Military Logistics: A Brief History

Wars Battles Biographies Timeline Weapons Blog
Full Index Subjects Concepts Country Documents Pictures & Maps
Logistics is a relatively new word used to describe a very old practice: the supply, movement and maintenance of an armed force both in peacetime and under operational conditions. Most soldiers have an appreciation of the impact logistics can have on operational readiness. Logistic considerations are generally built in to battle plans at an early stage, for without logistics, the tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, helicopters and aircraft are just numbers on a Table of Organisation and Equipment. Unfortunately, it often seems that the high profile weapon systems have had greater priority in resources than the means to support them in the field, be it ammunition, fuel or spares. For it is logistics that will determine the forces that can be delivered to the theatre of operations, what forces can be supported once there, and what will then be the tempo of operations. Logistics is not only about the supply of matériel to an army in times of war. It also includes the ability of the national infrastructure and manufacturing base to equip, support and supply the Armed Forces, the national transportation system to move the forces to be deployed and its ability to resupply that force once they are deployed. Thus it has been said, "logisticians are a sad, embittered race of men, very much in demand in war, who sink resentfully into obscurity in peace. They deal only with facts but must work for men who merchant in theories. They emerge during war because war is very much fact. They disappear in peace, because in peace, war is mostly theory." (Foxton, 1994, p. 9)

The practice of logistics, as understood in its modern form, has been around for as long as there have been organised armed forces with which nations and / or states have tried to exert military force on their neighbours. The earliest known standing army was that of the Assyrians at around 700 BC. They had iron weapons, armour and chariots, were well organised and could fight over different types of terrain (the most common in the Middle East being desert and mountain) and engage in siege operations. The need to feed and equip a substantial force of that time, along with the means of transportation (i.e. horses, camels, mules and oxen) would mean that it could not linger in one place for too long. The best time to arrive in any one spot was just after the harvest, when the entire stock was available for requisitioning. Obviously, it was not such a good time for the local inhabitants. One of the most intense consumers of grain was the increasing number of animals that were employed by armies of this period. In summer they soon overgrazed the immediate area, and unless provision had been made beforehand to stockpile supplies or have them bought in, the army would have to move. Considerable numbers of followers carrying the materiel necessary to provide sustenance and maintenance to the fighting force would provide essential logistic support.

Both Philip and Alexander improved upon the art of logistics in their time. Philip realised that the vast baggage train that traditionally followed an army restricted the mobility of his forces. So he did away with much of the baggage train and made the soldiers carry much of their equipment and supplies. He also banned dependants. As a result the logistics requirements of his army fell substantially, as the smaller numbers of animals required less fodder, and a smaller number of wagons meant less maintenance and a reduced need for wood to effect repairs. Added to that, the smaller number of cart drivers and lack of dependants, meant less food needed to be taken with them, hence fewer carts and animals and there was a reduced need to forage, which proved useful in desolate regions. Alexander however, was slightly more lenient than his father was, as regards women. He demonstrated the care he had for his men by allowing them to take their women with them. This was important; given the time they spent away on campaign and also avoided discipline problems if the men tried to vent their desires on the local female population of newly conquered territories. He also made extensive use of shipping, with a reasonable sized merchant ship able to carry around 400 tons, while a horse could carry 200 lbs. (but needed to eat 20 lbs. of fodder a day, thus consuming its own load every ten days). He never spent a winter or more than a few weeks with his army on campaign away from a sea port or navigable river. He even used his enemy's logistics weaknesses against them, as many ships were mainly configured for fighting but not for endurance, and so Alexander would blockade the ports and rivers the Persian ships would use for supplies, thus forcing them back to base. He planned to use his merchant fleet to support his campaign in India, with the fleet keeping pace with the army, while the army would provide the fleet with fresh water. However, the monsoons were heavier than usual, and prevented the fleet from sailing. Alexander lost two-thirds of his force, but managed to get to Gwadar where he re-provisioned. The importance of logistics was central to Alexander's plans, indeed his mastery of it allowed him to conduct the longest military campaign in history. At the farthest point reached by his army, the river Beas in India, his soldiers had marched 11,250 miles in eight years. Their success depended on his army's ability to move fast by depending on comparatively few animals, by using the sea wherever possible, and on good logistic intelligence.

The Roman legions used techniques broadly similar to the old methods (large supply trains etc.), however, some did use those techniques pioneered by Phillip and Alexander, most notably the Roman consul Marius. The Romans' logistics were helped of course, by the superb infrastructure, including the roads they built as they expanded their empire. However, with the decline in the western Roman Empire in the Fifth Century AD, the art of warfare degenerated, and with it, logistics was reduced to the level of pillage and plunder. It was with the coming of Charlemagne, that provided the basis for feudalism, and his use of large supply trains and fortified supply posts called 'burgs', enabled him to campaign up to 1,000 miles away, for extended periods. The eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire did not suffer from the same decay as its western counterpart. It adopted a defensive strategy, which Clausewitz recognised as being easier logistically than an offensive strategy, and that expansion of territory is costly in men and material. Thus in many ways their logistics problems were simplified - they had interior lines of communication, and could shift base far easier in response to an attack, than if they were in conquered territory, an important consideration, due to their fear of a two-front war. They used shipping and considered it vital to keep control of the Dardanelles, Bosphorous and Sea of Marmara; and on campaign made extensive use of permanent warehouses, or magazines, to supply troops. Hence, supply was still an important consideration, and thus logistics were fundamentally tied up with the feudal system - the granting of patronage over an area of land, in exchange for military service. A peacetime army could be maintained at minimal cost by essentially living off the land, useful for Princes with little hard currency, and allowed the man-at-arms to feed himself, his family and retainers from what he grew on his own land and given to him by the peasants.

