By Dr. Stephen Blank
The old adage has it that while amateurs think about strategy, professionals think about logistics. Indeed, no military operation, whether its theater is conventional warfare or humanitarian operation is conceivable, let alone possible, without secure and solid logistical support.
When we realize as well that for American COCOMs support to the local military and population is often, if not always, among their key missions, the centrality of logistical support, especially in austere theaters like Africa or Central Asia, becomes overwhelmingly clear. Indeed, recent U.S. operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan confirm that failure to attend properly to logistics presents our adversaries with a target-rich environment that they are not slow to attack.
Thus logistics can be and often are key criteria of operational and even strategic success or failure. Our logistical successes in supplying Afghanistan for seventeen years despite enemy pressure on those logistics, exemplifies America’s long-range power projection capability that militaries around the world are undoubtedly studying. Of course, logistics are not the sole or necessarily the main factor ensuring success or failure, as Afghanistan shows. But in Iraq, the failure to think correctly about them helped ensure what, in fact, was ultimately a rather unceremonious withdrawal from that theater, with the ultimate mission still unaccomplished.
But such unfortunate outcomes can also occur in the course of humanitarian missions in support of host governments in diverse theaters. The recent disasters in Southeastern Africa highlight the importance of U.S. aerial logistics in getting critical supplies to distressed or crisis-stricken areas in a hurry. And that is only the most recent of many similar catastrophes where U.S. commercial and military logistics were called on to provide humanitarian relief.
Our adversaries fully grasp this capability and understand that U.S. readiness and ability to provide large-scale relief, supplies, or even merely peacetime logistics serves as a force multiplier in foreign thinking about the U.S. We know from the Cold Wart that a significant part of Soviet active measures were efforts to belittle U.S. humanitarian efforts or to argue that they were a cover for nefarious CIA or other activities. Moscow frequently employed this tactic in Europe and even more in the Third World and is doing so again.
Since 2017, Russian trolls using classic Russian disinformation tactics have stalked several Western owned international cargo carriers accusing them of transferring weapons to terrorists across the Middle East for the CIA. These attacks are groundless but aim to damage the reputation, first of all, of these carriers, such as Silk Way Airlines or DHL (to name two), by utilizing time-tested avenues of disinformation to make such claims. These attacks represent typical long-standing examples of Russian active measures and disinformation that seek to implicate not just the CIA and U.S. government as supporters of terrorism (when in fact Moscow supports the Taliban, Hezbollah and earlier the FARC as well as terrorism in Ukraine) but also to impugn the reputation of these international cargo carriers.
Politically, the aim is to implicate Washington and pro-American governments in terrorist or other disreputable and nefarious activities. Beyond discrediting Western governments, they also seek to undermine the practice of governments (including the UN) using these shippers to bring humanitarian cargoes to distressed or war-torn areas. We know that failure to deliver timely supplies to such stricken areas often leaves behind a long-lasting residue of bitterness at the failure of richer Western powers to fulfill their humanitarian missions and obligations.
But these attacks have important economic motives too. These attacks on large or smaller corporations aim to cripple them unless they accede to the wishes of states like Russia or North Korea, as in Pyongyang’s hacking of Sony in 2014. By damaging their reputations, these attacks make it difficult for them to achieve credit and raise capital to sustain their operations and could lead to loss of market share that would then be captured by Russian corporations, e.g. Volga-Dnepr’, which is apparently connected to these “active measures.” Apart from the competition for lucrative contracts to deliver logistics to high-risk areas (a fact that accounts for the lucrative contracts) we also know that these Russian companies, which are, state-owned or at least vulnerable to state pressure, are often used for criminal purposes like smuggling weapons and drugs, money laundering and Russian support to insurgents, terrorists, or just plain criminal syndicates. Thus these attacks on the provision of critically needed logistical services not only typify Russian “active measures”, they also aim to influence the strategic balance, particularly in more austere theaters like Africa, Central Asia, the Caucasus, or even Latin America. Inasmuch as these disinformation operations are conducted by and are traceable to Moscow’s trolls, they represent a not insignificant element of Moscow’s “new Cold War” against the West.
Unfortunately this war is not directed exclusively against governments. As numerous hacking examples and information attacks have shown, key corporate sectors, not least logistics, are a target of Russian activity. And since both private and governmental agencies conduct such logistical services and operations for both peaceful and military purposes, both these sectors must become alert to the fact that they are under attack and adopt the requisite defensive strategies to meet this novel threat.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council