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From A to B: How Logistics Fuels American Power and Prosperity

From A to B: How Logistics Fuels American Power and Prosperity by David Axe. Potomac Books, 2012, 245 pp.

More than a decade of war in Afghanistan is winding down, so it is both timely and appropriate to examine the multifaceted logistics system that got much of the “stuff” there and will now bring some of it back to the United States. A broader issue, however, is how our grasp of the complexities of the logistics and transportation system enabled success in a war far from the US homeland. From A to B addresses these issues.

This highly readable volume focuses on logistics—the planning and practice of moving raw materials, equipment, and even people from one place to another—by covering the spectrum of US capabilities that no other nation on earth can match. In aggregate these capabilities constitute a form of power and a center of gravity for national security, will, and prosperity which provide the basis for much of the international influence the United States enjoys.

Author David Axe, a well-traveled and widely published freelance war correspondent, takes the reader on a journey that, at first glance, seems to only be about the military. Yet, after reading a couple of chapters, it becomes apparent it is so much more. Axe is not only a prolific author of books and magazine and newspaper articles, but has also appeared on broadcast media such as BBC Radio, C-SPAN, and PBS. His new book on logistics bridges a gap between what made the United States great and powerful over the past 100 years and how that power is put into practice—whether for supporting war, commerce, or even humanitarian efforts. As the author states in the preface, though, this book offers only snapshots into the logistics and transportation realms.

Axe’s text begins where the current action is, Afghanistan. He describes some of the unlikely heroes of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan—convoy drivers. Before these wars, logisticians were relegated to the background, ensuring that the combat arms share of warfare was sustained, maintained, and ready for anything; yet, they have emerged as battle-hardened veterans engaged in some of the most dangerous military missions today. Readers are treated to a behind-the-scenes view of the hazards of delivering materiel in this hostile environment with the ever-present threat of improvised explosive devices, snipers, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and other dangers.

The author describes US innovation leading to advances in robotics and autonomous vehicles. From a logistics standpoint, these advances and their subsequent application to warfare reduce risk that would otherwise put humans in danger. Competitions sponsored by various universities and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) fuel the imagination of technology developers and help create cost-effective solutions for reducing the hazard coefficient.

An interesting aspect of hybrid fuels technology is the challenge of adapting it to military vehicles. Where this technology generally succeeds—stop-and-go city driving where braking energy recharges the electric batteries—it fails (so far) to solve the same problem with vehicles in a convoy traveling long distances with very few stops. This activity is still dependent on fossil fuels with very little room for electric engine substitution.

Axe takes us back in history to when Great Lakes coal freighters reigned. Despite advances in transportation technologies, this function remains relatively unchanged after dozens of years. Freighters on the Great Lakes are the most efficient and cost-effective method for moving mass, particularly energy sources such as coal to fuel power plants that dot the lakeshores. Freighters on these freshwater lakes last much longer, too, than their seagoing counterparts which suffer saltwater corrosion.

Staying with the maritime theme, Axe describes the military’s floating hospitals—amphibious ships that sail the Western Hemisphere providing free medical care, and more importantly, exporting goodwill. US abilities on the world’s seas are unmatched at present, which is why Axe devotes an entire chapter to the Military Sealift Command (MSC). MSC ships are the backbone for sustaining operations in the wars of the last decade, ferrying everything from vehicles to equipment to and from theaters of war. To do so by air costs much more, although it does get there faster.

In the final sections, Axe speaks of another throwback in history which is making a comeback—the airship. With advances in buoyancy technology, airships are anticipated to bridge the transportation gap between large-capacity but slower ships and aircraft, which are faster but are capacity-limited and expensive. He also includes chapters on the ground logistics efforts of the theater aerial ports and the launching of Marines into space to get anywhere on the planet in under two hours via a concept called SUSTAIN—Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion.

Axe concludes by tying many of the aforementioned concepts into practical application by discussing the humanitarian relief effort following the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake. While in some respects, this was America’s finest hour, in others, it simply overwhelmed the tiny island nation and its rickety infrastructure to the point of standstill.

From A to B is a welcome addition to what will surely become a growing collection of logistics writings as the war in Afghanistan winds down. Of course logisticians will enjoy it, yet the audience for other topical areas will broaden that base. This book is definitely worth the read!

Col Chad T. Manske, USAF

Air Force Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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