Logistics and the Long War

So I was pondering a few scenarios the other day, and I began to think about strategic planning in the event of a major war with China.  In every conflict, the Achilles heel of each of the involved parties is usually logistics. Armies may be raised, equipped, trained and sent to fight. Unless you can sustain the force, however, your victories will be few, and your part in the conflict short. Probably numbered in days.  There is an adage which states: “Amateurs discuss tactics. Professionals discuss logistics”.

In the two previous world wars (and make no mistake, if China and these United States go to war, it will be global in effect, if not in actuality) US Strategy was taking the war to the opponent’s turf, and starving them of all resources needed to continue the war.  We used our immense resources to fight our way through the enemy’s defenses, and to overcome their numbers. Germany and Japan tried, in WWII, to halt our logistical tail, which was enormous, through submarine warfare. The US simply made more ships, more supplies, and over time increased our ASW efficiency and capability through lessons learned and technology.

Now comes a potential (some would argue inevitable) conflict with China.  Does that same model of strategic logistical support still hold water? These United States have outsourced a great deal of our manufacturing capability, and we have a pitifully small industry to depend upon for shipbuilding, let alone the supplies those ships will carry. Our ammunition manufacturing capabilities were strained just keeping up with demand for a small-scale conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. How would we be able to supply the ammunition needed for a major conflict? How would we get it to where it needs to go?

Perhaps we should examine the strategic philosophy and consider a new approach. Rather than take the fight to the enemy, and depend upon a long and fragile tail for our support, would it not make sense to let the fight come to us?

There is another adage that says it is best to fight your wars on someone else’s land, and where possible, with someone else’s troops.  However in this postulated conflict, we will not have that luxury. My idea is to fight the war over empty space, mainly the ocean.

In this new scenario, the US uses what would amount to a skirmish line, small but powerful forces to harrass the enemy and slow him down while major assets withdraw within a protective arc of land-based defenses, an area within a few hundred miles of the Continental United States.  That’s the first strategic step.

The second step is to attack the enemy’s shipbuilding industry, and port facilities. You can’t build warships and repair damage without the proper yards. Not today. You can’t ship supplies if the harbors and port facilities are wrecked.

While those attacks are going on, we engage the enemy surface units with our submarine forces.  Germany, of course, tried to do this, as did Japan, but were unable to effectively use their submarine forces because they didn’t have any strategic means to attack US production facilities. Our yards, harbors and factories were untouched and thus continued to easily replace lost resources.  Today, we have sufficient conventional forces to accomplish what the German and Japanese couldn’t: destroy yards, factories and harbor facilities.

With those wrecked or severely impacted, it makes submarine warfare easier.  It makes surface units, especially logistic resources MUCH more valuable, and forces the enemy to use more and more expensive escorts to protect them. In short, we starve the enemy’s warfighters of the resources needed to sustain their operations and accomplish their missions.

We are a military facing severe reductions in force while being required to maintain the same level of operational commitments. Given that, why take the fight to the enemy? Why not make the enemy come to us and fight on ground and under conditions of our choosing?

While considering this question, I’d urge you to visit the website of the Military Sealift Command.  Take a good long look at the resources they have available to support US combat forces.  Consider that those same vessels are tasked with global support, based at different locations, and the chart shows gross numbers. Some will be in readiness, others in repair. Not everything will be available all the time.  There are, in my opinion, too few ships to do what we would need to do.  Think also about how many ships we would have available for escort duty. I’ll say this much: We don’t have enough.  If you have the time, download the pdf of the MSC’s ship inventory. Put it on your wall and look at it from time to time and think about that question: How much is enough?


8 Responses to “Logistics and the Long War”

  1. 1 Mongo
    April 22, 2011 at 18:28

    Some well thought out ideas there, Tim, but I wonder how much of it is based on historical conventional warfare. We’re in an age today where sub launched cruise and IR nukes, from either side, changes the production and port facilities dynamic considerably. Tomahawk type missiles launched in an event similar to Pearl Harbor would wreak havoc, just because we’re unprepared to defend against missile based warfare. That’s not to say we can’t react, because we can, but long range missiles do change how we fight. Seattle’s reaction to 9/11 was to have a Navy Destroyer reposition from Everett to Elliot Bay in Seattle, and it made good time getting there, but it was still a purely reactive move.

    Hopefully, as Steeljaw Scribe seems to indicate, we’re on a track of building and maintaining a defensive system capable of neutralizing longer range systems. While primarily sea-based, it appears to be a healthy step forward. Point-blank offshore shots, I’m afraid, will always result in a smoking hole somewhere.

    US Strategy was taking the war to the opponent’s turf, and starving them of all resources needed to continue the war…Does that same model of strategic logistical support still hold water?

