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Logistics in Asymmetric Conflicts

An Israeli and his colleagues examine several contemporary operations to determine what characterizes logistics in low-intensity conflicts.

In conducting the studies that resulted in our book Logistics in Asymmetrical Conflicts, my coauthors, Dr. Haim Shnaiderman and Dr. Hanan Tell, and I found that while asymmetric conflicts are more common than conventional warfare, little research had been conducted about logistics in asymmetric confrontations.

In fact, even Israel, which has not really been at peace since its establishment almost 64 years ago, fought its last conventional war more than 30 years ago. Since then, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has fought battles against insurgents and terrorist organizations in Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. So we decided to bring the subject of logistics in asymmetric conflicts to the forefront of military discussions in a book.

National Perspectives on LICs
Our book discusses theories of low-intensity conflicts (LICs) and asymmetric contingencies and the conduct of civil and military logistics. We looked at LICs from the American, Soviet, and Israeli perspectives. We found out that each country adopted its own definition of the subject in light of its specific political and geographic situation.

The American perspective sees LIC as a spectrum of ways to conduct warfare that is below conventional war and includes peacekeeping and humanitarian missions and counterinsurgency missions on a global scale. The Israeli perspective is quite similar to the American, but it emphasizes LIC as a way to combat terrorism and insurgency along its own borders. The Soviet Union saw LIC from the opposite perspective, as a way to attack mainly western forces using insurgents as proxies. This perspective changed when the Russian Federation—the successor to the Soviet Union—had to counter Chechnyan insurgents.

Logistics Principles and Case Studies
We concluded that, in most cases, nine common principles determine logistics success: simplicity, flexibility, feasibility and attainability, economy, information, dispersion, continuity and coordination, timeliness, and responsibility.

We then analyzed logistics in asymmetric warfare through case studies of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Russians in Chechnya; the U.S.-led coalitions in Somalia and Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom 04–07), using the American perspective; and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

We also studied how the IDF sustained its asymmetric contingencies in the West Bank, during Israeli control of its self-declared security zone in Lebanon (until 2000), during Israeli control in the Gaza Strip (until 2005), and during the last war in Lebanon against Hezbollah in 2006.

Observations on LIC Logistics
We noticed a few differences among the conflicts. The Soviets, the Russians, and the Israelis handled conflicts within their territories or in territories along their borders, while the Americans and NATO forces led coalitions far from their homelands in conflicts supported by host nations.

Most of the conflicts were operations against insurgents and terrorist organizations. In fact, the only conflict against a sovereign nation was NATO's operation in Kosovo; this model was repeated recently during the conflict in Libya.

Most asymmetric conflicts were nonlinear and did not feature any real front lines. Logistics forces were typically caught in the line of fire and sometimes were targeted by the enemy. In some situations, the civilian population also received humanitarian support from military logistics forces; this strategy was aimed at easing pressure on the combat forces that dealt with insurgents by earning the trust of the locals.

The militaries had to adopt new concepts and tactics and use unconventional logistics tools. In most cases, the logistics forces had to adopt and improvise solutions.

For instance, water supply was often a problem. The water available in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia had to be purified and distributed by means other than water tankers. In urban fighting in Iraq, Chechnya, the West Bank, and Gaza, enemy fire and close-range fighting made water distribution difficult. In most cases, the immediate solution was to provide water in small bottles.

While examining maintenance efforts, we found that in most cases regular and preventive maintenance procedures were insufficient and equipment broke down frequently. Most militaries adopted tailored maintenance procedures, like special squads of mechanics in Afghanistan and Bosnia, or allocated equipment for local use only (in the IDF, this type of equipment is called "line-
equipment for territorial use only") or adopted new mean time to repair-based procedures.

In most conflicts, the method of medical evacuation was changed dramatically. The conventional medical evacuation procedures simply did not fit the situation in the field. Most conflicts required widespread and close-to-combat medic coverage because of the dispersion of combat forces, usually within urban areas. Dispersed medics and forward surgical troops within the combat units had to reach injured personnel as fast as they could and perform fast land and air evacuations straight to hospitals (a procedure called "scoop and run").

