Logistics: The Art of Doing War

By Major Van Harl USAF Ret.

This year is the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe. There is a special on the History Channel that deals with the WW II and the defeat of Germany. I was in Germany during the 40th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. They were having the same dangerously cold weather during the winter of 1984-85 as they had in 1944. I could not imagine myself outside in that type of cold trying to fight a war.

I am reading a book called The Path of Victory by Douglas Porch, which is a 700 page, blow-by-blow history of WW II in the Mediterranean. I am being overloaded with WW II information, but the one thing that sticks out the most is the tremendous need for manpower and supplies.

The average semi tractor-trailer you encounter on the highway is carrying only a few tons of goods. When you are dealing with the military, especially wartime supply requirements, you are talking in the millions of tons of supplies. If there is an ongoing battle where the food, fuel and ammunition are being consumed in mass quantities, the tonnage of needed supplies goes up dramatically.

The Air Force sent me to Army infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia when I was a young lieutenant. I was told on the first day of infantry training that I was there to learn how to kill people and destroy the enemy's stuff (reverse logistics). One of the most important points I learned from the Army was this: amateurs worry about tactics, but professionals worry about logistics.

You can have all the charged-up, ready to fight soldiers you want out there going toe-to-toe with the enemy, but if you can not get ammo, food and toilet paper to troops, they cannot fight for very long. Logistics is the procurement, maintenance, distribution and replacement of personnel and material.

If you are a successful manager at Wal-Mart you have a profound understanding of logistics. The tonnage that Wal-Mart moves everyday and the control, placement and usage of people to get the job done is an excellent lesson in logistics. Just like the military they have to find manufacturers to make the needed products. Arrange for the shipment of the items, (to include ocean transport) distribute to multiple locations and then get the goods into the hands of the ultimate user.

There are two major differences between Wal-Mart and military logistics. Wal-Mart gets to make a profit on their distributed goods, and nobody is trying to blow up their transportation system and kill their employees.

Many of our WW II generals did not have a real understanding of re-supply. General Patton is alleged to have said, "logistics, I don't know nothing about these logistics, but I want some."

We live in a world of instant gratification. We want it now. So, when a military member is in combat and needs certain items to keep fighting, he sends an e-mail demanding next-day-air delivery. The problem is UPS and Fed Ex do not deliver to foxholes in the desert and only a fraction of supplies go by military airlift. You can send an entire shipload of supplies for very close to the cost of one cargo aircraft delivery. Unlike the world of total quality management, the wartime military cannot function on "just in time" re-supply. Combat leaders have to plan well in advance, that is why it is called logistics not Express Mail.

Logistics is expensive and the Department of Defense is looking to cut costs. Some of the nice to have things have to go. I was planning on taking a "hop" on a military transportation aircraft up to Alaska this summer. Elmendorf AFB, in Anchorage, was supposed to have a two-day air show. Their air show has grown to attendance figures of 150,000 people. This is the largest thing that happens in Alaska and it has been canceled. The cost of logistics for the current Gulf War is the main reason for canceling a number of air shows. War is expensive, but protecting our country is more important.

I wanted to take my daughter back to Alaska where she was born, but I do understand. We need the cargo aircraft for real world use. The next time you meet someone who works in supply / logistics, whether it is Wal-Mart or the US military, realize that very little in our lives gets done without them.

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Copyright 2005 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.