Feature: A view on logistics


The US Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines logistics as the “science of planning and carrying out the movement and maintenance of forces. In its most comprehensive sense, those aspects of military operations that deal with: a. design and development, acquisition, storage, movement, distribution, maintenance, evacuation, and disposition of materiel; b. movement, evacuation, and hospitalization of personnel; c. acquisition or construction, maintenance, operation, and disposition of facilities; and d. acquisition or furnishing of services.”i

James Dunnigan notes that it is “not a very glamorous task and is often neglected. Such a lack of dedication normally leads to disaster. It’s an ancient military maxim that “amateurs study strategy and tactics, professionals study logistics.ii” For centuries, military logistics was what a man could carry on his back, load on a horse, pile on a cart drawn by bullocks – or take from the local population.

A cave painting at Cueva de los Caballos in Spain “shows a team of hunters mowing down a herd of red deer … [proving] that by this date man had learned to use teamwork and weaponry combined; an organisation and weaponry are two essential conditions for waging war,” Chris Cook and John Stevenson assertiii. So is logistics, and any hunting party that moved beyond the confines of the village and away from the communal waterpoint, for even a few hours, would have been well advised to take along some supplies or know the lie of the land. Indeed, The Bushmen of the Kalahari have a careful system of logistics that includes “caching” – burying – water in ostrich eggs that allows them to travel light and range far.

Retired Royal Marine Major General Julian Thompson asserts that organised armies “had their earliest origins in the emergence of hunting bands and raiding parties, fighting over land [hunting ground, water sources], women or food.”iv These grew in size and organisation, giving rise to militias and then, as economic specialisation emerged and organised agriculture produced surplus foodstuffs, paid standing armies emerged. The Assyrian are today acknowledged as having the earliest of these, mustering some 50 000 in the period about 700BC. Thompson notes this force would “have been familiar with the problem of all armies up to the age of the railway and beyond which, put crudely, was ‘to live, keep moving’. If an army stopped, even in a well-populated area the available food was soon consumed; unless its commander had had the foresight to make arrangements to carry food with him or have it brought in. if armies stopped at any time of the year from late spring to harvest, there was little food for the taking, as the inhabitants were at subsistence level themselves.v

It is for this reason the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history. The war was fought primarily in what is now Germany, and at various points involved most of the countries of Europe, the wikipedia entry for that conflict notesvi. “Arrival just after the harvest was the best time for the army, although not for the local population;” Thompson adds, “the complete harvest was available for requisitioning.” From there the expression “campaign season” and the propensity of European wars of that era to erupt in Augustvii. Repeated campaigns over successive years over the same terrain brought about the “extensive destruction of entire regions” as foraging armies denuded entire regions (bellum se ipsum alet), the wikipedia adds. The male population of the various German states was reduced by almost half with the total population reduced – according to various estimates – by between 15% to 30% as a result of requisition, famine and disease. The Kingdom of Württemberg, on the Rhine, lost three-quarters of its population and Brandenburg, near Berlin, lost half.

This style of logistics has its cost on the army too. Thompson notes that during his famous “march to the sea”, Major General William Sherman advanced on a front 50-60 miles wide “with about a 20th of his army committed to foraging, and with an increasing number of stragglers looting, he was in no position to fight anything other than skirmishes…” Fortunately, he did not have to.

Sherman’s foraging effort was designed not just to feed his troops after they cut loose from their main supply route – the Tennessee railway – but also to destroy and confiscate “all resources and property that might be of military value to the South.viii” For many centuries after the fall of Rome, this level of organisation and planning was beyond western militaries and many military “leaders” learned the hard way what Phillip of Macedon had taught his son, Alexander: “plan properly or die.” And die their troops did. Thompson reports more men and animals died of starvation during the 1st and 2nd Crusades (1096-1099 and 1145-1149, respectively) than from any other cause. But the 3rd Crusade (1189-1192) was different – largely because of the presence of English king, Richard I, the Lionhearted. “Richard demonstrated that god logistic planning could change the picture completely. He established a logistic base in Cyprus and sea lines of communication, which he used to advantage on his march from Acre to Ascalon. His refusal to embark on a lengthy siege of Jerusalem, despite the urgings of the medieval equivalent of the ‘G Snobs’ among the more senior an influential of his followers, is a mark of a general who understands the logistic problem.”Indeed, the 1st Crusade “nearly came to grief [through starvation] twice through lack of a supply system”, while large contingents of the 2nd Crusade – mainly German – did starve to death.ix

