Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

Redefining ‘Mountains of Steel’: The Utility of Disaggregated CSS in Contemporary Warfare

June 19th, 2016 by Kane Wright

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Army’s logisticians have operated under an obsolescent doctrine for decades that is out of touch with a rapidly accelerating technological arms race between combatants. Tendency to concentrate critical logistic effects around single nodes removes redundancy, exposing major sustainment nodes to singular, catastrophic enemy actions that paralyse the fighting force. In this light, Army’s commanders must now re-examine entrenched mindsets that equate sustainability of the force with simply building ‘a mountain of steel’. As Army adopts new technologies, our warfighters and logisticians should look to examine new concepts for the employment of our capabilities, to enhance responsiveness and survivability. Disaggregation represents one option to pursue and should be considered as a concept for exploration, in conjunction with the introduction of new technological capabilities. If the exploration of this, and other methods, to achieve these goals is reinvested into doctrine, Army’s leaders must be willing to provide the opportunities through collective training and simulation to validate or disprove concepts.

This article is written not to propose a ‘panacea’ for future Combat Service Support (CSS) doctrine, but rather to stimulate discussion and encourage the trial of new ideas, as a way to inform and develop doctrine that exploits the opportunities presented by technology. The concepts proposed within are not without shortcomings, but only through open discussion and critical examination can Army hope to safeguard sustainment to the future force.

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Obsolescent doctrine has mired our sustainment organisations in the past

The Australian Army’s experience in contemporary operational environments has given impetus to significant review of Army doctrine and concepts for the fighting force. Plan BEERSHEBA and the Combat Brigade Concept of Employment fundamentally reshaped the structure and method through which Army’s fighting brigades prosecuted operations. A new, modular and ‘tailored’ force resulted, now being codified in doctrine through revisions to Land Warfare Doctrine 3-0-3 Formation Tactics and the Combat Brigade Standard Operating Procedures.[1][2]

Our logisticians attempted to transplant modularity to the CSS organisations. Under the auspices of modularity, we drew upon the existing doctrinal concepts of the Combat Service Support Team to cut and paste general support capabilities together. The result: the task-organised Force Support Battalion (FSB). As the CSS Battalion (CSSB) constituted the primary unit of the Brigade Support Group, so too did our FSBs form the ‘nucleus’ of the Force Support Group, or FSG. The FSG provided both in concept and practice, those health and sustainment effects to the deployed force that reside outside the Combat Brigade.

Lamentably though, the doctrine that defines how the FSG operates remains scant and incomplete. Changes to the interim document Land Warfare Procedures (CSS) 4-0-1 CSS in the Theatre in 2015 defined the effects that an FSG provides, and described the major theatre-entry nodes (Air and Sea ports) that it will operate from.[3] Conspicuously absent from the doctrine, despite enduring as a result of decades of corporate knowledge, is the concept of the Force Maintenance Area, or FMA. Army has clung to this notion as the tactical location for the concentration of the FSG and its’ lodger units: the soft, white underbelly of the deployed force. Under a contiguous battlespace with a defined forward edge, the FMA operated far enough rear of the Forward Line of Own Troops that it could assume away all but the most basic requirements of force protection, generally against sabotage by small SF teams or incursion by criminal elements. The FMA resided well beyond the range of enemy artillery, reducing the threat of exposure to conventional munitions and thus placing it ‘out of the fight’. The mindset that this situation created in generations of individuals gave rise to an organisation that became so unwieldy, so focused on supporting, that (as a gross generalisation), it lost its’ focus on how to survive.

