Military logistics is the discipline of planning and carrying out the movement, supply, and maintenance of military forces. In its most comprehensive sense, it is those aspects or military operations that deal with:
The word "logistics" is derived from the Greek adjective logistikos meaning "skilled in calculating", and its corresponding Latin word logisticus. In turn this comes from the Greek logos, which refers to the principles of thought and action. Another Latin root, log-, gave rise around 1380 to logio, meaning to lodge or dwell, and became the French verb loger, meaning "to lodge". Around 1670, the French King Louis XIV created the position of Maréchal des logis, an officer responsible for planning marches, establishing camp sites, and regulating transport and supply. The term logistique soon came to refer to his duties. It was in this sense that Antoine-Henri Jomini referred to the term in his Summary of the Art of War (1838). In the English translation, the word became "logistics".
In 1888, Charles C. Rogers created a course on naval logistics at the Naval War College. In Farrow's Military Encyclopedia (1895), Edward S. Farrow, and instructor in tactics at West Point provided this definition:
Bardin considers the application of this word by some writers as more ambitious than accurate. It is derived from Latin logista, the administrator or intendant of the Roman armies. It is properly that branch of the military art embracing all the details for moving and supplying armies. It includes the operations of the ordnance, quartermaster's, subsistence, medical, and pay departments. It also embraces the preparation and regulation of magazines, for opening a campaign, and all orders of march and other orders from the general-in-chief relative to moving and supplying armies.
The term became popularised during the Second World War. In Logistics in World War II: Final Report of the Army Service Forces, Lieutenant General LeRoy Lutes, the commanding general of the Army Service Forces, gave the term a more expansive definition:
The word "logistics" has been given many different shades of meaning. A common definition is: "That branch of military art which embraces the details of the transport, quartering, and supply of troops in military operations." As the word is used in the following pages, its meaning is even broader. It embraces all military activities not included in the terms "strategy" and "tactics." In this sense, logistics includes procurement, storage, and distribution of equipment and supplies; transport of troops and cargo by land, sea, and air; construction and maintenance of facilities; communication by wire, radio, and the mails; care of the sick and wounded; and the induction, classification, assignment, welfare and separation of personnel.
NATO uses a more restrictive definition:
The science of planning and carrying out the movement and maintenance of forces. In its most comprehensive sense, the aspects of military operations which deal with:
- design and development, acquisition, storage, movement, distribution, maintenance, evacuation, and disposal of materiel;
- transport of personnel;
- acquisition or construction, maintenance, operation, and disposition of facilities;
- acquisition or furnishing of services; and
- medical and health service support.
There are three basic options for the supply of an army in the field, which can be employed individually or in combination.
The most basic requirements of an army were food and water. Foraging involved gathering food and fodder for animals in the field. The availability of these tends to be seasonal, with greater abundance around harvest time in agricultural regions. There is also a dependence on geography, for in desert campaigns there may not be food, water or fodder available locally. Looting was another means of obtaining supplies in the field. It is possible to capture supplies from the enemy or enemy population. Another alternative is purchasing, whereby an army takes cash and buys its supplies in the field. Cash can also be obtained in the field through local taxation, backed by the threat of violence. The major drawback of using local sources of supply is that they can be exhausted if an army remains in one place for too long, so a force dependent on it needs to keep moving.
The widespread use of sources in the field gives rise to counter-logistics, whereby resources are denied to the enemy through devastation of the land and removal or destruction of food sources. Pre-emptive purchasing can be used as a form of economic warfare. A besieging force can attempt to starve out a garrison or tempt it to sally through devastation of the surrounding area rather than undertake the more costly operation of assaulting and destroying it, but if it is dependent on local supply then the besieger who might be starved out through their exhaustion.
A second method was for the army to bring along what was needed, whether by ships, pack animals, wagons or carried on the backs of the soldiers themselves. Since ancient times, troops had carried rations and personal equipment such as weapons, armour, cooking gear and bedrolls. Animals could be driven to accompany the army and consumed for meat. Roads facilitate the movement of wheeled vehicles, and travel by river or sea permits the carriage of large volumes of supplies. This allowed the army some measure of self-sufficiency, and until the development of faster firing weapons in the 19th century most of the ammunition a soldier needed for an entire campaign could be carried on their person or in wagons accompanying the troops. However, this method led to an extensive baggage train which could slow down the army's advance.
