Military logistics may not be exciting, but it’s the only way the latest weapons will do any good

Should the United States need to project kinetic power far away, the decisive factor would be logistics. Yet, according to a detailed study by Brookings, the mi...

Should the United States need to project kinetic power far away, the decisive factor would be logistics. Yet, according to a detailed study by Brookings, the military has neglected logistics in recent years. For what that means and the consequences,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Brookings senior fellow and logistics study author, Michael O’Hanlon.

Interview Transcript: 

Eric White So reading through the study that you all did regarding defense logistics, U.S. defense logistics,  it appears that you’re trying to do a little nudging here to wake folks up to the less sexy side of American defense, but a vitally important aspect of American defense. So why don’t we just start from the beginning of what made you want to take this on, and was there something that occurred that made you start worrying or you wanted to dig deeper into this?

Michael O’Hanlon Yeah. Thank you. Well, of course, it’s an important topic that we are always reminded needs to be brought back to a higher level of visibility than it often is. Because there’s the old cliche, civilians think strategy, Generals think logistics. And logistics are not as sexy. It’s about moving stuff around, having spare parts where they need to be getting food and fuel and water to people. It’s not always as glamorous as flying the latest high tech bomber or drone or what have you. There’s that bureaucratic and institutional tendency to neglect it. Then there’s the fact the United States has become spoiled in modern times, in a sense, by being able to wage war. Obviously, that’s no great benefit, so we’re not spoiled in the sense of having too much peace. But when we have fought, we’ve fought enemies that are tactically very tough, but strategically incapable of interrupting our major intercontinental transport and resupply and local logistics efforts. We could build up forces 30 years ago in Saudi Arabia, then liberate Kuwait, sort of at our whim, at a timing and with a preparation that we dictated and Saddam Hussein couldn’t really influence. As tough as the Taliban and al Qaeda and ISIS have been to fight street by street, block by block and road by road, they have not been able to interfere with our communications, with our long distance planes and aircraft, with our big bases. And all this would almost certainly be very different if we ever, God forbid, fought China. But even if we fought North Korea, you’d have to expect a lot of missile attacks against bases. You’d have to expect, maybe some mini submarines trying to sink ships as they approached Korean ports with supplies. And so on top of that, you have all the cyber threats that certainly North Korea, certainly China and Russia could pose to our forces and the command and control systems that direct them, that keep track of where things are. And so for all those reasons, plus the fact that I had a two very good colleagues last year, an Air Force logistician and a marine Corps logistician who were on military education assignments at Brookings. We decided to put our heads together and write some reminders about the central importance of this endeavor, and this part of military operations today.

Eric White So would you categorize the state of military logistics as everything’s working fine, but it’s not very malleable, I guess would be the word you would use. It may not be able to respond to a threat to an actual infrastructure or even just taken out in one of our air carriers. What would that mean if that were to actually occur?

Michael O’Hanlon I wouldn’t say that our logistics today is terrible, and I’ll say why in a second, but I don’t think we have enough capacity. We simply lack adequate numbers of certain kinds of ships and even airplanes for long distance transport. Also, some of our computer and communications systems that are designed to track all this stuff are too complicated. I think that modern American logistics are not atrocious. They’re not in terrible shape, but there are a number of shortfalls, and this is often, again, the result of the fact they tend to get underappreciated relative to combat platforms and major modernization efforts. And by the way, when I say logistics, I’m thinking about the planes and ships that move supplies and people. I’m thinking about the computer systems that track all of that and coordinate it. And I’m thinking of the bases and the airfields and ports where we have to access and unload and reload and so forth. So that’s what I think of as the broader logistics enterprise, not the combat operations per se, but things that support those operations, including also equipment maintenance and repair.

