Bend, Don’t Break: Optimizing a Resilient Supply Chain

“The amateurs discuss strategy. The professionals discuss logistics" - Napoleon Bonaparte

Although decades have passed in the interim, Napoleonic innovations in the application of logistics are direct precursors to the United States’ modern principle of the sustainment warfighting function. As a foundational warfighting function, logistics continues to serve as the bridge between the ever-changing art of war and the uncertainty of counterinsurgency abroad. Because of this fundamental reliance on logistics, maintaining a responsive and resilient supply chain is more critical than ever as the United States Air Force pivots to new theatres of conflict.

HISTORY – Napoleon and WWII

Napoleon’s personality and leadership style are areas of great interest for professional military logisticians. As history would show, supplying a force the size of Napoleon’s army was a logistical nightmare for the French command. In 1812, during Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, it quickly became evident how disastrous his decision would prove. Consequently, his decision for his Army to “live off the land” during the invasion has stood as one of the greatest military blunders not only of Napoleon’s military career, but also throughout history. While some scholars theorize that the Russian Winter (or Russian Army) were the primary agents of the demise of Napoleon’s Grande Armeé, these theories understate a harsher reality: Napoleon’s own logistical oversight proved to be the greatest cause of his destruction in Russia.

Similar threads of “lessons learned” would continue throughout history and into WWII. The most critical example that comes to mind is the petroleum shortage during the Battle of the Bulge; an allied logistics victory with a series of sustainment challenges. Denied the use of English Channel ports, the Allied supply points were displaced over 500 miles from the Normandy supply dumps. Even with the commission of the Red Ball Highway Express, critical supplies were often slow to reach the front lines of advancing armies. On one occasion, when convoys carrying rations arrived, General George Patton raged to General Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group, that he would “…shoot the next man who brings me food. Give us gasoline; we can eat our belts”.

Just like any facet of history, modern logisticians should learn from the mistakes of the past so that they may be avoided in the future. In this same context, modern military logisticians must consider all of these lessons learned, actively adapt them to today’s warfighting models, and ensure due consideration is afforded to all possible future outcomes.

TODAY’S WARFIGHTER – Responsive and Resilient Supply Chain (RRSC)

To address the past, present and future challenges to our logistical supply operations, the Air Force is considering what capabilities are inherent in a supply chain that are both responsive and resilient. ‘Responsive’ in the sense that the supply chain can adapt to both sudden and gradual changes in the threat environment; either through the use of current processes and technologies or with the insertion of new technology into current business practices. ‘Resilient’ in ensuring the supply chain can integrate and interoperate with other supply chains, (i.e., Contract Logistics Support (CLS), organic assets, etc.).


“The World’s Greatest Air Force – Powered by Airmen, Fueled by Innovation” is the Air Force vision that considers both the “today” and the “tomorrow” while at the same time being Warfighter focused. Air Force logisticians focus on a vision that reads:

“Globally integrated agile Logistics, Civil Engineering and Force Protection enabling operational effects in an ever-changing threat environment.”

This vision has its foundation set by four strategic principles: 1.) Evolve competencies to fully support Joint Operations; 2.) Posture for current and future fights; 3.) Deliver cost effective readiness; and 4.) Leverage collaborative partnerships and share resources.

Air Force logisticians march towards this vision, and its associated strategic principles by advancing several “enabling capabilities”. RRSC is one such capability, and its goal is to provide “…affordable, quality, timely material support from point of origin – inventory, maintenance, manufacture or procurement – to point of need enabling the full spectrum of operations in uncontested and contested environments.” In a broad sense this capability considers many different aspects of supply from global and theater distribution, to integration of new technology into supply chain processes, to the development of additive manufacturing capabilities, as well as addressing current and future risks to the supply chain.

This article will consider the RRSC capability in the context of three perspectives: 1.) How it can support the Warfighter supply operations from point of origin to point of need; 2.) How those same supply chain operations can be accomplished in a cost effective and timely manner; and 3.) How the supply chain can respond to future warfighting environments. All three perspectives will consider historical challenges and lessons learned to help inform the logistician about the requirements for better supporting the Warfighter.


