Stand-in forces (SIF) will lack staying power in a conflict with China without fundamental improvements to sustainment resiliency. This year’s annual update to Force Design 2030 correctly frames the scale of the problem: “We need systemic change in logistics.”1 Conventional sustainment, also known as “push-pull” logistics, remains the SIF concept’s greatest vulnerability. Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Berger emphasized this point in an online interview, stating emphatically, “I believe logistics, as a warfighting function, is the pacing function. Not one of, it’s actually the.”2 General Berger stressed that, in a war with China, “We can have the best force postured perfectly. If they are able to choke us off logistically, they’ll take us to our knees.”3
Logistics is the tallest obstacle for stand-in forces. Even so, the operational vision behind the concept remains valid, making this obstacle worthy of the climb. To make it, the Marine Corps must embrace regenerative logistics technologies, an emerging field with the potential to fundamentally transform sustainment resiliency. This call for action rests on three points: Military logistics is due for a revolution; emerging technologies will spark that revolution; and the disruptive changes that follow can provide the staying power that SIF need to deter or defeat Chinese aggression in the decades ahead.
Logistics Needs a Revolution
Operationalizing the SIF concept, at scale, requires thinking anew—at scale. The Marine Corps’ current logistics doctrine (circa 1997) thoughtfully conveys the relationship between operations and logistics through the analogy of a toy paddleball, where “logistics is like the string; it doesn’t determine where the ball will go but sets limits on how far it can go before being pulled back.”4 Militaries across history have snapped backward after pushing too far forward—a timeless problem. Whether their staying power came far (from the rear) or nearby (from local foraging), armies “marched on their stomachs” only as far as their logistics tether allowed.
Not surprisingly, those who study the progression of military logistics typically focus on the tether: How much can be moved, how fast it can be moved, and to where or from where it can be moved. One such recent study, Jobie Turner’s Feeding Victory: Innovative Military Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh, defines logistics in clear language as “the combination of transportation and supply for a fighting force.”5 The author then highlights transportation as “the key variable,” which dominates the book’s focus across more than two centuries of war.6 Turner’s historical focus on the primacy of transportation—how supplies were pushed or pulled from one place to another—is not misplaced. The evolution of transport methods has long been the source of greatest gain for military logistics, and such methods will continue to evolve. But sustaining SIF inside heavily contested zones requires a revolution in supply, not just further evolution in transportation. Nothing makes this clearer than to consider how far behind logistics has fallen from the other warfighting functions.
Regarding command and control: It is important to remember that the horse was once the fastest means of both supply and communication over land. Even as supply has become faster, it has been outpaced by the speed of communication. Similarly, the newest warfighting function—information—is already well ahead of logistics. Only a few decades into the information age, today’s digitized military employs cyberspace and digital “clouds” that make delivering chow from a truck seem obsolescent. As for intelligence, Henry Kissinger observed in 2014 that anyone with a smartphone held greater access and analytical capabilities than many intelligence agencies possessed just one generation before.7 Fires have also undergone several revolutions, the most recent being the advent of precision strike. With the United States able to deliver precision fires globally, the “ball” of operations can now reach nearly any spot on the planet—albeit on a very tight string.
Then there is maneuver, which logisticians think of as a key that either unlocks victory or locks in one’s own defeat. Over time, maneuver’s potential to cause either outcome rose sharply. In fact, the rising risk of outrunning one’s logistics has been captured measurably. Martin Van Creveld’s classic, Supplying War, revealed that modern forces used less of their resources’ potential for maneuver than did those of centuries past. Comparing the horse-drawn wagon of the 18th century to the five-ton truck of World War II, Van Creveld found that the former was generally pushed twice as close to its absolute limits.8 In other words, military forces today have far more maneuver than they can sustain, and this surplus only grows.
Perhaps the latency of military logistics is best explained by the last warfighting function: force protection. Since 1945, America’s superpower status largely excused, and arguably enabled, logistics becoming the most sedentary warfighting function. From Korea to Iraq, U.S. power projection overmatch yielded the force protection necessary to stockpile logistics in theater. But this past is not in the United States’ future, particularly in the western Pacific. China’s growing threat to U.S. friends and allies in maritime East Asia makes catching logistics up to the other warfighting functions a Marine Corps imperative.
While staying power has always come either from the rear or from local foraging, the future offers a third way. What if the sustenance for SIF could be created at the point of need instead of having to be pushed or pulled from an external source of supply? While that would certainly have sounded like magic to Hannibal, Napoleon, or Rommel, so too would the vast progression of every other warfighting function noted above. An entire field of emerging technologies will come to supply today’s demand for disruptive change.
