In a recent speaking engagement, retired Lieutenant General Paul Mikolashek related, “In any kind of operation, there are two things you must get right…you have got to have your command and control in place, and you have got to have a robust, reliable logistics system.”[i] This quotation is consistent with the axiom, “Amateurs discuss tactics, professionals discuss logistics.” Despite old military wisdom, logistics often gets short shrift in professional publications outside those specifically focused on the subject. Royal Marine Major General Julian Thompson summed up this reality well in his book The Lifeblood of War: Logistics in Armed Conflict in 1991 with two insights. He wrote, “I have no reason to believe that logistics will ever have much military sex-appeal, except to serious soldiers, but this book is written in the hope I am wrong.”[ii] Thompson added, “For as experience of war recedes, so, with the passing of time, logistics tend to take a back seat to the more glamorous tactics and strategy.”[iii] While written in 1991, these comments remain accurate, raising the question: How does logistics relate to military strategy today? For military strategy, logistics remains a means that circumscribes the ways and plays key roles in determining the time horizon to achieve the desired ends, as well as the level of risk.
To prove this assertion and demonstrate that the study of logistics deserves a more prominent position in the study of military strategy, this article contextualizes logistics in military theory, conveys its significance in military history through Anglo-American operations in World War II, and evaluates its current and future practice.
Theory: Military Strategy and Logistics
Exploring the question of how logistics relates to military strategy today requires an exploration of related theory. There are two essential definitions. Historians credit military theorist Antoine-Henri de Jomini with coining the term “logistics” in his 1838 work The Art of War. He maintained: “Logistics comprises the means and arrangements which work out the plans of strategy and tactics.”[iv] The meticulous Jomini discussed logistics using no less than eighteen “principal points,” detailing multiple logistical functions that dealt with the movement and supply of military forces.[v] The second definition is “military strategy.” While there are many potential definitions, Colin Gray’s is apt: “The direction and use made of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as decided by politics.”[vi] These two definitions are the basis for the existing theory for logistics and military strategy.
There are several important theoretical works that deserve consideration—books on overarching military theory that also discuss logistics, such as Jomini or On War by Carl von Clausewitz, and a few books focused specifically on logistics, such as George Thorpe’s Pure Logistics and Henry Eccles’ Logistics in the National Defense.[vii] Starting with the great Prussian, Clausewitz observed, “Of the items wholly unconnected with engagements, serving only to maintain the forces, supply is the one which most directly affects the fighting. It takes place almost every day and affects every individual. Thus it thoroughly permeates the strategic aspects of all military action.”[viii]
Where Clausewitz and Jomini included logistics as part of their larger military theory, there are two essential works specifically on logistics. First is George Thorpe’s 1917 Pure Logistics. Early in his book, Thorpe used an excellent metaphor worth repeating:
Strategy is to war what the plot is to the play; Tactics is represented by the role of the players; Logistics furnishes the stage management, accessories, and maintenance. The audience, thrilled by the action of the play and the art of the performers, overlooks all the cleverly hidden details of the stage management.[ix]
Thorpe also directly discusses the two theorists and their views on the relationship between strategy, tactics, and logistics, providing insight into how logistics permeates strategy and tactics. As a clear indicator of how Thorpe’s core ideas have withstood the test of time, the introduction of the 1986 National Defense University edition observed, “No new Jomini or Thorpe has emerged to offer a modern theory of logistics Jomini and Thorpe’s theoretical work remains.”[x]
Henry Eccles followed Thorpe and incorporated the experience of the world wars. Eccles gave guest lectures to war college students and wrote prolifically, earning the title of the “Grand Old Man of Logistics.”[xi] In 1959 he compiled his extensive papers and lectures into the book Logistics in the National Defense, a comprehensive examination of logistics from the national level, including a detailed discussion of military strategy and logistics.[xii] Eccles’s chapter titled “Strategic-Logistic-Tactical Relations” argued that “the scope and timing of strategic plans are both governed by logistic capabilities…the converse whereby the composition, the balance, and the deployment of forces and the rate of their build up all are determined by a complex interrelation of strategic, logistic and tactical considerations.”[xiii] Thus, Clausewitz, Jomini, Thorpe, and Eccles agree logistics permeates military strategy and tactics.
