By Robbin Laird
Recently, the Williams Foundation held a seminar, which addressed the core question: how sustainable was the Australian Defence Force if it faced a major regional crisis?
The challenge is rooted in part that the forces of the liberal democracies, which have participated in the Middle Eastern land wars, have shaped a Middle Eastern mindset with regard to logistics. Forces have been maintained by logistics centers fed by commercial resupply systems and with an ability for allies to support one another, without worrying about a peer competitor with the capabilities and the intention to disrupt and destroy the logistics system.
One of the key speakers at the Williams Foundation Seminar on April 11, 2019, was Lt. Col. Beaumont. Beaumont is an army logistician but one with a focus on joint logistics support.
According to Beaumont: “Logistics will give us options and the flexibility to respond in a crisis as well as defining key constraints on freedom of action.”
In a capitalist society, of course, much that feeds a logistics machine in times of crisis or war is outside of the control of the military and is really about the capability to mobilize resources from the private sector in a timely and effective manner. In effect, logistics is about taking resources out of the economy and making them available for the battlefield.
According to Beaumont, the main focus of logistics in the recent past has been tactical, but as we face a peer-to-peer environment, it is important to take a more strategic perspective,
Beaumont also highlighted that one cannot assume even if one is operating within a coalition that the coalition partners will be able to sustain you in a crisis. “A key factor is what the level of mobilization has been achieved before a crisis to sustain a force. There is a long lead time to turn on the spickets from industry, and that is not just in Australia.”
But how much better off is the United States than Australia?
Obviously, the US has a major advantage compared to Australia with regard to the size, scope and capabilities of the defense industrial base.
The challenge is different in a fundamental way – is the US largely domestically supported sustainment system through depots really up to higher tempo global operations facing the US in a peer competitor driven crisis?
The key here is to have sufficient available assets at the point of interest, attack or defense, which can be sustained through a period of crisis.
In other words, the goal is not just to show up; but to prevail through the duration of a crisis.
First to the fight, but without a durability to continue the fight, is not a strategic motto, I would choose to embrace.
And it is precisely the structure of the US logistics SYSTEM and its current CON-Ops that is the soft underbelly of our ability to prevail in a crisis.
A case in point is the globally deployed Osprey fleet.
Here we have a unique warfighting capability, unprecedented in warfare, globally deployed, able to operate from land or sea-bases and able to project power in unique ways in military history.
But the logistical system will shackle the fleet’ s operational effectiveness in a sustained crisis, but simply not having parts located in an effective manner globally, and having no common fleet logistics IT and parts identification system for the global fleet which could allow the Marines, or the Air Force, or the Navy or the Japanese to identify parts close to the point of operation, grab those parts and use them on a need to operate basis.
Rather, the system is Balkanized by service or customer, with no right to swap out parts except by personal connections and networks and personal handshakes.
This is not a crisis dominance approach; but a hand holding approach to the domestically determine US logistical system. A good example is the Osprey fleet. The small number of initial Ospreys has grown into a large fleet operated by the USMC, the USAF, and now the US Navy and with the acquisition by Japan of Ospreys, the first foreign customer of the aircraft.
And the aircraft operates worldwide on the aircraft, and in the words of MAG-26 Commander, Col. Boniface, and “soon the sun will never set on the Osprey as a globally deployed aircraft.”
But unfortunately, the sustainment side of the creation of the globally deployed aircraft has not been matched by shaping a global sustainment enterprise. It is clear that to get full value from a globally deployed platform like the Osprey, it is crucial to have a logistical system in place which can allow for sustainable global operations at the point of interest or attack, rather than simply waiting for parts to show up from the next Fed Ex shipment to a remote location from a depot based in the United States.
This is especially important as the US and its allies face 21stcentury authoritarian powers who will also focus on the disruption of an already Balkanized logistical operation.
During my visit to 2ndMarine Air Wing in April 2019, I had a chance to discuss the challenge with a very experienced Marine Corps logistics officer, Major Paul M. Herrle. He is currently is head of MALS-26 which is part of MAG-26.
Throughout the discussion, Major Herrle underscored that with the growth of the Osprey numbers, there now was in place a large fleet. But that it was not managed as such. A core point is that even though parts are common throughout the fleet, the USAF has one sustainment system, the Marines another, and with new members of Osprey nation, yet other sustainment systems in play.
He argued that it was increasingly crucial to have an integrated sustainment system and one, which could flow parts to a globally deployed force as well.
He put the challenge this way.
“The USAF supports its ospreys from England; but we can not tap into that support structure to support our SP-MAGTF force in Europe, for example. Right now I cannot use USAF parts if I need them. I cannot touch the parts on the ship as well. I cannot do lateral support from the amphibious ships parts as well for SP-MAGTF.”
He noted that a great deal of his work was working through his networks to find ways to fill the gaps, but from his point of view, this is clearly not the way to do business, especially with a mature global fleet of operational aircraft.
The USMC is working to take the multiple configurations of the Osprey and building a common configuration, something being worked at the Boeing plant in Philadelphia. But alongside this effort, it would make sense to have a common sustainment system, and one which has global hubs from which parts can flow to the fleet, both in normal operations and in crisis situations. As the USMC is the nation’s crisis response force, there is a clear need for a sustainment system which could actually function as a core element of the strategic capability to prevail in a crisis.
But as it stands right now, and this is my perspective, and not one I am attributing to Major Herrle, we have created a significant strategic vulnerability, which clearly our peer adversaries will seek to exploit. Rather than being able to leverage a globally sustained fleet of global aircraft, we have a Balkanized logistical system which is designed from the outset to sub-optimize performance.
Perhaps we can do that in slo-mo war but certainly not in full spectrum crisis management, where we can assume high tempo operations will be required.
The featured photo:
U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF OPERATIONS (Jan. 24, 2018)
French Sailors wait for a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 363, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command, to land aboard French amphibious assault ship LHD Tonnerre (L9014).
The Tonnerre, with embarked Marines and Sailors from Naval Amphibious Force, Task Force 51, 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, is conducting maritime security operations within the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to ensure regional stability, freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Wesley Timm/Released)