Winning the Great Power Competition: Better Logistics And Sustainment

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The U.S. faces an era of renewed great power competition. According to the recently released National Security Strategy (NSS):

After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally. Today, they are fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely in critical commercial zones during peacetime. In short, they are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor.

Building off the concept of great power competition articulated in the NSS, the 2017 National Defense Strategy (NDS) takes a broad view of the actions needed to counter efforts by Russia, China, rogue regimes and terrorist groups that threaten the U.S. homeland and undermine the existing international order. In particular, the NDS proposes expanding the competitive space in ways that position areas of U.S. comparative advantage against those where our adversaries are relatively weak.

A long-term strategic competition requires the seamless integration of multiple elements of national power—diplomacy, information, economics, finance, intelligence, law enforcement, and military. More than any other nation, America can expand the competitive space, seizing the initiative to challenge our competitors where we possess advantages and they lack strength. A more lethal force, strong alliances and partnerships, American technological innovation, and a culture of performance will generate decisive and sustained U.S. military advantages.

The discussion of expanding the competitive space has focused largely on restoring erstwhile U.S. military advantages by investing in next-generation military capabilities and rapidly bringing these advanced systems and platforms to the field. The military services are increasing their investments in directed energy, hypersonic missiles, long-range fires, military robots, swarming drones, weapons in space, survivable networks, electronic and cyber warfare and modernized nuclear forces.

While it is important to ensure that the U.S. military has the weapons systems needed to deter, if possible, or win, if necessary, any war, this nation has numerous other advantages that must be brought into play as elements of a comprehensive strategy for competing with revanchist and rogue nations. For example, the NSS speaks of the National Security Innovation Base (NSIB) that has propelled our private sector economy to new heights and supported a military of unequaled power. Protecting and promoting the NSIB will make the U.S. more prosperous and promote its security.

One area where this country has a significant advantage over any competitor and is likely to retain for years, even decades to come, is in logistics and sustainment. This is particularly significant regarding the centerpieces of U.S. defense strategy, power projection and expeditionary operations.

Over the past several decades, even as the bulk of forward-deployed U.S. forces came home from their overseas bases, the military not only retained but, in some instances, improved its ability to conduct overseas operations, deploy joint forces worldwide and sustain them once in the field. Even as the size of the U.S. Navy shrank by three quarters from its peak, that service maintained the ability to sustain forward deployed formations in multiple theaters simultaneously. No other nation on Earth has this ability.

The challenge for all great powers is not in organizing and equipping military units but in creating the logistics and sustainment capabilities that allow them to deploy and employ those forces. Russia has built a rather formidable first strike conventional military capability. But a key weakness of its “new age” Army is its lack of adequate logistics and sustainment. There is only so much an authoritarian regime with a weak private sector, and decaying industrial base can do.

Similarly, China is building a large navy, militarizing atolls in the South China Sea, buying access to ports around the world and investing in advanced weapons systems. But that Navy lacks the necessary logistics and sustainment capabilities to support offensive forces once they move even a short distance from the Asian mainland. It is one thing to build and operate an aircraft carrier. It is quite another to sustain a carrier battle group at sea.

The secret to the Department of Defense’s ability to move, supply and support modern military forces in multiple theaters on the other side of the world simultaneously rests in the support it receives from private sector companies. Throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of private contractors exceeded the number of uniformed personnel of all countries.

In collaboration with defense entities such as U.S. Transportation Command, the Defense Logistics Agency and Army Materiel Command, international logistics and mobility providers such as Agility, AAR, APL, UPS and DHL have created and sustained global supply chains that stretch almost literally from factory to foxhole.

The Pentagon has worked to transform its relationship with industry to ensure an adequate and predictable flow of supplies, spare parts and consumables. The Defense Logistics Agency, for example, now operates more like a general contractor rather than a warehouse manager. Military facilities such as Anniston Army Depot and Oklahoma Air Logistics Center have established close working relationships with private defense companies.

Logistics and sustainment are what makes the difference between a military that can fight and win wars and a one-trick pony that give out as soon as they have to operate beyond their immediate support facilities. This is an area in which the U.S. military excels, due in large part to its partnership with the private sector.

In fact, it is inconceivable that the U.S. military will go to war anywhere without a sturdy bodyguard of private contractors. The private sector logistics and support providers might almost count as an additional military service. When it comes to deploying and supporting forces abroad, the U.S. remains a superpower.