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Soldiers win battles, logistics wins wars

Retired US Air Force colonel explains challenges logisticians face in wartime

Marine Corps Pfc. Andrew Eckhardt guides a Humvee onto rail cars while participating in rail operations training at Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif., June 7, 2016. Logistics training is important because once combat operations begin, supply chain hiccups can quickly derail an operation and put soldiers at risk. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

In 1979, Gen. Robert H. Barrow, then commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps., uttered the famous phrase that “amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”

Variations of this quote have been around for decades, many predating Barrow’s utterance to the San Diego Union newspaper on Nov. 11, 1979, but the adage, regardless of where it came from, remains true. Battles are won and lost not so much on the front lines, but rather on the supply lines.

Russia may be learning this lesson today as a reportedly 40-mile-long convoy of tanks and armored personnel carriers remains outside Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, allegedly due to supply chain and logistics issues.

Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, speaking on Monday on “The News with Shepard Smith” on CNBC, noted the reported logistics challenges Russia is facing.

“This is not unusual for forces on the offense, especially heavy forces [with] a lot of armored vehicles [and] a lot of logistics consumption,” he said. “As they move deeper into Ukraine, they are moving further away from the logistics bases.”

News of logistical challenges have dogged the Russian narrative on the campaign almost from the start. In the case of war, disinformation is rampant on both sides, so Don Berchoff, founder and CEO of TruWeather Solutions, cautioned against reading too much into any single report. However, the logistics side of war certainly plays an outsized role in the success of any operation, he said.

“You always have to have logistics,” he told FreightWaves. “The question is where are those logistics [operations] located in the ecosystem and what are you trying to accomplish.”

Watch: Retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute

Berchoff now runs a weather platform that is helping drone operators navigate operating environments, but he also has an extensive military background, rising to the rank of colonel before retiring after a nearly 24-year career. Educated at the National Defense University and receiving a degree in national security strategy, Berchoff held several positions within the U.S. Air Force, including commander of the 376th Expeditionary Mission Support Group at Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan from 2007 through 2008. His mission: Ensure the base’s aircraft was able to conduct support and attack missions and fly in supplies to U.S. and coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

To say logistics was a critical component of his job is an understatement.

Distance is your enemy

“The longer distances you have to depend on to move supplies and trucks and logistics and how long you have to defend them is a concern,” he said.

But logistics is multifaceted and requires more than just the logisticians. Unlike nonmilitary logistics, in combat situations, the supply chain involves base personnel but also intelligence sources, ground assets and much more. Berchoff said for every frontline soldier, there are often two support personnel. They move equipment and supplies, including ammunition, food and fuel, the latter of which Russia may be learning about firsthand.

“They can’t pull up to the nearest gas station to fill up, so you have to bring everything with you,” Berchoff said, noting that the farther from the logistics base the convoy, the more complicated the resupply becomes.

“The first complication is protecting that force and how can you do it,” he said. “The second thing is if you are moving fuel, you have to defend the fuel convoys so you have to have personnel doing that.”

Vehicles moving fuel are high-priority targets because without fuel, military equipment doesn’t move. These vehicles are also “pretty simple to predict where they are going to be,” Berchoff said, opening them up to a number of dangers, from aerial attacks to roadside bombs and rocket or grenade attacks.

“Most Americans really don’t understand that yes, there is a lot of force there, but it takes a lot of effort to make that force effective,” Berchoff said. “When you are under the threat of attack, that just makes it more difficult to complete the mission, so it slows it down.”

Berchoff is not familiar with Russia’s supply lines, but noted several issues that must be addressed in any combat situation: Where is the fuel coming from? How is it getting to the troops? How will you protect it?

“The first thing in warfare is air superiority,” he said. “If you want to have control of the ground, you have to have control of the air because every ground asset is vulnerable if you don’t have control of the air.”