The fighting ships of antiquity were limited by the lack of endurance while the broad beamed seaworthy merchant ships were unsuited to the tactics of the time that were practised in the Mediterranean. It wasn't until the Europeans put artillery on-board such vessels that they combined the fighting and logistic capability in one vessel and thus became instruments of foreign policy with remarkable endurance and hitting power. They reached the zenith of their potential during the Napoleonic Wars, but with the conversion to coal and steam power, a ship's endurance was once again limited. But they could still carry their ammunition and supplies farther and faster, and were thus more logistically independent than horse-powered armies, despite the need for coaling stations. Fuel oil increased endurance by forty percent, but that was due to its greater efficiency as a fuel source. The coming of the fleet train and underway replenishment techniques during the Second World War enhanced the endurance of modern navies massively, and ships could thus stay at sea for months, if not years, especially with the reduced time between dockyard maintenance services. The coming of nuclear power once again extended the sea-going life of a vessel, with endurance limited to that of the crew and the systems that need a dockyard to be overhauled.

The appeal by Emperor Alexius to the Pope for help in clearing Anatolia of the Turks in 1095 paved the way for a series of Western European military expeditions which have become known as the Crusades. As a result of these, the Western Europeans significantly advanced their practice of the military arts.

The First Crusade ran from 1096 until 1099 and ended with the capture of Jerusalem. It didn't start very well however, with the various contingents from Normandy, Sicily, France, Flanders and England having ten leaders, internal friction within the army, which at times was no better than a rabble, and having a strong distrust of the Byzantines, which was reciprocated. The Crusaders had no interest in recapturing lost Byzantine lands, while the Emperor had no interest in Jerusalem. The lack of a supply system almost twice brought it to grief early on, when the Crusaders almost starved while besieging Antioch and after the capture of the city, were besieged themselves. The army advanced south to Jaffa the following year, and appeared to learn the logistic lessons from the previous experience. There was far more co-operation between national contingents and they had the advantage of the Pisan fleet sailing parallel to their route to provide logistic support. This of course only lasted while they were fairly close to the coast, but the army soon had to turn inland towards Jerusalem. The Crusaders were too small in number to completely surround the city and could not easily starve the city into submission as the governor of Jerusalem had ordered all the livestock to be herded into the city and stockpiled other foodstuffs. The Crusaders also found themselves short of water, and thus time was not on their side. The Crusaders thus attempted an assault as early as possible without siege engines and while they overran the outer defences, could not make any headway against the inner walls. Fortunately, the English and Genoese fleets arrived in Jaffa at this point, but conveying their cargo to Jerusalem was time consuming and expensive in both men and animals. Additionally, there was a shortage of decent timber with which to make siege weapons with, but some was finally found on some wooded hills near Nablus, fifty miles north of Jerusalem. Again, this was a time consuming and expensive operation. By the time work had started on the siege towers it was mid-summer, the Crusaders were suffering from a shortage of water and word had been received that an Egyptian army was marching to the relief of the city. The Crusaders speeded up their preparations and finally rolled out their siege towers and assaulted the city, on the 13th and 14th of July, which fell that night.

The Second Crusade consisted of a French army under King Louis VII and a German army led by Emperor Conrad III. It was launched to take back Edessa from the Muslims and was a logistic disaster. The German army managed to stir up the local inhabitants once they arrived in Byzantine territory by pillaging, but the French army behaved much better and had little trouble. Unfortunately the German army had taken much of the available food and had so frightened the peasants that they had hid what little they had left. To accentuate this, the Germans refused to sell food to the French when they reached Constantinople. The hostility between the two armies led Conrad to split the two armies and take different routes across Anatolia. To compound this, Conrad split his own army with both groups being routed at different points along their respective paths. Louis' army faired little better, being defeated at Laodicea as well. The French thus made their way back to Attalia on the coast but found that the inhabitants were short of food as well, and the presence of the Crusaders attracted the Turks who set about besieging the city. Louis was forced to leave, taking his cavalry by sea in two lifts to Antioch, but leaving his infantry to march overland. Needless to say, few survived this example of dreadful leadership. Finally, Louis and Conrad joined by Baldwin of Jerusalem, set about besieging Damascus. Unfortunately, not only set their siege lines against the strongest part of the city's defences but sited their base camp in an area that didn't have any water nearby. Unsurprisingly, the siege failed.

