Dec 17, 2018 | 11:00 GMT

7 mins read

Why Logistics Will Be Key to Any U.S. Conflict With Russia and China

Sailors attached to Navy Cargo Handling Battalion 1 with Detachment Guam move supplies from a naval base in Guam to the fast transport ship USNS Brunswick on Sept. 1, 2018.
  • The geographic distance that helps protect the United States will impinge upon its ability to project force across the Eurasian landmass unless it can improve its logistical supply chain.
  • The emergence of new technologies, a weakening merchant marine fleet and many diplomatic issues such as national borders will all hinder Washington's ability to deploy in Eurasia.
  • Aware of the challenges, the United States will continue its efforts to solve these problems through the establishment of new NATO commands, the purchase of new vessels and the harnessing of new AI technology.

Whether it's the development of new weaponry, the competition to sway middle powers, the collapse of arms control treaties or more, a number of issues have come to dominate the headlines in regard to the nascent great power competition among the United States, Russia and China. But there's another critical topic that has attracted far less attention but is of great concern for Washington: logistics. As it faces the prospect of conflict with Russia or China in Eurasia, the United States has no choice but to get its organizational house in order if it is to wage an effective battle.

The Big Picture

Competition between great powers is a defining theme of our times. As the United States gears up to challenge China and Russia in a number of domains, logistics and — more specifically — the ability to project and sustain its military forces in Eurasia will be a critical component of that competition.

The Blessing and Curse of Isolation

The United States is blessed with a geography that has given it two wide oceans to guard its flanks, insulating it from many direct challenges to the homeland. But the same isolation that helps protect the United States also becomes a tyranny of distance when it comes to the U.S. military's ability to project force on the Eurasian landmass. During both World War II and the Cold War, the United States had to account for (and, in the case of World War II, battle across) the Atlantic Ocean to deploy forces in Europe. Similarly, the United States has created a vast logistics chain to ensure its ability to project forces across the Pacific Ocean to East Asia, Australasia and beyond.

Today, the United States benefits greatly from supply chains and transportation infrastructure that allow it to trade and deploy its forces across large distances in peacetime. Nevertheless, the United States must prepare for the real possibility that it will not enjoy such unencumbered access to maritime routes if its competition with either China or Russia escalates into open hostilities. And compounding the issue for Washington is the emergence of new disruptive technologies, the weakening strength of the United States' merchant marine fleet and the myriad diplomatic issues that Washington must consider every time it crosses national boundaries.

Washington's Transport Woes

If it faces its great power competitors in any armed conflict, the United States would have to move its forces rapidly across huge distances, since forward-deployed U.S. forces in Europe and the western Pacific would not be sufficient on their own to address Russia and China, respectively. Naturally, reinforcements in the form of troops and munitions would have to reach these forces as quickly as possible, yet their route would more likely be by ship than by plane, since there are limits to how much the United States can send by air to a conflict region — even with Washington's large inventory of transport aircraft. As the former head of the U.S. Transportation Command noted last year, the United States only has enough strategic transport aircraft to lift one armored brigade combat team (amounting to 5,000 troops and several hundred vehicles) to a theater of operations. It is thus the Navy that would have to shoulder most of the responsibility for transporting material to sustain a major conflict in Eurasia; in fact, the force has calculated that it would need to transport about 90 percent of the Marine Corps and Army equipment necessary to fight such a battle.

In so doing, Russia and China would naturally attempt to intercept U.S. forces on the high seas, long before American forces arrive at their destination. Russian submarines are, once more, displaying increasing activity in the North Atlantic, while the Chinese navy is dispatching vessels further into the Pacific as it grows in strength each year. Furthermore, emerging technologies could make the slow-going U.S. transport ships even more vulnerable to attack. The development of cruise missiles with ever-longer ranges, anti-ship ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons could allow Russian and Chinese forces to engage U.S. transport ships from huge distances, especially when enabled by sophisticated satellite constellations such as China's BeiDou navigational satellite network.

An aging sealift roster and a lack of sufficient escorts would also challenge the U.S. logistical effort. According to Defense News, the U.S. Navy has been warning the U.S. Military Sealift Command that there are simply too few warships to adequately escort the slow transports, as the former will be too busy fighting at the front during a major conflict. And according to a U.S. Navy report on the issue from March, Sealift Command itself will seriously lack enough transport vessels, especially come the end of the 2020s.

The U.S. military requirement is for 15.3 million square feet (1.4 million square meters) of government-owned sealift capacity, along with an additional 4.3 million square feet (399,000 square meters) of capacity to be supplied by U.S. flagged commercial ships. But according to the study, this capacity is rapidly declining and will likely fall as far as 12 million square feet (1.11 million square meters) by 2030. What's more, many of the vessels currently in service require extensive maintenance because of their advanced age; the fact that a significant number of these ships still use obsolete, steam-based propulsion will only compound Washington's headaches.

It does not matter how capable, how well-trained or how advanced a nation's forces are if they can't get to the front in time.

And even if the United States were to successfully run a Russian and Chinese gauntlet at sea, it would encounter plenty of problems once it arrives at its destination, including political, infrastructure and even bureaucratic issues. During its recent deployment of rotational forces to Europe following Russia's takeover of Crimea, U.S. forces often found themselves bedeviled by long delays in their overland journeys to Eastern Europe, as they had to wait at borders for permission to cross and cope with infrastructure that was ill-suited for heavy military vehicles. While a conflict in the western Pacific would be a largely maritime and air affair, thereby necessitating fewer bureaucratic hassles at borders, Washington would still face political issues, as it would have to acquire permission to operate from airbases and ports across Japan and, potentially, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines at a time when some of these countries may be loath to provoke China.

The Search for Solutions

With these array of problems to consider, the United States is seeking solutions to ensure its forces and their equipment arrive in Eurasia during a crisis. To ensure greater coordination and unity of effort, NATO is establishing two new commands. The U.S.-based Atlantic Command will focus on coordinating allied efforts to facilitate access across the North Atlantic, while the Germany-based Logistics Command will ensure that U.S. troops arriving in Europe, as well as allied troops already stationed there, will experience no difficulty in rapidly deploying to the front. In addition, the United States also re-established the 2nd Fleet in July to guarantee U.S. naval dominance in the North Atlantic.

And to mitigate the lack of sufficient warships as escorts, military authorities are encouraging transport ships to learn how to reduce their visibility to potential enemies by reducing their electronic emissions. The United States is also exploring the potential of purchasing more transport ships on the commercial market to reduce its growing sealift shortfall, even if such a solution is not straightforward due to the expense and the need to retrofit them for military transport. But perhaps most promising in the long run for Washington is the advent of new technology such as logistics chains that are managed by artificial intelligence, as these can increase the efficiency and responsiveness of U.S. strategic logistics.

The questions surrounding the United States' ability to deploy to the far-flung corners of the globe provide a timely reminder of the primacy of logistics in war planning. After all, it does not matter how capable, how well-trained or how advanced a nation's forces are if they can't get to the front in time. As the United States gears up for its looming battle with Russia and China, logistical concerns will naturally be front and center in the minds of the country's military planners.

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