Learning from History to Strengthen the Nation’s Military Logistics & Distribution Network

Apr 27, 2022 | Defense Transportation Journal, DTJ Online

April will mark the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War between the United Kingdom (UK) and Argentina. It was an unexpected conflict for the UK, a result of Argentina’s surprise invasion of the islands. Argentina had disputed UK ownership of the islands since 1833.

After 74 days of conflict, the UK prevailed, wresting the islands from Argentine control, but the campaign was a near-run thing. The biggest challenge for the UK was in building the distribution network to deploy and sustain its force. The UK had to project combat power from the home islands 8,000 miles into the hostile environment of the South Atlantic to confront an adversary operating much closer to its base of supply.

Had the UK not secured the use of Ascension Island from the United States and not moved decisively to requisition and convert for military use, 54 commercial vessels to transport both troops and equipment, the effort would have failed. 

In recent years and through reductions in military spending, prominent members of the UK military have suggested the same success could not be achieved today.1 The distribution logistics capacity could not be mustered to deploy and sustain the force.

America has not fought a war in the continental US since the Civil War. All conflicts have been fought far from home and barring unforeseen events, this will surely remain the case. Confronting the most likely threats of today has the potential of creating scenarios similar to what the UK faced 40 years ago, but on a much larger scale. There are many scenarios that could trigger a requirement for the US to rapidly deploy and sustain significant forces over vast distances to fight.

Gen Van Ovost commented that 90 percent of the assets required to deploy forces today are commercial assets, and 34 out of 50 vessels in the Roll-on/Roll-off fleet needed to deploy the force, are scheduled to leave service by 2031.

What was the case for the UK 40 years ago remains true today, distribution logistics is the foundation of national capability to project and sustain the force.

Having the best-trained forces in the world, armed with state-of-the-art weapons systems, is not relevant if those weapons systems cannot be brought to bear by the ability to deploy, establish, and maintain forces anywhere on the globe. Without strategic distribution networks, the US military becomes little more than a force capable of conducting large-scale raids. There will not be time, once hostilities commence, to build distribution systems consisting of physical networks, supplies and transportation assets, and the command and control to manage the system. The framework and components for these systems must be in place prior to conflict.

Recognizing in conventional conflict it is critical to get there first and to persist once there, an argument can be made the best investments in our national preparedness for defense are in strategic to tactical level distribution logistics. Before weapons can be employed against the enemy in any conflict, the capability to put forces and weapons anywhere on the globe and sustain them once they arrive is an absolute and unyielding requirement.

Along these lines, when speaking at the 2021 NDTA-USTRANSCOM Fall Meeting, Gen Jacqueline Van Ovost, USAF, Commander of US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), described the need for “resilient, reliable, agile, and adaptable logistics capabilities.” The US distribution logistics capabilities are what Gen Van Ovost described them to be however, they are not robust in scale to even approach meeting the potential need. Similar to the UK in the years following the Falkland Islands conflict, the US will be challenged today in deploying and sustaining forces sufficient to confront capable regional threats.

Over the last 20 years, there has been tremendous investment in logistics command and control technology to drive system efficiency. Efficiency through visibility and accuracy is important, it reduces the requirement for physical assets, but no investment in artificial intelligence, machine learning, decision advantage, or transportation management systems is the panacea to offset the requirement for physical network infrastructure and transportation assets.

Even in today’s information age, the tyranny of time, distance, mass, and dimensions still exist for logisticians. What is to be done? Here are four recommendations:

Build Strategic Relationships
First, the United States must forge, and in some cases renew, strategic relationships that will allow access during times of conflict, to foreign bases, ports, and airfields. Access to these facilities and the ability to maintain the surface lines of communication linking them together, constitutes the logistics network of the distribution system.

Gen Van Ovost noted in her comments, 85 percent of US forces are currently based in the continental United States. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has brought forces home from forward basing locations, like those that were in Germany and the Philippines. Not only do forces need to deploy from the US today, utilizing assets to move troops and equipment, there are no forward bases from which to mass sustainment closer to point of need once forces arrive in theater.

The importance of access and basing was evident in 2003 when Turkey denied the US access to Iraq from the North. Had Kuwait not allowed US forces to land, to assemble and to stage, the invasion and subsequent operations in Iraq would not have been possible.

The Need for Strategic Military Assets
Secondly, the US must secure the strategic mobility assets to utilize on the logistics network. The most critical asset shortfall today is in strategic shipping. At the conclusion of World War II, the US possessed the largest merchant fleet in the world. Gen Van Ovost commented that 90 percent of the assets required to deploy forces today are commercial assets, and 34 out of 50 vessels in the Roll-on/Roll-off fleet needed to deploy the force, are scheduled to leave service by 2031. There are also competing demands for commercial assets, like those for the Jones Act vessels plying the waters between the US mainland, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, that can’t simply be abandoned.

Information provided by the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) shows only 180 US-flagged vessels exceeding 1,000 tons exist in the national inventory.2 There is also a growing mismatch between vessel design for commercial purposes and military need during wartime.3 A cursory historical comparison of shipping requirements for past conflicts, Operation Desert Storm is a good example, versus what is on hand today reveals massive shortfalls. The US maintains a Ready Reserve Force of close to 100 vessels and MARAD’s Maritime Security Program (MSP) is fully subscribed at 60 vessels, but these numbers are clearly not sufficient.

