Logistics: What's Missing?
Mar 15, 2013

While waiting for an elevator the other day, I had the good fortune to run into an old friend with whom I had served several times over the span of my career. After the inevitable “remember when” and “where are they now” conversations, we drifted to the current topic of forces restructuring and found we shared the same thoughts about all the machinations that have been going on over the past several years. Had the “grown ups” paid attention to two operationally-savvy logistics officers, we could have avoided many of the problems we were currently facing. Neither of us were self-inflated or egotistical about our shared project, we both had extensive experience with Canadian Forces Europe, and we could recognize worked and what didn’t, however, we soon realized that we were out of step with the views of our “Elders and Betters.”

As we had both worked in the “old” D Log Ops, we had the opportunity to make our views known in a number of areas given our experiences in Europe with other NATO forces. With this experience we both shared an unusual perspective regarding the development of a functional and effective administrative and operational structure and establishment. The D Log Ops staff was working on a Canadian Divisional and Corps concept which would be used to guide doctrine development as well as to provide guidance on future technological developments. I worked part-time in the companion project regarding the development of quick deployable Air logistics organizations that could be assembled quickly in Canadian Forces Europe should the threat level escalate. In this capacity, I proposed that we develop a Canadian-based organization that could be used to support the various domestic air operational tasks that could arise during periods of international crisis. The documentation was researched, well-reasoned, and predicated on Canadian and Allied war-fighting, and shared peacetime experience. It had been a heady time for us because we felt that we were contributing to the foundations for new CF policies that would be the pillars of equipment procurement, concept design and personnel planning for all potential crises that we might face in the future.

Logistics: The art of getting the required number of personnel into the battlespace at the right place, at the right time, and with the appropriate equipment. (Photo: Sgt Matthew McGregor, CF Combat Camera)

Sadly, our work never came to fruition. It was shredded by the managerial elders as being unaffordable, equipment heavy and impracticable given the period of Glasnost announced by the USSR. We were told that, in fact, the way we should have gone was diametrically opposite to our basic thought. The initiative was terminated shortly afterwards, to free resources for other tasks. In the perfect light of hindsight, it was the managerial rationalization that proved to be the major mistake. Had we proceeded with the final stages of the planning we would have produced a flexible strategy that would have allowed critical changes to be implemented effectively and efficiently over a period of time. It would have avoided all of the UORs and other quick procurement techniques that subsequent operations generated.

I re-read our draft document several days after our conversation, and was struck by the fact that many of the “new structure” components that we had proposed contained mainly specialist support units at both the theatre and “coal face” level. Our model had illustrated areas where we had encountered tactical logistics difficulties that CIMIC had not addressed, and never would. We knew this to be true as we had both taken the NATO CIMIC course which revealed that much of what we had counted on to come from local German resources was simply not available, and what was available had an abundance of conditions and terms regarding its use. While we could count on the host nation to provide us with a number of areas of support, what they offered was not as comprehensive as many people thought. We could get buildings, area and utilities maps, and as much building materials as we wanted, but POL, food and a local workforce had strict limitations. We could borrow munitions of all types, provided we could replace them within 30 days or faster. It was soon driven home that our Allies had no need of us as hangers on. Logistics is a “National” responsibility that was first and foremost in everyone’s mind in NATO.

Like Canada, most of our Allies, with the exception of the United States, retained only first and second line forces at optimum strength. The difference between Canada and the rest of our NATO Allies was that they had substantial reserve forces that were ready to deploy very quickly, and had the materiel in hand to begin operations. Conversely, while we had some operational stocks in theatre, there was always some degree of doubt within the logistics community within CFE if our forces in residence would be able to push replenishment to either the deployed brigade or to the squadron that would have been dispatched to depth dispersal airfields. However, we never had to trial our “support system.”

The fact that we did not really learn the lessons of World War II has led to a number of false assumptions simply because we no longer have the expertise with which to judge appropriately. Some of the more egregious errors in our planning logic were:

  • We will always be able to get materiel and personnel support from our Allies if we run into trouble;
  • We don’t need to maintain a comprehensive logistics and service support structure and establishment because it is easy to train support troops;
  • Contractors are much cheaper to employ thereby allowing defence money to be spent on other more important items;Commercially available equipment is more economical than the more ruggedly built military equipment; and
  • We will always have enough time to ramp up national industries to meet our needs.

