Logistics in war

I’ve written about military logistics before – here and here (the last is also available under the DOWNLOADS tab as ‘Supplying the war in Afghanistan’) – and that early work, both historical and contemporary, intersects with my current work on casualty evacuation, so it’s good to find a new-ish blog on Logistics in War, managed by David Beaumont; its base is Australia but it casts its remit far and wide and, in a recent post, engages with Deb Cowen‘s work and my own.

It is the purpose of this blog to instigate and inspire, continue and create, a discussion on military logistics that is so often sorely lacking (or if it does occur, does so behind closed doors). Although the blog currently reflects an Australian and Army orientation, its vision is to become broadly applicable; to reflect the many different approaches to logistics as practiced by different military Services, the Joint domain, and militaries of all persuasions.

Furthermore, the blog will support the establishment of an international community of military logisticians that can share ideas, concepts and useful material in an insightful, courteous and professional manner which reflects the values of the militaries and Defence organisations that its readers may serve in. In time, guest posts will be added to the site, including from the international military logistics community.

‘Logistics in War’ aspires to provide life to a topic area that is generally dry, overly technical and grossly specialised. Its practical perspective serves the logistician and commander alike. Logistics is, after all, the conjunction of military strategy and operational concepts with the realities and practicalities of war. It deals with facts and the compromises of commanders who must shape their decisions upon the limitations and constraints of their force. As Thomas Kane, in the great Military logistics and strategic performance, puts it, logistics is an ‘arbiter’ in battle and in war. It is therefore well worth our while to understand it.

Fighting Ebola

Following up my post on The war on EbolaAlex de Waal has a characteristically thoughtful essay over at the Boston Review on Militarizing global health:

This is worryingly authoritarian, bad for public health, and strategically counterproductive. Despite its impressive logistics, the army makes only a marginal contribution to international disaster relief — and often makes things worse. Nor do soldiers “fight” pathogens — and the language of warfare risks turning infected people and their caretakers into objects of fear and stigma.


Even brave and compassionate civilian fieldworkers are not immune from the military metaphors. Here, for example, is Sarah Crowe of UNICEF describing her work on the ‘frontline’ in Liberia’s ‘biological war’:

‘Ebola has turned survivors into human booby traps, unexploded ordnance – touch and you die. Ebola psychosis is paralysing…

‘In the car with colleagues, they talk almost nostalgically about the long civil war here – a time when the enemy was seen, the rockets were heard, the bullets could be dodged.’

If you want refuge from the paranoid hallucinations about the non-metaphorical weaponisation of Ebola by either the United States or ISIS read (respectively) Jim White here and Scott Stewart here.

Back to Alex, who provides a crucial and extremely helpful gloss on the recent history of US research on the intersections between epidemic disease and national security, which shows:

Modern epidemics do not cause security crises… Newly evolved pathogens are a constant threat, but a rerun of the near-total devastation of the native American populations by diseases entirely new to them is far-fetched for the simple reason that there are no longer any large populations wholly isolated from, and therefore at risk of, major infections.  The greater dangers come from panicked or coercive responses to disease.

And for all the attempts to securitise Ebola, there has been remarkably little attention paid to its implications for food security (an altogether different problematic).  Here the work of the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS), an initiative of Action Contre la Faim, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children International, is exemplary – see their detailed Briefing Note, Ebola in West Africa: potential impact on food security (10 November), from which I’ve taken the map below (there are others in the Note).

b-acaps-bn-west-africa-ebola-impact-on-food-security-11-nov-2014 (dragged)

Alex points out another problem with the militarization of public health: ‘the legacy of colonialism and coercive medicine.’

Best practices in global health include efforts to be sensitive to national histories and cultures and to overcome the suspicions induced by outside health programs. Medicine in khaki is not only inefficient, it is bad practice.

British, French, and American armies have a history of imposing control in the name of hygiene, cordoning off a city or as-yet-insufficiently governed parts of the global borderlands…. In much of Africa, public health has struggled to free itself from the way it was implicated in coercive colonial control measures.

It is precisely this insight that eludes Tom Koch in his discussion of the history of mapping and containing epidemic disease in general and Ebola in particular.   ‘It’s not “like” wartime,’ he proclaims: ‘It is war.’

