The U.S. Army’s maturing Multi-Domain Operations concept proposes approaches to counter modernizing militarily peer adversaries, principally China and Russia. Leveraging sensor-linked weapons of increased range, speed, autonomy and lethality that some say favor the defense, these adversaries pose threats not contemplated in a generation. The resulting battlefield, expanding in complexity, reach, speed and violence, will be difficult to get to and even harder to survive on.
These developments enable the enemy to secure its objectives while systemically disrupting responding American forces. The Army overmatches these threats by integrating technology, doctrine and plans to meet defensive strength with overwhelming offensive power. To win that next fight demands transformational change, as Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville recently called for.
To realize this transformation, to be capable of multidomain operations by 2028, the Army is modernizing across six priorities, driven by eight cross-functional teams. Encompassing 31 signature systems, these teams drive Army capabilities across the battlefield fundamentals of “shoot, move, communicate and sustain.” Yet “sustain” is neither explicit in the Army’s priorities nor manifest in these systems. This is a problem, because in the next fight, sustainment—the support and services that enable initiative, flexibility, reach and endurance—will be the Army’s strategic enabler, or its Achilles’ heel.
For the Army, sustainment is both vital enabler, imperative to the Army’s ability to equip, deploy and operate; and an Achilles’ heel, struggling, perhaps failing, in the face of an intensely fast, violent battlefield. The Army cannot allow sustainment to be lost as it pursues mostly tactical combat capabilities, or those advances will be marginalized. This pursuit risks resource-hungry tactical capabilities arriving late or faltering as support is interdicted.
Collaboration Is Imperative
Adversaries influence and contest the Army’s global sustainment enterprise, from raw materials, to technology, to space and cyber systems, to communication links. This influence is aggravated by defense industrial base deterioration, military installation and depot shortcomings, transportation limitations, and airlift and aging sealift shortfalls, the latter of increasing importance with the force largely U.S.-based. In crisis, these challenges and deficiencies impede the Army’s ability to respond, converge and sustain its forces in combat.
Dependencies within the sustainment enterprise mean solutions exceed the Army alone. Access to and security of the military supply chain cut across the globe and multiple agencies. The defense industrial base and deployment infrastructure depend on the public and private sector. Airlift and sealift, global communications, air and maritime security, air and missile defense, and theater support depend on myriad organizations. Collaboration is imperative across the joint force, U.S. government agencies, and allied and partner nations.
Sustainment is no less daunting at the theater, operational and tactical levels. At theater level, whether European or Pacific, forward posture to delay and disrupt the adversary and rapidly close deploying forces is hindered by legacy arrangements, foreign wariness and insufficient investment. Consequently, units deploying their equipment take months to arrive, rather than days for those using pre-positioned equipment. In Europe, for example, the Army’s forward forces and pre-positioned stocks approximate two divisions, whereas its Cold War stance approximated some three armored corps.
While pre-positioned stocks can speed generation of combat power, current pre-positioning is inadequate. Their known, static disposition, except for those afloat, make them vulnerable to interdiction. Dispersal is complicated by combat-loaded vehicles exceeding the capacity of most host nations’ infrastructure.
Winning the next fight on a fast, sensor- and fires-swept battlefield demands the operational “geometry” change. This includes distributing forces and operations to deceive the adversary, reduce detection, gain positional advantage and overwhelm adversary systems across multiple directions and domains. This battlefield architecture only happens with transformation of military sustainment.
On this fast, nonlinear, large-scale battlefield, logistically intensive systems will demand significant support and transportation. Supporting thousands of dispersed combat systems moving constantly—refueling and rearming several times a day, with divisions consuming up to 270,000 gallons of fuel per day—depends on established infrastructure. That dependency makes support predictable.
As supplies move and forces converge to replenish, that predictability exposes them to detection and interdiction by sensor-cued fires that can progressively attrit them. As combat forces’ onboard supplies are spent, attacking a softer, predictable sustainment system allows the enemy to fight logistics-hungry combat formations by choking off their support and grinding them to a halt without direct combat.
Today’s rough division of a war plan’s forces—80% for support forces and 20% for combat forces—is driven by the logistics intensity of the combat force, which cannot fight long without that 80% in place. The combat forces’ logistics intensity—the consumption of supplies and services—defines the requirement for sustainment and support. This relationship drives strategic lift, infrastructure and supply requirements, and the size of the force deployed into and operating in combat, and is responsible for the previously mentioned predictability and vulnerability.