Michael O’Hanlon And when I think of all of that, and when we again reflect on the history that you and I have been discussing already, what we remember in the modern era is the United States has gotten better at transportation over the course of, let’s say, the lifetimes of those of us who are 50, 60 years old, because after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and seem to be threatening the Persian Gulf, at that time we created the rapid deployment force, then later Central Command and Transportation Command. We wound up getting much more focused on logistics to a place where we couldn’t prepare over many decades, like in Europe. And so we built up fast sealift ships and roll on roll off ships and fleets that were not about bombing enemies, but were about transporting supply. We prioritize those things within the U.S. military and got much better at them. And we saw the results of that in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. And really also the resupply efforts for the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this century, which may not have been as successful as we wished in tactical or in broader state building terms, but they were quite impressive in logistics terms for the most part.

Michael O’Hanlon Unfortunately, we also developed the assumption that logistics would be largely uncontested, that if we could manage just the throughput side of things, that the enemy would not be able to get in the way. And that may have been true against the Taliban, ASIS, al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, but it almost certainly would not be true against North Korea, Russia, China. And so, we need to think about logistics as being fundamentally contested, fundamentally challenged by the enemy in any future war. And, of course, the goal here is not to fight and win that war. It’s to deter that war by an enemy, not thinking that it sees an Achilles heel in our defense preparation. I don’t think that North Korea, Russia or even China would really want to take on our fighter pilots, our carrier platforms, our tank crews, our combat capability. But if they thought they could somehow keep us from accessing the theater where they wanted to do other mischief. China taking Taiwan, North Korea attacking South Korea, Russia conquering Ukraine, or maybe even the Baltic states. Then they might be tempted to try to sort of put us on the map by taking out our bases, our communications, our lift long enough that they could achieve their local aggressive purposes, and then perhaps we would not be willing or able to get back in time to reverse that aggression or to prevent it in the first place. If they’re going to have a theory of victory, I think it’s going to be something like that, which means they’re going to be more likely to feel encouraged if they see a defect in our logistics and our transport and our command and control, that if they see one too few fighter squadrons or bomber wings or brigade combat teams. I don’t think they’re going to persuade themselves that they can outfight us and out slug us on the battlefield. But they might persuade themselves they can keep us from even getting to that battlefield. And that’s why logistics are so important for deterrence, not just for war fighting.

Eric White We’re talking to Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. And so what about joint warfare operations? And where do logistics stand when we work with our allies that are overseas, and maybe even closer to the actual battlefield itself? Do we handle the logistics for our own? Or are we relying on our partners to kind of fill in some of these gaps that we may have?

Michael O’Hanlon Well, the partners are going to be good, in many cases on their own territory or in the immediate environs of their own territory. But they’re generally even less apt than we are to develop the long range power projection capabilities.  Because after all, we are the world’s preeminent long range fighter. Here we are in our North American paradise, but most of the war, as we prepare to fight or do fight are in Eurasia. So we are in the business and in the habit of moving 3,000, 5,000, 8,000 miles to go wage war. And of course, a lot of people will say, well, why do we why do we think that way? Why do we operate that way? And of course, the reason is when we left Eurasia to its own devices, we got two world wars out of the process. And so ever since 1945, our basic guiding principle has been don’t leave those Eurasians to their own devices. They won’t necessarily be able to solve their problems. And if we work together with like minded states, largely along the littoral of Eurasia, then we can probably do a pretty good job of that being successful. But those states are usually only going to be good at helping us once we get our stuff close to them.

Michael O’Hanlon So Japan and South Korea are fantastic for helping us move around their territories, and be able to resupply our forces within their domestic economies and infrastructures. Japan provides a lot of bases, so if we want to get to South Korea or to Taiwan or somewhere else, that we can often use Japanese facilities for that as well as stepping stones, lily pads, refueling bases, operating bases, etc.. And you can go through each of the major theaters, the Middle East and Europe being the other two, where we have major plans and a lot of forces. And in each case the story is pretty much the same, that the local partners are very good locally, but they’re not so good at helping us get our forces to their territory. And in a place like Europe, they’re not even all that good, always at helping each other. So the countries of Western Europe that would have to maneuver and move to get to battlefields, let’s say in the Baltic region would not necessarily get a lot of help from Germany and Poland along the way. They often don’t have enough transport capability themselves. In the case of, let’s say, Britain and France, Canada, Spain, Italy, but also the territories through which they might need to traverse to get to a battlefield, are often not properly prepared for the movement of combat equipment. So often bridges aren’t up to snuff in Germany and Poland, for example. And once you get over into Ukraine, then you would have, if you ever try to move stuff there, and of course, we do move a lot of stuff there right now. But then you have challenges of the rail lines, maybe different gauge, All sorts of things can get in the way. So as a rule, allies are good for logistics on their own territories, and sometimes for the area immediately adjacent, as with Japan and Northeast Asia. But no other American ally really has the ability to move forces very far on its own.

