Freight All Kinds: Making military logistics work in the 2020s and beyond

Inconsistencies in forecasting end-user demand. Mountains of often-duplicative data with little integration between platforms. Difficulty getting the right information to the right people at the right time. These are all daily frustrations for global businesses. They are also a constant source of teeth-gnashing for the U.S. military.

In the private sector, problems with supply chain agility and resilience might lead to a poor quarter or two. For the military, a lack of supply chain resilience can complicate the armed services’ capability to meet dynamic threats, diluting the nation’s global power and perhaps undermining its security.

The Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force on Survivable Logistics, which was created to evaluate the military’s Joint Logistics Enterprise (JLE) and to assess threats from rivals like Russia and China, wrote in November 2018 that since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has “not fought an adversary capable of the catastrophic disruption of military supply chains and deployment of personnel and materiel.” As a result, the JLE, which is tasked with providing the means to muster, transport and sustain a high readiness of military power worldwide, has “suffered neglect and chronic underfunding” relative to the Pentagon’s other priorities, according to the task force.

“DoD logistics capabilities require renewed attention to ensure they will be able to achieve mission success in a contested environment,” the report said. “Without a demonstrably resilient and survivable logistics capability, U.S. deterrence will suffer and the ability of the U.S. military to operate globally will be at stake.”

A 21st century military runs on technology. Yet the data visibility needed to effectively preplan complex supply needs is not where the services want it to be. The U.S. Army, for example, struggles with its Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system — the technological heart of any organization — that Army commanders have described as duplicative and siloed. The result is that leaders don’t have the right information when and where they need it, making optimal supply chain planning for future actions elusive.

“Logistics data is neither as accessible nor used as efficiently as it should be,” the task force wrote. The Pentagon has allowed each branch to pursue different vendors for their respective ERPs.

It takes three to as many as seven steps for the Army’s ERP system to deliver accurate tracking information for inbound parts, said Brandon McConnell, an Army veteran with a Ph.D. in operations research — heavily tilted toward logistics — from North Carolina State University. “The promise of in-transit visibility has not been fully realized,” he said in an e-mail. 

During a recent visit to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, McConnell said he was buttonholed by a battalion commander who couldn’t understand why he couldn’t have “Google Maps-like visibility” of all incoming supplies and his unit’s supply operations.

Help may be on the way. In a paper published last summer, McConnell, Maj. Blake Schwartz and Greg H. Parlier, a retired Army colonel, said new analytics tools will revolutionize supply planning by allowing logisticians to better predict the requirements of an expeditionary force and supply it properly with minimal bottlenecks. The new aids include a drawing board program, the Military Logistics Network Planning System (MLNPS). Designed by a team at North Carolina State that includes active and former military officers, the tool generates forecasts of sustainment requirements and allows users to perform end-to-end analyses of operations, known in military lingo as a Course of Action.

The MLNPS program identifies logistics bottlenecks and highlights what their effects will be, the authors said. For example, a planner can estimate, in a matter of hours, the downstream delays from a logistics node that has reduced its output, according to the paper. Planners can then prepare their commanders with contingency recommendations to maintain the proper supply flow.

`The biggest agency you’ve never heard of’

At the heart of any military logistics conversation is the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), a 26,000-person unit that manages the combined supply chain for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, the Space Force, the Coast Guard, 11 combatant commands, other federal agencies, and partner and allied nations. Founded in 1961, DLA serves as the military’s logistics contracting officer, acquiring about $37 billion of goods each year from private-sector vendors for consumption across its huge customer base. Its nine supply chains focus on “consumables” such as food, water, medical and construction material, bulk fuel, and a lot of spare and repair parts, which are stored across the agency’s network of 34 warehouses and distribution centers in 20 U.S. states and eight countries. DLA is also deeply involved in disaster response efforts in the U.S. and abroad.

DLA’s suite includes warehousing, packaging and transportation services. The latter is typically coordinated through Transportation Command (Transcomm), the military’s in-house carrier operation.

If the adage that “an army moves on its stomach” holds true, the DLA acts as the feeding mechanism. “It is the biggest agency you’ve never heard of,” said Steve Geary, president of the SCV Family of Companies, a consultancy that has worked with military logisticians and planners for decades.

DLA reports not to any of the services but to the Office of the DoD Secretary. The agency is not funded through congressional appropriations, but instead through a formula that builds in a margin that covers its operating costs. Most of DLA’s shipments today are vendor- managed, a strategy the agency said has significantly reduced its costs without compromising service reliability. According to DLA data, its cost margins have dropped from 29% in 1991 to 11.5% in 2019 because of the vendor-management program. Patrick H. Mackin, a DLA spokesman, said the agency wants to reduce the margin to 9.5% within the next five years.

DLA has historically done a good job of adapting to changes in the military’s mission, said Nick Carter, general manager of synthetic digital solutions for the global defense unit of Cubic Corp., a defense and commercial transportation service provider. Its service portfolio is unique in that it can be tailored to any type of program, yet still be reprogrammed by DLA should a better best practice be found, Carter said. The menu is flexible and adaptable enough to give sustainment planners the ability to maximize a commander’s capabilities to “meet or exceed” the objective, he said.

DLA’s challenge — which the data analytics technology may help address — is to deliver solutions for sustainment planners that support future warfighter operations, Carter said in an email. Another challenge for DLA is “organizationally” and with its “communication and management,” Carter said. He didn’t elaborate.

Mackin said DLA is confident it can support any shift in geographies or in the type of enemy. However, he acknowledges that IT, in particular the use of technology to enable pre-planning efforts, has been one of the military’s Achilles’ heels.

DLA is also captive to the broad Pentagon culture of moving tortoise-like through its logistics activities, Geary said. “DoD is incredibly slow to change,” he said. “Your grandfather would recognize the way they do logistics.”

A new world of combat

Logistics support will need to adapt to pivots in the nation’s combat objectives. The military has shifted its focus from “networked enemies” such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda to nation-state adversaries like China and Russia. This means less attention to small-scale operations and more toward larger, more conventional opponents, Geary said.

The logistics backbone faces the added requirement of executing over longer supply chains. The Army, for unspecified reasons, has shifted from the “force generation” model primarily designed to muster ready forces for predictable deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the North Carolina State paper. (Not since the 2003 invasion of Iraq has the U.S. needed to rapidly execute “expeditionary logistics” supporting a major force deployment.) In the future, the Army will rely more on its logistical base in the continental U.S. to support deployed forces, according to the paper.

“Globally positioned assets such as…pre-positioned stocks will augment stateside sustainment capabilities, but the Central Command model of extremely robust sustainment centers in-theater will no longer work,” it said.

The next conflict, the authors said, will likely require the initial deployment of an expeditionary force, followed by additional forces. Because of the long distances that might be involved, “sustainment of the force is likely to be a significant challenge,” they said.

It’s a challenge that will need to be met. “The ability of the military to surge in response to an emergency depends on our nation’s ability to produce needed parts and systems, healthy and secure supply chains, and a skilled U.S. workforce,” said the Pentagon in its 2017 National Security Strategy.