Tactical transportation and distribution was a problem in most cases because of the nature of the conflicts, with enemy personnel surrounding bases and routes and disguising themselves as civilians. In some cases, transportation platforms were lacking. To address those issues, militaries used armored vehicles to supply combat forces and relied heavily on local subcontractors to perform ad-hoc missions.

Characteristics of LIC Logistics
We identified 13 LIC issues that affect the 9 common logistics principles.

Reduction of buffers. During conventional warfare, the logistics formations differ at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels; each level has its own clear responsibilities. However, the logistics formations in asymmetric conflicts became more modular and very much tailor-made. As a result, logistics buffers between levels are usually reduced.

Continuous learning. Unlike conventional conflicts, most asymmetric conflicts take years to end. It took 3 weeks to crush the Iraqi army in 2003, but the ensuing operations in Iraq continued for 8 years. Because of the longevity of asymmetric conflicts, there is time to learn lessons (which insurgents do as well) and adopt new tactics regularly.

Spectrum of logistics solutions. The changing intensity of LICs requires militaries to use a wide range of logistics solutions to sustain combat forces. Maintaining flexibility to sustain combat forces is needed at all times using a wide range of supply, medical, maintenance, and transportation solutions.

"Just in case" philosophy. Unlike conventional conflicts, where resources are scarce and are managed to meet urgent needs, LICs are likely to require many more resources, such as provisions, equipment, and medics. Increased resources are needed to meet the demands of unforeseen missions that arise from LICs and the need to have those resources nearby.

Logistics in hostile environments. In conventional conflicts, logistics troops are usually operating one step behind the combat forces. During LICs, logistics forces often operate in a hostile environment and need to protect themselves from enemy attacks.

Detailed data management. The mass of forces and operations in conventional conflicts does not allow logistics commanders to control their resources in detail. During LICs, logistics commanders need to, and can, manage their operations with greater precision. Commanders in LICs tend to manage their supply levels in absolute numbers (as opposed to required percentages, as is common in conventional wars), have specific data on casualties, and know the exact location of each convoy. Conventional wars do not provide the time or the ability to manage resources in such a detailed manner.

Small headquarters. Deployment of combat forces often takes priority over deployment of logistics forces. As a result, in some LICs, small logistics headquarters are deployed quickly to provide urgently needed support. Therefore, in some cases, logistics headquarters have a short time for buildup and begin operations with a shortage of personnel. Personnel often are provided largely by reserve forces.

High tempo. The tempo of operations in LICs usually does not tolerate the conventional logistics tempo common during war. Medical evacuations are faster, supplies for combat troops need to be provided constantly, and equipment breakdowns are less tolerated by commanders. Therefore, logistics commanders need to provide fast solutions and be able to sustain forces in every situation.

Humanitarian aid. In some of the LICs we studied, humanitarian aid was the priority mission and logistics played a major role in providing that aid. An example is Operation Provide Relief in Somalia. During LICs that were not oriented toward humanitarian aid, providing supplies and medical treatment to civilians eased the pressure for logistics support from combat troops and local political leaders by preventing humanitarian catastrophes.

Use of permanent infrastructure. LICs are usually static and enable deployed forces to use local infrastructure.

Use of aerial logistics. Most LICs are executed in an environment in which threats to aircraft are relatively low and there usually is no shortage of aerial platforms for logistics functions such as supply and medical evacuations. Therefore, logistics support can be much more flexible by using helicopters and airplanes to support logistics operations and bypass enemies threatening logistics routes on the ground.

Outsourcing. Outsourcing is an old technique used to sustain armies in foreign territory. History records countless examples of outsourcing food supply, transportation, and barracks for troops. Modern war has somewhat neglected the use of outsourcing because of the speed of modern combat, which relies on military convoys and military logistics solutions. The static nature of LICs and their duration have made outsourcing a useful and economic way to sustain troops.

