1 January 2014


Dave Clemente
(Former Chatham House Expert)

Ryan Evans


Over the past decade, thousands of military vehicles and tens of thousands of tonnes of supplies and equipment have been moved into Afghanistan in support of NATO operations. In the near future, this matériel will have to be disposed of or moved out of the country. For the UK military this will be the biggest logistics operation since the Second World War. The process of moving supplies into, around and out of Afghanistan is a resource-intensive operation that has already resulted in numerous instances of local and regional corruption, which have often been accepted as a cost of doing business. 

This report looks at how these and other problems arise and how the United Kingdom's military supply chain can adapt to deal with them. It makes recommendations for utilizing supply chain resources to serve strategic and operational goals during the build-up and drawdown of forces. It analyses how broader opportunities can, over time, be extracted from managing the military supply chain and its component parts. These include improving local transport infrastructure, supporting reconstruction and development efforts, and delivering influence at local levels. These opportunities could be realized through a variety of means, including increased employment of local workers, targeted resource distribution, and intelligent contracting coupled with robust financial oversight. 


Key recommendations are made with the acknowledgment that the UK logistics system has been stretched by years of continuous deployment, and that there may be little spare capacity to use the supply chain as a tool for influencing local and regional populations. The primary task is to consider where progress can be made given current constraints.

  1. Faster adaptation is essential for developing and enhancing the capabilities of a modern wartime supply chain. This will require new incentives and new ways of rewarding innovation, and could be done through increasing the attractiveness of logistics in the military career hierarchy, or forming logistics reserves that provide expertise and can be mobilized swiftly.

    Cutting-edge technology often tops procurement wish lists, but talent retention will remain a core component of a robust logistics corps. Experienced risk managers will become increasingly valuable as the effects of cuts to defence personnel are felt, and the military supply chain must be willing to compete for this talent with the private sector.
  2. There is a need to align contractors more closely with strategic military interests, and to make contractor management a core logistics competency. Closer integration of logistics into strategic campaign planning is necessary in order to direct supply chain resources where they can be employed more effectively as instruments of influence.

    Contracts could be written with a view to discouraging more strongly the sort of behaviour, such as corruption, that counteracts strategic goals and encouraging behaviour that reinforces these goals, such as strengthening the Afghan economy through local procurement and employment.

    There would be real benefits from clarifying and codifying the relationships between the armed forces and contractors. This would facilitate greater insight, in and out of theatre, for military personnel who are managing specific contracts, and could also serve to bolster contracting oversight and transparency mechanisms. Work by the Total Support Force, the organization that provides materiel, personnel and equipment to the UK armed forces, appears to be encouraging development in this area, by writing contracts with prime contractors so that their work supports strategic UK aims.
  3. Greater financial transparency is needed in the military supply chain. Independently verifiable measures to promote internal and external transparency are needed if the supply chain is to serve as a tool for delivering influence. This could be achieved by appointing a genuinely empowered Special Inspector General for the supply chain, along with independent assessments by an organization such as Transparency International.

    Corruption is counter-productive on many levels, and expediency in the supply chain should not be encouraged at the expense of strategic aims. To be transparent and to be seen to be transparent in this area is essential if logistics are to support the mission and be to the benefit of Afghans. Without greater transparency, there is also the risk of a loss of domestic popular and political support for the operation, given that it is UK tax-payers who are supporting military, reconstruction and development efforts in Afghanistan.
  4. Remnants of the NATO wartime supply chain can to be re-tooled to serve as a networked local and regional agricultural transport industry. The resources invested in the supply chain over the past decade have been substantial. Although the drawdown of the military campaign and supply chain presents risks, there are also significant opportunities to use what remains to build agricultural capacity across Afghanistan.

    This expansion in the local transport sector could facilitate the purchase and collection of crops at farms across Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and bring them to markets in urban centres of Afghanistan and into Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere. It has the potential to be a boon for Afghanistan's agricultural industry, benefit its trucking industry by reducing its dependence on wartime commerce, displace key incentives for poppy cultivation, and provide an environment more conducive to stability in rural areas.
  5. More adept management of 'big data' is essential in the military logistics environment. Grappling with the growing abundance of information, in addition to merging legacy logistics systems with cutting-edge technology, will be a huge task not just for the supply chain but also for the UK armed forces as a whole. It will necessitate significant investment in terms of people, process and technology.

    Data analysis and visualization tools are needed to peer inside the data-rich networks of a complex logistics system and make the desired correlations and adjustments. This requires sharing data across platforms and between partners. Proprietary systems are often a hindrance in these circumstances. Open standards and commercially available software can provide greater flexibility and scalability, as well as robust access and identity management that can be adapted to encompass supply chain partners.