April 13, 2023

Buying Time

Logistics for a New American Way of War

Executive Summary

Discussions about defense strategy that focus on combat units and fail to account for logistics are irrelevant when it comes to understanding how well the United States can deter or defeat aggression by China or Russia. Planes, ships, and tanks are just weapons systems; making them combat capabilities requires getting them and their crews into the fight; supplying them with fuel, food, water, medical care, and munitions; and keeping them maintained. Logistics, more than the quantity of forces or the quality of technology, will determine the potential combat power available to the United States in future conflict scenarios with China or Russia. It will influence Chinese and Russian decisions about going to war, and when, where, and how to fight. It will bound the military courses of action available to U.S. commanders and delineate the strategic options available to presidents.

Despite this critical role, the Department of Defense has systemically underinvested in logistics in terms of money, mental energy, physical assets, and personnel. Neglect of logistics arguably became most severe in the post–Cold War era. Pressure to save money through efficiency and misguided attempts to run the department like a “lean” business disproportionately impacted logistics. Maximizing the ratio of combat “tooth” to logistical “tail” saved money, but at the cost of leaving U.S. armed forces with a logistical system that is stretched thin supporting peacetime operations and wholly unsuited to the demands of warfare with China or Russia.

Recognizing U.S. dependence on strained logistics networks, China and Russia have developed means to attack these networks, including long-range missiles and cyberattacks. Barring changes to U.S. logistics and sustainment concepts, such attacks present a grave threat to the department’s ability to uphold U.S. security commitments in East Asia or eastern Europe.

Logistics, more than the quantity of forces or the quality of technology, will determine the potential combat power available to the United States in future conflict scenarios with China or Russia.

The logistical challenges facing U.S. forces in a conflict with China or Russia are severe but surmountable. Fixing the problem requires evolving from traditional methods focused on efficient delivery of supplies and services toward an adaptive logistics concept in which methods of support shift in response to threats, operational demands, and the availability of information. There is no single “correct” method of support. Instead, the joint logistics enterprise needs to invest in resiliency and train for contested wartime environments while sustaining everyday operations in an efficient manner. Unlike past wars in which U.S. logistical forces have adapted their methods on the fly, conflict with China or Russia may be too rapid and disruptive to permit a wartime overhaul of forces and methods. Adaptation must therefore be built into U.S. logistical concepts, forces, and posture from the outset.

In conflicts with China or Russia, adaptive logistics would differ from current methods in two critical ways. First, the physical structure of logistical networks would eschew the “depot-wholesale-retail” model, in which supplies and services flow sequentially through three zones: rear areas, intermediate lines of communication and bases, and tactical distribution networks. Instead, adaptive logistics envisions these zones operating largely independently during the critical opening weeks of a conflict to bring combat power to bear directly against a potential adversary as quickly as possible. In this model, U.S. forward forces would need to operate with minimal logistical support for weeks at a time. Intermediate bases and the open ocean would become bases for maneuver and offensive strikes, rather than transshipment zones. The homeland would become a base for persistent global strike operations, rather than a supply depot.

Second, providing logistical support in degraded information environments requires major alterations to information management and command and control processes. Information is the currency of logistics. It enables logistical supply to meet operational demand. Without it, logistical systems underperform or break down. Adaptive logistics requires an ability to shift between optimized and efficient “pull” models—wherein forces request support—and more resilient push models, wherein logisticians send support forward based on predicted demand. Adaptive logistics also necessitates better data collection, modeling, and analysis to use data and artificial intelligence to manage logistics.

The joint logistics enterprise needs to invest in resiliency and train for contested wartime environments while sustaining everyday operations in an efficient manner.

Building an adaptive logistics concept will require major changes across the entire joint logistics enterprise. Four areas in particular merit substantial reforms and investments:

  • Building a more resilient overseas posture is central to an adaptive logistics concept. The size, shape, and locations of U.S. forces, bases, and other key nodes overseas help define both logistical supply and demand. Making these forces and locations more resilient to Chinese and Russian attack must therefore be a top priority.
  • Creating a larger and more diverse fleet of connectors— airlift, sealift, trucks, aerial refueling tankers, fleet oilers, etc.—will increase resilience to attrition while enabling logistics forces to better support more distributed operating concepts.
  • Acquiring information systems that balance visibility and security will enable logisticians to track assets, understand logistical statuses across the joint force, and allocate resources effectively while under cyberattacks and other forms of information warfare.
  • Investing in a larger and better-trained workforce is critical because many logistical processes are personnel intensive. Supporting distributed operations in contested environments requires the right personnel in the right locations at the right time with the right training.

The changes and investments required to create an adaptive logistics concept for operations against China or Russia are significant, but they are affordable relative to major changes in the composition or size of combat forces. Logistics systems tend to be less expensive than combat weapons and, given Chinese and Russian tendencies to target logistics, they can generate more effective combat power per dollar in potential combat scenarios. Put simply, building an adaptive logistics concept and supporting capabilities will have a tremendous return on investment for deterring or defeating Chinese or Russian aggression.

Executing the preceding conceptual, material, and fiscal shifts will require a cultural transformation in the way the Pentagon and the broader national security community treat logistics. Before change can occur, the Defense Department must realize that logistics is a critical combat function, rather than a menial support mission that can be marginalized or outsourced. The perspective of logistics as subordinate and external to “real” combat forces is not unique to the present-day United States, but it is uniquely detrimental to a nation that, due to its geography and strategic commitments, depends heavily on logistics to conduct military operations. Enacting this cultural change will be difficult and will require concrete action to better integrate logistics into key planning and budgeting processes and to develop analytic methods and metrics that better represent logistical challenges.

Given the scale of the changes outlined, developing an adaptive logistics concept will not be easy or without costs. Nevertheless, it is a strategic imperative if the United States intends to deter or defeat Chinese or Russian aggression. Continuing to squeeze savings and efficiency out of logistics will exacerbate a glaring vulnerability that U.S. adversaries are all too willing to exploit.

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  • Chris Dougherty

    Former Senior Fellow, Defense Program

    Chris Dougherty is a former Senior Fellow for the Defense Program at CNAS. His primary areas of research included defense strategy, operational concepts, and force planning. H...

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