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

The proliferation and application of precision weapon systems has increased battlefield lethality

As we fast-forward to 2016, a casual glance at the state of conflict across the globe provides a chilling vision of progress. The ‘disaggregated battlespace’ is a popularised term, and the concept of modularity has facilitated the ‘battle-grouping’ of military organisations from Divisions to so-called ‘Micro’ Combat Teams. Running parallel to this trend, advances in weapons technology have continued at a geometric rate, enabling precision munitions that can be tasked from a control station in California, to deliver an effect against an individual target in Pakistan within an accuracy of 10m2. When used in concert with adjusted, massed fires from extended-range delivery systems, these advances in the tools of warfare have guaranteed increased lethality on the battlefield.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the current contested battlefields of the Crimea. As at October 2015, 85% of Ukrainian casualties had been caused by Russian tube and rocket artillery. In a particularly sobering example cited by Dr Philip Karber at the most recent AUSA Conference, two mechanized Ukrainian battalions were entirely destroyed within three minutes through a barrage of top-attack munitions and thermobaric warheads. Perhaps even more chilling, the Russian military has effectively integrated UAS operations with precision-delivered artillery, to enable the massing of fires against a target with unparalleled effectiveness in less than 10 minutes from visual identification.[4]

Yet the concept of the Force Maintenance Area (the Vietnam-era equivalent of today’s ‘Super-FOB’) persists. Whether we deploy an FSG to a foreign theatre, as evidenced in stability and humanitarian operations alike (the 1999 deployment of INTERFET to Timor and the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami), or on exercise, the modus operandi for this organisation is to concentrate at the Air and Sea Ports of entry to a theatre. In the face of technological trends then, particularly those that permit an enemy to concentrate conventional effects against areas historically beyond their reach, how do we adapt our CSS structures and employment to enhance our survivability?

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

New and emerging technologies are a tool to facilitate improved CSS

The situation for Army’s logisticians may not be as dire as it looks on first appraisal. The Australian Army is in the middle of an unprecedented level of modernisation. The complete replacement of Army’s B vehicle fleet, digitisation of our force’s command and control systems and the emergence and adoption of improved logistics delivery systems all represent capability improvements that offer exciting opportunities to modernise the force. Modernisation however, goes beyond the adoption of a new technology. The efficacy of modernisation can only be realised if applied in an integrated manner, combining all the fundamental inputs to capability. As the Army introduces new major systems and projects our commanders (both combat and logistics) should seek not to overlay these technologies on our existing doctrine and organisation, but to experiment with the force structures and operational methods our forces employ. J.F.C. Fuller’s Plan 1919 was an aspirational concept that possessed many shortcomings (tank technology was in an immature state and Fuller discounted the value of the infantry in the combined arms fight), yet without the experiments and trials conceived by the ‘Young Turks’ of his time, modern manoeuvre theory would not exist in its’ current form.[5]

So too should logisticians seek to embrace emerging technologies, to increase both responsiveness and survivability on the battlefield. Disaggregation represents but one potential avenue that technology has enabled, to achieve these principles of logistics.

What disaggregation fundamentally seeks to achieve, is a move away from the tendency toward concentrating ‘all the eggs in one basket’. Under disaggregation, increased tactical risk to one logistic node can be balanced against the reduced logistic risk across the entire force. This is, of course, only realised when FSG force elements effectively balance holdings across multiple nodes, in a careful manner. This will ensure their placement across the area of operations aligns critical holdings in time and space within a relative proximity to their dependencies. Aviation ammunition natures and fuel holdings should naturally be located for responsive support to airstrips and landing zones, while armoured vehicle ammunition and fuel should be located within appropriate proximity to ground manoeuvre dependencies. Survivability of combat supplies is enhanced when multiple-point dispersion is achieved.

Fundamental to the application of disaggregation, dispersal of effect can only be successfully achieved through centralised command over synchronised effects and functions. This ensures force priorities can be applied across the multiple dispersed nodes for security and responsiveness. Centralised command with a decentralised execution, much like Combat Support functions. However in instances where force priorities necessitate concentration for achievement of discrete tasking centralised control and execution may occur.