To clarify what “regenerative logistics” means, imagine a lizard that can discard its tail to save its life—and then go on to grow another lifesaving tail, to regenerate it. Regenerative logistics offers a “closed system” of sustainment in which SIF produce, consume, reproduce, and reconsume organically with limited outside support. To be clear, physics prevents making something from nothing: Regenerative logistics still requires inputs to produce outputs. But the colocation of it all distinguishes it from both local foraging and distant resupply. Grouped by certain military classes of supply, some examples of regenerative logistics include:
Subsistence. GENAQ and Watergen are two of many companies that produce portable, solar-powered atmospheric water generators (AWGs) capable of pulling and purifying humidity from the air to produce potable water at the point of consumption.9 Many AWGs can function even in arid climates where temperatures exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity falls below 20 percent; but, of course, AWGs perform best in sunny, tropic scenes—such as the Pacific. With options from industrial to domestic and tailored to various degrees of need, single compact systems can meet the daily water requirements for units from a single squad to two companies of Marines.10
The other half of regenerative subsistence, food production, is not nearly as developed as AWGs. Rising concerns over global food security, however, have reinvigorated research into innovative forms of food production that may have a future application for SIF. Of specific interest is ongoing experimentation with “soilless” agriculture, a “plant cultivation technique for all countries having less arable land, rapid environmental changes, and increasing food challenges.”11 Though much remains to be seen, the problem that soilless agriculture aims to solve necessitates a closed-system approach. Until such advancements are made, however, food supply in the harshest and most isolated locations will still require push-pull logistics, possibly delivered by unmanned systems.12
Petroleum, oils, and lubricants. The coming decades will see this military class of supply expand from “petroleum, oils, and lubricants” to a broader yet more succinct label: energy. Each year solar technologies pack a greater punch into smaller packages and at faster rates of transfer. Likewise, the electric vehicle industry continues to make strides in closed-system innovations such as regenerative braking.13 Further advancements in solar energy transfer and storage will translate into military advantages for SIF to solve the bulk fuel problem.14 The once farfetched possibility of usefully tapping into an overhead source of power—such as the sun—might soon be worth a second thought. And it would mark the first time a new form of logistics approached the speed of new forms of communications.
Ammunition. Directed-energy weapons are not yet in the hands of riflemen, but they will soon be on the decks of ships and under the wings of planes. “In the next several years,” writes Booz Allen Hamilton’s Executive Vice President Trey Obering, “the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force all plan to develop and field these weapons at an increasing pace.”15 Like countless technologies before it, directed energy will be miniaturized and its applications will proliferate as it matures. And, when coupled with a regenerative source of power, it will fundamentally alter the logistician’s burden.
Medical supplies. “Current estimates indicate that approximately one in three Americans could potentially benefit from regenerative medicine,” a flourishing field in the private sector that augments the body’s ability to heal itself through cell-based regeneration.16 As with many other examples, regenerative medicine holds the potential of enabling forward-employed forces to stay longer and fight harder. The 1st Marine Division and the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit recently embraced a low-tech form of regenerative medical supply through the Valkyrie Program, which trained basic corpsmen to conduct emergency blood transfusions in austere settings.17 With this capability organic at the point of need, a Marine’s life can be saved by the blood transfused on the spot from his or her buddy, who will regenerate that lifesaving supply—all without storage, refrigeration, or “golden-hour” evacuation. There is no better display of the organic potential of regenerative logistics.
While there are other examples of nascent regenerative technologies—much, for instance, has been written about the potential of recyclable additive manufacturing for repair parts and components—the cumulative potential of the collective sum matters more than the individual potential of the various parts. In other words, the Marine Corps cannot simply analyze the tactical advantages of each technology in isolation; it must also synthesize how such fundamental changes across the classes of supply will have compounding effects on sustainment resiliency at the operational level of war. It is the aggregate that makes regenerative logistics imperative to solving the staying-power problem in contested littorals.
The Office of Naval Research and the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory are engaged in solving the future force’s sustainment problems. However, many ongoing service-level initiatives focus on near-term evolutionary innovation in push-pull resupply methods rather than long-term innovation in regenerative resupply methods. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering is already pursuing the individual potential of many of the emerging technologies discussed in this paper.18 Going forward, the DoD must shift its focus onto the comprehensive potential of regenerative logistics as an emerging field to exploit the disruptive changes that field will bring.
The Revolution Will Be Regenerative
Long periods of slow change tend to beckon bursts of intense change. Two centuries ago, Carl von Clausewitz wrote that to sustain operations in the field, an army “necessarily remains dependent on its sources of supply and replenishment and must maintain communications with them.”19 In an age before satellites, radios, and telegraphs, Clausewitz and other theorists correctly fused logistics and communications into a single military term in which the latter got the emphasis: lines of communication. Providing staying power for a deployed force, these lines (typically roads) “link the army to its base,” Clausewitz explained, “and must be considered its arteries.”20 Still a widely used term in today’s military, lines of communication now entail a concept both narrower and broader than originally conceived. It is narrower in that lines of communication today are not often used for communication—they can be, but usually as a last resort.