The Third Crusade followed some forty years later and came after the Christian defeat at Hattin and the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin. It involved three kings, Richard I of England, Frederick I of Germany and Philip II of France. Frederick was first on the scene, and after marching through Anatolia and capturing Iconium, was unfortunately drowned and his army badly depleted by enemy action and the twin scourges of hunger and disease. A year later Philip and Richard arrived at Acre, where the Christian armies had been besieging the town for almost two years. Within twenty-four hours the morale of the army had been restored and the tempo of operations increased. A relief effort was beaten off, and the city eventually surrendered. Philip then left Richard in sole command of the army, who started the advance to Jerusalem. His planning and logistics were far superior to what had gone before. For example, he kept in contact with his fleet off the coast, he kept his marches short to preserve the strength of his soldiers, and even arranged a laundry organisation to keep the clothes clean (helping morale and health). He defeated Saladin at Arsuf, stopped briefly at Jaffa and marched towards Jerusalem in the winter rains. His men suffered quite badly, and recognising his mistake, he returned to Ascalon, on the coast. In the following spring, Richard set out once again for Jerusalem, but Saladin retired before him, destroying crops and poisoning wells. The lack of fodder and water meant that Richard finally halted at Beit-Nuba and concluded that he could not risk his army in besieging Jerusalem. Even if he captured the city, he would have to return to England due to the treasonous actions of his brother, John and it was unlikely that the Christian army would be able to hold until his return. So he retreated to Acre where he learnt that Saladin had taken Jaffa with a surprise attack. On hearing this, Richard set out with a small force by ship to Jaffa, with the rest travelling overland. At the sight of these ships, the Christians in the city took up arms against Saladin's troops and Richard, on the prompting of a local priest who had swum out to the fleet, took his small force and routed the occupation army. He even beat off a second attack by Saladin who tried to catch Richard before his main force arrived.

The Crusades pointed to a number of tactical and military engineering lessons that were vital for the improvement of the Western military art. The most important of these was that of logistics. Western armies had lived off the land when campaigning, and when they had stripped an area, they would have to move on, or starve. The length of campaigns tended to be short, as the length of time that Barons and their retainers could spend away from their fiefs was limited. Most Western armies when faced with the scorched earth policies of the Turks, and with no organised wagon train, limited local knowledge as regards the terrain and climate, thus tended to disintegrate. With the long campaigns in Western Asia, the generals had to re-learn the lessons learnt by Alexander, plan properly or die. In the first two Crusades, many men and horses died of starvation, but Richard showed that good logistic planning could change the situation around completely. He built a logistic base on the island of Cyprus and used that to his advantage when marching from Acre to Ascalon. His refusal to embark on a protracted siege of Jerusalem shows that he understood the serious logistic situation that would have arisen.

As the centuries passed, the problems facing an army remained the same: sustaining itself while campaigning, despite the advent of new tactics, of gunpowder and the railway. Any large army would be accompanied a large number of horses, and dry fodder could only really be carried by ship in large amounts. So campaigning would either wait while the grass had grown again, or pause every so often. Napoleon was able to take advantage of the better road system of the early nineteenth century, and the increasing population density, but ultimately still relied upon a combination of magazines and foraging. While many Napoleonic armies abandoned tents to increase speed and lighten the logistic load, the numbers of cavalry and artillery pieces (pulled by horses) grew as well, thus defeating the object. The lack of tents actually increased the instance of illness and disease, putting greater pressure on the medical system, thus putting greater pressure on the logistic system due to larger medical facilities needed and the need to expand the reinforcement system. Napoleon failed the logistics test when he crossed the Nieman in 1812 to start his Russian campaign. He started with just over 300,000 men and reached Moscow with just over 100,000 excluding stragglers. Napoleon had known the logistics system would not sustain his army on the road to Moscow and keep it there. He gambled that he could force the Russians to the negotiating table and dictate terms. He failed, and so had to retreat. The pursuing Russian army did little better, starting at Kaluga with 120,000 men and finally reaching Vilna with 30,000.

The only major international conflict between that of the Napoleonic War and the First World War was that of the Crimean War, fought between October 1853 and February 1856 and involved Russia, France, Britain and Turkey as its main protagonists. From a British and French point of view the main theater of operations was the Crimean Peninsula, but operations also took place in the Caucasus, around the Danube and the Baltic Sea. The background cause of the war lay in what was known as 'The Eastern Question' which involved the Great Powers in the question of what was to be done with the decaying Ottoman Empire, and in particular, its relationship with Russia. The immediate cause was the territorial ambition of Russia and the question of minority rights (the Greek Orthodox Christian Church) under the Turks.

It was logistics, as well as training and morale that decided the course of the war. All three armies in the Crimea suffered in one way or another in terms of the actual combat capability of the forces, but also the logistics back up received. The Russians were losing ground industrially by both Britain and France, both in terms of Gross National Product (GNP) and GNP per capita. While this did not immediately translate into military weakness, the effects would be felt soon enough, with no railways south of Moscow, Russian troops seriously lacked mobility and could take up to three months to get to the Crimea (as would supplies and ammunition) as opposed to three weeks for the British and French who would come by sea. The majority of Russian troops were still equipped with muskets as opposed to rifles, which were more accurate and had a longer range. With the French revolution still casting a deep shadow over the continent, Governments were worried about the loyalty of their troops, and the lack of a war caused officers to emphasis caution, obedience and hierarchy. Nicholas I encouraged this within Russia and thus military parades and the look of the troops' uniforms became more important than logistics or education. (Kennedy, 1989, pp. 218 - 228)

The British Army had suffered as well, in the forty or so years of peace since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. There were some seven semi-independent authorities that looked after the administration of the Army, and contributed to the "complication, the muddle, the duplication, the mutual jealousies, the labyrinthine processes of supply and control". (Hibbert, 1999, p. 7) These 'organisations' were made up of the Commander-in-Chief (located at Horse Guards - a sort of Chief of the Imperial General Staff), the Master General of the Ordnance (equipment, fortifications and barracks), Board of General Officers (uniforms), The Commissariat (supplies and transport, but Wellington's baggage train had been disbanded many years previously and so had no real means of moving said supplies), The Medical Department, the Secretary-at-War (who was responsible for the Army's dealings with civilian contractors), and the Secretary of State for the Colonies.

