A soldier fighting in a war today has many of the same basic needs that a soldier had thousands of years ago. Meals, medicines, and munitions are just a few of the fundamental supplies that are needed to keep a military unit operating at full capacity. Soldiers require the same basic life necessities as civilians: nutrition, shelter, and medical supplies to maintain good health. But soldiers must also have weapons and the consumables that weapons need to function, such as ammunition, repair parts, and fuel. So, not surprisingly, great warriors throughout history have carefully planned their strategies around logistics.
Logistics Strategies in History
In his book, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, Donald W. Engels describes many of the techniques Alexander the Great used to supply food, water, and equipment to his traveling army. In 320 B.C., Alexander’s 35,000-man army traveled with no more than a 10-day supply of food. Alexander also incorporated supply chain logistics into his overall military strategy.
Jonathan Roth provides insight to the supply chain strategy of the Roman army in his book, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264 B.C.–A.D. 235). Roth describes tactics used by the Roman Army to both defend their own supply lines and attack their enemies’ supply lines.
Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “An army marches on its stomach.” His army lost more soldiers because of spoiled food than from battle. In 1795, Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could devise a reliable method of food preservation for his army. This effort resulted in the first attempts to store food for extended periods of time in cans and ultimately led to modern food canning methods.
Early in the history of the United States, military leaders focused on maintaining an efficient supply chain. The position of Quartermaster General was created the day after George Washington accepted command of the Continental Army in June 1775. The Quartermaster General was responsible for acquiring provisions and distributing them to the troops. His major concerns were finances and logistics.
The U.S. military has also disrupted the enemy’s supply chain to weaken its fighting capabilities. When we think of a military supply line, we often think of the logistics considerations necessary to keep our own supply chain flowing. However, just as important to military success are tactics for disrupting the enemy supply line. A defensive strategy is to protect our own supply chain; an offensive strategy is to inhibit the supply chain of our enemy. The United States has used both offensive and defensive strategies in many wars, including the Revolutionary War in the 1770s and 1780s, the Civil War in the 1860s, the Plains Indian Wars in the late 19th century, World War II in the 1940s, and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.
Revolutionary War (1775–1783)
Although the British had a larger and better trained army than the Americans, they had to transport soldiers and supplies across the Atlantic Ocean. George Washington, as well as other military leaders in the Continental Army, recognized that disrupting the flow of supplies to the British soldiers would destroy their ability to fight effectively.
In the Carolinas, Major General Nathanael Greene developed a strategy of harassing the British supply lines. He enlisted the help of local patriots like Francis Marion, also known as “Swamp Fox,” who led guerrilla-style raids on British supply lines. Marion concentrated his attacks on British supply camps and was able to cut the supply lines linking several British-occupied cities.
During the war, General George Washington also relied on a French fleet under the command of Admiral François de Grasse to establish a blockade in the Chesapeake Bay. This blockade cut off the supply line to General Lord Charles Cornwallis’ British troops at Yorktown, Virginia. The British were cut off from rescue or resupply, while the Continental Army and their French allies benefited from plenty of troops and supplies. This led to the Battle of Yorktown, the surrender of Cornwallis’s army, and the ultimate defeat of the British forces in America.
Civil War (1861–1865)
Before the Civil War, the economies of most southern states primarily relied on exporting cotton and tobacco to Europe and the northern U.S. states. The Confederacy did not have the factories, machinery, or skilled labor needed to establish a large manufacturing base. From the onset of the war, the Confederacy looked to Europe to supply many of their military needs.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Union Commanding General Winfield Scott presented President Abraham Lincoln with a nonaggressive strategy to bring rebellious Confederate States back into the Union. The plan would exploit the South’s reliance on exporting cash crops and importing manufactured goods by instituting a naval blockade of more than 3,500 miles of coast from Virginia to Mexico. By choking off the supply chain of inbound and outbound goods, the Union hoped to limit the South’s ability to supply its army with goods. This plan became known as the Anaconda Plan. Later in the war, the Union Army also destroyed farms and businesses in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General Philip H. Sheridan to render the valley so barren that a crow flying over it would have to pack its own lunch.
|Commanding General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan emphasized the blockade of the Southern ports during the Civil War. The name came from the plan being likened to the coils of a snake suffocating its victim.
Major General William T. Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, in 1864, which is called Sherman’s March to the Sea, was characterized by a scorched earth policy. Advancing Union troops were ordered to burn crops, kill livestock, consume supplies, and destroy railroads and manufacturing capabilities to keep goods from falling into Confederate hands. This tactic rendered the Confederate economy incapable of resupplying its soldiers.
Certainly, the Union’s defeat of the Confederacy depended on many factors. One of those factors was the South’s dwindling supply of battlefield provisions. With limited internal manufacturing resources and a reduction of imported goods, the Confederacy found it difficult to supply its soldiers with necessary supplies. The Union army was able to drastically reduce the effectiveness of the Confederate forces by disrupting or destroying parts of their supply chain.
Plains Indian Wars
After the Civil War, white American settlers began to spread west at an increased rate. This expansion led to conflicts between settlers and the indigenous Plains Indians. The Plains Indians roamed a geographic region from Texas to Canada and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. They included the Sioux, Comanche, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Crow, and other tribes.