Resolving these challenges cannot be on the margins. Encouragingly, some efforts are underway. Concepts and doctrine are emphasizing logistics, including a joint contested logistics concept in development. Additional logistics units are fielding. The Army is tightening its supply chain, including pursuit of a rare earth elements production pilot, a first step in reducing America’s dependence on China. All important, but insufficient.
The following examples spanning governance, the defense industrial base, strategic lift, pre-positioned stocks, demand reduction and commercial practice illustrate the scope of the requirement to transform sustainment:
Governance. Sustainment requires explicit, cross-cutting prioritization and action. This entails leadership with authority and resources to plan, implement and integrate activity across both the modernization and sustainment enterprises. A sustainment cross-functional team, with authority to prioritize and drive sustainment requirements into the 31 signature systems and across the global sustainment enterprise, is a place to start.
Defense industrial base. An aging, capacity-limited defense industrial base demands renewal. This includes progressively eliminating dependence on raw materials, components and subsystems originating from or controlled by adversary nations, increasing research funds to reduce foreign dependence, onshoring critical defense manufacturing capabilities, and preventing production of certain technologies in adversary nations. Exploiting advanced manufacturing and changing procurement rules can renew and diversify an aging government and commercial infrastructure.
Strategic lift. Deploying, fighting and enduring at speed and scale demands more and modernized airlift and sealift. Congress concurs, and it mandated a mobility requirements study. The Army must define the requirement using threat and operational timelines or risk the study defaulting to past studies’ unsatisfactory conclusions, failing to account for “standoff” threats and the simultaneous demands of two peer adversaries. Rarely well resourced, improving strategic lift demands prioritization and funding from all services. However, unsecured air- and sea-lanes would rapidly marginalize that investment.
Pre-positioned stocks. To reduce response times, more pre-positioned stocks are necessary and their disposition must be more agile. A more agile stance would include increased sets afloat. Greater allied infrastructure improvements would enable more effective onward movement. The upcoming division-scaled Defender-Europe exercise is an important first step.
Demand reduction. Reducing the logistics intensity of combat forces will improve strategic to tactical agility. This requires system’s key performance parameters and priority research to improve reliability, availability and maintainability, reduce power and energy demands, and decrease weapons calibers. Army ambitions for “precision logistics … layered, agile and responsive” and combat formations capable of “semi-independent” operations are unlikely without these reductions. The Army’s demand-reduction efforts and vehicle lightening study recommendations are a useful starting point for shaping this aspect of the Army’s priority programs.
Commercial practice. While sustainment efficiency improves, opportunities for more exist now. While greater tactical efficiency is unlikely without demand reduction, operational and strategic level sustainment can be further streamlined by leveraging proven commercial practice to improve performance and reduce cost. The Army cannot be Sears, a once-dominant analog service provider, in a digital Walmart and Amazon world. While the contested nature of combat sustainment creates limits, industry supply chain, inventory, air and truck fleet operations, process improvements and predictive maintenance can streamline logistics and provide increasingly assured access to combat systems. The unified enterprise resource planning system is a useful step forward. However, experience with past Army data pilot programs and industry lessons demonstrate that success demands disruption, not merely automation of existing practice.
Working Toward Change
The challenges facing America’s Army and its sustainment enterprise are significant. It is no exaggeration to assert that failing to resolve them could risk the deterrent value and relevance of the Army in the next fight against a modernized militarily peer adversary. The challenges are significant, but so, too, are the opportunities. Change will demand much from the entire Army, not merely its logisticians, and its sister services, DoD, other agencies, allies and partners.
The scope, significance and devastating consequences of sustainment falling short demand significant action. This measured discussion of some of the remedial actions required should be seen as a matter of highest priority.
This cuts across the entire Army and joint force from warfighting concepts and doctrine to systems design and operational methods. Without change, the Army, from its industrial base to its forces in combat, will remain dangerously predictable and vulnerable. Successfully realized, the Army and the joint force will regain overmatch, ensuring adversaries neither benefit from their investments nor realize their ambitions.
This essay is not a criticism or merely a set of recommendations—it is a call to arms.