Beyond the 'iron mountain': The paradox of efficient logistics

Logistics has long been regarded as vital to a force yet equally a constraint on that force’s freedom to manoeuvre. It is routinely condemned as focussing a force on locales rather than objectives; or as commonly yet usually erroneously described, confining the force to the Forward Operating Base (FOB). However, in seeking to alleviate the need for an ‘iron mountain’, the modern fixation on high-velocity, nominally ‘efficient’, logistics and ‘globalised’ supply chains has introduced its own quite significant challenges. Indeed it was recently argued that the ADF has yet to fully understand the consequences of an approach to logistics that now permeates its key concepts.

Logistic systems, and the concepts that drive their formation, are as influential on operations as operations should determine them. Clausewitz, although not overwhelmingly interested in issues of ‘paper war’, knew the irrevocable relationship logistics had with strategy and tactics. He noted, "questions of supply can exert on the form and direction of operations, as well as the choice of a theatre of war and the line of communication." Modern war shows no evidence to support any contradiction of this view. But it does reveal a paradox; in seeking to reduce the impact of logistics on strategy, operations and tactics through the artifice of efficient supply chains, planners may have in fact created new vulnerabilities from the old.

This paradox has been exemplified in Afghanistan, where the unprecedented outsourcing of logistics functions was intended to enhance operational flexibility for offensive operations, achieve national development objectives but most importantly, reduce the scale of military logistic elements in theatre. Professor Derek Gregory claims this tremendous transfer of risk funded years of warlordism and corruption, drawing away resources perhaps better employed directly in support of the deployed force. Furthermore, insurgent destruction of civilian contracted convoys and international disputes with Pakistan very quickly showed that the corporatisation of military logistics and ‘just-in-time’ systems failed to live up to the promise they originally offered.

As the war approaches its supposed end, militaries have sought new solutions to sustain deployed forces. War is quite clearly ironic, as many of these other options have proved as ultimately inefficient as the ‘iron mountains’ they were designed to obviate. From 2006 to 2011 the USAF record of airdrops in Afghanistan had increased from 3.5 million lbs to over 80 million lbs annually, with around 40% of FOBs supplied directly from air; air elements that could have otherwise been supporting mobility tasks. As Captain Albaugh from the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron aptly described of such operations, "we’re going to burn a lot of gas to drop a lot of gas".

School of Advanced Military Studies student, Major Martha Granger, in her 2003 analysis of three Afghanistan campaigns (pdf), noted logistics is never easy and there must be balance between ‘iron mountains’ and the lean force. This is a message that is often muted behind the effusion about ‘efficient’ logistics, even within the US military that has more reason than any other to understand the impact of logistics on operations. In analysing the US Navy concept of ‘seabasing’ the Congressional Budget Office outlined ideas from fleets of a dozen vessels per brigade of marines to airships providing sustainment to deployed forces; each idea addressing the problem of forward positioning logistics yet introducing significant operational challenges the US military has yet to effectively respond to.

As the Australian Army begins operating within an Australian Maritime Strategy, there are many parallels to such studies. The ADF’s future expeditionary operations will require us to protect vital lines of communication from disruption in the tremendously complex environment of a maritime setting. Army, and the ADF more broadly, knows this and is developing operational concepts accordingly. But the question still remains; has our reliance on efficient supply chains as a means of minimising logistic forces and supply in the field led us to become victims of our own good intentions?

Academic Deborah Cowen recently wrote that we are moving to an era where ‘logistic space’ has been recast from an environment of economic costs to one which has significant implications for security. In a more visceral sense, in viewing logistics as a system of ‘adding value’ through the reduction of stock holdings or volume - counterpoised against an increasing demand for velocity – armies are becoming increasingly vulnerable to anything that interferes with or interdicts this flow. We are therefore left with a paradox. Our desire to unshackle our dispersed operations from the ‘iron mountains’ has only left planners with new challenges, perhaps even greater, than the problems of old.

Lieutenant Colonel Beaumont is currently Staff Officer Grade One – Logistic Plans at Headquarters Forces Command

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.