Eric White You bring up the logistics triad, and I want to focus in on one aspect of it, just because it has, probably the most or has seen the most change over the years, and that’s the digital logistics systems. Obviously, they’ve made things more convenient and efficient, but you’re also going to sacrifice a little bit there, because you open yourself up to more vulnerabilities when it comes to cyber attacks and whatnot. What can you tell me about the state of DoD’s digital logistics systems right now? And are they being updated enough to patch up those security loopholes?

Michael O’Hanlon Well, this was something I really learned a lot from my Air Force colleague, Jason Wolfe, Colonel Jason Wolfe, who’s now been reassigned, and he’s now down in the North Carolina area working with the Air Force. But he, as a professional logistician, as well as Marcos Melendez, my other coauthor, both recognize just how many separate IT systems were being used by different parts of the military, different services. And it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you’ve got to fight as a joint force. So what matters is your overall aggregate capability and your ability to work together, not any one service’s specific contributions. And moreover, if you have these multiple systems, not only is it harder to have them speak to each other and track each other’s data flows, information flows, but it’s harder to keep them up to snuff with cybersecurity. And so a strong adversary can go find one of the weaker links, whichever one of those I think roughly half does, and component IT capabilities today are least hardened, least resilient to attack, might be the one that the North Koreans or the Chinese or the Russians sneak into and best everything else up that way or maybe even access some of the other IT systems and put in false data, confused people as to where things are. Erase files, make a mess of logistics and then you wind up with sort of what we had in Operation Desert Storm, which is all sorts of stuff all over the theater, but no one really is quite sure where it is. And Desert Storm, it didn’t matter. This was back in 1991, of course, the liberation of Kuwait. We were so strong against Saddam, and we had so much excess capability after the Cold War with a drawdown that hadn’t yet even really fully played out, that it didn’t matter if we were inefficient. But in a future war it really could. And so having six separate IT systems is probably not the way to go.

Eric White All right. So that’s just one of the issues that needs solving. Let’s fix the rest of the problems right here and now, Michael O’Hanlon. What can the defense department do to restore this function? And what do experts like yourself and logisticians in the actual defense realm are hoping to see in the next few years to shore up these issues that may come into play in a future war?

Michael O’Hanlon Well, I think Jason was pretty effective and cogent in our paper, basically explaining you need to have a lead agency and empower somebody to find that one central, unified, resilient IT system. So that’s a piece of it. And so part of that is just a bureaucratic decision about who’s going to be empowered. And then an implementation decision where hopefully DoD buys good software this time and doesn’t buy flawed stuff, which has sometimes been the problem as well. You’re in this dilemma where you really want to tap into commercial software to the extent possible, and yet commercial software often has bugs and historically often hasn’t been as resilient because people didn’t think it had to be. Now, luckily, some of that’s changed, because a lot of companies by now gotten attacked and hacked. And so Microsoft and others that build the world’s best software, but usually build it for private companies, not for the Department of Defense, they have gotten more serious about cybersecurity over the last 10,12,15 years. And so in that sense, DoD can look to commercial software, perhaps more than it might have a while ago, and hope that commercial software will not only be much better than software made just specifically for the Department of Defense, but also be hardened enough to withstand cyber attack. So that’s one encouraging trend line.

