Military Readiness And The Global Supply Chain

As we see our global just-in-time logistics system buckle under COVID we must realize that the military, in recent decades, has pushed much of it’s critical logistical needs onto civilian ships and in the hands of a large and growing number civilian mariners?

At the leading edge of this is Military Sealift Command which supplies our warships. MSC has made national headlines in recent weeks for their failures in the face of COVID-19. Many of these ships are commanded by government civilian employees who have limited exposure to strategic military thinking. Some of these captains have attended the Naval War College but they are not integrated into the shore structure and, while they know their specific job very well, they are not generalists. They also have limited time to pursue additional training because MSC officers do all the stcw training we do (And more!) but are shoreside less often than us.

The USMC (and Army!) has invested heavily into the solution to this problem… what is called Mission Command which is training junior officers to manage complexity and uncertainty during the “fog of war”. Not only do our MSC civilian officers lack this type of training but MSC is highly structured and does not seem to give their captains room to think and act independently. They certainly do not encourage the type of “independent action outside of the strict orders of command” that the US Marine Corps leans on so heavily.

Anyone who has sailed a large ship knows that it’s built with flexible steel that allows the bow to twist one way while the stern twists another in heavy seas. In a naval setting this flexibility comes from giving captains broad mission objectives, critical thinking skills, and the flexibility to take independent action that are outside the scope of the Admirals orders (but within the scope of broad objectives).

To relate the importance of this to the bridge of the ship:

A captain who uses Mission Command aboard ship would work especially hard to train and mentor watch officers and his standing orders would be brief and help guide, rather than control, the actions of his bridge team.

A captain with poor Mission Command skills would be hands off in his mentorship and training and, instead rely on many pages of strict rules in his standing orders.

(I co-wrote a paper on using Mission Command on the bridge of a ship. You can read it here:

Why does the Secretary Of The Navy continue to drag his feet on teaching Mission Command to our MSC ships while at the same time fully endorses the USMC’s enormous MC training efforts?

How can Navy Admirals the simple fact that failures of our global supply are because of the inflexibility of the system and that the USMC has invested hundreds of millions of dollars (and lives!) into developing and testing a solution to navigating complexity during times of great confusion.

Countless studies and books have shown the overwhelming success of the Marine Corps efforts so are we not teaching USMC style Mission Command to MSC captains and crews?

This disconnect is especially confusing considering that the person who [wrote the book on the success of these USMC tactics](The Marine Corps Way of War: The Evolution of the U.S. Marine Corps from Attrition to Maneuver Warfare in the Post-Vietnam Era, Caotain Anthony Piscitelli, is a SUNY Maritime Professor in their Global Business and Supply Chain program.

So how do we introduce Mission Command to our captains and crews who are so critical to our supply chains, which have proved to be THE weak link in uncertain times, and UN civilian contractors before war breaks out and our gear, guns, and gas go missing?

MSC please note that the secretary of the navy has already spent enormous amounts of money solving this problem. Why are you not invited USMC logisticians in to MSC headquarters to teach these lessons to you?

Why are you squandering the opportunity to lead by example, adopt Mission Command, and show the entire global supply chain the answer to the world’s second biggest problem right now?

Why, Admirals, do you continue to shackle your masters with pages of specific orders they must follow rather than provide them with the training and opportunity for independent action?

If the USMC can train and trust newly minted Junior Officers to operate with autonomy and flexibility why can you not treat us civmar
and civcon Ship masters with the same level of trust, support and encouragement.

This is important because the disruptions we all see now are small compared to what the supply chain will face when war breaks out.


Simple answer, John, is that the ‘help’ shouldn’t be making decisions.


the Navy, you means those guys that dont even teach those on the bridge of the ship port and stb?

I think the scarier part is the supply chain of medical drugs, the starting point is china.

And that’s the core of the problem. Not just that reaction towards us but anyone not in uniform. The insularity of the Navy worries me.

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Perhaps the slow, steady and determined route. As you said, the guy who wrote the book is a SUNY professor. Start from the ground floor by implementing the concept in the required Naval Science courses at the Academies. It is certainly not the immediate solution, but maybe the beginning of a foundation.

As for the Admirals who rotate through COMSC, they are just that: a relatively short term position held by long-career naval officers who may (as in the current case) have spent most of their career running things other than ships. It seems unlikely that a push for change from the navy-centric control model will come from the Admirals.

For any more immediate implementations I’d suspect you’d need to look to the MSC leadership of the Exec Director and the civilian executives. At least they tend to have some relevant background in that most attended a Maritime Academy, but there seems to be a lack experience of sailing masters. I’m not saying it should be a requirement, or even would necessarily help, but as you’ve pointed out many times, diversity is an asset.

