A shrieking alarm rang in the enemy sailor’s earpiece as a bright light flashed on the battlefield management display. Then, seconds later, came the deafening roar of a close-in weapon system followed swiftly by a violent explosion. The missile was fired by a concealed Australian combat team which had been deployed to an island in Australia’s near region for months; for so long in fact, the enemy commander had not anticipated their presence. Peering through the lens of this vignette, sustainment was as instrumental to mission success as the performance of the missile.
“A threat that the enemy knows cannot be sustained is not a threat.”
– David Berteau, Former US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Logistics & Materiel Readiness
Key to accomplishing the Australian Government’s shape-deter-respond strategic objectives is the ADF’s ability to sustain power projection within a contested logistics environment. Contested logistics is acceptance that friendly forces must consider themselves to be under constant observation or in contact when engaged in a peer conflict, regardless of the perceived distance to a threat. Critically, Army needs to understand how it will operate as part of a coalition joint force in an environment characterised by disrupted sea and air lines of communication. This article will propose that resilience through forward logistics is pivotal to mission success.
Army’s value to the Joint Force is predicated on the provision of endurance at the operational level to facilitate distributed operations. This aligns with coalition doctrine, such as the United States Marine Corps, which specifies the importance of seizure and defence of land for use as nodes for the purposes of logistic or strike operations. For example, tasks such as ground and air defence of a coalition partner’s airfield, or the occupation of an uninhabited island for the deployment of land-based precision strike systems. Importantly, these tasks can generate effects for government across the spectrum of shaping, deterrence, or response objectives.
When conducting these tasks, the land force will be under threat from numerous kinetic and non-kinetic sources whilst constantly battling the constraints imposed by geographic distance. Of particular concern is the land force’s susceptibility to isolation, as the Air Force and Navy will be challenged on the links between nodes. Without a robust sustainment network, the land force could be starved into submission. As such, the land force must develop mechanisms to combat the threats posed by isolation if it is going to perform its mission for the joint force. Army must build a resilient expeditionary force.
To generate resilience the land force needs to practice the concept of forward logistics, whereby expeditionary units aim to become as self-sufficient as possible. That is not to denigrate the importance of sustainment interoperability with coalition partners, rather to reinforce that Australian forces should not be an impost on the coalition sustainment network.
Whilst sustainment resilience must be considered at all levels – strategic, operational and tactical – this article will focus on tactical logistic considerations for Army: reducing consumption, winning local resources, enabling forward repair, and providing organic security.
There is always going to be limited space on a ship, plane, or truck; therefore, it is essential to both utilise that space efficiently and use the transported stores frugally. A smaller organisational footprint reduces both the quantity of transported items as well as consumption. In this regard, tactical commanders should always balance battlefield capability and long-distance sustainability. An adaptable expeditionary force with a low sustainment burden tailored to the threat will be more useful in a contested logistics environment compared to a large inefficient force.
Similarly, commanders must assess their personnel requirement in terms of trade and function with the goal of doing more with less. Troops with more skills are more useful and flexible on the battlefield, such as a transport driver who has received financial training to conduct basic procurement of supplies. Granted there are ramifications in terms of force generation, so training should be opportune rather than prescribed, but there is significant tactical merit to having flexible troops.
As for higher headquarters, the tactical level can best be supported through smarter sustainment practices. With better analysis of usage rates and maintenance regimes, Army can provide more accurate and efficient support. Emerging tools such as artificial intelligence offer opportunities but are dependent on accurate research, analysis, and resourcing.
Ultimately, the end state should be a robust supply chain that is capable of intelligent forecasting and surging to mitigate the supply chain vulnerabilities associated with high tempo conflicts, such as those faced in Ukraine.
Winning local resources
As links between nodes cannot be relied on, it is important for the dispersed force to be able to acquire resources at or near the point of need. This will primarily be subsistence supplies, but also includes the development and maintenance of forward infrastructure. This has two effects. Firstly, it reduces reliance on timely resupply which consequently increases tactical endurance and enhances survivability. Secondly, there’s an increased capacity within the sustainment network for vital stores which cannot be won locally, such as ammunition and materiel.
