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Sense and Respond: Logistics on the Insurgent Battlefield

This article, the second in a series of three on sense and respond logistics, focuses on how logisticians can support a counterinsurgency most effectively by being flexible and responsive.

Insurgencies are a blend of political maneuvering and military tactics and operations. They have taken place on many occasions throughout history. Before World War I, insurgencies were instigated mainly to overthrow a particular monarchy or colonial power. Religious and ethnic differences were catalysts for the insurgencies of that era. After World War I, insurgencies revolved around the overthrow of democratically elected governments and occupying powers through subversive efforts of many kinds.

Insurgencies are well-documented in history. British officer T.E. Lawrence used subversive and guerilla tactics to help overthrow the Ottoman Turks and establish the first modern Arab states. In the early 1900s, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky led the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Mao Zedong led an insurgency against the Chinese Nationalist Party. Viet Cong guerrillas battled French, South Vietnamese, and U.S. troops in a long and protracted war for over 2 decades. These individuals are the forefathers of modern day insurgencies like Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

What is an insurgency? Joint military doctrine defines an insurgency as an organized movement that aims to overthrow a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict. An insurgency is a military and political struggle to weaken a legitimately established government or an occupying power. A counterinsurgency involves military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat an insurgency. Logisticians should understand the complexities of operating in an insurgent environment and the operational logistics requirements of counterinsurgency operations, such as Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

Today’s Insurgencies

Insurgent forces in Iraq and Afghanistan view the U.S. military as an invading force and are willing to engage in a protracted war to rid their countries of the “foreign invader.” The U.S. military cannot be defeated in open conventional warfare—a fact that insurgents know—and so the insurgents will engage in unconventional guerrilla tactics to achieve their goals. The logistician must realize that, although the tactics used by insurgents are as old as warfare itself, conventional logistics planning techniques will not work on such a volatile battlefield.

The elements and dynamics of insurgent movements in Iraq and Afghanistan greatly affect the abilities of military logisticians to plan and execute seamless logistics. An insurgency is not just violence; it is directed violence designed to achieve a political purpose. Directed violence against soft targets, such as resupply convoys or lucrative stationary logistics targets, has taken many lives during Operation
Iraqi Freedom.

Leaders of an insurgency provide strategic guidance to its members. Enemy combatants are often mistaken for the insurgent movement itself. However, they are merely foot soldiers who are used to accomplish the political objective of the insurgent group. The active followers and mass base are members of the local populace who either support the insurgency indirectly by agreeing with its political objectives or directly by providing support that is noncombat related. The political cadres, the ideologists of the insurgency, are actively involved in the movement itself. Their political message is carefully crafted and disseminated to the public in narrative form by religious officials at the local places of worship or through local media outlets.

Counterinsurgencies and Logistics

Insurgencies and counterinsurgencies create nontraditional battlefields that require a logistician to have excellent planning skills and the ability to adapt. Traditional concepts of building supply bases before operations commence are outdated and will not work.

For a logistician, the most critical element of an insurgency is certainly the geographical environment in which it takes place. Areas that are remote with primitive or destroyed infrastructures will make logistics planning and execution much more difficult. External support and sanctuaries that the local populace provides to insurgent groups make it easier for insurgent forces to operate within proximity of logistics targets and bases.

In a counterinsurgency environment, support units provide conventional and host nation support. In many cases, support units are no longer located in the rear areas of the conventional battlefield; they conduct operations in tandem with combat forces. Ground commanders should keep in mind that support forces provide some of the most nonlethal weaponry in a counterinsurgency on the battlefield. Combat forces engaged in counterinsurgency operations should understand that every action has the ability to influence the political, economic, social, and religious institutions of the area. They must be flexible and understand that the tactical situation can change from street to street and block to block. Likewise, logisticians must provide the ground commander with the same level of adaptability and flexibility. The logistician will only be successful through a sense and respond application of logistics planning.

