“Amateurs study tactics—professionals study logistics.” This quote attributed to everyone from Napoleon to Patton is oft-said but rarely executed. In many ways, the study of logistics is its own worst enemy. Logistics deals in limitations as opposed to largess, what cannot be done instead of what can. In addition, the subject can be dry, boring, and a touch deterministic: industrial base and combatants multiplied by supply and transportation.
For the American military there is an even deeper reason that military logistics often gets short study—success. As the eminent strategist Colin Gray noted, the US military may “not have always been well-directed strategically or operationally. But that military establishment has always shown a mastery of logistics.” For those practitioners who have been to a large-scale exercise, the sheer amount of stuff is staggering: fuel, munitions, food, tents, weapons, vehicles, and more. Go heavy or go home seems to be the motto and there is always enough to go around. Will that be the case in the future, especially in an era of great power competition? Reading more deeply about logistics and warfare can help answer this question and shed light on the complexity of supply and transportation in war.
While many of these books are classics within the literature, such as Van Creveld’s Supplying War and Eccles Logistics in the National Defense, others run the gamut from 18th century warfare to science fiction. A book, however, does not have to be focused on logistics to yield knowledge or insight. Looking at works through the lens of logistics, even those you have already read, to include Clausewitz and Jomini, can be a new way to expand your thinking on the subject.
In addition to these books, I highly recommend the site Logistics in War run by David Beaumont, an officer in the Australian Army. He has some great contemporary articles and a catalogue of the most important works in the history of military logistics. The United States Marine Corps Logistics Association also has a great blog, run by Kirk Spangenberg a USMC officer, with topical articles on modern logistics.
Approaching the half century mark, this book is the first stop for any military professional who wants to think more broadly about logistics and its impact on warfare. Van Creveld shines in his use of data and case studies to illuminate how logistics can make the difference in battle for good or ill. For most military readers, even those steeped in logistics, his description of the how quickly the best laid plans of supply and transportation break apart under the fog and friction of war yields jaw-dropping surprises. For example, the vaunted Schlieffen plan, years in the making with heavy involvement between civilian and military railroad experts, and entire division of logistics professionals took just three days of battle to unravel. From that point on, German soldiers were marched to Paris in the same method the armies of Napoleon had marched over a century earlier. This example from the First World War is one of many and readers would do well to make a list of the many times that Supplying War challenges what modern combatants believe are maxims of logistics. For US military leaders, conditioned on decades of uninterrupted supply and uncontested lines of communication, Van Creveld offers a cold shower. Logistics often overpromises and under delivers.
If there is one book a modern military leader should read to think about future conflict and the interplay between logistics and operations—Guadalcanal is it. At 800 pages with thousands of footnotes, just opening this book can seem daunting. Frank’s research is impeccable, however, and his study show the interplay between air, land, sea domains and great powers at the far edge of their supply lines. Logistics take center stage in this conflict, in what becomes a siege for both sides—American and Japanese furiously attempting to resupply their combatants. Added to the chaos of land battle, are numerous carrier battles, surface sea battles, submarine attacks, land campaigns, and air combat missions. Both sides had tenuous supply lines and vulnerable command and control of their forces. Added to this, new technologies from ship-borne radar, to long distance radio communication, and lighted runways, altered the dynamics of battle in the Pacific in real-time. The belligerents went in fighting nighttime surface engagements using human vision as their guide (resulting in horrific battleship engagements at under 500 yards) to radar-honed solutions for ship and aircraft. It was as if they began the conflict in 1905 and left in 1942 in the space of three months. This study offers great power conflict, multi-domain warfare, technological innovation, and the harsh teacher of war. At the center of it all was the common drive to keep the marines and soldiers on the island alive.
In these three clear and concise sections, Mahan made this book a classic. Although the descriptions of the battles that make up the majority of the text are interesting, they pale in comparison to his overall thesis: Sea Power protects lines of communication for commerce and war making it the preeminent method to assert national power. Although written in the late 19th century, when the shore gun, steam and diesel engines, long range artillery, and the emerging technology of the submarine had altered the ship-of-the-line battles of the wooden sailing ship, Mahan used the history to underpin his exploration of broader national strategy. Viewed in a modern lens, Mahan’s theory holds up well. The importance of the global commons reigns supreme. Read this work not for its focus on the sea but for its focus on national power.
Aircraft are complicated machines. Engines, wings, flying instruments all have to be built, tested, and repaired. During the Great War, as aircraft evolved from balsa wood and wire, to metal fuselages with synchronized machine guns, the task of supporting the flying effort became even more difficult. Not only did the stresses and losses of combat require significant repair facilities stretching back all the way across the Western Front to the English Channel, but the rate of change rendered engines and equipment obsolete in as few as six months. With all of the talk about great power conflict in the United States military, this book shows what happens when great powers collide with cutting edge technology—lots of carnage with an ever increasing burden on how to support the same. This book offers lessons in mobility and adaptability of logistics systems for thought and encouragement. As an added bonus, the first ten pages offer a comprehensive and readable description of logistics in the military context, a much needed addition to the literature.