This is a far cry from the state of the science achieved by Philip, Alexander and the Romans, with consul and general Gaius Marius. By the time of the first Frankish emperor, Charlemagne (Karolus Magnus, Charles the Great), logistics had almost disappeared as a science in Western Europe. “Logistics descended to the plunder level as the art of war degenerated.”x
“As the centuries passed, the logistic imperatives remained largely unchanged by strategic and tactical modifications, the advent of gunpowder and the coming of the railways. The main problem facing an army for the greater part of the campaign was still not how to fight the enemy but how to exist in the field. It was to solve this problem that staffs and staff work were invented.”xi Here then is the nexus between logistics and organisation: the numbers and organisation devoted to logistics and other “non-combat” functions, what has become known as the “tooth-to-tail” ratio.

Staffs dedicated to command and logistics now exist at all levels from the platoon up,with logistics being the major battlefield task of the modern platoon sergeant. The company has a dedicated sergeant quartermaster and the battalion a commissioned quartermaster and S4 (logistics) staff. “Typically a division is one-third combat troops, the rest combat support,” says Dunnigan. “Depending on the type of division and nationality, infantry comprises 8-30% of division strength, tank crews 1-10%, and artillery (including anti-aircraft anti-tank weapons) 6-12%. Combat troops comprise an even smaller portion of non-divisional forces, something like 5-10%. Since combat divisions account for 20-50% of army manpower, combat troops comprise only 10-25% of all personnel. In all armies, combat support troops are very much the majority.”xii As a rule-of thumb, Dunnigan has 2-10% of divisional strength down as engineers, 3-12% as signal troops, 1-4% to chemical defence, 8-16% to transport, 1-2% to military police, 2-5% to medical, 3-10% to maintenance, 5-15% headquarters and 1-3% to electronic warfare.

This being said, one must guard against an idealised and probably imagined past in which every soldier was a combatant. One must also not forget the baggage train, that vast armada of pack animals and wagons that accompanied all armies, carrying the personal items and supplies of the soldiers, their wives and children as well as the tools and other possessions of the artisans that supported the army – blacksmiths, farriers, bowmakers, cooks and carpenters. Part of the story of military logistics is the migration of these “camp followers” into uniformed military service as supply, transport, maintenance and medical troops by the late 19th Century and their migration out – as part of “cost-saving” outsourcing endeavours a century later.

John J. McGrath in his study The Other End of the Spear: The Tooth-to-Tail Ratio (T3R) in Modern Military Operationsxiii tabulates three types of non-combat elements in the modern US military: logistical elements, life support elements (base staff, “…a particular characteristic of the US Army”), and, lastly, headquarters and administrative elements (including most signals, military police and military intelligence platoons or companies). Describing the establishment of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) as marking the “creation of the modern US Army, particularly in organisational terms…” Some 47% of the AEF was non-combatant with 39% dedicated to logistics and 8% to command. At the divisional level, the breakdown was 78.4% combat, 7.2% logistical and 14.4% headquarters and administration. The US Army of 1941-45 globally dedicated 45% of its strength to logistics as well as life support and 16% to headquarters and administration, reducing combatant forces to around 39%. The breakdown of a US infantry division’s strength in Europe was 68% combatant, 14% logistical an 18% headquarters and administrative. For n armoured division in that theatre, 58% of force strength was combatant, 21% logistics and 21% command.

In contrast to the oft-held view that the tooth-to-tail ratio always sees the tail gain at the expense of the teeth arms, McGrath records that in Korea the size of the logistics/life support element declined 8% from the WW2 level. Combat strength increased 3% but headquarters elements “proliferated an additional 5%.” Overall, combat strength was 42%, headquarters 21%, logistics 32% and life support 5%. When the Japan Base is included, the combat strength dropped to 33% and headquarters strength climbed to 24%, logistics to 37% and life support to 6%. After 1945, the US division had also been increased in size, gaining combat strength ad growing from 14 037 to 20 036. as consequence, the 1953 infantry division was 62% combatant, 18% logistical and 20% command.