There was little, if any, coordination between these different 'organisations' and thus the provision of logistic support was rudimentary at best. In 1854, the view of administration and the provision of logistic support to the troops in the field was in the hands of, to a greater or lesser extent, the commanding officers of the regiments, some of whom cared for their men, but most simply looked after their own lot. Logistics is not merely about the supply of men and matériel to the theater of operation, but the application of those resources in a timely manner to affect the outcome of battle, but also the provision of food, clothing, shelter and entertainment to the troops in order to safeguard morale and discipline. There were very few in the Crimea who could visualise this problem, or had the power to do anything about it. The British tended to fight the war first and leave the administration to take care of itself. Unfortunately, it made it difficult for any comprehensive revision of the system. Many of the clothing and equipment were left over from the Peninsula War and thus a lot of it was rusting, decaying or falling apart. It was not the fact that there was no food, equipment, fodder or supplies, there was plenty of it in Balaclava. It was that there was virtually no centrally organised system of getting it to where it was needed. There was also a very loose and ill-defined chain of command, which had contributed to the Army's difficulties. Many commanding officers looked upon their regiments as their own personal property, and were very reluctant to take them out for exercises with other units, which were held extremely infrequently anyway. Few officers had any conception of military tactics to start with. "This army … is a shambles." (Quoted from the letters of Captain M A B Biddulph, RA in Hibbert, p. 8) All these faults combined with the terrible winter of 1854 to produce chaos, and the medical system effectively broke down. Into this maelstrom walked Florence Nightingale and thirty-eight nurses. Although there was initially resistance to their presence, the stream of wounded from Balaclava and Inkerman overwhelmed the hospital. With her own budget and working unceasingly to improve the conditions (the washing of linen, issue of clothing and beds, special diets, medicine, hygiene, sanitary conditions etc.) there, the death rate fell from 44 per cent, to 2.2 per cent in six months. The terrible conditions were reported in the Press from reports of The Times correspondent, W H Russell, and also in letters from serving officers. Public opinion became such that the Government of Lord Aberdeen fell, and Lord Palmerston took over, with Lord Panmure as Minister of War and Lord Clarendon as Foreign Secretary. General Simpson was sent out to relieve Lord Raglan of the administrative burden, and gradually, the administrative chaos was overcome. A central system for the supply of provisions to depots on the peninsula was formed, Turkish labour was recruited to undertake construction work, the railway from Balaclava to near Telegraph on the Woronzov Road was completed, transport was borrowed from the French and Spanish mules hired from Barcelona. Mr Filder and Admiral Boxter began to restore order in Balaclava and organise the port. The group of dishonest sutlers and contractors that had been operating unchecked were bought under control, and by February, the army was beginning to heal itself, with games of cricket and football being played in the camps. Britain's main military power of course rested with the Royal Navy, and with the effective withdrawal of the Russian fleets into port, provided the main logistic supply line to the British forces in the Crimean Peninsula.

Of the three main armies to take part in the Crimean War, the best was clearly the French, which retained a measure of its professionalism from the Napoleonic era and many officers and men had served in Algeria. There was still a degree of incompetence and around half the officers were chosen from the lower ranks, so many had trouble reading and writing. The teaching of military skills such as reading maps, strategy and topography was as scorned as it was in the Russian Army. But the French General Staff was much more comprehensive than that of the British, and included officers of the Administrative Service as well as specialised corps. It was the supply and medical arrangements that really stood out, and both were superior to that of the British (initially) and Russian Armies, for at Kamiesh, the French built a logistic support base of some 100 acres in area, and another 50 acres of shops where a large variety of goods could be bought. (Blake, 1973, p. 108) The American Civil War foreshadowed future warfare, particularly as regards logistics. Both sides were determined, had reasonably competent generals, with large populations from which to draw recruits from, and the means to equip them. This laid the foundations for a long war, not one that would be determined by one or two battles, but several campaigns, and hinge upon the will to sustain the war-fighting capability (material or morale). This was to be a large conflict between large populations with mass mobilisation armies. This meant that a logistics infrastructure would have to be set up to cater for the training, equipping and movement of these armies from scratch. But it would also have to cater for the supply of food, ammunition, equipment, spare parts, fresh horses and their fodder, and the evacuation of casualties (of which there would be greater numbers than ever) and canned food, introduced in the 1840's. Strategy took into consideration not only the combatants' own logistic requirements, but that of the enemy as well. That principle meant that Grant was able to fix Lee in Virginia, which enabled Sherman to march to Atlanta to destroy the Confederates' major communications and supply centre, and hence onto Savannah. Lastly, it was the first major war in which railways played an important part, speeding up the movement of troops and supplies. They also dictated to a great extent, the axes of advance or retreat, the siting of defensive positions and even the location of battles. But it also warned of the consequences of having a large army tied to the railway system for the majority of its supplies, as McClellan found out in both the Richmond Peninsula campaign and after the Battle of Antietam. Most European observers had lost interest in the war early on, after the shambles of the First Bull Run, but a few (including a Captain Scheibert of the Prussian Army) were impressed with the support given by the Union Navy to the Union Army, in tactical and logistic terms, and the use of railway repair battalions to keep the rail systems functioning. The two lessons they missed or were forgotten, were the growing importance of fortifications (particularly the trench) to offset the increasing firepower of contemporary weapons and the increasing rate of ammunition expenditure. The Austro-Prussian and the Franco-Prussian Wars confirmed the importance (as well as the limitations) of railways but were similar to the wars of the past in that ammunition expenditure was relatively low. It was thus easier for troops to be supplied with ammunition as compared to food.