Dependence on foreign help

In the case of fuel for the Air Force’s C135 aircraft that were based at Manas, a key challenge Berchoff faced was the sourcing of fuel. Based in central Asia, the military was dependent on foreign sources for the fuel. That meant finding suppliers, protecting those suppliers, testing the fuel to ensure it wasn’t tampered with and getting it from source to base safely.

“It requires intelligence sources watching it; it required … people out in the community incognito trying to figure out if the suppliers are good,” he said. “And intelligence helped us figure out what the best and safest routes to take were.”

Logisticians moved items, but the supply chain was dependent on so many more people. Unlike commercial supply chains, though, concern for efficiency and cost controls were minimal.

“I don’t think in this situation most commanders care about how much money you spend. … I think they think about how much supply they have and can they get more,” Berchoff said, adding that due diligence isn’t always feasible. “One of the things that always concerned me about being a commander in Kurdistan was making sure we weren’t buying stuff from illegal people. From an efficiency standpoint, sometimes you just have to make things happen, and that is always a risk when you are moving fast.”

Know your terrain

Military logistics professionals are also concerned with other issues, including terrain and weather.

“In Kurdistan, we once had 12 inches of snow fall in five hours,” Berchoff said. “Many bases were not equipped to deal with that, but we launched almost half of the sorties we were supposed to launch that day.”

The location of logistics bases is also a concern. Berchoff said bases needed to be set up close to the operating theater, but also in a strategic way to achieve operational goals. For example, when the U.S. and NATO forces intervened in the Bosnian War in 1994, the coalition forces were able to do so from friendly air bases where refueling fighter planes was easily accomplished. The same could not be said in Afghanistan.

Watch: Supply chains react to Russia invasion of Ukraine

“You bring stuff into Karachi Port in Pakistan but you still have to put the stuff on a truck or train to get it into Afghanistan,” Berchoff said.

Challenges existed at that time even as Pakistan was providing assistance to the U.S. Berchoff described the country more as a “frenemy,” with some factions within the country still hostile to the U.S. Putting supplies on trains was also a challenge as the U.S. didn’t control the rail lines.

Berchoff said finding the proper access points is a key part of setting up a successful logistics operation. Russia’s convoy may be dealing with this as it works its way to Kyiv. Some reports have vehicles stuck in mud and others have said Ukraine was able to disable vehicles at the front of the convoy, effectively blocking the roadway.

“You look at Ukraine and that road may be a nicely paved road from Belarus but there is a lot of forest around it, so that constrains you,” he said. “You have to think about the supply lines.”

Extracting predictability from chaos

Ultimately, Berchoff pointed to a few concerns that keep military commanders up at night: predictability in fuel supplies and chokepoints being primary among them.

“There is no reliability in the supply chain that you [know] are going to be able to get the gas you need,” he said. “Reliability in getting what you need to move stuff, in this case fuel, is something you don’t have to worry about in the U.S. You generally, unless you’re driving through a very dangerous neighborhood, you don’t have to worry about somebody killing you.”

Chokepoints are also well known in most cases, but not in areas of conflict. Berchoff cited the example of how the military researched central Asia to identify possible locations for bases, unlike trucking logisticians, who know ahead of time that if you send a tractor-trailer across I-70 in Colorado in the middle of January, there is an increased chance of delay.

“We know where our chokepoints are and we’ve built systems [to handle these],” he said. “When we go somewhere else, we have to figure that out. We have to figure out where to put logistics bases.”

Military logisticians hold many of the same similarities with their nonmilitary counterparts, but there are some critical differences. On top of that, in many theaters of operation, military logistics needs to work side by side and sometimes cooperate with relief agencies trying to help civilian populations.

“Anyone that is responsible for that logistics theater of operations, and in this case it would be your safety … a good one will have humanitarian agencies plugged in and they will get certain levels of access to assure they will be safe,” Berchoff said. “Generally speaking, militaries will have an interagency, interdisciplinary approach to this. Trust is important. It’s very complex. Most Americans and most people that are not in wartime logistics don’t understand this.”

Click for more articles by Brian Straight.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected].