The Defence Debate – Logistics, A Forgotten Factor
“Victory is the beautiful, bright coloured flower. Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed.” — Sir Winston S. Churchill, The River War, vii (1899)
“You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.” — General Dwight D. Eisenhower
“Only a commander who understands logistics can push the military machine to the limits without risking total breakdown.” — General Julian Thompson
“Logistics sets the campaign’s operational limits.” — Joint Pub 1, Joint Warfare of the U.S. Armed Forces, November 1991
Three of the four quotations above about the importance of logistics to successful operations are but a few of the thoughts of many a senior commander and military thinker over the years. The last quote is from an American military manual and in one form or another will appear in military doctrine worldwide. Yet in the defence debates that occasionally take place in the British Parliament the predilection for our politicians to think only in terms of money spent on weapons platforms and fighting formations is most depressing. In the European parts of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), including the United Kingdom (UK), it is difficult to discern if a Defence Minister or Politician has ever had the crucial importance of ‘logistics’ explained to them by their Chiefs’ of Staff. Or, if it has, that the subject made any impression on them at all?
On the 12th December 2016 during defence questions in Parliament the Government Defence team were asked to confirm whether or not the British Army intended to reduce its 227 Challenger Main Battle Tank (MBT) force by a third to circa 170? The question was dodged, but that is not the point. The issue is not how many MBT the British Army have, but how, being based in the United Kingdom (UK), they will be moved into an overseas theatre of operations in short order? For without the logistic capability to rapidly move and sustain an armoured formation its utility as a weapon becomes heavily compromised – “Logistics sets the campaign’s operational limits.”
For example, according to the British Army Guide for 2016-2017, a British type 56 tank regiment consists of 56 Challenger 2 MBT, 1 x Warrior Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), 10 assorted APC in support roles, 1 x CHARRV (Challenger chassis based armoured recovery vehicle) and 587 troops. Further support likely being required from Combat and Service Support elements of the Royal Engineers (RE), Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), Royal Logistic Corps (RLC), Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and Royal Signals (R Sigs). With support elements this constitutes over 100 armoured and soft skinned vehicles, several hundred troops with personal and unit weapons and several hundred tons of bulk sustainment in the form of fuel, ammunition, spares, accommodation and rations.
Therefore, the issue is not does UK have enough tanks (168) for 3 of these T56 regiments, but do we have enough rail/road rolling stock and transporters to move just one of them in short order to a sea port of embarkation? Do we have enough logistic ships, aircraft and escorts to ensure the safe arrival of all, however they are transported and if so, will a safe sea or airport of disembarkation be available in-theatre? Over what time frame can all this be realistically achieved?
What would the logistic challenge be if the operation in question required a full armoured brigade (3 x T56 regiments) as part of a divisional deployment (up to 50,000 troops) as per the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015?
Logisticians are very good at solving puzzles. They tend to use the maxim ‘the right equipment, at the right place, at the right time, with due regard for economy.’ But the big hurdles are always time, distance, enablers and infrastructure. Give logisticians a reasonable length of time and they can find all sorts of ways of getting a force into theatre however far it is or how basic the infrastructure. The use of dormant transport hire contracts, ships and aircraft taken up from trade (STUFT/ATUFT), commercial carriers and indigenous logistic movers can all be activated or sourced. However, with the exception of immediately available but limited indigenous transport, it takes time to source, arrange and/or activate commercial contracts. And the force once assembled will most probably have to transit along contested lines of communications (LOC).
The problem is that if the enemy has you at arms length then he is likely to want to keep you there. To do this he will use a combination of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability and rapid movement of his own forces to overrun in-place defences and deny safe airheads and sea ports of disembarkation using his A2/AD capability to degrade, slow or prevent reinforcement altogether.
That is the reality when NATO is confronted by an enemy like Russia in, say, the Baltic or on NATO’s North Eastern flank. Unlike 1991 and 2003, when Saddam Hussain foolishly allowed the Allied Coalition time to build up over several months, Mr Putin and his much sharper general staff are unlikely to be so obliging. If the main threat to NATO, the Russian’s, decide to move against the Baltic States they are already well positioned to move large highly mobile naval, land and air forces at very short notice to counter any NATO reinforcement plan. As a recent RAND Corporation study advised, a Russian assault on the Baltic States matched only by the current in-place NATO defence forces would see the fall of the three Baltic capitals within 36 hours.
British heavy armoured forces, however powerful they may seem, have little or no utility when based in the UK, or when they are in transit on the high seas and in the air, nor when disembarking in a theatre of operations. They only have full utility when they have taken up position in battle formation in-theatre supported by air power for air defence (AD) and close air support (CAS) to protect Combat Service Support (CSS) along a secure LOC for essential sustainment logistic support.
“Logistics is the ball and chain of armoured warfare.” — General Heinz Wilhelm Guderian
This article is a personal view and does necessarily represent the opinion of DefenceSynergia.
The author is a former RAF Officer who served for 25 years in supply and movements – Logistics. His service includes Tactical Supply in Germany with the Harrier Field Force and with RAF Support Helicopters and RAF Jaguar Force in support of NATO’s ACE Mobile Force; two Supply Squadron Commands, one a joint Army/RAF post with the Cyprus Logistic Unit; Command Staff tours in Provisioning, Aircraft Major Servicing, G4 HQ UNPROFOR Bosnia and Logistic Plans and Operational Support Strike Command, where he produced Concepts of Logistic and Operational Support for deployed operations.
For the past seven years he has been researching UK Defence and Strategy as a founder member of DefenceSynergia. And for 3 years prior to this he was a Policy Board Member of the United Kingdom National Defence Association offering advice on military logistics.