A Step Towards Decentralized Logistics

Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I am interested in the concept of a decentralized, flexible military that follows the model proposed by Arquilla and Ronfeldt in their work, Swarming and the Future of Conflict. Briefly put, they propose that the current hierarchical structure of the military be replaced with one where troops are organized in autonomous units of about 200 men, which would then coordinate their actions laterally with each other. In this way, they would gain flexibility and speed, compared to the present system in which information must be passed up a long hierarchy, and then orders are passed back down. Often this process can take days, during which time the information becomes stale. Col. Thomas Hammes reiterates the problems with the military's current structure in his book, The Sling and the Stone, and also advocates a more flexible, decentralized military.

There are several practical problems that must be solved before a decentralized national military is possible (completely aside from the furious opposition to such a system from the entrenched military bureaucracy). One of the largest problems is developing a system of logistics that can complement autonomous action by many small units.

The category of "logistics" encompasses several related but distinct problems. First is making the process of peacetime procurement decentralized. Second is ensuring replenishment and resupply to autonomous units during a deployment, especially during a combat situation. Third is managing the demands of autonomous units on scarce shared resources, such as close air support or satellite overwatch. (Not being a soldier, I cannot say whether there are additional problems within the broad logistical heading.)

I would like to propose a solution to the first problem, peacetime procurement. Under the present system, procurement is largely accomplished on the national level: the Pentagon requests funding for specific needs from Congress, which is sometimes granted, and then signs gigantic procurement contracts with various suppliers. The Pentagon then distributes the equipment internally to the troops who are slated to receive it. Troops have very little say in the equipment they are issued, and in many cases are actually forbidden from buying equipment on their own. The ongoing saga of Dragon Skin body armor is a case in point; confirmed to be better quality than the Army's Interceptor vests, it has nevertheless not yet been approved for military procurement. Soldiers have even been ordered not to buy it on their own.

The problems with the procurement process have been dramatized in the last week by Daniel Henniger's WSJ column on the deployment of the Snake Eater fingerprinting system. Soldiers, private contractors, a nonprofit, and a blogger cooperated outside of official channels to produce a device in a single month, that the military had failed to create in over three years.

Meanwhile, the centralized procurement process is incredibly opaque, and renowned for its wastefulness and episodes of corruption. In part this is due to its sheer size; even while audits routinely point out examples of waste or fraud, the system is simply too big to reform easily.

There is a way to dramatically improve the peacetime procurement process, and render it more transparent and flexible at the same time, by decentralizing it. The trick is to do so without losing the real economies of scale that can be achieved with large purchases.

My inspiration for this is the concept of a "group-buy," in which a seller and many buyers coordinate the purchase of a single type of good, allowing the seller to offer each buyer a lower price than he could offer on an individual basis. (There are many, many group-buys being organized over the internet at any given time; here is an academic paper on modeling the group-buy process.)

Assume the existence of battalion-sized autonomous units of the type discussed by Arquilla and Ronfeldt, although this is not strictly necessary. Rather than Congress allocating funds to the Pentagon, which would then purchase and distribute equipment, I propose that each battalion have its own allocation of funding, set according to the type of unit. (A tank battalion is more expensive to run than an infantry battalion, for example.) The unit could then spend the money on any purchases it felt were necessary, from any supplier, civilian or defense-related. Most equipment would still need to be standardized, but the timing of purchases could be according to the unit's needs.

Defense suppliers would offer group-buy windows in which units would subscribe; if fifty battalions were to purchase body armor at the same time, the unit cost would be less than if a single unit were to make a purchase. But participation would be on an as-needed basis, not as dictated by Pentagon bureaucrats.

The Pentagon would still have an independent budget, for example to conduct R&D. But if there is a development project out of favor with the brass, yet eagerly anticipated by military units, they could decide to fund the project with a portion of their logistical budgets. If an entire division of troops were to chip in for a development project, it could proceed even in the face of bureaucratic or Congressional skepticism.

This system could have many benefits. First, it is much easier to audit a single battalion and enforce accountability than it is for the entire Pentagon. This would reduce corruption. Second, unit would be unlikely to buy equipment that is shown to be substandard. For example, a distributed procurement system would have adopted the Dragon Skin vest by now instead of the Interceptor. Third, units could rapidly adjust to changing mission requirements and purchase the necessary gear.

Another benefit is that incentives could be built into the money allocations. A bonus could be paid out if the unit has a high percentage of soldiers with excellent marksmanship skills, or who have completed Ranger training, or who have college degrees, or who learn critical languages. Not only would this encourage the units to continually improve themselves, it would allocate more resources to those units who are demonstrably more valuable.

I have not yet considered how such a system could work in battle conditions, where free-flowing resupply is often critical. But this is a good first step to revamping the military procurement system.

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