Gen William Braddock, pulled off one of the great feats of logistics in warfare. He took an Army, 3000 miles across the ocean, outfitted it with 200 wagons, and supplemented with colonial support and soldiers, and built a 12 foot-wide road 110miles into the Allegheny wilderness to attack the French position at Fort Duquesne. At the end of 35 days his army of 2000 arrived in-tact and supplied to the hilt, only to meet their end unceremoniously at the hands of French commander Jean-Daniel Dumas. This book highlights not only the amazing logistics skills of Braddock—his operational understanding of how to change his logistics support but also how to move more quickly to meet the enemy—but also of the French. Preston digs into French sources and shows how a small cadre of French officer, led by commander Beaujeu, were able to row and trek over thousands of miles, gather Native allies, and defeat Braddock. The logistics lost by Braddock was staggering. Dozens of cannons, hundreds of barrels of powder and shot, and thousands of pounds of supplies and food emboldened French allies all across the Native American tribes. In the reverse of the standard logistics story, in which national economy bequeaths power to a military force, Braddock’s loss fell into the hands of the adversary and emboldened a previously weak and neglected French military. Even a great logistics accomplishment like Braddock’s can be undone by the enemy, or even worse, embolden an adversary.
A more modern version of Frank’s Guadalcanal, Privratsky’s Logistics in the Falkland’s War, illustrates the difficulty of fighting an air, sea, and land campaign 8,000 miles from home. The expeditionary nature of the conflict, the political pressure to deploy soonest vs. sanest, led to a difficult situation for the British logistics system. A microcosm of a peer-on-peer operation with long-range weapons and information gathering, the Falklands illustrated how vulnerable logistics are threats from the air. Future conflict may not repeat this pattern, but given Privratsky’s and Frank’s research, it will rhyme. Western militaries accustomed to air superiority, if not outright supremacy, since 1944 (or even stretching back to the disaster at Kasserene Pass in 1942), have a blind spot from a planning and thinking perspective. Logistics in peace-time, in which units are forward deployed, is difficult. Facing long-range weapons far from friendly basing, makes it doubly so.
Eccles, a Navy logistician during the difficult battles of the Pacific in the Second World War, penned this work based on that experience and American’s post-war dominance in the decade following the conflict. One advantage to this text is its availability for free online FMFRP 12-14 Logistics in the National Defense (marines.mil). Although Eccles comes far too close to declaring that logistics is the sole source of victory or defeat, he does a masterful job of placing logistics from the realm of national economic output and GDP down to tactical delivery of supplies in combat. See pages 54-55 for a wonderful illustration of how a national economy translates to the battlefield. He also codified the hub and spoke method of transportation which we are all familiar with, the movement of supplies and personnel from larger bases to ever smaller bases until they reach the front-line (Figure 20 page 236). And, most importantly, Eccles critiques that same system for its ability to create unmitigated growth. He believes logistics requirements tend to “snowball” well beyond what the tactical forces need. For a US military that deploys by air, land, and sea, with massive amounts of weapons, gear, and supplies, Eccles issues a stern warning: learn to go lighter or face an unworkable logistics problem.
Testifying before Parliament in 1778 to defend himself after the loss at the battle of Saratoga, Gen Burgoyne lamented “that for every hour he contemplated the strategy of the Army, he had to spend another twenty wondering how to feed it.” This book highlights the difficult political and military choices British military leaders from King George III to the Howe bothers faced in fighting to keep the American colonies within the fold. Underpinning it all was the sheer difficulty in logistics: the time between action and reaction, the challenge of keeping armies fed when surrounded by a mostly hostile populace, and the staggering cost of men and munitions shipped over the ocean. Although not the purpose of his book, O’Shaughnessy illustrates how linear thinking about warfare can lead to hubris and overestimation of battlefield prowess. X amount of supply plus Y amount of troops does not equal victory.
Cline’s book shows a future in which the online world, represented by the cyber realm of the Oasis, dominates day to day activity. While humans spend their every waking hour immersing themselves in the artificial environment—their physical surroundings are less than ideal, neglected and negated. Ready Player One, highlights a future in which cyber dominates but the physical still exists. With all the talk of Cyberwarfare from Blockchain, to Artificial Intelligence, to 3D printing, logistics in war still deals in the physical realm despite our ever increasing immersion into cyberspace. At some point people and their stuff have to make it to the battle and for now the domains which determine the victors are those that military establishments have understood for at least a century or centuries—air, land, and sea. As with all great science fiction it portends a future that might represent our destiny. From the perspective of logistics, Ready Player One shows how domains might shift and alter reality in warfare.
Chronicling, the bloodiest day in the history of American warfare, Sears contrasts the logistical build-up of both sides. The Confederate Army, much vaunted and feared, but with little logistical support and the Union Army, oversupplied to the point of indecision. What comes through in Sears work is the brilliance of Gen McClellan in being able to plan, supply, and feed an army before battle coupled with his inability to assess the situation and fight. McClellan always needed more troops, more supplies, more artillery, and imagined the Confederate Army was double, and sometimes triple its real size. Sears makes the compelling case that McClellan could have chased down and defeated the barely supported Army of Northern Virginia. The general turned an overwhelming advantage in logistics into a decided strategic draw. Sometimes the most risky path is the most conservative, in risking nothing and conserving his logistics and force McClellan gained little.
Jobie Turner is an experienced strategic leader, thinker, and planner with a proven record of outstanding results in the defense, aviation, and logistics industries. Extensive analytical and research experience in continuous process improvement, resource allocation, and data analysis. Two-time commander of operational flying units and commandant of the C-130 schoolhouse directing a team of 500 to run the syllabus development, simulator, and flight training for 1200 students annually. C-130J instructor pilot with 3200 flight hours.
Author of Feeding Victory: Innovative Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh Feeding Victory: Innovative Military Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh (Modern War Studies)
Recognized for inspiring management and creative work environments. Passionate about mentorship and leadership—always striving to get the best out of each individual and the team.
PhD in Military Strategy with an emphasis in logistics.