The ability to sustain lighter, faster, and more distributed operations is critical to maintaining the U.S. naval force’s competitive advantage. To support the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 and ensure logistics concepts in Sustaining the Force in the 21st Century are effective, decision-makers must have visibility of the naval supply chain and integrate resources with their counterparts to create redundancy and flexibility.
Throughout history, logistical lines of communication have been exploited to achieve a competitive advantage. Civil War–era logisticians positioned forward Union depots adjacent to rail stations, which allowed the Union to replace supplies and soldiers at a rate the Confederacy could not match.1 During World War II, strategists suggested advanced naval bases would be needed to address the growing distances between logistics agencies and naval forces engaged in campaigns.2 More recently, the concept of naval logistics integration (NLI) emphasizes the sourcing, distribution, and management of the supply chain as a key component in maintaining competitive advantage.
NLI, currently in its third five-year strategic plan, acknowledges that “interdependency in both naval and joint warfighting environments and the continued need to transform naval logistics requires integrated logistics processes to obtain greater efficiency and effectiveness in supporting the warfighter.”3 Its concepts are mirrored in Sustaining the Force, which posits that because logistics will be the pacing function in the future operating environment, the naval logistics enterprise has an increased responsibility to innovate and adapt standard methods of sustainment to meet future challenges.
Those “future” challenges are already here. The militarization of new domains has brought new threats, such as cyber attacks and disruptions by foreign powers. Internal issues related to visibility, redundancy, and centralization of resources and lines of communication add to the concerns. This creates risk in three areas of the naval force’s supply chain: (1) procurement and sourcing of goods, (2) distribution of goods from origin to location of need, and (3) management of goods to meet military requirements. While the Navy and Marine Corps supply chain is still functioning, cracks are beginning to appear in a system that is not resilient enough to meet current demands, much less future ones.
Because the naval force cannot distribute what it does not have or does not know it has, resilient procurement options and total asset visibility are critical to ensuring consistent logistics and supply support to the force.
During the first months of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged Americans to “out-produce [the enemy] overwhelmingly, so that there can be no question of our ability to provide a crushing superiority of equipment in any theatre of the world war.”4 U.S. industries enabled the Allied war effort and were key to winning the war. But in the 1940s, production and supply chains were largely domestic and therefore controllable. The supply chains of today have been transformed by consolidation, offshoring, and foreign investment, affecting many commercial industries that also have military uses, such as telecommunications, circuit boards, and batteries.5
Often, naval forces cannot reliably source high-priority material or services because the Department of Defense (DoD) draws from many of the same procurement sources as the commercial sector. Centralization within and competition for this supply chain can cause shortages and increased prices.6 This is perhaps best demonstrated by the difficulty—both within and outside DoD—in obtaining medical equipment during the COVID-19 outbreak. Combined with the fact that U.S. industries moved more than 40,000 manufacturing facilities overseas in the past 25 years, this has created fragility and vulnerabilities that cannot be quickly mitigated in a crisis.7
The risks posed by disruptions in this fragile system are well-known. Commercial supply chains are an effective means of delivering material at lower operating cost, but they often lack the resiliency to withstand disruptions, such as unforeseen route closures or natural disasters. In December 2004, for example, a damaged Russian tanker created a blockage in the Suez Canal, halting pre-Christmas deliveries of PlayStation 2 consoles en route from China to the UK. Sales dropped from 70,000 per week to 6,000.8 DoD’s reliance on these commercial networks exposes the military to the same risks, which are exacerbated by single-sourcing strategies and reliance on standardized and inflexible procurement methods.
To optimize sourcing in support of global logistics, the naval force must be able to analyze and allocate available resources and integrate platforms for total asset visibility. Assets must be visible to tactical-level logisticians, who can then source material based on their physical locations and use local DoD stocks to satisfy demand. Consolidating data from existing tools—such as the Transportation Command’s Integrated Data Environment & Global Transportation Network Convergence (IGC) database, Naval Supply Systems Command’s One Touch Support, and the Defense Automated Addressing System—in an integrated procurement platform could support future transregionally aligned logistics operating networks.9 Accurate total asset visibility on a reliable network would reduce customer wait times, minimize customs issues, and reduce second destination transportation charges—as well as enable nontraditional sourcing methods that could counter adversary attempts to disrupt standard naval procurement methods.
