Combat Service Support on Exercise: The case for making them vulnerable again

Combat Service Support (CSS) assets by their very nature, are vulnerable in the battlespace. They are often slow, cumbersome and leave a large signature; making it tedious and resource intensive for commanders to protect. In manoeuvre warfare, they are a tempting target, a gap between hard services which can cause disproportionate damage when attrited. A classic dilemma for the commander is allocating correct combat weight to protect CSS assets whilst still achieving mission aims. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has a long history of ignoring this dilemma on major exercises by protecting our CSS assets through ‘white boxing’ – or removing them from being targetable within the exercise.

The philosophy of ‘train the way we fight’ is often espoused as a foundational principle by commanders for unit and formation level collective training. On face value, it is difficult to fault that line of thinking; as a professional organisation whose primary role is to project combat power, it makes sense for Combat Service Support (CSS) organisations to train in scenarios that simulate battlefield conditions. Obviously there are limits to how real the simulation can be and the approach has to be tempered by risk and practicality, but acts as a unifying concept to drive realistic training.

When it comes to exercising Army’s CSS capabilities, the ‘train the way we fight’ philosophy is often sacrificed for the sake of exercise efficiency and ease of execution. In fact, there appears to be a large divergence from CSS functions on deployments and operations compared to Army’s major training exercises. I believe it is a fair comment that we often ‘cheat’ the CSS on exercises, relaxing real time deployment limitations that would otherwise enforce a dependent relationship on the CSS organisations, particularly with close (or second line) support.

It is widely known that Army’s training priority has to be first and foremost towards kinetic combat operations. Naturally, the execution of violence is the foundation of what Army does and should take precedence. However, it’s detrimental to all participants if CSS is not effectively tested. Failure to enforce appropriate relationships results in poorly tested CSS, particularly the crucial link between integral and close support. Anecdotally, it is evident that there is a lack of trust in the responsiveness of the supply system, resulting in units deploying with an otherwise excessive Operational Viability Period or conducting repairs that would otherwise be performed at a close support repair unit. It is important to enforce appropriate relationships that will result in a realistic burden on the supporting close unit, particularly with testing their capacity to effectively manage the support of multiple, dispersed combat force elements across a large area of operations.

Logistic planners at all levels are forced to conduct detailed mission appreciation to ensure that the inflow of CSS sustainment meets planned and unplanned mission demands. The careful integration of CSS and combat planning is written into Army’s doctrine and reinforced on career courses; any CSS deficiencies may have serious effects that impinge on operational tempo. These deficiencies can be rectified but are subject to the time delays imposed by distance and the supply chain complexity that stems from working outside of Australia.  On exercise, these restrictions are rarely imposed upon participants, with CSS units regularly having civilian contractors delivering supply deficiencies directly into the exercise theatre. This approach causes institutional laziness, allowing participants to develop much less robust CSS plans on exercises compared to ‘real deployments’ whilst cementing unrealistic expectations towards in-theatre logistics.  

In addition, operational security constraints are often ignored completely for specialist assets such as bulk water, bulk fuel and heavy transport and heavy recovery platforms. It is not unusual for these type of assets to drive directly from civilian installations along main roads to line units under white box arrangements, ignoring CSS doctrine and bypassing the requirement for protection. The dilemma of having to balance your force elements between combat and CSS protection is a real world problem for commanders. White boxing removes that dilemma for commanders so they can focus on achieving exercise objectives but at the cost of realistic training. This creates a paradoxical situation where Commanders ignore the protection CSS assets because they are too difficult to defend on exercise, but ironically these same assets are specifically targeted by real enemies for the same reason.

I believe the above issues can be rectified with two simple fixes. Firstly, exercise planners should enforce supply chain discipline. If a combat or CSS unit did not deploy into theatre with requisite equipment, enforce those call signs to utilise the correct supply chain process to rectify the decencies, including imposing realistic time delays. Secondly, disallow the use of white boxing as a tool to expedite difficult CSS operations. Outside of real time emergencies, everything inside the exercise area should be designated live and targetable by opposing forces. This will simulate dilemma and foster manoeuvrist thinking by allowing commanders the freedom target enemy CSS and the constraint of having to protect their own CSS. 

These measures will be difficult to implement at first and may result in a much reduced tempo on exercise. It will also no doubt cause frustrations and delays as combat power is diverted to protect CSS elements. However, it will also serve highlight any force structure deficiencies we may be masking as well as require commanders to come up with more robust and creative CSS plans.  Ultimately, I believe it will teach much more valuable lessons that potentially better reflect real operations, thus closer aligning Army to training the war it fights.

CAPT Chen is a logistics officer in the Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps (RAAOC) who has served in the Army for 13 years. He commenced his regimental time at the 1st Combat Service Support Battalion. Since then, CAPT Chen has held a variety of command, technical and staff appointments within Army. CAPT Chen is currently a Divisional Officer at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

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.