HomeAbout UsBrowse This IssueBack IssuesNews DispatchesSubscribing to Army LogisticianWriting for Army LogisticianContact UsLinks































Defeating the Threat
to Sustainment Operations

Beyond the present combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, our Nation is engaged in what is likely to be a much longer conflict. For now, we call it the “Global War on Terrorism.” Using the experience of the past 5 years as a benchmark, this conflict will take all the energy, ingenuity, and commitment we have to achieve victory. Moreover, if history is any indicator of the future, other conflicts and challenges are apt to arise that will require a call to arms. In all of these, we must be victorious. Everything we believe, everything we stand for, and everything we protect depends on our ability to deter or win wars.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower noted, “You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.” Accordingly, it remains critical to examine some of the present threats, both internal and external, to our logistics and sustainment operations, systems, Soldiers, and doctrine. It is also important to look at the relationship of the threat to the logistics system and all that it must support. This is a fundamental prerequisite to being prepared to address current and future fights.

The Place of Logistics in Combat

As noted by Mark Thompson in his April 2007 Time article, “Broken Down”—

[Lieutenant General] Stephen Speakes, the Army’s top planner, recently recalled the shock Army leaders felt when Private Jessica Lynch and the 507th Maintenance Company stumbled into an ambush in Nasiriyah [Iraq] that left 11 of her comrades dead in the war’s opening days. “We found to our horror that this was a logistics unit that had no . . . [major] weapons, no night vision, none of the modern enablers for war,” he said. “And we said, ‘Well, they were never supposed to fight.’”

In light of what we have experienced in Southwest Asia over the past few years, it is difficult to imagine that we ever thought or planned in such a conventional or seemingly naïve manner. And maybe we did not think that we had done so. Although a number of other circumstances contributed to the ill-fated 507th Maintenance Company tragedy, the illuminating and relevant observation is (apparently in someone’s mind) “they were never supposed to fight.” That notion seems to fly in the face of our Soldier’s Creed. After all, doesn’t Army doctrine say that we are all supposed to be Soldiers first and prepared to fight?

At a broader level, if we examine the place of logistics on the battlefield, the Army clearly has certain preconceived ideas of how things should be changed. Now, after several Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) rotations, we realize that the largely unanticipated mission of protecting the logistics supply lines has become an important theater combat operation.

Training for a Linear Battlefield

Throughout the Cold War era and up until the year 2000, the Army, with few exceptions, practiced fighting a primarily conventional enemy on a primarily linear battlefield. We sparred against a number of opposing force (OPFOR) variants, such as the infamous “Krasnovians” at the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California, depending on the region and imagination of the exercise designers. However, most OPFOR variants were modeled on what we believed to be our primary nemeses, the Soviet Union and North Korea. Soviet-style equipment and tactics dominated OPFOR models because of the Soviet Union’s position as the most dominant supplier and tactical doctrine influence among our potential rival nation-states. Conventional battlefield geometry, with clearly defined lines and areas, determined where everyone was supposed to operate.

In training and in planning, we apparently became fixed upon the idea of a linear battlefield with a distinct “rear area,” where sustainment operations took place in a somewhat protected environment. However, the lessons from the World War II eastern front, Korea, and Vietnam all suggested that force protection considerations for logistics would remain critical and that a determined enemy would seek out and disrupt our sustainment efforts and supporting infrastructure, regardless of their location on the battlefield.

Contemporary Operational Environment

Even after the demise of the Soviet Union, in our training we still held to our former notions of whom, where, and how we might fight. However, toward the end of 2000, a new concept began to appear—first as a white paper and eventually as draft field manuals—for a new OPFOR training model, the contemporary operational environment (COE).

The COE was formally adopted by the Army Training and Doctrine Command, and hence a new model emerged in terms of whom we fought and how they would fight us. Drawing from both the past and more contemporary conflicts, the concepts of a nonlinear battlefield and asymmetric warfare were injected into the training environment.

The basic premise of a nonlinear fight and the use of asymmetric tactics is not new, and numerous historical examples, to include our own Revolutionary War, have highlighted the reality and successful application of both. However, outside of the Special Operations community, the Army, especially the logistics community, got lost in the notion of a conventional and linear fight as we held on to tactical doctrine gained from years of concentration on our Soviet nemesis during the Cold War. The relatively conventional nature and one-sided outcome of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm did little to change that mindset.

As the COE made its way into training venues, such as the Battle Command Training Program (BCTP) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the NTC, we began to grapple with different sets of battlefield geometry and operational dynamics. This shift to the COE initially presented a significant challenge to the existing tactical and operational mindset of warfighters and logisticians alike. Unfortunately, we were not far enough into this mindset transition before duty called.

