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Army Logistician and the Rhymes of History

When I set out to write an article about the last 4 decades of Army Logistician magazine, I was struck by the immense amount of information contained in the magazine’s past issues. One can gain many significant insights while electronically thumbing through what is really a history of military logistics from 1969 to 2009. No history of modern military logistics published in any other form can compete with the collection of accounts published in Army Logistician, and the best part is that all past issues are available on line.

Perhaps more remarkable, something else emerges from those 240 past issues: the institutionalization of a record of professional knowledge for the military logistician. Indeed, the magazine has helped to infuse military logisticians with a sense of identity, with values that set them apart from laymen, and (perhaps most importantly) with recurring themes (or as Mark Twain would put it, “rhymes”).

With regard to the latter, I have found three themes to be important in the last 40 years of military logistics history as reflected in Army Logistician: technology, efficiency, and temporality (or transitoriness). (In discussing these themes, I will offer some parenthetical opinions along the way.)

Military Logistics Technology

By the time the September–October 1969 inaugural issue of Army Logistician (or ALOG, as it quickly became known) appeared, the Nation was well into the Vietnam War. The Army realized that its modern wars were complex in both physical and social contexts and that its Soldiers and equipment demanded very sophisticated logistics systems and an enhanced logistics profession to steward them. The challenges of logistics during the Vietnam War were immense. It was novel for the modern U.S. Army to conduct noncontiguous conventional and counterinsurgency operations on such a large scale and over such an austere and vast environment.

Many distribution innovations were born out of necessity: the utility helicopter (the UH–1 Iroquois, or Huey), the medium-lift (CH–47 Chinook) and heavy-lift (CH–54 Skycrane) helicopters, convoy-escort “gun trucks,” Army-piloted intratheater fixed-wing cargo planes (like the CV2B Caribou), the low-altitude parachute extraction system (LAPES), and so on. Many of these technologies were described in the official announcements and articles published in the early issues of the magazine.

(What is rather startling—and you can pick up on this as you thumb through the 1974 to 1976 issues of ALOG, published after the war ended—is how professional discussions about technologies invented for noncontiguous operations abruptly halted as the Army immediately returned its focus to the defense of Western Europe, Korea, and other traditional Cold War theaters.)

During the mid-1970s, ALOG authors were paying attention to the lessons learned from the October 1973 Middle East War, where logistics seemed to be one of the deciding factors in the success of the Israelis. General Henry A. Miley, Jr., the commanding general of the Army Materiel Command, wrote in his article, “Mid-East War Logistics,” in the July–August 1974 issue, “I am sure that when our analyses are complete, we will develop concepts which will be applied in future designs or product improvements.” One can sense in ALOG articles that the Army concept development and acquisition communities were heavily influenced by this high-intensity, lightning-fast war, which shaped both operational AirLand Battle doctrine and the impetus to procure the Army’s “Big 5” weapon systems (the AH–64 Apache attack helicopter, M1 Abrams main battle tank, M2/3 Bradley infantry/cavalry fighting vehicle, Patriot air defense missile, and multiple launch rocket system). (It is interesting to see the pictures of the 1974 prototypes of these systems in the May–June 1974 issue; we now consider them “legacy systems.”)

As the decade closed, sadly, the Army announced (as reported in the Emphasis news column of the November–December 1979 issue) that the “Skycranes face extinction.” The Vietnam-era logistics workhorse, the CH–54 heavy-lift helicopter, was phased out—never to be replaced. (Whether its replacement could have been used today might be a tempting subject of inquiry.)

The idea of “just-in-time” (JIT) logistics, based on process technologies adapted from commercial business “best practices,” seemed promising for military logistics in the early 1990s. In a November–December 1992 commentary entitled “Past is Prologue,” retired Lieutenant General Joseph H. Heiser, Jr. (who had served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Department of the Army [now the G–4 position], and
commander of Army logistics efforts in Vietnam in the late 1960s), claimed that we should have learned more about JIT from our experience in Vietnam, specifically from the program he began called “inventory in motion.” “These [JIT] improvements do not result from reinitiated projects, sometimes with a new name, unrelated to progress achieved earlier in history,” complained Heiser, who called for more history lessons in Army logistics schools so logisticians would “not reinvent an old wheel.” (I think Heiser’s suggestion is pertinent today, but perhaps for a different reason: Military history teaches us just how unique every operation or war has been; hence, military logistics is perhaps less an evolving science than it is an artful, inventive, and even improvisational endeavor).