Local contracts will be vital to sustaining expeditionary forces. Noting the complexity of international engagement and the dispersion of the Land Force, troops need to be prepared to execute basic procurement with limited oversight from higher headquarters. This requires a broader financial purchasing capacity and understanding of local processes at lower levels of command to enable local resupply of items, such as food. The Army may also need to be willing and able to engage in economies that are prone to corruption.
Another critical resource that is a burden on the supply chain is fuel. Power generation at the point of need is a readily attainable method to combat some of the challenges of a contested logistics environment. Deployed forces could achieve energy autonomy through the employment of systems such as hydrogen generators, fuel cells, wind turbines, and solar systems. There are further synergies to be gained if electric or hybrid power systems are introduced for vehicles.
For example, a mateship between the Electric Bushmaster and the land-based anti-ship StrikeMaster concepts would make for a threatening asset that is both sustainable and attainable.
Enable forward repair
Equipment is useful to the land force as long it can protect, shoot, move, and communicate. If equipment cannot be repaired near the point of need, then resupply must occur from the manufacturer along a contested line of communication. This poses a burden on the transport network as well as the broader military industry; hence, forward repair offers benefits to efficiency, productivity, and operational capability.
To better enhance forward repair, maintainers must become experts at battle damage assessment and field-expedient repair. This skillset enables commanders to make informed decisions about the utilisation of potentially hazardous equipment or repair methods when the need outweighs the risk. Connectivity between maintainers at remote forward areas and engineers in the national support base enhances the quality and ability to conduct repairs, but connectivity cannot be relied on in a contested environment. Therefore, maintainers at the frontline need to be prepared to use their experience and ingenuity to perform repairs whilst Army needs to support them with smarter processes that enable lower echelons of command to accept risk.
Better analysis of parts usage and increased parts commonality between fleets would also reduce wasted space previously occupied by superfluous repair parts and specialist tooling. In this regard, Army needs to continue to invest in advanced manufacturing to offer maintainers greater adaptability by reducing the lines of communication for simple parts. Ultimately, any enhancement to forward repair increases maintenance tempo which in turn improves equipment availability and strengthens fighting power.
Whilst responsibility for security of a land force does extend to the air and naval links, it is vital that nodes have the firepower to defend themselves. A deployed land force should be strong enough to defend itself against attack until support can arrive, otherwise it is simply awaiting its own destruction. This principle extends to logistic nodes which present themselves as high payoff targets if not well defended.
Defence is reliant on hardening or concealment, dependent on the nature of the node involved and threat countered. Hardening through survivability engineering and kinetic defence systems is a must for nodes aiming to retain stationary infrastructure. Whilst mobility and concealment are essential for nodes trying to operate below the targeting threshold. Both approaches must consider multi-domain security, with electromagnetic signature and physical camouflage being equally important.
It would be a misconception to propose that efficiencies at the tactical level do not have operational and strategic impact. The longer the land force can operate independently, the more endurance and capability is provided to the joint force at the operational level. To be effective contributors within a contested logistics environment, Army needs to utilise expeditionary units tailored to combat the threat whilst remaining sustainable.
A great article thanks. Does the army currently, or has it considered, having metal 3D printing machines at forward operating or isolated logistics nodes to enable on the spot manufacture of damaged mechanical components?
Recent advances in the 'compact' sizes and capabilities of these machines could reduce the need for utilising a contested resupply chain if some damaged parts could be printed on-site at or near the point of need.
Just food for thought.
Army are using a range of emerging technologies under the advanced manufacturing umbrella. This is reflected in Army's recent change of terminology for one of the RAEME trades, Fitter Armourer is now called Materiel Technician.
The rub point, as other militaries are encountering, is execution - both policy and practically. Just having the technology isn't enough. Intellectual property is important, as is the engineering endorsement. At present, these technologies are being utilised for low value, low risk uses. This should change over time to more high risk, high value uses as engineers become more confident in the technology.