Changed Expectations

After 5 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are all “believers” in the need to train, teach, and adjust to a nonlinear battlefield and an enemy that fights with a mix of modern weaponry, maneuver warfare, and asymmetric tactics. Since 9–11, we have witnessed the strategic application of asymmetric warfare on a heretofore unimaginable scale; in the larger Global War on Terrorism, we are now locked in mortal combat with a new kind of enemy and doctrine.

Since 9–11, we have moved from the training battlefields of the Mohave Desert and BCTP simulations to combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have experienced the full measure of a nonlinear battlefield and asymmetric warfare in a relentless and deadly new “battle lab.” Necessity, survival, and experience have spawned a plethora of lessons learned. We have rediscovered that the depth and breadth of real war and combat go beyond fires and maneuver and include dealing with ambiguous intelligence, a thinking enemy, and the critical Achilles’ heel of battlefield logistics. But, why did we need to rediscover what we had already learned through lessons of history? And, more importantly, have we not yet realized all that we should be learning for the future?

Logistics Training Shortfalls

In 23 years of military experience, I would estimate that I have spent at least 20 years exclusively in the training mode. While the ratio may differ from Soldier to Soldier, we do spend more time preparing and training than we do conducting actual operations. Given that scenario, we need to look at our past typical training focus before we can understand the root of the problems experienced in a combat environment.

Too often, in our efforts to maximize the “training value” for the combat arms, we emphasized maneuver and all the supporting battlefield operating systems such as fires, mobility, and intelligence. In training, especially simulations-based training, if you were not specifically in a logistics unit, sustainment operations were represented as a function without much regard to how it was accomplished. This critical function, which included everything from the movement and resupply of food, fuel, and ammunition to the repair or retrograde of damaged equipment to medical evacuations, was often relegated to a timetable driven by a set of algorithms rather than the realistic simulated movement of logistics vehicles, Soldiers, contractors, equipment, and supplies through a hostile environment.

Although logisticians worked hard during their linear battlefield training years, the emphasis on maneuver and logistics considerations seldom influenced the maneuver scheme or tempo. Perhaps logistics was often overlooked in training because it seemed to be one of the easier parts of war. However, Major General Carl von Clausewitz points out in the following statement that the friction caused by the actual execution of war will make the simplest tasks exponentially more difficult—

Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war. . . . Friction is the only conception which, in a general way, corresponds to that which distinguishes real war from war on paper. . . . Activity in war is movement in a resistant medium. . . . It is, therefore, this friction, or what is so termed here, which makes that which appears easy in war difficult in reality.

Another shortfall of the simulations-based training focus, especially at division level and higher, was that we still maneuvered icons and not real vehicles and Soldiers. In the computer simulations, unit icons representing scores of cargo, fuel, and other support vehicles moved—not actual convoys.

Another important dimension of tactical operations that seldom received more than a cursory mention during a “road to war” scenario brief was time. Unit train-ups focused on repetitive training of short-duration events to perfect certain battle drills or command and control. We addressed time in the short sense of hours, not time in the sense of sustained operations over weeks and months. More often than not, our training events lasted no more than a week, and consequently they never truly exercised the sustainment aspects of the war machine.

Since our training focus was on combat arms, the “rear area threat” was assumed to be minimal, so our logisticians were not trained in combat operations. Even at the Army’s premier tactical training venue, the NTC, usually the only time the major logistics node was engaged was when the forward line of the linear battle collapsed and the OPFOR broke through to do a “drive by” destruction of the brigade support area. Besides the occasional scripted harassment from “Spetznaz,” the only OPFOR operating in the rear area was intelligence-related, with the mission to find and call in artillery strikes on force concentrations.

Whether in force-on-force or computer-simulated command post exercises, our primary emphasis remained maneuver-focused for both the enemy and friendly force. Even the “deep fights” were focused on the hunt for reserves, artillery, and attack aviation. That is not to say that logistics went unchallenged. Scripted events often were injected into a rear-area scenario to challenge the logisticians. Usually, however, logistics nodes were either ignored or suffered only superficial effects from enemy action, or the consequences of any attack were effectively minimized because of the short training duration or the fact that supply algorithms kept running during the exercise regardless of what happened on the battlefield.

Up-Armoring Vehicles

Taken out of the training environment and thrust into Iraq and Afghanistan, logistics Soldiers driving their supply trucks in a combat environment rediscovered another lesson from Vietnam—the need for gun trucks and armored escorts.

Units, especially logistics units, deployed to combat environments in Iraq and elsewhere with light-skinned cargo and tanker trucks and soft-sided high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs). Crew-served weapons were almost as scarce as communications equipment. Clearly, planners neither expected nor envisioned the hostile environment that awaited our logistics system.