Military Logistics Efficiency

In the first issue of Army Logistician, the commander of the Army Materiel Command, General F. J. Cheserek wrote:

There is considerable impetus toward national introversion and concern over our domestic policies and needs. Increased clamor to the effect that adequate national security can be obtained at a much reduced cost is heard on all sides.

This national attitude toward the defense establishment, and its logistic activities in particular, is occurring at a most difficult time. By 1972, issues of the magazine seemed to turn to retrograde activities resulting from the “Vietnamization” of the war and the effects of the U.S. drawdown. As Captain Joseph A. Malcom and Gilbert A. Frisbee wrote, “When the drawdown of U.S. and allied forces in Vietnam accelerated in early 1971, supply managers were confronted with a series of new problems . . . tools that had been used were based on standard inventory theory and assumed a degree of stability which no longer existed” (“Drawdown Supply Management,” November–December 1972).

Later, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur T. Buswell noted in “Disposal Operations—Vietnam” (May–June 1973), “Army logisticians have recorded an impressive achievement with the retrograde and disposal of nearly two million tons of materiel from Vietnam. This is the first time that excess materiel has been identified, screened, and removed from a combat area while the fighting was still in progress.” (In light of current events, it will likely not be the last time.)

With the U.S. economy experiencing “stagflation” in the later 1970s, the logistics issues discussed in ALOG seemed to focus on “doing more with less” as a recurrent theme. For example, Vice Admiral Thomas R. Weschler (then the Joint Staff J–4) argued in his article, “Decade of Logistics,” in the January–February 1975 issue, “Logisticians must recognize that budget realities often mean that combat-oriented and logistics-oriented operations cannot receive 100 percent of their required money.” He called for increased use of host-nation support, placing more capabilities in the Reserve components, buying “on-call” contracted capability (today the Army refers to that innovation as “LOGCAP” [Logistics Civil Augmentation Program]), increased subsidy of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and the merchant marine, and the reduction-in-force of logistics personnel (which he claimed at that time to be 55 percent of all Department of Defense personnel).

Following these lines of reasoning, the Army purchased commercial, off-the-shelf Dodge Ram trucks and Chevy Blazers to serve as the Army’s light tactical utility vehicle fleet—performing as everything from contact maintenance trucks to field ambulances. Those purchases continued well into the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Can you imagine using such commercial vehicles to conduct combat sustainment in today’s environments? Maybe some of our currently serving logistics Soldiers can since the Army sent them to war with thin-skinned high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles. That action signified that lessons learned about noncontiguous sustainment requirements in Vietnam had been lost; it also reflected the impact of Army efficiency decisions of the 1970s and early 1980s).

During the early 1990s, ALOG authors shifted readers’ attention toward the “real-world” major combat operations of Desert Shield and Desert Storm and multiple smaller-scale contingencies around the world. After the Persian Gulf War, ALOG published a controversial article in the November–December 1991 issue, “Sustaining Desert Storm: A Real Life Test of Flexible Readiness,” contributed by Carol R. Schuster, a General Accounting Office (GAO) staffer. That article called for moving more support forces into the Reserve components as a function of the peace dividend associated with the demise of the Soviet Union. Blinded by the expectations of huge defense savings in a U.S.-monopolized world, she reported on the GAO study that concluded, “The Army’s experience in mobilizing logistics units for Operation Desert Storm as well as the performance of these units in the operation should shed light on what types of units are the likeliest candidates to be kept at lower levels of readiness.” (The history lesson learned here may be that the past may hardly serve as a prologue and, in this case, may not be not very “pro-log”!).

Military Logistics Temporality

ALOG articles published in the “quiet 80s” reflected how the military logistics community turned introspectively, retrospectively, and even prospectively to the topics of logistics reorganization, training and readiness, the Reagan-era buildup, major exercise support (such as Reforger [Redeployment of Forces to Germany]), and the futures concepts (such as AirLand Battle 2000 and Army 21).

