Logistical Issues of Modern World War

World War IV might be fought with sticks and stones, but World War III will not be. That being said, modern weaponry places serious constraints on ability to wage world war. Namely, replacements.

A P-51 fighter required 12.000 man-hours to produce early in the war; by the end of the war, that was reduced to 2.000 man hours. For comparison, early F-35s required 160.000 labor hours to produce. Those F-35As produced in 2016 required 43.000 hours, and is unlikely to get much lower (even comparing to P-51 does not get it below 26.000 hours). Tiger I required 300.000 labor hours to produce. I was unable to find numbers for late war production. However, Sherman tank required 48.000 man-hours to produce. T-34 required 9.500 man-hours to produce in 1941. and 3.250 man-hours in 1945.

At the same time, threats have significantly increased. Whereas in World War II destruction of air fields required massive, easily detected air raids, today only a few low-flying, hard to detect cruise missiles can put entire air field out of commission. World War II submarines were semi-submersible torpedo boats; modern submarines can stay underwater for weeks even without relying on nuclear power.

This is much less of an issue with “soft” logistical vehicles – such as trucks. Germany was damned in World War II partly because it did not have anywhere close to enough trucks to maintain its fast-moving mobile war for long. In fact, only US and Commonwealth forces were fully motorized, giving them a massive logistical advantage – and one reason they motorized was to save on logistical issues of shipping fodder for horses across vast distances. Contrary to them, continental armies – German, French, Soviet – still relied on horses for logistics needs. Soviets however survived the German onslaught, and US Lend-Lease arrangement allowed them to transform into modern motorized force, able to turn German mobile war approach against Germans themselves. Germans on the other hand were becoming ever less motorized as the war progressed, but even in the beginning of the war only few elite Panzer divisions were fully motorized. But trucks are not much more complex than they were in World War II, and modern world already has huge numbers of trucks in service.

There are problems in addition to complexity of modern weapons, however. One is seaborne transport. It is by far the most efficient type of transport available, but cargo ships are large, slow and vulnerable to submarine attacks. In Falklands war, only Argentine idiocy resulting in them using submarines against warships saved the British from possibly catastrophic losses, Argentines apparently operating under Japanese doctrine of focusing on warships. Moreover, even there they were highly incompetent – ARA San Luis had a chance to sink frigates HMS Brilliant and HMS Yarmouth, and later HMS Alacrity and HMS Arrow. Not one of four frigates was even remotely threatened by what torpedoes San Luis did launch, as torpedoes were not prepared properly – apparently Argentine sailors accidentally reversed polarity on torpedoes, but since they were not in Star Trek, this resulted in torpedoes becoming useless instead of turning into weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, Argentines had no supply line, and after HMS Conqueror torpedoed aircraft carrier General Belgrano, Argentine navy willingly locked itself up in its ports. In the end, only Argentine aircraft did any damage to British ships. But what would have happened had Argentines been a) actually competent and b) used submarines against British support units is anybody’s guess.

Second is decentralization of firepower. Thanks to RPGs, ATGMs and such, even insurgents are a very credible threat to modern military, especially to soft-skinned supply vehicles. Urban warfare in particular places logistics vehicles in very dangerous situation, as fighting in Baghdad in 2003. demonstrated.

Third one is decentralization and dissemination of intelligence. Modern military has far greater surveillance capabilities at hand than World War II militaries did. Even civilians can use Google Earth to find locations of military bases, and since military base cannot just grow legs and walk away, these images have actual military value. Terrorists use cell phones for coordination, infantry platoon can easily operate handheld UAVs, and satellite imaginery makes any large installation a proverbial fist in the eye. Submarines, if capable of linking with other assets for even a short time, can easily find enemy ships.

And all of this is without even adressing the nuclear elephant in the room.

In the end, modern military force has to combine decentralization of command, information, combat assets and logistical apparatus alike to be survivable. But due to impact of networks and increased costs of military hardware, current trend is in completely opposite direction. US still operates 236 F-15s because not enought F-22s were produced; LCS was supposed to provide numbers but production was cut. Other navies struggle to field even a single aircraft carrier, and submarine numbers rarely go into even low double digits. And many have sacrificed logistical support capability to field those weapons. Can modern countries wage war, and protect their own supply lines, with such numbers? Or will they rely on enemy incompetence to save them from heavy losses? Are there, and what, possible solutions to this?

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