It is impossible to know whether the commencement of the Russo-Ukrainian war is providing a strategic warning that is the equivalent of the occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the partition of Czechoslovakia in 1938, or the invasion of Poland in September 1939.
The likelihood of Australia being involved in a high intensity, peer on peer conflict in the next five years is arguably higher than it has ever been since 1945. If the strategic ten-year warning button alluded to in the Defence Strategic Update 2020 has been triggered, it is time to get serious and pessimistic, accepting that the road lying ahead will be uncomfortable.
For the ADF to not lose the next war, actions must be taken now that set the future conditions for success. Firstly, this paper will argue that logistics needs to be taken more seriously and identified as a critical component within all domains. Secondly, that logistics and Combat Service Support (CSS) must be properly tested and allowed to fail – identifying and addressing the failure points and shortfalls.
Logistics as a critical component of warfighting
Fortunately, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has not been as favourable to Russia as most anticipated. It has illustrated the corrosive effect on morale that a lack of logistic support generates. It can be identified quickly through open-source media that Russian logistics have largely failed. Twitter has been littered with photos of burning or abandoned trucks, vehicles, and armour. There was widespread looting of basic items at a very early stage of the campaign and even requests from Russia to China to provide them with combat rations.
Offensive actions have stalled across the board and the repeated attempts to make a thrust saw culmination ensue shortly thereafter. Even more noticeable has been the Russian prisoners willing to make statements condemning the conflict. Surely only the loss of trust and despondency with your military and government could induce this in Russian soldiers and officers.
The point is; fundamentally, all soldiers like to feel like they are part of a strategy that is working. They accept losses and setbacks, so long as they don’t lose faith in the wider organisation. Effective logistics is tangible evidence that the plan is working, that the army is working, that it is all going to be ok in the end. Conversely, when you eat your last ration pack 72 hours into an operation and can’t identify where the next meal is coming from, it has the opposite effect.
Overlay Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. A failure of logistics combined with kinetic action targets the bottom two layers of the pyramid – physiological needs and safety needs. This combination strikes at the core of an army’s will to fight, and – as Clausewitz highlighted – ‘war is a clash of wills’.
As logisticians we should utilise this opportunity to highlight the importance of effective CSS and logistics; it is time to steer away from focusing just on the teeth of the ADF but also on its tail. If we do not focus on our organic logistical support, our combat brigades could quickly find themselves structurally well below the current levels of Russian CSS, which has failed to date. The Russian CSS elements are conceptually similar to the Australian Army’s. As a Combat Service Support Battalion (CSSB) supports a brigade, a Russian MTO will do the same – both a CSSB and an MTO are largely like-for-like.
As logisticians this is an important time, the Russo-Ukraine conflict has highlighted the significance of CSS in sustaining the force and ultimately contributing to the defeat of the enemy. Logistics has become ‘sexy’ again. We must harness this to enlighten our combat corps peers.
If a plan won’t work due to CSS constraints, then logisticians must say so. We have too often as a collective just gone along with the manoeuvre plan and ‘made it happen’ despite knowing it is unfeasible.
A common theme that runs through our organisation is that CSS is never fully stretched or tested. Why on our training exercises do we always win, remain in our comfort zone, and stick to doctrine following a set playbook? The best lessons are often found when things don’t go to plan, giving the opportunity to look back and reflect from the losses. Exercise Talisman Sabre is the ultimate box ticking exercise to determine whether a brigade is classed as ‘ready’. However; is it an actually effective indicator of readiness? Arguably not.
For example, what if the 3rd Brigade were given a warning order to deploy from Townsville to Yampi Sound Training area in 48 hours and only to take three days of supply. Imagine the uncertainty. How would they force project, generate self-sufficient power, sustain themselves for an extended period, etc? The most fundamental and underpinning aspect of the whole scenario would be the CSS and logistics element. It would be chaos. Yet, they have no problem conducting a Talisman Sabre exercise.
Our training must change to truly stretch our formations and force mistakes and losses to occur. It is the only way to find out where the weak points are and fix them. The ADF cannot expect to win everything it is involved in. History would support this. The entire training continuum needs revitalising, and the Army needs to move away from box ticking pass / fail exercises. When a commander is constantly placed in that environment it stifles imagination and promotes doctrinal inflexibility. Being flexible and adaptable is critical in warfighting.
Exercise Talisman Sabre still has its merits. It is great for deepening interoperability with foreign nations and demonstrating soft power influence within the near region. However, it could be made better quite easily by doing three simple things. Firstly, we deploy the Role 2E field hospital yet fly casualties to civilian hospitals. We should have faith in our organic health facilities and use them. Secondly, we force project using ground lines of communication when we should use sea and air transportation to arrive in the exercise area which would prevent units from hoarding supplies, and place stress on the CSS chain. Finally, the geographic size of Australia means it is in a fortunate enough position to exercise lifelike lines of communication between the echelons. Yet this is rarely done. Too often the Brigade Maintenance Area or Force Support Group can be found only a short bound behind the front line.
All these would be relatively simple to implement, yet it is unlikely to occur. Gabrielle Follett’s article The Trust Deficit provided an explanation as to why this may be. It is the fear of failure and a lack of trust that is deep seated throughout the Defence Force. We keep everything close by and over-pack just on the off chance it is required. Instead, there must be a more realistic approach taken. We must train realistic lines of communication, trust the supply chain and CSS elements, and test it to failure. Most importantly, when there is failure, we must see it as an opportunity to improve and learn, rather than a failure.
According to Dr. Jennifer Kunst, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst,
"We are greatly helped in life when we have a relative balance of success and failure, for then they work in tandem in a potentially helpful way. Success can strengthen our feelings of competence which, ironically, can make us feel that we can actually can deal better with failure when it comes. So, too, failure offsets success, keeping us humble and reminding us that we are just human. We are so much better off when we can take the good with the bad."
The United States BLUFOR usually lose against a dedicated OPFOR whilst conducting the warfighter exercises; it is almost expected. The emphasis being that you learn more from realistic failures than from generic wins.
There is a long road ahead for Australia to prepare for the next conflict. A road we need to start walking now. Over the last two decades, Australia has only ever been involved with conflicts of our choosing, and never as the key belligerent but as a smaller coalition partner. Although this has been effective in strengthening our global alliances and providing experience for our soldiers, if Australia is now on a trajectory towards a high intensity conflict not of our choosing; then this is something entirely different.
If we as a nation believe this is a likely course of action, then we must begin preparations immediately. It will not be a flag waving contribution in the Indo-Pacific region. Decades of relative peace and prosperity have resulted in a high level of efficiency over effectiveness and an excessive intolerance for risks. If the Russian conflict in Ukraine has illustrated anything, it is that logistics is critical. Not just for sustaining the physical component of warfighting, but also the moral component. As such, logistics must be trained realistically and improved. We need to start stretching logistics to breaking point so that we can improve it.
Defence culture needs to shift from the fear of failure and lack of trust to a more collaborative and imaginative way of training. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Australia must take steps now towards mobilisation. Defence industry needs to be invested in and grown in order to support sovereign production capability. The population needs awakening to the growing threats, and we must start to stockpile for war, with a particular focus on stockpiling supplies that are not domestically manufactured. If the 10-year strategic warning has indeed been triggered, it currently seems like the Western world is walking into a conflict the likes of which has not been seen for some time.