A Logistics Force Design Imperative: Saturday Afternoon Thoughts

Like many of you, I’ve got some ideas swimming around in my head that I have not yet fully fleshed out. At least, not enough to call them “articles.” And I confess that I need to do a better job of making the time to do professional writing! So, while I have a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon, I thought I’d write down a brief summary of some "out of the box" ideas that have been bugging me, to spur discussion. As we think about the Commandant’s Force Design and how the Marine Corps’ logistics enterprise will sustain operations in distributed and contested maritime environments, and consider the limitations we have on resources, I believe we will need to make some "bold dope changes" in the future...not simply tweak around the margins to do what we’ve always done but just a bit better. Here are just a few items to consider:

  1. Too much equipment (Part 1: ECON 101)

We have too much equipment, and sustaining it consumes enormous volumes of resources. We don’t have enough mechanics in the Fleet to maintain the equipment, parts are expensive, and running the equipment periodically through depot-level rebuilds represents a huge bill for the Service.

But how much is enough? Consider this: our current construct assumes that every unit in the Marine Corps (minus reserves) could generally line up in formation, simultaneously, and have all their equipment. In fact, our readiness metrics drive us in this direction (measuring Supply Readiness, or “S-Ratings”). But what scenario or OPLAN calls for the entire Marine Corps to line up in formation simultaneously?

Remember ECON 101? What if we treated our equipment like we treat money? I mean, we carry enough money around in our pockets to do what we need from day to day, and keep the rest in the bank. If everyone tried to get ALL of their money out of the bank at the same time, we’d have Black Friday all over again. In other words, the banks don’t have all your money--they loan it out to others, who in turn spend it back into the economy (ECON 101: How banks create money). So...what if units had enough gear to train with, and when they needed their full complement, they could “withdraw from the bank?” For this to work, we would need a “central bank” (think Logistics Command), perhaps with regional “branch offices'' at the MEFs. And of course, we would not be able to source all units’ gear at the same time. How much is the right amount? Perhaps plan it against the most stressful OPLAN and go from there. This of course will cut against some cultural issues in the Marine Corps, as commanders would have to accept that they don’t have all “their” gear, and we’d have to completely rethink our approach to readiness and “S-Ratings.” And I haven’t even mentioned prepositioning and war reserves!

2. Too much equipment (Part 2: Acquisition & Sustainment)

As someone involved in depot-level maintenance planning and resourcing, I see first hand the financial burden this places on the Marine Corps. Maintaining a healthy organic industrial base is certainly critical to warfighting readiness, but it sure is expensive! I won’t go into all the tedious details of the business end of depot maintenance, but suffice it to say that maintaining the workforce, facilities, capacity, etc., to maintain all that equipment takes a...shall we say...robust...effort.

What are some of the reasons it is so robust? Well, we’ve got a lot of different types of equipment, and when we buy it...we tend to plan to keep it for a REALLY long time, and rebuild it a few times during its lifecycle. But does that really make sense? For certain things that are uniquely military, like armored vehicles and heavy weapons, for instance, sure. We need that stuff to last. But what about “dual use” type equipment? Basic trucks, forklifts, bulldozers, generators, containers and shelters…. We sure do seem to spend a lot of resources to maintain this stuff, often for it to simply sit along a fenceline in the event it might be needed. Then, as it gets old, we run into parts obsolescence, unresilient supply chains, out of business manufacturers, etc.

What if we just treated that stuff like rental fleets? Buy just enough to satisfy recurring needs, and refresh them every so-many years? In other words, when it wears out...just get a new one! It may sound more expensive on the surface, but would it really be? Instead of maintaining all that workforce, facilities, contract baseline to maintain part supply chains, etc., what if we kept hot production lines with the equipment manufacturers? Our organic industrial base could focus on core competencies, and when my forklift gets old or obsolete...well...get me a new one. Or even crazier, maybe we lease some portion of them. When is the last time you got into a rental car that was more than a few years old? And when you go to car dealerships, don't you see a line of vehicles that are only a few years old that are being resold from rental companies?

