Covering nearly half of the Earth’s surface, scale and noncontiguous landmasses are defining characteristics for land forces operating in the Indo-Pacific Theater. For sustainers, this creates unique challenges for supporting the joint warfighter. Coupled with the ability of China, described by top military leaders as the United States’ pacing challenge, to contest this space with kinetic and nonkinetic capabilities, regional sustainment requires an approach unlike any other theater of operation.
Through Operation Pathways, I Corps, which is headquartered at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, has significantly increased its forward presence in the theater through joint and combined exercises aimed at building credible regional combat capability. As the scale and scope of U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific has increased, so has the focus on developing ways to better project sustainment over great distances.
One complex challenge involves supporting operational- and tactical-level maneuver units in an archipelagic environment and the unique sustainment considerations needed to ensure operational endurance and flexibility. Through continual war-gaming, exercises and persistent employment of forces west of the international date line, I Corps continues to gain firsthand knowledge of the operational environment. This builds capability in four key areas driving future sustainment efforts: forward posturing, long-range precision logistics, joint interoperability and partner-nation support.
At the Association of the U.S. Army 2023 LANPAC Symposium and Exposition in May, Lt. Gen. Xavier Brunson, I Corps commanding general, articulated the challenges of operating in the region.
“We’re based largely in Joint Base Lewis-McChord, but there’s this tyranny of circles that we have to deal with,” Brunson said. “You can only get so far, so fast to the places we need to be, and that’s why posture becomes increasingly important.”
The size of the Indo-Pacific Theater presents the longest lines of communications in the world. Distances from home station to expected operational areas are often twice that traveled by units moving to Europe. If peer-power competition gives way to large-scale conflict, the U.S. capacity for airlift and sealift will be at a premium.
Anticipating extreme competition for use of strategic transportation, I Corps continually looks to forward-posture capabilities west of the international date line to jump-start force employment into a particular country. These stocks likely are not so-called iron mountains but rather a series of dispersed, well-placed contingency stocks enabling rapid transition to larger-scale operations and are used regularly to support Operation Pathways exercises. Forward posturing, to include realigning pre-positioned stocks and improving enterprise sustainment capacity, will decrease demand on transportation networks if a crisis or conflict occurs. Investment now will enable I Corps forces to quickly transition to meet challenges.
I Corps relies on the 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, in partnership with the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, to inform development of theater sustainment posture and logistics nodes. These nodes, on U.S. bases such as Hawaii and Guam, and, more significantly, within allied countries farther west, provide a network of interior lines connecting forward forces to strategic supply lines. Early materiel positioning at these locations improves U.S. military theater posture and provides more sustainment options for U.S. force employment.
In a region as vast as the Indo-Pacific, the criticality of precise logistics estimates cannot be overstated. Long supply lines mean errors made in supply estimates will take longer to correct, potentially limiting commanders’ freedom of maneuver. The phrase “that ship has sailed” neatly embodies the concept, meaning that the time between transportation priority decisions and their intended effects is longer in the Indo-Pacific.
One way to combat this could be found in the development of data tools that leverage vast databases to increase the precision of supply estimates and continually monitor the sustainment network for significant changes. This would encompass existing logistics systems that provide asset visibility and extend to greater inclusion of bulk commodities at the corps level and below. Improved understanding across distributed sustainment nodes, coupled with tailorable data sets at echelon, is more valuable than real-time understanding. Logically, this would improve commanders’ ability to reduce errors in getting the right supplies delivered at the point of need.
It also would enhance the speed of those decisions, especially when sudden changes occur in the sustainment environment. The I Corps logistics staff is working with data warfare teams to develop tools that integrate with the corps’ system of record and facilitate user interface to meet these challenges and improve the corps’ contribution to joint sustainment.
In June’s Pacific Sentry exercise, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s joint combatant command-level training event, participants learned that sustainment in the Indo-Pacific is heavily reliant on air and maritime distribution capability at the tactical level. Corps and division sustainment units are designed largely to distribute supplies via land routes or rotary-wing aircraft with limited range on contiguous landmasses.
By comparison, corps and division operations in the region occur in archipelagic environments and require transport of forces and materiel via sea vessels and longer-range fixed-wing aircraft.
As such, U.S. Army forces in the Indo-Pacific are increasingly familiar with employment of Army watercraft and support from joint enablers such as Marine Corps and Navy vessels. These capabilities are essential to this fight, and the Army must continue investing in Army watercraft support and improving interoperability with joint transportation enablers.
