Research and Advances
Computing Applications

The Art of Military Logistics

Moving to a dynamic supply chain.
  1. Introduction
  2. Cold War Scenario
  3. Post Cold War
  4. Current Logistics System Deficiencies
  5. Advanced Logistics Solution
  6. References
  7. Author
  8. Footnotes
  9. Figures
  10. Sidebar: UltraLog Objectives
  11. Sidebar: Sample of UltraLog Technologies

Imagine a military force entrenched on a riverbank, dug into a mountaintop, or isolated by a brutal winter storm. Members of the military force must have supplies—food, water, ammunition, fuel—to maintain their position and survive. How do they communicate their requirements to the rear area? What is the most efficient route and method to transport the materiel?1 Many years ago, these were the basic problems of military logistics. Today this field has grown infinitely more complex. Drastic changes in supply chain management practices of military forces have been dictated by ever-changing global politics—and sometimes even changing political boundaries. United States military planners have begun transforming their logistical operations to accommodate a new national security environment, changing how logistic functions are accomplished while revising traditions and organization structures. But military organizations—with their rich historical traditions and special budgets—have proven an especially difficult domain to promote organization change and unification. For instance, one NATO government proposed a single unified enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to streamline its internal logistics system. Each element of its armed forces immediately presented a different ERP solution favoring its own supply system design. Since no service was willing to compromise or change its existing supply system, the project was terminated. Information technology has proved to be a unifying force in the business environment, in military organizations it will certainly prove a greater challenge.

The U.S. military spends almost 30% of its operating budget on supply, maintenance, and transportation, with an increasing share devoted to technology [1]. Logisticians understand information is a fundamental element for effective logistic management. This has been true in the military context since armies were first organized and is even more critical today. Every aspect of the military supply chain—from consumption rates on the battlefield, to supply levels in forward and rear area depots, plus the ability to obtain air- or sea-lift capacity including the facilities and manpower to unload and store supplies—is contingent on solid information, and more critically on the capacity to communicate that information expeditiously.

Logistics and supply chain management is rarely mentioned when countries expound upon their military achievements. The public rarely sees demonstrations of cargo aircraft, transport ships, and trucks it does fighter aircraft, warships, and tanks. Despite this lack of publicity, logistics has been a topic of interest for military philosophers and historians. Sun Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, and Carl Von Clausewitz discuss the art of logistics in their works. Von Clausewitz, in his renowned text On War, refers to logistics and supply lines as centers of gravity, or targets that if destroyed can defeat an enemy force without direct engagement. Military historians cite campaigns lost as a result of inadequate supply chain management. Logistic targets and objectives have been the focus of offensive actions including Sherman’s march through Georgia during the American Civil War (the Union army’s drive was directed at splitting the Southern states and breaking the Confederate Army logistics supply chain), the Allied strategic bombing campaign of the Axis forces (targeting German industrial production), and the German U-boat campaign during World War II (focused on merchant shipping, therefore limiting supplies from the U.S. as opposed to sinking warships).

Military logistics has changed as warfare has become more sophisticated. The French army (of 150,000) under Bonaparte subsisted “off the land” if the population density was approximately 3,000 per 25 square miles. If the population density fell below this threshold, troops were forced to carry their own provisions, which reduced their fighting capabilities. As armies became larger, more mobile, and the intensity of warfare increased, formal lines of supply developed, requiring movement of regular provisions to soldiers in the field. To shorten the distances required to resupply field units, armies developed a depot system to assemble and disperse soldiers near the front lines (the supply chain). The larger and faster moving the army, the longer the supply chain and the more difficult the resupply effort. Advances (forward movement) have been limited by the length of the supply chain and in some cases armies have made tactical blunders by advancing beyond the capability to resupply.

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Cold War Scenario

During the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies were structured to fight two major conflicts, Eastern Europe and the Korean peninsula. The size of opposing armies and the intensity of warfare at the end of the 20th century required massive logistics undertakings, and for every combatant an estimated six to ten non-combatants were required to maintain the supply effort. Additionally, military equipment became increasingly complex (and heavy) with greater distances from suppliers and rear area supply depots to the battlefield.2 Logistics planners compensated for these factors by using a variation of the classic depot scheme. In both Europe and Korea, forward-deployed units and supply depots were positioned in strategic locations, holding several days of supplies. In Korea, forward-deployed forces are/were positioned north of the Han River, with supply depots located south of their positions from Seoul to the southern coast. These supply depots were supplied from bases in Japan and the Phillippines, which in turn were supplied from rear area bases in the U.S. or allied countries. The main supply bases received and stockpiled their materiel from suppliers under contact to the military and moved it through the supply chain as required.

