Amateurs think strategy, Generals think logistics

Students of military history know that, far from being a monolith of crushing force, an army is a delicate, vulnerable, and ravenous organization prone to fall apart unless constantly and carefully taken care of. History tends to only look at big battles, crushing victories, and ingenious stratagems. Historically, however, for every one military campaign that ends in decisive battle there are ten consisting of groping maneuvering towards the enemy followed by stalemate and return to regroup and resupply.

Looking at most wars throughout history, a point can be identified at which the victory of one side could no longer be prevented except by a miracle - a point after which the pendulum was tipped heavily to one side and spending less and less time on the other. Logistics is absolutely the main factor that tends to tip the pendulum.

For example, America's current military power rests on its ability to ship and fly millions of tons of military inventory to any point in the world, creating vast stockpiles that can often keep American soldiers better supplied in the field than the soldiers of an enemy who is actually geographically much closer to his own sources of supply. The naval power that keeps the seas open to American freight is the irreplaceable advantage without which American military operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia would be impossible.

In ancient times armies did not have professional logistics staffs, and had to constantly keep on the move requisitioning supplies from the lands it passed through, or hugging a shore or a river where ships could take care of resupply. Alexander the Great and his father Phillip were noted for having greatly lightened the old baggage trains that had been the standby of earlier warriors, making soldiers carry their supplies on their own backs, allowing them to march further and faster than the Persians.

A century after Alexander, the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome was decided not by the brilliant generalship of Hannibal, who ended up on the losing side, but by the ability of the Romans to keep supplies flowing into Rome no matter how many battles Hannibal won, and to keep Hannibal cut off from Carthage by controlling the Mediterranean Sea. After crushing Carthage, the Romans rose to control of the Mediterranean world largely on the strength of their professional and well-disciplined army, which would not break ranks to loot fallen foes mid-battle, but would set out on marches with carefully prepared stocks of supplies. The Roman road network was by far the best of its time, and allowed Roman legions to be well supplied even in the far reaches of the Empire.

The cold war between Spain and England that played out in the Caribbean seas, the main naval approach to the gold mines of the New World in the 16th century, was an attritive war of logistics. Every ounce of gold the Spanish could bring back to Europe from the Americas increased Spain's power relative to England's. Every Spanish ship that English privateers sunk on the sea-lanes increased England's power relative to Spain's.

When Napoleon entered Russia in 1812, he set up storage depots and warehouses sufficient for a short campaign ending in a decisive and war-finishing victory against the Russian army. A month after his crossing of the Vistula, having failed to entice the Russian army into battle, Napoleon was trapped in a terrible situation - having to advance on an undamaged foe who retreated from him, with every step along the march bringing his French further from their supplies and the Russians closer to theirs, and the winter coming. The skilled French quartermasters, who had given Napoleon the fastest and most flexible logistics support in Europe for more than a decade, proved unable to sufficiently supply 300 000 French and French allied soldiers as they advanced on Moscow, and when Napoleon retreated he found of the warehouses he had carefully set up along his route looted, not only by Russian irregulars, but often by undisciplined French. Of 300 000 soldiers he led into Russia, Napoleon led out 3 percent - about 10 000 survivors. Both major battles Napoleon fought against the Russians in this campaign - Smolensk and Borodino - were indecisive. The superior logistical environment the Russian army operated in was decisive.

The Crimean War was the first war between major powers in which shipping was an important factor. In the 1850s, England had a far more powerfully developed navy than Russia, and during this French & English vs. Russian conflict the English were able to deliver men and supplies to the Crimea four times faster than could the Russians, even though the Crimea was actually part of Russia.

Ten years after Crimea, in the American Civil War, the Federal Union's larger industrial base, control of the seas, and in particular more heavily developed railroad system enabled it to weather early Confederate victories without ever coming to doubt about the safety of Washington DC, the Federal capital. During both of the two Confederate invasions of the Northern territories that were repulsed at Antietam/Sharpsburg and Gettysburg, respectively, Confederate soldiers were severely undersupplied, often marching barefoot, and had to confront powerful Federal armies well supplied from the proximate, railroad-heavy industrial centers of Pennsylvania and Ohio. The Confederate army also had severe problems with keeping their soldiers in the line, because many Southern troops returned to their farms yearly to help their families with a vital harvest, whereas the Union, with a much larger population, could simultaneously feed itself and wage war without much difficulty.

During World War 2, America won control of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans from the German and Japanese navies, and used its vast wartime manufacturing base to produce, in 1944, about 50 ships, 10 tanks, and 5 trained soldiers for every one ship, tank, and soldier the Axis powers put out. German soldiers captured by Americans in North Africa expressed surprise at the enormous stockpiles of food, clothing, arms, tools, and medicine their captors had managed to bring over an ocean to Africa in just a few months - their own army, though many times closer to Germany than the American army was to America, had chronic shortages of all vital military inventory, and often relied on captured materiel.

Across the world, America's wartime ally the Soviet Union was also outproducing Germany every single year. Access to petroleum was important - while America, Britain, and the Soviet Union all had safe and ready access to sources of petroleum, Germany and Japan obtained their own from territories they had conquered or pressed into alliance, and this greatly hurt the Axis powers when these territories were attacked by the Allies later in the war. The 1941 Soviet decision to physically move their manufacturing capacity east of the Ural mountains and far from the battlefront took the heart of their logistical support out of the reach of German aircraft and tanks, while the Germans struggled all through the war with having to convert Soviet railroads to a gauge their own trains could roll on, and with protecting the vital converted railroads, which carried the bulk of the supplies German soldiers in Russia needed, from Soviet irregulars and bombing attacks.

Without well thought-out and powerful logistics services, exemplified by the Ho Chi Minh trail, regular North Vietnamese forces would have been almost eliminated from South Vietnam by the American Army within one or two years of American intervention. Meanwhile, the vast Soviet army drained Soviet supplies to little profit because the Soviet Union proved unable to apply its armed forces towards the betterment of its global economic position.

A modern mechanized army goes through stunning quantities of supplies when it is in action. The buildup to the Iraq war may have seemed slow. In actuality, shipping everything that a modern army requires across the world and building up, in just a few months and in a foreign land, the logistics capacity necessary for this army to work was a leviathan task. A superpower is not measured by how many nuclear weapons it can build, but by how much it can manufacture and how fast it can ship stock to all parts of the world.

From ancient days to modern times, tactics and strategies have received the most attention from amateurs, but wars have been won by logistics.

Written by Anton Dolinsky for Almyta Systems. When author's and Almyta Systems names are mentioned, the reproduction is freely allowed.