To combat the expanding bacterium or an advancing, viral incursion has always required military style thinking. To survive, a microbe requires potential hosts who can be effected just as invading armies require supplies if they are to advance. To tame a microbial incursion requires containment procedures that will deny it new hosts, new supplies.

He is right to point to the strategic importance of mapping – on the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s public involvement, incidentally, see here – but maps (like metaphors) do more than describe, and depending on the web of practices and powers in which they are activated the connections between mapping and containment are in many cases performative.  I’m surely not the only one to be reminded of Michel Foucault‘s illuminating discussion of the plague-stricken town: see also Stuart Elden‘s commentary on ‘Plague, Panopticon, Police’ here, which reinforces the suggestions I made about military/policing and quarantine in my original post.  But this involves more then AFRICOM, and Donald McNeil‘s report on the decision to use local militaries to impose a cordon sanitaire in areas of Liberia and Sierre Leone (below) is also instructive – as he says, ‘a tactic unseen in a century’ and with ‘the potential to become brutal and inhumane’.


It may also backfire.  Alex again (my emphases):

One of the great, under-recognized successes of the response to HIV and AIDS in Africa was that the spread of an incurable sexually transmitted infection did not lead to repressive measures or massive stigmatization. On the contrary, the United Nations and donors insisted that public health be linked to human rights, and civil society organizations and people living with HIV and AIDS be represented in the governance of UNAIDS and the Global Fund.

That is the polar opposite of the war-like approach to Ebola. The Sierra Leonean journalist Oswald Hanciles drew out the implications of Koroma’s “war” on Ebola, comparing it favorably with the weak government defenses against the rebel attacks fifteen years ago: “This strategy of energizing and mobilizing youth to ‘comb’ their neighborhoods to ferret out ‘Ebola suspects’ could be the most potent in this Ebola War. We are optimistic that the President would use the security forces to back up the youths who the President said should be ‘hard.’” That would be a frightening prospect. Vigilante mobs dragging people from their homes or sealing off neighborhoods would destroy the public trust and community involvement at the heart of good public health practice.

It’s not only vigilante mobs; the image below shows a Liberian soldier beating a local resident while enforcing a quarantine in Monrovia’s West Point slum:


And yet several loud voices doubt that local militaries, even acting in concert with AFRICOM, can provide a sufficiently powerful vector, and they want the militarised response to be stepped up. Earlier this month Britain’s former Chief of the Defence Staff joined calls for NATO to take command:

General Sir David Richards said that he was “strongly supportive” of a proposal for Nato to take command of the international response to West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, adding that the crisis demanded “a grand strategic response…

“What a crisis like this requires more than anything else is efficient organisation and leadership. It is quite clear that currently these vital ingredients are missing… The military’s core skills are to analyse a problem, devise a plan … and then to execute that plan under pressure.”

It may be that the ‘organisation and leadership’ they have in mind is a matter of logistics.  The United Nations has a Global Logistics Cluster, whose ‘concept of operations’ is mapped below (see also its Regional Situation Report for 3-10 November here) , and Richards and his co-signatories make it plain that, in their view, the UN is ‘most unlikely to be up to the job’ – though they never clarify exactly what that ‘job’ might be and what they expect NATO to do.  In any case, readers of Deb Cowen may well wonder about another dimension of what she calls ‘the deadly life of logistics’…

UN Logistics CONOPS Ebola 29 October 2014

So I leave the last word to Alex:

The comparative advantage of the military lies in a few niche activities, such as airport infrastructure, transport helicopters, and — uniquely for this case — medical facilities to treat health workers when they themselves fall sick. All other activities are done far better by civilians.

War and distance: logistics

My earlier post about War and distance emphasised the historical significance of the telegraph because it allowed information to be transmitted without the movement of messengers, but these systems obviously required the installation and maintenance of physical infrastructure.  Still, in August 1870 the Montreal Gazette was already anticipating the vital role of the new communications network in the emergence of frictionless war:

‘Modern science has brought each dependency of the Empire within swift reach of the controlling centre.  The communications are ever open while the command of the sea remains…  There converge in London lines of telegraphic intelligence … [and] it needs but a faint tinkle from the mechanism to despatch a compelling armament to any whither it may be called…  The old principle of maintaining permanent garrisons round the world suited very well an age anterior to that of steam and electricity.  It has passed out of date with the stage coach and the lumbering sailing transport.’