The First World War was unlike anything that had gone before it. Not only did the armies initially outstrip their logistic systems (particularly the Germans with their Schlieffen Plan) with the amount of men, equipment and horses moving at a fast pace, but they totally underestimated the ammunition requirements (particularly for artillery). On average, ammunition was consumed at ten times the pre-war estimates, and the shortage of ammunition became serious, forcing governments to vastly increase ammunition production. In Britain this caused the 'shell scandal' of 1915, but rather than the government of the day being to blame, it was faulty pre-war planning, for a campaign on the mainland of Europe, for which the British were logistically unprepared. Once the war became trench bound, supplies were needed to build fortifications that stretched across the whole of the Western Front. Add to that the scale of the casualties involved, the difficulty in building up for an attack (husbanding supplies) and then sustaining the attack once it had gone in (if any progress was made, supplies had to be carried over the morass of no-man's land). It was no wonder that the war in the west was conducted at a snail's pace, given the logistic problems. It was not until 1918, that the British, learning the lessons of the last four years, finally showed how an offensive should be carried out, with tanks and motorised gun sleds helping to maintain the pace of the advance, and maintain supply well away from the railheads and ports. The First World War was a milestone for military logistics. It was no longer true to say that supply was easier when armies kept on the move due to the fact that when they stopped they consumed the food, fuel and fodder needed by the army. From 1914, the reverse applied, because of the huge expenditure of ammunition, and the consequent expansion of transport to lift it forward to the consumers. It was now far more difficult to resupply an army on the move, while the industrial nations could produce huge amounts of war matériel, the difficulty was in keeping the supplies moving forward to the consumer.

This of course, was a foretaste of the Second World War. The conflict was global in size and scale. Not only did combatants have to supply forces at ever greater distances from the home base, but these forces tended to be fast moving, and voracious in their consumption of fuel, food, water and ammunition. Railways again proved indispensable, but sealift and airlift made ever greater contributions as the war dragged on (especially with the use of amphibious and airborne forces, as well as underway replenishment for naval task forces). The large-scale use of motorised transport for tactical re-supply helped maintain the momentum of offensive operations, and most armies became more motorised as the war progressed. The Germans, although moving to greater use of motorised transport, still relied on horse transport to a large extent - a fact worth noting in the failure of Barbarossa. After the fighting had ceased, the operations staffs could relax somewhat, whereas the logisticians had to supply not only the occupation forces, but also relocate those forces that were demobilising, repatriate Prisoners Of War, and feed civil populations of often decimated countries. The Second World War was, logistically, as in every other sense, the most testing war in history. The cost of technology had not yet become an inhibiting factor, and only its industrial potential and access to raw materials limited the amount of equipment, spares and consumables a nation could produce. In this regard, the United States outstripped all others. Consumption of war material was never a problem for the USA and its allies. Neither was the fighting power of the Germans diminished by their huge expenditure of war material, nor the strategic bomber offensives of the Allies. They conducted a stubborn, often brilliant defensive strategy for two-and-a-half years, and even at the end, industrial production was still rising. The principal logistic legacy of the Second World War was the expertise in supplying far off operations and a sound lesson in what is, and what is not, administratively possible.

With the end of the Second World War, the tensions that had been held in check by the common goal to defeat fascism finally came to the fore. The Cold War started in around 1948 and was given impetus by the Berlin Blockade, the formation of NATO and the Korean War. The period was characterised by the change in the global order, from one dominated by empires to a roughly bipolar world, split between the Superpowers and their alliance blocs. However, the continued activity by both blocs in the Third World meant that both sides continued to draw on the experience of power projection from the Second World War. East and West continued to have to prepare for both limited conflicts in the Third World, and an all-out confrontation with the other bloc. These would vary between 'low intensity' counter-insurgency conflicts (Vietnam, Central America, Malaya, Indochina and Afghanistan) and 'medium intensity' conventional operations (Korea, the Falklands) often conducted well away from the home base and an all-out Third World War involving high-intensity conventional and / or nuclear conflict. Both sides had to deal with the spiralling rate of defence inflation, while weapon systems increased in both cost and complexity, having implications for the procurement process, as defence budgets could not increase at the same rate.

