The Temptations of the Brown Box

The Evolution in Logistics and Military Strategy

Amazon Prime boxes (Christian Zibreg)

The “brown box” is the new black. Take a quick view of any American neighborhood and brown boxes adorn the front of dwellings like so many square garden gnomes. Whether delivered by Federal Express, United Parcel Service (UPS), or the U.S. Post Office, the ubiquitous cubes illustrate the power of online commerce delivering all manner of goods directly to the consumer. Underpinning this growing force in the economy is an evolution in logistics summed up in one word:  speed.[1] From the legion of shipping containers which move across the globe daily, to airlift of goods, to direct delivery by flying drone and additive manufacturing (also called 3D printing)––speed of information, speed of transportation, and speed of manufacture combine to create ever faster modes of delivery to market. The late 20th century model of manufacturing, transportation to distribution center, movement to store, purchase by consumer, and the final trip to home is eroding under the paradigm of speed. Led by companies such as Amazon and Alibaba, this evolution in logistics redesigned the structure of selling in America putting pressure on physical store locations and leading the Wall Street Journal to conclude the shopping mall is dead.[2]

Amazon made their first fully autonomous, no human pilot, "Prime" air delivery on December 7, 2016 (Amazon)

For military logisticians, these commercial advancements in supply and transportation promise faster delivery and increasing precision in marrying need with want in war. The services have published future operational concepts and spent significant research and development efforts to incorporate commercial innovation into military operations. For example, the U.S. Army Operating Concept imagines a future in which, “The Army increases logistical efficiencies and unit self-sufficiency” through autonomous delivery, 3D printing, and all manner of technical improvements.[3] In a specific technical example, the U.S. Army is developing “rapid fabrication” kits, which allow soldiers to harness 3D printing to produce parts and tools.[4] In addition, the Services are all sponsoring research to deliver via drone including the Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle, which resembles Amazon’s delivery drone.[5] Thus, just as the evolution of logistics in the commercial sector has bypassed the shopping mall and the storefront with direct delivery via brown box, modern militaries hope to bypass the long and expensive factory-to-fort to port-to-base to last-tactical-mile to combatant-supply chain and replace it with organic manufacture on the battlefield or manufacture-to-direct need in combat to feed the tremendous consumption of war.[6]

Modern militaries hope to bypass the long and expensive factory-to-fort to port-to-base to last-tactical-mile to combatant-supply chain and replace it with organic manufacture on the battlefield or manufacture-to-direct need in combat to feed the tremendous consumption of war.

Is the path towards the “brown box” model of commercial logistics a net positive for the U.S. military––more stuff delivered to more places––or a possible pitfall? More importantly, what questions should strategic thinkers and operational planners ask when considering the implementation of new logistics methods into combat? The answers to these questions begin not with technical means or operational concepts, but with culture.

The Cultural Norm and Materiel Advantage in Logistics

The incorporation of the latest civilian technologies in logistics is a natural extension of the U.S. military’s penchant for logistics. More than a current phenomenon, logistics is a deep-seated cultural norm for Americans and the U.S. military in particular. Colin Gray describes U.S. preeminence in warfighting thusly, “U.S. military forces have not always been well directed strategically or operationally...but that military establishment always has shown a mastery of logistics.”[7] Pointing to the nation’s history of frontier expansion with low amounts of manual labor, Gray further elucidates a preference in the United States for “the use of machines in war,” which substitutes technology for human power to produce great efficiency and range.[8]

Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS), a U.S. Marine Corps system in development since 2012 intended to integrate a point and click system within a degraded visual environment, satellite denied navigation, obstacle avoidance enroute to and in the landing zone, and automated landing site selection for logistical use (Jason Julian/Defense

U.S. military logistics, in its current form, is product of the phenomena Gray describes. A vast industrial base currently supplies the U.S. military with overwhelming materiel, while an armada of 1,203 aircraft, 379 ships, and thousands of trains and trucks stand ready to deliver personnel and material anywhere on the globe with great quantity and speed.[9] Thus, logistics, the connective tissue between biology and industry and the battlefield, is the apex of U.S. military asymmetry and advantage.[10]

With a cultural affinity for logistics and the vast means to deliver, much of U.S. military thinking rests on the heretofore-unchallenged ability to supply at will.

