War on a Shoestring

by Dr. Burton Wright III

    During the early years of the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong often searched the dead and wounded of both sides for usable equipment. It was not uncommon for U.S. troops to find booby traps made from discarded U.S. ration cans and to defuse U.S. bombs and artillery shells that had failed to explode and been found and repaired by the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong often fought on a "shoestring" budget. A strike by B-52 bombers could unload ordnance worth several hundred thousand dollars; that same amount of money could supply a Viet Cong main-force battalion for weeks.

    The U.S. Army has a justified reputation for abundance in war. During the Civil War, for example, Union soldiers normally did not lack for supplies. Their Confederate opponents, on the other hand, frequently had to either do without or search the battlefield to find a dead Northern soldier who was better shod, clothed, and equipped. In fact, Union armies often were oversupplied. When General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac retreated from Richmond to Malvern Hill, Virginia, during the Seven Days Campaign of 1862, they left behind enough materiel to keep the Confederate Quartermaster Department busy for nearly a year salvaging what was abandoned. Thousands of rifles, artillery pieces, general military equipment, and cannonballs were recovered and reused by the South against the North.

    In every war the United States has fought since the turn of the 20th century, U.S. forces usually have had not only enough supplies to do the job but an overabundance of supplies when compared to their adversaries. That overabundance, of course, existed at the end of the war, but it was not necessarily present at the beginning.

    In World War II, U.S. aerial bombardment strategy was based almost wholly on using air power to cripple the enemy's ability to support an army in the field. Day after day, hundreds of bombers took to the air to destroy the ability of German industry to supply the German army. If you believe the Strategic Bombing Survey, the daylight bombing of Germany was decisive. While there was some truth to this, as the Germans themselves admitted, the reality was somewhat more complicated. Until nearly the end of the war, the German Army was still capable of strong resistance, even if they did not have the wealth of supplies the Americans did.

    It would have been difficult to find American soldiers rooting among the debris of war for replacement equipment and weapons in the wars of this century. There simply was no need to do so. The powerful industry of the United States always has produced a wealth of food and equipment unmatched in military history. Most American soldiers in Kosovo today live far better than the natives they are protecting.

    To think of Americans fighting on a shoestring is a radical notion, yet it is something we should consider. One day, we might have to fight for a time with only what we can bring in the first lift. More ominously, there may come a time when a thoughtful enemy will devote time and energy to striking at our industrial heartland as part of his initial combat operations, much as we did to Germany during World War II. If our industrial system was damaged to any significant degree, the power of our military would be blunted.

    Take the air offensive in Serbia in 1999. The U.S. Air Force used smart munitions to attack most targets. Eventually, so many of these munitions were used that the ammo locker began to run dry. In the future, if logistics planners miscalculate their requirements just a little bit, especially for items like smart munitions that are not replaced so readily, the military may get cut short in ending a war. We could lose the war because we miscalculated what was absolutely necessary to win and did not energize our industrial base to supply it.

    There might come a time when we have to fight on a much more frugal basis and husband smart weapons for use only on a really good target. The lack of logistics may restrain our tactical and strategic actions. How can we manage our resources to keep this from happening? First, we must acknowledge that the problem may exist. Second, we should calculate, based on previous experience, how much we need to achieve the goals of a war or campaign. Third, we must maximize what the enemy can give us. Finally, we should streamline operational planning to put as little burden on our logisticians as possible.

    There will be no lessening of U.S. commitments in the future. The Army leadership therefore is in the process of lightening the load for air and sea transportation to ensure that we can "get there firstest with the mostest." Part of our success will be in knowing how much is enough. That is not as easy as it sounds.

    Dr. Burton Wright III is the command historian of the Army Chemical School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.