Small Wars Journal

Low Density Logistics: Sustaining Special Operations Forces in Africa

Wed, 08/08/2018 - 2:19am

Low Density Logistics: Sustaining Special Operations Forces in Africa


Katherine Graef


“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

-- African Proverb


Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) cannot go far alone, especially in Africa. While Special Operations Forces (SOF) are among the most expeditionary of all military forces, capable of providing their own SOF-specific sustainment, they still require common user logistics such as replenishment of supplies, reliable transportation, logistics services, and engineering support.[i] It is this category of sustainment that is the most challenging in Africa and requires significant coordination within the logistics enterprise. Sustainment of SOF is inherently more complex than sustainment of conventional forces, especially outside of major contingency operations, because SOF is inherently joint and requires a blended concept of support.[ii] At any given time, SOCAFRICA has approximately 1000 operators and enablers in Africa, conducting activities in approximately a dozen nations. Their mission is to counter terrorists and enhance stability by, with, and through our African partners. To do this, SOCAFRICA must disperse its forces to co-locate with those partners in multiple locations across the continent. Each of these locations represent a unique sustainment challenge, addressed using a combination of resources from US Africa Command (USAFRICOM) components, US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) components, local procurement, contracted services, Acquisition Cross-Servicing Agreements (ACSAs), and others. While these concepts of support are usually tactically adequate, they are often late to need and far from optimal at the theater strategic level.

The United States’ strategic logistics system was designed and is maintained to sustain the United States military in large-scale, declared conflict — as it should be. This system is not well suited, however, to sustain low densities of SOF, working with partners in remote areas, that are trying to prevent conflict and mitigate instability. It is in our national strategic interest to determine viable and responsive methods to sustain these forces because they can provide a superb return on national investment when measured against the cost of large-scale conflict or even humanitarian crisis caused by instability. This article describes the obstacles to sustaining SOF in Africa, the tangible and intangible consequences of those obstacles, and offers tenets to consider when determining low density concepts of support.           

Invalid Assumptions: How Does One Sip From a Firehose?[iii]

U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) doctrine makes implicit assumptions that do not apply in Africa, creating three specific obstacles to sustaining SOF. First, joint logistics doctrine assumes a much larger conventional force relative to SOF and explicitly directs conventional logistics providers to sustain SOF.[iv]  In Africa, there is a high ratio of SOF to conventional forces relative to other combatant commands. With very little sustained conventional military activity in Africa, there is no need to establish a comprehensive military logistics network for SOF to leverage. Nor would it be feasible or desirable to create such a network considering the magnitude of Africa’s geography. The financial and readiness cost to conventional logistics forces would be too high given current national security priorities. Additionally, a conventional logistics network would create a large US military footprint, which is politically untenable in many cases and would create a large tail of its own, eroding the theater-strategic agility it was meant to provide.

While a conventional logistics network is not an ideal solution, small quantities of logistics enablers at key locations on the continent can add tremendous value. Unfortunately, USAFRICOM’s lack of assigned forces, including logistics forces, represents the second obstacle to sustaining SOF. While SOF formations include some logistics capability, those capabilities are very limited in quantity and are primarily focused on SOF-specific support. Doctrine directs conventional forces to provide common user support and assumes that each Geographic Combatant Command (GCC) has an assigned Theater Sustainment Command (TSC).[v]  USAFRICOM does not, at least not in any practical sense.[vi] This lack of logistics forces means common user sustainment of SOF in Africa is provided largely via contracting, augmented by specific capability from conventional logistics formations via the Request for Forces process and episodic support to exercises. These capabilities are requested as needed once a requirement is validated and represent “just enough” capability, meaning there is little logistics depth available to respond to emerging requirements or crises. USAFRICOM is not prioritized in current — and presumably future — global force management guidance. Nevertheless, USAFRICOM must still determine methods to sustain current and future operations. Contracted capability represents the most responsive option but this reliance on contracting makes sustaining SOF a funding challenge as well as a logistics challenge.