If disaggregation argues a case for multiple, self-reliant and networked CSS nodes, digitisation of command and control systems is the most obvious tool to enable this. Digitisation aids to address the span of command challenges that accompany dispersed nodes. It can provide nodal commanders with the tools and information for situational awareness of the sustainment picture across the area of operations. This is only effective if nodal commanders, in the first instance, are empowered leaders with a clear understanding of force priorities and the higher commander’s risk thresholds. The introduction of various Battlefield Management Systems into service network the force to enhance this situational awareness, making reduced logistic footprints through disaggregated nodes viable as an operating concept.

In concept, these nodes would be limited in quantity, only by the commensurate communications suites to support, and in geographic distance and dispersal, by the satellite systems to achieve beyond line of sight communications. Within a contiguous battlefield this would enable the forward positioning of nodes to reduce the line of communication length and response times for the provision of effect to the Combat Brigade. Within a non-contiguous battlefield, it may enhance responsiveness by permitting co-location of smaller nodes with dependencies or their support echelons.

Disaggregation would not be without risk and cost. Dispersed logistic nodes inherently place a greater burden on force protection assets. In many situations, this necessitates a trade-off for the force commander between the allocation of Rear Area Security (RAS) assets, or acceptance of risk as to the vulnerability of logistic nodes. The Australian Army has ‘toyed’ with the concept of Combat Logistic Patrols [6] and training logistic soldiers to achieve organic force protection, but to date available training time, legacy platforms and equipment shortages have precluded this being an attainable goal. As Army adopts L121 vehicles, an opportunity exists now to reconsider the feasibility of disaggregated nodes that have greater self-reliance. Protected vehicles like the Hawkei and other hardened-cab heavy B vehicles, when digitised, offer a greater level of survivability for dislocated elements. An important distinction is required however: a company-sized element of logisticians, manning a dislocated Combat Supplies node (rations, water, fuel and ammunition), should not be confused with a Combat Outpost or Standing Patrol. Hardened vehicles and improved weapon systems notwithstanding, the disparity in training, equipment and weapons from a standard Rifle platoon or Cavalry patrol underscore the difference in capability and survivability. Our dispersed CSS nodes are extremely vulnerable if deployed without force protection.

Essential to this discussion is to expand our understanding of what force protection looks like for the logistic node. If we accept that the size of the force not allow for a task force or brigade commander to allocate a platoon of infantry as RAS for every CSS node (and more importantly, acknowledge that said platoon will have limited impact in defending against armoured overmatch or massed artillery) then Army can exploit technology to enhance survivability in other ways. Where a RAS element can provide only limited protection, the allocation of comparatively cost-effective, easily procured early warning measures such as Ground Surveillance Radar (GSR) to CSS nodes could achieve enhanced survivability through early threat notification. Through digitised Command and Control systems, access to UAS feeds would also provide early notification of threats to CSS nodes. These dispersed capabilities would not be expected to stay and fight to the last man; early warning provided by allocated sensors would assist timely redeployment to alternate locations, while hardened vehicles increase survivability en route. Stocks can be replaced, soldiers are not as expendable.

The final technological domain to support dispersal, as a viable concept for CSS nodes, is the advances promised and realised to sustainment delivery systems. Many contemporary technologies in this field are not yet widely adopted by Army, but represent a likely growth area. If can implement household deliveries via pilotless drone,  Army could also investigate future UAS and automated systems, albeit with significantly increased holding capacity and configured for sustainment delivery. Automated mining equipment and the ‘driver-less’ road distribution trials in Europe demonstrate the efficacy of this concept.[7] This is not to advocate that CSS soldiers can be removed from the equation; war remains a fundamentally human endeavour. Soldier effort could instead be directed to the CSS effect provided ‘on the ground’, manning and supporting forward to the dependency from the dispersed node. Rather than split logistic manning between tasks to sustain from the Theatre Agreed Point to dispersed nodes and then tasks supporting onward, logistic effect is concentrated where it belongs: supporting the warfighter.

