For some time now, public discussions of the state of the U.S. military have focused almost exclusively on shrinking forces, aging equipment, declining investments in modernization and loss of critical skills and capabilities. Were this not bad enough, senior defense and intelligence officials are warning that the United States is losing its military-technological superiority. Just this week, the Pentagon leadership announced a focused effort to recover our technological edge and counter the growing military might of both state and non-state adversaries by promoting greater innovation in defense acquisition and developing revolutionary new capabilities in areas such as robotics, autonomous systems, data exploitation and advanced manufacturing. Of course, since most of these new technologies are resident largely in the commercial world, any military advantages gained from their exploitation are likely to be relatively short-lived.
One area where this country has a significant advantage over any putative adversary, one it is likely to retain for years, even decades, to come, is in logistics and sustainment. This is particularly significant with respect to the centerpieces of U.S. defense strategy, power projection and expeditionary operations; in other words, playing away games. Over the past several decades, even as the bulk of forward deployed U.S. forces came home from their overseas bases, the military not only retained but improved its ability to conduct overseas operations, deploy joint forces worldwide and sustain them once deployed. No other nation on Earth has this ability.
This capability was honed over some thirteen years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over this period, the Department of Defense (DoD) deployed and then returned home some 2 million U.S. uniformed personnel plus hundreds of thousands of Coalition troops and government civilians. The amount of material of all kinds sent into the war zones is almost unimaginable. It is surprising how much of this was not weapons, munitions or spare parts but rather fuel, food, mail and so-called white goods. The Air Force not only provided much of the airlift of critical supplies but virtually the entirety of the aerial refueling support for both our own and Coalition air units.
The secret to DoD’s ability to move, supply and support modern military forces in multiple theaters on the other side of the world simultaneously rests in the support it received from private sector companies. Throughout the wars, the number of private contractors exceeded the number of uniformed personnel of all countries in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In collaboration with defense entities such as U.S. Transportation Command, the Defense Logistics Agency and Army Materiel Command, international logistics providers such as Maersk Line Limited, Hapag-Lloyd, APL, UPS and DHL have created and sustained global supply chains that stretched almost literally from factory to foxhole. Starting from nothing, commercial companies such as KBR, Parsons, DynCorp, and Fluor built and sustained hundreds of military installations. Civilian defense contractors provided critical support in intelligence, communications, training, logistics, and maintenance and repair.
Much of the remarkable success the Pentagon demonstrated in supporting and maintaining large military forces during these two conflicts, and is doing again on a smaller scale in the fights against the Islamic State and Ebola, is due to the skills, capabilities and commitment of small and medium-sized companies. Insitu provided tactical intelligence on a per-hour basis operating its Scan Eagle UAV. ManTech operated multiple vehicle repair centers in both Iraq and Afghanistan, provided logistics support and managed the Army’s Expeditionary Cellular Communications Service (ECCS) in Afghanistan. DRS Technologies (a division of Finmeccanica North America) provided command, control and communications for U.S. forces, supported aircraft maintenance operations, managed water and fuel stocks and conducted a variety of intelligence functions. These companies continue to support U.S. and Coalition forces even as the withdrawal from Afghanistan continues.
Logistics and sustainment is what makes the difference between a military that can fight and win wars and one-trick ponies that give out as soon as they have to operate beyond their immediate support facilities. This is an area in which the U.S. military excels, due almost entirely to the support of the private sector. In fact, it is inconceivable that the U.S. military will go to war anywhere without a sturdy bodyguard of private contractors. The private sector logistics and support providers might almost count as an additional military service. When it comes to deploying and supporting forces abroad, the U.S. remains a superpower.
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