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 has rigorously explored 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 to seize and hold ground successfully depends on more than whether a military force has enough combat power (or “tooth”) to overcome its enemy on the battlefield, but also on whether that force has enough logistical capacity (or “tail”) to reach and hold its objectives—that, in other words, logistical capacity is a necessary condition for territorial control. To show how these variables are linked together, I use the established logic of large-scale conventional ground combat and explain why military forces have to have at least some tail to control territory. I then show that the amount of tail that a force needs is determined primarily by three main variables: (1) how far away the objective is from where the force began, (2) how fast the tooth consumes resources, and (3) how fast the tooth moves relative to the tail. I conclude that a force cannot reach its territorial objectives without enough logistical capacity to meet the resupply requirements of its tooth over the distances implied by those objectives, and (for attackers) at the rate of advance necessary to get there.

Then, drawing on recent methodological advances in the study of necessary conditions and “constraint” causal mechanisms, I test this theory using three carefully selected historical case studies: Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the First 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 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. My findings are also relevant to several ongoing 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 to structure the US Army and Marine Corps for major combat operations.