2010/07/14

Logistics - we got used to trucks

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I keep trying to accumulate military (history) knowledge on a very broad basis. Electronic warfare and logistics appear to be the greatest challenges in this endeavour. EW is very secretive and logistics is boring. That's probably the reason why few show interest in logistics.

Nevertheless, I took on another book (without any new insights in the first three chapters). That got me thinking about logistics again. Among these thoughts was this one:

Pre-1850's logistics were very basic. Food, fodder, few equipment and ammunition. Civilians often made up a large part of the train and provided "services" to the troops. I think I mentioned in an earlier post how these functions got militarised (all services except the sexual ones were incorporated into the military itself) in the late 19th century.

The transportation of fodder with horse-drawn carts was very inefficient (the cart-pulling horses ate much of the payload!) and lead to a rule of thumb that you shouldn't campaign farther than 250 km away from your logistical base if you depended on the supply shipments of horse cart convoys.
Some campaigns looked very different; one version used boat/ship-centric logistics support thanks to a coastline or a canal/river network. Other campaigns did simply not depend on the shipment of supplies from some logistical base; Caesar in Gallia, Alexander in Persia (after he left the Med coastline) and the Mongols come to mind.

The latter version emphasised the foraging - obtaining all you need from the country you're moving through.

Logistics changed a lot with the invention of trucks. Rail-roads had merely pushed forward the logistical base in the form of railheads. Trucks replaced the horse-drawn cart. A truck needs only a small fraction of his load-carrying capacity to transport goods much farther than 250 km. Campaigns such as the partially mobile desert warfare of 1940-1942 became feasible.

Modern armies got used to the availability of great volumes (and weights) of supply and changed themselves in order to exploit this for their advantage. The consumption of ammunition rose in incredible heights during the World Wars (possible in WWI without having many trucks simply because railheads were close to the front-line).

Something changed in the 50's and 60's, when modern armies became fully motorised/mechanised: Soldiers forgot that all these supply requirements were a novelty in mankind's history. The Napoleonic Age when armies went on campaigns with very little logistical supply somehow vanished from institutional knowledge.

- - - - -

Today we can see the consequences. Logistical bottlenecks are a huge problem for a corps equivalent operating in Afghanistan even though there's almost no fighting and only a weak enemy.
The German army - bound by political constraints in its combat behaviour - spent a great deal of attention on the development of logistics, camp defence and camp services. The whole logistical behaviour of Western troops in Afghanistan seems to be very strange if looked at from a military history angle:

Why is the "comfort" (with associated logistical and manpower requirements) so much better on the main bases than on outposts? What is all that supply volume being used for? How does the "we do almost nothing except caring for ourselves and patrolling" mission there require such a vast amount of supplies when German infantry divisions of 1941-1942 were able to fight in a mobile war with intense battles with few trucks and many horse carts?

- - - - -

Mankind is both blessed and cursed with the ability to become used to almost everything. The effect of getting used to recent circumstances has a profound effect on logistics: We un-learned the ability of our ancestors to make do with little logistical support.
It should be possible to drop an infantry company from a plane in Afghanistan with some cash and to recover it a year or half later without having resupplied it in the meantime. They could live off the land, obtain what they need in their region of operation. The Afghans manage to live there as well, after all.

Even the thought of such a logistical modesty appears almost crazy nowadays, though. Even special operations forces wouldn't want to even come close (at least not for a year).

- - - - -

Nevertheless, we should become aware again of the possibility to substitute for the shipment of supplies with other means. The most such means is of course the possibility to obtain material from the region of operations itself (the alternative is to carry more supplies with you).

Long-range scouts can extend their mission duration if they acquire food locally, photovoltaic power is being harnessed to re-charge batteries, armoured reconnaissance and armour spearheads could loot civilian gas stations and vehicles for fuel and lubricants - and expeditionary forces could turn into an indigenous sustainment mode.


We didn't lack warning calls about our dependence on logistical support and motorisation since the 60's, but the effect of these warning calls seems to have been unsatisfactory.

It's a safe bet that this one won't achieve anything of significance, either. Nevertheless, I wanted to vent.


Sven Ortmann
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26 comments:

  1. Sven, this «campaign mode» thinking does not seem very «defence-centric»…

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  2. The expeditionary stuff isn't about >defence<, but campaigning is simply the operational level of war.

