Projecting forces: No matter your strength, if you don’t have the reach

August 18, 2015 12:12 PM

When Mike Tyson was working his way up to the championship, he had one major problem to overcome. The problem was not his punch (he packed a breathtaking 1200 foot-pounds of force in his fist), but how to get it all the way to the opponent’s chin. With a mere 71 inches of reach, rather modest for a heavyweight boxer, reaching his target with enough energy proved no easy task. Deploying armies have exactly the same problems.


On the morning of April 2, 1982, Argentina’s military junta opted to distract the public from widespread economic stagnation and political unrest by forcefully seizing the Falkland Islands, a British territory. The Argentinian gamble was that the British would not engage in military confrontation for such a small speck of land and would rather accept the fait accompli. In the event the fearsome British Army and Navy did respond, they would lose a lot of their power in the projection. As history retained, the Argentinians were dead wrong about the former point. But they were right on the latter.

Although the Argentinian army was a serious one, and had recently purchased the fearsome French Exocet missiles, it didn’t stand a chance in the face of the mighty British army on a level ground. But the ground was not level: while the Argentinians were fighting just off their coast, the British had to throw their military power all the way around the globe: 8 000 miles to travel, over which to guarantee safety, stealth, replenishment and maintenance for equipment. In a bold mission named Black Buck One, the British perfectly illustrated how distance will shrink power dramatically. A highly mathematical formation of 11 Victor tanker planes were to refuel each other and the two Vulcan bombers over 7000 miles of flight, to destroy the Stanley airport which would eventually threaten the landings. With this enormous 13-aircraft formation, the British were able to land one bomb on the runway, making the mission a success. The bomber was able to return from the mission, refueling just minutes from ditching into the ocean. That’s right: one of the most powerful armies in the world was able, by the skin of its teeth, to drop one bomb on Falkland Islands’ critical airstrip.

Behind the attack force, lie replenishment lines. Making sure soldiers thousands of miles away don’t run out of food, water or ammunition is no easy task, especially in areas where the enemy is free to ambush supply trucks. In operation Enduring Freedom, supporting troops in Afghanistan proved a very tricky riddle. The landlocked country made NATO double its logistics lines: sea and ground transport through Pakistan for non-lethal equipment, and air transport for weapons and ammunition. Both these transport modes had major shortcomings: trucks were regularly ambushed by the Taliban combat teams. In 2008, Taliban managed to blow up 42 tankers at once, and later launched a 300-strong attack on a facility close to the Pakistani border, seriously crippling fuel supplies. Air transport is, of course, much safer, but costs up to 10 times more (and excludes very heavy loads, most of the time, such as heavy armor). In the height of the Afghan war, the coalition was burning over half a million gallons of fuel every day. The strain on supply lines was therefore great, and the iffy reliability of the Pakistani ally (which supplied most of the fuel) was a major concern for military commanders. The financial burden of supplies and their transport quickly forms the limit of a country’s military power.

Last but not least, comes maintenance. After projecting forces, and supplying them, headquarters must ensure spare parts and repair, for whichever vehicles or pieces of equipment have been damaged or have broken down. The French successfully designed a new way to conduct international deployments in Mali: the US was unwilling to deploy troops in Mali but did make logistics available to the French, to some extent. The French are known for the ruggedness of their army. As a result, French forces weighed very little on maintenance. The military layout relied on air superiority, implemented by the mighty Rafale, and speedy and sturdy infantry, roaming in the new VBCIs, the new French infantry fighting vehicle. It provides the speed (100 km/h on roads, 50 km/h on terrain), the protection (not a single life was lost in the vehicle throughout the operation, despite several powerful IED attacks) and, most of all, can be declined into many different variants: command car, ambulance, reconnaissance vehicle, combat vehicle, fire support, etc. This means that, not only does it break down less than average, but repairing any version often requires the same spare parts. Such logistics simplifications greatly facilitate maintenance chains and the coalition’s ability to operate them. Logistic and maintenance costs are always a hot spots for armies, with much more sophisticated vehicles than before. But on that ground, VBCI kept all its promises of low life-cycle costs. And although it uses state-of-the-art technology, especially a highly accurate and powerful 25mm gun turret, VBCI proved its reliability, its resistance to rough conditions and, above all, its efficiency: a 2500 km raid within a week was the operational illustration of VBCI’s performances.

A vehicle breaking down on its base is a problem easily fixed within hours. The same vehicle breaking down on another continent, with no hope of speedy repair will often mean outright loss of the vehicle and sometimes, losing the men inside it, who are unable to maneuver and make for easy targets. History has repeatedly shown that distance has a terrible depletion effect on military capacity. The British army, in 1775, was one of the most powerful pieces of military machinery on earth. And yet, they were held in check by poorly equipped American rebels, with hunting rifles and swords. A secure chain of logistics, hinging upon solid and reliable vehicles and equipment, is the only way to make sure a powerful army doesn’t get beaten by meager rebel teams.