Thursday, August 22, 2019

Logistics Supply Chain

A USNI website article about logistics triggered some thoughts about the logistics chain.  You’ve heard of the ‘kill chain’, right?  It’s the sequence of events that have to occur to achieve a kill on a target.  Disrupt any link in the chain and you prevent the kill.  The same applies to a logistics ‘supply chain’.  There’s a sequence of events that have to occur in order to supply a forward operating ship with the fuel and supplies it needs.  Yes, some of those needs are met by returning to port but many, fuel especially, are intended to be supplied at sea, at least during the course of a single operation. 

So, how robust is our logistics (let’s focus on fuel for the rest of this post) supply chain?  Can we sustain a forward operating ship or group?  Does the chain have weak links that are particularly susceptible to disruption so that an entire operation and supporting supply chain could be neutralized by disruption of a single link?

From the USNI article,

The Navy is struggling to find support to buy new logistics ships, even as a new study finds the Navy’s current plans to recapitalize that logistics fleet are insufficient to support distributed operations in a high-end fight against China or Russia. (1)

A new study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments finds that the Navy needs to spend $47.8 billion over the next 30 years beyond what it has currently laid into its plans in order to build a logistics fleet that could refuel and resupply the Navy and Marine Corps in a fight. (1)

That’s $1.6B per year beyond what the Navy has budgeted.  Yikes!  Where’s that going to come from, especially since logistics ships aren’t shiny and sexy? 

The secretary [Richard Spencer, Secretary of the Navy] said the Navy has not properly funded its fleet logistics and sealift ships in the past because they fall lower on the list of priorities, but he said the Navy needs to do better now and that he hoped the CSBA study would have a forcing function to make the Navy and lawmakers figure out a good path forward. [emphasis added] (1)

So, the Secretary of the Navy hopes that a CSBA report will ‘force’ the Navy to do what’s needed?  Hey, Mr. Secretary, it’s your Navy.  Why don’t you order the Navy to do what’s needed?  You should probably also be firing the current Navy flag rank for not having already done what professional naval warriors should have.  I can only conclude that you, sir, are as incompetent as the rest of the Navy leadership.

The study’s main conclusion is,

The service should invest in large consolidated logistics tankers (T-AOTs) that could act as forward gas stations for the fleet oilers, allowing them to stay in theater instead of retreating to a port to fill back up. The study recommends accelerating the acquisition profile of the John Lewis-class fleet oilers (T-AO-205), moving to a two-a-year procurement instead of the current one-a-year plan, which would not only speed up the timeline of growing the Navy’s refueling capacity but also reduce cost from about $550 million per hull to about $500 million per hull, Walton said. The study recommends investing in light oilers (T-AOLs), akin to an offshore support vessel, that would be smaller than the fleet oilers and ideally suited to refuel a small surface action group or medium and large unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). These smaller oilers could be pushed further into contested waters because of their lower cost … (1)

What should our supply chain look like?  In simplest terms, something like this:

  • US (main supply) to
  • Pearl Harbor, Guam (fixed storage/dispersal) to
  • T-AOT (sea-based dispersal hub) to
  • T-AO fleet oiler (forward dispersal) to
  • T-AOL light oiler (forward high risk dispersal)

Unfortunately, two of those links, the T-AOT large tanker and T-AOL light oiler do not exist, at all, and the T-AO fleet oiler is too small in number.

Want a laugh?  Try this,

CSBA recommends having 143 logistics-related ships by 2048 instead of the Navy’s planned 50.

Our professional naval warriors fall 93 logistic vessels short of what the CSBA study calls for.   One of the two organizations is way off base.  I’m pretty sure it’s our professional naval warriors.

To paraphrase a well known truism of warfare, ‘amateurs build carriers, professionals build logistic ships’.  What are we building?

Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at the vulnerability of the individual links in the chain.