Interestingly, I could find no article in ALOG that reported on the support aspects of the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury). With the exception of one article about the 1989 Operation Just Cause in Panama (“Operation Just Cause—Combat Service Support Soldiers Under Fire,” which Major John C. Jeong and I wrote for the May–June 1990 issue), ALOG was largely devoid of reports on operational sustainment activities (perhaps because there were so few in those years). Reflecting on the past, the magazine did begin publishing historical vignettes entitled “Army Logistics in Retrospect,” covering everything from the World War II “Redball Express” (July–August 1985) to the Vietnam War-era’s innovative “Floating Power” (September–October 1987).

Not wanting to get stuck in the problem of “fighting the last war,” “visioning” was introduced in Army force management circles as the new technique for long-range planning. By 1985, Army 21 and its supporting vision, Log 21, presented design-of-the-future prospects, with the Army beginning to invest heavily in these “futures concepts.” J. Russell Wiltshire, a long-range planner in the Army G–4 office, was hardly prescient when he wrote in his March–April 1985 article, “Logistics in the 21st Century”:

The “AirLand force support command” will be the primary logistics support organization in the AirLand force . . . Like the battle task force, the headquarters of the support command will be small, with minimal personnel, and units will be attached or assigned as support requirements dictate. . . [Management] centers will have computers with artificial intelligence capabilities, able to respond to multiple support requirements and predict future replenishment schedules and distribution requirements. . . Electronically armored vehicles will move silently above the ground, protected from enemy projectiles by force fields, propelled and levitated by controlled gravity mechanisms.

During the later 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century, ALOG authors began to write more and more about joint and multinational logistics technologies of integration. Lieutenant Colonel Gary R. Engle argued for a joint theater support command in his article, “Joint and Combined Theater Logistics—The Future Reality” (May–June 1999 issue), observing, “We no longer can afford a fragmented and compartmentalized logistics support structure that duplicates effort and generates waste.”

Strategic force projection also became a subject of growing interest in ALOG as the United States reframed its strategy around force projection and the Army followed suit in its quest for lighter and more deployable forces. Major Kenneth E. Hickins wrote in “Strategic Mobility: The U.S. Military’s Weakest Link” in November–December 2002, “The United States continues to be the world’s sole superpower and the world’s paramount source of political, economic, information, and military leadership. As such, it must be able to project forces quickly into trouble spots around the world without the restrictions of limited air transport and slow sealift.” After years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the professional debate in ALOG seemed to center less on rapid expeditionary capability and more on improving logistics sustainment to extended operations.

Continuing through the 1990s and up to the present, ALOG published more articles on efforts at envisioning the future of military logistics, framed around political and biological metaphors like “Revolution in Military Logistics” and “Transformation.” In 2008, Major General Mitchell H. Stevenson (then commanding general of the Army Combined Arms Support Command) toned down these expectations when he wrote, “The result of the R–CAAT [reverse-collection and analysis team] process is an improved ability to make doctrinal manuals and platform instruction more effective and relevant to the rapidly changing wartime environment” (“R–CAATs: Bridging the Information Gap,” January–February 2008).

(In the wake of decades of Army infatuation with “futuring,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently has forced the services to discount the efficacy of this visioning approach, actively reorienting them toward stewarding resources for the near-term fight. The emphasis on visioning beyond the future-year Defense plan that has dominated logistics force management over the last 30 years or so may now be diminishing even as the Army’s Future Combat Systems program is dissolving.)

I hope that, in this sampling of 40 years of Army Logistician reporting, the reader can recognize the three main themes of recent military logistics history I have identified—technology, efficiency, and temporality. Indeed, Mark Twain’s assertion seems to ring true about our military logistics endeavors: They sometimes do rhyme. In that regard, Army Logistician has become an institutional source of military logistics “poetry.”

Dr. Christopher R. Paparone is an associate professor in the Army Command and General Staff College’s Department of Logistics and Resource Operations at Fort Lee, Virginia. A retired Army colonel, he has a Ph.D. degree from Pennsylvania State University.

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