Travis Mendoza/U.S. Navy

U.S. News


The Pentagon’s Logistics Nightmare

“The line between disorder and order lies in logistics.” – Sun Tzu

Nearly two years ago on March 11th 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami off the east coast of Japan resulted in one of the worst nuclear disasters since Chernobyl, killing more than 18,000 and laying to waste tens of billions of dollars in damages. But one of the surprising ‘aftershocks’ of the March 11th quake was the catastrophic effect it inflicted on the global supply network.

Factories and key infrastructure were completely destroyed. Vehicles, iPad’s and pharmaceutical ingredients worth billions were held in limbo as Japan got back on its feet. As Industry Week noted, Toyota executives knew about their first tier suppliers, but did not know how the disaster affected 2nd, 3rd or 4th tier suppliers. It turns out that many of the ancillary contractors and sub-contractors were damaged. They had virtual monopolies on particular electronic components or on the manufacture of a specific piece of metal that ultimately halted more than 2 million vehicles in production. It became particularly clear when the disaster unfolded that the global economy had moved beyond localized supply chains into the realm of globalized supply networks.

For both commercial and military planners, these networks are commonly referred to as kill chain logistics (KCL). KCLs are not just susceptible to natural disasters but also to adversarial military force as well. It is one thing for Apple’s bottom line if a store runs out of iPad’s; but completely different for a military to run out of fuel or ammunition in combat.

What Is Kill Chain Logistics?

The KCL process incorporates the ways, ends and means to get a product from the factory floor through the acquisition and inventory system to the eventual consumer. The process is analogous to a chain that is only as strong as its weakest link. If any link or stage in the supply process is ‘broken’ or ‘killed,’ it will unravel the whole chain, thereby depriving the military of critical resources.

KCL has been used by military planners to define military readiness, such as kill chain readiness. However, KCL is also applicable in conceptualizing military logistics. Unfortunately, it is also greatly overlooked.

U.S. Logistical Prowess Rests on Three Legs

The entire KCL network relies on three main legs: secure data networks and bandwidth; unfettered access to port and airfield facilities capable of offloading, holding and then funneling the materiel to the fleet; and plying unchallenged sea and air routes. Because these three legs are indicative of overall operational and logistical strength, they also pinpoint possible vulnerabilities. The ultimate goal of these supports is to reduce unused or wasted inventory space, add predictability to the supply chain and reduce the supply ‘footprint,’ thereby resulting in a more effective and more efficient use of transportation assets around the globe. If any of these three legs were compromised, the entire KCL network would collapse or become severely crippled. It is U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) goal, in tight coordination with the various armed services, to oversee this overall logistics network and end-to-end process.

Leg One: Secure and Available Data Networks

The first vulnerability is the electronic and digital logistical network. The U.S. Navy relies on interlinked ‘smart’ networks that indicate to the fleets what they need in real-time in addition to calculating and distributing what the fleets may eventually require. But these same efficiencies also make the whole system inherently weak. This is because they are heavily reliant on information systems and a rapid time-definite distribution system. These networks also utilize satellite and over-the-horizon signals that are increasingly susceptible to interference. To reduce and counter the emerging digital threat, the U.S. recently created its newest combatant command – USCYBERCOMMAND – in 2009. The Navy has followed suite with its own Fleet Cyber Command (10th Fleet). These organizations are ensuring that these data networks and bandwidth remain secure.

Leg Two: Unfettered Access to Port and Airfield Facilities

The Pentagon has various air and sea assets to disseminate material to military forces. Surprisingly, much of the time-sensitive material travels via commercial shippers, such as FEDEX or DHL, while the U.S. government’s Maritime Sealift Command (MSC) that includes the 40 ships of the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force (NFAF) carries the rest. Dispersed across the globe, this support team provides virtually everything the Navy requires.

The U.S. also heavily relies on allied port and airfield facilities in Japan, Guam, Singapore, and Australia. This is augmented by a host of secondary, friendly port and airfield facilities located throughout the Pacific. Yet, the ports facilities, aircraft and logistics ships have severe vulnerabilities. First, they have minimal, if any, organic defenses. Second, they require non-hostile zones to ferry their cargo. Third, port and airfield security and threat assessments have focused disproportionately on small actor groups, such as terrorists or insurgents. These have an entirely different tactic and weapons signature than say a large state actor, such as China. These sites are porous and unlikely to withstand a conventional or unconventional attack. One of the few illustrative studies took into account Chinese targeting of the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Airbase in Japan. The result was a significant degradation of mission capability in Japan and for Pacific Command (PACOM).

