Logistics and Military Power: Tooth, Tail, and Territory in Conventional Military Conflict

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There is a broad consensus that logistics is a major determinant of the course and outcome of military conflicts, but very little work that rigorously explores when, how, or why it matters. This dissertation is an effort to close this gap. To do so, I develop a theory connecting the logistical capacity of military forces to a standard measure of military power: the ability to control territory in large-scale, conventional ground warfare.

My central claim is that a military force needs both combat power and logistical capacity to control territory. In particular, a force must have enough combat power (“tooth”) to overcome its adversary, and enough logistical capacity (“tail”) to resupply its fighting forces across the full span of its territorial objectives. If it does not, it will fall short of its objectives on the battlefield. This dual requirement may seem self-evident, but resource constraints and institutional biases ensure that “force balancing” (as I call it) is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, history suggests that states rarely get it right, with most deploying a “tail” far too small given the scale of their territorial ambitions.

To make this argument, I trace the logic of large-scale ground military operations and show how logistical capacity and combat power interact to enable success on the battlefield. I provide a primer on the logic of large-scale ground combat, explain why states need both tooth and tail to control territory, establish plausible thresholds for how much of each a state needs to achieve its objectives, and derive a detailed set of empirical predictions. Then, drawing on recent methodological advances in the study of necessary conditions and constraint causal mechanisms, I test this argument using three carefully selected historical case studies: Operation BARBAROSSA in 1941, the UN counteroffensive against Chinese and North Korean forces in early 1951, and Operation DESERT STORM in 1991.

The basic takeaway is that the role of matériel on the battlefield is more complicated than “God is on the side of the heaviest battalions.” The size and weapon mix of a force still matter, of course, but only to the extent there is enough tail to support it. This fact turns out to have important implications for the way scholars understand things like the offense-defense balance and the determinants of military effectiveness. It also bears on several US defense policy debates, including how to build effective partner militaries, how to assess the threat foreign militaries pose to US interests around the world, and how best to structure the US Army and Marine Corps for major combat operations.