The Commander, the control of logistics, and the false debate on centralisation: Responding to the needs of the modern battlefield

‘Sound logistics forms the foundation for the development of strategic flexibility and mobility. If such flexibility is to be exercised and exploited, military command must have adequate control of its logistic support’ Admiral H. Eccles,Logistics in the National Defense

In an earlier article I described how an increasingly dispersed battlefield influences logistics, and the capacity of a commander to exercise what Admiral Henry Eccles describes as ‘logistic control’. It articulated a need for discussion on ‘battlefield geometry’ or organisation, and importance of prioritisation in the logistic process. Furthermore it argued that the logistic functions of movements (of forces) and distribution (their sustainment) shape the decisions commanders make as they contend with the challenges of the future battlefield. While this problem may be self-evident to some, it is not a topic routinely discussed despite the attention being given to the challenge of operating in a dispersed environment.

 The question of priorities and allocations is closely related to the degree of centralisation of authority in the operation of logistic services. This is always a topical issue, and has featured in most recent reviews of Army and Joint logistic capabilities. Generally speaking, functions such as construction and transportation often perform their best when completely centralised at the highest practical level of command, particularly at higher levels of war. An example of functional centralisation can be seen in the US military, where the Joint US Transportation Command controls strategic and operational mobility capabilities to support American global requirements. Others vehemently oppose centralisation and instead encourage the maximum practical degree of decentralisation. This has been a cornerstone of the Australian Army approach to tactical-level operations for many decades.

Despite the strength of conviction in this debate, one evident in discussions between logisticians in Army, there is no obvious balance to be uncovered. Too much centralisation ultimately produces rigidity and sluggish response. Too little centralisation may cause waste through the inadequate use of critical resources; a situation uncovered in Army’s own experiments regarding the logistic echelons of its future armoured cavalry units. When a commander tries to exercise logistic control in an environment where forces are widely dispersed, any inefficiency will cost the supported force dearly.

While it is extremely difficult to make general conclusions, history shows it is best to centralise the control of transportation and mass-sustainment effects, and to decentralise control of small-volume, localised activity. For example, Joint and single-Service doctrine describe that operational and inter-theatre strategic transportation should be centralised at a higher level than should local transportation might be. This enables the concentration of logistic mass, properly enabled by a responsive logistic management system, to provide the greatest possible effect at a decisive point on a battlefield or in the area of operations. Conversely those functions central to immediate tactical flexibility, or for those day-to-day tasks, should be available to subordinate commanders.

These rules are not general, and articulating a line between centralised and decentralised capabilities is difficult. In many cases, the propensity for commanders to avoid risk compels them to argue for ownership of logistics capabilities. This is especially evident in peacetime force structure planning where a whole range of organisational and institutional decisions become relevant. But it is important to distinguish the force generation argument for centralisation from the operational one.  In Army’s case, its recent Combat Service Support review and its supporting Concept of Operations have argued that centralisation at the brigade level is appropriate for our expeditionary Army, and this now forms a force design principle. However, it also argues that the allocation of forces and the prioritisation of logistics must be adaptable, according to the commanders main effort.

Conceptual peace-time solutions will undoubtedly change during war; an environment where necessity drives innovation. But when these solutions do change, we need to ensure the solution is not just one generated by logistic branches, but by informed combat commanders. To exercise control over logistics, especially in the dispersed battlefields of the future, mastery of movements, distribution and prioritisation will be essential. The decision between the centralising and decentralising may (indeed should) be a temporary operational problem. The masters of modern strategy, such as the great Clausewitz, recognised that these issues will shape strategic, operational and tactical objectives, planning factors, the size and balance of combat forces, and the allocation of resources. Undoubtedly transportation, a subset of distribution, will determine what is feasible when it comes to sustaining a dispersed force; how much must be delivered where, by whom and for how long. To consider tactics before transportation capacity in a dispersed environment is a short step closer to temporary, perhaps permanent, force culmination.

You may read this article, and the preceding two, and think that the only answer to the problem of logistic control is ‘it depends!’. This should not excuse the requirement to plan logistics to the highest level of detail that is practically possible, as this detail becomes vitally important to command decision. A failure to plan logistics effectively is dangerous to the combat force; the degradation it imposes on a commander’s decision making process is equally detrimental. It affects his or her ability to confirm what is possible and what isn’t. For this reason, we should avoid asking questions such as ‘how do we sustain a dispersed force?’ The more relevant question is subtly yet profoundly different, ‘how will my logistics capabilities enable me to operate.’ The characteristics of logistics capabilities that influence this equation are many, but they are likely to include factors such as platform characteristics, how they are protected (actively and passively), the battlefield terrain and command and control geometry applied to its organisation, logistics command and control systems … the list continues.

There are significant problems for ‘modernisers’ within Army and elsewhere in the Joint force to solve as part a rational force development process. Whether we prefer centralised or decentralised capabilities will influence force structure decisions yet to be made, and will ultimately impact upon the way commanders respond to the challenge of the future, increasingly dispersed, battlefield. However, commanders will experience far greater problems if they forget the tyranny that logistics exerts on combat forces, and the impact logistics will have on the decisions he or she might make. I believe we are best preparing commanders for the requirements of logistic control in the contemporary dispersed battlespace through refreshing doctrine, the practical exploration of the opportunities and constraints inherent in the Joint force structure, and modernising how we consider logistics and its role in war in training and education. Effective logistics control is an essential characteristic for supporting the combat force, and war will not tolerate concerted attempts to forget that it does.

David Beaumont is currently SO1 Operations at HQ 1st Joint Movement Group, and a Chief of Army Scholar designate for 2017. David Beaumont is undertaking doctoral research at ANU regarding the organisation of logistics, and its impact on strategy and operations.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.