United Kingdom Defence Logistics Lessons in a Post Covid–19 World

The writer of this opinion piece is a founding member of DefenceSynergia (DS). However, the views expressed are the author’s own and not those of DS.

For the older ‘loggies’ among us there are a number of terms that now seem to have drifted into obscurity – ‘earmarks’, ‘war reserves’, ‘meantime between replacement or failure’, manufacturing lead time’, Reorder Period’, Depot and Maintenance Unit to name a few. A lexicon of terms that seem to have given way to a single-sentence-supply-mantra – ‘Just in Time’! It seems, since the mid-1990s, that hardly a supply and distribution paper written by multiple consultancy firms has managed to avoid referring to ‘Just in Time’, a principle that was developed by Japanese manufacturing companies, such as vehicle manufacturers.

What is missing from this picture are the myriad supply reports over the years from front line operators – HM Armed Forces and NHS – telling senior management ‘Just In Time’ is all too often ‘Just Too Late’. Not least in being unable to respond to a sudden and sustained increase in demand best illustrated by the Covid-19 logistics response and in a military example like deployed soldiers in Afghanistan in 2010 having to cancel patrols for lack of mortar rounds (note 1) and in 2018 an SAS patrol that came within just a few magazines of running out of ammunition.(note 2)

Sarah Knapton, the Science Editor of the Daily Telegraph wrote on 14th April 2020: In the updated 2017 NHS England pandemic preparedness report, a number of stockpiles were “established and are held in locations across the country for deployment when needed”. Yet while many of the stockpiled items were kept in warehouses – described as the “just in case” supply – others were held on “just in time” contracts, meaning they would be ordered when needed. Sarah goes on to add: It appears nobody foresaw the problem of such an approach during a global pandemic, when the world would be competing for the same supplies. Companies producing PPE have seen orders swell 5,000-fold, which has not only caused supply problems but also safety issues, with gowns and masks failing tests because they are being rushed out at such speed. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, many countries have also started restricting exports to keep vital supplies at home, while some manufacturers are hiking prices up to unjustifiable levels.(note 3)

How can it be that no one thought to pressure test the supply chain for weaknesses; and if they did, how they missed such a fatal flaw? It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention during the Covid-19 crisis that the clamour for PPE, especially gowns, gloves, visors, ventilators, drugs and even oxygen delivery infrastructure is proving that, in the circumstances, ‘Just In Time’ is a proven failed method. And that the former mantra of no need to keep costly reserves if we have ‘Just In Time’ has major limitations.

However, this is precisely what happened in HM Forces following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Successive Governments steadily reduced weapons platforms, personnel numbers, support infrastructure and sustainment stocks of HM Forces following the demise of the Warsaw Pact. The former lexicon of standard supply and distribution terms that underpinned the support policies of the modern armed forces being largely replaced by that single – line of least resistance money-saving gambit – phrase, ‘Just in Time’.

The most concerning and damaging effects undermining defence for the past 3 decades has been the cumulative effect of reduction in maintenance and support which has damaged the Readiness, Responsiveness, Resilience and Regeneration functions of HM Armed Forces. The result is the emasculation of our Armed Forces’ capacity to carry out Military Tasks rapidly in anything other than small unit operations. The NHS is discovering now what many of us have warned about for decades in respect of HM Forces: when sustained below critical mass there is little resilience or capability to ‘step up’ in a crisis. ‘Just in Time’ has been proved of late to lead to the inevitable outcome of critical capability denial from supplies arriving ‘Just too Late’

What this has meant in practice for our Armed Forces is warships being moored alongside for lack of spares and/or crews; aircraft that cannot fly as they are being robbed of parts to be used as spares on the remaining operational fleet; armoured vehicles unable to deploy because of a lack of combat and service support. The net result of this flawed and failed supply and distribution philosophy is that UK military Readiness for large scale operations is totally absent other than in the minds of a few over-optimistic planners. Indeed, the RAF’s entire fleet of E-3D Sentry aircraft – the youngest of any air force – are being replaced decades sooner than other operators, at a cost of billions of pounds, all for lack of essential investment since entering service in 1991. This begs further inquiry into another essential area: has MOD an effective plan for weapon manufacture to resupply platforms that can only use a certain range of missiles, torpedoes and shells, after they have been expended in battle?

The reality for the past 3 decades or more is that most UK military planning has to be based on long warning lead times before deployment of a sizeable force can be accomplished. One former Chief of the General Staff told DS that 6 months warning was expected to fully deploy an armoured division with supporting combat and service support. This is fine if the enemy is obliging and willing to allow MoD the luxury of time and a benign line of communication along which to assemble, transport, deploy and fight! It is a recipe for disaster if, like Covid-19, the enemy moves more swiftly than you, denies you the luxury of time to react and commences cold blooded killing at the outset caring nothing for international law, commercial supply chains or trite panacea sustainment solutions.

It must be a concern that an unintended consequence of the Covid-19 debacle is the substantial, obvious under-funding of the NHS. The potential effects this will have on Defence capability and its even more egregiously inadequate budget should be a serious worry too.

The media, opposition parties, and some Unions, are understandably already calling for extra funding for the NHS, not least to pay for increasing staffing levels, pay rises and better pandemic planning. The Prime Minister is on record as proclaiming that he owes his life to the NHS and all the forecasts indicate that the economic consequences of the ‘lockdown’ will force changes in HMG’s spending priorities.

Where will this leave the woefully inadequate Defence budget?

Supply chain interruption for a vehicle manufacturer’s JIT system means loss of production; for the NHS and the Armed Forces, it endangers life. Bear in mind that the original reason ‘Just in Time’ was favoured by the Treasury for MoD was that it saved cash. When money is tight and the PM favours the NHS, who in parliament will say that Defence of the Realm is the First Duty of Government and that the nation owes a duty of care to the lives of members of the Armed Forces in combat?

Following an RAF Apprenticeship in Supply and Transportation, the author served in the RAF Supply Branch for 25 years – 10 years in the ranks and 15 commissioned. He commanded two Supply Squadrons including OC Supply Squadron of the Cyprus Joint Supply Unit (on the formation of the RLC, the Cyprus Logistic Unit). Command appointments included MoD Provisioning, Harrogate, aircraft major servicing support at HQ Support Command, G4 with the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Croatia and Bosnia and Logistic Plans and Support for deployed operations in HQ Strike Command – including a war role as RAF G4 liaison with an Army Logistics Brigade HQ. As well as extensive supply and movements training and experience the author is a Fuels and deployment planning specialist with extensive knowledge and practical service in war planning for operations in support of NATO Northern, Central and Eastern flanks. His service included tours and detachments to Germany, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Sardinia, Norway, Cyprus, Ascension Island, USA and Bosnia Herzegovina.

note 1 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/7503470/Army-patrols-in-Afghanistan-cancelled-due-to-lack-of-ammunition.html

note 2 https://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/latest-news/sas-army-soldier-isis-jihadi-16837351

note 3 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/04/14/britain-planned-pandemic-didnt-address-chronically-low-ppe-stocks/