The Gazette was ahead of itself; even today, the United States garrisons the planet, and waging war over long distances still usually involves the physical movement of troops and supplies (the cardinal exception is cyberwar: more on that later).  Martin van Creveld‘s Supplying War (1977; 2004) suggested that ‘logistics make up as much as nine tenths of the business of war, and … the mathematical problems involved in calculating the movements and supply of armies are, to quote Napoleon, not unworthy of a Leibnitz or a Newton….  From time immemorial questions of supply have gone far to govern the geography of military operations.’

Halvard Buhaug and Nils Petter Gleditsch reckon that this is still the case; they concluded (in 2006) that ‘The main factor to limit the military reach of armed force is not the range of the artillery or the combat radius of attack planes.  The largest obstacles to remote military operations relate to transportation and logistics.’

Stores for the Prussian siege of Paris at Cologne station

There is a contentious backstory to Creveld’s main thesis – that before 1914  ‘armies could only be fed as long as they kept moving’, foraging (and pillaging) as they went – which has sparked an ongoing debate about the logistics of early modern siege warfare and pitched battle.  But by the time of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) it was already clear – to the Prussians at least – that the railway had transformed the business of war.  ‘We are so convinced of the advantage of having the initiative in war operations that we prefer the building of railways to that of fortresses,’ Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke had declared: ‘One more railway crossing the country means two days’ difference in gathering an army, and it advances operations just as much.’

Armand Mattelart discusses the strategic implications of this in The invention of communication (1996, pp. 198-208), but the role of the railway in supplying modern war has been described in great detail by Christian Wolmar.  He contrasts the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 – ‘the last significant conflict before the invention of railways’ – which was over in less than a day, leaving 40,000 men dead, with the Battle of Verdun, ‘which lasted most of 1916’ and resulted in 700,000 dead and wounded soldiers.  The crucial difference, according to Wolmar, was the railway, that ‘engine of war’, and here – as elsewhere – the chronology is complicated.  The Franco-Prussian War was indeed a significant waystation, but events didn’t work out quite as von Moltke had envisaged.  The railways certainly speeded the mobilization of Prussian troops but, as Wolmar explains,

‘The Germans had expected to fight the war on or around the border and had even prepared contingency plans to surrender much of the Rhineland, whereas in fact they found that, thanks to French incompetence, they were soon heading for the capital.  The war, consequently, took place on French rather than German territory, much to the surprise of Moltke, upsetting his transportation plans, which had relied on using Prussia’s own railways. The distance between the front and the Prussian railheads soon became too great to allow for effective distribution, and supplies of food for both men and horses came from foraging and purchases of local produce.’

Back to a world of foraging and laying siege.  The decisive moment was probably (as Wolmar’s vignette abut Verdun suggests) the First World War of 1914-1918.  Even as late as 1870, Creveld argues, ammunition formed less than 1 per cent of all supplies, whereas in the first months of the First World War  the proportion of ammunition to other supplies was reversed:

‘‘To a far greater extent than in the eighteenth century, strategy became an appendix of logistics.  The products of the machine – shells, bullets, fuel, sophisticated engineering materials – had finally superseded those of the field as the main items consumed by armies, with the result that warfare, this time shackled by immense networks of tangled umbilical cords, froze and turned into a process of mutual slaughter on a scale so vast as to stagger the imagination.’

Empty shell casings and ammunition boxes,  a sample of the ammunition used by the British Army in the bombardment of Fricourt on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916 [Australian War Memorial, AWM H08331]

In August 1914, for example, British field guns had a total of 1,000 shells available at or approaching the front lines; by June 1916 each eighteen-pound gun had 1,000 shells stockpiled at its firing position, and by 1918 Britain had over 10,000 guns, howitzers and trench mortars in the field.  An elaborate system of light ‘trench railways’ was constructed on the Western Front to transport the ammunition to the front lines. (A note for afficionados of crime fiction: see Andrew Martin’s The Somme stations [2011]).

