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The History of Logistics

Updated on May 26, 2010

The Assyrians of about 700 B.C. were early masters of military logistics. Their economic-industrial base permitted a breakthrough from bronze to iron weapons. Their field armies were reported to have reached a size of 50,000 men. They may have been the first to establish effective logistic systems for large armies.

Rome developed a highly efficient logistic system to supply its legions. The Romans built excellent roads, providing LOC's throughout their extensive empire and facilitating rapid and sustained marches. Each legion on the march had a baggage train with 500 to 550 mules.

The Middle Ages were characterized by sluggish mobility and elaborate supply systems. Forts or castles became storage depots supported by the economy of the surrounding countryside.

Warfare often consisted of the siege of a castle. The besieging force usually needed a long supply train over a period of months or years. The outcome of a siege often depended on whose logistics system failed first.

The Industrial Revolution brought changes in logistics. Highly destructive weapons were mass-produced for the first time. Railways and ships were employed in LOC's. The U. S. Civil War was the first major example of the effect of the Industrial Revolution on warfare. The Union's victory over the Confederacy foreshadowed the decisive role that a developed industrial base would play in ensuing wars.

World War I saw further exploitation of national industrial capabilities. The internal-combustion engine gave rise to widespread use of motor transport. Aircraft were not yet sufficiently developed for logistic support.

World War II was characterized by dramatic advances in weapons, transportation, and communication. The most significant logistic accomplishment was the ability of the United States to develop and defend its ocean lines of communication. More than 7 million troops and 260 million tons of cargo were dispatched by sea from the United States to 330 ports of debarkation.

U.S. shipyards performed at an unprecedented pace to expand the merchant marine. From 1942 to 1945 they built 5,593 merchant ships, consuming 30% of the output of the nation's steel industry- an amazing feat, considering that the U.S. active merchant fleet by 1970 consisted of fewer than 800 ships.

The logistics of the Korean War in many ways resembled those of World War II. Surplus supplies and equipment from World War II were pressed into service on both sides. The bulk of the supplies and equipment used by UN forces was furnished by the United States. Some 94% of the UN military cargo was moved to Korea in ships. The Communist Chinese, with primitive logistic networks using primarily railways and highways, showed a surprising capability to supply troops during the Korean War.

The Vietnamese War was characterized initially by a primitive but effective logistic effort by the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. Using boats, human porters, animals, carts, and bicycles, the North Vietnamese infiltrated South Vietnam and over several years established supply areas. In later stages of the war, North Vietnam's logistic strategy was to establish supply depots and LOC's in Laos and Cambodia, close to Vietnamese battlefields, but in the temporary sanctuary of different nations. Much of their transport became motorized, moving over a confusing network of trails known loosely as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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