Beans, Bullets, and Benzene: A Proposal for Distributing Logistics

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Elee Wakim

The days of majestic leviathans harnessing the power of the elements for propulsion to cruise the world’s navigable waters are long past. What has evolved are voracious beasts which tear across the world with little concern for all but the largest of wind and wave. The appetite of the engines that propel these vessels can only be satiated by a routine supply of petroleum. The United States Navy has established a global logistics network to feed this hunger, the backbone of which is a fleet of tankers, manned by the merchant mariners of the Military Sealift Command (MSC). Hand in hand with the ability to refuel the Navy’s ships is the ability to send fresh food, replacement parts, and ammunition to surface assets without the need to have them return to domestic ports and safe havens. This steady stream of supplies allows the United States to project power around the world. Given the importance of our MSC fleet, they will likely be a priority target in the opening stages of a conflict against a near-peer adversary. Given their vulnerability, these vessels will be faced with the prospect of withdrawing from the area of responsibility (AOR) or being sunk. Whatever the outcome, the cruisers, destroyers, and littoral combat ships at the tip of the spear will retain the requirement of contesting the battlefield until sufficient forces arrive in theater to relieve them. How then to supply these vessels and ensure they have what they need to do what is demanded of them? This paper seeks to address this concern and provide a possible solution to the disruption of our supply chain in the Western Pacific.

Distributing Logistics

One possible solution harkens back to the late 19th century, when nations desiring to project naval power around the world were confronted with a need for coaling stations to support their relatively short legged ships. The 21st century Navy, borrowing from this concept, could build a series of logistics hubs throughout the Western Pacific. These miniature logistics hubs could be built in small inlets, coves, and atolls – anywhere with sufficient draft to support our surface assets. They would function as temporary sanctuaries where thirsty ships could quickly gas up and resupply before turning around and returning to the fight. The infrastructure required to support this concept need not be excessive. A small tug, a fuel barge, and the personnel to man them would be the extent of the investment.

Depending on the potential threat (largely driven by its proximity of an adversary’s weapons systems, or lack thereof), the Navy could expand beyond the aforementioned bare necessities to provide additional support to its vessels. A runway could be constructed to allow for replacement ordnance or repair teams to be flown in.  To complement this, cranes could be prepositioned to support reloading of expended VLS cells. Any combination of support equipment could be staged to support rapid augmentation via air during wartime. Indeed, if we were feeling particularly ambitious, we could use these locations to facilitate the forward repair of battle damage, using vessels like the USNS Frank Cable (AS-40) with their extensive machine shops to establish floating forward repair facilities.

101230-N-8423B-015 POLARIS POINT, Guam (Dec. 30, 2010) The submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) tends the Virginia-class attack submarine USS Hawaii (SSN 776). Hawaii is the first Virginia-class attack submarine to be moored outboard of a submarine tender. Frank Cable conducts maintenance and support of submarines and surface vessels deployed in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Catherine Bland)
POLARIS POINT, Guam (Dec. 30, 2010) The submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) tends the Virginia-class attack submarine USS Hawaii (SSN 776). Hawaii is the first Virginia-class attack submarine to be moored outboard of a submarine tender. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Catherine Bland)

There are several advantages that such outposts offer our frontline commanders.  First and foremost is that, in a scenario where our logistics ships are driven off, sunk, or otherwise unavailable, the captains fighting their ships would have multiple locations to replenish and get back into the fight. This would facilitate greater time on station which is crucial to maintaining their ability to shape the conflict, contest the battle space, and disrupt an adversary’s plan.

Secondly, these dispersed outposts would allow for fixed locations to refuel. In a degraded C2 environment, this is no small consideration when the ship in question may not have the ability to locate, communicate with, or sufficient endurance to reach surviving oilers. By dispersing potential resupply locations across a greater expanse, we inherently complicate potential adversaries ISR and force distribution calculations. No longer could it be assumed that naval vessels will be taking the most direct route to or from Guam, Japan, Singapore, or the Philippines. Instead, the foe must now picket additional lines of approach and disperse limited assets.

It is a very different tactical problem to protect widely dispersed oilers with a handful of assets than those steaming in company with a strike group. If our logistics ships are to survive in an increasingly lethal anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) environment, they will require an escort to provide sensor and kinetic coverage, primarily from hostile airborne and subsurface threats. This coverage will necessarily be supplied by large surface combatants. This coverage would likely require a one to one matchup between these – the shepherds – and their quarry. Freeing them of the need to ride herd on our logistics (at least until they initially transit out of the theater) will make them available for other tasking.

Considerations and Challenges

There are a host of questions to consider, one of which is the sustainability of these stations. Operating upon the high seas takes a heavy toll upon equipment, which requires a great deal of maintenance to remain operational. These outposts would require personnel to ensure the airfields are capable of supporting aircraft, the cranes of swinging VLS cells, and the pumps of pushing fuel. Exact expenditure and allocation of personnel would need to be worked out on a case by case basis. The current U.S. Army facilities on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands provide a possible blueprint for use elsewhere. The island possesses a harbor, tug, fuel barge, and runway, which do not require burdensome manning. Additional requirements would necessarily be subject to further study.

(Kwajalein Range Services)
Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands. (Kwajalein Range Services)

Another question which merits consideration is the diplomatic expenditures necessary to enable the placement of these logistics hubs. Should the United States construct these facilities on the territory of regional partners or should it seek to, like the People’s Republic of China, improve upon maritime features scattered throughout the Pacific? Both lines of approach have inherent hurdles. Establishing them on the territory of another nation will require a greater initial investment of political capital and defining legal framework to permit their existence. Building upon unclaimed maritime features risks a charge of hypocrisy against the United States relative to its stance on the Spratly Islands, though this could largely be mitigated through a decision to forego claiming a surrounding exclusive economic zone. Ultimately, some combination of the two may ultimately prove desirable.

A third matter that should be addressed is that of targeting by long range weapons of an adversary. The proposed logistics hubs, like their seaborne counterparts, would be prime targets in the opening hours of a conflict while, unlike their counterparts, they would be unable to dodge. How then to prevent them from being anything other than a target or a drain of resources? There are two potential paths to their salvation. The first draws from the Russian concept of maskirovka, or military deception. Given the pervasiveness of satellite imagery, it will be difficult to actually hide the locations, making it necessary to convince an adversary that they serve a different purpose. They will be far less likely to waste precious missiles on a naval construction battalion facility or medical facility than a place to replenish a warship. The other path, for those facilities which would be emplaced on foreign territory, would be the protection afforded by the sovereignty of that nation. Potential adversaries may not want to draw unnecessary third parties (such as the Philippines or Japan) into a conflict with the United States by lobbing missiles at their territory, especially if the third parties are not obligated to join the United States.


George Patton once quipped, “fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity.”  This paper does not advocate turning these proposed positions into heavily manned bastions. Rather, their physical security would be derived from geographic remoteness and light covering forces such as Patriot batteries and Naval Expeditionary Combat Command detachments. This paper also does not seek to posit that our MSC fleet lacks utility; indeed, it is quite the opposite. Those ships are the defining variable in determining not only whether we can emerge victorious from a prolonged conflict, but whether we can simultaneously support our global commitments.

This paper offers an alternative means to supply our fleet in the opening stages of a conflict against a near-peer adversary who is capable of tracking and targeting our logistic ships at great distances. If we have sufficient forces in theater to meet mission obligations and protect our logistics ships, then there is no harm in having built up such a capability.  If, however, our opponent has denied these vessels the ability to safely operate where they are most needed, then such a low-cost investment may prove decisive in allowing our ships to hold the enemy at risk. Let us not forget that if she runs out of gas, no amount of advanced sensors or weapons will prevent a ship from being anything more than a target.

LTJG Elee Wakim is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy.  He is currently stationed in Singapore with the Maritime Staff Element of Destroyer Squadron SEVEN.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense or any other organization.

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA (July 30, 2016) The forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) conducts an underway-replenishment with the Military Sealift Command (MSC) fleet replenishment oiler Joshua Humphreys (T-AO 188). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham/Released)

5 thoughts on “Beans, Bullets, and Benzene: A Proposal for Distributing Logistics”

  1. The biggest issue you’ve identified is the insecurity of a static installation. It is highly unlikely that an adversary would remain deluded as to the nature of a logistical facility for long, especially given the weak links in OPSEC between civil and military operations. Known logistical hubs would also give an adversary a perfect opportunity to ambush thirsty ships along the way. As for using another nation’s sovereignty to protect the facilities, this is not something to be taken lightly, and if it’s something we wanted to do, we may as well preposition logistical ships at their piers and dispense with all the trouble of constructing facilities.

    1. Takeru,

      Thanks for your comment. You are quite right that it would be difficult to delude a capable adversary indefinitely, and that an ideal response would be to have more of the ships that we are so worried about losing.

      What this article proposes is to offer the United States additional strategic depth in terms of its logistics, not to supplant its logistics ships. Given that shipbuilding is fixed by law and Combat Logistics Force (CLF) ship numbers are largely stagnant through FY46, there exists no credible way to generate this strategic depth without dispersed, shore based assets. These assets, as detailed above, are readily available or could be purchased through existing lines of funding, rather than waiting to go through the legislative process and not being available for several years.

      The overall objective is to bridge a possible capability gap in the present rather than have the perfect solution five or six years down the line.

  2. Two thoughts immediately come to mind;

    A supply vessel doesn’t have to *look* like a supply vessel.

    Germany cracked the at sea problem in the days before satellites but post EMCON with prearranged submarine meet up locations.

    Now lets move beyond at sea unrep and figure out how to reload a VLS under way.

  3. These ideas were, indeed, the Navy’s blueprint for Pacific success in WWII – and your article title suggests you’ve read the book about it.

    One element of the logistics chain not addressed in your piece is that the “beans, bullets, and benzene” do not appear by magic aboard either an MSC ship or a remote forward operating base. No matter which “connector” is used to deliver these, and critical parts, to combat ships, there is a further vulnerability in that the food, fuel, ammunition, and parts, and often the subject-matter-expert technicians and other personnel, must make it out to these ports and replenishment ships to begin with, often aboard entirely unprotected (non-MSC) civilian ships or aircraft. We were lucky in WWII in that the Pacific shipping lanes were essentially uncontested; the UK felt the effects of the opposite during the Falklands conflict – and even that only reflected marginal contest of stretched supply lines.

    I would offer that the Navy’s best logistical option to support the concept of distributed lethality is to aim at cutting the logistical cord entirely, or as much as possible at least. The goal should be fully self-sustainable combat ships, with an intermediate goal of extending the time between replenishments/port calls from a matter of days to a matter of weeks or months. Nuclear and alternative/renewable fuel technologies can reduce the need for constant refueling. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) can reduce the need for spare parts and even food – NASA has experimented with “printing” food in space, and submarines have experimented with growing it underway – particularly if we can solve how to close the waste chain and recycle our waste stream right aboard ship into new and needed items. And finally, new types of weapons such as the railgun can reduce or eliminate the need to replenish ammunition.

    While there will always be a place for dedicated forward logistics support in a conflict, the Navy’s goal should be to find ways to reduce the routine portion of this need as much as possible, to truly empower the concept of distributed lethality.

    1. Heather,

      Thanks for your insight. I don’t think you’ll hear any complaining from the operators about reducing our logistical footprint. Just as our Marine brethren learned for their use in Afghanistan, reducing your footprint reduces your vulnerability. Needing to refuel and resupply less means that our ships have greater time on station, which consequently allows us greater utility from each asset.

      While I am not offering a comment in any official capacity, technologies such as those you mentioned hold great potential. Despite that, there is no prospect of them being rapidly fielded in the short and medium term. What the proposal I have outlined does is to offer a capability bridge to allow the powers that be to either build additional ships or for the aforementioned technologies (and others) to take hold.

      There is no one answer to the problem of threatened SLOCs. A number of solutions that tackle different aspects of the issue will likely be what is required.

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