The Forgotten Part of the Contest: Army Logistics in the Pacific

Army vessel departs in support of Pacific Pathways

As Gen. Omar Bradley is credited as saying, “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” Indeed, from the American Revolution to modern-day conflicts in Afghanistan and Ukraine, the U.S. Army’s ability to effectively manage resources, transport troops and supplies, and adapt to changing circumstances has been not just instrumental, but a core allied advantage over its foes that proved to be the difference between defeat and victory.

Unfortunately, when it comes to how the American defense community plans for and talks about the future of competition and conflict in the Pacific, it isn’t measuring up to Bradley’s metric. For instance, at the Army’s annual meeting, the secretary of the Army gave a powerful speech on how “we have got to ask the tough questions and make the hard decisions on what our force needs to fight in the future.” Yet, there was no mention of “logistics,” and the only discussion of “sustainment” was of barracks repair.

This is no anomaly, but the norm of the literally thousands of leader speeches, congressional testimonies, vision statements, and interviews on the future of war and competition and conflict with China. If logistics is mentioned at all, which is rare, it is a toss-off line.

The same is true in academic and policy journals. Out of the hundreds of articles War on Rocks has published over the last decade on the China challenge, only two, one in 2018 and the other in 2019, directly addressed logistics in the Pacific. Just as with the illustration of the Army leader statements, the point is not to beat up on this very journal. The same gap exists in every other major and minor international affairs, defense, and security studies journal, as well as the recent spate of major media articles on both Pacific threats and military reforms.

And, unsurprisingly, logistics is also a topic that doesn’t get any attention in the cottage industry of think tank “wargames” that has sprung up over the last few years. It is great fun for wonks (and good for organizational funding and media attention) to move imaginary ships around on a map and fire off missiles of the mind. But to ask how the real forces would actually be fueled, sustained, reloaded, and repaired after Day 1 is consistently left out of the scenarios and resulting reports.

So too have actual wargames struggled on the topic. As the unclassified report on the 2022 UNIFIED PACIFIC wargame summed up, the exercises “highlighted a lack of practical clarity regarding how the Joint Force will execute joint logistics in support of new service concepts in the Indo-Pacific.”

Yet, this open topic area is crucial both to understand and advance in our policy. For the Army’s role in logistics is crucial to any success that the United States might have in competition and conflict in the region. Or, if the force doesn’t solve challenges that range from new threats to American supply lines to the dual demands of decades of neglect and a generation of new technologies, logistics may be a central part of the story of a future defeat.



Logistics in the Pacific and the Backbone of the Army

The Army was central to the last two decades of operations in Central Command, but many assume it will play a more limited role in the Indo-Pacific, aptly described as “a theater named for two oceans.” And yet, war remains a human endeavor, meaning that same watery theater is also defined by the 36 nations therein, holding roughly 50 percent of the world’s overall population on land. As such, the Army’s role in the theater is best viewed as “the backbone of U.S. Joint Operations.” Not only is the Army the service that ultimately must seize or hold the terrain, including the ports and airfields that the other services rely upon, but also provides the other services and allied forces with a number of critical functions that enable their own operations. These range from air and missile defense to communications, intelligence,rotary-wing aviation, and engineering.

Among the most essential is the logistics and sustainment that the Army provides not just for its own forces (which now number four divisions and multiple other brigades and units, including most notably two new “multi-domain task forces” designed to extend landpower into other domains via long-range strike and cyber fires), but also for the rest of the joint force.

Theater-level support and coordination, fuel transport, and common user land transportation are all Army tasks. The 8th Theater Sustainment Command and units like the 599th Transportation Brigade, 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, 402nd Army Field Support Brigade, and 413th Contracting Support Brigade may not be as exciting as F-35s or Patriot missiles, but they are what keep the entire force in the fight. The Army also has responsibility for a variety of other incredibly important support roles, such as in-theater medical evacuation as well medical logistics like hospital supplies and even blood. And it is Army Watercraft Systems that perform intra-theater distribution and inland/shore operations.

As such, logistics has been pushed as one of the four key “joint interior lines” to U.S. power in the region by U.S. Army Pacific in its new strategic vision. Despite this, though, logistics is not just undervalued, but under threat like never before. If the United States hopes to maintain its deterrence posture in the Indo-Pacific, it should address three key obstacles: the region’s unique demands of geography; new, extended dangers to its supply lines; and a force that has changed but not changed enough in its equipment and sustainment practices.

The Tyranny of Distance

While technology and politics might change, geography does not. The Pacific theater remains just as vast as it ever was. To illustrate by comparing to the current conflict in Ukraine, it is a highway drive of 70 miles from the NATO’s logistics and sustainment hub in Rzeszów, Poland to the Ukrainian border. In contrast, it is a flight or sea voyage of 1,700 milesfrom the U.S. hub in Guam to Taiwan, which can only be reached by a flight or voyage of 5,800 miles from the U.S. west coast.