Supply of munitions on the Western Front

It’s that toxic combination of movement and stasis that was (and remains) so shattering.  As Modris Eksteins described it in Rites of Spring: The Great War and the birth of the modern age (1989),

‘The war had begun with movement, movement of men and material on a scale never before witnessed in history.  Across Europe approximately six million men received orders in early August [1914] and began to move… [And them for two years, 1916 and 1917] this new warfare that cost millions of men their lives … moved the front line at most a mile or so in either direction.’

And it was locked down in part because men and material continued to be moved up to the front lines.

Now Creveld’s argument was limited to ground forces – he said nothing about sea power or air power – and was confined to war in Europe, and these are significant caveats.  During the Second World War the Battle for the Atlantic was crucial.  Churchill famously declared that ‘Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome.’   There is a rich literature on convoys and submarine attacks that I’m only just beginning to explore.  Although the Allies lost 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships, however, more than 99 per cent of ships sailing to and from the beleaguered British Isles survived the crossing.

If we enlarge the scale to consider the supply of war materials beyond the European theatre – as in this graphic which shows US global logistics during the Second World War – then the complexity and vulnerability of the supply chain becomes even clearer.

The deployment of air forces also imposed logistical problems, as this graphic from the Illustrated London News showed:

It’s worth remembering that today’s use of UAVs like the Predator and Reaper in distant theatres of war and conflict zones also requires the transport of the aircraft, ground crews and the crews responsible for take-off and landing; once airborne, the missions are usually flown from the continental United States but they involve an extended global network of supplies, personnel and communications.

In fact, writing in 2004 Creveld concluded that since 1945 the logistics burden had not eased nor had armed forces increased their operational freedom.  The two most important changes have been an even greater reliance on petrol/gasoline (a key target of Allied bombing in the final stages of the Second World War) which, by the 1990s, had displaced ammunition to become the single bulkiest commodity to be shipped to supply distant wars, and a dramatic increase in outsourcing through the use of private military contractors.

I provided a sketch of how these two developments bear on the contemporary logistics of supplying war in Afghanistan in a long essay at open Democracy, and I’ve provided a short update here. This was my conclusion:

‘Over the last decade a new political economy of war has come into view.  We have become aware of late modern war’s proximity to neoliberalism through privatisation and outsourcing (‘just-in-time war’) and its part in the contemporary violence of accumulation by dispossession.  The rapacious beneficiaries of the business of war have been swollen by the transformation of the military-industrial complex into what James der Derian calls the military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET). And the very logic of global financial markets has been subsumed in what Randy Martin calls today’s ‘derivative wars’.  These are all vital insights, but it is important not to overlook the persistence of another, older and countervailing political economy that centres on the persistence of the friction of distance even in the liquid world of late modernity.  To repeat: the world is not flat – even for the US military.  In a revealing essay on contemporary logistics Deborah Cowen has shown how the United States has gradually extended its ‘zone of security’ outwards, not least through placing border agents around the world in places like Port Qasim [in Pakistan] so that the US border becomes the last not the first line of defence through which inbound flows of commodities must pass.   She shows, too, how the securitization security of the supply chain has involved new legal exactions and new modes of militarization that materially affect port access, labour markets and trucking systems.  Affirming the developing intimacy, truly the liaison dangereuse between military and commercial logistics, the US Defense Logistics Agency envisages a similar supply chain for its outbound flows that aim to provide ‘uninterrupted support to the warfighter’ (‘full spectrum global support’) and a ‘seamless flow of materiel to all authorized users.’  And yet, as I hope I have demonstrated, this is the ‘paper war’ that, 180 years ago, Clausewitz contrasted so scathingly with ‘real war’.  The friction of distance constantly confounds the extended supply chain for the war in Afghanistan.  This is no simple metric (‘the coefficient of distance’) or physical effect (though the difficult terrain undoubtedly plays a part).  Rather, the business of supplying war produces volatile and violent spaces in which – and through which – the geopolitical and the geo-economic are still locked in a deadly embrace.’

And, as that last phrase signals, I’ll need to deepen and extend all these arguments for the book-length version of Deadly embrace.  We are still a long way from the Montreal Gazette’s nineteenth-century dream of ‘frictionless war’.