Without a conventional military logistics network or even a few assigned logistics enablers, USAFRICOM must apply the intent of current strategic guidance when assigning responsibility to its components for common user support to SOF. Doctrine and policy are consistent in requiring the Services to maintain their own SOF. When sustaining a small group of SOF comprised of different Services, however, it makes little sense to require the Army to support five green berets, the Navy to support ten SEALs, and the Air Force to support episodic special operations aviators, all at the same location. Compounding this problem is USAFRICOM’s inconsistent access to overseas contingency funding for sustainment in most locations on the continent. This represents the third obstacle to sustaining SOF. When USAFRICOM tasks one of its components to resource SOF sustainment, those components must often ask their parent Service to fund that support as an unfunded requirement, which naturally competes with that Service’s other requirements. They also, quite rightly, scrutinize and seek to validate SOF sustainment requirements using their own internal processes. These processes vary and, while necessary and appropriate, consume valuable time, resulting in a sustainment solution that is often at risk of being late to need. These obstacles, to name just three, and the resultant inability to provide consistently timely and reliable support to SOF, have both tangible and intangible consequences to SOF operations.

Consequences: Trust and the Demand Signal

To be fair, the obstacles described above are compounded by SOCAFRICA’s inability to provide a consistent and timely sustainment demand signal. As a young organization, SOCAFRICA has only recently established internal processes to produce and validate annual statements of requirement. Not all requirements, however, are predictable in a dynamic operating environment, creating a situation where an immature theater-strategic logistics system is not agile or resilient enough to keep pace with emerging SOF requirements. These circumstances combine to create a lack of confidence in the logistics system and contribute to a “culture of poverty,”[vii] a phenomenon which prevents operators from asking for what they need because they believe there is little to no chance they’ll receive it. This causes teams on the continent to either suppress their requirement or reach back to their home station and request support from USSOCOM force providers. Not only is this generally more expensive, but it also fails to create the demand signal that would cause the theater strategic logistics system to mature. USAFRICOM cannot be expected to fulfill its responsibility to coordinate and synchronize joint logistics in its theater if it does not receive a demand signal to satisfy.[viii] It is especially important for SOCAFRICA to register this signal in a theater where SOF requirements are the most difficult to fulfill. The logistics community must recognize this negative cycle and deliberately seek to earn the trust of those it supports. This lack of trust manifests itself most readily in transportation planning, perhaps the most challenging joint logistics function to “scale down” to support low densities of widely-dispersed SOF.

Any transportation system requires maximized loads to be cost effective; the US strategic transportation system is no different. In Africa, however, maximizing airlift cargo would sacrifice responsiveness, as it would take a long time to fill an aircraft to support a small unit at a remote location. Even with the suppressed minimum load requirements in Africa, units may be inclined to add heavy, non-essential items to loads in order to justify aircraft to move those smaller items more quickly. This perverse incentive risks wasting precious strategic lift with an obvious opportunity cost for other organizations seeking to use the same resource. Furthermore, the strategic transportation system relies on data to feed business case analyses that are used by strategic leaders when deciding whether to establish or expand the distribution network. Africa represents a chicken and egg situation because it lacks many of the transportation information systems used to capture that data. A lack of data does not mean there is an absence of demand. The West Africa Logistics Network (WALN), a major USAFRICOM logistics initiative, is a result of the logistic enterprise’s recognition of this dynamic. Much of the data used for WALN’s business case analysis were based on movement data captured manually by SOCAFRICA mobility planners. While the transportation system is used as an example here, this dynamic also applies to other logistics functions, the supply system in particular. Simply put, if the logistics enterprise does not craft effective and timely concepts of support, low density units will find ways to make the system they have work for them, depriving the enterprise of an accurate and steady demand signal that would enable maturation and optimization of theater strategic logistics. USAFRICOM, in addition to the WALN initiative, has already implemented ring routes in East Africa that are addressing these systemic transportation challenges and earning the trust of operators in remote locations.

While SOCAFRICA must improve its generation of timely and accurate steady state demand, it cannot always predict where SOF will need to operate six months or a year in advance. Since Africa is not a theater of war — and SOCAFRICA endeavors to prevent such a state of affairs — there are multiple legal and diplomatic conditions required to establish new contingency locations (e.g., permission of the host nation and country team, land-use agreements, order, shipment, and exoneration of building materials, etc). These requirements vary by country and are extremely time consuming, compounding the effects of other systemic obstacles. These delays tend to reinforce operators’ perception that the logistics system is not responsive to their needs, further eroding their trust and compounding the difficulty of defining requirements. After all, why should operators invest the staff energy to define and validate requirements if the logistics enterprise fails to deliver or delivers too late?