Brigade Maintenance Area, photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Brigade Maintenance Area, photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

The balance between dispersal and concentration

There is a limit to the utility of disaggregation. As the effectiveness of tanks is denuded when assets are broken down and ‘penny-packeted’ below an optimal level, so too is there a law of diminishing returns on the disaggregation of CSS. The manning of critical logistic trades simply does not permit the establishment of a bulk fuel installation or ammunition point for every combat team in the area of operations. Similarly, the distribution effect required to facilitate the replenishment of an artillery gun line during a brigade attack necessitates the concentration of significant assets to meet quantities and pallet requirements. Penny-packeting of a squadron’s worth of heavy general transport elements down to the battle group or combat team would simply preclude the ability of an FSG to concentrate the assets required to achieve this task in a responsive manner. In this regard, effective disaggregation necessitates centralised command and decentralised execution, to denude, reinforce and centralise nodes appropriately as force priorities shift.

The effective balance between concentration and dispersal of FSG assets therefore becomes a function of manning, storage capacity, available force protection measures and dependency support requirements. There is no simple formula for this; war cannot be reduced to a science. Commanders must consider the multiple competing factors, and through a process of practiced experience and careful assessment of the friendly and enemy situations, make difficult decisions as to where they wish to accept risk within the organisation.

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Where does Army go from here?

 If Army is to prove or disprove the utility of alternate employment concepts for sustainment organisations, it must be willing to test these concepts under demanding conditions. Working groups and discussion papers are great to start the conversation, but we as an organisation will make no progress until we are willing to put soldiers in the field and put these concepts to the test, for better or worse. For too many years, general support sustainment organisations have been permitted to participate in Army’s major exercise under the protective umbrella of the ‘white box’. Real-time sustainment of the exercising warfighters was (understandably) prioritised above the exercise and testing of the logistic system, to the detriment and atrophy of our tactical proficiency.

Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015 reversed this trend, with an FSG deploying to a ‘greenfield’ site in support of a minor Joint Task Force and exercising under tactical conditions as part of the ‘Blue’ force. And it was assessed, warts and all. The deployment was slow, interoperability with supported dependencies was clunky at first and the organisation was exposed as being incredibly vulnerable to even the lightest-equipped of enemy forces. The FSG finished the activity (figuratively) miles ahead of where it started however, in terms of both tactical sustainment proficiency and in identifying enduring training and equipment deficiencies.

Although necessary to confirm proficiency against doctrine, one of the obvious deficiencies of Exercise Talisman Sabre in developing a robust CSS capability for the future, was that the FSG was tested under outdated doctrinal concepts and constraints. Army’s major annual collective training activity should not be limited to simply certifying the Readying Combat Brigade for online contingency responsibilities. This activity represents an ideal opportunity to test new concepts, force structures and methods of employment; sustainment organisations should be no less a part of this than combat elements. For Exercise Hamel 2016, the 17 CSS Bde FSG will test operations over dispersed locations, with several nodes operating a 400km line of communication. Some capabilities will be disaggregated, to achieve redundancy of stockholdings and better manage the line of communications.

Similarly, FSG participation during the Exercise Vital Series certification of Headquarters 1st Division utilised a command post exercise construct and simulation capabilities to explore the disaggregation of FSG capabilities over three major nodes, to develop redundancy in force holdings while notionally deployed to a neighbouring country. Enemy targeting of major CSS nodes shaped this requirement after ‘one-shot’ capabilities were destroyed early in the activity.

While these activities represent an initial step toward testing new CSS concepts, opportunities like these should be sought and exploited, with sponsorship and endorsement from Army’s highest levels. If this can be achieved, conceptual testing should examine and challenge other aspects of our CSS doctrine. If trialled as a concept, disaggregation represents a blurring of the traditional integral, close and general levels of support provided by CSS elements.[8] This requires a challenge to our traditional structures and organisations, and should be encouraged as a way to seek better use of our assets. If we as logisticians can enable the battle through task-organised CSS nodes, commanded by agile command and control organisation to support a range of dependencies in a more direct manner than we have in the past, why should we be constrained by traditional structures? For force generation purposes in barracks the CSSB and FSB have very different structures. In an operational environment by comparison, employing task organised, tailored and disaggregated nodes to provide a range of effects, what does it matter that the nodal commander wears the unit patch of a CSSB or an FSB? These are but some of the questions that critical thought and analysis should seek to address.

