Just-in-time logistics . . . isn’t. Not in the military arena, anyway. Over at the WarZone, Joseph Trevithick is all over the story of how faulty assumptions about logistics threaten to degrade allied air forces’ fleets of stealthy F-35 joint strike fighters during armed strife, when they’re needed most. F-35s could find themselves grounded for want of spare parts and kindred support.
(Subscribe to 19FortyFive‘s New YouTube Channel here.)
A supply shortage can knock a fighter jet out of the wild blue as surely as an enemy missile can, if perhaps not as devastatingly. A grounded warbird contributes little to the fight for command of the air.
At fault is a misplaced obsession with efficiency and cost-effectiveness, which stands in tension with combat efficacy. The F-35 program was “set up to be very efficient” and to depend on a “just-in-time kind of supply chain,” according to Lieutenant General Michael Schmidt, the U.S. Air Force overseer of the F-35 Joint Program Office, who spoke at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Expo earlier this month. “I’m not sure that that works always in a contested environment.”
If anything General Schmidt understates the problem. Seldom if ever would such a system work in a contested environment. And yet generations of armed-forces chieftains have exhibited a weird fetish for adapting business practices to military affairs, a domain manifestly unsuited to them. The U.S. Navy seized on W. Edwards Deming’s Total Quality Management system for awhile, Bill Smith’s Lean Six Sigma was all the rage, Steven Spear’s High Velocity Learning had its day in the sun, you name it.
Just in Time Logistics is yet another import from the business world.
Now, by no means do I intend this as a slur on business folk. They love efficiency, as well they should. To all appearances this mode of logistics works as advertised in the steady-state environment for which it was devised. To keep this discussion in the realm of flight, think about an airline. Airliners lift off on a scripted schedule, maneuver gently enroute to their destinations, and touch down, all in a peacetime setting where the supply chain supposedly turns smoothly and reliably.
In such permissive surroundings it makes eminent sense to furnish the precise type and amount of supplies an aircraft needs for upkeep, where and when it needs them. Just-in-time deliveries eliminate waste, bolster efficiency, and help a firm make best use of the profit-loss equation.
But predictability is the keystone. Military competition and warfare jerk that keystone out of the operational edifice, leaving it to collapse on itself.
Suppose, to push the airline example further than we probably should, that Delta Air Lines got in a literal trade war with American. The antagonists would go out of their way to obstruct each other’s operations in hopes of wringing a commercial advantage from bareknuckles competition. They might resort to sabotage on the ground, interfere to keep opposing aircrews from reaching their planes on time, or, yes, do their damnedest to sow mayhem in their rival’s supply chain to impair aircraft reliability.
Predictability would vanish along with the rules of the game of mercantile rivalry. And pandemonium would ensue. Guess how well just-in-time logistics would work in such a topsy-turvy business environment. Not well.
And yet that’s the analogue to martial strife, a realm where transients, not steady-state operations, are the rule. The enemy gets a vote in the success of your strategy and operations, and will doubtless try to veto it. U.S. Air Force strategy guru Colonel John Boyd enjoins the would-be victor to take control of the surroundings and change them around his foe, springing “fast transients” that disorient the foe to friendly advantage.
And then there’s what the Prussian soldier Carl von Clausewitz calls the “atmosphere” of war. “Danger, physical exertion, intelligence, and friction,” says Clausewitz, “coalesce” to form an intensely complex, nonlinear, unpredictable setting where each combatant tries to impose its will on an unwilling opponent determined to get its own way. And that’s leaving aside all of the dark passions—enmity, hatred, spite—that tend to send war careening off on unforeseeable tangents.
Boyd and Clausewitz would jeer at the idea that an air force would try to institute just-in-time logistics amid such unruly surroundings. They would regard such an effort as whimsy born of a long peace. And they would be right.
But General Schmidt hints that uprooting just-in-time thinking will be harder than simply mandating that F-35 manufacturers, maintainers, and users do things differently. He discerns a “just-in-time mentality,” implying that this outlook is graven on the cultures of the institutions that build, fly, and support joint strike fighters. “When you have that mentality,” he maintains, “a hiccup in the supply chain, whether it be a [labor] strike . . . or a quality issue . . . then that becomes your single point of failure.”
And again, Schmidt is talking about the easy case. He’s talking about peacetime operations, not a wartime battleground where the People’s Liberation Army or Russian military is doing its utmost to disrupt the logistics train for U.S. stealth aircraft and other platforms. Succeeding in the latter is an order of magnitude tougher.
Cultures are stubborn things. Once a fad from the business world gets transcribed into bureaucratic rules and procedures, and once the institution reinforces the fad by instituting career incentives and penalties that prompt officials to go along with it, even a misbegotten way of doing things is prone to resist going gentle into that good night. Fads mold minds.
So it sounds as though a cultural counterrevolution may be necessary within the military-industrial complex to ensure F-35s can take to the skies in sufficient numbers for battle.
Why a counterrevolution? Well, in wars of old, military commanders grokked that they needed an excess of ammunition, fuel, and stores of all kinds to be sure of having enough on hand at the time and place of action. That may have been wasteful and inefficient, but it was necessary to prevail. This conviction was central to commanders’ assumptions about the profession of arms.
A surplus might be enough: that’s wisdom worth rediscovering—and re-encoding in institutional DNA—as part of the U.S. military’s great relearning of timeless verities. Let’s stockpile what fighting forces need, along with conveyances to get supplies where they need to go. And let’s do it now.
Begone, just-in-time logistics.
Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center, Marine Corps University. His book, Habits of Highly Effective Maritime Strategists, was recently nominated for the U.K. Maritime Foundation’s Mountbatten Award for Best Book of 2022. The views voiced here are his alone.