already experienced the logistical problems of North Africa, but failed to adapt.

The foundation of that failure to adapt was the failure to recognize that a change in operational concept warranted a change in logistical support concept. The mobile tank warfare pioneered by the Germans highlighted the fact that not only had tactical mobility been restored to the battlefield, but it had increased by an order of magnitude. These operations focused on the application of combat power through combined arms and the shock inherent in high-tempo operations. The necessary logistic change was in supporting the high tempo of operations--not just movement, but speed of movement. This was the primary failure of the logisticians--the failure to recognize the need to support the tempo change--an intellectual and organizational change.

The Germans also failed in this regard. Although not apparent in the early campaigns, it was highlighted once they attacked into the wide-open spaces of the Soviet Union. Although the logistics failure was not the sole or perhaps even the primary cause of the German defeat on the steppes of Russia, it was a major contributor.

The Germans had only partially motorized their combat forces and only a small proportion of their logistics support was moved by truck. The remainder was tied to the use of railroads and animal transport. This weakness was masked in the campaigns in Poland and France by the relatively short distances and the rapid collapse of enemy forces. The vast distances encountered on the Russian Front, coupled with the resilience of the Soviet forces, served to expose this problem and caused the German soldiers to suffer horribly. (18)

The noted military historian, Williamson Murray explains that:
   Relations among technological innovations, fundamentals of military
   operations, and changes in concepts, doctrine and organization that
   drive innovation are essentially nonlinear. Changes in inputs ...
   may not yield proportionate changes in outputs or combat dynamics.

During periods of transition, in particular, there are significant intellectual, organizational and technological changes. The key change, however, must be intellectual change, for without intellectual change, technological change is essentially meaningless, and organizational change is impossible. Logisticians who grasp at technological change without making the necessary organizational and, more importantly, intellectual changes to fully understand and make best use of new technologies, are doomed to failure. Intellectual change is the requirement to make all others meaningful.

Implications for the Future

In order to examine the implications these lessons hold for the future of military logistics, one must first examine current views regarding the future of military operations. The US military has entered a period of rapid change. Orders of magnitude improvements in technology have resulted in recent attempts to devise long-range plans to incorporate those improvements into new weapon systems and operational concepts. Joint Vision 2010 and the documents supporting its implementation provide the guidance for thinking about these new concepts.

In the logistics arena, Joint Vision 2010 explains the concept of Focused Logistics--defined as
   the fusion of information, logistics, and transportation
   technologies to provide rapid crisis response, to track and shift
   assets even while en route, and to deliver tailored logistics
   packages and sustainment directly at the strategic, operational,
   and tactical levels of operations. (20)

The vision of Focused Logistics includes enhanced mobility and versatility of combat forces anywhere in the world through the elimination of vertical logistics organizations and the use of tailored combat service support packages and pinpoint delivery systems. (21)

Joint Vision 2010 heralds the creation of two other key concepts--dominant maneuver and full dimensional protection, the latter being simply the complete protection of forces and lines of communication from fort to foxhole. Dominant maneuver is envisioned as combat forces operating from dispersed locations in sustained all-weather, day or night operations at a decisive speed and tempo. It is "a prescription for more agile, faster moving Joint operations." (22)

The underpinning for all these concepts is the idea of information superiority--"the capability to collect, process, and disseminate an uninterrupted flow of information while exploiting or denying an adversary's ability to do the same." (23) The Concept for Future Joint Operations explains further that the view of operations in Joint Vision 2010 is predicated on the reduction of friction through greater battlespace awareness. This greater battlespace awareness is conceived as a comprehensive and complete view in space and time; using assured, secure and responsive information; and resulting in the capability to predict enemy intentions and actions. (24)

Given the nature of this vision of the future, the three historical lessons that are the subject of this analysis are clearly applicable. In general terms, these documents discuss the need for organizational change and they constitute at least an attempt at intellectual change. It is too early in the process of change to expect specific suggestions for modifications to existing military organizations. The intellectual change exhibited is part of the current debate regarding an ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs. A discussion of whether this revolution actually exists or not is beyond the scope of this article, but the authors of the Joint vision documents clearly believe it does.