The principal concern for the defence planners of the two blocs involved the stand off between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Europe. The history of the two alliances is closely linked. Within a few years of the end of the Second World War, relations between East and West became increasingly strained to the point of becoming the Cold War and a dividing line being drawn across Europe (the 'Iron Curtain' from Winston Churchill's famous speech at Fulton, Missouri). The Soviet inspired coup in Czechoslovakia, the Greek Civil war and the Berlin Blockade all suggested to the Western nations that the Soviets wished to move the Iron Curtain westwards, which was combined with the Soviet failure to demobilise on a par with the West. Initially, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in April 1949 building upon the Brussels Treaty of 1948, and was signed by the United Kingdom, France, United States, Canada, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Iceland, Italy and Luxembourg. The outbreak of the Korean War (in June 1950) and the early test of a Soviet nuclear device in August 1949 led to fears of a major expansion in Soviet activity. This prompted the Alliance into converting itself into a standing military organisation, necessitating the stockpiling of large amounts of munitions, equipment and spares; "just in case" it was needed. The original members were joined in 1952 by Greece and Turkey, by West Germany in 1955 and by Spain in 1982.

NATO strategy, by the late 1980s, was based around the concepts of "flexible response", "forward defence" and "follow on force attack". The key element of NATO strategy, that of "flexible response", was adopted in 1967, and took over from "massive retaliation". This strategy demanded a balance of conventional and nuclear forces sufficient to deter aggression, and should deterrence fail, be capable of actual defence. The three stages in response to aggression were "direct defence" (defeating the enemy attack where it occurs and at the level of warfare chosen by the aggressor), "deliberate escalation" (escalating to a level of warfare, including the use of nuclear weapons, to convince the aggressor of NATO's determination and ability to resist and hence persuade them to withdraw) and "general nuclear response" (the use of strategic nuclear weapons to force the aggressor to halt his attack). A key commitment has been to "forward defence" (in deference to German political interests), that is, trying to maintain a main front line as close to the Iron Curtain as possible. To this had been added "FOFA" (follow?on?force attack), derived from the US Army's "Air?Land Battle 2000" strategy where "smart" and "stealth" weapons (as seen in the Gulf War) are used to attack enemy rear areas and approaching forces. For forty years, the main threat to NATO's territorial integrity was the armed forces of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Treaty Organisation, more commonly known as the Warsaw Pact. This organisation came into being on the 14th May 1955 with the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance by Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Rumania, and of course the USSR. This was supposedly a response to the rearming of West Germany and its incorporation into NATO. The treaty reinforced a number of bilateral mutual aid treaties between the USSR and its allies, which was also complemented by a series of status force agreements allowing for the positioning of substantial Soviet forces on the allies' soil. The original treaty was valid until May 1975 where it was renewed for ten years and again in May 1985 for twenty years. The purpose of the Pact was to facilitate the Soviet forces to defend the Soviet Union (not surprising, considering the Soviet post?war concern with security) and to threaten Western Europe, while extracting military assistance from the East European states. Refusals or deviance were not tolerated, as seen in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) but that is not to say the Soviets had it all their own way. The East Europeans were "reluctant to make all the military efforts demanded of them, and have from time to time, resisted Soviet attempts to extract more resources, and refused to undertake all the exercises demanded or even on occasions, to lend full blooded diplomatic support". (Martin, 1985, p. 12) As a consequence, the dependability of the Pact forces in a war may have been open to question. Much would have depended upon the nature of the conflict.

Warsaw Pact doctrine called for a broad frontal assault while securing massive superiority at a few pre?selected points. The attacking forces would be echeloned, possibly three or more echelons deep (coming from the expectation that NATO would quickly resort to nuclear weapons to stop any breakthrough) even at Theatre (each Theatre consisted of two or more Fronts) level. To the Pact, only the offensive was decisive. The concept of defence was used as a means to shield reorganising forces getting ready to launch another offensive. Pact formations were modular all the way up to Front level (each Front consisted of two to five Armies, but generally consisted of three). One Pact Army was configured similarly to another Army (each Army was made up of from three to seven Divisions but generally consisted of four or five Divisions). Forces in the front echelon would punch holes in NATO's front line for the Operational Manoeuvre Groups and the second echelon to exploit through and hopefully lead to the collapse of the NATO main line position. The third echelon would then pursue the fleeing enemy forces and complete the assigned objectives.

It must be noted however, that as structured, the Pact was not intended to be used in wartime. The Pact was meant to support the stationing of the various Groups of Soviet Forces, control training and exercises, assist in operational effectiveness and supervise and control military policy. The East European national armies were trained and equipped on the Soviet model because in war they would have been fully integrated into the Soviet Command structure as parts of the various Fronts. An example was the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where the joint invasion was conducted by the military command in Moscow. The logistic implications of a clash between these two giants would have been enormous. Despite its "economic weakness and commercial and industrial inefficiency, the Soviet Union possessed mighty and highly competent armed forces. Indeed, they were probably one of the few efficient parts of the Soviet Union." (Thompson, 1998, p. 289) Also, despite its high ideals, NATO had a number of drawbacks, the most serious of which was its lack of sustainability. In a major shooting war, so long as the Soviets performed reasonably well, NATO would probably have lost due to the fact it would have run out of things with which to fight. In a static war, logistics is somewhat simpler in the modern age, as ammunition can be stocked and fuel expenditure is limited (thus allowing one to stock that as well). In a highly mobile war, the main consumable used will be fuel rather than ammunition, but in a highly attritional conflict, the reverse will apply. Ammunition will be used to a larger extent than fuel. For example, Soviet tank armies advancing at a rate of between sixteen and forty-five kilometers a day in 1944 - 5 suffered far lower losses in men and tanks and consumed a third less fuel and one sixth the ammunition of tank armies that advanced at a rate of between four and thirteen kilometers a day. (Thompson, 1998, p. 291) Of course, this requirement will have to be modified to take account of what Clausewitz termed the 'friction of war' - terrain, weather, problems with communications, misunderstood orders etc. not to mention the actions of the enemy.