Leg Three: Unchallenged Sea and Air Routes

Global commerce and the U.S. military have profited greatly from relatively unfettered air and sea navigation for over 70 years. Commercial air and sea traffic have enjoyed freedom of movement and access despite a few episodic breaks due to political, security, and/or military related circumstances. For maritime planners the various closures of the Suez Canal from the 1950s-1970s and the recent limitations imposed off the Horn of Africa as a result of piracy are two prime examples. For aviation planners, it is common for nations to impose limitations on military aircraft over-flight or landing such as the current restriction over Syria.

World War II was the last time any U.S. logistics lines truly were threatened by an adversary. The U.S. paid a heavy price in blood and treasure to keep its logistical network flowing. In retrospect, the U.S. Merchant Marine lost well over 350 ships in the Pacific theater and had the highest casualty rate among the services: 1 in 26 was killed-in-action. Regrettably, the Navy has not conducted maritime convoy, air route defense, or facilities defense on a grand scale since the end of World War II. It may be time for the U.S. to revisit these hard lessons-learned.

KCL Causes for Concern

KCL operations in the Pacific raises some essential and fundamental operational questions. The primary question is whether or not the U.S. military can adequately ensure protection of its logistical routes or resupply network. The answers are not particularly clear. This question is particularly puzzling for military planners as they prepare for the host of problems presented by various regional actors, especially China.

KCL Vulnerabilities Amid Growing Chinese Power

The recent Asia ‘pivot’ by the Obama administration has swung the U.S. government’s fixation from Central Command (CENTCOM) to PACOM. China’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) strategy would conceivably place the U.S. military at a severe operational disadvantage in China’s own maritime ‘backyard.’

CSIS’s Nathan Fereier points out that the “future combat operations—whether coercive air and sea campaigns or more wide-ranging joint interventions—will require the United States and its partners to project substantial military capability over considerable strategic and operational distances. A2/AD challenges frustrate our ability to do so.” This strategy would frustrate logistical reach in the Pacific theater as the maritime situation becomes even more precarious as other nations mimic China’s strategy.

In hindsight, some military theoreticians argue that the Battle for Guadalcanal in 1943 was the last time the U.S. military faced an analogous situation. U.S. forces on Guadalcanal were at the extreme end of the U.S. logistics chain, and ensuring a steady supply of men and materiel proved problematic.

Chinese Weapon Proliferation

The Chinese have excelled at homing in on certain conventional and unconventional weapon systems. The Dong Feng-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles, UAV advances, and the export of Ming class submarines manifest the proliferation of China’s weapons and technologies. The Yuan and Ming are particularly troublesome because the deep depth, salinity, ocean topography and various currents in the Pacific offer plenty of room to maneuver and hide. There are various permutations for how these weapon systems could benefit Chinese strategic ambitions. The bottom line is that their campaign strategy appears to maximize their ‘home-field’ advantage. U.S. military planners need to appreciate this.

Logistics as a Part of a Larger PLA-N Strategy

Logistics has played an integral role in Chinese land strategy for millennia. Now China is in the process of shifting its traditional land-centric logistics capabilities outward into the sea and air domain. This shift is highlighted in their strategic ambitions and campaign strategy. The Office of Naval Intelligence’s 2007 study on the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) identified 22 types of campaigns to conduct during a conflict. Primary and secondary targeting of logistics capabilities were noted as essential to Chinese strategy.

Six of the twenty-two identified campaigns listed could be categorized as offensive, defensive or a combination of both. This mutually beneficial arrangement can play to both postures simultaneously or individually for Chinese strategists. One campaign in particular manifests this two-fold advantage: Anti-SLOC. The Anti-SLOC campaign in one aspect could be considered an offensive capability. But the Chinese also could use the same offensive capability of Anti-SLOC operations to enable a defensive advantage; precisely because it allows Chinese forces greater versatility and awareness of their own SLOCs.