Michael O’Hanlon Another encouraging anecdote or observation. It’s not quite the same as a direct answer to your question, because it’s not quite an action plan for us, but it shows the possibilities. The Ukrainians have really stood up beautifully against Russian cyber attack for the last year and a half, partly because they were getting attacked before Feb. 24, 2022. And so they built up resilience, partly because we went over and helped them with some of our software. That’s become much better in these last few years. And so that illustrates that it is possible to find solutions to some of these challenges and not just throw up our arms and feel like DoD or US intelligence community software is just never going to be good enough and resilient enough to be able to get the job done. And the last thing I would point to, it’s not quite in the exact cyber realm, but it’s related. About 10,15 years ago, we started getting very worried that our big satellites were sitting ducks for attack, they were just too expensive to vulnerable. We depended on small numbers of extremely costly high end systems that were orbiting earth and predictable paths or orbits that an enemy could attack. And so we started diversifying our satellite fleets with things like StarLink, Elon Musk’s dataflow system and other kinds of microsatellites that create swarming capability. So if any one small satellite is lost or destroyed, you’ve got others that can fill in for it. And that same kind of concept of building in redundancy, as well as resilience can be applied to some extent to the cyber world. So it’s not quite a direct answer to your question. Like I say, I haven’t written the plan and I’m not capable myself of writing the plan that solves this problem. But I do see a lot of encouraging technological trends that would indicate it is at least partially solvable. Now, we never want to assume any one IT system will definitely withstand attack in time of crisis or war. And so you do need ability to recover fallback options, second best options. We should ever just get so confident about our new software techniques that we think we can definitely keep our systems up and running continuously in a future crisis. They still could be taken down, but a lot more can be done to make the adversary’s job more difficult in that regard.

Eric White And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, you mentioned a lead agency to tackle all these issues. There is a defense agency with logistics in its name, the Defense Logistics Agency. What role do they play in the scope of things? And were you able to analyze their activities and how they affect any of these vulnerabilities we may have?

Michael O’Hanlon It’s an excellent question, and I’m going to have to apologize in advance for the limits of my knowledge, and I hope it’s not unfair to anybody. But if I think about the history of the Defense Logistics Agency in the context of the Goldwater-Nichols reforms of the 1980s, the creation of Transportation Command and the Rapid Deployment Force, all the stuff that happened in the seventies and eighties that made us get more focused on this problem. I think of DLA fitting into that overall effort by trying to think about adequate stocks of equipment, material fuel, spare parts, think about adequate prioritization of logistics within the budget universe. Give a prominent leader from that agency to be at the Central Board of directors level within DoD. But logistics always has an institutional voice along with Transportation Command, and arguably maybe even Strategic Command and Cyber Command, they’re all thinking about one dimension or another of logistics. But DLA, to my mind, and this is where I worry about being a little bit unfair, it’s not really meant as a criticism of DLA, but it’s a reflection of where we are. I don’t see DLA as ever having been charged with making our logistics system resilient to enemy attack. Because that’s where its mandate overlaps with the combatant commands that are geographically located. That if historically, since Goldwater-Nichols of 1986 been our lead warfighting organizations within the Department of Defense. And Logistics really needs to be central to the way that Indo-Pacific command, European Command, Central Command and the others think about their operations. It can’t be just delegated to a side support agency because the logistics are central to the war effort, and they are only going to be successful if combat capabilities are used to protect them. And if combat capabilities and forces are diversified, spread around, made more resilient such that those combat forces themselves are survivable. In other words, you can’t separate logistics over here and fighting over there, give the fighting to the combatant commands, and just have somebody else take care of the logistics as a more mundane matter, like going to the grocery store to make sure you have your refrigerator stocked every Sunday. The logistics are central to the fight and therefore, DLA, as important as it is, as effective as it is within its own mandate, as sort of a second tier DoD organization by comparison with the services themselves or with the combatant commands, it can’t really be expected to handle this problem separately sequestered over here on the side. It’s got to, all it can really do ultimately is feed in its efforts into what the combatant commands and the joint force are trying to do in a more integrated way, because that’s where logistics has to be ultimately as an integrated key element of the overall combat and joint force.

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