NATO reinforcement and resupply had been coordinated under SACEUR's (Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) Rapid Reinforcement Plan, and could be expected to work if given adequate time (a big 'if'). However, there were possible clashes in that, for example, if the United Kingdom decided to exercise its national option of reinforcing BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) with the 2nd Infantry Division, its arrival may coincide with the arrival of the III US Corps from CONUS (Continental United States) to draw their equipment from the POMCUS (Pre-positioned Overseas Material Configured in Unit Sets) sites and thus cause major logistic problems given the lack of rolling stock to go around. So, paradoxically, the greater the success the United States had in reinforcing Europe, the greater probability there would have been clashes in priority. The plan depended upon NATO forces limiting the expected interference from theb enemy (something the Warsaw Pact definitely planned on doing) and kind weather - only then would the plan have had a good chance of succeeding. Even if the forces had got there, would the logistics system have worked? Given the extended supply lines from the Channel ports across the Low Countries and the lack of operational coordination, either in defensive tactics or logistics one is left to wonder. For example, if one corps' national logistic capability became critical, the Army Group headquarters may have recommended a transfer of stocks between National Logistic Support Commands. If the national authorities refused to transfer stocks then the Army Group Commander would have to refer the decision to the Commander-in-Chief Central Region (CINCENT) who would then negotiate with the Ministries of Defence concerned. Tactical and logistic responsibility was thus separated and command was divided. CINCENT or the Army Group Commanders had no power to reallocate nationally provided operational support capabilities or resources, and did not have access to logistic information that would have helped them make decisions on redeployment or reinforcement. As logistics was a national responsibility, each national corps has a set of 'tramlines' that ran westwards. Cross corps-boundary logistics was difficult, if not impossible. While routes for such operations had been thought out, there were three different tank gun ammunition types, different fuzing and charge arrangements for artillery ammunition, different fuel resupply methods and no interoperable logistic support system for airmobile operations. All this would mitigate against a cohesive Army Group battle, particularly in the Northern Army Group. Thus sustainability would have been the NATO achilles' heel. While the agreed stock level was to thirty days, many nations did not stock even to this. All have different ways of arriving at Daily Ammunition Expenditure Rates. Most members had either non-existent or not published plans to gear up their industrial base to replace the stocks once used. As experience in the Falklands War points out, actual ammunition expenditure rates would have been far above those planned. (Thompson, 1998, p. 310) It is also worth remembering that one British armoured division would have needed around 4,000 tons of ammunition of all types per day.

The Soviets (and hence Warsaw Pact) view was that while a short war was preferable, it was possible that the conflict might last some time and stay conventional. There is no such word as 'sustainability' in Russian, the clossest being 'viability'. This has a much broader context, and includes such matters as training, the quality and quantity of weapons and equipment, and the organisation of fighting units, as well as supply, maintenance, repair and reinforcements. The Soviets also relied on a scientific method of battle planning; one that took into account military history, to reduce uncertainty to a minimum and to produce detailed quantitative assessments of battlefield needs. They also had a common military doctrine throughout the Warsaw Pact and standard operational procedures.

Soviet forces still relied on a relatively streamlined logistic tail as compared to their Western counterparts. The bulk of logistic resources were held at Army and Front level, which could supply two levels down if required. This gave a false indication to the West of the logistic viability of the Soviet division. Thus senior commanders had a great deal of flexibility in deciding who to support and who to abandon and which axis to concentrate on. Soviet priorities for resupply, in order, were ammunition, POL, spares and technical support, food and medical supplies and clothing. They regarded fuel as the greatest challenge, but their rear services could still make maximum use of local resources, be it clothing, food or fuel. It is probable though that the Soviets would not have had things all their own way. Keeping a high tempo of operations would consume large amounts of fuel and ammunition. Thus almost every town and wood in East Germany and Czechoslovakia would have become a depot and every road or track would have been needed to transport it and every possible means to carry it utilised, including captured vehicles. NATO would of course be trying to interdict these supply routes and the density of forces would have made traffic control problematic, not to mention the fact that any significant advance would place the leading forces well away from their supply bases and railheads behind the initial start line. However, the Soviets would endeavor to maintain strict control over supply priorities and a ruthless determination to achieve the objective. To this end, surprise would have been vital, and thus the objectives should have been achievable with forces in being, with the minimum amount of reinforcement. Also, the first strategic echelon would have been required to maintain operations over a longer period of time. There would thus be no secure rear areas, no forward edge of the battle area or front line. The repair and medical services would thus be positioned well forward, giving priority to men and equipment that can be tended to quickly and sent back into action. The Soviets did not have a 'use and throwaway' attitude to men and equipment, but intended to keep the fighting strength of the unit as high as possible for as long as possible. Once the formation had become badly mauled however, it would be replaced by a fresh one - they did not believe in the Western method of replacing unit casualties with reinforcements thus keeping the unit in action over a prolonged period.