A journal entry from the USS Constitution’s log dated 31 December 1799 describes the first documented replenishment at sea, a 14-hour resupply of beef, cheese, and butter in the Caribbean. This operation allowed Captain Silas Talbot’s crew to bypass hostile distribution nodes in Haiti and remain under way for 347 days of their 366-day voyage.10 Building on this success, the Navy developed coaling-at-sea operations during the Spanish-American War, which then became the framework for then-Lieutenant Chester W. Nimitz’s contributions to at-sea refueling during World War I. The ability to replenish from the sea was one of the Navy’s “secret weapons” during World War II, providing critical strategic advantages.11
Today, however, adversary technological advances could challenge the United States’ ability to operate unimpeded at sea should conflict break out. In November 2019, for example, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) tested a portable at-sea resupply platform capable of receiving replenishment from civilian merchant vessels. If implemented successfully—and combined with China’s Belt and Road initiative—it would enable the PLAN to operate persistently in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Particularly in the Indo-Pacific, the naval force’s logistical support operates from distribution nodes far from the supply yards of the continental United States and its territories. The support of allies, contractors, and government agencies is required to efficiently transport supplies during extended operations in the South China Sea. China recognized this in a 1999 publication, stating that “with regard to logistical support, the U.S. military must rely on friendly states and allies [and that] without the considerable help of other countries, the United States has no way to carry out any major emergency operation.”12
China has not hesitated to pursue partners for infrastructure and logistics support to combat standard U.S. naval distribution systems. Sixteen nations currently are negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free-trade agreement, with China as the major economic force. In addition, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was established in 2016 to help fund Chinese economic interests in partner countries to solidify relationships.13 As China strengthens its economic ties with other countries in the region, the United States will need allies that can build capabilities and infrastructure to mutual benefit—for example, U.S.-funded ports that support both commercial and naval shipping and enable prepositioning or expeditionary logistics.
Distribution resiliency relies on relationships within the naval force, as well. The Navy and Marine Corps must integrate their supply chain architectures to support rapid, flexible, and nonstandard methods of distribution. Current funding and budget structures limit resource sharing even between Marine Corps units supporting different Marine expeditionary forces; higher-level control by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) could better support sharing of high priority material within the naval force.14
Further, the Navy–Marine Corps team needs additional training on multipoint distribution methods. One option is to increase the authority to provide lateral support to adjacent supply support activities within the naval force or with NATO and other mutual defense treaty allies. DLA logistics centers at Air Force and naval fleet readiness sites offer alternative avenues for procurement and sourcing of high-priority material, and global Army and Air Force supply support activities were used as contingent ship-to addresses to support rapid distribution operations in Operation Inherent Resolve in 2016.15 Providing the end user flexibility in sourcing options allows individual units to “make their own supply chain” and has the added benefit of making the naval supply chain less predictable.
Global supply chains need networks that are resilient enough to withstand attack. In 2019, cyber attacks began to focus more on supply chains, with an emphasis on installing malicious code on legitimate software using third-party applications.16 While any DoD system can be attacked, DLA relies on more than 12,000 subcontracted or third-party vendors to support nine supply chains, creating multiple attack vectors for adversaries.17 Keeping small businesses cyber-compliant requires significant oversight and management.
In addition to cyber attacks, slow networks can disrupt the supply chain by preventing effective information transfers. The Marine Corps, for example, regularly experiences intermittent outages that affect employment of data integration systems.18 Challenges associated with the Global Combat Support System–Marine Corps (GCSS-MC) have been recorded by every deployed Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) since 2015.19 In 2019, the 13th MEU noted that individual order-approval transactions took upward of 23 minutes to complete at ideal transaction times.20 Such latency issues create an administrative burden on deployed supply units and limit their ability to outmaneuver adversary-imposed choke points on key logistics nodes.