Extensive reliance on information technology. Reliance on information technology and other new technologies is not characteristic of conventional warfare. However, the high demand for accurate, online information for decisionmakers has made information technology platforms important for logistics in LICs. The United States has used newly adopted technologies, such as radio frequency identification and total asset visibility systems, as strategic enablers. The IDF is adopting the new Tzayad Digital Army Program as a main platform to transfer data from the field to headquarters.

Impact of LICs on the Logistics Principles
When we examined how the 13 characteristics we identified affect the 9 common logistics principles, we found that some of the principles fit the nature of LIC logistics and others do not. We also suggested two new principles that should be adopted by militaries engaged in LICs: survivability and dynamic endurance.

Simplicity. Simplicity emphasizes finding simple solutions in difficult situations. We found that because of the differences in military situations, sometimes within the same region, and the high tempo and the broad spectrum of contingencies, simplicity is hard to achieve in LIC logistics. In fact, emphasizing simplicity can be the exact opposite of what is needed on the ground when complex solutions are required. Therefore, simplicity does not apply to LIC logistics.

Flexibility. Flexibility is one of the bases of the ability to sustain troops during LICs and is an important logistics principle.

Feasibility and attainability. By their nature, LICs are relatively long operations that require high levels of resources. So it is important that they be based on feasible and attainable objectives.

Economy. The nature of LICs contradicts the economy principle. Commanders prefer to have as many resources as they can, even in excess of actual needs, just to be on the safe side.

Information. Since one of the characteristics of logistics in LICs is the need to accurately and quickly process data on line, information is a key principle of LIC logistics success.

Dispersion. Although combat troops in LICs disperse, their sustainment is mainly centralized. Unlike conventional conflicts, where combat troops at the battalion and brigade levels are mainly self-reliant, the logistics solutions during LICs are usually provided by the central and regional levels. The only cases we found in which dispersion of logistics forces was implemented was during deployment of medical troops. Therefore, we conclude that, for the most part, dispersion is not a principle of logistics in LICs.

Continuity and coordination. Although continuity and coordination in LICs are relatively hard to achieve, we found that this principle is important and supports sustainment efforts.

Timeliness. Timeliness is critical to success during LICs. The tempo of the conflicts and the importance of tactical missions that sometimes affect strategic decisions make it an important principle.

Responsibility. This principle calls for defining the level of responsibility of each headquarters and commander in each stage of an operation. It sometimes requires defining the responsibilities of each country to sustain forces in coalition operations. During international operations such as NATO operations, the principle of responsibility reflects the need to define the role of each participating country.

We added two new principles:
Survivability. The principle of survivability was adopted by a few armies, but it is not very common. We found that it is critical for logistics troops to develop survivable platforms and procedures in order to sustain combat troops.

Dynamic endurance. Endurance is the ability to withstand hardship or adversity. We defined dynamic endurance as a principle that emphasizes the need to sustain forces during contingencies throughout a conflict until its end, even if it takes years.

In the last chapter of our book, we looked at the history of how military revolutions appeared and at current and future trends in warfare. Modern theories like the revolution in military affairs, the fourth generation of war, and others suggest that asymmetric warfare will dominate future confrontations and replace traditional linear battles.

As a consequence of this trend in warfare, we expect logistics to evolve into three operational levels. Frontline logistics will be divided into two sublevels:

  • Logistics platforms and resources placed with combat units that will enable greater self-reliance than those forces have today.
  • A dynamic logistics network that will be composed of modular logistics units that will be able to sustain all types of combat troops within their areas of logistics responsibility. This line of thinking, which is similar to a cellular phone network, has started to develop during LICs, especially in the IDF.

Strategic logistics based in both the homeland and the host nation will support the theater with strategic resources and will stretch strategic resources toward the meeting point with the frontline logistics troops.

Eyal Ziv is a technical and quality manager at Nestle Nespresso Israel and a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Reserve. He co-wrote Logistics in Asymmetrical Conflict during his active service as a logistics officer in the IDF technology and logistics branch while he served as a research fellow in the logistics department at Barllan University. He has a B.A. degree in logistics and economics from Barllan University and a master's degree in business administration from BenGurion University.


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