“But,” you say, “what about when the balloon goes up and we need to surge?” Well, what would USTRANSCOM do? For our global deployment and distribution system, we have the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) and Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA). In the event we need surge lift, USTRANSCOM can activate CRAF and VISA to generate strategic air and surface lift from commercial entities. Don’t you think we could work similar agreements with companies who provide engineer equipment, generators, trucking fleets, etc.? After all, some of our stuff is just commercial gear painted green, right? Maybe then we wouldn’t need to maintain so much. And all the “tail” that goes with that...facilities, manpower, etc…could perhaps be reinvested in higher priority efforts.

3. Lighten the (tactical) load--a focus on core competencies

A senior leader recently said to me that we should “focus on what we do best.” That’s broadly true, but I’d like to focus on tactical logistics in the Fleet Marine Force (FMF). The key word here is tactical. If we are thinking about fighting in a distributed, contested, maritime environment, why are we burdening our tactical logistics elements (Marine Logistics Groups (MLGs)) with heavy operational level tasks like component repair, warehousing, etc. Certainly these are necessary capabilities, but are they tactical? Will we rapidly deploy them inside the first island chain? Engine repair, for example, requires robust test equipment in hard-stand, sterile environment facilities; it further requires detailed expertise well beyond basic mechanic skills. Yet we consume manpower resources inside the FMF, maintain schools and instructor cadres who train an arguably inadequate number of Marines (who may or may not serve in intermediate maintenance units), etc. Secondly, can someone please tell me in what scenario we’ll deploy a big warehouse inside th

e Weapons Engagement Zone? Each MEF currently maintains Supply Management Units (perhaps better called regional distribution centers) and Repairable Issue Points independently and separately from the rest of the enterprise. They must locally calculate and maintain inventory requirements...to include the long-term planning, budgeting, etc., to fund the operation. The lack of enterprise integration inhibits any sort of actual supply chain optimization work, as MEFs each do their operations their own way. Supply chain management is a pretty well established trade. Heck, you can get a masters degree in it (the Marine Corps even sends two officers each year to Penn State for this very reason!), but can we truly leverage the principles of supply chain management inside the tactical units without enterprise integration?

Again--focus on core competencies. In tactical logistics, we’re talking about battlefield distribution, field-level maintenance, combat medicine, engineering, and basic services. This is plenty to focus on, especially when considering distributed and contested maritime environments. What if we put the burden of these larger operational level tasks on our Marine Corps unit who has...Operational Level Logistics as one of its Mission Essential Tasks (I’m again talking about LOGCOM here)? And already performs much of these functions elsewhere? Could we not gain efficiencies? Who, would you say, is...or should be...the "Vice President of Supply Chain" for the Marine Corps? “Efficiency is all well and good,” you say, “but what about effectiveness...especially in combat?” Fair point, if we thought about this in the status quo environment.

That mindset also reveals one of our basic weaknesses: Lack of trust in our systems and supporting establishment. With appropriate integration, forward positioning, and some basic investments in modernization, is it not reasonable that this construct could effectively...I daresay better...support and sustain our warfighting capabilities? We trust MLGs to provide support above and beyond the organic capabilities of the other elements of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). Why would we not trust our Supporting Establishment...especially one for which operational level logistics is a core competency...to provide support above and beyond the MAGTF’s capabilities? Yes, this would require work and challenge some deeply held convictions. But given what the Commandant is trying to do with Force Design, can we afford to just think small and tweak around the margins? I think not.


I admit that these few thoughts are only partially fleshed out. I also know there are tons of other ideas out there (which I’d encourage our smart and innovative folks to write about!). The ideas I’ve written about here, and the others bumping around in my head that I haven’t put on paper yet, certainly contain flaws, and pursuing any of them would require a great deal of effort and study. But I suggest that now is the time to do this--I’d call it a Force Design imperative! There is plenty more to write about in the arena of modernization, getting away from an Industrial Era approach, Industry 4.0, etc., that would be critical to logistics, but perhaps we’ll save that for next time. For now, suffice it to say that incremental adjustments around the margins that simply make improvements on what we’ve always done is almost certainly insufficient to meet the demands of the 2030 Marine Corps.

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