    A French general wrote an article I think a year ago. It was in part about their inability to attack a hostile brigade from behind (or eencircle it) because they would severe their line of communication in doing so.

    It's about time to think about the dependence on a continuous supply flow if you don't dare to move into the hostiles' rear area any more.

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  3. Sven, I love this blog, and 99% of the entries are thought provoking and very interresting.

    Then there is the occational thing like this that can only be described as totally stupid.

    Are you seriously suggesting that our soliders on overseas assignments should start looting civilians in order to "live off the land"? And how do you expect to get anyone not from an impoverised third world country to agree to deploy to places like Afghanistan if that meant they had to get by on the same standard of living as the local population?

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  4. I had troubles with the translation, but the mention of cash should have fixed that.

    You can drink from wells and rivers or dig your own hole for relatively clean sub-surface water.

    You can buy food at local markets.

    You can buy fuel at local gas stations (and test if its contaminated with sugar or other problematic material).


    About the comfort level thing: Recruits often have a lower standard of living than people in jail. I experienced this myself, and it's astonishing how much loss of life quality most soldiers are ready to endure.

    The standard of living for Western troops living in Afghanistan off the land (with cash) would still be higher than the documented situation of front-line troops in great wars.

    The conditions in those shabbily outposts aren't good anyway. My proposal wouldn't do much more than question the continuous elextricity supply (diesel consumption!) for those who are already in outposts.

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  5. Ok, then I don't see the point of even mentioning past historic experences of "living off the land", since that in the vast majority of cases did mean looting from civilians, not paying with cash.

    But anyway, you would still always need a logistics network for ammo and a lot of other things that are unavailable locally. I doubt that eliminating fuel and food from the logistics requirements (and adding cash), would be worth the extra time that the troops would have to spend shopping. That's time that can't be spent training or on operations. And it's also assuming that there even is a market and gas station nearby, which might not be the case around every base and outpost.

    Plus the time for doing all the tests that would be required (not just for contaminated fuel, but for potentially poisoned food too, the insurgents would surely attempt to get at the troops that way.)

    I can't see that it would be worth the trouble not having a proper logistics service.

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  6. The three classic means of supplying troops are ship, carry and obtain. Modern forces have focused on shipping supplies because that's the only real source for ammunition.

    "Obtain" means to take ressources from the land you're in. The regional procurement of fuel for forces in Iraq is "obtain" on the strateguic level, while the same fuel is first "shipped" and then "carried" on the operational and tactical levels.

    Pre-railroad armies have always "obtained" their fodder and food from the country they were operating in. This happened often with cash.
    18th century armeis had serious desertion rates, for example. The could not send out many foraging parties. Traders bought food in the region and brought it to the army instead - even if the army was hostile to the region.

    The "extra time for shopping" in AFG would be "patrol time". That time is better spent than "base sitting time".

    The fuel supply issue would indeed be serious in AFG, but the step from paying civilian truckers to ship the fuel to bases to letting gas station owners paying them cannot be very great. The primary difference would most likely be the effect on civilian fuel prices and therefore the economic development (trade).

    Poisoned food hasn't played a significant role in military history as far as I know. Really good poisons are difficult to get anyway.


    I think these technicalities are alwady off-topic anyway; the central point was that modern forces lost the ability to sustain themselves with low logistical throughput even in a situation that calls for moderate consumption and that hasn't at least battalion-sized clashes.

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  7. I beg to consider pre-modern economies and especially those in war zones are not characterised by an awfull amount of supply flexibility. Not to mention the spacial restraints hunting for those tiny stocks of surplus food the locals can spare to sell off puts on hunting for evil taliban.

    And I guess you would have to drive to Kabul to find a private gas station capable of filling just one company sized patrol.

    Furthermore, what about repair?

    What about the psychological relief a big protected camp gives?

    I conclude that you might not have given enought thought to the local conditions.

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  8. I think that this approach would greatly improve the relations between the troops and the population. Purchasing provisions locally could turn a perceived occupying force into potential customers. The offer of "cash for goods" is much more likely to be appreciated than "killing your neighbours who have joined the taliban".

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  9. There are certainly upsides, but there are down sides as well.