PLA’s Expanding Logistical Capabilities

China’s current Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) strategy envisions a protective envelope in which the PLA-Navy (PLA-N) could maneuver and resupply relatively uncontested within the first island chain and beyond. The Chinese Battle Box illustrates the areas that Chinese forces may be able to operate in the A2/AD offensive and defensive umbrella. In conjunction with this strategy, China is expanding its overall logistics to capability. They are aggressively investing and pursuing new logistical support ships, more heavy transport and enhanced port facilities. Some in the PLA leadership argue that these steps are not enough and they are calling for more.

PLA-N Sea Capability

China launched two major 23,000-ton replenishment ships (the 903-type) in the last year in contrast to the U.S.’s aging supply fleet. These new ships signal a renewed focus on PLA-N naval capability and will accompany China’s expanding role and regular deployment cycle to the Gulf of Aden for UN anti-piracy operations. China now possesses five major supply ships, almost doubling its previous capability. Five major logistics ships is a paltry amount in contrast to the U.S. Navy’s more than 30 replenishment ships. However, China’s logistical ships have fewer logistical requirements and less territory than the U.S. to cover.

PLA Air Capability

The PLA-N’s shipbuilding efforts also coincide with PLA-AF (PLA-Air Force) increased airlift production. In January, the PLA released video footage on the state-run television channels of the first test flights of the Xi’an Yuan-20 or Y-20 heavy-lift aircraft. The Y-20 has a 66-ton payload and is China’s first indigenous attempt at heavy-lift air capability. It will be entering production soon at various Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) facilities. The new Y-20s will augment or replace the PLA’s aging Russian Illyushin II-76s and other support craft that China purchased from Russia. China has orders for additional II-76s and the PLA-AF (PLA-Air Force) operates purportedly 20 of 50-ton payload II-76s. The fledgling fleet of II-76s and Y-20s still is no match for the hundreds of Globemasters (77-ton payload) and Galaxys (118-ton payload) that the Pentagon can deploy. Nevertheless, the combined naval and air logistics capability represents a tremendous leap in Chinese logistics.

Chinese Ports & Support Capabilities

China’s port facilities and logistics professionalism is surging. China’s domestic and international port capacity has ballooned in the past few years. China sought port capabilities abroad in Gwadar, Pakistan last February. China also has upgraded numerous indigenous port facilities in Shanghai, Ningbo, and Dalian. Chinese logistics professionalism is swelling as manifested in the wealth of domestically published periodicals. Some maritime publications of interest are World Ships & Boats (国际船艇), Naval Merchant and Ship (舰船知识), World Shipping (世界海运), China Ports (中国港口), and Shipbuilding of China (中国造船). It is also important to note that these periodicals highlight and follow many aspects of U.S. port operations, underway replenishment techniques and ship design. They manifest a growing professional prowess in the logistical realm.

Logistics in China’s Recent White Defense Paper

China’s increased logistical capability is reflected in its recent White Defense Paper. Published on April 16, it highlights China’s official military stance, posture and force size. China restated its interests in protecting its “Overseas Interests” such as its strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and Chinese nationals and legal persons overseas. China’s interests are in keeping with its expanding logistical capacity. If China had not previously secured its air and sea lift capability, it would not have been able to respond as quickly and effectively as it did during the massive evacuation of nearly 36,000 Chinese nationals during the Libyan civil war. It is becoming apparent that China’s logistics is growing legs. It is now better able to define and protect its interests and missions overseas.

The Pentagon can Shore-Up its KCL Vulnerabilities

The Pentagon has time to address its logistical challenges. There are a variety of recommendations to include increasing fuel and ammo storage in future and existing platforms; train for convoy operations and limited logistics capability; utilize alternative air and sea routes; reinforce current port, airfield and digital infrastructure; and begin to build defensive mechanisms into the support fleets. Each of these solutions would keep the Pentagon leaning forward if there were a disruption. These recommendations have the additional bonus in that they would not only insulate the U.S. national interests from man-made disruption but also from natural ones as well.


Logistics runs operations. Long gone are the bygone days when the great lords-of-the-seas such as Horatio Nelson would keep their man-of-war’s stored with three to five months worth of provisions. The father of U.S. modern sea power, Alfred Thayer Mahan, reminds us that “logistics…as vital to military success as daily food is to daily work.”

Today’s military cannot run independent of logistics for long. Likewise, just as Toyota and Apple learned about their own KCL weaknesses after Japan’s earthquake, the U.S. military and allies would be well advised to understand their own.

This article reflects the author’s opinions, not the official assessments of the U.S. Navy.