A lack of trust, difficulty in producing a consistent demand signal, and an inability to respond to emerging requirements are all consequences of a logistics enterprise that is not agile and resilient enough for the operational environment. This creates operational risk because sustainment that is late to need limits reach, impairs operational tempo and has the potential to cede initiative to a resourceful enemy. This is the most insidious consequence — and most costly to theater-strategic objectives — of the difficulty of supporting small, widely dispersed teams of SOF. Concepts of logistics support should ideally extend reach, accelerate tempo and minimize constraints on operations.

Logistics Alchemy: Tenets for Crafting Concepts of Support

Overcoming low density logistics obstacles and their associated consequences requires the logistics enterprise to apply its skills in creative ways. Each low density concept of support is a unique combination of logistics sources and methods determined by artfully combining how things can be done (organic understanding) with how things should be done (strategic understanding). The process of crafting those concepts of support is governed in SOCAFRICA by the following tenets.

Support Responsibly.  The low-density logistician[ix] will fail if they only take a top-down approach by seeking to impose standard doctrine and policy on an environment that defies the assumptions implicit in those documents. That is not to say doctrine and policy are superfluous — quite the contrary. A superior understanding of strategic guidance, particularly its spirit, allows a logistician to identify and mitigate policy seams and gaps and take measures to close them. In addition to a firm understanding of the strategic logistics system, the low-density logistician must also thoroughly understand tactical requirements and the suite of sustainment options available. They must combine their strategic understanding of doctrinal and policy frameworks from above with organic tactical understanding from below to meld a concept of support for each location that is custom built for its particular circumstance. These concepts of support must be sufficient to need, adhere to the spirit of doctrine and policy, and conform to the political, diplomatic and security environment. They should also serve as constructive contributions to the theater strategic logistics network, advancing that network for the current and future use of SOF, conventional forces, and other stakeholders.

Balance “Effectiveness” and “Efficiency”. Providing the most comprehensive and responsive support possible while remaining a constructive member of the logistics enterprise creates persistent tension between subjective definitions of “effectiveness” and “efficiency.” We are caught between a demanding customer in our SOF operators and a strategic logistics system optimized to efficiently sustain conventional forces fighting large-scale conflict. In order to encourage participation in a theater strategic logistics system, it is often necessary to prioritize effectiveness, as perceived by the operators, over efficiency as defined by logisticians. This is not merely a matter of principle or parochialism. As mentioned, if a concept of support does not meet SOF operator needs, they will create an ad hoc system that works for them. This shadow logistics network represents how logistics can be done, but usually not how it should be done. These methods may fulfill immediate requirements to the satisfaction of that one team, but the demand signal necessary to mature the theater is lost. So, though it may seem counter-intuitive, the low-density logistician must learn how teams are inclined to support themselves rather than impose an academic concept of support that does not meet an operator’s perception of effective. In practical terms, the logistician must capture how sustainment is being done (organic tactical understanding best gained by  site visits) and then work deliberately to evolve the concept of support to how it should be done, consistent with doctrine, policy and combatant command guidance (both USAFRICOM’s and USSOCOM’s). In the process, fiscal responsibilities and support mechanisms (DODAACs, TAC codes, etc.) can also be identified and properly aligned. This bottom-up approach will encourage participation in the resultant sustainment concept, thereby facilitating a sustained demand signal and informing efforts to set the theater, ideally resulting in support that is both more effective and efficient.

Anchor Concepts of Support in Operational Reality. Encouraging participation in an established logistics system, even an unconventional one, requires buy-in from operations officers and commanders. Crafting any concept of support should always start with tactical understanding, but low-density logisticians must also consider issues such as operational security, signature concerns, guidance from the country team, and foreign vendor vetting of prime and sub-contractors, just to name a few. These considerations must be “baked in” as operational context and validated by the operations officer or tactical commander before the concept of support is determined or negotiated. Added benefits of this early and detailed coordination between operations and logistics staffs include providing logisticians the opportunity to share their concerns and communicate sustainment risk as well as laying the groundwork for detailed requirement validation using a formal statement of requirement once the concept of support is determined.

