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Sense and Respond: Military Logistics in a Global Security Environment

This article, the first in a series of three on sense and respond logistics, focuses on how the current global security environment requires logistics planners to emphasize in-transit visibility, real-time information, and responsive support to the warfighter.

During the Cold War, the U.S. military spent billions of dollars preparing for a conventional land war on the European continent that could occur in response to a Soviet invasion. After the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, the threat of another world war seemed implausible and U.S. political leaders began to downsize the military.

But the attacks on 11 September 2001 brought a renewed focus on military capabilities to meet a new threat: global terrorism. Military planners then recognized the need for a reconfigured military structure with more expeditionary units, a paradigm shift in training the force, and a general shift in the thought process behind planning, including logistics planning. The recently downsized U.S. Army had to operate jointly with the Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force to meet the new threat to the Nation’s interests. This joint force mentality is crucial to success in today’s complex and uncertain security environment—an environment that is global in nature and displays the characteristics of a new set of threats.

New military applications and thought processes continue to change and transform our military forces. One of those concepts is “sense and respond” logistics. Sense and respond logistics is a network-centric concept that enables logistics planners to provide precise logistics support to the warfighter. Soldiers use sense and respond to predict, anticipate, and coordinate a full range of logistics processes, giving the combatant commander numerous options to plan mission support. Military logisticians are using sense and respond to plan logistics support for combat troops who face unknown threats in an insurgent environment.

The Current Global Security Environment

The current global security environment represents a new set of challenges and threats never before faced by our country. These threats and challenges change the way military leaders plan and execute wars. The threats are broader in nature and include global, regional, and even local threats. The enemy is multi-dimensional in its approach, flexible in nature, politically perceptive, and technologically advanced. This enemy does not fight wars based on the values that guide our fighting forces. This enemy uses primitive yet brutal tactics and inexpensive weaponry to produce large-scale catastrophic results. From a national perspective, the challenges from this emerging global security environment require U.S. military planners to regard their homeland as a potential battlespace and consider the need for logistics support for homeland defense.

Political and military leaders must prepare a diverse, complex set of force capabilities that responds to actual and potential challenges and threats. Moreover, planners must emphasize force projection, including sea and shore warfare, pre-positioned resources, and forcible entry. Planners must also prepare for enemy use of weapons of mass destruction. Military leaders must maintain simultaneous awareness through information technology, integration, and accommodation at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. Most importantly, planners must continuously adapt to the evolving sophistication of enemy threats.

Sense and Respond Logistics

The sense and respond concept is the newest approach to military logistics. This concept challenges logisticians to transform their capabilities to meet the current global security threat.

In past wars, logisticians took the mass approach to logistics by building huge stockpiles of equipment and supplies before the combatant commander began a ground or air war. Instead of sense and respond, logisticians used “applied days of supply” as a metric. For Operation Desert Storm, military planners built a 60-day stockpile of supplies before commencing the ground war. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, logisticians built a 7-day supply for the invasion force. Stockpile logistics may still work in an environment where demand is predictable and stable and the tactical situation permits a significant buildup.

The requirements for a modernized logistics approach to a global security environment include a prioritization for support at the most effective point and a streamlined supply process that includes using civilian contractors on the battlefield. Logisticians should use suppliers that can conduct logistics in an environment that focuses on speed, quality of effects, and adaptability. Logistics planners must provide planning and support that is focused on the commander’s intent and that provides a common logistics picture for everyone on the battlefield. Logistics support planning must take into consideration rapid force deployment capabilities, including flexible basing of supplies.

Under these circumstances, what does sense and respond offer the military planner? How does sense and respond fit into the global security environment? What are the strengths of sense and respond logistics? Sense and respond offers an adaptive and responsive approach to logistics. The prime benefits of sense and respond logistics are the speed and quality of its effects on the battlefield. The supply requirement on an insurgent battlefield with no boundaries produces a very unpredictable demand for the planner. The logistician must realize that the commander’s intent will change based on the strategic and tactical situation in the field. Likewise, the combatant commander must synchronize his military tasks with support capabilities and recognize the operational risk caused by the logistics situation.

