Control of Capabilities
Jan 15, 2006

The need for authority  and accountability

Clausewitz held the view that war is invariably ­conducted in an environment of exertion, danger, chance and chaos; in other words the “friction” that results in the “easy being rendered difficult.” The idea, however, that success in war belongs to the side that makes the least mistakes does not sit easily with ­levels of expectation within contemporary Western society. There is a general belief, often fuelled by governments trying to put a positive spin on difficult issues, that our ­technological advantage enables us to conduct operations with ­surgical ­precision and minimum casualties. When this proves not to be so, much of the media and the public appear surprised. Under-­performance of equipment is perceived to be wasted ­investment; a change of plan implies a failure of plan­ning: in short, ­imperfection equals failure. At the same time, conflict becomes more complex, dynamic and dangerous. 

Expeditionary warfare against an asymmetric enemy makes profound demands on political and military structures, and brings with it high levels of risk, not least because the war is more likely to be one of choice than of necessity. Operations will often require the simultaneous conduct of war-fighting, stabilization and reconstruction operations. The climate and terrain are likely to be hostile and national infrastructure non-existent or badly degraded. Commanders will often have to disperse forces widely which may constrain freedom of manoeuvre and exacerbate insecure lines of communication. This problem is likely to worsen during stabilization and reconstruction operations. The force structure is almost certain to be combined and joint with the multi-national elements heavily intermeshed but not necessarily integrated.

If commanders are to be able to focus their military combat power in a way that helps achieve the desired political end-state, they must have a force which is mentally and physically robust, flexible and agile; and equipment that gives them the capabilities they require. This must be underwritten by proper levels of sustainment. The cavalry had a saying “no foot, no horse.” If the success of an operation depends as much upon the effectiveness of the logistic support as anything else, the more fragile the support, the greater the risk of failure. If a commander is to be able to analyze, decide, plan and execute a plan effectively, he must have control of the capabilities that he requires to implement his intentions; for that he must have authority as well as responsibility. 

Multi-nationality is a reality from which none of us can escape. It brings both political and military advantage and disadvantage, especially as national responsibility for logistics remains the default setting. Substantial steps have been taken to better understand how we can improve the way we manage defence assets in a multi-national environment, but the progress on the ground has been patchy and at times non-existent. Most nations have a “Just in Time and Just Enough” concept, perhaps even the beginnings of an end to end infrastructure – other nations will be logistically more fragile. A major stumbling block remains a lack of compatibility of equipment, something with which NATO continues to battle with little success. This is especially difficult in the Command Information Systems world especially, as compatible CIS remains the only realistic method of managing the consequences of otherwise incompatible fighting equipment. The concept of Framework or Lead Nation comes at a cost. Framework Nation status places a very substantial responsibility on a nation to maintain a complete structure at required readiness levels (such as the UK’s responsibility for the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps). Lead Nation status is a cheaper option, but in operations of long duration it can be difficult for one nation to sustain the effort of maintaining a function year after year. It is often very difficult to convince another nation to take over a role, especially a demanding one. And there are often difficult decisions to be made when Lead Nations find themselves under pressure to leave expensive and scarce equipment in-theatre when they are relieved. 

At a time when the public is more concerned with investment in health, education and other social issues, it is not surprising that defence budgets are under pressure. In these circumstances it is convenient for governments to encourage the public to believe that the priority for military investment should be focussed on the “front line,” a term easily understood, but nonetheless misleading. It also encourages the view that the support area should be the focus for savings. We are often exhorted to look at and learn from industry and commerce in this field, and most armed forces have accepted or had forced upon them some commercial practices over the years. 

It has been some time since the commercial world realized that storage costs were a very significant factor in their profitability. Substantial investment has reduced these costs, notably in the fields of distribution and asset tracking. But the concept of “Just in Time and Just Enough” is unachievable without the ability to understand consumption rates and know where products or components are in the supply chain. A consequence of reduced stock holdings is an increase in the frequency of re-supply, but in an expeditionary environment both the cost of movement over long distances and storage and handling in hostile environments can be very substantial. 

Critics of the military logistic system will claim that it is still far too heavily front loaded; our asset tracking capability is ineffective; we have poor understanding of consumption rates; and we place too little emphasis in our procurement processes on equipment reliability, and as a result are forced to devote substantial effort to repair and life cycle maintenance. Though much of this is true, war does not have its equivalence in the commercial battles of big business. The military is not another branch of Wal-Mart: its branches are not static and long standing, the data base for establishing consumption rates will invariably be less well developed, the environment on operations is more complex, dynamic and dangerous, and the price of military failure has the potential for human, social, economic and political catastrophe. War is waste; and the reality is that military asset management remains a very complex and difficult problem. We do not have our hands on all the control levers, especially some of the political dynamics that affect such issues as: memoranda of understanding; status of forces agreements; over-flights; port availability; and costs. And yet the UK Ministry of Defence continues to be under pressure to make greater efficiency savings in order to meet budgetary constraints. Many of the targets can be met only by taking greater risk in the programme when the signs show that the capability to sustain current operations remains fragile.

Having said all that, the benefits to the commander of greatly improved logistic situational awareness through an effective end to end information infrastructure are substantial. It would enable the better tracking of high value and scarce equipment or components, the more effective use of industrial dormant contracts to meet shortfalls and the implementation of a realistic “Just in Time and Just Enough” system rather than “Too Little and Too Late.” 

However, the structure should be designed to meet the requirements of the operational space and not to meet savings targets in the business space (which is so tempting for those whose sole concern is to reduce costs). There will always be the danger that an end to end system will make it easier for those in national capitals to employ the “long screwdriver” and try to double guess the operational commander. Equally, the data required to populate a “recognized logistic picture” can burden those in the operational area to the extent that they are distracted from their primary tasks. We must not re-create a 21st Century equivalent of the “drivelling quill pushers” who so irritated the Duke of Wellington. But if the concept of Network Enabled Operations is to be fully realized, a recognized logistic picture, available for those who need it, will be a key component. 

There are other unintended consequences of the drive to reduce the logistic overheads of expeditionary warfare. Defence firms are increasingly offering, or being asked to provide, repair and maintenance within the Area of Operations. This reduces the requirement for soldiers especially those whose skills are in short supply, but military technicians are soldiers first and tradesmen ­second (I am sure this is so in most national armies). Civilian tradesmen are not, and thus they must be protected and cannot be used as soldiers for other tasks in an emergency. Any savings, therefore, may not be as attractive as they first appear.

This debate still has a long way to run and it is clear that there are many valuable lessons to be learned, techniques borrowed and procedures copied from the way the commercial sector manages its logistic support and assets. However, too often we judge the value of such measures only against cost. Too often we fail to spot that, however much it focuses on costs, if a commercial company does not satisfy the requirements of its customer base there is no business. Too often we forget that the military customer is not the ­taxpayer but the lives of those soldiers, sailors, or airmen and women at the sharp end. Now there’s a point! 

Recently retired from the British Army (March ‘04), General Deverell’s time as Deputy Commander (Operations) SFOR and CinC AFNORTH gave him experience of multi-national operations.