Updated: Sep 4, 2019
The 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) has both simplified efforts by narrowing the Marine Corps’ focus, and complicated them, by asserting that the old ways of doing business and seminal documents and guidance are no longer untouchable and should be challenged. From an innovation standpoint, this is a great reset button and culture shift. However, noticeably absent from the CPG are references to supply chain management and logistics [other than a brief reference to Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) reevaluation]. So the question for the logisticians in the room, is how are we going to execute these more complex, dispersed operations from a logistics perspective? Current methods will not suffice.
The mandate for the Marine Corps to perform as the “naval expeditionary force-in-readiness” and the implied task for increased naval logistics integration (NLI), must be balanced against the likelihood that the Corps’ logistics community will not grow, as valuable manpower structure is shifting towards building capabilities in contested spaces (e.g., information environment operations). Additionally, the demand for increased unit dispersion and the deployment of smaller units throughout the world in support of the naval force creates logistical challenges not previously encountered. Achieving emerging operational naval concepts with current Marine Corps systematic and resource constraints necessitates a purposeful shift to full NLI.
Dispersed, dynamic operations where concentration is avoided imposes uncertainty and costs upon adversaries but also creates challenge for the logistics community. Current constraints eliminate the solution of resourcing more capacity; the Marine Corps must create additional capacity through more effective and efficient logistical operations in concert with the joint force, specifically the Navy. Established resources, both supply and distribution, are under-employed within the Marine Corps, largely due to a lack of system interfaces and user training as well as limited “last tactical mile” connectors. A coherent strategy to link systems, more efficiently use resources, streamline priority requirement fulfilment, and position critical items in support of contingencies, can simultaneously reduce day-to-day costs while improving readiness across distributed maritime operations.
Logistically supporting distributed maritime operations requires information sharing at
all levels and a holistic approach to aligning steps in the broader supply chain process. Key areas for improvement include complete integration with Navy Supply (NAVSUP), the implementation of a “control tower concept,” and the introduction of technologies to provide near-real time updates on stock levels, distribution status, and warfighter requirements.
To achieve further NAVSUP Integration, the Navy and Marine Corps should maintain their emphasis on the integration of policy, doctrine, business processes, technologies, and systems as enablers to strategic concepts. At present, the Navy and Marine Corps ground supply systems operate independently of one another and are unusable in a joint environment. Instead, tactical level units must resort to manual processes, delaying demand planning and reducing accountability and efficiency. Ideally, the Navy and Marine Corps should use integrated or interoperable ground supply systems to facilitate NLI. Integration should link together functions currently performed by Global Combat Support System-Marine Corps (GCSS-MC), Navy Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Web- Standard Automated Logistics Tool Set (SALTS), and Navy One Touch Support (OTS).
A more profound change would be the implementation of a “control tower” concept within the Corps. The days of an iron mountain co-located with forward units are gone. The next evolutionary step in supply chain management is to implement a control tower fourth party logistics model currently being developed by leading corporate logistics organizations. This concept can be implemented by combining the current supply management unit (SMU) operations, general account, deployed support unit, fiscal, customer service, and Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) material distribution center’s (MMDC) operations sections. The control tower will be a one-stop shop for naval integration, operational planning, inventory management, data analysis, vendor relations, customer assistance, sourcing, and training. This concept establishes a single point of contact to control every aspect of the supply chain process. The control tower is intended to streamline process steps, incorporate modified industry technologies, create transparency, and allow enterprise-wide data collection and sourcing. The benefits include improved command and control of dispersed stocks, the establishment of a strategic enabler linking communication among the deployed support teams, the ability to aggregate demand patterns of preposition stocks to maximize readiness, a center of excellence to train uniformed subject matter experts, and a dedicated liaison to interact with NAVSUP, the joint force, and external support agencies.
The final systems requirement necessary to enable and sustain CPG concepts is to fill visibility gaps. Current methods to track and account for supplies in maritime distributed operations are fractured due to non-interfacing systems, slow feedback mechanisms, manual documentation errors, and inaccurate performance data. The feedback loop must be closed, and accurate data must be collected to provide near real-time updates that improve the timeliness and accuracy of warfighter support. Technology solutions that track shipments through the entire distribution process allow for automated or one-touch receipting, and enable complete global positioning satellite (GPS) asset tracking. This visibility is necessary to inform key decisions at multiple levels, specifically in designing distribution routes, monitoring unit stocks and requirements, and updating unit positions for ship-to addresses in near real-time. To operate in distributed environments, the Marine Corps must have total process visibility. This visibility would support Marines despite the task, from using unmanned logistics connectors to reducing the cognitive burden to the warfighter in requisitioning combat essential items.
The Marine Corps will act as the Naval Expeditionary Force through persistent naval forward presence, both projected from the sea and sustained ashore. This necessitates deployed support teams (DSTs) who are subject matter experts co-located with deployed units and capable of pulling data and resources from the entire supply chain. They are directly reportable to the control tower, control deliberate combat essential item staging to maximize readiness and resiliency, and promote a lean culture of fulfilling needs, not wants.
