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Sense and Respond: Logistics at the Unit Level

This article, the final in a series of three on sense and respond logistics, looks at the brigade combat team’s existing capabilities and practices that follow the sense and respond approach.

The previous two articles examined the importance of using sense and respond logistics in a global security environment and on an insurgent battlefield. On the modern battlefield of insurgency, characterized by unconventionality and unpredictability, the U.S. military is best served by adopting sense and respond principals as logistics tenants of its own. Sense and respond logistics, a network-centric concept that enables logistics planners to provide precise logistics support to the warfighter, gives the combatant commander numerous options for planning mission support. At the unit level, brigade support battalion (BSB) planners’ use of sense and respond increases the effectiveness and agility of logistics support within the brigade combat team.

Transformation and the BSB

Army transformation and the movement toward the brigade combat team unit configuration facilitated the practice of sense and respond logistics in the BSB. Before the Army transformed to the current brigade combat team structure, logistics support units operated on a four-tier system; support units were located at theater, corps, division, and brigade levels. Transformation removed some corps-level and all division-level units, consolidating logistics assets and capabilities at the brigade combat team level. Now, the BSB contains sufficient logistics assets for the unit commander to exercise sense and respond logistics in support of the brigade’s combat operations. Army logisticians and planners are using sense and respond techniques to provide the brigade commander with logistics assets that were not at his disposal before transformation.

Before examining how the BSB operates within the sense and respond framework, one must understand the composition of the battalion and the assets it carries. The BSB performs several basic functions on the battlefield. First, the battalion’s distribution company distributes food and water, paper supplies, petroleum and lubricants, construction and engineering materials, ammunition, personal demand items, complete assemblies like weapon systems and vehicles, medical supplies, and repair parts. The distribution company’s transportation section carries these sustainment stocks for the brigade. Second, the battalion’s maintenance company performs field maintenance and vehicle recovery. Third, the battalion’s medical company provides health services in the form of medical dispensary, pharmacy, mental health, and physician’s assistant services. In a deployed environment, the medical company has surgeons on staff to stabilize combat casualties for transportation. Fourth, logistics planners in the battalion’s support operations office plan and coordinate the fulfillment of the brigade combat team’s sustainment requirements.

Within the BSB, the sense and respond concept is evident in three areas. First, logistics planners and unit commanders must design systems so that all personnel understand their roles. Second, key planners in the BSB must sense in real time what is happening on the battlefield and respond accordingly within the confines of the commander’s overall intent. Finally, the BSB planners must dispatch assets in response to changes on the battlefield.

The Support Operations Officer

Numerous components of the BSB have sense and respond designs. One of the most important existing systems that facilitates sense and respond is the support operations officer (SPO) and his staff.

The SPO is undoubtedly the most critical logistics planner within the BSB. Every logistics effort begins with the influence and planning of the SPO. The SPO monitors the brigade’s requests for supplies and coordinates the transportation support required to distribute them to combat units in the field. The SPO also coordinates with and provides oversight of the brigade’s supply support activity warehouse. This warehouse is responsible for receiving, storing, and shipping supply items.

The SPO maintains oversight of the brigade’s petroleum requirements—a critical activity in an armored or mechanized infantry brigade. The SPO is responsible for maintaining the readiness of the brigade’s fleet of vehicles, weapon systems, and all other systems that the brigade uses to conduct its missions. Some of the SPO’s most critical tasks are coordinating and delivering medical supplies and overseeing the brigade’s medical evacuation system. Since the Army began its transformation, the SPO has acquired contracting, property management, ammunition management, and mortuary affairs capabilities at the brigade level. Before the Army’s transformation, these assets and personnel were located at division level or higher.

The SPO establishes working relationships and interacts with the division’s sustainment brigade and corps-level support units. The sustainment brigade provides heavy transportation, supply, ammunition, fuel, and food and water support. The sustainment brigade’s purpose is also to establish working relationships with its subordinate and lower-level support units.

Real-Time Logistics Data

Very early in their careers, logisticians are trained to anticipate a support unit’s logistics requirements. Knowing the meaning of what is happening in real time on the battlefield is critical to an Army logistician’s effectiveness. Huge amounts of data are generated during combat operations, and in continuous operations, such as Operation Iraqi Freedom, logisticians have access to volumes of historical data. Automated logistics programs organize logistics data and can provide them to logisticians in real time or near-real time.
Sufficient data streams allow logisticians and support unit commanders to focus on why something is happening on the battlefield. Such knowledge strengthens seamless logistics support because the SPO can dispatch capabilities exactly when they are needed. Another example of data management capability is the Blue Force Tracker, which is a system designed around satellite transmissions. The SPO avoids information obsolescence when he sets parameters so that the information that is gathered is geared toward the mission. Certain types of combat missions generate certain supply requests, so the information gathered is viable and actionable for the BSB.

Logistics Assets

Army logisticians have capitalized on shaping assets and capabilities into modular concepts, allowing planners and support unit commanders to dispatch logistics capabilities on the battlefield when the demand changes. By understanding his internal assets and establishing strong working relationships with higher-level support units, the combatant commander has at his disposal a multitude of logistics assets to assist in winning the fight.

For example, the distribution company, the largest company in the BSB, has several modular capabilities. The distribution company can provide modular assets and capabilities for transportation, supply management, water purification and delivery, fuel storage and delivery, and ammunition storage and delivery. The distribution company also has modular capabilities for transporting the personnel of 2 infantry companies and 285 tons of commodities. In addition to its heavy and light transportation capabilities, the distribution company can operate an air delivery section to transport high-priority supply items by helicopter.

The maintenance company provides recovery assets to remove battle-damaged vehicles and armament technicians to repair weapons, artillery, and rocket systems in the brigade combat team. Radio and satellite repair personnel can be dispatched to unit locations to make repairs, and metalworks and welding technicians are also available to repair vehicles and equipment.

The medical company provides complete medical support to the brigade combat team while deployed to remote locations. Preventive medicine personnel are dispatched to unit locations to inspect dining facilities and base grounds to inhibit the spread of disease. Mental health doctors are dispatched to unit locations to provide mental health counseling and prevent combat-related stress incidents. The dispensary can hold up to 20 patients awaiting evacuation to higher-level medical facilities. The medical company also has dental care facilities for Soldiers and can provide a forward surgical team to combat locations.

Logistics synergy is clearly attainable at the battalion level. Capabilities, assets, and practices that support sense and respond logistics are already being used by Army logisticians and planners. The brigade combat team’s BSB and SPO are organized and equipped to support sense and respond logistics. Every company within the BSB has modular capabilities that can be dispatched in support of combat and counterinsurgent operations.

Using logistics assets in modular form is not a new concept in logistics circles, and identifying logistics issues on the battlefield by way of data management is also not new. Sense and respond is already in use, but it has fallen short of being formally adopted by Army leaders as a planning requirement. Logisticians and planners must overcome cultural inhibitions to change and adopt sense and respond, which is critical to the U.S. military’s success in the current global security environment.

Major Michael F. Hammond is the S–3 of the 526th Brigade Support Battalion, 2d Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), which is currently deployed to Iraq. He has a master’s degree in military logistics from North Dakota State University.