The First 48

     Resiliency in a maritime conflict depends on logistics; a timely supply chain is essential not only to success, but survival.

     In tomorrow’s naval battle, the chance of our knowing the script ahead of time is remote.  While planners can make well-educated guesses, history has shown that the enemy is doing the same.  Wherever we go head-to-head in conflict, the hope of landing a sucker punch leads an enemy to attempt the unexpected.


AEAN Eric Gonzalez directs a MH-60S Seahawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 12 aboard USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) during a replenishment at sea. (Photo by MCSA Joshua Walters)

     Without those connections, afloat operations quickly grind to a halt.

     Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, who led Red forces to a quick and overwhelming defeat of a technologically superior Blue force during Millennium Challenge 2002, did so using unsophisticated tactics and antiquated systems.  He also relied on the knowledge that Blue strategy and defense was dictated by weapon systems and sensors.  During the war game, and in much less than 48 hours, most of the Blue naval forces had been sunk, crippled, or forced out of action.  The lessons learned were not lost on future potential adversaries, so today’s smaller, leaner Navy may have to weather unexpected challenges and setbacks to engage the enemy, and then retire to quickly rest, repair, refuel, and resupply (4R).

Varying Theaters, Adaptable Logistics

     Tomorrow’s fight will be a maritime one.  In any speculation about areas of potential future conflict, the Persian Gulf and western Pacific would be high on the list.  The former presents the challenge of pitting a blue-water navy against an opponent who has almost all the geographic advantages.  The gulf is less than 100 miles wide at Bahrain; fewer than 20 miles separate Oman from Iran at the Strait of Hormuz.  The limitations on room to maneuver, the challenge of finding protected water to conduct underway replenishment, and the relative ease that even last-generation weapons have on disrupting operations all help shape the Persian Gulf discussion.

     The western Pacific has nearly the opposite problems.  While disrupting land-based operations would be more challenging, the assumption is that any near-peer competitor would be up to that challenge.  Maritime operations, spread out across vast distances of ocean, mean a secluded sanctuary is more attainable, but that the resources necessary to conduct underway replenishment — or even carrier on-board-delivery hits — are less concentrated.  

     This “tyranny of distance” further compounds our ability to support 4R, creating a scheduling nightmare to achieve the quick turnaround times our high-material-consumption warfare dictates.  Imagine tasking a littoral combat ship to operate in this area of responsibility from any current or planned base.  Imagine a requirement to transport Darwin, Australia–based U.S. Marines from Point A to Point B with limited Military Sealift Command (MSC) support vessels that might need to make a hit on the L-decks at some point in the transit, all the while a hot fight to the north is engaging the blue-water strike groups centered on our nuclear carriers or amphibious-assault ships, which will also need the services of those finite MSC vessels.  You get the picture of a very thinly spread supply chain.


ET3 John Rodil places boxes on a freight elevator aboard USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). (Photo by MCSN Benjamin Liston)

     Resiliency for our Navy is about having the means on each autonomous ship to absorb punishment and push through the pain to continue the mission.  The elements of integrated logistics support (ILS) are the building blocks of readiness resiliency …

 • Maintenance planning

• Manpower and personnel

• Supply support

• Support equipment

• Technical data

• Training and training support

• Computer resources support

• Facilities

• Packaging, handling, storage, and transportation.

      Part of resiliency from a logistician’s perspective is ensuring that shipboard allowances for spare parts are as healthy as practicable.  This does not mean having one of everything, but it does mean having the necessary inventory to reduce risk as much as we can.

     No navy has bottomless pockets, nor do they have engineers with unimpeachable failure-rate predictions.  Stuff happens on a small metal ship in a large and dynamic ocean, and not all of it can be forecast.  When aspiring toward a resilient navy, having some sort of standardization to reduce variability of shipboard configuration within a class is a key factor too often overlooked.  

     As an example, how many variants of Aegis ballistic-missile-defense platforms are there?  And with each variant, are the subsystems also variable across platforms?  Resiliency is enhanced if an Aegis platform that suffers a failure, combat damage or otherwise, can work to transfer a critical spare from another close combatant, quickly return the system to operational readiness, and continue with the mission.  If that ship has a unique configuration, with a correspondingly unique allowance of spare parts, maintenance actions, and technical training, then it becomes a single point of failure that now relies on a much more convoluted process for supply support.  This is an ILS lesson not factored in most planning discussions.

Rest, Repair, Refuel, Resupply

     We enjoy a singular advantage in the maritime domain … we are the only one truly out there.  From a blue-water Navy perspective, having big ships does not mean you have mastered the skill set of extended underway operations.  However, not having the capability does not mean that other nations, nation-states, and independent actors don’t understand the critical importance of that capability.  Because it is our strength, it also becomes our glass chin.  Break the link, and you break our capability to sustain deployed operations.  As planners and as logisticians, it is our job to keep that supply chain unbroken.