US (main supply) – Our main supply is reasonably secure and robust

Pearl Harbor, Guam (fixed storage/dispersal) – These main holding sites are vulnerable to attack, especially early in a war, as the Japanese demonstrated in WWII (though, inexplicably, they did not hit the main fuel tanks in the attack on Pearl Harbor).  The fact that we only have two major sites in the Pacific theatre further emphasizes their vulnerability.  In a war with China, we have to assume Guam will be eliminated as a functioning base on the first day.

T-AOT (sea-based dispersal hub) – We have no large tankers so this link doesn’t even exist.  If we had tankers in sufficient numbers, the numbers alone would reduce the risk to this link.

T-AO fleet oiler (forward dispersal) – We have insufficient numbers but, again, numbers alone decrease the vulnerability of this link.  There is a bit more risk here due to the concept of operating these ships in the combat zone.  We need to consider proper protection for these high value units.

T-AOL light oiler (forward high risk dispersal) – Again, we have no small, light oilers and, given the CSBA concept for operating them far into the combat zone, they would be extremely vulnerable on an individual basis.  Sufficient numbers would be what makes this link robust.

It’s clear from the above preceding considerations of the individual links that the weak point is the land based storage/dispersal sites at Pearl Harbor and Guam.  They represent single points of failure.  Neither base is well defended against the kind of attack assets China would apply.  If Guam is eliminated at the outset we almost completely lose our forward supply chain and would have to depend entirely on oilers that would have to return to Pearl Harbor to refill (assuming Pearl Harbor, protected by distance, survives).

The key to operating in the combat zone is logistics (fuel, in this case) and we are paying scant attention to it.  We lack the links in the chain, the requisite numbers to provide robustness and survivability, and the defenses to protect the land links/bases.  If we’re serious about operating in the combat zone (and if we aren’t, why do we bother with a Navy?) then we need to get serious about building up and hardening the supply chain.  Guam, in particular, needs to be greatly hardened, in the generic sense, against attack to ensure that our forward fuel supply remains intact.


(1)USNI News website, “Study Says Navy Logistics Fleet Would Fall Short in High-End Fight”, Megan Eckstein, 17-May-2019,


  1. A subject near and dear to my heart. In some mitigation of the gloom, we do have TAO(T) ships, they are mostly charters (bare boat and otherwise) by MSC, and are equipped for consolidation operations with CLF types. We certainly do not have nearly enough of the CLF ships--and I would maintain that at least some of them need to be USS vice USNS for sustainable high tempo operations and robustness purposes.Thanks for highlighting this important--no, vital area.

    1. "we do have TAO(T) ships, they are mostly charters"

      I'm completely unaware of this. Please, tell me more about it. Thanks!

    2. Here's a blurb on the latest class. I was (among other things) a Fleet Oiler CO, and actually consolidated with a couple of these. Worked pretty well, though we had pretty good weather .

    3. Aaaand: This what happens when you remember but don't actually research. The Sealift class is not the latest. Here's a look at the real latest

      Sorry about that.

    4. Wiki lists Gianella as no longer in service as of May 2019. Any further info on this?

      It appears the entire Sealift and Champion classes are retired. Do you have more up to date info?

    5. As nearly as I can tell, we have six TAOT class in service, some USNS and most Charter. That, of course, is not nearly enough should we find ourselves in a demanding scenario not near our current bases. There are provisions for emergency charter of US flag merchant ships for various purposes, including TAOT. As you are probably aware, there are diminishing numbers of such ships for various (mostly economic) reasons. I am also given to understand that we could likewise acquire by charter US owned (but not flagged) ships for similar purposes. They would have to be reflagged and crewed with US mariners; which begs the question do we have enough people to even do that?

  2. "though, inexplicably, they did not hit the main fuel tanks in the attack on Pearl Harbor"

    I am going to nitpick:

    Hindsight ended up being 20/20 for Japan. Their main focus at Pearl was neutralizing the Pacific Fleet from stopping their blitz to take Java, much as subsequent invasions were designed to neutralize major threats to their drive southwards- Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines, etc.

    When viewed from that perspective, the Japanese's actions at Pearl make perfect sense. They thought they were going to fight a limited war that amounted to a smash and grab followed-up by a negotiated peace.