It is not just about supply lines extended by literal orders of magnitude, but also vastly more limited infrastructure. Some areas in the Pacific lack well-developed ports, airfields, and road/rail transportation networks, requiring additional efforts to establish and maintain logistical capabilities.

This far greater challenge than what the Army has grown accustomed to in its operations in the “Global War on Terror” or even in support of Ukraine demands a far greater scale of comprehensive logistics planning. It will require complex supply-chain management, pre-established storage facilities, and coordination with multiple partner or allied services and nations needed.

To begin, far more investment is needed to establish forward logistics hubs and prepositioned critical supplies, equipment, and spare parts. These should be in place in multiple, distributed locales in the region to reduce reliance on lengthy supply lines in case of conflict, as well as enable swift response and sustainment capabilities.

The Army should also do a better job at establishing interoperability and multinational cooperation on logistics so as to amplify its collective capabilities. Common standards, procedures, and communication protocols would ease joint logistics operations, resource sharing, and coordination. This should be backed by robust communication and information systems that facilitate real-time coordination and information sharing across various partners. Such a foundation may not be as exciting as trying to get allies to buy American missiles or planes but would ensure much more coordinated operations and informed decision-making.

With such a structure in place before a crisis, the U.S. military can adapt agile supply chain management to ensure timely delivery of resources to units deployed across the Pacific during any events of need. This involves efficient inventory management, supplier coordination, and the use of predictive analytics. It also requires investment in the in-theater transportation assets needed to move personnel, equipment, and supplies across the Pacific’s vast distances. A core part of this is the fleet of watercraft that the Army, rather than the Navy, operates for the various intra-theater and inland/shorelogistics tasks that it runs not just for itself but also the other services. During the last major war in the Pacific, the Army had approximately 127,000 watercraft of various types. Today, it has 134. Times and technology have changed, but perhaps not that much.

Contested Logistics

China is well aware of the importance of logistics and has clearly put time and effort into ensuring that American supply lines would face unprecedented pressure in case of a conflict. The Chinese military has an ability to strike the U.S. logistics networks at both distance and scale, reaching targets thousands of kilometers beyond the battlelines with missileand cyber strikes.

In light of this threat environment, the U.S. military’s overall goal should be to establish resilient and redundant supply chains. Multiple transportation routes diversify supply chains to increase flexibility and ensure the availability of critical resources, even if one route is compromised. In turn, multiple and even redundant stockpiles for varied contingencies prevent mission failure if one node in a network is compromised or destroyed.

This requires starting well before any conflict. Prepositioned stocks of critical supplies, equipment, and spare parts should be distributed in various locations across the Pacific theater where services will experience greater loss of supplies and weapon systems. These stocks ensure rapid access to essential resources even in contested environments and complicate enemy targeting, specifically by forcing them to potentially expand the conflict by striking other states. Infrastructure hardening measures are also needed to raise the protection of critical logistics infrastructure, including ports, airfields, and communication networks.

This is not just about investment, but planning for alternative supply routes, backup communication systems, and adaptable logistics support structures. These plans can only be implemented if supported by continuous training and exercises. Also valuable would be more realistic training exercises that simulate contested logistics scenarios to test response capabilities, validate plans, and identify areas for improvement. This may include sending logistics/sustainment brigades to Combat Training Centers like Fort Irwin and Fort Johnson (formerly Polk). High pressure, realistic training that simulates enemy attacks and provides insights from recent wars perhaps should not be an experience limited to maneuver units.

Such programs can be aided by multinational coordination on the very same contested logistics issues that will challenge U.S. partners. American forces can do much more to strengthen coordination and interoperability with allies and partner nations in the Pacific, not just through the same type of joint exercises they have done for years, but through new ones that seek to harmonize logistics procedures to enhance collective capabilities and responses.

Here again, logistics offers an underappreciated pathway to not just supporting U.S. forces but also enabling larger goals of deterrence. The United States has five Mutual Defense Treaty agreements in the region, with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. However, it has Cooperative Logistics Supply Support Agreements with 14 other nations of varying closeness and location, from India to Tonga, and the United States would benefit from forging closer ties with all of them. These agreements provide follow-on support to a Foreign Military Sales purchase as well as enabling the partner to become an affiliate to the Department of Defense supply system, including the parties working together to ensure the availability of spares and repair parts stockpiles. These should receive greater investment and priority in U.S. diplomacy, as well as become a node for joint planning and training around contested logistics scenarios.

It’s also important to remember that there are two sides to the logistics coin. The destruction of adversary logistics networks has played a crucial role in U.S. victories dating back to the Revolutionary War and Civil War to both theaters of World War II, yet offensive counter-logistics has not been given enough priority in current planning. The U.S. military should put far more effort into preventing China from striking similar logistics agreements in its infrastructure and alliance-building efforts around the world, as well as planning to deny or disrupt Chinese logistics during any crisis or conflict. This might include mining key sea lanes, interdicting supply convoys, turning off communication networks, and targeting critical Chinese naval logistics infrastructure.

Mixed Modernization of Equipment

The third challenge comes from the combined legacy of two decades of counter-insurgency, the immediate challenges of today’s fight, and efforts to prepare for the future battlefield in 2040.