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Photo courtesy of 1st Brigade, Australian Army

A final thought

The future battlefield is lethal. The future battlefield is non contiguous. And the future battlefield will employ weapon systems that are easily proliferated, adjusted with precision accuracy and capable of massing for devastating effect. Within this environment, sustainment will remain the lifeblood of the fighting force, yet also presents an Achilles heel for the combat commander. Warfighters and logisticians alike must invest the academic rigour and training effort to explore and test alternate concepts for the employment of our logistic elements, to enhance survivability and responsiveness within this environment. Is disaggregation the answer? Perhaps not. It is an option however, and one that should be explored to highlight its’ strength, and expose its’ weaknesses, for the benefit of our organisation. As Fuller would no doubt have observed, watching Deep Battle and Blitzkrieg emerge as the conceptual children of his original vision for combined arms on the battlefield, consideration of these ideas now will ultimately give birth to the sustainment model that supports the future fight.


[1] The Australian Army. Land Warfare Doctrine 3 – 0 Formation Tactics.

[2] The Australian Army. Combat Brigade Standard Operating Procedures, version 3.0.

[3] The Australian Army. Land Warfare Procedures – Combat Service Support 4 – 0 – 1 (Interim Publication). 15 December 2015.

[4] Freedburg, S.J. ‘Ukraine: Sneak Peek at World War III?’, Breaking Defense, 13 July 2015.

[5] Harris, J.P. Men, ideas and tanks: British military thought and armoured forces, 1903 – 1939. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995., 163 – 170.

[6] Land Warfare Procedures – Combat Service Support 4 – 0 – 1.

[7] Baraniuk, C. ‘Daimler driverless lorry tested in motorway traffic’, BBC News, 5 October 2015.

[8] Land Warfare Procedures – Combat Service Support 4 – 0 – 1.

About the author

Major Kane Wright is currently the Brigade Major of the 17th Combat Service Support Brigade, and is responsible for planning the force generation of capability and execution of sustainment support to Army’s brigades on exercise and operations. He graduated as valedictorian of the US Army Command and General Staff College in 2014 and is a graduate scholar of the US Army’s Art of War Scholars Program. Major Wright has a passion for strategy and military modernisation and is published in the US Journal Military Review.

Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any offical position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here

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3 Comments on "Redefining ‘Mountains of Steel’: The Utility of Disaggregated CSS in Contemporary Warfare"

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Darren Bentley

Great article Kane. It’s definitely an area which requires high level attention. Even as we pivot towards amphibious Ops I don’t think sea basing will be the panacea for CSS force protection some may suggest. I agree innovative solutions like unmanned systems. Perhaps we can solve the dispersal problem by dispersing into the air? Eg Could we have a swarm of Small Class I/V UAVs orbiting above a Combat Team in contact. These technologies might redefine what we mean by “Just in time” logistics.

MAJGEN David Mulhall, Commander Joint Logistics

Well done Kane. I congratulate you on taking the time to think about and write on this topic, and then having the courage to put your ideas out there. While I don’t agree with all that you have written, the foundation of your argument is strong and persuasive. I agree that the concepts need to be explored and then tested against that which the Australian Army can afford. We are too quick to play the “affordability red card” – blue sky concepts must be examined and championed if we are to adapt successfully. Well done. Regards, CJLOG

Chris Bulow
An additional emerging technology that could be used to further disaggregate supply nodes is additive manufacturing (3D printing). The technology is capable of producing, parts, food (nutrition bars with tailored properties), surgical implants and some defensive stores. This provides an opportunity to deploy a 3D printing node forward with a relatively small physical foot print (in terms of supplies and personnel) but provide limited reapply of a vast array of items if the right printers are in situ. In this way the stores themselves are in cyber space with simply the input material for the printer in loc at the… Read more »