    Obtaining can work if the host nation has a surplus, but if it doesnt, 100,000 soldiers eating like soldiers will probably drive half a million afghans into starvation.
    Even if there is a surplus available for production, it will alter the local economy in favour of farming, which in Afghanistan would inflame tensions between plains and hill tribes even further.
    Only if theres an exported surplus does nothing much alter.

    Foraging can work, but its also tantamount to genocide.
    Urban populations just didnt exist when the mongols were expanding, if they surrendered they were sold as slaves, if they resisted they were exterminated.

    Even Diesel Fuel becomes a logistics drain over supply lines as long and poor as those in Afghanistan.
    I've been told every litre of Fuel that makes it to a patrol base in Helmand consume 7 litres on its way there.
    We're at the stage where we're trying to fight a 300km campaign with horse carts.
    Theres also the logisitcs footprint of aircraft.
    Fuel alone on is a Eurofighter is what, 5000 litres for a standard flight?
    (Wiki empty and loaded weight)
    Thats 5 tons


    Armies can make do with very few resources, but the German Army on the eastern front was A, beaten, and B, spent a lot of time doing nothing.
    The Kursk Offensive was a massive battle, but it lasted what, a week(?), and was pretty much the only major action in that theatre for the entire year.

    The Roman Legions didnt receive much logistical support from Rome, but its my understanding that a Roman Legion conquered an area, built a fort, and the legionaires then became farmers to support the encamped legion and any traveling through, until they reached retirement, when they were gifted the land they'd been farming.

    British Soldiers in Afghanistan arent sat around idle, every major logisitics run in Afghanistan needs to be mounted with a Battle Group strength escort, and runs of 100 yards between patrol bases can take entire days.

    We could cut the logistics train dramaticaly, just move into the deep desert. But we cant accomplish our objective from there (not that I think we can do it from Sangin).

    Solar Panels are useful, but I'm not sure they work in mobile formations.
    Even at the equator, and using top tier panels, a square metre panel is going to generate 200w an hour for 12 hours, or 2.4kwh
    A litre of diesel, burnt at 50% efficiency should be about 20kwh.
    At a patrol base, they're great, but on patrol, I dont think they work.
    Although micro panels for infantry patrols would be handy, they dont want to drag around a generator.

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  10. You seem to think of a closed economy model. 100,000 soldiers eating local food for cash would mean that the cash trickes to the borders and foor imports trickle to the troops. That would starve no-one.

    The same applies to fuel. What's the difference between importing fuel planned economy-style directly to the bases with civilian trucks and buying local fuel in order to let the Afghan market care about fuel imports on civilian trucks?

    And agin; my point was not so much about where and how to get the supply than about the addiction to supply levels that stem from total war!

    I've never ever seen any source indicating that Roman legionaries became farmers on-duty. They rather built infrastructure, patrolled and trained/rested in forts.
    Why should they farm on their own? Food was the easiest thing to get as conqueror in a conquered country!

    Your part on foraging and Mongols is extremely 'questionable'. The Mongols weren't dumb, and they didn't behave everywhere as they did in Syria.

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  11. Once again, you wrongly assume the degree of economic flexibility known from the developed capitalist economy you are living in, for the afghan economy, that is

    - not a capitalist economy
    - has awfull infrastructure
    - an unproductive agriculture (not alleviated by the fact that fertilizers are withheld from the afghan farmers as they can be used for the production of explosives)
    - AND IS A F**KING WARZONE

    Under those circumstances even if the additional amount of produce could be somehow/where acquired it would drastically increase local prices (differential rents) and if not strave make dependent on international aid hundreds of thousands of people. So you trade the need to protect a centralized supply chain for the responsibility to protect a decentralized food distribution.

    Gas would not be as existential but you would, as gas means electricity, at least rob those people of those little amenities they've got (and of gouvernment/ISAF propaganda via TV/radio).

    Sorry, but food does not realy come out of the supermarket. And, even if most of the COINdistas seem to believe so, Afghans dont feed their children on tribal pride and islamic values. (just to utter my disapproval of some of the lopsidedness of the culturalist turners)

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  12. I did not write about capitalism but about markets.

    The Afghan economy is probably more flexible than an industrialised one save for transportation restrictions; your use of that word "flexible" is therefore questionable.

    Poor infrastructure doesn't become better if you hire truckers instead of letting others hire truckers. It's the same problem both times - and apparently unable to prevent a quite huge supplies influx.