The control tower will deploy scalable DSTs made up of inventory managers (formerly warehouse clerks), expediters, and packaging specialists out with tailored inventories to support dispersed units. While working at III Marine Expeditionary Force to support Marine expeditionary units, MPF operations, and exercises in a dozen countries simultaneously I observed that a Deployed Support Unit (DSU) detachment or a Distribution Liaison Cell (DLC) were highly beneficial to supporting operations; but they seldom deployed together. When you combine the two into a DST, the entire supply and distribution spectrum is able to collaborate, and provides a convenient capability set with aligned interests. As demand is registered with these DSTs, the control tower will adjust SMU stock positions, track transportation assets (e.g., organic, naval, and United States Transportation Command), and coordinate sourcing solutions with outside agencies. This would require the DST personnel to be highly trained on NAVSUP systems, distribution networks, Defense Logitics Agency business rules, and sourcing techniques. It is important these DSTs belong to the control tower/SMU and not a direct support combat logistics battalion (CLB). The control tower must control these teams and move them in general support as needed, must have accountability of the teams’ assets, and must rotate personnel within the SMU organization to maintain proficiency and conduct specific training. This cannot be done if DSTs are within a CLB, where there is limited supply expertise and a narrow focus on direct versus general support to a single unit.
The futuristic aspect to facilitating dispersion is augmented distribution. With the noted shortfalls inherent to the maritime prepositioning squadrons in maintaining readiness levels and the vulnerability of a large concentration of combat essential items in a single location, current Marine Corps positioning distribution must shift to a connected network of stocks controlled by humans and delivered mostly autonomously. Unmanned surface vessels and aircraft as conceptualized through multiple efforts spanning Installations & Logistics’s NEXLOG, Marine Corps University’s Gray Scholars, and the Naval Innovation Advisory Council, provide numerous prototypes that can be scaled for use at all supply chain levels, from wholesale to the last tactical mile.
Once the key players are in place and autonomous vehicles are incorporated into distribution plans, the necessary data for deliberate staging will begin to populate, supporting critical supply chain decisions. The most critical function of a military supply system is supporting operations via effectiveness by maintaining excess distribution capacity to surge for variability related to critical requirements. This system has a push focus with the intent of prestaging critical items closest to the requirement knowing that holding costs, expired shelf-life risks, threat of loss, and sunk transportation costs are expected. This is inefficient but necessary as time and availability trump all. Prestaging can no longer be concentrated at supply management unit warehouses, naval fleet logistics centers, and maritime prepositioning ships. The use of tools such as “Block Builder 3000” (a tool that analyzes an equipment density listing, maintenance trends, and demand data locally and across the Corps) and other analytical tools to build tailored stocks based on plans, equipment density listings, and special mission considerations can reduce the size of prestaged stocks to configurations that support expeditionary operations aboard a variety of platforms (e.g., naval vessels, military aircraft, motor transport assets, expeditionary resupply points at forward positions, partner nation facilities). The key to success is actively tracking and reconfiguring these stocks to ensure operational relevance as well as item rotation for serviceability. The control tower can track shelf-life and usage to direct DST reconfiguration on the ground into various packaging options to support a variety of mission and equipment sets.
Lastly, but just as critical for success is a cultural shift. Dispersed operations stretch supply lines and limit throughput. Smaller teams of Marines must make decisions with an austere mindset, focused on requirements, to accomplish the mission versus convenience. The key for the last tactical mile of NLI to work is to strictly limit this to truly critical items and not treat expedited requests for convenience sake as critical. Limiting the rapid response function to clearly defined requirements categories will prevent the undermining of the more efficient supply chain function of sustained routine, persistently forward naval presence. As logistical integration requires a holistic approach so must Marine culture shift to look at broader naval objectives and make informed decisions knowing that individual tactical decisions impact adjacent units and the overall mission.
Increased NLI benefits both the Marine Corps and the Naval Service in improving communication, cultivating further logistical interoperability, and maximizing use of existing resources to inform fiscally sound decisions to procure resources in line with future threats. Two lines of efforts to achieve this end state are improving systems and facilitating dispersion. The Corps’ logistics systems must integrate fully with naval systems; a control tower model must connect the network; and mobile technology solutions must maximize the supply chain and distribution process visibility. To facilitate dispersion, the Corps must alter current supply battalion structures to create scalable DSTs; the Naval Service must continue to develop and incorporate unmanned delivery systems; deliberate critical stocks must be positioned in tailored and agile configurations; and the Corps must instill a culture of logistical moderation to maximize the responsiveness of a dispersed system. By improving system integration and support to distributed forces, the Corps could modernize the logistics processes and tools needed to succeed at their newly focused role as the naval expeditionary force in readiness.
Maj Fretwell is a ground supply officer currently serving as a foreign area officer on the staff at Marine Corps University.