    At Pearl, after two waves, they had achieved their objective. Why risk priceless air crew and aircraft destroying fuel tanks for a fleet that was currently sinking at Pearl?

    There are reports (by Fuchida) of a planned 3rd wave that would have attacked logistics facilities around Pearl, but those are currently disputed.

    In any event, when viewed from an operational lens, Pearl Harbor fit neatly into the overall plan with laser-like focus. Tactically and operationally, it was enormously successful.

    Strategically, it was a colossal blunder.

    1. Is this for a different blog or post? Are you somehow tying this into logistic chains? I'm lost.

    2. No, my reply was for this post. I quoted part of your post from above to which I was replying to (the bit about pearl harbor). Like I said, it was a nitpick, though I apologize if I was unclear.

      Anyways, , I agree with the overall premise of your post.

      In my view, the US military was spoiled by two decades of hubris. We stopped caring about fighting against a near-peer military since he thought we'd never be matched by anyone ever again.

      And we may very well pay for it.

    3. "Hindsight ended up being 20/20 for Japan."

      Now it's my turn to nitpick. Hindsight had nothing to do with it. The most cursory comparison of the US and Japan's capacity to wage war would have revealed that Japan had zero chance to win. Therefore, whatever decisions they made after deciding to initiate a war were irrelevant and stupid. Even if they had hit the fuel storage at Pearl Harbor it would simply have prolonged the war, not changed the outcome.

      Japan misjudged the US determination and willingness to go to war and paid the price in total defeat. If Japan thought they could attack the US and not wind up in an all out war then they, again, seriously misjudged the US.

      This is like believing you can walk across a highway blindfolded, without incident, because all the traffic will miraculously stop for you and then being surprised when you wind up in the hospital. Within that badly flawed belief, I guess blindfolding makes sense but the reality of the moment (no need for hindsight) should have told you all you needed to know.

  3. I know this doesn't address the logistics fleet structure issue. But is there any value to expanding naval presence at Subic Bay or Cam Rhan Bay?
    Does that relieve any of the pressure on Guam by putting logistics hubs farther forward?

    1. To the best of my knowledge, we have no basing rights at either location so there's nothing to expand. We have recently conducted some limited ship resupply at Subic Bay but there is nothing to suggest that Philippines would allow us to maintain significant naval presence there.

      Moving to the theoretical, sure, expanded naval presence at both locations would be helpful although Cam Rhan Bay, in particular, is pretty isolated in the Chinese region and would be difficult to supply and defend. Still, it would force the Chinese to deal with yet another potential threat.

    2. Darwin (HMAS Coonawara) is currently being expanded specifically with the US Navy in mind.
      Darwin is approx. 4300 kms or 2700 miles from Guanzhou, which is the location of China's main base of operations into the South China Sea.

      That's a lot closer than Pearl Harbour (about half as much distance again from China). It's further than Guam by another 800 miles - which is a good thing because it puts Darwin outside the range of China's IRBMs (which Guam is just inside of).

      Of course you could hit Darwin with ICBMs, but you can hit anywhere with ICBMs, and China has very few of them, they are for nuclear deterrence and firing one might start a nuclear war.

      Darwin would need a lot more work of course, to accomodate large fleets, but there's no reason that work couldn't be done in the next couple years. It's already started.

    3. Good background info on Darwin. Now, what is your point? Is it that Darwin could/should be a US Navy logistics base? If so, there's one enormous drawback and that is that the US doesn't own Darwin and can't count on being able to use it in war.

      Let's say the inevitable war between the US and China breaks out. Will Australia allow the US to operate from Darwin knowing that invites Chinese attacks on Australia? Maybe, maybe not. That's the problem. Australia might opt to remain neutral which prevents the US from using Darwin to support its war effort. Of course, Australia might opt to actively support the US. The problem for the US is that we just don't know and can't count on Australia. That uncertainty is made all the more uncertain by Australia's ongoing efforts to partner and trade with China, lease ports to China, etc. Australia might well decide that it is in their best interest to sit out a US-China war.

      The US would be unwise to establish a major base and count on its availability if that availability is not 100% assured.


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