The ending of the Cold War has had profound effects upon the philosophy of, and approach to military logistics. The long held approach of stock-piling of weapons, ammunition and vehicles, at various strategic sites around the expected theatre of operations and in close proximity to the lines of communications was possible when the threat and its axes of attack were known. It is no longer the optimum method in the new era of force projection and manoeuvre warfare. 'High tech' weapons are also difficult to replace, as the US Air Force demonstrated during the 1999 attacks on Yugoslavia, when they started to run short of cruise missiles.

With pressure on defence budgets and the need to be able to undertake a (possibly larger) number of (smaller) operational roles than had previously been considered there has been a closer examination of the approach of commercial organisations to logistics. For the UK, this pressure has been particularly intense and as part of the Strategic Defence Review (1998) the Smart Procurement Initiative was announced. This was designed not only to improve the acquisition process but also to bring about more effective support in terms of supply and engineering. However, it is pertinent at this point, to briefly examine what commercial practices are being considered.

Just after the Second World War, the United States provided considerable assistance to Japan. Out of this, the Japanese have become world leaders in management philosophies that bring about the greatest efficiency in production and service. From organisations such as Toyota came the then revolutionary philosophies of Just In Time (JIT) and Total Quality Management (TQM). From these philosophies have arisen and developed the competitive strategies that world class organisations now practice. Aspects of these that are now considered normal approaches to management include kaizen (or continuous improvement), improved customer-supplier relationships, supplier management, vendor managed inventory, customer focus on both the specifier and user, and above all recognition that there is a supply chain along which all efforts can be optimised to enable effective delivery of the required goods and services. This means a move away from emphasising functional performance and a consideration of the whole chain of supply as a total process. It means a move away from the 'silo' mentality to thinking and managing 'outside the (functional) box'. In both commercial and academic senses the recognition of supply chain management, as an enabler of competitive advantage is increasingly to the fore. This has resulted in key elements in being seen as best practice in their own right, and includes value for money, partnering, strategic procurement policies, integrated supply chain / network management, total cost of ownership, business process reengineering, and outsourcing.

The total process view of the supply chain necessary to support commercial business is now being adopted by, and adapted within, the military environment. Hence initiatives such as 'Lean Logistics' and 'Focussed Logistics" as developed the US Department of Defense and acknowledged by the UK Ministry of Defence in the so-called Smart Procurement, recognise the importance of logistics within a 'cradle to grave' perspective. This means relying less on the total integral stockholding and transportation systems, and increasing the extent to which contractorised logistic support to military operations is fanned out to civilian contractors - as it was in the eighteenth century.

Force projection and manoeuvre warfare blur the distinction between the long held first, second and third line support concept of the static Cold War philosophy and link the logistics' supply chain more closely with the home base than ever before.

One of the reasons for the defeat of the British in the American colonies in 1776 may have been the length of, and time involved in, replenishing the forces from a home base some 3,000 miles away. The same was true in the Russo-Japanese War with a 4,000-mile supply line along a single-track railway. Whilst the distances involved may still be great in today's operational environment, logistic philosophies and systems are being geared to be more responsive in a way that could not have been previously envisaged.

The five principles of logistics, accepted by NATO are foresight, economy, flexibility, simplicity and co-operation. They are just as true today as they were in the times of the Assyrians and Romans. The military environment in which they can be applied is considerably different, and, as can be seen in the Balkans in the late 20th Century, adopting and adapting military logistics to the operational scenario is an essential feature for success. Ultimately a "real knowledge of supply and movement factors must be the basis of every leader's plan; only then can he know how and when to take risks with these factors, and battles and wars are won by taking risks." (Wavell, 1946)

ffrench Blake, R L V. The Crimean War, Sphere Books, London, 1973. cover cover cover

Brown, I M. British Logistics on the Western Front, Praeger, Westport, CT, 1998. cover cover cover

Brown, I M. British Logistics on the Western Front, Praeger, Westport, CT, 1998. cover cover cover

Engels, Donald W. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1978. cover cover cover


Foxton, P D. Powering War: Modern Land Force Logistics, Brassey's, London, 1994.
cover cover cover

Hibbert, Christopher. The Destruction of Lord Raglan, Wordsworth Edition, Ware, 1999.
cover cover cover

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Fontana Press, London, 1989. cover cover cover

Lynn, John A. Feeding Mars: Logistics in Western Warfare from the Middle Ages to the Present, Westview, Oxford, 1993. cover cover cover

Martin, Lawrence. Before the Day After: Can NATO Defend Europe?, Newnes Books, Feltham, 1985. cover cover cover

Thompson, Julian. Lifeblood of War: Logistics in Armed Conflict, Brassey's, London, 1998. cover cover cover

Thomson, David. Europe since Napoleon, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1971. cover cover cover

Van Creveld, Martin. Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995. cover cover cover
Christopher, M. Logistics and Supply Chain Management, Brassey's, London, 1992.
Sinclair, Joseph. Arteries of War: A History of Military Transportation, Airlife Publishing, Shrewsbury, 1992.
Wavell, Field Marshal. Speaking Generally, Macmillan, London, 1946.
How to cite this article: Antill, P. (22 August 2001), Military Logistics: A Brief History, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/concepts_logistics.html

Delicious Save this on Delicious

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader

Google Groups Subscribe to History of War
Email:
Browse Archives at groups.google.co.uk