Distance in military affairs


Distance in military affairs

Geographic distance is a key factor in military affairs. The shorter the distance the greater the ease with which force can be brought to bear upon an opponent. This is because it is easier to undertake the supply of logistics to a force on the ground as well as engage in bombardment. The continued importance of distance has been subject to academic and political debate, while support for its decline has influenced American overseas basing policy.

upport for distance in decline

The view that distance in military affairs was witnessing decreased importance was expressed by Kenneth Boulding in the 1960s. He examined the importance of geographic distance and forward basing for the projection of military power and argued that there was a 20th century revolution undermining the importance of distance. He claimed that there was "a very substantial diminution in the cost of transportation of organized violence of all kinds, especially of organized armed forces” and “an enormous increase in the range of the deadly projectile.” [Boulding, 1962: 262; Boulding, 1965: 87.] A more recent supporter of distance in decline is Doug Bandow who has said that technology has reduced the value of proximity. [Bandow, 2004.]

This view is shared by the US government which has used it as partial justification for the withdrawal of forces from overseas bases in Europe and Asia. In 2004, President George W. Bush announced that US armed forces had become "better able to strike anywhere in the world over great distances". 60-70,000 American troops are to be returned to the US by 2014. [Bush, 2004.]

upport for the continued importance of distance

A counterview that distance has remained of continued importance in military affairs has been put by Kieran Webb. It is claimed to affect both logistics and the capacity to attack the opponent from afar. [Webb, 2007: 295 – 310.]

There are five factors involved:

1. The cost of transport is said to possess a proportional linear relationship with the cost of military supplies. This means that as transport costs fall with time, so the cost of supplies also falls. And as the prices of both fall, so the competitive circumstances of war mean that advantage will be taken of the falling costs to send more supplies. The result of this is thus to neutralize any easing of transport so that distance retains its importance as a hindrance to movement. [Webb, 2007: 296-9.]

For example, suppose there are two opponents. One is located 1,000 km from the conflict zone. The other is located 2,000 km from the conflict zone. Under the view that distance is becoming less important, reduced transport costs should decrease the advantage the opponent nearest to the conflict zone has over the other. However, if supplies fall in cost like transport, both sides will take advantage of the situation to send more of them. The result is that any easing of transport is countered by increased strain put upon transport modes. Thus, the advantage held by the opponent nearest to the conflict zone is retained.

2. The proportional linear relationship between the costs of transport and supplies does not apply in all circumstances. In a situation where a great power faces a more poorly financed opponent, supplies will become more expensive relative to the cost of transport. Military equipment is increased in cost because it is produced in shorter production runs that are ironically the result of efforts to economize. This has been termed the Upward Spiral. With transport costs relatively less important, distance is less important, and so also is the advantage to be gained from forward bases. However, the Upward Spiral is said to be temporary because of the impermanence of great power status. [Webb, 2007: 300-1.]

3. Even when a great power does face a lesser opponent, supplies are often pre-paid. Because their cost is nothing at the time of fighting they maintain a proportional linear relationship with transport costs regardless of any changes in those costs over time. Zero multiplied by any number is always zero. As a result, distance retains its importance as, again, any easing of transport is neutralized by the competitive impetus to increase movement of supplies. [Webb, 2007: 301.] For example, suppose transport costs fall by 50% while supplies stay at zero cost. As all sides could afford to ship double the supplies they were able to before, again the proportionate advantage to be gained from proximity to the conflict zone remains the same.

4. The speed at which logistics can be supplied has not made distance any less important. The overall pace at which supplies can be delivered between continents is said to have been little altered despite technological advancement during the 20th century. This is because airlift, the fastest means of supply, it is argued, "costs too much and delivers too little." Thus, by far most logistics movement continues to be conducted by sea, which is a mode of transport that has seen little improvement in speed since the beginning of the 20th century, because of limits imposed by physics. [Webb, 2007: 301-5.]

5. The possibility for strategic bombardment as a means to prevail over an opponent from afar also has a bearing on the importance of distance, by rendering ground forces, along with their logistical needs, unnecessary. However, while Webb argues that this can occasionally occur, he says that the circumstances required happen only rarely. Moreover, even air power is advantaged by proximity because less time traveling to a theater means more time in that theater. In addition, it too can have a significant logistics requirement. [Webb, 2007: 305-6.]

Notes

References

*Doug Bandow, ‘Quick and Full Disengagement’, Cato Institute, 23 August 2004, http://www.cato.org/dailys/08-23-04-2.html
*Kenneth Boulding, Conflict and Defense, (New York: Harper, 1962)
*Kenneth Boulding, The Meaning of the 20th Century: The Great Transition (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1965)
*President George W. Bush, speech at Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, Cincinnati, 16 August 2004, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/08/20040816-12.html
*Kieran Webb, 'The Continued Importance of Geographic Distance and Boulding's Loss of Strength Gradient', Comparative Strategy, Volume 26 Issue 4, 2007: 295 – 310

ee also

*British logistics in the Falklands War
*British logistics in the Second Boer War
*Pre-paid supplies
*Upward Spiral


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