The Army’s acquisition and modernization efforts have undeniably yielded positive results. But they have also complicated any logistics plan. While modernization efforts focus on introducing new equipment, there are still the challenges of sustaining and maintaining older or enduring systems, which leads to supply chains that have to support multiple types and generations of equipment. Add in the modernization efforts across different services and international partners, and there are major interoperability challenges due to varying equipment capabilities, communication systems, and operational doctrines.

As the new systems are introduced, the capabilities for the force may valuably grow, but so do the logistics challenges. Modernized equipment is usually more technologically complex, requiring new, specialized training and increased maintenance expertise. This can create challenges regarding manpower, skill gaps, and maintenance burden. The introduction of new equipment into the supply chain can also disrupt existing logistics processes such as inventory management, spare parts availability, and supply chain coordination.

New systems also mean that planners face a data gap in understanding how best to support them. By definition, they come with no demand history and little to no historical data or previous information regarding the equipment’s usage or performance. Without historical data on equipment demand, it becomes challenging to accurately forecast and plan for the required resources, such as spare parts, maintenance personnel, and logistical support. This uncertainty can lead to inefficiencies in resource allocation and potential gaps in sustainment capabilities.

Without data on usage patterns or maintenance requirements, it also becomes challenging to establish appropriate stock levels, potentially resulting in either shortages or excess inventory. It also limits the logistics systems’ ability to make informed decisions regarding the equipment’s lifecycle management, replacement, or upgrade. Historical usage data is essential for evaluating the equipment’s lifespan, determining the optimal timing for replacements or upgrades, and allocating resources accordingly. As a result, organizations can experience prolonged repair lead time and increased maintenance costs, especially after the warranty expiration of the contracted maintenance.

By proactively addressing the lack of demand history, the Army can gain better insights into equipment utilization, performance, and maintenance needs, leading to more effective resource allocation, improved inventory management, and informed decision-making.

As its modernization efforts continue, the Army should equally focus on equipment sustainment and supply chain management. The Army Futures Command recently established a Cross-Functional Team for sustainment that can be a key node in this effort. It is critical that they partner with other services, manufacturers, and suppliers to ensure that new equipment meets the organization’s rigorous standards and specifications, and that the Army has a reliable, sustainable supply source. Before introducing new equipment, the team should also consider soldiers’ ability to sustain the equipment and the equipment failure rate. This approach guarantees that soldiers can access the tools needed to maintain the equipment while minimizing the risk of equipment breakdowns.

Addressing technological complexity requires comprehensive training programs to ensure proficient equipment operation and maintenance. Partnerships with industry and academia can do more to provide the logistics workforce with continuous training opportunities.

Enduring systems also require a comprehensive sustainment plan, ensuring resources, spare parts, and maintenance support are readily available. Prioritization should be based on equipment criticality and aging risks. Most importantly, the Army should maintain the serviceability of its equipment, identify excess and gaps, and redistribute equipment to meet Army and joint force requirements in the region.

The Army can also address this through entirely new approaches like the predictive logistics model, whereby better collection and use of data revolutionize equipment forecasting and supply chain optimization. Predictive logistics supports long-lead repair parts and maintenance and predicts equipment failures, enabling scheduled maintenance and minimizing downtime. Moreover, it optimizes the supply chain, reducing costs and ensuring equipment availability when needed.

In this case, the diverse range of stakeholders, including Army Materiel Command and Army Futures Command, necessitates a synchronized predictive logistics strategy. This puts a premium on better data storage capabilities and implementing predictive logistics into platform sensors. Accurate sensor data, regular maintenance, calibration checks, and backup systems are essential to guarantee data reliability, precise predictions, and timely sustainment support.

Inevitably, there are logistical challenges that accompany a successful predictive logistics implementation. These include both personnel training and system integration. Data security and privacy should also be prioritized, with robust security protocols, encryption, access controls, and regular audits. To that end, Army Materiel Command plans to standardize supply chain management using data and predictive analysis to reduce vulnerabilities and adjust to disruptions. This will improve decision-making and meet joint force requirements more effectively.


The landscape of war and geopolitics evolves relentlessly, demanding the adaptation of strategy, doctrine, structures, and equipment. It also demands the adaptation of the thing that makes all that possible: logistics. As the U.S. military looks to the future of the Army and its crucial role in deterrence and defense in the Pacific, far more effort and attention should be devoted to the questions of how to supply, support, and sustain the force.



Col. (ret.) Carmelia Scott-Skillern is a career U.S. Army logistician who has served in a variety of roles, from command of the Army Field Support Brigade for Central Command operations to deployment to Iraq to chief of the Programs Division in the office of the chief of Legislative Liaison. She served as a chief of staff of the Army senior fellow in New America’s Future Security program.

P.W. Singer is a strategist at New America, a professor at Arizona State University, and managing partner of Useful Fiction LLC. He is the author of multiple best-selling fiction and non-fiction books.

Image: Staff Sgt. John C Garver