The scheme described here is similar to the supply chain for a traditional manufacturing operation, in which the manufacturer contracts with a supplier to make and deliver material to the facility, where it is stockpiled for later use. The manufacturer determines his demand requirements and establishes a supply chain system allowing him to obtain and move the required material from supplier to the plant, and from the plant to the customer. This is a “static supply chain,” which has fixed ends, a known supplier at one end, the manufacturer in the middle, and a customer destination at the other end. To a certain extent, the volume of material moving through the supply chain at any given time can be predetermined based on the projected demand requirements. Much the same scenario would occur to keep deployed forces in Korea supplied. Goods would be moved forward as the conflict progressed, with each link of the supply chain utilized.

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Post Cold War

With the end of the Cold War, the diametrically opposed force structure of the world changed. There was no longer the threat of a major ground war in Eastern Europe as the Soviet bloc dissolved. Currently, there is optimism for a reduction in tensions on the Korean peninsula. Unfortunately, there has not been a corresponding reduction in military missions and in some ways, today’s climate is more explosive and certainly more difficult, especially from a logistics perspective. If Cold War logistics was characterized by a static supply chain with forward deployed supply depots, then post Cold War logistics must be characterized by a “dynamic supply chain.”

Current military missions are radically different than the conflicts envisioned during the Cold War. No longer do forces enjoy prepositioned materiel located close to potential battlefields. Today, the area of conflict is not known until days or weeks before an incident occurs and many missions involve non-traditional military roles such as humanitarian efforts or peacekeeping. This has forced military logistics planners to create innovative means to move personnel and materiel to any location rapidly. Force restructuring has accounted for some of this ability but some situations require traditionally heavily armored forces, as used in Desert Storm. As a result, planners have created mobile forward supply depots. Materiel has been placed on squadrons of large ships, which are rotated near potential “hotspots.” The ships are designed to rapidly unload equipment and supplies and then exit the combat area. Troops are usually flown into the area, mated with the equipment, and moved to the battlefield. To maintain the resupply effort, the U.S. Navy has developed the concept of “logistics over the horizon,” which allows ships to offload miles from shore on floating causeways. These scenarios are similar to the idea of just-in-time supply in manufacturing. As soon as supplies reach the beach they are moved to the forward location and into the hands of the combatants. This reduces the number of supply depots, the threat of attack by hostile forces, and proves useful in areas without developed seaports. In regions without seaports, the resupply effort must be conducted via air, which is more difficult, time consuming, and expensive.

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Current Logistics System Deficiencies

The current operating environment uses isolated, independent, and sometimes incompatible systems, processes, and data. Planning lacks realistic detailed data necessary to provide effective and timely logistics support at the unit level; higher levels of command lack visibility into ongoing logistics operations at lower levels; and there is no common interoperable end-to-end system to support decision-makers, at any level. Consequently, the very rapid replanning and redirection necessary to support crisis action responsiveness for multiple simultaneous missions cannot be accomplished today.

A significant deficiency is the current process of creating and maintaining Time Phased Force Deployment Data (TPFDD), which specifies and schedules logistics support activity in response to anticipated operational needs, but does not lend itself to crisis action planning and dynamic execution environments. TPFDDs are difficult to generate, lack accuracy due to degraded source data, and are not responsive to changing operational requirements or logistics support failures during execution. Data structures currently used in TPFDDs and other supporting documents do not allow for a tight binding between dynamic operational realities and the ongoing logistics activities.

The transportation planning and execution processes and supporting systems are fragmented. Transportation-related automated systems are “stovepiped” and not integrated among services, unified commands, subordinate commands, or among modes of transportation. As a result, meaningful and accurate information relative to either deployment or sustainment planning and execution is not available in a timely manner or, in some cases, at all. The result is an inefficient use of critical transportation assets, port congestion, improper sequencing of units and their support, excess costs, a disrupted flow of units and materiel into the theater of operations, and a general lack of in-transit visibility.

Finally, defense logistics materiel management methods, procedures, and supporting automated systems have not kept pace with advances in information technology. Existing systems are not integrated either within or among the services. The accuracy of demand forecasting is marginal. This compartmentalization hinders the generation of a fused, accurate, and timely asset visibility picture across the entire operational spectrum, which greatly complicates the decision-making process. It also results in excess costs to support both day-to-day and contingency response operations.

Given the current environment of stovepiped logistics systems, sub-optimal use of transportation, the lack of integrated business processes, and inaccurate total asset visibility information, commanders at all echelons lack confidence in the logistics pipeline. Additionally, they are unable to maintain an accurate, real-time knowledge of the operational environment and the location and availability of assets required to function effectively. This results in redundant requisition of materiel and supplies, which clogs the transportation pipeline and complicates the logistics planning and execution processes.