Merriam-Webster defines logistics as “The aspect of military science dealing with the procurement, maintenance, and transportation of military materiel, facilities, and personnel.”

Following World War II, the Under Secretary of War and the Chief of Staff directed a report be written by the Director of the Service, Supply and Procurement Division of the War Department General Staff about the effectiveness of logistics during the course of the war. This report provided a very detailed analysis of WWII challenges and logistics lessons learned. Specifically, it emphasized the overarching goal of the Army Service Forces, from a supply standpoint, was to ensure several things: 1). end items were produced in accordance with schedules; 2.) items were stored in readily accessible locations without waste, and last but not least; 3.) the delivery of end items “…to all parts of the world in the right quantities and at the right time.” Ensuring the right item was at the right place at the right time. This right place/right time goal became such a focus that as the report points out, the Army was ultimately guided by the mindset that it was better to have “too much” supply rather than “too little” supply. This was, in turn, criticized as a flaw that would lead to overestimating requirements.

In today’s context, RRSC considers this right place/right time origin to need focus by considering past and current challenges to ensure future supply capability. One of the essential “ability to(s)” of RRSC is to ensure repair capabilities can respond to changes in demand patterns or disruptions in sources of repair. In a perfect world supply demand would be static in nature. However, when you consider changes in operations tempo, warfighting environment, and simultaneous operations, static/non-fluctuating demand is not a reality. RRSC and the supply chain at large are making direct efforts to address supply and demand planning inputs to ensure a sound output, which ultimately leads to parts on hand for the Wwarfighter. One of the ways in which this is being addressed is through the implementation of an Advanced Planning System (APS). This system is a “state of the art requirements determination system for demand, supply and inventory planning”. RRSC is overseeing the development of the APS called ESCAPE. This capability will be vital in ensuring the demand input results in a better output. For example, the current system only addresses supply demand through either an eight or four quarter moving average, or exponential smoothing and only offers a quarterly requirement computation capability. An APS like ESCAPE can use multiple algorithms to generate requirement computations as frequently as every day. This is significant not just from a generic input/output standpoint, but it has the ability to address the internal and external influences that impact supply demand. In the end, if the planned demand input is correct, current and the associated systems allow for flexibility in demand changes, it will help ensure the Warfighter has what they need when and where it is needed.


According to the November 2012 DoD Instruction (DoDI) 5200.44, Supply Chain Risk Management, (SCRM) is a systematic process for managing supply chain risk by identifying susceptibilities, vulnerabilities and threats throughout DoD’s “supply chain” and developing mitigation strategies to combat those threats whether presented by the supplier, the product and its subcomponents or the supply chain (e.g., initial production, packaging, handling, storage, transport, mission operation and disposal).

The 4 Aspects of SCRM Ref. (Ferry & Poindexter, 2016)

Within the defense industry, theft and counterfeiting of high value components or high-tech gadgets are on the rise, demanding a safe and secure supply chain. Because our supply chain is a globally distributed and interconnected web of suppliers and customers, doing so offers strategic and competitive advantage in various forms. Therefore, being agile, flexible and very quick to respond are certainly some of the core requirements all businesses need to succeed in the “new normal.”

A May 2012, the Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry report stated that China was found to be the dominant source country for counterfeit electronic parts, a major vulnerability in the supply chain. The Chinese government has failed to take steps to stop counterfeiting operations, which means DoD must step up its efforts to manage and mitigate the counterfeit threat.

To challenge similar risks within the industry and answer this call to action, the Basing and Logistics Flight Plan points to enabling capabilities for Maintaining a Responsive and Resilient Supply Chain. One of which speaks to the “identification, assessment and mitigation of risk from potential supply chain vulnerabilities” (Air Force, 2018). According to a 2016 article published by the Defense Acquisition, there are four basic ways to manage identified risk within the supply chain.