Conversely, the concept also grew much broader, now encompassing all domains of war, not just war on land. While a bit of a misnomer now, lines of communication remain critical to forward forces that rely on arteries, vulnerable as they may be, either to receive distant resupplies or forage from nearby sources. However, regenerative logistics will, in time, further fade lines of communication into a means of last resort for both communications and logistics. This development is nothing less than a structural change for logistics as a warfighting function, which will affect all other functions and, by extension, nascent warfighting concepts such as stand-in forces.
By bringing a third, more resilient method of sustainment to warfare, regenerative capabilities will close the gap between logistics and the other warfighting functions. In short, logistics will cease to be the pacing function. No longer ensnared by thin arteries stretched thousands of miles, military forces will be able to tap into the formerly untouchable surplus of maneuver and the other functions. By regenerating their staying power organically, future forces that operate within the adversary’s reach will disperse further and travel farther in the air, on land, and at sea—in other words, they will employ their full maneuver. And, by enhancing maneuver, SIF will enhance distributed fires, wherein the effects of fires are massed by forces that are not.
Far from fiction, this describes what current naval warfighting concepts such as SIF, expeditionary advanced base operations, and distributed maritime operations call for in the Indo-Pacific; regenerative logistics just brings these conceptual ideas to fruition.21 Such disruptive changes might even overturn contemporary warfighting theory, which holds that a precision-strike contest in the maritime domain favors the defense over the offense. What is more certain is that regenerative logistics offers the Marine Corps an opportunity to overcome its tallest obstacle to forming combat-credible SIF in the western Pacific.
Think RacquetBall not Paddleball
The back-and-forth dependency of push-pull logistics will, in time, be superseded by the on-the-spot autonomy of “re-gen” logistics. Ultimately, logistics doctrine will require a rewrite. As forward forces begin to operate with fewer tethers and greater means of organic regeneration, theorists will need to rethink the age-old relationship between operations and logistics. The old paddleball analogy will find the string anachronistic. Logistics will still set limits on what is operationally possible, but units will be less tied to lines of communication. A racquetball analogy would make for a fitting update: The organic composition of the ball, and the energy imparted by the racquet, supply all the power it needs to strike the wall and regenerate its energy for a new direction—no strings attached.
1. U.S. Marine Corps, “Force Design 2030 Annual Update,” May 2022, 11.
2. Gen David Berger, USMC, “Maritime Security Dialogue: An Update on the Marine Corps with Commandant Gen David H. Berger,” Center for Strategic and International Studies video, 1 September 2021, 46:06.
3. Caitlin M. Kenney, “U.S. Marines Must Relearn to Protect Pacific Supply Lines, Commandant Says,” Defense One, 3 September 2021.
4. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 4: Logistics (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1997), 30.
5. Jobie Turner, Feeding Victory: Innovative Military Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2020), 2.
6. Turner, Feeding Victory, 4.
7. Henry Kissinger, World Order (London: Penguin Books, 2014), 343.
8. Martin Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge, 1977), 234–35.
9. “The New Alternative: Atmospheric Water Generator by GENAQ,” Genaq.com; and “Creating Drinking Water from Air,” us.Watergen.com.
10. Calculations were derived by using the planning factor of 9.92 gallons per Marine per day in a tropical climate.
11. Imran Ali Lakhiar et al., “Overview of the Aeroponic Agriculture—An Emerging Technology for Global Food Security,” International Journal of Agricultural and Biological Engineering 13, no. 1 (2020): 2.
12. U.S. Marine Corps, A Concept for Stand-In Forces, December 2021, 21. The authors discuss the importance of an “avoidance mindset” for sustainment whereby SIF avoid posturing logistically intensive systems in areas difficult to resupply.
13. Micah Toll, “Regenerative Braking: How It Works and Is It Worth It in Small EVs?” Electrek.com, 24 April 2018.
14. Jen Judson, “U.S. Army Picks 6 Companies to Tackle How to Power Electric Combat Vehicles in the Field,” Defense News, 22 April 2021.
15. Henry “Trey” Obering III, “Directed Energy Weapons are Real . . . and Disruptive,” Prism 8, no. 3 (2020): 43.
16. The American Association of Blood Banks, “Regenerative Medicine,” AABB.org.
17. Sarah Stegall, “Valkyrie: Emergency Fresh Whole Blood Transfusion Enhances 15th MEU Medical Capabilities,” Marines.mil, 2 February 2021.
18. Office of the Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, “Critical Technology Areas,” www.cto.mil/usdre-strat-vision-critical-tech-areas/.
19. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 341.
20. Clausewitz, On War, 345.
21. U.S. Marine Corps, A Concept for Stand-In Forces.