Integration of joint protection capabilities is the most critical and complex aspect of multidomain transportation employment. Sustainers across the Indo-Pacific region are working to build connections across services and with coalition partners. These partnerships will need to develop joint integration at lower levels and farther forward to overcome contested supply lines and restricted flexibility of supply distribution.
For example, resupply within a corps’ area of responsibility will rely heavily on watercraft for distribution between landmasses. These watercraft (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, etc.) logically operate in the maritime domain or, in other words, a maritime commander’s battle space.
In the Indo-Pacific, integration of enterprise sustainment partners and fusion of land logistics with joint maritime/air transportation and protection is essential to success. I Corps began building interoperable capability during its warfighter exercise last fall and continued to work with joint partners in the Unified Pacific Wargame Series and Pacific Sentry. The corps continued its experimentation during the Australian bilateral exercise Talisman Saber in July as it sought to further develop interoperability and interchangeable capability.
Exercising sustainment is the best way to proof and refine the system, and I Corps achieves that through a constant presence in the region. “The best way that we can compete is by assuring our partners and our friends in the region that we’re going to be there,” Brunson said. “Assurance is power. And, again, if we take it down to its base level, it’s those human relationships that we build over time, through our campaigning effort, that is, [Operation] Pathways.”
The U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific hinges upon its regional allies and partners, both diplomatically and militarily. Critical for the military, America’s allies and partners play a crucial role in logistics throughout the theater by granting access, basing and overflight authorities and by providing combined logistics capability. Sustainment of projected U.S. forces in any theater centers on the ability to connect the continental U.S. supply base with seaports and airports within that theater.
This is true in the Indo-Pacific as well, but with increased significance due to the noncontiguous nature of the region and adversaries’ ability to put sea and air communication lines at risk.
I Corps maintains positive relations with all allies and partners for access, basing and overflight authorities to provide a maximum diversity of port locations required for survivability and depth of sustainment nodes. Corps- and division-level units are the military ambassadors of these efforts as they work closely with allied and partner militaries on plans that demonstrate and rehearse wartime movement of military personnel and equipment using an array of nodes. The simulated and actual use of these ports during Operation Pathways exercises assures allies and partners, as well as U.S. forces, of operational readiness and regional commitment.
Beyond access, basing and overflight authorities, U.S. allies are key contributors to logistics capability and capacity across the theater. Partner nations provide military and commercial logistics services (stevedores, lodging, transportation, fuel storage, etc.) for every U.S. exercise in the Indo-Pacific. This support not only enables bilateral military cooperation for armed conflict; it furthers opportunities for multilateral support to regional humanitarian assistance operations.
As the Army continues to increase its Indo-Pacific presence, there are things it can and must do to decrease sustainment limitations. Foremost is forward positioning of key commodities and supplies in partnership with allies and partners. Continuing to increase forward posture of sustainment creates the most impactful and immediate effect for employing joint forces in the Indo-Pacific.
The Army also must continue to develop technological solutions to enhance understanding of the sustainment environment at every echelon, to achieve greater precision and speed of decision-making and limit the effects of long and contested supply lines.
Additionally, the last tactical miles of long supply lines are dependent on maritime capabilities such as Army watercraft. In a contested environment, watercraft will require greater joint and combined collaboration to ensure their protection and effective movement throughout the archipelagic battle space.
Lastly, sustainment in the Indo-Pacific is an endeavor inextricably combined with America’s allies and partners. Beyond access to the geographic nodes needed to connect a complex supply network, it is the people of the partner nations and their organic capability that underpin America’s ability to project and sustain forces in the Indo-Pacific. The notion of “one team” rings true in this regard and is a central component of regional sustainment.
The ability to understand and synchronize distribution, supply, maintenance, logistics services, contract support and other sustainment functions beyond typical operational planning horizons may prove decisive in the Army’s ability to meet its obligations with regional partners and allies. Now is the time to refine skills and build capacity to ensure a resilient regional sustainment network as a critical component to maintaining stability.
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Col. Daniel Duncan is deputy chief of staff for sustainment for I Corps, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Previously, he was military deputy director for operations and executive officer to the commander of the U.S. Transportation Command. He deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has two master’s degrees, one in managerial leadership from Webster University and one in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College.
Lt. Col. Derek Hoffman is deputy to the director of sustainment for I Corps. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He has a master’s degree in supply chain management from the University of Kansas.