What does history tell us about “independent action outside of the strict orders of command” with regards to maritime logistics in the “fog of war”? I’m not asking because I know the answer. I’m wondering when the last time the industry had experience in this evolution and whether at that time there was any independence? What was the depth of information available and breadth of decision making authority allowed to convoy captains? With paper admin cloud hanging over todays ship captains, how would this be successfully implemented without increasing the overburden?

If you want global supply chain real world experience that covers both just-in-time and longer term strategic planning, I’d think you could look to the West African offshore oil industry. A place where the pressure is there for immediate logistical solutions, but both short and long term strategic mindset has to be successful for continued supply in a tricky shipping and customs environment. And key decisions have to be decentralized to take advantage of time windows. The specifics might not be as relevant to MSC ship captain autonomy, but the philosophy is.

An interesting topic for sure.


This reads like the same sentiments echoed in this article series written four years ago.

It’ll lend some context as to why everything is so messed up. Glad I won’t have to deal with any of it!

I’m also confused, as there seem to be two incongruent theories being mashed together. Mission command is the decentralized execution of military operations through mission orders. At the heart of the command is knowing commander’s intent. The classic example is Nelson at Trafalgar. His subordinate captains all knew their commander’s intent, and when they engaged in battle it wasn’t necessary to tell them to exploit gaps and opportunities as they arose. The antithesis of Trafalgar was Beatty at Jutland, where poor signaling nearly meant disaster for the British (I highly recommend Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game for some outstanding lessons from that battle, and the culture that lead to it).

Still, I struggle in how this would be applied to MSC’s operations. Logistics is necessarily a supporting element, and it must follow that it is subordinate to fleet operations. Oiler masters don’t independently decide when and where they refuel warships. PrePo ships drop their cargo where it’s needed, when it’s needed, in a highly coordinated effort. Do plans change? Certainly, and good captains need to adjust to conditions in the field. Knowing the general scheme of maneuver (the commander’s intent) should absolutely include all supporting MSC vessels.

Beyond that though I don’t see how Mission Command applies to the bridge; everything described in the original post seemed to speak more about leadership and delegation, which has nothing to do with operations. When I was just a division officer and standing bridge watch the standing orders would say to call the CO for a contact inside of 6,000 yards. Now I was perfectly comfortable with taking a large ship on a steady course and speed well inside 6,000 yards. Should I have exercised the initiative to not make the call, so the old man could sleep? I would say no, because that was a violation of the captain’s standards, as expressed through his standing orders.

I don’t know much about the culture of MSC to speak intelligently about how they operate at sea compared to the Navy. Most Navy COs are good mentors, and have the same officers assigned to the ship for 2-3 years. How often do mates change out in MSC? Do MSC masters write evaluations that determine whether a mate gets promoted? That’s the case in the Navy. The Navy CO is also attesting to an officer’s competence when he qualifies them OOD (watch officer). Are MSC masters accountable for their subordinates? Is there a presumption that because MSC mates are independently licensed that they require no seamanship training? Again, I don’t know, but I strongly suspect that the Navy and MSC are two very different pieces of fruit, and shouldn’t necessarily be compared.

They are two very different pieces of fruit. My limited experience with MSC the Masters and chief mates did do evals, which made a difference whether you returned to that ship or not.

I’m sad to say that I agree with you on that point. As bitter as I am about being viewed and treated as the ‘help’ we are the help. While there are times where our experience and training make us superior to the USN (UNREP event planning and execution) and going with our recommendations would make the evolution safer, faster and smoother, that’s not a Big Picture item.

Maybe I’m missing John’s point? Going to a war collage isn’t going to add value to our primary function (UNREPs). Now, maybe in a situation where the whole command and control breaks down, or communication capability is destroyed by an adversary, or the UNREP ships have to take on an unexpected duty (commanding a convoy of logistic ships like WWII) then perhaps. But if that’s the case the whole world has already gone to shit.

Perhaps there are lower hanging fruit? Sending senior MSC deck and supply officers ashore for a bit to see the shoreside supply chain in action, or sending USN officers to an MSC UNREP ship for a portion of a deployment to see how things work? Or sending MSC operations folks to a USS to see how the sausage is made?

Again, maybe I’ve misunderstood John’s point. Maybe he’s referring to senior leadership ashore (above the ship’s master level)? In that case then perhaps.


supply chain is easy to do if you try.
A buddy who was a big chief in Kraft was telling me after a few scares on food we made it a company mission to be on the farm/factory 24 hrs from an issue with a product.
Does the Navy know where to buy hammer handles yet?