With regard to the best case-worst case lesson, it would seem the logisticians of the future would still be susceptible to the effects of this dichotomy. The concept of dominant maneuver is focused on speed, tempo and agility of operations--from dispersed locations. The logisticians' tasks would seemingly be made even more difficult than today. Those who compose this vision of the future would answer that the concept of focused logistics would enhance the mobility and versatility of the logistics forces to the point that they matched that of the combat forces. This is entirely possible, but given that history shows that combat forces are typically ahead of support forces in gaining improved capabilities, it is also entirely possible that logisticians will again find themselves in the position of their worst case being the best case operationally.

It is in the arena of friction and uncertainty that the US military's vision of the future would seem to be most lacking. Combat forces are visualized as smaller and more capable, supported by smaller and more capable logistics forces. The system of forces and support requirements is highly complex and interdependent with little or no slack or excess capability. These forces are to sustain operations around the clock, and success is dependent upon a continuous supply of vast quantities of absolutely accurate information. Although there are occasional disclaimers in the documents to the effect that fog and friction will remain, the concept belies these words--there is no discussion of how the system will cope with or overcome friction and uncertainty.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that the visionaries attempting to set the course for the future of the US military have failed to learn this lesson from the past. They are designing a tightly coupled system of systems. Within that system will exist interdependencies and implicit assumptions that will defy ready understanding and, therefore, result in unexpected outcomes. They are designing a system that is still subject to the vagaries and weaknesses inherent in human beings, but without taking those vagaries and weaknesses into account. They are designing a system which makes the logistics portion such a lucrative target that a potential enemy can have a greater impact by striking against logistics capability than by striking at combat capability. The failure to appreciate the effects of friction and uncertainty has had grave consequences in the past, and we are creating the potential for the same grave consequences.

These three lessons hold meaning for the future of military logistics. History has shown logisticians can fail if they do not understand the best case-worst case dichotomy, if they do not appreciate the need for intellectual and organizational change and if they do not take into account the effects of friction and uncertainty. While no one should expect history to repeat itself, logisticians can benefit from the study of history with a view toward understanding the errors of the past and the applicable lessons for the future.


(1.) The Rommel Papers as quoted in Martin van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, 200.

(2.) Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Vision 2010, Washington, DC: Pentagon, 1996, 138-140, 199-210.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Julian Thompson, The Lifeblood of War: Logistics in Armed Conflict, Oxford, UK: Brassey's, 1991, 56, 61-67.

(6.) Supplying War: Logistics front Wallenstein to Patton, 213.

(7.) Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, 212-213, 220-221.

(8.) The Lifeblood of War: Logistics in Armed Conflict, 50.

(9.) Joint Vision 2010, 13, 16, 22.

(10.) Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, trans and ed Michael Howard and Peter Parer, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976, 120-121.

(11.) The Lifeblood of War: Logistics in Armed Conflict, 278-279.

(12.) Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August, New York, New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1962, 74-75, 79.

(13.) On War, 119.

(14.) Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, New York, New York: Basic Books, 1984, 4, 11-12.

(15.) Chris C. Demchak, Military Organizations, Complex Machines: Modernization in the US Armed Services, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991, 3-5.

(16.) On War, 95.

(17.) Stephen P. Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991, 134. See also Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, for a book-length treatment of this subject.

(18.) Matthew Cooper, The German Army 1933-1945, Lanham, Maryland: Scarborough House, 1978, 311-312, 331.

(19.) Williamson Murray, "Innovation: Past and Future," Joint Forces Quarterly, Summer 1996, 52.

(20.) Joint Vision 2010, 24.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Joint Vision 2010, 20-21.

(23.) Joint Vision 2010, 16.

(24.) Concept for Future Joint Operations (Preliminary Draft Version 4.0), Fort Monroe, Virginia: Joint Warfighting Center, 21 Mar 1997.

Successful operations depend on the entire wing organization working as a team with but one purpose in mind. The purpose, of course, is to make certain of the destruction of the selected target at exactly the right time and place. All of the years of planning and training, and the great financial and personal costs and sacrifice, will be vindicated by the successful execution of the mission; likewise, all will be wasted by failure, regardless of its cause.

--Air Force Manual 51-44, 1953

Forces that cannot win will not deter.

--Gen Nathan F. Twining, USAF

Colonel Karen S. Wilhelm, USAF, Retired
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Author:Wilhelm, Karen S.
Publication:Air Force Journal of Logistics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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