TREAT: Employ protective measures (countermeasures and mitigations) that may either reduce the consequence or likelihood of a threat exploiting or triggering a vulnerability or remove the threat or vulnerability that generates the risk.

TRANSFER: Allocate some or all of the responsibility for risk mitigation to another organization and/or phase of life cycle by passing the risk along.

TOLERATE: Make a conscious decision to continue with the activity (or acquisition) despite the identified risk.

TERMINATE: Eliminate the likelihood of a threat, susceptibility to a vulnerability or impact of exploitation by not continuing with the activity or acquisition.

Knowing where our risks originate and taking the necessary steps to prevent and eliminate these risks will make for a more improved processes and business relations with our customers.

FUTURE 2050 – Considering Current and Future Warfighting Environments

What is on the horizon for military logistics support? A 2012 article written by Petra Kiwitt and Steffen Frankenberg might provide some insight into possible revolutionary changes to logistical capabilities. They address the extensive possibilities of advances in dematerialization and 3D printing; essentially, the ability to fabricate spare parts using 3-D printing and additive manufacturing. These effects offer dramatic changes to the logistical environment, especially when used to manufacture products that may no longer be available in the marketplace.

Air Force Photo by Kelly White Ref. (Parker, 2015)

These revolutionary ideas are no longer far off in the future and/or strangers to Air Force logisticians. RRSC is exploring these innovations to ensure success in future Warfighter environments, no matter where in air or space they exist. Imagine a future where a deployed airman at a forward operating base could create a part for a stranded aircraft with little more than items he and his comrades can carry in their vehicles or on their person. A 3-D printer and the resin(s) required for its operation could meet the needs of several pallets of material that would normally accompany such a mission, or even replace the need for a logistical supply network in challenging and contested environments. Envision a time when the technician at the depot had the appropriate technology to reverse engineer an aging aircraft end item no longer built by a diminishing manufacturing base. These would be significant advances in terms of supply capability in the future, but they have to be tempered with the assurance of aircraft and maintenance safety and usability. In the end, these capabilities address the “resiliency” of the supply chain; ultimately, ensuring the viability of supply chains in future warfighting environments—whether contested or not.

CONCLUSION – Where are my Parts?

Throughout the history of modern warfare, through Napoleon’s foray into Russia and the United States’ 20th century engagements, there has always been a significant and ever-present challenge to ensure the Warfighter was adequately supplied to complete the mission. What is essential to understand is that this generic question of “Where are my parts?”, is not just a question for military logisticians in 1812, 1914, 1944, 1965, 2001 or 2018, but rather a recurring question that will be asked in 2020, 2030, 2050 and beyond. As the nature of wars evolve and technology matures, the logisticians who support the modern Warfighter need to continually adapt. They need to develop and sustain a supply chain flexible enough to adjust and respond in a timely manner to whatever environment or circumstance is encountered. The United States Air Force’s work to pursue and sustain a capability to ensure a responsive and resilient supply chain may not prevent the question of “Where are my parts?” from ever being asked again, but it can certainly reduce its recurrence and mitigate its effects.

About the Authors:

Colonel Michael Allison is the Commander, 76th Aircraft Maintenance Group at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex.

Captain Damiqua Champion is a logistics readiness officer at the Oklahoma City-Air Logistics Complex. Captain Champion is currently serving as a Logistics Career Broadening Officer working within the B-52 Program Office.

Captain Benjamin Flores is an aircraft maintenance officer at the Oklahoma City-Air Logistics Complex. Captain Flores is currently serving as a Logistics Career Broadening Officer working within the 76th Commodities Maintenance Group.

Ms. Ginger Hassen is the Director, 420 Supply Chain Management Squadron in the 448 Supply Chain Management Wing located at Tinker AFB, OK.

Ms. Ann Wimberly is the Responsive Resilient Supply Chain project lead, 420 Supply Chain Management Squadron in the 448 Supply Chain Management Wing located at Hill AFB, UT.

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