5 facts about the logistics of war

Russia’s reported inability to refuel its vehicles while attempting to take over key Ukrainian cities highlights the crucial role that logistics plays in wartime.

In fact, logistics often determines the course of a war, experts say. Fuel, ammunition, food and water, and medical supplies are all critical needs on the front lines.

The U.S. military has seven geographic combatant commands set up around the world — Europe, Africa, the Pacific Rim, the Middle East, South America, North America and even outer space — to kick off logistical operations if a conflict arises. 

“For the U.S. military ideally, setting the theater has already taken place before combat operations begin,” Patrick H. Mackin, a spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), told FreightWaves.

The DLA is a 26,000-person unit that manages the combined supply chain for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force, Coast Guard, 11 combatant commands, other federal agencies, and partner and allied nations. 

“The mission of these regional commands is to do contingency planning for eventualities in their respective area, from humanitarian assistance/disaster response to combat operations,” Mackin said.

FreightWaves highlights five facts about military logistics that could make the difference between winning or losing a war.

  1. Fuel requirements dominate strategic decisions in war.

Fuel displaced ammunition as the single bulkiest commodity to be shipped to supply distant wars after 1945, according to Martin van Creveld, the author of “Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton.”

“As far as logistics go, the most salient single feature of the warfare in question was its dependence on the internal combustion engine both on land and in the air. As of the present, though, instead of being diminished by new technologies it is still increasing,” wrote van Creveld.

U.S. Marine combat brigades in Afghanistan were consuming more than 500,000 gallons of fuel per day between 2009 to 2010. In fiscal year 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense consumed nearly 78 million barrels ($9.2 billion) of fuel to power ships, aircraft, combat vehicles and contingency bases.  

Higher fuel requirements in distant locations can also present militaries with a logistical burden.

The transport of fuel via truck convoys faces the risks of enemy attacks or running out of fuel themselves as they attempt to reach their destinations.

Mackin said bulk fuel is always a key consideration for any U.S. military operation.

“DLA has thousands of fuel supply points around the world to facilitate U.S. military and coalition exercises and operations,” Mackin said. “Another key commodity is food/water — DLA has the subsistence supply chain and works with the regional combatant command planners on how to ensure access to daily rations — both packaged, like MREs, and locally procured fresh foods.”

  1. Soldiers must never run out of ammunition.

During a war, ammunition needs are often immediate. A unit that runs out of ammunition can’t wait hours or days for supply requests to go through and shipping to occur.

For military operations, this means trying to predict how much ammunition will be needed where and when — before it is needed. Most soldiers also carry a significant amount of ammunition if they are expecting a fight.

“To prevent a shortage of ammunition during combat, munitions must be amassed as far forward as safely possible and delivered to the forward line of troops,” according to Mike Lima in a blog post on Logistics in War.

For a routine resupply, the U.S. Army uses a logistics package (LOGPAC) a couple of times a day or week if needed. There is a constant flow of LOGPACs from trucks or helicopters directly to soldiers who are operating in combat situations.

If soldiers are in combat and find themselves running low on ammunition, supplies can usually be quickly loaded and pushed forward using trucks or helicopters to the front lines. 

“Units will have a basic load of ammunition, but there would be a supply chain established to resupply as the operation played out,” Mackin said.

  1. Moving soldiers and equipment into combat situations is complex and dangerous.

Moving thousands of troops, military equipment and supplies into potentially dangerous areas while avoiding hostile combatants is hazardous work.

Troops are initially transported by ships, trucks or helicopters when they must be delivered as a quick-moving invasion or occupation force. After an area is secured, then air, ocean or ground transport are used for large-scale personnel movements, heavy equipment and weapons.

“Large-scale combat operations require tens of thousands of vehicles and hundreds of thousands of soldiers employed across hundreds of miles,” according to a U.S. Army report called “Feeding the Forge: Sustaining Large-Scale Combat Operations.”

Sustaining troops in hostile areas also requires storage facilities, which can quickly become enemy targets.

“Assuming that we take operational security, camouflage and deception activities seriously and train our forces to become experts in passive protection, our sustainers will need to keep most supply commodities mobile enough to avoid destruction,” the report said. “Bulk storage of commodities in centralized locations will incur significant risk.”

  1. Real-time visibility is key to good decision-making in combat. 

Real-time information is a vital part of logistics decision-making in a combat situation.

Planning is traditionally achieved through requirements forecasting and is supported through daily logistics status reports (LOGSTATs) provided by brigade combat teams.

Brigade combat teams generally consist of a cavalry squadron, a fire battalion, a special troops battalion (with engineers, signals and military intelligence), a command sergeant major and a support battalion.

For the U.S. military, decision-making in large combat operations in foreign lands is often made by a combination of people operating on the front lines, along with logisticians back in the United States. 

“There’s a combination of push-pull for logistics requirements,” Mackin said. “Some of it’s based on planning assumptions in the combatant command’s contingency planning — for general levels of the classes of supply. At DLA, we have long-standing relationships with the U.S. military services and have systems in place that track and respond to the real-time resupply demand signal from deployed units.”

  1. Digital infrastructure is the future of combat logistics.

While the way wars are fought has changed through centuries, the value of logistics remains vital, according to the Modern War Institute at West Point.

U.S. military forces and their allies have been moving away from relying on linear supply chains to create interconnected physical-digital networks “that can pair demand with supply and mobility at the tactical edge and also coordinate production capacity in real time for the industrial base,” the institute wrote in a report called “Rethinking Logistics in an Era of Systems Warfare.”

The tactical edge concerns finding out who needs what, who has what and who has the capability to deliver whatever is needed quickly. 

“That solution demands many tools — smart algorithms, significant data management, sharing across partners and an ability to operate in both connected and disconnected modes —  it demands a full view of the battle space that integrates the operational and logistical pictures,” the institute report said. “Delivering geographically dispersed goods to troops through theater supply would require a coordination system that can match logistical supply to operational demand.”

Mackin said U.S. military operations are already based on data and connectivity.

“U.S. tactical units have a lot of organic capability in these areas, including satellite-enabled communications,” Mackin said. “At the higher levels, war planners also analyze the digital infrastructure in a region to understand what inherent capability exists — and conduct a gap analysis on what would be needed to support a contingency plan.”

That analysis has helped drive the requirements for the development and procurement of new military systems and capabilities to support the digital connectivity of deployed forces, Mackin said. 

Watch: FreightWaves’ What the Truck?!? discusses military veterans working in logistics.

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