    Finally, I already mentioned the problem about prices for civilians myself long ago:
    "The primary difference would most likely be the effect on civilian fuel prices and therefore the economic development (trade)."

    The foreigners would consume a very substantial part of the available fuel, but not a very substantial part of the food (150,000 soldiers among 28,000,000 civilians!).
    The effect on food prices would likely be limited to the regions where most of the foreign cash is being spent: That's therefore not much of a problem.

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  13. Well you might be pretty mainstream in your take on economy, but I insist, that it contains not only exchange but also production as well as consumption. Neoliberal propaganda might have hammered some obscure ideas about flexibility in your mind, but let me tell that an afghan farmer, without much surplus, with a dwindling workforce available, because people actually flee the landscape, without fertilizers and technical means, with huge and long term investments to take(sth. no shifting military deployment can motivate), if he actually strives to increase his procduction, has usually very litte leeway when it comes to increasing his production. When in Germany an unusual demand for some produce occures you demand overtime and costs even decrease, as you approach full capacity. You'd call it an economic upturn. In Afghanistan you'd get inflation at worst starvation. Foreign cash isnt the solution, spent on food it is the problem itself - further boosted by the tendency of military not to spread out evenly accross the land.

    Reasoning is not a matter of "I already mentioned", but of "I took into accout".

    In short: Buying out of the local market as you (assumedly) suggested would IMHO dramatically worsen the already tense humanitarian situation in rural Afghanistan.

    Sure, you might circumvent this by shiping your own goods (food, gas ..) by hired local drivers ... so what, we are already doing this (at high cost in non-westerners lifes - thank god we dont care - and by funding the enemy).


    In regard to the actuall theme of your thesis - the dependence of modern militaries on supply in conventional war (I hope I got it right) - I would have liked to see a closer scrutiny of what we get by thoroughly supplying a force. You would habe recognized, that 90% of the tonnage (Ammo and lots and lots of fuel) couldn't propably be scraped off the land. Therefore musing about the possible uses of room spared by the Euro Powerpack in the Leopard 2 would certainly have been a more fruitfull enterprise.


    PS: I was greatly amusemed by the french general you mentioned, that wondered about how all blitzkrieg folklore fell apart as soon as a fairly linear battlefield is missing. Sauce Please!!!

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  14. Clarisfication: I have a German university degree on economics with emphasis on national economics and do not like the suggestion that my economic views are influenced by "propaganda".

    The French source was an issue of the journal "Doctrine".

    You keep ignoring the buying power (ability to import) of the injected cash and the extreme quantity ratio between population and foreign troops.

    Finally, the "90% ammo & fuel" thing is applicable to conventional warfare, but I didn't suggest that armour brigades shall live of the land.

    I wrote something very different in the late part of the article. More attention should be paid to the ability to obtain supplies in the region of operations, especially in low force density missions such as armoured recce, LRS.


    But we've exchanged enough arguments and misunderstood enough for today. Let's agree to disagree.

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  15. "De la tactique à l’opératif"
    PAR LE GÉNÉRAL (2S) HUBIN

    http://www.cdef.terre.defense.gouv.fr/publications/doctrine/doctrine01/version_fr/Doctrine01_FR.pdf

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  16. Well, I could take your education for an excuse. :)

    Economists tend to restrict their view to exchange and construct models based on rather high productivity, near perfect markets, cheap and secure transport etc. Me as a scholar of premodern especially medieval economy and agriculture as far couldnt find much use for those. And I think its a fallacy to assume them for economies, that not proximately meet their premises.

    thanks for the link!

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  17. Really?
    You really do believe I need to be lectured about hat's being taught in economic studies? Btw, you described the first year's content - the most primitive models for the freshmen. Real economic studies are much more advanced than that.

    And btw, I happen to have studied history quite much - albeit this privately, not at an university. I am aware of how other and ancient economies worked.
    A 200 civilians : 1 soldier ratio was never a problem unless there had already been one or two poor harvests.
    The variance of harvests was always much greater than +/- .5%, dwarfing the economic role of such a small force.

