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Logistics and the art of prioritisation

Logistics and the art of prioritisation

Previously I argued that the battlefield has always been dispersing, and tactics have adjusted accordingly, posing challenges for logistics planners and commanders alike. Whether it be to avoid obliteration, or in response to the requirement move and sustain forces across greater distances or difficult geography, logisticians must approach the principle of ‘flexibility’ beyond its use as a by-word.  But is really isn’t their problem to resolve, at least not in isolation in a brigade maintenance area or logistics command post. The execution and control of effective logistics is predominantly the consequence of the execution of command. And, unfortunately, the issues facing logistic operations in dispersed battlefields are becoming increasingly problematic for commanders.  Logistics elements positioned well away from threats impose significant movements costs to the force; alternatively, logistic forces spread thinly to support dispersed combat elements encounter survivability risks or become spread so thinly across dispersed forces that they are no longer functionally effective.

A lack of control and discipline in this environment magnifies other logistic issues relating to duration and dependency that are natural features when sustaining distributed options. Wasteful behaviour with respect to sustainment always erodes the flexibility of the force and the options available to exploit successes or prevent failures. It makes forces beholden to unnecessary stockholdings or capabilities that become geographic anchors, and prevents the reallocation of those stockholdings or capabilities necessary for combat elsewhere.

How, then, does a commander effectively exercise logistic control over the sustainment of his or her dispersed force? How does a commander prevent logistics becoming inefficient, the build-up of stocks and capability forward, with the entire system becoming inflexible as a consequence? As applied in Army’s recent Combat Service Support Review, and reflected at a fundamental level in its doctrine, logistic control is predominantly achieved through a commander’s authority to allocate, and prioritise the use of, logistic resources to the combat force.

Supporting forces in dispersed environments where logistic forces are either well away from the forward line of battle, or spread thinly amongst dispersed combat forces, brings the art of prioritisation to the fore. There are various methods for the management of priorities and allocations, with the ultimate outcome being a determination of who gets more, and who gets less, at any particular time. Decisive points of the battle will be won or lost on the basis of logistic choices, especially when forces are separated by distance. Thus the commander and his or her logistics staff must be incredibly self-aware regarding the context of their own forces, and the desired objective - whether it is tactical, operational or strategic in nature. These factors, above all else, matter in prioritisation. An over-emphasis on ‘red-force analysis’ in lieu of understanding the ‘blue-force’ components could very well be a grave planning choice for a commander and his or her staff.

Secondly, and enabled by their own understanding of their force’s requirements, commanders at all levels must be capable of making rational judgements based on logistic risks. To effectively prioritise across a dispersed force, there must exist a culture which accepts, albeit reluctantly, that logistic demands may be partially fulfilled – if fulfilled at all. Operating in particularly austere conditions, where supply timings are not dependable and demand fulfilment uncertain, isn’t something the Army has had to experience for some time. Many commanders actively seek to avoid the problem of austerity on our major exercises, where it is routine for deploying units to take sufficient quantities of stores and supplies to last the exercise and without testing the broader logistic ‘system’. False lessons are learned, the ability to control logistics is never mastered, and unrealistic expectations on logistics capabilities are made. All are reasons that commanders might fail in operational missions. 

Of course, the ‘austerity’ mantra can be pushed too far. In stark contrast to exercise logistics, when it comes to operations commanders, Australian and otherwise, have always tended to minimise the ‘tail’ of a force and to accept risks for the sake of early advances and tactical achievements. Ironically, an inability to generate sufficient logistic ‘mass’, a build-up of supply or logistics capabilities, can often result in a significant and wasteful over-compensation once a forces viability period prematurely expires and the force culminates. As our own operations during the Operation Warden in Timor Leste (1999-2000) revealed, the rapid dispersal of coalition forces saw elements run out of repair parts and transport force elements.[1] An inflexible demand process resulted in additional supplies, in excessive quantities, being accumulated within the national support base and overseas as the scale of the problem became evident to planners. I think we could examine our operations in the Middle-east to uncover similar examples of this all-too-common problem.  Logistic activities always tend to develop a momentum of their own, consuming resources that are better spent elsewhere.

This article covers a few key issues for Army’s commanders and logisticians which will require greater examination than a blog article can provide. Fundamentally, the problem for Army’s logistics is unlikely to be resolved by an expedient injection of modernised capabilities without adjustments to the way logisticians do business. It would also do the logistics community well to examine the lessons of the past, and why contemporary doctrine reflects on sustaining war in the way it presently does. But ultimately I believe that it will be the flexibility demonstrated by battlefield commanders, and the logisticians that advise them, in their approach to controlling logistics in a dispersed battlefield that will prove the most important factor in future operations. As I argued in a previous article, I think the need for an ‘area’-style approach to logistics, shaped by priorities and direction, and an expectation of austerity, will be essential for succeeding in the Joint expeditionary operations we undertake - but we may require something completely different if Army’s commitments change. The need for effective logistic control will not.

My next article will explore the idea of logistic control to a greater depth, and will briefly examine how organisation influences the logistics of dispersed operations.

[1] These issues are highlighted in the Centre for Army Lessons database available for military members on the Defence Protected Network.

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.

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