Logistics and the dispersed battlefield: Reframing the discussion

‘It is no great matter to change tactical plans in a hurry and to send troops off in new directions. But adjusting supply plans to the altered tactical scheme is far more difficult’ – General Walter Bedell Smith (Chief of Staff to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force from 1944-1945)[1]

The question of how dispersed forces can be sustained effectively has been recently raised in a number of blogs and articles, but the problem is far from being new. The battlefield began to disperse well before the Australian Army considered modern insurgency and operations in the urban-littoral that involved contemporary near-peer threats. The ever-increasing killing power available to the soldier has necessitated the depopulation of the battlefield, as has the destructive power of air forces, missiles and artillery, and at its most extreme, nuclear weaponry.[2] Similarly, terrain and geography has always played its part on separating forces from interior lines of support and forcing both logistics and combat forces to disperse widely and generating operational friction as a consequence. Sustaining forces of ever-diminishing size across an expansive battlefield has always been one of the greatest conceptual challenges that logisticians must face.

Recently, this problem has been articulated in terms of the firepower aspects. Even without observing the outcomes of artillery fire in the recent conflict in the Ukraine, we have known for many years that an exchange between modern militaries will result in the destruction of expanses of territory and casualties. Not only will massed logistics units be a key point of vulnerability in this potential environment, but destruction wrought on the battlefield will greatly reduce the ability of a commander to exercise control over his or her logistics element. The need to spread forces thinly for their own safety, combat and logistic forces alike, introduces serious problems to movements (of forces) and distribution (their sustainment) and tests the limited logistics management systems that will be available to control them. Throw in the threat of cyber and electronic attack on such management systems, and a seemingly insurmountable problem emerges.

Contrary to others I don’t believe we are fatally unprepared for this challenge, or that our doctrine and tactics are constraints on future operational performance.  Logistic ‘battlefield geometry’ and methods of command and control,  as displayed in ideas such as ‘lines’ or ‘levels’ of support have been logical methods for forces operating over extended distances and by logistics elements that required dispersal. They have worked in environments where communications and protection has been poor. In the Second World War, logistics zones allowed for the concentration of logistic capabilities with sufficient depth to support entire armies, and dispersed enough to prevent their destruction to artillery, bombs and counter attack. Apportioning logistic support by its function (general, close and integral) or by priority of effort have also proven effective command and control tools to coordinate the concentration of logistic capability to sustain forces that can be dispersed throughout a battlefield. Most definitely they have been important with respect to enabling logistic mission command.

Of course, there is need to change the way forces are sustained to reflect new conditions. The general principles of logistics remain as relevant now as they were sixty years ago. I believe the notion of ‘area logistics’ which has re-emerged in recent war-gaming by the US Marine Corps, is a good option for the Army, as a part of a Joint force, to explore. The USMC’s expeditionary advanced base concept, that leans towards this model, envisions protected forward operating bases, mobile logistics elements or ‘sea-basing’ options, supported by sense and warn capabilities and anti-air and other defences, being allocated areas of responsibility for the sustainment of nearby combat forces. This type of support has been traditionally effective in areas divided by complex terrain, such as in Australia’s immediate environ where mountains and water make traditional forms of logistic support impossible, or at the very least impractical. In such a case, we might find logistic units of different levels, or even Services, sustaining units they would not normally expect to be within the context of the joint force.

Regardless of the method that appeals to us right now, successful logistics operations require commanders to appreciate, and certainly control, movements and sustainment. By commander, I mean the tactical commander and not that of the logistic unit; a distinction Admiral Henry Eccles makes in his pivotal work on logistics Logistics in the National Defense. While logisticians routinely argue over the ‘right’ balance between the ability to disaggregate or mass capability, the challenge for commanders in controlling logistics in this environment is a less understood problem. At the very least, it is rarely discussed in the Australian Army other than in arguments over whether to centralise or decentralise organisations, or as an aspect of a culture that overvalues the ownership of logistics capability by commanders. The depth and breadth of the battlefield logistic problem for Army’s present and future commanders goes well beyond this well-trodden path; methods of control logistics will become increasingly as important to success  as capability factors or doctrine re-writes.

As I will explain in a later article, control of logistics therefore places the problem in the context of decision-making, and by extension, command.


[1] Smith, W.B, Eisenhower’s Six Great Decisions, Longmans Green, USA, 1956, p 82

[2] Macksey, K., For want of a nail, Brassey’s, UK, 1989, p 191

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.