From terrorism to cyberwarfare to fighting “by, with and through” coalition partners, the past 16-plus years of armed conflict have forced the Army to change. Much of this evolution has involved new hardware such as Predator drones, precision guided munitions and Stryker combat vehicles, but the Army has also grown increasingly reliant on contracted service and support to move, house and sustain its formations.
By way of illustration, the Pentagon reported in January that more than 46,000 contractors support the U.S. military in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, with most of them supporting Army operations. The Army’s increasing dependency on commercial support stems from several root causes, including force-management limitations, the geopolitical benefits of contracting with host-nation vendors, and internal force structure decisions.
However, senior Army leaders believe the next war may be different. Analysts can’t know who, where or when we will fight our next major conflict, but the belligerence of near-peer competitors and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction suggest future clashes will feature more speed, complexity and lethality than recent campaigns.
Rigors of Intense Combat
The increased ability of potential enemies to locate and destroy large troop concentrations with long-range fires will compel formations to disperse and operate in small, highly mobile units with little or no logistical support. These spartan conditions will contrast starkly with the hot meals and creature comforts of forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Comparing future conflict to the brutal conditions on Iwo Jima, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley observed, “We have to condition ourselves for the rigors and the violence of intense combat, if it comes to that.”
To prepare for that possibility, the Army is revisiting its ability to conduct large-scale combat operations. In October, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command published an important new document, Field Manual (FM) 3-0: Operations, which outlines “how we deter adversaries and fight a peer threat today, with today’s forces and today’s capabilities.” The new doctrine adds a consolidation area to the existing deep, close and support area framework, emphasizes training and preparation for large-scale combat operations, describes corps and divisions as formations rather than simply as headquarters, and focuses on exploiting positions of relative advantage.
This austere vision of future warfare implies a dangerous and lonely battlefield. The limited logistical support in forward areas would come from automated delivery systems and small groups of fast-moving, well-armed logisticians capable of providing their own force protection. This scenario leaves little room for the phalanx of contractors currently providing battlefield services and support to American combat forces around the globe.
The absence of contractors from the front lines, however, does not reduce the critical importance of contracted capabilities in future conflicts. In fact, the scale and tempo of large-scale combat operations and the constraints of existing Army force structure will require American commanders to depend even more heavily on contracted capabilities to fight and win the next war.
The Army’s current allocation of active component and reserve component forces, known as the AC/RC mix, drives its dependence on contracted capabilities. Approximately 80 percent of the Army’s sustainment capability resides in Army Reserve and National Guard units, according to FM 3-0.
Despite some flaws, this allocation of forces has met mission requirements in the Central Command region, where existing force-management levels and heavy reliance on contractors limit the demand for sustainment forces in theater. Moreover, a predictable rotation schedule, executed under the president’s partial-mobilization authority, has enabled reserve forces to mobilize, train and deploy in a deliberate manner while reducing operational demands on active-duty forces deploying from the U.S.
Those conditions may not exist in the next war. In a crisis, planners will not have time to alert, mobilize, train and deploy sufficient reserve formations to meet immediate mission requirements. As a 2014 study for the Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command observed: “In general, a company or battalion-sized RC unit could be expected in theater within 60 to 90 days of alert notification. This could be optimistic considering the training time that may be required.”
Reserve commanders have various tools available to abbreviate this timeline, but even best-case scenarios suggest a 30- to 45-day delay before the first units could deploy.
In the meantime, commanders must establish and secure lodgment areas and logistical nodes while simultaneously prioritizing flow of forces to build combat power within the designated theater of operations. Beyond setting the theater and rapidly deploying its own forces, the Army must also provide a myriad of common-user logistics to other members of the joint force, from potable water to intratheater trucking to mortuary services.
Operational Contract Support (OCS)—the process of acquiring and employing contracted capabilities for military operations—is not the only option for addressing these gaps. In several regions, the U.S. has negotiated agreements with allies to provide host-nation support. During the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, for example, the Kuwaiti government provided bulk fuel for American forces. Similarly, coalition military partners may provide specific logistical capabilities to U.S. forces, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, the scope of logistics necessary to support a large-scale combat operation dwarfs our own organic capabilities and those of our allies. The OCS process provides the most flexible and responsive solution to many of our needs, ranging from basic commodities and facilities to complex supply, maintenance and transportation requirements.
Current OCS doctrine identifies three types of contracted support. Each plays an essential role in supporting large-scale combat operations. Systems support contracts provide field service representatives who maintain and repair critical weapon systems, such as Patriot missiles and Apache helicopters. Theater support contracts meet specific requirements within a given area of responsibility, often employing local and regional vendors to provide commodities, construction and a myriad of services, from janitors to interpreters to long-haul truck drivers. Finally, external support contracts provide commodities and services on a global scale, usually under preplanned contracts rapidly adjustable to meet short-fuse contingency requirements.
Because of their scale and flexibility, external support contracts play a particularly vital role in supporting large-scale combat operations. The Defense Logistics Agency’s fuel contract, for example, includes arrangements for transportation, storage and delivery of fuel to U.S. forces deployed around the world and provides commanders with a readily available surge capacity in a crisis.
Economies of Force
Given existing capability gaps and the potential support available from commercial sources, how does the OCS process function within a future large-scale combat operation?