Existing logistics planning and decision support systems must be changed from a long lead-time deliberate planning process to an extremely rapid automated crisis action planning process with links to all operational and logistics planners. This highly automated rapid reaction system must also provide the capability to maintain a common understanding of the operational situation, permit real-time monitoring of operations, and automate rapid replanning when significant deviations in the operational situation dictate. As Department of Defense (DOD) resources continue to decline, large DOD-held inventories, replenishment supplies, and safety stocks are being reduced. Responsibility for maintaining adequate inventories must be shared with commercial facilities, vendors, and manufacturers. This will necessitate faster, more automated capabilities to:

  • Monitor the operational readiness of materiel and equipment;
  • Predict equipment failure using forecasting and simulation technologies;
  • Rapidly identify, order, acquire, source, pack, and transport required sustainment supplies and equipment; and
  • Monitor and enhance retrograde movement and repair of failed components and return of items to inventory for reissue.

The overriding common goal of these programs is to enable the warfighter to project and sustain overwhelming combat power sooner through better control of the logistics pipeline.

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Advanced Logistics Solution

The Advanced Logistics Program (ALP) will develop automated, multi-echelon, collaborative information systems/transportation technologies that will provide warfighters with an unprecedented capability to monitor, rapidly replan and re-execute logistical support. ALP will develop a computer network infrastructure that allows distributed real-time visualization and interaction with all phases, elements, and components of the military and commercial transportation infrastructure. Applications are being developed to provide a technology environment allowing warfighters to rapidly understand and assess the logistics and sustainment implications of a crisis situation. ALP also helps generate effective plans and courses of action, monitors a plan’s execution, and uses that information to replan. Additionally, automated systems are under development that will enable significant efficiency improvements in transportation and sustainment, such as monitoring the condition of assets and the infrastructure, the creation of plan sentinels to serve as an early warning system for plan deviations, and improvements in theater distribution.

The dynamic supply chain must be proactive as well as reactive, with the ability to reconcile multiple and varied contingencies. A humanitarian operation in Africa requires a radically different composition of forces and supplies than peacekeeping operations in former Yugoslavia during the winter months. Additionally, operations are multinational (under United Nations sponsorship and others), which changes the force structure and increases resupply complexity. The time frame associated for operations has also become shorter. Humanitarian operations do not have the luxury of spending weeks or months in preparation. Most operations must be deployed within hours to provide effective aid to those in need. As a result, technology is being employed to support logistics planning. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will spend $90 million over the next four years to develop UltraLog, a vast, Web-based intelligent network that determines logistics requirements in real time. The system revolves around a revolutionary agent-based architecture using individual computers to solve discrete pieces of logistics problems and working together to determine a final solution. This wedding of information technology and logistics is key to the effective management of a dynamic supply chain for military and other organizations (such as disaster relief). As illustrated in the Joint Vision 2010 figure, technology-infused logistics has become one of the pillars of the U.S. military’s force projection concept and a full partner with operational forces. Raising logistics to this strategic level allows logistics-based information technology systems to directly interface with operational systems, providing the real-time information flow necessary to meet dynamic requirements. Once in place, the ALP will reduce the development time for a logistics plan from 60 days to under one hour. Communications links with forward-deployed units will give supply consumption rates to Ultralog, which will relay this information to rear-area supply depots, as well as schedule transportation. This system has the ability to revolutionize the management of the dynamic supply chain while cutting planning time, improving efficiencies and reducing costs, and insuring prompt delivery of supplies to the forward area.

One example of the change introduced by Ultra-Log is adaptive workflow brought by the introduction of logistics technology to deployed units. The Naval Construction Forces (Seabees) have adapted technology originally developed by the Marine Corps and created a fully deployable and rapidly implementable local-area network (LAN in a box) with satellite communications capabilities. This system allows the Seabees and their component forces to communicate with rear-area elements, expediting the process of ordering supplies, checking the status of orders and shipments, and streamlining reporting. This system has reduced the lengthy approval process through the introduction of adaptive workflow—allowing personnel throughout the chain of command to change their procedures based on evolving requirements—while increasing the discretionary authority of commanders in the field.

Military decision-makers and senior-level commanders have recognized the importance of logistics and supply chain management as an integral element of strategic plans. Rear-area technology such as UltraLog and the increasing use of deployable technology and global communications systems will continue to allow commanders to make more effective use of their supply chain as a force multiplier.

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UF1 Figure. Example from Joint Vision 2010.

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    1. National Research Council. Technology for the United States Navy and Marine Corps, 2000–2035. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1997.

    1The definition of materiel as used here is "equipment, apparatus, and supplies used by an organization or institution."

    2Wars are becoming shorter in duration due to the accuracy and rapid expenditures of munitions and other consumables, for example, fuel. A prime example of this is Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf.

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