Contested Logistics to Pose Problems for Marines


Marine Corps photo

The Marine Corps has a long and storied history of successfully operating in contested environments — from the shores of Iwo Jima to the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, the operating environment of the future is likely to be even more complex and challenging, particularly in the realm of logistics. The threat environment of engaging in the Indo-Pacific with a highly advanced and capable competitor has led the Marine Corps to rethink the future fight.

In a contested logistics environment, the service will face several challenges, including increased threats to supply chains, reduced mobility and freedom of movement and the need to operate in austere and resource-constrained environments.

The Commandant’s Planning Guidance, Force Design 2030 and the National Defense Strategy have provided the necessary roadmap for the Marine Corps in increasing lethality, survivability and sustainability. However, to address these challenges effectively, the service will need to adopt new technologies and operational concepts, as well as develop new skills and capabilities among its personnel.

The Marine Corps’ most recent strategy report, “Installations and Logistics 2030,” focuses on the need to modernize logistics systems, recognizing the pivot from operating in a permissive environment to the difficulties presented when operating in austere and resource-constrained environments. This may include operating in remote locations with limited infrastructure or in areas where the enemy has disrupted or destroyed key infrastructure such as waterways, ports, airfields and highways. This long tail for logistics against a peer threat poses new problems while reminding the country of historic battles in the Pacific theater.

The Fleet Marine Force for the future recalls the Marine Corps’ amphibious roots. In 1946, General Alexander Vandegrift, then commandant of the Marine Corps, gave his “Bended Knee Speech” while fighting for the service’s very existence. He said, “Professional military opinion throughout the world was bemused by the axiom that a landing against resistance is an impossible feat of arms.” He went on to tell the then Senate Committee on Naval Affairs the most sustained effort to supporting the fighting force “is the task of developing the techniques, doctrines, equipment and procedures which relate to the amphibious specialty.”

Contested logistics is not solely focused on the battlefield. It is a comprehensive, holistic approach to meet threats aimed at cyber systems, installations and supply chains. Resiliency is key and resources are necessary to support multi-domain and distributed operations in contested environments. The goal is currently deterrence, developing a steady state operations capability for forward-positioned equipment to be in the Indo-Pacific with the ability to transition from campaigning to conflict, if necessary.

For the Marine Corps to project power from the sea to the shore and sustain the fight while ashore, it will need to invest in technologies and capabilities that enable it to operate independently and sustainably for extended periods of time.

Sustaining the force in a contested operating environment requires working with industry to identify where emerging technologies can support a more “web-like” approach to logistics to counter modern threats. One technology that will be critical in this regard is 3D printing and additive manufacturing. By enabling Marines to produce critical parts and components on demand, 3D printing can reduce the need for pre-positioned inventory, allow Marines to operate independently and enable rapid repairs ultimately maintaining high operational readiness for weapon systems.

Another key capability that will be important in a contested logistics environment, which is stated in the logistics report, is the need for a wide range of autonomous systems. The Marine Corps must have the ability to rapidly and securely transport personnel, equipment and supplies in areas where the enemy has established anti-access/area-denial capabilities such as mines, improvised explosive devices and anti-aircraft systems. This may require the use of unconventional transportation methods including autonomous and unmanned capabilities.

By reducing the need for human personnel in dangerous environments, autonomous and unmanned systems can help mitigate the risk to Marines and enable them to operate more effectively. Examples would include unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance and resupply, autonomous ground vehicles for convoy operations and unmanned surface and underwater vehicles for logistics support in maritime environments.

There will also be a need for investments in energy-efficient and renewable power sources. Dependence on fuel and electricity from vulnerable supply chains can limit the Marine Corps’ ability to operate. Investments in energy-efficient technologies and renewable power sources such as solar and wind can reduce dependence on fossil fuels and increase the military’s operational resilience.

Lastly, there should be additional investments in advanced logistics analytics. Logistics operations generate vast amounts of data that can be analyzed to optimize supply chains, identify vulnerabilities and improve efficiency. Investing in advanced logistics analytics technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning can help logistics units make better decisions and respond more quickly to changing environments.

The Marine Corps’ future fight in a contested logistics environment will require a new approach to logistics that emphasizes resilience, adaptability and innovation. The service is sending the demand signal to industry. Marines will need help to connect capabilities and ensure they continue to have the best equipment to never be in a fair fight. ND

Tom Driggers is a research fellow at NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute and Kea Matory is NDIA’s director of legislative policy.

Topics: Logistics, Marine Corps News, Technical Information

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