First, it provides economies of force, especially during early stages of a contingency when the employment of contracted capabilities helps set the theater. Because active-duty military transportation, supply and maintenance assets are limited, outsourcing deployment and theater-opening functions until reserve support arrives will enable commanders to mass their limited organic sustainment capabilities forward in the close area to support tactical maneuver requirements. In many regions, contractors already maintain pre-positioned fleets of Army equipment, accelerating the Army’s ability to project combat power.
Second, it provides commanders with flexible, scalable options once decisive combat operations commence. Advanced technology, for example, has not reduced our need for basic commodities such as gravel, lumber and T-walls, all of which can be procured locally. The OCS process also provides commanders with flexible options to house, feed and support units undergoing reconstitution. Furthermore, FM 3-0 identifies commercial support as a major source of support in executing minimum essential stability tasks such as rebuilding infrastructure, restoring government services and providing humanitarian relief.
Finally, the OCS process allows U.S. forces to provide coalition partners with unique capabilities in order to move them to the fight and sustain them once they arrive. Operation Valley Wolf, recently executed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, provides a case study in using contracted capabilities to achieve battlefield effects. Between December 2015 and August 2016, coalition forces commanded by Lt. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland leveraged commercial sources to house, feed, train and equip Iraqi forces in preparation for their culminating attack on Mosul.
During this period, MacFarland’s staff coordinated with subordinate maneuver, sustainment and contracting headquarters to identify, synchronize and execute 328 commercial support requirements at a cost of $878 million. In the final stage of preparation, commercial trucks moved 13 ribbon bridges from Kuwait to critical river-crossing sites in Iraq, then transported the 9th Iraqi Armored Division, including 110 heavy armored vehicles, to staging areas south of Mosul. There, other contractors repaired and refueled equipment while providing base life support to the Iraqis in preparation for the assault. “There’s no way we could have done all that without commercial support,” MacFarland said.
Room for Improvement
The OCS process plays a vital role in how the Army will deploy, sustain and fight the next war, but it is no silver bullet. The current process is simply too slow and too complicated. Federal regulations governing obligation of funds and procurement of commercial support provide a constant source of confusion and frustration to commanders and staff officers trying to meet short-fuse battlefield requirements. Multiple layers of review and approval within this process create additional delay and frustration. Meanwhile, host-nation restrictions and agreements further complicate the process.
In addition, most deployed headquarters struggle to meet the planning, execution and oversight responsibilities involved in employing commercial support. The absence of OCS planners at echelons above brigade severely degrades commanders’ ability to anticipate and synchronize commercial requirements during the planning process, while a limited supply of deployable contracting officers hampers execution and oversight once those requirements are identified.
The Army cannot fix all of these problems, but until the current AC/RC mix changes dramatically, the following steps will streamline and simplify the OCS process:
- Improve requirements development. Units need more tools and better training to develop this skill set. Army Logistics University’s two-week OCS course provides comprehensive training on this task, but deployed individuals and units need shorter, more accessible options that can provide automated tools and just-in-time training at remote locations.
- Maximize use of strategic sourcing. Greater reliance on preplanned, pre-approved strategic sources such as the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program will streamline the OCS process and expand contracting capacity. Strategic sources provide economies of scale to contracting professionals and to units that employ the contracted capabilities they provide.
- Enhance OCS planning capabilities within maneuver headquarters. The development and fielding of a permanent OCS planning capability at echelons above brigade would provide commanders with an organic capability to integrate, synchronize and manage contract support requirements during current and future operations. At the tactical level, commanders need to incorporate basic OCS information, such as visibility of contractors and equipment, within their common operating picture, so OCS challenges do not impede mission accomplishment.
- Expand collective training at echelons above brigade. Current Army exercises focus on Phase 3 operations, minimizing many of the support functions necessary to set conditions. Establishing realistic limitations on troop lists and requiring routine updates on the number of contractors and equipment within a unit’s footprint would add OCS to the staff’s battle rhythm while increasing awareness of OCS capabilities and limitations. Separately, the Army should sharpen its ability to project combat power by sponsoring annual theater-opening exercises to synchronize commercial support and other capabilities across the joint logistical enterprise.
- Expand OCS content within professional military education. Most Army professional military education courses ignore the topic, despite a specific mandate from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. While the topic is not appropriate for entry-level courses, senior NCOs, warrant officers and commissioned officers need a working knowledge of their responsibilities within the OCS process to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.
- Strengthen contracting force structure. Recent force-structure decisions significantly reduced the Army’s contracting capabilities. During the same time frame, DoD transferred responsibility for contingency contracting administrative support to each of the services, generating an enormous new mission requirement. The Army’s contracting workforce is supporting these mission requirements in multiple locations, but it cannot continue to do more with less. Whether large-scale or not, future operations will require a robust, deployable contracting force to support field commanders while assisting the synchronization and execution of contracted support across the theater.
Finally, senior leaders should integrate contracted capabilities when and where appropriate to free military units for missions in forward areas. The Army’s current AC/RC mix leaves dangerous gaps in our ability to conduct large-scale combat operations. The OCS process enables commanders to fill those gaps with contracted personnel, equipment and facilities, much of it readily available in theater. Moreover, commercial support remains a critical enabler for other types of operations, such as humanitarian assistance, stability and security force assistance.
Because of its central importance to the Army, the OCS process deserves more emphasis and attention as we organize, train and equip soldiers to survive and win the next fight.