Historical Practice: WWII Anglo-American Global Military Strategy and Logistics
Although military history is replete with potential examples of how logistics affect military strategy, the Anglo-American experience in World War II provides a perfect example of the relationship between logistics and military strategy. First and foremost, shipping drove military strategy and logistics. The British had to mobilize and adjust to wartime realities, and their industrial and shipping situation meant that British military strategy was focused on the strategic defensive. The Battle of the Atlantic, the longest campaign of the war, threatened the import lifeline in multiple ways, such as shipping shortages, ship sinkings, and delays inherent to shifting to western ports because of Luftwaffe attacks on the eastern ports. The decision to reinforce the Middle East and Greece added to an already difficult shipping and logistic situation, creating a major import crisis.[xiv] Meanwhile, American domestic political sentiment kept the US from being much help until the Lend Lease Act of March 1941. It would take time before American industry could build enough ships to meet demand.
As the strategic situation deteriorated in Europe and war clouds gathered in the Pacific over Imperial Japan, the American and British planners began to explore potential global strategy in late January 1941 in secret meetings known as American British Conversations. The consensus was to focus on Germany and prioritize support for the British.[xv] After Pearl Harbor, the Western Allies began a series of wartime conferences to set global coalition and military strategies for each theater. The First Washington Conference codenamed Arcadia occurred in late December 1941 and early January 1942. It confirmed the previously discussed strategy of “Germany First,” building an alliance structure—led by Prime Minister Churchill, President Roosevelt, and the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS)—and prioritizing the various theaters of war, including logistical issues such as shipping and munitions.[xvi]
Shipping would dominate Allied strategy making, proving critical in determining the feasibility of global military and theater strategies. The Second Washington Conference (no codename) occurred in June 1942. The Americans wanted to open a second front in France to aid the Soviet Union, which was wildly premature and the British knew it. Instead of this direct and untimely approach, Churchill suggested attacking North Africa. This would also help secure the Mediterranean and obviate the longer shipping transit around Africa. While this operation, codenamed Torch, made sense from a strategic perspective (and American political perspective), it was terrible due to shipping and logistical overreach. This error was coupled with another strategic-logistical overreach in the Pacific, as America’s first offensive campaign was to secure the strategic lines of communication to Australia by seizing the Island of Guadalcanal. This campaign was often derisively called “Operation Shoestring” due to inadequate logistical support and lasted six months. The collective global logistical challenges created shortages, slowing operations and thereby extending the campaigns. Thus, North Africa and Guadalcanal each accepted significant logistical risks—therefore operational and tactical risks—when conducted simultaneously, courting strategic disaster.
Shipping and logistics improved as the Allied industrial situation advanced and the Battle of the Atlantic began to turn in the Allies’ favor. At the Casablanca Conference (codenamed Symbol) on January 14-24, 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt made several key decisions, including the policy of unconditional surrender, the invasions of Sicily and Italy, the conduct of the Combined Bomber Offensive, and island hopping in the Pacific theaters. The following major Allied conferences—the Third Washington Conference (Trident) in May and the First Quebec Conference (Quadrant) in August—discussed the forces, material, and timing of Overlord, and shipping and the resultant logistical buildup for the invasion were the foundation of these discussions.
While the Allies were able to mount more offensive operations in 1943, shipping, logistics, and the availability of LSTs (Land Ship, Tanks, essential for amphibious landings) continued to circumscribe what the Allies could accomplish for the remainder of the war. The last two major conferences in 1943 were at Cairo and Tehran Conferences (Sextant and Eureka). At Cairo, the Allies promised Chiang Kai-shek material aid and several operations in Southeast Asia, including an amphibious operation that Chiang desperately wanted. However, the Allies had to make hard decisions for 1944 based on the shipping, logistics, and amphibious lift. They chose Normandy, Southern France, and the Central Pacific but reneged on their promised operations for Chiang. 1944 proved logistically challenging, as building up the Normandy beachhead took time and Southern France greatly reduced support for operations in Italy. After the invasions of Normandy and Southern France, the remaining major Allied conferences (Second Quebec or Octagon; Yalta or Argonaut; and Potsdam or Terminal) focused mainly on the postwar and the end in the Pacific. Yet shipping and logistics continued to play an essential role through the war’s end, the redeployment of wartime personnel, and even reconstruction.