GCSS-MC is unlikely to be viable for supporting integrated Navy–Marine Corps supply chain operations or operations in communications-degraded environments, so the naval force should move to the Navy’s tactical IT family of systems (NOBLE). This could help digital performance in deployed environments, including shipboard networks, ground tactical networks, and shore-based network infrastructure. It also could enhance the effectiveness of mutually supportive requisitioning and naval inventory positioning by associating Navy–Marine Corps demands and usage history in a common procurement system built on standardized practices and a standard education continuum. DoD also should seek commercial technology and work with industry and academia to support advancements in mutually supportive combat service support performance.
A Shaping Factor
Supply and logistical operations have a significant impact on the naval force’s ability to compete, no matter the environment, and tactical sustainment will be a shaping factor in any future conflict. Concepts such as distributed maritime operations and expeditionary advanced bases will require creativity in how naval forces source, distribute, and manage the supply chain. The Navy and Marine Corps must more effectively train and integrate their logisticians in tactical and operational planning, create system architectures that enable visibility of the naval logistics enterprise, and enhance opportunities for decision-making at the tactical level.
1. Charles R. Shrader, ed., United States Army Logistics 1775-1992, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History United States Army, 1997), 211.
3. Office of the Secretary of the Navy, “Naval Logistics Integration,” SECNAV Instruction 4000.37B, 13 August 2018; and U.S. Marine Corps Logistics Life Cycle Management Branch, “Naval Logistics Integration/MAGTF Logistics,” May 2015.
4. “War Production,” The War, www.pbs.org/thewar/at_home_war_production.htm.
5. Matt Stoller and Lucas Kunce, “America’s Monopoly Crisis Hits the Military,” The American Conservative, 27 June 2019.
6. Stoller and Kunce, “America’s Monopoly Crisis Hits the Military.”
7. “Top Sources of Key COVID-Response Imports to the United States,” Public Citizen, www.citizen.org/article/goods-needed-to-combat-covid-19-hyper-globalization-undermines-response/#coviddevices.
8. Daniel McConnell, “Not Much Fun for Game Fans as PlayStation Stocks Run Out, The Irish Times, 8 December 2004.
9. CAPT Alexander D. Irion, USMC, “Prepare to Be Disrupted,” Marine Corps Gazette, March 2020.
10. U.S. Maritime Administration, “U.S. Navy Oilers and Tankers, Underway Replenishment and Fueling Technologies,” www.maritime.dot.gov/sites/marad.dot.gov/files/docs/about-us/history/vessels-maritime-administration/901/usnavyoilersandtankershaerreport.pdf.
11. CDR John A. Lukacs IV, USN, “Century of Replenishment at Sea,” Naval History 32, no. 3 (June 2018).
12. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999), www.c4i.org/unrestricted.pdf.
13. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019 (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2019), 6.
14. Beth Reece, “DLA Expands Support to Marine Corps Supply, Maintenance Units,” Defense Logistics Agency, 12 April 2017.
15. CAPT Alexander D. Irion, USMC, “Increasing Lethality through Sustainment,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 6 (June 2019).
16. Check Point Research, Cyber Attack Trends: 2019 Mid-Year Report, www.checkpoint.com/downloads/resources/cyber-attack-trends-mid-year-report-2019.pdf.
17. Jill Aitoro, “U.S. Logistics Boss Talks Risks to the Supply Chain and Protective Measures,” Defense News, 28 October 2019.
18. Victor Castro, A Transmission Control Protocol Analysis of Global Combat Support System-Marine Corps (U.S. Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity, 27 September 2018).
19. Combat Logistics Battalion 26, Post Deployment After Action Review (2016).
20. Brandan Schofield and Brittany Snelgrove, Blockchain Access with Global Combat Support System-Marine Corps (Naval Postgraduate School, June 2019).