A U.S. Army Soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade marshals an M-142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) onto a scale during Talisman Sabre 23 at Williamson Airfield, Australia, July 26, 2023.

A U.S. Army Soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade marshals an M-142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) onto a scale during Talisman Sabre 23 at Williamson Airfield, Australia, July 26, 2023. U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Tylir Meyer

Army faces logistics, alliance hurdles in the Pacific

Many civilian logistics contractors in the Philippines, a key U.S. ally, are likely too close to China for the U.S. to work with.

As the Army rushed to send weapons and munitions to Ukraine in February last year, it had some helpful factors in its favor: ample equipment already stored in Europe, civilian transportation companies eager to help, and relatively short distances to move the gear. 

In the Pacific, it's another story. 

From how the Army gets drinking water to which ports will allow U.S. ships to enter, the Army is confronting a range of logistics problems it will need to solve as it prepares to fight in the Pacific. 

“I would put [logistics] up almost at the top” of the Army’s problems in the Pacific, said Bradley Martin, director of the National Security Supply Chain Institute at think-tank RAND. 

One major potential stumbling block: Physically moving enough troops, weapons, and supplies across the vast distances of the Pacific. 

“You can put five European theaters of operation inside of INDOPACOM,” said Col. Brandon Teague, commander of an Army unit charged with security cooperation in the region.

The Army relies in part on Army-controlled vessels to carry equipment to the Pacific. The service recently tested the concept in exercise Talisman Sabre, in which they were used to move supplies from the U.S. to Australia. 

The most capable ship the Army has right now is the long-distance logistical support vessel, of which the service has eight. However, moving an Army infantry brigade combat team, consisting of around 5,000 soldiers and 1,800 vehicles, would require 61 of these vessels to move the brigade and all its supplies in one go.

Moreover, even the vessels the Army has need updating. During the recent exercise, outdated ships “gradually put things behind schedule,” Col. Daniel Duncan, assistant chief of the logistics section of I Corps, previously told Defense One

The Army is moving to build new vessels, Army Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo told Defense One this week. The Army has already started production of its new Maneuver Support Vessel (Light), a 117-foot, 82-ton vessel first floated last year, and is also working on requirements for a large ship, to be called the Maneuver Support Vessel (Heavy). 

Still, it doesn’t get any easier once the vessels are in the Pacific.

For one, there’s fewer supplies, from food to fuel. “There are no pipelines for oil. There is no strategic energy reserve in Taiwan,” said John Schaus, a senior fellow at think-tank CSIS. 

“There's no sufficient domestic food production anywhere.” 

Moving the supplies that are actually there is a problem of its own. The military relies heavily on civilian contractors to move supplies even in wartime, with the head of Transportation Command calling them the “'fourth component command.” 

And in areas with decades of close ties to the U.S., including Korea, Japan, and Australia, the U.S. largely knows how working with those contractors will work, Martin said. 

It’s less clear with other allies—including the Philippines. Many contractors there have connections to China that would prevent them from working with the U.S, Martin said. 

That includes transportation in the area in general, he said: Regionally, there are only about 90 civilian offshore support vessels that are not linked to China in some way. 

The types of vessels used by such contractors are typically larger boats and ships that could more easily be targeted by Chinese missiles, Schauss added. 

The U.S. also has to make a “significant investment” to work out the diplomatic agreements necessary to sustain a theoretical war in the Pacific, said Maj. Gen. David Wilson, current commander of U.S. Army Sustainment Command and former commander of U.S. Army Pacific logistics. 

After he became head of 8th Theater Sustainment Command in 2020, Wilson said he created a chart showing which countries had logistic and defense agreements with the U.S., and which did not. U.S. objectives did not match up with its access in the region, Wilson said: “Our audio was not matching our video.” 

For example, just 16 of 38 countries in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility had signed agreements on the exchange of goods between militaries, like fuel transfers, as of 2020. The agreements are known as Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements. 

By contrast, 46 of 51 countries in the U.S. European Command region have signed such agreements. 

Amid all these challenges, the U.S. has another, connected problem—with no organization similar to NATO, Asian countries’ alliance to either the United States or China during a war is not a given. 

Speaking at a CSIS event last week, Gen. Charles Flynn, commander of the Army in the Pacific, described Chinese government operatives seeking to sway countries immediately after they host Army exercises. 

“They come in with coercive power, mostly money, and they're trying to find individuals who are receptive to that kind of work,” said Flynn. “That tends to undermine what we are doing out there.”

Chinese investments in ports are also a concern, Wilson said. “We saw where the peer competitor had intruded, all the way pretty far east, right into space, where it was alarming.” China owns or operates almost 100 ports outside China. 

The Army is moving to address at least some of these problems. 

At the most basic level, Army units are figuring out how to make troops in the field less dependent on resupply. 

“One of the questions we ask our team is, how do we extend [soldiers’] endurance and not be tethered to a sustainment node?” said Maj. Gen. Marcus Evans, commander of the Army’s Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division. 

Evan’s No. 1 priority is clean water. The division’s sustainment brigade is working on several initiatives for purifying water from the ocean or local sources at scale and then distributing it across the division, he said. 

Power generation is also a top priority. One solution is traveling with car-sized, mobile batteries that take the pressure off of diesel fuel stocks. So far, Evans said the division has made the most progress with water purification. 

Army units are also working to solve their logistical problems by putting more equipment in the region to start with. The U.S. recently left equipment in Australia as part of the Talisman Sabre exercise, said Flynn, and has signed leasing arrangements for 300 million square feet of storage in the Philippines’ Subic Bay.

The service also wants Army prepositioned stocks to be dispersed more widely across Asia, and to train on drawing from those stocks more often, Flynn added. 

Flynn also highlighted how the Army could use stockpiles of what he termed “dual-purpose” goods, or materiel that could be used for humanitarian reasons or military purposes, like equipment to repair airfields. 

Wilson, the commander of United States Army Sustainment Command, said such supplies have an added benefit—host countries wary of allowing the U.S. to store weapons may be more willing to allow food or medical supply stockpiles. 

“Our allies and partners who may not be open to us putting combat systems on the ground would be open to us putting things on the ground that would enable us to help save lives in the event of natural disasters,” Wilson said.

Another possible solution to the logistics challenges: Expanding and diversifying the Army’s existing prepositioned stock program, Wilson said. 

For example, the Army could move more stocks onto vessels, thus keeping supplies mobile and making them harder to hit with missiles, while also ensuring faster delivery to soldiers in the Pacific. Such vessels could also be set up with all the equipment a given unit would require, thus reducing the time a unit waits around on an exposed beachhead for multiple ships to land. 

U.S. efforts to overcome the logistical challenges of the region also include a diplomatic push, which has been made easier by China’s own actions, officials said. 

“They understand that what [China] is doing is disruptive,” said Teague, who leads the Army’s Pacific-focused 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade. In particular, the U.S. wants to expand relations with Vietnam in particular, Teague said, noting an upcoming November visit to the country by Flynn. Teague’s unit is charged in part with improving interoperability between Asian and U.S. forces, which he rated as about 50 percent currently.

“I’ve seen a lot of movement over the past two years being out here,” he said. 

Still, all the efforts are a balancing act, Teague said, requiring the U.S. to tread carefully. China is a “big neighbor that has a lot of money,” he said. Teague’s own unit is only staffed at about 65 percent, he said, although recruitment efforts to draw in more soldiers are proving successful. 

But any effort in the region needs to address logistics first, Wilson said. 

“If our maneuver forces are the fist doing the striking, then our logistics is the muscle that enables the fist to strike.” said Wilson. “There is no striking without the muscle, so it's best to build muscle.”