When the reality of roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket-propelled grenade ambushes took hold, Soldiers quickly began to up-armor with anything they could find. Early versions of gun trucks were very reminiscent of Vietnam. Now, when one looks at an OIF 1-era HMMWV compared to one presently in theater, the contrast is as striking as a plow horse is to a rhinoceros.

In the fight, we had no choice but to adapt and protect in stride. Up-armoring was largely a great success story of creative innovation on many levels, achieving a better level of protection. However, the second-order impact has been a marked decrease in vehicle mobility, stability, and lifespan because the applied armor was not included in the designs of our wheeled fleet.

The Way Ahead

Now, after more than 4 years of OIF, what have we learned about the real threat to logistics and, consequently, the sustainment of combat operations?

First, the concept of a linear battlefield with a clearly defined front and rear is obviously erroneous. The present battlespace in both Iraq and Afghanistan is made up of a number of forward operating bases (FOBs) connected by a series of air and ground lines of communication (LOCs). On the ground, these LOCs manifest themselves as the main supply routes and alternate supply routes. From FOBs, combat units launch everything from routine patrols to major offensive operations within their respective areas of responsibility (AORs). These FOBs or objectives are not positioned in any sort of linear arrangement. Within these AORs, the threat environment along the LOCs connecting FOBs ranges from hostile to benign as the enemy responds to the dynamics of combat operations.

Next, the demands of sustained combat operations require that a logistics supply train, in the form of hundreds of cargo- and fuel-carrying convoys, must traverse these LOCs daily to keep the force fed, fueled, armed, and functioning. No magic algorithms push computer icons and reconstitute units; these are real trucks, driven by real Soldiers and contract civilians. These trucks and personnel are subject to attack, interdiction, and destruction as much as any other combatant on the battlefield.

The shared use of the theater LOCs by maneuver forces, logistics convoys, contractors, local nationals, and our enemy have made these critical roadways the operational movement avenues, the sustainment lifelines, and, often, the tactical battleground. Insurgent forces looking to avoid contact with combat units instead seek softer targets such as logistics convoys. Maneuver units’ use of these routes occasionally creates conflicting priorities and requirements for movement through the battlefield. This reality has pushed logistics units at all levels directly into the operational fight, ready or not. We can no longer look at battlespace as compartmentalized into front and rear areas.

Combat statistics show that the enemy is aware of the criticality of the logistics lifeline to our combat forces. Insurgent forces in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to recognize two critical facts. First, compared to a Bradley- or Stryker-equipped combat unit, logistics convoys (sometimes referred to as combat logistics patrols) are relatively “soft” targets, and a 5,000-gallon fuel tanker truck makes a large and spectacular target. Second, our enemy has recognized that to constrain or cut supply lines (be they ground, air, or sea) is to undermine sustained combat operations. This lesson, borne out by military history, appears to be one we needed to relearn.

Over a period of 10 days in April 2004, insurgent forces in Iraq destroyed several bridges along the critical main supply route and alternate supply routes and ambushed a number of logistics convoys. The net effect all but shut down sustainment support for a number of days until bridges could be repaired and the force protection efforts could be expanded. Given perhaps cursory attention before, the protection of LOCs took on new meaning in the Iraqi theater of operations.

Commanders often must reallocate combat power to clear, patrol, and secure LOCs. The mission of keeping LOCs protected requires a considerable amount of combat power. And although we cannot afford to let the protection of the “tail” consume the “teeth,” planners must determine what resources need to be dedicated to keeping LOCs secure to ensure the flow of logistics support without compromising the amount of combat power needed to accomplish other missions. There may even be intelligence or operationally driven reasons to allocate extraordinary force protection resources to certain routes, convoys, or logistics nodes from time to time. That consideration must remain an integral part of the planning process and not become a reaction-based afterthought.


Another, perhaps largely unforeseen dynamic of sustained combat operations of the scope and scale of OIF and OEF is the prominent role of contractors on the battlefield. The Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) support required to sustain an active combat theater of operations is tremendous in scope and has expanded beyond what most people probably imagined it would ever become. The effect of time, the Active and Reserve component mix, force availability, continuity, and the scope and scale of sustainment operations resulted in a dependence on contracted sustainment support. Much of what once was done by logistics Soldiers is now contracted to local and international agents. As the conflict has continued, and in many cases intensified, contracted operators have found themselves as much a target as the Soldiers conducting combat logistics patrols. Moreover, since contract drivers and operators cannot carry weapons, this reality has placed an even greater burden on combat forces designated to protect theater sustainment.