Explore and Exhaust Existing Resources and Networks. Using the approved operational context, which will scope and frame the sustainment options available, the low-density logistician must then craft the concept of support. Logistics networks exist wherever there are humans. While Africa may not have a comprehensive DoD-established logistics network, any given location is still a nexus of overlapping sustainment networks. These network “layers” may include capabilities from Western partner forces, the host nation, commercial partners, and inter-governmental organizations such as the United Nations or African Union. They may also include regional or functional capabilities established by USAFRICOM Service Components as directed by the combatant command using logistics control options found in joint doctrine. For example, the ground component is responsible for mortuary affairs by virtue of the Army’s executive agency responsibilities as well as establishing an inland transportation tender program using the combatant commander’s authority to designate a Lead Service.[x] Similarly, USSOCOM components are responsible for providing SOF-peculiar support[xi] and DoD Combat Support Agencies such as the Defense Logistics Agency have established contracts for food and fuel worldwide. Together, these layers comprise the menu of options — within established operational parameters — from which each SOCAFRICA concept of support is derived. Maintaining persistent awareness of these layers requires significant staff energy, but is key to creating reliable and sustainable concepts of support. This awareness also allows the logistics enterprise to partially mitigate its lack of depth and resiliency and enable rapid response. Gaining access to these options requires positive relationships, especially in a crisis.

Invest in Relationships with any and all stakeholders. Negotiating the use, either in steady state or in crisis, of existing logistics networks requires mutual trust among the logistics enterprise. Just as operators must trust that the logistics network will sustain them, the Service Components and Agencies that provide the majority of logistics support to SOCAFRICA must trust that our requirements are valid and necessary. Such trust must be earned, cultivated and maintained not only through key leader engagements but by codified processes and common sense business rules. Low-density logisticians must demonstrate that they are just as committed to being constructive members of the logistics enterprise as they are to ensuring their operators have the best support possible. They must negotiate in good faith, protect the credibility of their command, and compromise when possible to determine and implement concepts of support that are mutually satisfactory as well as effective.

“Yes, If” Not “No, Because”.[xii] As logisticians, it can be easy to say no and difficult to get to yes. The idea of thinking in terms of “Yes, if” is extremely powerful and absolutely essential for constructive communication. SOCAFRICA is very fortunate to belong to a logistics enterprise that has embraced this philosophy. Senior leaders in both the SOF and USAFRICOM communities are committed to improving support to SOF. They understand the structural obstacles and are interested in the policy and doctrinal gaps we discover. They carry the message to the Joint Staff, DoD, and the strategic logistics enterprise to make the doctrine and policy changes required to make sustaining SOF more effective as well as more efficient. The personal example provided by these senior leaders permeates through staff directors at the operational level and has created a cultural shift that is paying significant dividends for our operators. Just as important, the action officers who accomplish most of the negotiation see the positive results of this approach and will carry it forward as they become senior logisticians, perpetuating a positive approach to addressing complex problems that will benefit institutions beyond SOCAFRICA.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

In response to its systemic challenges, the USAFRICOM logistics enterprise has advanced numerous initiatives to set and mature the theater. Most notable are: the Trans-Africa Airlift Support Contract, a TRANSCOM-administered contract vehicle to provide distribution services in Africa with the West Africa Logistics Network (WALN) as its flagship project; publication of the "Rhino Book" that codifies engineering standards on the continent; publication of a USAFRICOM instruction on Lead Service and Base Operating Support that directly addresses many of the challenges identified in this article; and, finally, close collaboration with USSOCOM on joint doctrine and DoD regulation revisions. In addition to closely collaborating with USAFRICOM on these initiatives, SOCAFRICA has codified its concepts of support, conducted extensive sustainment and financial analysis, validated Statements of Requirement for all locations in Africa, and invested significant time and energy to create and maintain a diverse network of multinational and interagency partners to enable responsive and resilient sustainment for our operators.

It is important to emphasize that this article represents only one logistician’s perspective within the enterprise. There is likely little disagreement, however, that sustaining low densities of widely-dispersed SOF is challenging and ill-served by our current strategic logistics system. There remain significant and structural obstacles in doctrine and policy that create tangible and intangible consequences for SOF operations in Africa. While USAFRICOM and USSOCOM are addressing these obstacles in doctrine, it is unlikely USAFRICOM’s access to forces and funding will improve in the near future. Therefore, the USAFRICOM logistics enterprise must continue to collaborate to facilitate the operational reach and tempo SOF require in a dynamic operating environment, enabling them to prevent conflict, mitigate instability, and achieve theater strategic objectives, thereby serving our national strategic interest. More broadly, if the US intends to employ other capabilities in a similarly precise way to prevent conflict or mitigate instability, the greater DoD logistics enterprise must innovate as well. The tenets offered here for crafting low density concepts of support serve as one way to frame the problem and potential solutions. This article is intended to offer an initial understanding of low density logistics challenges, wherever they may be found, and thoughts on how to mitigate them.

