How much to move, how fast and how far?

Murray Brewster’s article entitled “DND to drop costly cargo ship” in the Thursday, 28 July, issue of The Chronicle Herald reports on the continuing problems with commercial charter arrangements to move large volumes of military equipment and supplies.  Readers should check Dave Perry’s first post on this subject to get the ‘low-down’ on the problems that DND has had with chartering commercial ships in the past: it has been a sorry litany of bad planning, poor contract writing and inept execution.  All of this comes at a time when the CF is getting ready to return to Canada the equivalent volume of “130 football fields of equipment and supplies” (as reported last night on Global National TV News).  Why are Canadians so bad at planning high-level logistics?

I contend that this stems from the history and employment of the CF during the Cold War and before.  Canada’s military forces have only recently had to become ‘expeditionary’ in the nature of their employment and movement.  To operate away from an established supporting base and beyond the range of operational sustainment capabilities is not something the Canadian army or air force has done very much of throughout their histories.  When they did, it was an exercise is ‘make do with what we can get from wherever we can get it’.  The ad hoc nature of logistics planning in Canada is one of the key indicators of the tactical focus of the culture of the military.  The mantra that argues for the reduction in ‘tail’ to preserve ‘tooth’ inevitably cuts away at logistical capacity.

The navy is a bit different than the other two services in that it has built-in capacity to conduct operational sustainment for tactical forces deployed from home base beyond their normal radius of employment.  The navy has done this through the acquisition of the Auxiliary Oiler-Replenishment ships (AORs).  The history of the development of the AORs is very poorly understood but those interested in it can learn more by reading my article entitled “Canadian Naval Operational Logistics: Lessons Learned, Lost, and Relearned?” It can be found in The Northern Mariner, Volume XX, Number 4 (October 2010), on pages 361-383 (not available electronically). This limited capacity to self-sustain allows naval forces the ability to range widely, often crossing theatre boundaries.  But, this is not a strategic capacity.  Strategic sealift has traditionally been viewed as something else entirely.

Outside of times ‘hot’ war, Canada has not had much in the way of strategic sealift, relying instead on the capacities of it’s allies or on chartered commercial vessels to move major forces across long distances and into new operating areas.  The predictability of the security environment generally made it possible to settle into routine rotations, which is exactly what commercial service provides prefer.  The unpredictability of the new security environment is a new problem that the CF is still struggling to understand and manage.  The response times demanded by new security threats has challenged the CF’s ability to respond, which Brewster’s article acknowledges: “The decision comes as the Defence Department concedes that future operations could mean in the post-July 2012 period, (that) CF readiness levels may require a faster response in the deployment of troops and equipment overseas.”  It was thought that the negotiation of a new contract for commercial sealift was the way to secure reasonable responsiveness, but Brewster shows that has proved not to be the case: “A case in point was the Haiti relief effort where C-17 transport planes were able to be on the ground within hours of the disaster, but it took up to three weeks to ship vehicles and equipment to peacekeepers (sic) deployed in the ruined country.” (It should be added that Canadian warships were also deployed very rapidly, but they came will almost no logistical capacity.)  Three weeks is clearly inadequate responsiveness when a G-8 country commits to assisting a country in distress.

So, what to do?  The Joint Support Ship is unlikely to be the answer to the problem by itself.  The cost factors have forced major reductions in its capacity and capability.  Likewise, the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship has been cut down in size to shave the cost down.  In both cases, the logistical capacity of the ships will be reduced because the navy values combat capability above all else.  A new approach that puts equal value on logistical capacity is needed.  Increasing the endurance and volumetric capacity of naval tactical units reduces the demand for operational support, sustainment and supply.  [Canada has neither naval operational support or supply units.] Reserving capacity in both tactical combat and operational sustainment units for logistical capacity can create the initial elements of a strategic capability to move materials, which can be complemented by strategic airlift.  But these are just ‘drops in the bucket’ and will be inadequate for fighting a major ‘forest fire’.

How much lift capacity is enough?  There are at least two ways to look at the problem: what needs to be done, or what we are able to do?  Currently, Canada has capacity that cannot be moved or sustained.  Danish Defence Minister, Gitte Lillelund Beck, made this point at the Halifax International Security Forum.  She said that ‘the problem’ with NATO’s force structure is that about 30 percent of it is deployable but only about 10 percent of it is sustainable.  In Canada’s case, the CF has struggled to deploy and sustain a force to Afghanistan for low intensity operations that represents only about 2 percent of its total force structure in, and that has only been accomplished by the emergency acquisition of the ‘Globemaster’ C-17 and new ‘Hercules’ C-130 transport aircraft. While Brewster’s article complains of nearly $18M wasted by inactivity of the chartered cargo ship, it does not examine the hundreds of millions spent to acquire and operate transport aircraft in long-haul supply efforts.  Afghanistan has many constrictions in the supply chain that increase costs and restricted the operating capacity of the deployed force.  Now, it is reported that DND is getting ready to establish a ‘logistics hub’ in Kuwait.  The MND is quoted as saying: “Naval assets at the [Ali Al Salam base] will prove invaluable as Canada seeks to get heavy equipment like tanks and light armoured vehicles home by ship.”  It may be that most of this heavy equipment will be flown into the Kuwait City Airport and then transferred to a commercial ship.  The strategic movement cost should be viewed as a total of the air and the sea transport: it will be monumental, mostly because of the air component of it.

In the naval context, the sealift effort that forms part of a ‘supply chain’ is not a continuous connection at all, but a series of packets of various sizes and volumes that move along a flexible route at various times and varying speed.  The constrictions on loading and unloading and the constraints on the size, speed and volume of loads are all vitally important considerations when planning the scope, intensity and duration of naval operations.  Operational pauses are usually euphemisms for period of enforced inaction when problems in the supply organization result in demand that cannot be met. The supply chain will balance the competing demands of efficiency and effectiveness.  Critically urgent small loads needed to maintain effectiveness are most often moved by the most rapid means available, but the cost can be prohibitive; often rated as dollars per ton-mile, depending upon the type of airlift employed.  Whatever the movement option, cost and other efficiency penalties will be incurred for the sake of timeliness.  For less critical items, economy and efficiency dictate achieving moving maximum quantities within the available volume.  The extra time needed for onloading and offloading high volume “tight loads” is acceptable because of the gains in long-term efficiency.  Movement by sea provides the option of achieving strategically significant volumes at very low cost; often only a few cents per ton-mile, with the attendant increase in time taken to move the load.  However, in terms of total volumes moved over periods of time, generally the discriminating point is between two or three weeks; sealift will decisively outstrip the volumes that can be moved by airlift and will do so at substantially lower cost. For some oversized or especially heavy cargoes there is no option for them to be shipped by air.

The study of logistics, from the strategic to the operational, is a vital element in national defence planning.  Canada is in the infancy stages of deciding what capacity it needs to maintain in order to respond effectively to threats, emergencies and human distress.  The navy needs to attach more value to volumetric capacity and logistical capability if it wants to become both a flexible and useful force in the future.  Currently, it is a decidedly limited combat-oriented product of the Cold War.