As General Darren McDew, commander of United States Transportation Command stated in recent congressional testimony, “Our delivery of these forces assures an unparalleled global expeditionary capability and gives our Nation options when needing to respond to a variety of crises. Ultimately, this unmatched capability extends a helping hand or projects combat power anywhere, at any time and provides a key strategic advantage for our Nation.”[11] The superiority of American logistics is so ingrained in the way the military approaches problems that even minor hiccups in delivery of bullets and beans to troops is considered anathema to the American way of warfare. For example, during the U.S. Army’s drive to Baghdad in 2003, individual soldier’s rations dwindled to just a day of reserves and Iraqi forces were able to interdict and attack some rear sustainment units. These problems of logistics sparked a media outcry and spawned dozens of studies after the war to determine what went wrong.[12] When compared to any logistical failure or setback in the history of warfare, the problems of 2003 hardly warrant mention.

With a cultural affinity for logistics and the vast means to deliver, much of U.S. military thinking rests on the heretofore-unchallenged ability to supply at will. As the present National Security Strategy states, “U.S. forces will continue to defend the homeland, conduct global counterterrorism operations, assure allies, and deter aggression through forward presence and engagement. If deterrence fails, U.S. forces will be ready to project power globally to defeat and deny aggression in multiple theaters.”[13] This statement implies that the U.S. will be able to move anywhere on the globe with the forces needed to protect its interests—even in simultaneous conflicts. The vast array of supply depots, ports, bases, and runways, which the U.S. military either directly controls or has access granted by the host nation, enables it all. Logistics is not a question for the U.S. military, but the answer.

Approaching the Brown Box with Caution

Given this positive bias towards logistics, it presents a prime opportunity for U.S. strategists and operational planners to approach the dazzling array of commercial technologies that promise more materiel to more places on the battlefield. First, however, they must understand the limitations of speed with regards to logistics in combat. Further the level of permissiveness needed for a given technology to excel in the commercial sector in comparison to the strain of military application must be considered. Finally, the U.S. military should always approach technical improvements to logistics with a healthy, yet open-minded skepticism.

Too Much Too Soon...As Bad as Too Little Too Late

The speed of commercial logistics is blinding. Amazon’s “Prime” service, which can deliver most items within two days (and some within two hours), exemplifies the trend of commercial logistics.[14] Commercial delivery methods can dazzle strategists with promises of more ways and means to achieve ends. Which commander in the field or strategist would not want more things in more places in a more synchronized fashion? Spare parts printed as needed, water purified on the move, and drones delivering ammunition just in time all hold great promise.[15] What is missing, however, is a greater understanding of the historical context of speed and its impact on logistics.

Rather than choose the quickest delivery method, U.S. military thinkers and planners must consider if they have the correct system in-place to move, distribute, and sustain combatants in war.

Speed and capacity have more often than not been a hindrance to U.S. logistics rather than a boon. Too much too soon has been a far worse a problem than too little too late. For example, in the campaign for Guadalcanal, U.S. Marines deposited tons and tons of food and equipment on the beaches upon landing, only to discover that they lacked the labor and machines to move the cargo off the beaches. As a result, several weeks’ worth of food washed out with the tide—exacerbating a tenuous supply situation.[16] In a more recent example, during Operation Desert Storm, so much cargo was brought in by air and sea that “iron mountains” were created with the materiel, much of it never reaching its destination.[17] In order to combat the dangers of too much too soon, strategists and logisticians must ensure there is a proper network to distribute personnel and materiel to the precise point of need. This will be especially critical to the technical capabilities of machine delivery to the fight or direct manufacture by 3D printing. Delivering a unit ammunition it cannot carry, or printing too many spare parts, will only heighten follow-on logistics needs rather than alleviate them. Simply put, rather than choose the quickest delivery method, U.S. military thinkers and planners must consider if they have the correct system in-place to move, distribute, and sustain combatants in war.

The Lure of Permissive Solutions

U.S. Marine Corps brings supplies ashore in the first days of the Guadacanal campaign in August 1942 (Mackenzie Gregory)

Commercial networks of logistics operate for profit and are not designed to succeed on the battlefield. No adversary is presently trying to destroy commercial shipping, hurt UPS drivers, or cripple Amazon’s command and control network as a matter of standard business practice. Thus, any new technology on the commercial market for logistics, will not have wartime survival as a precondition for employment. While this point seems obvious––adversaries will attack U.S. lines of communication in war––historical norms since the Second World War tend to reinforce similar notions. A permissive environment has become the norm for U.S. forces in combat. No lines of communication have been truly at risk at the strategic or operational level of war since the battle for Guadalcanal in 1942.[18]

Recent tactical struggles with logistics, however, highlight the problems of commercial delivery systems and processes placed into under the stress of combat. The aforementioned tenuous supply lines in Iraq in 2003 were based on a classic “hub and spoke” delivery structure.[19] Military sustainment crews had little combat training and were expected to deliver materiel mostly unimpeded. U.S. escort vehicles had light armor and the tactics of logistics crews to protect themselves and fight the adversary were rudimentary.[20] When insurgent forces planted improvised explosive devices on roads throughout the country, this demanded the U.S. military increase its combat training for logistics forces, purchase large amounts of mine-resistant vehicles, and use a significant amount of its tactical airlift to push logistics off the road and into the air.[21] In this case, while commercial vehicles and procedures could deliver the goods to war, they were ill-equipped to fight a foe while doing so.