End Notes


[i] William J. Lynn III, Department of Defense Directive 5100.03, Support of the Headquarters of Combatant Command and Subordinate Unified Commands (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, February 9, 2011), 8.


Service-common. Equipment, material, supplies, and services adopted by a Military Service for use by its own forces and activities. These include standard military items, base operating support, and the supplies and services provided by a Military Service to support and sustain its own forces, including those assigned to the Combatant Commands. Items and services defined as Service-common by one Military Service are not necessarily Service-common for all other Military Services.


Special operations-peculiar. Equipment, material, supplies, and services required for special operations missions for which there is no Service-common requirement. These are limited to items and services initially designed for, or used by, special operations forces until adopted by the Commander, USSOCOM, for application to standard items and services used by the Military Services; and items and services approved by the Commander, USSOCOM, as critically urgent for the immediate accomplishment of a special operations mission.


[ii] First, SOF has very little organic sustainment capability and therefore relies heavily on external support. This point is reflected in the fifth of five SOF Truths: “Most Special Operations require non-SOF assistance.” Second, SOF forces are inherently joint while most conventional forces are organized and fight in either Service-pure organizations or as part of a larger joint force for which the Services maintain responsibility and capability for sustainment of their forces. Third, SOF forces require a dynamic combination of SOF-peculiar and Service-common sustainment materiel and services. SOF-peculiar items and services are controlled and funded by U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) while Service-common and common-user sustainment are provided by the Military Departments.


[iii] “Sipping from a Firehose” was used by LTC Levi Sutton, SOCAFRICA’s Command Engineer at the time, to describe the difficulty of SOF attempting to access limited quantities of support from a system designed to sustain much larger formations.


[iv] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Logistics Supplement to the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3110.03E (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 27, 2017), A-A-8: “The GCC Theater Service Components plus CSAs are responsible for providing service-common support to respective service SOF operating in the AOR.”




U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Logistics, Joint Publication 4-0 (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, October 16, 2013), III-3: “In circumstances where one Service is the predominant provider of forces or the owner of the preponderance of logistics capability, it may be prudent to designate that Service as the joint logistics lead.”


Both of these references imply a preponderance of conventional forces in theater. This is not the case in Africa.


[v] U.S. CJCS, JP 4-0, III-7: “The overarching theater-level headquarters is the theater army/Army Service component command (ASCC), which provides support to Army forces and other Services as directed. It is important for the ASCC and theater special operations command (TSOC) J-4 to enhance conventional and special operations forces (SOF) synchronization of sustainment. The theater sustainment command (TSC) is the logistics C2 element assigned to the ASCC and is the single Army logistics headquarters within a theater of operations.”


[vi] USAFRICOM recently gained an aligned US Army Reserve Theater Support Command but this includes the headquarters only with no dedicated down trace units to actually execute logistics. This TSC maintains a small planning capability at the US Army Africa headquarters in Vicenza, Italy and deployed Soldiers to Africa for the first time during EXERCISE FLINTLOCK in April 2018.


[vii] Though this phrase was not coined by him, Captain Joshua Lasky, US Navy, then SOCAFRICA Chief of Staff, deserves credit for applying this phrase to the reluctance of operators on the continent to register their sustainment demands.


[viii] U.S. CJCS, JP 4-0, III-5.


[ix] For the purpose of this article, the term “low-density logistician” is defined as anyone confronting the challenge of sustaining small numbers of widely-dispersed forces without the benefit of an established and accessible logistics network.


[x] U.S. CJCS, JP 4-0, III-3.


[xi] U.S. DoD, DoDD 5100.03, 6.


[xii] I first learned of this concept in September 2016 at the first SOCAFRICA Logistics Workshop from then Brigadier General Mark Camerer, the USAFRICOM J4. He credits General Frank Gorenc, who introduced him to the term.

Categories: SOF

About the Author(s)

Colonel Katherine Graef is a U.S. Army logistics officer currently serving as the Logistics Director of Special Operations Command Africa. She commanded a Combat Sustainment Support Battalion and has served in Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iraq. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.