Current and Future Practice: The Russo-Ukrainian War and the White Sun War
Military and logistical theory and the history of Anglo-American global strategy and logistics in World War II provide insight into how military strategy and logistics interact—the two continuously influence each other with logistics circumscribing military strategy. As demonstrated by the Allied logistical overreach in their 1942 North African and Guadalcanal campaigns, operating near the limits of logistics accepts dreadful risk to forces and the mission. Accepting this level of risk in multiple theaters creates cumulative risk, meaning reverses in one campaign could demand more resources, thereby undermining the other campaigns. While this was true for World War II, it raises the question of whether the relationship between military strategy and logistics has changed in current practice or is likely to in the near future.
For current practice, the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War demonstrates that the challenge of matching military strategy to logistical capability and capacity remains; however, evaluating ongoing wars always requires caution, especially those surrounded by competing sophisticated information operations like this war. It is safe to say that the Russian Army seems to have forgotten that logistics were critical to Soviet offensive operations. The Soviet Red Army understood that logistics is a function that determines how well personnel and equipment—the means of military strategy—can perform their tactical tasks. Along with prewar theory on deep operations, the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis taught them how logistics played a crucial role in setting operational reach, understanding the endurance of tactical forces, and estimating friendly and enemy culminating points. These notions and others directly affected Soviet operational art, especially in phasing major operations from 1943 to 1945.
Moscow anticipated a lighting war and planned accordingly—the irony of those who have studied Barbarossa is plain. Although the Russian’s operational concept had changed from their World War II deep operations to one that was more methodical and attritional in the 1990s, they still expected a quick victory. Like their former German foes, the Russians believed all they would have to do was kick in Ukraine’s door, and the whole nation would crumble. Like the Germans underestimated the resolve of the Soviets in World War II, the Russians completely underestimated the resolve of the Ukrainians, which naturally saturated their military strategy. It gave rise to the following top three flawed assumptions: 1) Ukraine was not a real or unified nation, resulting in its government leaders fleeing and its people welcoming Russia; 2) the Ukrainian military was the same one the Russians fought in 2014 and would not resist for long; and 3) Europe, the US, and NATO would not decisively intervene or support Ukraine.[xvii] They got all three wrong. These bad assumptions contributed to the Russian high concentration of combat forces in the initial echelon, relatively small reserves, and logistical preparation for a quick campaign.
Because the Russians assumed away the need for robust logistical preparation, it follows that they were not concerned that they could not rely on their rail network once inside of Ukraine. The Russians had to rely on trucks moving supplies from railheads that were further and further behind the forward units. As the convoys of trucks continued to supply the front, they began to suffer wastage for many reasons, including poor maintenance and other issues due to Russian officer corps corruption. When the initial offensive culminated, the Russians had to make a new military strategy. They had to reframe, to use design parlance, because Ukrainian resistance exposed the Russian logistical Achilles Heel—by the time they got to Kyiv, the Russians had insufficient forces and logistics to reach their desired ends.[xviii]
The Ukrainians quickly adapted to take advantage of Russian vulnerabilities, such as using long-range fires to attack the convoys, [xix] and the Ukrainians also learned about logistics, although for very different reasons. They were on the defensive, the stronger form of warfare, which normally required fewer personnel and resources. However, the Ukrainians had to mobilize and establish a wartime logistics system to provide what was needed.[xx] Slowing the Russian advance required a heavy price in personnel and ammunition, and the Ukrainians quickly burnt through their prewar stocks, which were three months’ worth for most consumables. But, they also lacked the quantity of artillery and munitions of the Russians and had an undermatch in range of their fires and air force. However, the West began to provide the necessary funds, equipment, and ammunition, although Western stocks and production had become very limited in recent decades. Overall, the Ukrainians had the will, the military strategy, and the personnel portion of the means, and the West provided some of the means in the form of money and logistics.[xxi]
More recent events have demonstrated the need for more logistical organization. For example, Western munitions factories do not have the capacity to produce high explosive shells as fast as they are being consumed, a major reason behind them sending stockpiled cluster munition rounds to Ukraine. Also, American-, British-, French-, and German-equipped Ukrainian brigades require different spare parts for sustainment along with many lines of communication, distribution networks, and other challenges. NATO stood up an organization led by a US lieutenant general to focus solely on directing the sustainment of supplies into Ukraine.