Paralleling the decline in shipping is a decline in the US mariners to crew the US-flagged vessels required to deploy military equipment. More than that, only four shipyards remain in the US today to build ships, and vessel production in US ports is almost exclusively devoted to grey hull, military vessels.4 The total number of ships produced in US yards is less than ten vessels annually. The US shipping industry, once the mightiest in the world, is a shadow of its former self.

The Cato Institute, an American libertarian think tank, and others have levied harsh criticism on the Jones Act, a centerpiece of US maritime policy, influencing the industry.5 Perhaps it is time to set calcified domestic politics aside and take a hard look at these laws and the unintended and harmful consequences of a policy designed to encourage US shipping, whose critics assert, has effects that are completely opposed. There are opportunities to preserve the positive aspects of the Jones Act, while modifying areas that are a drag on competition, that could result in vital new growth in the US fleet and grow the numbers of the US Merchant Mariners.

If a major contingency occurred today, it is clear waivers to the Jones Act would be required, as have been required in past conflicts, to effectively deploy and sustain the force. Supply chain challenges that plague our commercial sector today suggest heavy reliance on foreign sources for anything can be dangerous. Both industry and transportation must transition back to more insourcing and recognize the real security risk that results from globalization.

Since at the moment, the Department of Defense (DOD) has few options, agreements needed to source foreign shipping in the event of an emergency should be considered and concluded now, well ahead of need. Whether or not these vessels are willing to sail in contested waters or not needs to be discussed, so wartime constraints are at least understood and solutions can be found ahead of time. The possibility of securing options to guarantee use of these vessels, ahead of time, should be considered. Additionally, incentives to prioritize US-flagged commercial ship design for duel military use should be explored to close the gap between commercial and military needs.

MARAD and the DOD have recognized the strategic challenges posed by the shrinking US fleet. Today’s commercial supply chain shortfalls combined with the requirement for vessels to support military contingency highlight the urgency. It’s time to stop admiring the problem and do something about it.

Importance of Commercial Partnerships
Third, Gen Van Ovost highlighted as a success, the exercise of logistics assets in ocean convoy operations in the 2020 Defender Europe exercise. Spearheaded by USTRANSCOM, the US should hold more exercises focused only on logistics and distribution and war games designed to model the deployment and sustainment of forces for anticipated operations. Because logistics is “real,” logistics exercises and war games can be highly realistic and yield valuable data and results. The insights gained from these exercises could make significant differences in USTRANSCOM’s readiness to rapidly build distribution networks to support forces deploying to confront aggression and defend US interests.

Commercial carriers are going to play a major role in any deployment and operation and should, therefore, be fully involved in war games and exercises. Gen Van Ovost mentioned the importance of these partnerships in her comments. These relationships must continually be cultivated. The DOD should compensate carrier involvement to prioritize the proposed exercises against competing commercial demand. Highly realistic tabletop exercises are inexpensive to conduct and provide tremendous venues for working through, ahead of time, many of the challenges that will be faced in responding to real-world needs.

Prior to World War I, the German Army knew in detail what it would take to deploy the force via railroads to the frontiers. The planning done by the German general staff, and the recognition of the importance of railway-based logistics in moving the mobilized reserve, was such that their plans were dubbed, “war by timetable.” While there is always some uncertainty and chance in war, logistics detail to tremendous granularity can be just as well understood today, before any conflict. Frank discussions can be held and solutions devised to meet shortfalls identified through exercises.

Prioritization of Assets & Investment
Finally, while USTRANSCOM is the joint functional component command responsible to the warfighter for distribution, it is the services and the service chiefs who are responsible for training and equipping the forces. USTRANSCOM’s focus is on strategic distribution, but to be successful in any conflict, tactical logistics is also critical. During the march to Baghdad in 2003, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division came close to outrunning the tactical logistics fueling armored and wheeled vehicles. In force design and budget decisions, tactical logistics capabilities across all the services must receive at least equal prioritization and investment as the development and fielding of new weapons systems.

Nobody can be certain what weapons and tactics will prove decisive against 21st-century adversaries on future battlefields. What is undisputable is the US must first be able to deploy forces to those potential battlefields, and then sustain those forces once they are there. Logistics and distribution is the foundation of our Nation’s military might. Investment in distribution capacity and capability is money well spent regardless of the specifics of future theaters or threats.

1. Clemence, Hollie, “Planned Army Cuts Would Leave UK Unable to Recapture Falklands General Claims: Ministry of Defence Unveils Series of Major Changes to Armed Forces.” The Week Magazine (online) March 22, 2021

2. U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, “United States Flag Privately‐Owned Merchant Fleet Report Oceangoing, Self‐Propelled Vessels of 1,000 Gross Tons and Above that Carry Cargo from Port to Port 180” As of: October 14, 2021, page 2

3. U.S Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, “A Report to Congress Impacts of Reductions in Government Impelled Cargo on the U.S. Merchant Marine” April 21, 2015, page 48

4. Grabow, Colin, “Rust Buckets: How the Jones Act Undermines U.S. Shipbuilding and National Security.” CATO Institute, Policy Analysis, November 12, 2019. Page 4 

5. Ibid

By Alex Vohr, Vice President, Government Affairs, Trailer Bridge

Photos courtesy Jacksonville Port Authority (JAXPORT)

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