Obtaining supplies in the field and carrying supplies with the army remained the primary means of supply until the 19th century, but even in the 17th century the much larger armies of the period were highly dependent on food supplies being gathered in magazines and shipped to the front. Starting with the Industrial Revolution, new technological, technical and administrative advances permitted supplies to be transported at speeds and over distances never before possible. At the same time, increased demands for ammunition, and the heavier weight of shells and bombs made it more difficult for armies to carry their requirements, and they soon became dependent on regular replenishment of ammunition from depots. At the same time, mechanisation, with motor vehicles replacing animals, created a demand for fuel and spare parts, neither of which could be obtained locally. This led to a "logistical revolution" which began in the 20th century and drastically improved the capabilities of modern armies while making them highly dependent on this method.
The history of military logistics goes back to Neolithic times. The most basic requirements of an army were food and water. Early armies were equipped with weapons used for hunting like spears, knives, axes and bows and arrows, and rarely exceeded 20,000 men due to the practical difficulty of supplying a large number of soldiers. Large armies began to appear in the Iron Age. Animals such as horses, oxen, camels and even elephants were used as beasts of burden to carry supplies. Food, water and fodder for the animals could usually be found or purchased in the field. The Roman Empire and Maurya Empire in India built networks of roads, but it was far less expensive to transport a ton of grain from Egypt to Rome than 80 kilometres (50 mi) by road. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century there was the shift from a centrally organised army to a combination of military forces made up of local troops. Feudalism was therefore a distributed military logistics system where magnates of the households drew upon their own resources for men and equipment.
From the late sixteenth century, armies in Europe increased in size, to 100,000 or more in some cases. When operating in enemy territory an army was forced to plunder the local countryside for supplies, which allowed war to be conducted at the enemy's expense. However, with the increase in army sizes this reliance on pillage and plunder became problematic, as decisions regarding where and when an army could move or fight became based not on strategic objectives but on whether a given area was capable of supporting the soldiers' needs. Sieges in particular were affected by this, both for an army attempting to lay siege to a town and one coming to its relief. Unless a commander was able to arrange a form of regular resupply, a fortress or town with a devastated countryside could become immune to either operation.
Napoleon made logistics a major part of his strategy. He dispersed his corps along a broad front to maximise the area from which supplies could be drawn. Each day forage parties brought in supplies. This differed from earlier operations living off the land in the size of the forces involved, and because the primary motivation was the emperor's desire for mobility. Ammunition could not as a rule be obtained locally, but it was still possible to carry sufficient ammunition for an entire whole campaign.
The nineteenth century witnessed technological developments that facilitated immense improvements to the storage, handling and transportation of supplies which made it easier to support and army from the rear. Canning simplified storage and distribution of foods, and reduced waste and the incidence of food-related illness. Refrigeration allowed frozen meat and fresh produce to be stored and shipped. Steamships made water transports faster and more reliable. Railways were a more economical form of transport than animal-drawn carts and wagons, although they were limited to tracks, and therefore could not support an advancing army unless its advance was along existing railway lines. At the same time, the advent of industrial warfare in the form of bolt-action rifles, machine guns and quick-firing artillery sent ammunition consumption soaring during the First World War.
In the twentieth century the advent of motor vehicles powered by internal combustion engines offered an alternative to animal transport for moving supplies forward of the railhead, although many armies still used animals during the Second World War. The development of air transport provided an alternative to both land and sea transport, but with limited tonnage and at high cost. An airlift over "the Hump" helped supply the Chinese war effort], and after the war the 1948 Berlin Air Lift was successful in supplying half of the city. With the subsequent development of large jets, aircraft became the preferred method of moving personnel over long distances, although it was still more economical to move cargo by sea and land. In forward areas, the helicopter was well-suited to moving troops and supplies, especially over rugged terrain.
Akin to the three levels of war, there can be considered to be three levels of logistics. Although modern communications and information technology may have blurred the distinction between them, the three-level hierarchy is deeply embedded in the organisational structure of military forces.
Unlike business logistics, the objective of military logistics is not cost effectiveness of the supply chain, but maximum sustained combat effectiveness.