    Short answer: I believe so.
    Longer answer: While we may not be utilizing our resources efficiently, we do have them at our disposal. Construction of manufacturing plants and ship yards doesn’t take long once we put our mind to something. Example: Once Seattle put its mind to taking down the Kingdome, down it went and, in its place, QWEST field went up. The whole process didn’t take long at all, once the permits were signed. During WWII, our natural resources were such that everything went into the war effort. No new civilian cars were made for four years, ladies did without nylons, and rationing was the standard of living. People will just have to do without new cell phones and TV’s, and public transportation and walking will see a resurgence in popularity.

    These United States have outsourced a great deal of our manufacturing capability, and we have a pitifully small industry to depend upon for shipbuilding, let alone the supplies those ships will carry.

    Those outsourced capabilities will be the first to be attacked by any enemy, so they’re a write-off. However, and this goes back to my last paragraph, we should never underestimate the American resolve. We have, hands down, the greatest blue-collar workforce on the planet. I see it every single day constructing buildings, redeveloping our highways, and manufacturing our machinery. Let anyone say what they will about diminished capacity, and I’ll argue that none of it is so diminished. I see it at work every single day, and all it will need is a bit of new directed focus.

    Our ammunition manufacturing capabilities were strained just keeping up with demand for a small-scale conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. How would we be able to supply the ammunition needed for a major conflict? How would we get it to where it needs to go?

    One: we need to stop believing so much of what media says. Two: Production is driven by contracts, all of which are generated at the pleasure of current Oval Orifice occupants. Change the occupant, change the focus, and we’re golden.
    How would it get to where it needs to go? Think Liberty Ships, brother. Liberty Ships. At their peak, the yards were putting them in the water at a rate of one a day. Kind of like the vitamin, Liberty Ships were what did us a ton of good…in gross tonnage.

    Submarine warfare: always going to be a force in reckoning. Think “Dust on the Sea”. We lost a lot of good men in submarines during WWII, but the damage they inflicted on Axis shipping was unbelievable. In the Pacific, submarines broke the back of Japanese warfighting. The Chinese need to remember that, given most of the wreckage is still just off their coastline.

    Finally, remember that whatsoever damage is inflicted on US territory will be inflicted in kind on enemy territory, leveling the playing field somewhat. Where we would do well, IMO, is to make a current assessment of just how to protect strategic assets. If we think of just how lucky we were that the Japs sank the Fleet rather that destroy the fuel farm at Pearl Harbor, and we’ll come to the realization that that same vulnerability exists today.

    Perhaps one point you’re alluding to that our strike contingency planners should be looking at, is the decimation of enemy production and port facilities at the outset of hostilities. I agree somewhat with the idea of letting the enemy bring the fight to us, but only to the extent that they arrive tired, spent, and even overextended. I disagree with letting them bring it so far as to, in a death gasp, fling their arrows and stones upon American shores. That would be letting them take it too far.

    Where in the ocean do we draw the line? FWIW, my opinion says “Turn the Phil Sea into a wrecking yard”. Draw an ellipse beginning at the southern end of Mindanao, extending through Palau, Ulithi and the Marianas chain, with the northern terminus in Kyushu, and do a Gandalf “You shall not pass!”. Such plans never survive breakfast at the Pentagon, but that’s where I’d start.

    I’d apologize at this point for being such a babbling brook, but you started it!

    • April 23, 2011 at 21:51


      Nothing there I disagree with. I’m just running scenarios and what if’s and thinking about other ways of doing things.

      I envision a larger submarine force, and using them quickly and often in a conflict. We will always need a strong surface fleet, but with the ability to launch TLAM’s and other such weapons, Submarines have another level of attack that makes them a better choice than some surface ships.

      My thought was drawing back the fleet, and letting the enemy extend HIS lines of supply. We use our subs to attack his port facilities and ship construction yards, then go after his own logistic ships.

      One concern I have is how vulnerable our own forward-based logistics are to an attack by an Asian power. With high-end targeting he could use his IRBM and ICBM’s armed with HICAP warheads to decimate our own depots, leaving our fleet a long way from home.

      Anyway, I figure it’s always a good thing to think these things out, to toss out ideas no matter how “outside-the-box” they may sound and talk them through.

      Thanks for the comments!