Logistics tends to overpromise and underdeliver, according to Van Creveld because of the “law of diminishing returns” involved with increasing complexity of technology.

A permissive environment for logistics extends to the cyber domain as well. The need to create a network of logistics, which can meet combat requirements and provide the necessary command and control, requires a significant reliance on permissive cyberspace by the U.S. military. Over 90% of the transportation traffic in the Department of Defense relies on the unsecured commercial-cyber environment.[22] Although this gives the DoD ease of interface with commercial systems, it also puts the U.S. military at a greater risk of cyber-attack.[23] There are nascent technological solutions, such as blockchain technology, which may provide the open- architecture necessary to interface in the market, while also providing operational security required for U.S. force movements.[24] However, even a technological solution to the growing threat in the cyber realm will require creative thinking and new processes which move beyond mere efficiency in a permissive environment to satiate the logistical effectiveness demanded of war.

The Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle (JTARV) concept that could be used to resupply troops on the battlefield. (Malloy Aeronautics)

Thus, U.S. strategists must pause and consider the permissive environment that has existed for over 70 years in both war and commercial enterprise will not be the norm in future warfare. When attempting to incorporate a new computer network to track logistics, 3D printing, or autonomous vehicles, the evaluation of how it will operate in a combat environment will be paramount.

Technical Skepticism

In his classic Supplying War, Martin Van Creveld gives numerous examples of technological innovations within logistics which failed to live up to their promise, from the railroads of the First World War to the mechanized transportation that supported the Wehrmacht’s drive east in 1941. Logistics tends to overpromise and underdeliver, according to Van Creveld because of the “law of diminishing returns” involved with increasing complexity of technology.[25] Even in the modern context, regardless of technical means of transportation or manufacture, logistics still lives in the physical world. No amount of quick delivery or nifty 3D printing will alleviate the fact that personnel need food and water to live, vehicles need fuel, and weapons need ammunition. An apocryphal quote from an anonymous U.S. Army logistician applies, “Logistics deals in physics.”


While harnessing technological improvements in the civilian sector to improve the capability of logistics, the U.S. military must proceed with caution.

As with all technological applications to war, those that improve logistics must be approached with skepticism and critical thinking. Even an astute mind such as Von Moltke, the Elder, was seduced by the promise of a better future of logistics. He stated, “Modern Wars will be carried on with armies of such strength, that their provision can only be supplied by railroads,” and then proceeded to create an advanced system of railroad building and repair to move forward in combat.[26] In the fall of 1914, this vaunted system struggled under the weight of battle, moving the German Army to the frontier and then collapsing under the destruction of the rails by the French at one point delivering just six trains worth of supply in one day to a million man army.[27] If as brilliant a mind as Von Moltke can overestimate the benefits of a future logistics technology, any future strategist must approach the daunting task of how to provide the means and ways of war with humility.

While harnessing technological improvements in the civilian sector to improve the capability of logistics, the U.S. military must proceed with caution. While many of the technologies––such as delivery drones and 3D printing––are in their nascent stages, asking important questions about the why, how, and in what context these technologies will be used might help alleviate future friction. U.S. strategists should be clear-eyed about what future logistics innovations can and cannot accomplish. By merging the technologies of the “brown box” onto realistic war gaming and planning, a more complete picture of how vulnerable (or not) future concepts of logistics are will emerge over time. As U.S. Transportation Command stated in the fall of 2016 in the announcement to the command’s first-ever wargame, “Contested environment discussions often fail to address the adversaries’ impact on discrete mobility and logistics operations.”[28] Only through thinking, planning, testing, and exercising can a true measure of how well commercial advancements can meet the demands of future war be determined. The brown box may be evolutionary or, like the shopping mall, it may already be dead.

Jobie Turner is an Air Force officer. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, has an M.Phil in Military Strategy from the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and a PhD in Military Strategy from Air University. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: "Air Supply" by Don Malo (DeviantArt)


[1] Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat [Further Updated and Expanded; Release 3.0]: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 154.