A restructuring saw the size of divisions to VietNam decreased to 16 902. This deleted “much of the heavy equipment found in the division’s logistics tail and its combat elements, while adding additional companies and battalions to its infantry component.” As a result, the 1968-pattern light infantry division devoted 58% of strength to combat, 11% to logistics and 31% to command and administration. At theatre level, this translated to a combat strength of 35% – higher than Korea but lower than WW2, 30% of strength devoted headquarters and administration, 23% to logistics and 12% to life support. In April 1968 the US Army VietNam mustered 113 030 combat troops out of a force of 324 030, “producing a functional tooth-to-tail ratio of slightly less than one combat soldier to every two support troops.” This gives lie to the usual assertion, “almost always unsupported by data” of 10 support troops for every combat trooper. The US Army that deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1991 featured “Army of Excellence” (AoE) divisions that comprised 49% combat troops, 26% logistics troops and 25% headquarters and administrative units. The theatre make-up at the end of Desert Storm, in 1992, was 30% combat, 42% logistic and 28% command.xiv

The introduction of the Stryker, a variant of the MOWAG Piranha III 8×8, into US Army service in 1999 led to the creation of the “modular Army” in early 2004. One change was that the brigade replaced the division as the basic operational unit. The 2004 Stryker brigade, as deployed in Iraq following its invasion and occupation in 2003, devoted 18% of its strength to command and 30% to logistics, leaving 52% for combat. The “modular combined arms” brigade that emerged from the conversion of the rest of the US Army devoted 43% of its strength to combat, 33% to logistics and 24% to command. The notional modular heavy division musters a combat strength of 39%, with 29% devoted to logistics and 32% to command ad administration. McGrath notes that in the modular brigades the tooth-to-tail ratio is 1 to 1.3 (combat to non-combat), a slight decrease fro the ratio of 1 to 1.02 in the AoE. The overall tooth-to-tail ratio in Iraq, in January 2005, was 1 to 2.5, reflecting a division of 40% combat troops, 36% logistics and 24% command and administration among the 135 000 troops there. When some 58 000 contractors were included, this became 25% combat, 43% logistics, 18% life support and 18% command.

McGrath note that since 1917, US Army combat elements have fluctuated between a high of 50% overall in 1917 and a low of 27% in Cold War Germany in 1974. Since the advent of mechanisation – for the US, 1941 – the proportion has remained roughly between 30 and 40%, until the mass employment of contractors in Iraq.

Closely related to the above, but sufficiently distinct to perhaps deserve a separate heading, is maintenance – the effort and the personnel required to keep equipment available and reliable. Writing on the state of the art in the early 1980s, author Jon Connell writes early versions of the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F15 Eagle required 27 maintenance manhours per flight, versus a predicted 11.3. major systems failures occurred once every 1.25 hours, not the promised 5.6. An avionics reliability upgrade for the General Dynamics F111D Aardvark in the 1960s was meant to increase mean time between system failure to more than 60 hours and reduce maintenance manhours per sortie to 1.4. The result was near opposite: failures every three hours and 33.6 maintenance manhours per sortie.xv

The Chrysler Defense (now General Dynamics Land Systems) M1 Abrams main battle tank had similar issues. Connell records a US Army study in 1980, when the tank entered service, found it broke down once every 34 miles. In 1982, the General Accounting Office, the US equivalent to South Africa’s Auditor General, noted that of 39 tanks that covered 178 miles (286.4km) in a test at Fort Hood in Texas, 21 did not break down – but some 18 did.xvi

Offsetting these reliability and availability problems require padding: either of equipment numbers – difficult because of tight acquisition budgets – or of maintenance crews. Returning to the F15, Connell noted the “real sacrifice forced on the air force by the stress of hi-tech is numbers: fewer an fewer aircraft are available year-by-year for taking on the Russians [it was the height of the Cold War]. The F15 needs twice as much time at the depot as the [McDonnell Douglas] F4 [Phantom II]; … needs almost 50 hours of servicing for every hour in the air. … So the total number of F15s possessed by the air force should not be mistaken for the total number which, on any given day, will be available to fight in a war. That total number, however, is not very high to start with – about 750 in 1985. … In WW2 the US Navy’s main fighter was the Hellcat. It cost US$65 000 apiece; the country could afford to buy 12 000 of them. The modern navy can afford to buy just 900 [Grumman] F14s [Tomcat]. More generally, US$7 billion in 1952 bought 6300 jet fighters; nowadays, the Pentagon is paying US$8 billion for just 270. In 1983, the navy and air force bought just 399 planes, less than the number it lost through accidents and old age,”xvii which is another reminder of Norman Augustine’s “laws”. In addition, a squadron of 24 F15s at the time required 29 Lockheed C141 Starlifters (since replaced by the Boeing C17 Globemaster III) to transport its support equipment and crew – a formidable logistic and personnel drain.