Changed Tactics

The new battlefield realities have forced our units to be spread thinner, to accept risk, to assess the scope of combat operations, and, ultimately, to request more forces, all to meet the very real requirement of sustaining combat operations and protecting sustainment enablers. Nothing suggests that the present nonlinear battlespace is going to change in the foreseeable future. And, arguably, because of the insurgent forces’ asymmetric success, the tactics of interdicting logistics convoys and cutting LOCs have been noted by our other enemies to the point of becoming doctrinally integrated into their future planning. It is evident that the proliferation of IED attacks and direct-fire ambushes from Iraq to Afghanistan (and other conflicts such as that between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon as well as Russia’s conflict in Chechnya) demonstrates both the resolve and solidification of LOC interdiction as an “enemy doctrine” we should anticipate for the foreseeable future.

Are we adapting to the threat? Absolutely. Through tactical modifications to our vehicles and tactics, we are attempting to address and mitigate the threat to logistics operations. The design and application of a number of “frag kit” modifications to tactical vehicles are evidence of that, as are new vehicle designs, such as those in the mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle program lauded by the Marine Corps. We have placed renewed emphasis on route-clearing systems that have spawned a number of prototype systems, such as the Buffalo, and new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP). Tremendous resources and energy have also gone into counter-IED systems and tactics.

Will it be enough? Absolutely not. As with previous conflicts, we must assume that each new development will be examined and challenged by our enemy (present and future), resulting in an ever-evolving and -adapting pattern of warfare. Another residual effect of this evolutionary process is that, in the process of adapting, some of our vehicles, units, and Soldier duties have morphed into something they were never intended to be. This has created training challenges for Soldiers, unforeseen maintenance problems for equipment, and engineering challenges for systems designers.

More Change Needed

We can only fix this piecemeal approach if we step back and embrace the protection of sustainment assets and LOCs as an enduring operational mission for which we plan, allocate, equip, and train. As we learn, adapt, and engineer solutions, we need to anticipate that our present and future enemies will likewise study and adapt, as is evident by the myriad of IED initiation devices and the improvements in IED design, notably the explosively formed projectile.

Beyond the equipment modifications and tactics lies a larger, perhaps just as critical, lesson. We would be foolish to expect our future adversaries not to recognize our arterial LOCs and the CLPs that must traverse them as a critical target focus. Without a major increase in organic modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE) logistics units, we will likely continue to rely on LOGCAP support, which will depend on a military element for protection.

Although we cannot afford to resign ourselves to diluting combat power to protect LOCs and sustainment missions and logistics units, we cannot ignore this critical force protection requirement; nor can we tell logistics units to wholly protect themselves and LOCs. Certainly, to a larger degree, logistics units must assume the mission of self-protection, but, for them to do this, we must organically train and equip logistics units to fight as they move. And, as a part of our planning, we must build into our calculus the time and resources needed to protect theater sustainment as an integral part of the operational mission. We cannot afford to discover a fatal disconnect between the conduct of operations and the protection of logistics, as we did in April 2004. And we need to train against the dynamics of an enemy bent on sustainment interdiction.

Mitigating the Threat

Mitigating the threat to sustainment operations will require a number of actions, which must be taken together. It will take more than a search for a better vehicle or a new convoy TTP; it will require a holistic approach that addresses tactical, operational, and doctrinal problems. Planners should—

  • Add viable force protection assets to the MTOEs and doctrine of logistics units. These assets should include escort vehicles, weapon systems, communications equipment, Soldiers, medical support, and training to address the combat environment that CLPs should anticipate.
  • Incorporate realistic force protection and threat scenarios into training simulations, including the resultant effects and constraints on both logistics and maneuver units.
  • Recognize in the deliberate planning process that the protection of all aspects of the sustainment system is an operational mission from the very beginning and must be considered and allocated sufficient combat resources.
  • Force the integration and interoperability of the Force XXI Battle Command—Brigade and Below system (FBCB2), Blue Force Tracker (BFT), and Movement Tracking System (MTS) so that maneuver and logistics units can share common situational awareness of shared battlespace, synchronize movements, and communicate with each other as the situation dictates.
  • Synchronize the theater sustainment plan with operations, so that maneuver and logistics planners and commanders take into consideration the effect that operations have on sustainment, including movement along LOCs, critical route patrolling and clearing, and force protection requirements.

We may not have sufficient time to conduct a wholesale restructuring of the way we protect logistics support before the next conflict, but we must at least acknowledge and address the challenge we face holistically. A change in perspective and mindset, along with the incorporation of today’s and yesterday’s lessons learned, will go a long way toward defeating the threat to sustainment operations and identifying the type of equipment, TTP, and operational planning and doctrinal perspectives needed. For the sake of lives, materiel, and combat efficiency, we must take ownership or be doomed to repeat history.

Colonel Bradford K. Nelson is the Assistant Chief of Staff, G–2, for the Army Sustainment Command at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Utah, a master’s degree in strategic intelligence from the Joint Intelligence College, and a master’s degree in adult and continuing education from Kansas State University. He is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College.