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  18. Okay, this ugly American has a few rebuttals for not only the author, but for some of the pundits as well. As far as the article is concerned, you're correct about the need for supplies being a crippling element to any modern military (best evidenced by the U.S. performance in every modern conflict since the 1840's). The converse, as has been previously posted, is that no modern army can actually bring its overwhelming firepower to bear in the enemy (insurgent or no) if it doesn't have the mobility that petrol/gasoline enables it to do so. Find a means of rapidly inserting/transporting heavily-armed infantry units that doesn't tie them down to FOB's, and you've just revolutionized modern warfare in terms of mobility and speed.

    As far as the comment goes about paying civilians and taking supplies from them, there is some merit to this- money talks, enough said. That being put out there, you win COIN by getting the people to not just want your money, but also for them to want you there to keep them safe. An example of how this can (and does) backfire would be when the local civilian decides to poison their produce for the nice evil NATO personnel that want to buy their meager dietary supplements. Obviously it's equally counter-productive to execute uncooperative civilians to gain their overall trust, but paying them off is only a band-aid on a hemorrhaging dirty war.

    Yes, the standard of living in Afghanistan for NATO troops is better than it was in was in past wars. This is also because not only has the overall standard of living for the world (particularly the West) increased substantially, but so has our ability to operationally supply our troops as well. Also, I'm fairly certain that the standard of living for a platoon of troopers out in Helmand/Kunar/Marja is significantly worse than it is in Kandahar. Surprise, surprise, I'm fairly certain there was an equal disparity for troops operating in Bastogne or Peleilu was pretty different from that of rear-echelon supply units in Paris or Melbourne, respectively.

    Good point on the question of ammo. Last time I checked, 5.56mm rounds from NATO forces aren't just floating around the Afghan frontier, or even 70% of active conflict zones for that matter.

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  19. As far as the comment goes about paying civilians and taking supplies from them, there is some merit to this- money talks, enough said. That being put out there, you win COIN by getting the people to not just want your money, but also for them to want you there to keep them safe. An example of how this can (and does) backfire would be when the local civilian decides to poison their produce for the nice evil NATO personnel that want to buy their meager dietary supplements. Obviously it's equally counter-productive to execute uncooperative civilians to gain their overall trust, but paying them off is only a band-aid on a hemorrhaging dirty war.

    Yes, the standard of living in Afghanistan for NATO troops is better than it was in was in past wars. This is also because not only has the overall standard of living for the world (particularly the West) increased substantially, but so has our ability to operationally supply our troops as well. Also, I'm fairly certain that the standard of living for a platoon of troopers out in Helmand/Kunar/Marja is significantly worse than it is in Kandahar. Surprise, surprise, I'm fairly certain there was an equal disparity for troops operating in Bastogne or Peleilu was pretty different from that of rear-echelon supply units in Paris or Melbourne, respectively.

    Good point on the question of ammo. Last time I checked, 5.56mm rounds from NATO forces aren't just floating around the Afghan frontier, or even 70% of active conflict zones for that matter.

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  20. Sven, you certainly have a perfectly linear grasp of international economic theory (obviously). What I do believe you and whomever this anonymous character skimmed, however, was the extremely segregated nature of the Afghan people themselves. I do admit that International Liberalism is what allows alliances such as NATO to perform/supply their operations in theatre. HOWEVER, the people of Afghanistan have not known defeat (discounting civil war) in their entire recorded history. Just look at how long it took for him to cross Afghanistan. He got through alright, but only after depopulating nearly one-third of the country, and that was only a series of peace agreements he made by marrying into the tribes. Obviously we can't do that in this case. Look at the multiple times the British Empire attempted to pacify the region, only to be beaten by a people who were using rifles plucked from nearly a century before they were born. I could waste our time in bringing up the Soviet example, but I really don't want to spend an hour insulting the intelligence of the people on this blog. Either way, the only relevant outcome is that Western-directed intervention has only made the region more volatile..... and it gave them access to a lot of new(er) weapons.

