“You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won — or lost — primarily because of logistics.”
— General Dwight D Eisenhower
The Indian Armed Forces operationalised, on 1 April 2021, the third Joint Logistics Node (JLN) at Mumbai (other two being at Guwahati and Port Blair), even as work continues to establish Tri-Service Commands, and Air Defence and Maritime Commands.
The Defence Ministry, noting that future wars will be fought by integrated Services, added that the successful functioning of the three JLNs, which “will provide integrated logistics cover to the armed forces for small arms ammunition, rations, fuel, general stores, civil hired transport, aviation clothing, spares and also engineering support”, are an “important stepping stone” for opening more such nodes in India.
Integrated joint logistics can facilitate large savings in manpower, establishment costs, and item costs through economies of scale. And when underpinned by a responsive economy, allow a nation flexibility in decision-making and deterrence options.
However, what was left unsaid was who would be handling Service-specific specialist stores and munitions, including calibres beyond small arms — which means that some Service-specific logistic/munition depots would still continue to operate — which perhaps is a good decision, given the diversity of equipment held by the three Services.
What Is War?
Sparse Understanding that inside sovereign Indian territory, where we can muster any sized force, fighting two-to-eight terrorists, who with a limited amount of ammunition and sustenance, no means of re-supply and nowhere to run away to, is definitely not war.
The JLNs, expected to be part of the envisaged Joint Logistics Command, are intended to serve the integrated tri-Service commands when they come up. They are a significant departure from a mindset, particularly in the Indian Army, which had constantly sought to “cut down the tail” to add more “teeth”, as also raise additional combat formations by pruning manpower from other fighting units. “Tail” refers to the logistics/administrative support components of a force. This mindset was unmindful of the changes in warfare, military technologies and their effect on fighting strategies, even though logistics had decided the fate of many battles and wars.
Post-Independence India has not fought an all-out, full-fledged, ‘total’ war involving long movements. As we aren’t very good at retaining and building on organisational wisdom, the lessons of World Wars I and II — and of 1962 — departed with the Indian veterans who fought in those wars.
Additionally, as evident from many statements, counter-terrorist / counter-insurgency operations were assumed to be the ‘new normal’ for war. There was sparse understanding about what war is. That fighting two-to-eight terrorists — who have a limited amount of ammunition and sustenance, no means of re-supply and nowhere to run away to — inside sovereign Indian territory, is definitely not war.
Some propounded we may witness only 1999 Kargil-type situations; few others assumed that future wars will be short, which in turn required the combat force to be a ‘one-shot wonder’ with little in reserve. Overall, it wasn’t obvious that even the finest operational war-plan will have little chance of succeeding if mated to unexceptional logistics.
What Warfare Is No Longer About & The Role Of Logistics
There was also thin awareness that since World-War-II, warfare is no longer about hefty soldiers ceaselessly swinging a sword or a pike, but about weapons and systems which require constant renewal and supply right into the battlefield, and without which even the bravest soldier will wither. The harsh reality is that modern weapon platforms consume gargantuan amounts of fuel, oils, ammunition, spares, maintenance, water, etc.
For example, during Operation Desert Shield (1991), the US’s 24th Infantry Division (Mechanised), comprising 18,000 soldiers, 1,575 tracked vehicles, 3,500 wheeled vehicles, 90 helicopters and supporting equipment and supplies, consumed 13 lakh litres of diesel, 1.89 lakh litres of aviation fuel, 8.1 lakh litres of water, 2,400 tons of ammunition and 208 x 40-foot containers of other supplies each day. Add to this the dispersion of forces across a battlefield and logistics losses inherent in any war zone — and the import of credible logistic forces becomes clear.
In contrast, Western war-fighting doctrines have always recognised the role of logistics.
This is because by World War-II, mechanisation and proliferation of automatic weapons, aircraft, ships and submarines had required setting-up of large factories, plants and depots for mass production of platforms, weapons, ammunition, etc to sustain the battlefield efforts of fighting elements.
In sum: warfare had become industrial in nature. Hence, during the Cold War, one of the main aims of NATO’s AirLand Battle was to hit enemy reserves and logistics deep inside. The requirement of logistics and logisticians has only been increasing since.
Chinese Army’s Logistics Initiative
Even as we obsessed with increasing the tooth-to-tail (T3) ratio, a fascinating 2007 study by John McGrath for the US Army’s Combat Studies Institute found that the US military’s tooth-to-tail (T3) ratio had been declining over the last century:
- during World War I, the United States initially fielded about twice as many combat troops as support troops, that is, a 2:1 tooth-to-tail ratio
- by the end of World War-II, that changed to a T3 ratio of 2:3, with only 40 percent of troops in the European theatre being combat troops, and the rest being headquarters, administrative, logistics, and support troops
- by 1953 (Korea), the T3R was about 1:3
- in the 1991 Gulf War, it was even lower — about 1:3.3
Incidentally, in 2015, China’s PLA had created the Logistic Support Department (LSD) and Joint Logistic Support Force (JLSF) to better support joint operations. The LSD is responsible for strategic logistics planning, coordinating military-civil fusion, and deriving strategic priorities. The JLSF manages the implementation of the joint logistics support system, coordinating logistics, personnel, and supplies to theatre commands through five joint logistics support centers (JLSC), each aligned with a specific theatre command.
With both conventional and unconventional threats increasing and escalating in some cases, and military budgets stagnating, establishing JLNs for servicing the envisioned integrated theatre commands is indeed an imperative. However, a few issues must be addressed before assuming that the nascent system will deliver:
- One: the adequacy of the system to meet the requirements of not only war, but also of the levels of readiness envisioned. This issue ties directly into economics and budgets. The Ladakh deployment exemplifies how staying in a state of heightened readiness can literally rundown materials, supplies and personnel while waiting for a war. This is the reason why many militaries ‘limp’ to war.
- Two: seamless integration of civil transportation (road, rail, and even air, in certain cases) is required for an assured ability to deliver from the hinterland right into the midst of battlefields.
- Three: ensuring that those manning joint logistics are well-aware of the tasks, roles and requirements of joint force manoeuvre units, particularly operational and tactical interoperability issues. The wide diversity of weapons/systems held by various Services and their fancy names complicates this understanding. That’s one reason why the US’s joint commands ended up paying USD 644.75 for a dime-sized gear that sells for USD 12.51, or USD 71.01 for a cotter pin that costs 4 cents.
- Four: in fast-moving integrated joint operations, the force structures are likely to change with different missions or even as the mission progresses. This often makes it difficult to derive the right balance between logistics and combat forces.
- Five: hence, the need to rigorously test and validate logistics organisations under demanding field conditions.
(The author is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)