  2. 3 ewok40k
    April 22, 2011 at 20:47

    wasnt that sort of active defence direct US strategy in the first years of the Pacific WW2? US subs were starving Japan better than U-noats did against UK…

    April 24, 2011 at 19:52


  4. 5 USNVO
    April 27, 2011 at 07:18

    AW1 Tim,
    I am not sure a potential conflict with China would play out quite like World War II did. For instance, I don’t believe there would be a significant land component for several reasons.
    1. We don’t want to capture China and they have long, crippling and easily cut supply lines.
    2. We don’t want Taiwan, we just want whatever happens there to be peaceful. So we are stopping an invasion, much like Britian in 1940. The British did so by having enough air force and a strong navy. They deterred the invasion, they didn’t have to use a lot of ordnance.
    3. The Chinese don’t want to invade the US any more than we want to invade China. So why will he extend his supply lines?
    The second aspect of all of this is you are looking at the problem from our prospective. Not a bad thing to do, but try looking at it from the Chinese prospective. I am reminded of a quote from a Russian Admiral when asked about how easy it was to not have to worry about protecting carriers. His response, and I parphrase, was that “the only thing worse than worry about defending a carrier was worrying about defending against a carrier”.
    China’s Military looks strong until they have to play offense. Then the fact that they have limited training, no ASW to speak of, lousy logistics, limited air defense, limited experience, and a centralized and inflexible command structure, becomes serious limitations. They are getting better, but they are starting from the bottom. And they have to defend against stealth bombers, cruise missiles that they know will work, US Submarines that they can’t find, US Carriers that they will have a hard time locating let alone attacking if they stay at range, Ballistic Missile defense, etc. All from a force that has, in their eyes, the luxury of superb personnel and training. Sure, we have a tough problem if we attack them, but they have a virtually impossible problem if they try to attack us not to mention that traditionally anti-China nations like Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, pretty much ring them.

    • April 27, 2011 at 14:15

      Fine comments, and welcome aboard, sir!

      This is just one of many short thought exercises. What if’s to think things through and see what other ways there might be to resolve certain scenarios.

      Overall, my main concern, and I’ll write about this later, is our logistical support. I’m not certain that we have what we will need, and/or that the TYPE of logistics systems we have are the right type for future needs.

      That’s arrogant of me, of course, to offer that since I’m not in the loop for design, procurement, or anything else. The Big Bugs make those calls and are privy to more info than I ever will be.

      However, it is a cause for concern in my eyes, based upon what info is available, so I’ve been going through the “what-if’s” and seeing what option there may be to support the fleet during a protracted, conventional war.

      If nothing else, it keeps me busy.

  5. 7 David LaBau
    April 29, 2011 at 17:41

    Interesting thoughts all. However, I think when you think about why there might be a war with China, it changes the calculus somewhat. Unlike either of the two world wars, there won’t be an ethnic or other “cause” as the justification. In China’s case, it will be a resource grab – almost certainly a raw resource grab. If you look at their neighbors, there isn’t much to grab. Japan is a huge importer of raw materials with an aging population and terrific manufacturing capabilities. China is rapidly replicating the manufacturing capabilities by copying and buying what it needs – no reason to go to war there. Similarly, Korea has terrific manufacturing capabilities, but again China can build its own. In both of those cases, a grab by the Chinese would certainly cause a war with the US and the rest of the west for no real gain.

    The better resource grab is in the South China Sea and farther south. The area is rich in many raw materials that are desirable for China. Currently they are in an economic battle with Japan, Korea and India for those resources. However, with a grab, you get into the real problem for them – how do they get the stuff home. None of Japan, Korea or India will be their ally. The US military resources, however small they might be now, are far superior to China’s and fully capable of harassing and impeding China’s capability to bring home the bacon as it were. Especially with the assistance of Japan, Korea and India.

    Finally, one of the lessons of the second world war was the extraordinary capacity of the US to gear up when necessary. While in some ways it may be a bit tougher now, our manufacturing capability is not so degraded that it still wouldn’t be very rapid.

    It seems to me the most likely scenario will be a proxy war – where someone close to the Chinese tries to overthrow the government in a resource rich country, probably in Africa, to give it exclusive access to some desired raw material. As Viet Nam taught us, proxy wars are a pain for everyone involved. The ability to accurately predict either the result or the unintended consequences is so high, they are high risk affairs.

    I expect the most likely Chinese action we will find unacceptable will be there use of their economic power to harm us in some way. Given their own internal struggles (a population whose demands for a better quality of life are outstripping the ability of the rapidly growing economy to provide it), they are severely constrained in what they can do. They desperately need international markets open to them to sell their goods. Any type of conflict they may be willing to start must necessarily have a payback large enough to overwhelm the cost of the loss of those markets. I simply cannot see one (which isn’t to say one might not develop).

  6. 8 Quartermaster
    May 1, 2011 at 22:16

    I have only one thing to add to what Mongo said.

    The next capital ship, in my opinion, is the Submarine. The SSGN and Attack Subs with vertical launch capability, can ring China and totally deny them the blue water ocean and reduce their ability to put to sea to rubble and ashes. They don’t have the ability to deal with them, and we can build attack subs fairly quickly.

    Related to this is the fact the Navy isn’t ordering enough subs to keep Electric Boat, the only builder at this point, going. If we let them go under, we lose the ability to build the things very quickly. We need surface ships, but the next war is going to bring the sub to the forefront as WW2 brought the Aircraft carrier.

    I think we will need to find a few places to base subs and plan for a maritime war with China.

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