Naval Logistics in the 21st Century

It is said that efficient afloat support is critical in maintaining the wide phantasm of current naval operations around the world. From supporting troops engaged in expeditionary missions, the protection of crucial shipping lanes, to occupying in humanitarian missions, afloat support has never been more significant and this trend will continue to grow in the near future.

In peace and war, the present mission of naval logistics for most Navies is to provide and sustain operational readiness by getting the right support to the right place at the right time. In peace, operational readiness bases from the ability of naval forces to accomplish a wide range of day to day activities. In war, operational readiness is the antecedent of war fighting effectiveness.

But is this enough in the war fighting age we now find ourselves in?

As I write, dawn is breaking over a placid Indian Ocean. A naval auxiliary from a Western Navy is on the horizon. But all is not as it might be. That vessel is carrying military stores. It does not hold goods that might provide aid to Somalia or Yemen. Its charge is entirely directed at support for military forces in the Gulf. Yet it cannot support smaller navies around the Gulf Region.

It’s a national asset, occasionally used to support other forces on an specific basis. It carries no Command & Control capability to provide a platform for aid to civil power operations. It is expensive to build and is expensive to operate.

Naval afloat support is completing 60 years this year. The modern Fleet Train was born out of the need to provide support to US Forces operating across the Pacific, although small and successful attempts were also being made concurrently by the German submarine flotilla to resupply its submarines using Milch Cows – or ‘Milk Cows’ – in the furthest reaches of the Atlantic.

By the end of the Second World War, the US Navy had built specialized afloat support vessels. The Kreisgmarine relied on Type XIV U-boats which were modifications of the Type IXD, They had no torpedo tubes or deck guns, only anti-aircraft guns. Due to its large size, the Type XIV could resupply other boats with 400 tons of fuel, four torpedoes, and fresh food that were preserved in refrigerator units. In addition, the boats were equipped with bakeries, in order to render the luxury of fresh bread for crews being resupplied.

And by the end of the Second World War, the Royal Navy had understood that ‘Fleet Trains’ equilibrated (and in due course largely replaced) naval resupply bases around the globe and were a critical and integrated component for a Blue Water Navy.

30 years ago, a Royal Navy Task Force sailed to the South Atlantic to uphold historical Sovereign rights. That task force would not have succeeded without interlinking afloat and ashore support provided by dedicated military, merchant seamen and civilians. ‘Logistics is the tendons of War’ so said Admiral Sandy Woodward, a Task Force commander quoting an earlier commander of an 18th century campaign.

But that was 1982, we need a new approach in 2012?

Modern afloat support is now said to apply to support for Oceanic Navies in the form of Sea Basing or near offshore logistic support and traditional fuel and solid stores support in dedicated naval vessels or chartered ships.

But the last 30 years has seen a detectable shift from direct military intervention from sea to land based operations supported by air bridges and commercial charter.

Of late, operations have included external military force, humanitarian aid and reconstruction capability and stimulation and support for internal asymmetric agents.

In all of these interventions, where the humanitarian role of the armed forces has evolved, discussion has focused around three separate categories: military support to emergency or disaster relief efforts, the problematic notion of humanitarian intervention and the provision of humanitarian assistance during combat operations.

The first category has proved to be the least contentious certainly from British experiences in places like Mozambique and Montserrat. In these types of humanitarian disaster relief operations, the UK military has acted as a subcontractor to the wider foreign relief effort through its Department for International Development (DFID).

The military including key naval forces has been deployed for a specific task within a permissive environment which has allowed them to adopt a benign force posture.

However, co-ordination of effort with local forces and humanitarian aid (mostly NGO) organizations has not been without problems. In many instances, NGO dislike working with military and naval forces, yet do not have the Command and Control structures to allow them to deliver aid optimally. Nor are most NGOS able to set up and pay for sophisticated supply chains and transport links. In turn, the military find dealing with freewheeling and loosely managed civilian aid workers, challenging.

While there is no such thing as a standard operation procedures, the key dogmas covered in Humanitarian/Disaster Relief Operations are universal.

The UK Government sees CIMIC as a key enabler to facilitate mission success in Civil Military Cooperation. It sees CIMIC as a process rather than an activity.

The UK Government suggests that military services engaged in such activities should, whenever possible, take advice and overall direction from a coordinating civilian authority or humanitarian agency and should hand over responsibility for the humanitarian task at the earliest opportunity.

However, in 2010, the UK Homeland Security Minister went further, and suggested that non defence departments should provide money to establish a UK CIMIC organization which uses cores Military Command & Control capability and experience but embraces the wider aspects of modern intervention by acting as a platform for civilian NGOs and civilian multinationals with reconstruction and infrastructure development capability.

The Chinese have already adopted this approach. Naval Afloat support is part of a broader Chinese, diplomatic, economic and structural approach to protect its homeland.

The Indian Navy ten year plan spends time explaining how its Navy will be part of wider Indian humanitarian aid effort.

Way back in 1996, the USN Naval War College issued a White Paper that offered a revised naval strategic maritime concept that embodied from the Sea, a concurrent examination of the naval operational logistics elements necessary to support many-sided sea driven operations.

According to the USN, naval forces are vital in shaping the environment needed to enhance national security. A strong naval team capable of determent, war at sea and from the sea, and operations other than war is essential to that effort.

And key to that strength, is Naval Logistics – i.e. the total consolidation of highly trained and dedicated personnel within a complex network of technical support, facilities, transportation, material, and information.

Is it time that governments should stop talking about stand alone naval afloat support to maintain the specter of current naval operations around the globe and direct a much wider sea based logistics effort directly linked to economic imperatives?