Sense and Respond and Counterinsurgencies

Sense and respond logistics is a network-centric concept that enables logistics planners to provide precise logistics support to the warfighter. The sense and respond framework of operations is an adaptive and responsive approach to logistics for environments that are characterized by constant change. Failure in any form in such an environment can lead to serious obstacles to the success of a counterinsurgency. Effective sense and respond frameworks include systems designs that ensure that every member understands the duties and roles required in that framework. An organization that reflects sense and respond will be a collection of modular capabilities managed as an adaptive system that is responsive to changing demand. Logistics organizations must employ modular assets that can respond quickly to changes. Adaptability and speed of delivery of support assets increases the effectiveness of logisticians and support units. The integration of theater-and-below supply lines also can be tantamount to success in counterinsurgency operations.

Why is sense and respond important to the ground commander and logistician? Counterinsurgency logistics operations are markedly different from conventional combat and require adaptability, flexibility, and effective planning. In addition to combat and civil security operations, ground commanders conducting counterinsurgency operations must focus on training and employing host nation and security forces. They must assist in the establishment and restoration of essential services and support the development of the local government. The key to the success of any counterinsurgency operation is the ability to support economic development.

Supporting a Counterinsurgency

How do logisticians support the ground commander in a counterinsurgency? Logisticians and support unit commanders must exercise their responsibilities within the sense and respond framework. First, logisticians must realize the importance of their role in the counterinsurgency. Each member of the support unit must understand his role, which is based on what he should do as a member and who he should interact with, rather than what he can achieve. In his book, Adaptive Enterprises, Stephan Haeckel says—

Without clarity about purpose, bounds, relationships, and measurements . . . people will have to make their own interpretation, thus increasing the chances that these choices will be inconsistent both with one another and with the organizational purposes.

Logisticians who understand their roles in the counterinsurgency realize that they are accountable for the consequences of their actions.

Second, logisticians must understand the significance of what is happening “now.” They should focus on knowing why something is happening as opposed to knowing how it happened, which can be gleaned later from after-action reviews. Counterinsurgencies produce enormous amounts of data, and military planners are notorious for collecting huge amounts of data that may not pertain to a supply issue. Because counterinsurgencies are run from both political and military platforms, information batches contain social, political, and military data. Logisticians must sort and filter this information properly and quickly before it becomes obsolete. Establishing guidelines for filtering information will make the decisionmaking process more effective. A support organization that has developed internal systems designs, such as a systematic ability to interpret a large stream of information, will succeed in its support endeavors.

Third, logisticians and support unit commanders must be able to dispatch support capabilities as required. The ground commander needs flexibility in logistics support to meet the demands of his operation. The logistician and the support unit commander should maintain internal and external flexibility to dispatch assets. Support units contain multiple internal assets, which need only a modular configuration to be capable of responding to changes in an operation. Configuring assets well before the operation is critical to success and provides support units and ground commanders with a dimensional approach to meeting demands. The support unit commander must be prepared to answer unit demands in both short- and long-term timeframes.

Insurgency and counterinsurgency environments require adaptable support units and sense and respond logisticians to meet the unpredictable support requirements of the Soldiers in the field. Conventional warfare, although not impossible today, seems unlikely, and so the Army requires a new type of military planner. When unit requirements are unpredictable, logisticians must shift from a planned response to a customized response.

Support units and logisticians that operate within the sense and respond framework will succeed in a military setting. Why? The military is based on systems, policies, and techniques that need little reconfiguration to fit inside the sense and respond framework. Many logisticians plan according to a military planning system that at times runs counter to sense and respond. Creating a chain of command that is horizontal and not vertical, as it is traditionally, will produce planners and support units that are adaptable and flexible and can provide support in a counterinsurgent environment.

Major Michael F. Hammond is the S–3 of the 526th Brigade Support Battalion, 2d Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), which is currently deployed to Iraq. He has a master’s degree in military logistics from North Dakota State University.