Turning to what future challenges are on the horizon, the enormous issue of matching military strategy with logistics will endure while the character of warfare and logistics evolves. In the tradition of Hector Bywater’s 1924 The Great Pacific War,[xxii] a work of fiction that looked into a future conflict between the United States and Imperial Japan familiar to those who study that portion of World War II, or the more well-known Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy, Mick Ryan’s much more readable and enjoyable White Sun War provides a fictional account of a near-future Chinese attack on Taiwan. [xxiii] These works are useful as their authors were deeply familiar with the details of warfighting in their era, Bywater in the 1920s and Ryan in the 2020s, firmly grounding their fiction in reality. The authors reasonably extrapolated how warfare would evolve in the short term, including logistics.[xxiv]
Throughout White Sun War, Ryan incorporates logistics’ effects upon military strategy in a way that is not an afterthought; in fact, he reinforces an almost symbiotic relationship between military strategy and logistics. In a prewar intelligence briefing, logistics played an essential role in judging the likelihood of possible Chinese options to seize Taiwan. The fictitious intelligence officer explores the pros and cons of the options’ logistics for assembling the fleet and logistics before the operation, bases, ports, distances, and the security of sea lines of communication (something Bywater took into account throughout his book).[xxv] In a briefing to the USINDOPACOM Commander, a staff officer noted there would be challenges for Taiwan’s mobilization, including the difficulty of supporting this effort after the Chinese amphibious landings had begun. They estimated that the PLA would only land in two main areas—one in the north and one in the south—to concentrate its forces and logistics support.[xxvi] As a final example, although there are more, Ryan noted the logistical challenges for the PLA amphibious operation:
At the same time, supporting forces also had to be landed. These included artillery, engineers, and logistics to both keep the landing site functioning as a pseudo arrival port for the invading force, and also to support the conduct of land combat. While all this was happening, the landing site—or sites—had to be protected against attack from the sea, ground, air, and in the electromagnetic spectrum. Wounded troops had to be treated and evacuated. A continuous feed of new troops had to be landed.[xxvii]
For those defending Taiwan, Ryan had the alliance establish several “strategic bastions” that were large protected operational logistic hubs to support tactical operations.[xxviii] These were twenty-first-century bases that Jomini, Thorpe, and Eccles would recognize.
In addition to incorporating many new technologies, such as human-machine teaming, robots, and many more, White Sun War systematically included logistics and its effects on military strategy. Early in the war both sides were running out of many types of ammunition, especially for precision weapons. However, the United States and Japan had successfully secured sea and air lines of communication into Taiwan, although there was not much discussion of how they brought this about.[xxix] Overall, Ryan does an excellent job portraying how military strategy and logistics interact before and during combat operations, as logistics influenced how both sides crafted their military strategy and adjusted their military strategy because of friction due to logistical challenges.
Military practitioner, theorist, and commentator Major General J. F. C. Fuller once observed, “Surely one of the strangest things in military history is the almost complete silence upon the problem of supply. Not in ten thousand books written on war is there to be found one on this subject.”[xxx] In the decades since Fuller wrote this, there have been books written on the subject.[xxxi] Still, very few have explicitly or directly addressed the relationship between logistics and military strategy, and this short article explored this relationship. The theory of logistics and military strategy provided the foundation to begin an inquiry into their relationship. Both world wars are apt historical examples of the deeply interconnected relationship between global logistics and military strategy, although this article only explored the global aspects of World War II. Current practice in the Russo-Ukrainian War validated that the importance of logistics upon military strategy is alive and well in the Twenty-first Century. Finally, recent fictional speculation plausibly demonstrated that the military strategy of future wars, such as those that include human-machine teaming, will remain tied to logistics while forcing its evolution. In conclusion, logistics affect military strategy by circumscribing the ways, defining the time horizon required to achieve the desired ends, and determining the level of risk
[i] Lieutenant General Paul T. Mikolashek, USA, Retired, lecture to Strategic Landpower Integrated Research Project, United States Army War College, March 23, 2023. LTG(R) Mikolashek approved the author’s use of this quotation.
[ii] Julian Thompson, The Lifeblood of War: Logistics in Armed Conflict (New York: Brassey’s, 1991), xvi.
[iii] Ibid., 3.
[iv] Antoine H. Jomini, The Art of War (1838; repr., Novato: Presidio Press, 1992), 69.
[v] Ibid., 253-256.
[vi] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 262.
[vii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. and trans., Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976); and George Cyrus Thorpe, Pure Logistics: The Science of War Preparation (1917; repr., Charleston: Nabu Press, 2014). Three other works that are worth noting include Jean Bloch’s The Future of War and its technical, Economic and Political Relations, John Lynn’s Feeding Mars, and Van Crevald’s Supplying War. See Jean Bloch, The Future of War and its technical, Economic and Political Relations (Boston: The World Peace Foundation, 1914); John A. Lynn, Feeding Mars: Logistics in Western Warfare from the Middle Ages to the Present (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994); and Martin Van Crevald, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, 1st ed. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
[viii] Clausewitz, 131.