Sense and respond logistics operates as a modularity concept. Logistics support is based on capabilities that are inherent in the modular support units on the ground rather than in the service and organizational elements. Sense and respond logistics requires integrating logistics into the planning processes of the combatant commander. Cohesive support units integrated into a network-centric information-sharing process can provide a common operating picture for the commander and an early awareness and warning of consumption rates on the battlefield.

The Shift Toward Sense and Respond

Although sense and respond logistics is not yet accepted in mainstream military logistics planning, it is critical to the overall success of military operations and must be further investigated and integrated in future military planning. Sense and respond is making its way into planning circles. Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) both saw significant growth in logistics planning at the strategic level.

The changes in logistics planning since Operation Desert Storm depict a shift toward sense and respond logistics. First, stockpiles of supplies were reduced from 60 days of supply during Operation Desert Storm to 5 to 7 days of supply kept on hand during OIF. Second, using the newest technology to improve total asset visibility and a joint approach to logistics resupply by every service both point toward a concept resembling sense and respond.

What were the indicators of a shift toward sense and respond logistics in OIF? What went well, and what should the U.S. military focus on while fighting the Global War on Terrorism? First, logistics supply is conducted through a joint approach with the services represented on the ground. Second, support units and their commanders push supplies to forward troops based on the commander’s intent. The knowledge of when to conduct modular support is derived from real-time information. Support units are integrated into information networks.

Third, the information requirements for successful sense and respond logistics are present on the battlefield, even in prototype form. Real-time information and a common picture of the logistics situation provide combatant commanders and their support units the information they need to sense supply priorities and respond to critical shortages. Fourth, before this shift toward sense and respond, a throughput metric or satisfied request was used to measure the success of a logistics operation. However, because of the speed of OIF’s initial advance and then the shift toward insurgent warfare, the traditional request system failed and logisticians had to push supplies to a location based on unit situation reports.

Benefitting from Sense and Respond

Although the logistics successes of OIF point to a shift to sense and respond, it is important to examine what went wrong during the initial invasion and what sense and respond logistics could have alleviated. Significant communication problems existed among combat units and support units. Logistics planners assumed that combat units would send situational reports and supply requirements to their support units. The speed of the advance toward Baghdad severely strained communications systems and interrupted the flow of information. Sense and respond requires a very robust communications system, which could have solved problems if one had been in place. A joint approach to logistics also would have solved subsequent logistics shortcomings that combat units experienced on the battlefield.

Lacking in-transit visibility of supplies before and during the invasion created problems for logistics planners. Because of an occasional lack of supply visibility and because of the actions taken by support units to compensate for a lack of visibility, 30 percent of supplies transported into theater were “invisible.” Some support units resorted to building mountains of supplies for their combat units. Sense and respond logistics and the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology would surely have overcome a lack of visibility of supply assets. RFID asset tracking can provide 100-percent visibility of critical supplies in theater and in transit.

Military planners now must understand the global security threat that is facing our Nation. Cold War tactics and planning techniques are no longer effective. The strategic imperative of today’s global security environment is the ability to maneuver from strategic distances. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries and the repositioning of globally-stationed U.S. troops and assets to the United States, the ability of our military to project strength in distant areas like the Middle East is much more important. The global security threat will not disappear, and power projection platforms in the United States are necessary and will become increasingly more important. A shift in military policy is critical, and a change in policy would be a good reason to adopt sense and respond logistics.

Military planners should be encouraged to further study and adopt sense and respond principles. The fear of change within the U.S. military must be overcome by the next generation of military logisticians. Cultural barriers that prohibit the adoption of sense and respond in military circles still exist and will be a detriment to future military planning in a global security 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.