     Where we rest, where we repair, where we refuel, and where we resupply become exponentially more critical — and difficult — when there are fewer support ships to meet that demand, and fewer naval facilities under our control.  Lose access to a base or have a single MSC support ship attrited out, and we have a game-changer.  Knowing the “who/where/how” of what it takes to provide the needed services and return a combatant to the fight, in a maritime conflict with a Van Riper–like adversary, should keep all planners and logisticians awake at night.  

     Get this wrong, and everything else starts to unravel.

     Focusing on that weakest link — the supply chain — is a main concern for commercial businesses.  How to ensure production resiliency is a major part of their corporate efforts.  It doesn’t sound as cool as developing a marketing campaign, but all other good works, and profit, will only prosper if the supply chain works effectively.  It can be interrupted and disrupted, but as long as a company can quickly flex to new sources of supply, and keep its customers relatively ignorant of that churn, it realizes success.

     Ask a Boeing or an Apple or a McDonald’s just how much time they spend on overseeing their supply chain, and the answer might surprise you.  From a Navy perspective, how much time do we spend overseeing our own?  That answer might surprise you too, but for a different reason.  

     To keep our Navy forward and ready, we have to ensure that the pieces of the support network needed are, in fact, in place.  To put things in perspective, tomorrow we will have:

 • Fewer logistics “T” Ships (T-AKE, T-AFS, T-AOE, etc. …)

 • Fewer overseas bases with maintenance capabilities

 • Less convoy protection capability and training

 • More commercial providers of material and deployment/distribution services.


LSC Craig Stark loads a palette onto a palette jack during an at-sea-replenishment aboard USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) while deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (Photo by MC3 Christina Naranjo)

     Supply-chain risk-and-threat assessment — a mainstay in commercial business — is hardly a core competency of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.  That does not imply we don’t flex and adapt when confronted by a challenge, but challenges come in two forms, rather benign ones that we can adapt around — Horn of Africa piracy, Pakistan ground-line-of-communication closure — and those that are malignant with multiple angles of attack — recall the lessons of Millennium Challenge 2002.

Embrace the Necessity.  War college instructors spend countless hours discussing the American Way of War.  The industrial base; our innovation; the independence of the American soldier, Sailor, airman, or Marine, are all part of the equation.  It really comes down to our ability to marshal resources and put logistics on target, in other words, successful power projection, soft or hard.  We are the world’s finest logisticians.  To make sure we keep that critical advantage, here are a few recommendations.

Live it.  Place logisticians on every Navy N5 staff.  Most N4 folks gravitate toward near-term N3-type support.  They want to fix the here and now.  But a few logisticians focus on supporting future plans — the N5 part — might help ensure a seamless 3-4-5 continuity.  Embedded logisticians provide a quick sanity check on resource feasibility and make recommendations on strategic lay-down that could identify the gap between what is needed and what is available.

Game it.  Realistically insert logistics into wargaming scenarios.  Allow the warfighter to see the challenge of completing necessary taskings when “assumed” logistics can no longer be “assumed.”  Such mundane tasks as port opening and port security (air or sea), warehousing and lay-down space, and realistic time/distance of resupply along with logistics asset limitations would add a layer of complexity to any game that might more realistically mirror reality.  Layer on the problem of supporting platform variability in conflict, for instance, and you add stressful nuances worthy of any warfighter.

Fund it.  Logistics is one of those expensive necessities.  In an era of increasingly austere financial budgets and tough choices concerning personnel, platforms, and weapon systems, logistics is generally considered a cash-cow to offset true “point of the spear” considerations.  Unless we ensure that the logistics behind a forward warfighting presence is really ready, you can’t ensure that the forward warfighting presence is either.  You will fight the next fight with the Navy you have.  If you are not funding spares now, for example, suddenly dumping new money and new demands onto the joint and commercial wholesale-supply system that we rely on when a crisis hits isn’t going to provide instant gratification.  We may have to sacrifice some current Navy programs and functions in order to focus ever-scarce resources where it matters the most.  


SHSA Daniel Cagno and SHSN Joseph Taylor unload boxes aboard USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) while deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. (Photo by MCSN Benjamin Liston)

     Assuming a benign attitude toward the maritime supply chain, in an era of expanding anti-access/area-denial capabilities, can cripple military operations immediately, and most likely, catastrophically.  Resiliency and readiness never can be assumed.  And both take more than resources to fix, this isn’t about more bucks for more parts to make more logisticians happy.  This is about a “whole of DOD” approach to ensure that each link in the supply chain — from the maintenance plan to forward-positioned stocks to the means to distribute supplies strategically and in that last nautical mile — is thoughtfully considered before it gets stress tested, not after.

     Warfighting and logistics are inexorably linked.  Focusing on one at the expense of the other is a fool’s gamble.  A smaller, leaner Navy is like a middleweight boxer … unlike most heavyweights, you have a lightning-quick jab.  What you lack is the heavyweight’s bulk to absorb as many punches.

     So learn to fight smarter.

By Capt. David Meyers, SC, USN, Assistant Commander, NAVSUP Strategy and Analysis (N5)

(Reprinted from Proceedings, with permission; Copyright (c) 2013 U.S. Naval Institute /