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  21. David Kilcullen has several really good books on this stuff. They analyze the conflict from an anthropological standpoint, which isn't normally done. Anyways, the point is that Afghans are a much tougher sale on not just NATO's COIN doctrine, but in regards to the pervasive (and corrosive) to their extremely-insulated culture. Because of these elements, the idea that an average grocer on the side of the road would be just as happy in selling his fruit to a passing NATO convoy doesn't mean he wouldn't pick up his rifle and help out some Taliban/AQ elements that end up ambushing that very same NATO unit. This occurs in Afghan/Pashtu culture because their concept of Honor is highly-regarded, and duty to those who are closest to you (family, extended family, clan, Pashtu-speaking, and finally Afghani). Bear in mind that this unification has to occur when you're uniting against the level above the one you perceive as being attacked or even just dishonored. Ironically, the farmer with his rusted POS AK-47 (used to defend his farm) who is taking pot-shots next to a Taliban sniper who is armed with a modified Dragunov (bought with opium revenue) probably don't even like one another, they might even fight one another once the battle is over. In Afghanistan, the enemy of your enemy can still be your friend, sort of.

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  22. Because the Taliban spent nearly two generations digging into the indigenous populace by intermarrying into the tribes (remind you of anyone?), they have an easy access to far more of a cultural reach than most likely anyone in the NATO contingent possibly can. Introducing free-market economics, or even the simple trading of cash between two totally separate worlds, just so one of those world may end the culture of the other, doesn't seem very easy to do. It's hard enough to recruit reliable members of the ANA/ANP, and even in those cases, you're seeing many cases of them turning on their NATO trainers. The idea that NATO troops (particularly the operating infantry components) could mix and mingle with the local populace on a wide scale is simply impossible unless you did as the Romans did. Build a fort (FOB), pacify/kill all remaining resistance, build up the area, marry into the local culture, and retire locally or take your Afghan bride back home. I just don't see that happening. You don't undo 5,000 years of interconnected culture and violence with a few bucks on the side of a road without giving that grocer a far more useful incentive to tell you there's an ambush down the road.

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  23. Without meaning to resort to the all-too-common American tendency to poke fun of French masculinity or war-making capability, it is hard not to side with some of the criticism of French Doctrine. Their doctrine in war was consistently a generation behind from the 1850's (Crimea) to the 1950's (Indochina). I'll give them credit for doing their part in the First Gulf War, as well as military commitment (particularly the Foreign Legion) for their contributions in Afghanistan. Oh, and they make really good anti-ship missiles.

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  24. The greatest success stories in recent French military history were likely the very smallish and short post-colonial interventions in Africa: Their containment of direct Lybian intervention in Chad, for example.

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  25. Like I said, I'm not going to take away credit for what they've accomplished. I think they also had a rather large contingent come into Lebanon after the (major) shooting stopped in 2006. I do find their historical command/control hubris rather astonishing, though. Of course there's the saying that each army going into a current war is thinking they're fighting the last one. That does explain their complete tactical failures for nearly a century. Then again, they were also (usually) fighting against Germany, a nation that had become a hybrid military culture in a way that only Israel of today has surpassed. I suppose their lack of success against them is either an example of their inability to progress with the times, or else it's evidence that Germany (i.e. their leadership) had become so obsessed with global and regional supremacy, that their military was continuously upgraded in a way that no other military at the time was.

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  26. Wow sven, I guess these guys don't know jack sh*t about living off the land! Modern people are so pathetic in that one regard. Even though afghanistan doesn't have forests full of plentiful animal and plant life to support this hypothetical roving army unit, the problem of vehicle endurance can be solved with hybrid electric vehicles: Assuming these soldiers are carrying a fold up mountain bike or two, they can hook it up to a power generating unit, and recharge the vehicles batteries in this manner. Each man can do a 10 minute shift (so that the watts level he outputs will remain high until he is replaced), and this will ensure a fairly quick recharge time. Batteries performance will only continue to get higher and higher, and they will be a useful addition to a vehicles gasoline mode.

    On the subject of food, there are commercial bread makers which can process raw grain, and troops can also be shown how to butcher and prepare any indigenous livestock they may encounter, and what kind of plants and fungus are edible. Portable grills can be set over fires to cook food and boil pots of water. For entertainment, bring a violin, soccer ball, a boom box, or an electronic book (this saves weight over paperback ones). For comfort, bring a fold up, enclosing screen (for privacy when taking a #2 in front of 300 guys), an air mattress, and fold up chairs. The quality of life will be the same as those poor fools stuck on base, tied to an electricity grid and a vulnerable supply column, and stuck in the open like a sitting duck for the enemy to fire rockets, mortars, or MGs at, or direct truck bombs at. It'll be like an extended camping trip, only your out looking for the bad guys. Don't forget to bring a frisbee!

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