These tribes relied on the buffalo for almost every aspect of their existence. They used every part of the buffalo. The meat was roasted and eaten fresh or was dried into a kind of jerky for long-term storage. The hides were used for tipi covers, robes, blankets, containers, and drums. Muscles were used for bow strings and sewing thread. Bones were used for tools, knives, pipes, and arrowheads. Horns were used for spoons, cups, bowls, containers, and arrowheads. The buffalo’s fat was used to make hair grease, candles, and soap, and its dung was used for fuel in fires. The stomach and bladder were used for water containers and cooking pots, and the skull was used for religious ceremonies and decoration. The buffalo represented the Plains Indians’ entire supply chain. As long as the buffalo were plentiful, the Indians could lead a nomadic, independent lifestyle.
Many Plains Indian tribes were reluctant to give up their nomadic ways to settle on reservation land set aside by the U.S. Government. Although it is debatable whether the U.S. Government had an official policy concerning extermination of the buffalo, it is clear that key individuals encouraged buffalo hunting. General Sheridan and General Sherman recognized the Indian’s dependence on the buffalo. When asked about the buffalo hunters, Sheridan summarized the situation as follows—
These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. And it is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle.
Without the buffalo, the Plains Indians could not maintain their self-sufficient, nomadic lifestyle. The buffalo was their entire supply line. In 1860, about 13 million buffalo roamed the plains. By 1890, this number was reduced to about 1,000. Ultimately, all Plains Indian tribes were either defeated in battle or accepted life on Government reservations.
World War II (1941–1945)
During World War II, Japan was a nation that depended on imports across the Pacific Ocean to fulfill its supply lines. Japan had a limited number of ships, and the ability to import goods depended on having ships available. So, Allied navies waged a tonnage war to limit the volume of supplies reaching military operations. A tonnage war is a naval strategy designed to disrupt the enemy’s economic supply chain by destroying merchant shipping.
Allied navies sank 1,178 Japanese merchant ships compared to 214 Japanese naval ships. The U.S. Navy sank over 4.8 million tons of Japanese merchant ships. By the end of the war, Japan had only 12 percent of its merchant shipping fleet operable and a minimal fuel supply available to operate the ships. Without merchant ships to import supplies for Japan’s military needs, its navy and air force became ineffective. Because of the lack of fuel, naval ships were confined to ports and air force planes were grounded.
Vietnam War (1960–1975)
In 1954, the country of Vietnam was separated into two distinct sections: Communist North Vietnam and democratic South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Communist Party formed the National Liberation Front with the goal of unifying North and South Vietnam under communist rule. Fearing the spread of communism, President John F. Kennedy pledged support to the democratic government of South Vietnam.
The conflict was primarily fought in South Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a series of truck and foot paths used by the northern Communist troops to transport materiel to the south during the war. Supplies in North Vietnam were transported through the neutral countries of Laos and Cambodia to troops in South Vietnam. The trail was not a single road, but a network of primitive roads, jungle paths, and waterways extending over 1,500 miles of terrain. Supplies were transported by truck, bicycle, boat, and foot. Although no exact figures for the volume of traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail exist, estimates are that over 1 million tons of supplies and 2 million troops traveled from North Vietnam to South Vietnam along this trail.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail became a target for U.S. bombing missions in an effort to disrupt the Communists’
supply chain. The United States also released defoliants to expose the trail. During the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, the bombing activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail reached a level of 900 bombs per day. Operations Barrel Roll and Steel Tiger were designed to reduce the traffic to such an extent that the enemy could not get enough supplies for sustained operations. U.S. bombing targets included truck convoys on the trail, bridges, and the roads themselves. Throughout the war, the Ho Chi Minh Trail remained a constant target of U.S. bombing missions. The trail was so important to the North Vietnamese strategy that construction crews repaired the damage after each bombing raid. So ultimately, the bombing missions had a limited effect on the overall flow of supplies along the trail.
Supply chain management is, and always has been, an important characteristic of any military organization. Soldiers must have food, water, shelter, and medicine to sustain life. They must have a supply of weapons and a means of transporting those weapons. Since ancient times, successful military leaders have recognized the importance of maintaining a supply line to keep their troops equipped. Legendary German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is credited with saying, “The battle is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins.”
The U.S. military has recognized this concept since the Revolutionary War and General Washington’s request to create the Quartermaster General position. Enemy forces have the same supply needs as U.S. forces. If an enemy can be cut off from its supply line, its ability to fight is quickly compromised. In some cases, the enemy’s ability even to survive is compromised. The U.S. strategy of attacking enemy supply lines has been repeated throughout history. Although this aspect of military strategy may not be as exciting as battlefield tactics, it is no less critical to success. The strategy for defeating an enemy force can take the shape of many varied objectives. Disrupting our enemy’s supply line has been an effective U.S. military strategy to weaken those opponents. Without meals, medicines, and munitions, a military force is incapable of sustaining operations.
Dr. Cliff Welborn teaches supply chain management and production at the graduate level and management and operations concepts at the undergraduate level at Middle Tennessee State University. He has B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in industrial engineering from Kansas State University, Auburn University, and the University of Texas at Arlington, respectively.