These “myths” have no doubt been with soldiers since Roman times. They are on a par with the politicians of the last century who stated: “Why can’t we buy just one aeroplane and let the pilots take turns flying it?” It has been a constant battle between “security and largesse”. Maintaining an adequate military force for a nation’s security has never been popular, but even ancient philosophers understood that to maintain peace you must prepare for war.

Civilian “militarized” vehicles such as these could not withstand off-road demands.

Let us look at these assumptions. Our Allies are dealing with downsizing issues of their own. History dictates that any equipment or personnel, if available, will be shared a quid pro quo basis. Any offer of support will be to prise a favour, and such offers were extremely modest. If one applies even a modicum of common sense to this situation, it is easy to come to the conclusion that no nation is rich enough to lend modern, pricey equipment. Any donations are going to be left-over, superseded, obsolete equipment.

Each support service task is operational and essential to the operational forces. The idea that support facilities will be shared by any ally is pure nonsense. Every item of their smaller peacetime sustaining stocks, or the capacity to render services, will be even more frugally measured out – just as it was the last two times that we have participated in a major war.

As for training, and contractors, the assumption that institutions are producing tradespeople who will be fully functional – and available – when required is also nonsense. With the complexity and specialized handling required of modern equipment, it will likely be faster to train operational forces. It will take more than a year to take a fit young man or woman through basic training, learn his or her trade and become competent and effective, even in a minor capacity. “Support” soldiers also have to learn the basics of soldiering and how to defend in an operational environment. Once they have attained some skill in these requirements, only then can they go forward with specialist training. And, these soldier tradesmen or tradeswomen will not possess the skill level of peacetime support technicians. They will, instead, likely have only one or two specialties, such as a warehouse manager, a junior cook or a light vehicle driver. If there are periods of time before hostilities escalate to the dimensions of a major war, there may be some room to accelerate the training by cutting corners. However, in the long run, very little can be deleted from the training of tradespersons at a very basic level. Even if we resort to commercial firms to provide support within Canada, it is highly doubtful they can come up with enough staff to provide service personnel on a nation-wide level.

Moreover, experience has taught us that the use of support contractors “ain’t cheap”. We have known that since the Crimean War when supplies for the British Forces, one of the first modern European armies, rotted on the docks – left there by contractors who refused to deliver the goods to depots located in the forward areas. That fiasco, brought on by the ­lobbying of various commercial interests, generated the Cardwell Reforms of the 1870s and changed the British way of war. It was striking because the French army had perceived the problem 30 years previous, and had already taken steps to provide their own internal methods of support and not to depend upon contractors. The fact is, you don’t see many contractors at the ­forward edge of battle. While they may provide for services in lieu of military tradesmen, they don’t have a great track record in responding well to the harsh reality of war.

In the same fashion, civilian equipment designed for gentle use does not stand up to the rigours of operational use. This is especially true of mobile support equipment and ancillary equipment. Most military forces at the start of WWII had some military pattern vehicles but the bulk of their vehicles were commercial types. Although well-built, they were designed for roads or tracks and had limited capabilities as cross-country vehicles. This vulnerability was most evident during the defeat of France where the roads were clogged with fleeing French citizens and the retreating forces were forced to go cross-country. Because of the civilian design and construction, many Allied unit vehicles suffered broken axles or became bogged down and had to be abandoned. This simple fact led to a failure to move supplies, ammunition and troops to where they were most needed. Even Royal Air Force units lost spares and most of their highly skilled ground crews at a time when both were critically needed.

The last significant “myth” is that a country will have adequate time to convert its industries from the production of peacetime goods to war products. Even when some industries were already making weapons, spares and vehicles, converting the factories took time, an infusion of significant cash resources, and directed labour resources before they were fully converted. Estimates of the time it took to achieve these tasks were always overly optimistic and most activities ran way past their “to be completed by” date. Unless you have a technically-competent work force at hand, the required production machinery, substantial raw resources needed to produce the goods and services, and sufficient financial backing, the same “teething problems” that bedevilled the Allies before the First and Second World Wars will once again be visited upon us because of a failure to learn from our past.

It’s time for senior military and governmental planning staffs to define, in real terms, what it would take to put Canada on a war fitting rather than writing scenarios that match our current limited resources against very modest and simplistic scenarios. Planners at all levels need to be able to find out what it would take to handle the reality of a potential major world conflict that could involve us. Taking comfort in Mutually Assured Destruction is a philosophical “cop-out” when we need to be determining a plan of action and a plan to apply the necessary resources to that plan. Anything less would simply be the greatest folly to beset our nation.
Robert Day, a retired logistics officer, is a military analyst and historian.
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2013