[ix] Thorpe, 4.
[x] Stanley L. Falk, Introduction to George C. Thorpe’s Pure Logistics (1918; repr., Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1986), xxv.
[xi] Henry E. Eccles, Logistics in the National Defense (1959; repr., Newport: US Naval War College Press, 1997), xii. As an example of his many lectures, see Henry E. Eccles, “Operational Naval Logistics,” 1948, Guest Lectures, RG 15, Box 11, Folder 4, Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College, Newport, RI.
[xii] Eccles, Logistics in the National Defense.
[xiii] Ibid, 32.
[xiv] Martin Doughty, Merchant Shipping and War: A Study of Defence Planning in Twentieth-Century Britain (London: Royal Historical Society, 1982), 154-176; Kevin Smith, Conflict Over Convoys: Anglo-American Logistics Diplomacy in the Second World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 5-6, 15-27, and 37-43.
[xv] Richard M. Leighton and Robert W. Coakley, Global Logistics and Strategy: 1940-1943 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1955), 52-55.
[xvi] Ibid., 141, 151, 195, 200, 213, 248-249.
[xvii] Author’s correspondence with Major General Mick Ryan, Australian Army, Retired, July 17, 2023.
[xviii] Bradley Martin, “Will Logistics Be Russia’s Undoing in Ukraine?,” The RAND Blog (February 10, 2023), accessed July 2, 2023, https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/02/will-logistics-be-russias-undoing-in-ukraine.html; Per Skoglund, Tore Listou, Thomas Ekström, “Russian Logistics in the Ukrainian War; Can Operational Failures be Attributed to Logistics,” Scandinavian Journal of Military Studies, 5, no. 1 (September 8, 2022): 99-110, accessed July 2, 2023, https://sjms.nu/articles/10.31374/sjms.158; Alex Vershinin, “Feeding the Bear: A Closer Look at Russian Army Logistics and the Fait Accompli,” War on the Rocks (November 23, 2021), accessed July 2, 2023, https://warontherocks.com/2021/11/feeding-the-bear-a-closer-look-at-russian-army-logistics/; and Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, Operation Z: The Death Throes of an Imperial Delusion (London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, 2022).
[xix] The Ukrainians also used small, mobile anti-armor teams using newly provided Javelin and NLAW (Next-generaion Light Anti-armour Weapon). They also flooded large parts of the north which further restricted Russian cross country mobility, kept them to roads and made them easier to attack.
[xx] This incorporated the following: 1. Military logistics systems; 2. Civilian supply, which is underpinned by fighting on home soil; and, 3. A massive influx of logistic support from the West, which has mainly flowed through Poland.
[xxi] Stavros Atlamazoglou, “Western Countries Have Scrambled to Deliver Billions of Dollars of Military Gear to Ukraine. Gettig It to the Frontlines is a Whole Other Problem,” Insider (April 23, 2023), accessed July 2, 2023, https://www.businessinsider.com/ukraine-internal-logistics-pose-problems-for-moving-military-gear-2023-4.
[xxii] Hector C. Bywater, The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931-1933 (1925; repr. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 2000). Also see, Hector C. Bywater, Sea-Power in the Pacific: A Study of the American-Japanese Naval Problem (1921; repr. Middletown, DE: Forgotten Books, 2012).
[xxiii] Mick Ryan, White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2023).
[xxiv] Ibid., vi.
[xxv] Ibid., 66-68.
[xxvi] Ibid., 81.
[xxvii] Ibid., 127-128.
[xxviii] Ibid., 81 and 242.
[xxix] Ibid., 136.
[xxx] John Frederic Charles Fuller, Preface, George C. Shaw, Supply in Modern War (1938; repr., Middletown: Forgotten Books, 2012), 9.
[xxxi] There are several other good books that touch upon logistics. Millet and Murray’s first volume of Military Effectiveness’s Chapter 1 contains the political, strategic, operational and tactical measures of effectiveness for a military force, and the authors mention logistics throughout. See Allan R. Millet and Williamson Murray, Military Effectiveness, Volume 1: The First World War, 2nd ed. (London: Cambridge University Press, 2010).