[2] Esther Fung, "Mall Owners Rush to Get Out of the Mall Business,"

[3] "The U.S. Army Operating Concept:  Win in a Complex World," ed. The United States Army (Washington, DC: TRADOC 2014), 37; The Air Force also has a concept for 3D printing and delivery of logistics through cyberspace. See "The Air Force Future Operating Concept," ed. The United States Air Force (Washington: The Owls: Air Force Directorate of Strategy, 2015), 27.

[4] Lauren Poindexter, “3-D Printing in the Field Gives Soldiers More Flexibility.” (accessed 09 August 2017).

[5] Hope Hodge Sick, “Marines Want Swarming Delivery Drones for Resupply and Disaster Relief 09 August 2017).  See Amazon’s latest drone delivery vehicle here:Amazon Prime Air -

[6] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, 1934), 93.  Mumford avers, “An army is a pure body of consumers.”

[7] Colin S Gray, Explorations in Strategy (Westport: Praeger, 1996), 88.

[8] Ibid.

[9] "About USTRANSCOM," (accessed 23 June 2017).  These numbers are only for military owned assets and do not include broader use of civilian contracted transportation methods.

[10] Jobie Turner, "Victualing Victory:  Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh--1755 to 1968." (Dissertation, Air University, 2016).

[11] House Armed Services Committee, Statement of General Darren W. McDew, United States Air Force, Commander, United States Transportation Command, 30 Mar 2017.

[12] Eric Peltz, "Sustainment of Army Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom:  Battlefield Logistics and Effects on Operations," (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005), 9.

[13] "The National Security Strategy of the United States," (Washington, DC 2015).

[14] “Prime Delivery.” (accessed 09 Aug 17).

[15] "The U.S. Army Operating Concept:  Win in a Complex World,"  37.

[16] "Division Commanders Final Report on Guadalcanal Operations, Phase 2," ed. First Division United States Marine Corps (San Francisco 1942), 10.

[17] Douglas Menarchik, Powerlift--Getting to Desert Storm: Strategic Transportation and Strategy in the New World Order (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993), 106.

[18] Richard B Frank, Guadalcanal (New York: Random House, 1990). Thomas Alexander Hughes, Admiral Bill Halsey: A Naval Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016). Frank’s magisterial work documents the supply difficulties of the Americans in detail and Hughes illustrates the difficult job Admiral Halsey had in sorting out the supply system moving from other locations in the Pacific to Guadalcanal.

[19] Henry E. Eccles, Logistics in the National Defense (Newport, Rhode Island: Naval War College Press, 1997), 55. In this classic work, Eccles illustrate how supplies are moved into one large base and then apportioned out to smaller bases located in relative close proximity, like a central hub on a bicycle wheel with lines of supply--or spokes--stretching to locations further afield.  Eccles makes a much more complex and nuanced analysis than this simple idea, but it captures the essence of projecting logistics and moving from larger supply locations to direct combat support.

[20] Dr. Donald P. Wright and Colonel Timothy Reese, On Point II: Transition to the New Campaign (Lawrence, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2008), pp. 207-210. This section gives a succinct summary of the lack of skills within the transportation units of the US Army and how they adapted, in addition to the needs of the units to adapt their vehicles due to the threat of attack and IED emplacements.

[21] Kelly George, “Airlift Mission Takes Over 5,000 Convoys Off the Road.” Little Rock Air Force Base Drop Zone, February 16, 2007.  The USAF C-130 community celebrated the milestone of 5,000 convoys taken off the roadways in Iraq due to C-130 cargo missions in the winter of 2007.

[22] Statement of General Darren W. McDew, United States Air Force, Commander, United States Transportation Command.  Commercial air, land, and sea transportation provide significant capacity for the US military. For example, the commercial sector provided 453 aircraft in February 2016 to supplement military movement of personnel into various theaters around the globe. For comparison, and to illuminate the need for civilian augmentation of military logistics, the entire C-17 fleet (large cargo aircraft) of the United States Air Force is roughly 210 aircraft. See “Civil Reserve Airfleet Allocations” (accessed 18 Aug 2017).

[23] Ibid.

[24] Satoshi Nakamoto, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” (accessed 18 Aug 2017).  The Bitcoin whitepaper does the best job of describing the thinking and possible implications of a transparent transaction architecture.

[25] Martin Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 235

[26] Daniel Hughes, Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings (New York: Presidio Press, 2009), 102.

[27] Martin Van Creveld, Supplying War, 132-33.

[28] Stephanie Pasch, "USTRANSCOM Hosts Inaugural Wargame,"