  • response from CAPT Solomon Birch, 15 October 2014

    While I found this an interesting article which raised numerous valid points, I don't believe it discusses the effect of changing technology on the possibilities of logistics enough or the effect of Army's talent management on logistics. The total throughput of a logistic system, defined by the amount of items it can acquire and move to where they're required in a given time, is relevant but only assesses the gross effect of a system, not its ability to meet logistical demands dynamically in real time and space. Logistics, in terms of research and development capital and priority for talented people to work on has, to the best of my understanding, not been a major priority for the ARA in living memory. Logistics doesn't shoot a thousand bullets a second, clear minefields or deliver high explosives to a ten figure grid thirty kilometres away, but there is a clear imperative to make it sexy as we prepare to continue delivering it with forty year old vehicles, an integrated logistics system which is the bane of all those who use it and no real CVS. Technologies like RFID which were developed in the 1970's, already in use in businesses in 1980, entered mainstream commercial application over 1980 - 1990 and which were "widely deployed" and "a part of every day life" by the year 2000, are still entirely absent from our way of doing logistic business (The History of RFID, Page 7, Dr Jeremy Landt, 01 Oct 2001). Our casual neglect military logistics has endured so long it has become a self fulfilling prophesy, where logistics seldom attracts our most talented officers, where we deliver those officers training of questionable utility and and where logistics seems to compete extremely poorly for scarce modernisation investment, because it's an unspoken assumption that logistics is a painfully bureaucratic, nonsensical, inefficient, unrewarding thing to be involved in that is just rubbish because it is.

    While in principle, I completely agree with the points put forwards in the argument and think it to be valid, I think there is potential to find them misleading. The reason that people have come to expect more from logistics is because logistics should be more productive and efficient, given advances in technology of logistics without even considering the conceptual changes in logistics discussed in the article. The additional complexity that we are creating by trying to do logistics differently and better should be offset, mostly at least, by the improved technology we can use to achieve it. Perhaps most importantly, we should not see logistics just in terms of the dated (but still useful) "mass vs flexibility" paradigm we teach on LOBC; we should instead see investments in the talent of our logisticians and the technology in terms of the efficiency dividends we can reap from initial investment. To put into perspective just how bad we are at administration (ie. everything other than tactics), the Australian Army has a strength of about 47,000 people and costs the taxpayer somewhere around $7b per year, while the Australian logistics company, Toll, who has invested in more modern systems, has about 45,000 employees and turns a casual $8.8b per year profit. The $16b difference not created by the very limited readily deployable option that we provide to the government; it's created by the nebulous "everything other than tactics" that we were hastily taught on our first appointment course.

    Much of this appeals to sense so common that nearly every person involved in the delivery of logistics to a Cbt Bde knows it, because these are the people who understand the unrealistic difficulty and complexity of trying to manage tens of thousands of paper issue forms for millions of dollars of CES and individual issue items. These are the people who understand that having an RQMS or QM get up in front of all the SCA holders for 30 minutes every year and tell them about how they can go to jail if they don't manage their kit doesn't actually change that most of the Army is, in actual fact, really terrible at managing their kit. These are the people who form lines on a parade ground to have their DP1 inspected because some time in the last decade half a dozen people didn't account for it correctly and now something can't be found. The fact that our logistics systems are a little bit out of touch with what's accepted practice outside of the military is fairly apparent when we largely missed an entire generation of technology (barcodes for stocktracking and stocktaking), we appear to be missing the generation that followed it (integrated RFID complemented by barcodes) and all of our soldiers personally own inexpensive smart devices that are technologically sophisticated enough to do all these things. The best intentions and fear of jail only can only take us so far, and our woeful management of the aspects of logistics we can physically see at a given time is only the tip of the iceberg.

    The highest of all priorities for our Army in the area of logistics must be modernisation. Modernisation to bring us to the "best practice" of decades gone by with tools that work well would be a start. As an Army we shouldn't accept our backwards way of doing things and how it burdens and limits us. As a nation of taxpayers we shouldn't accept the level of waste it creates. Despite the fact that it will inevitably require investment in terms of talent and capital to achieve, moving out of the past is necessary to realise the savings and benefits that modern logistics can bring the the military.