Some problems in logistics never go away. Infantry have carried 60-70 pounds of equipment and supplies into battle throughout history. The gear changes, but infantry always carry lots and lots of supplies.
Armies found ways to improve strategic mobility for extended and long-distance operations. Equipment and supplies could be carried overseas by ship or by different types of land transports. Yet the same old problem remains. As two armies close together, strategic mobility is gradually reduced to almost nothing. At that point, infantry carry 70lbs of equipment right into battle using nothing more than the power of their backs.
Soldiers need to carry the equipment of their trade. This includes helments, body armor, weapons, tools, food, and other supplies. They always leave something important behind. They have to make tradeoffs. Which is more important for the current battle – more water, more ammo, or more armor? You cannot take everything otherwise you’ll be too exhausted to fight.
Generally, men cannot carry enough supplies to operate far from their base of operations. They need logistical support and supply trains.
Strategic logistics can be solved. Armies were always accompanied by large “camp followers” who supplied and aided soldiers over long campaigns. Over time, camp followers became professionals and part of the command structure.
In the past, a substantial portion of supplies were carried by ox-drawn carts. New land transportation technologies allowed armies to carry heavier loads of supplied and equipment at a faster pace. True enough, any mode of transportation requires even more supplies. The more oxen you use, the more food you need to feed them. Trains required coal, vehicles needed petrol, spare parts, etc.
Better strategic transportation gave armies far greater reach and strength. Wars are partly won based on logistical resources. Transports get soldiers to the battlefield with sufficient supplies to win.
What people forget is that this does not solve the tactical logistics problem.
The US Civil War and World War I exemplify the great strategic benefits and tactical limitations of industrial transportation. These wars used the new railroads so strategic mobility was faster than any prior period in history. Soldiers and massive amounts of supplies could cross entire countries in a day.
And then these armies virtually stopped. As two armies neared each other, their mobility was steadily and constantly reduced to the speed of a slow walk.
In World War I, soldiers could depart on a railroad to a base near the frontlines. Soldiers crossed hundreds of miles in a few hours. The trains couldn’t move closer to the front however. Enemy artillery, air attacks, and other threats left trains too vulnerable. So military units exited the trains and moved to the front by other means. In WWI, they used automobiles and horses to carry cargo as they approached the front. Moving the remaining 10 miles to the frontlines would take a full day or two.
Finally, the soldiers reached the trenches. They had no horses, no automobiles, no trains. Enemy fire prevented effective transportation. Soldiers could only rely on their backs and feet.
When the British soldiers fought at the Somme, each infantryman carried an average of 66lbs of gear. This was not abnormal. At the frontlines, the movement of supplies and equipment could only be done by fighting men.
Ancient times were no different. Back in ancient Greece and Rome, armored infantrymen also carried 60-70lbs of gear into battle. Vegetius explained that the Romans trained their legionaries to carry 60lbs of equipment for long marches. This built up their endurance so they would be ready for real conditions of battle. For their time period, the Romans and Greeks could rapidly deploy to the field of battle using horses, ox, carts, and triremes. But when they reached sight of the enemy army, they put on their armor and marched forward on foot. They fought in tight quarters, exhausting themselves to reach the enemy and fight in the multi-hour melee combat. Limbs would have been quickly exhausted, so armies learned to shift reserves in and out of combat to give soldiers rest time. The mechanics of killing men with spears and swords requires great exertion and effort. It’s slow and time consuming.
In all times and places, it is the same story for infantrymen. Today, American soldiers carry 60-70lbs of gear. Like the ancient Greek hoplites, they carry their gear into battle on foot.
That 70lbs is roughly the physical limit of a young man. A soldier needs to have the strength and endurance to carry the load as well as fight in multi-long battles with inadequate food and water in adverse conditions. Heat exhaustion, fatigue, and injured muscles are serious problems, perhaps even worse than enemy attacks.
The problem is this – 70lbs of equipment is never enough. Soldiers have to make tradeoffs. If they reduce the amount armor, they may carry heavier weapons or more food, but this makes them more vulnerable. If they carry more ammo, they cannot carry as much food. Inventing new technologies does not help either – that just requires soldiers to carry night-vision goggles along with all the other gear. No matter what soldiers do, they always need more of something. There’s no perfect balance.
Today, The US can send thousands of American soldiers to a far away land in Iraq. It can use helicopters and vehicles to transport them around inside the country. But most of the fighting today is done inside cities and there is a major problem with roadside bombs.
American infantry dismount. They walk to their destinations and patrol on foot. So in 110 degree desert heat, Americans walk with 70lbs of gear of their backs for many hours. When needed, they fight with this gear. This includes their 30lb Interceptor body armor, their helmets, M-4 Carbines or M16 Rifles, sidearms, ammo, rations, water, more ammo, night vision goggles, radios, shovels, flares, first aid kits, more ammo, rope, etc, etc, etc.
Urban warfare is exhausting. Vehicles are too vulnerable to play anything but a supporting role. So infantry must move on foot and fight house to house. They carry those 70lbs everywhere, up and down every staircase and down every street while in combat. They always need more than what they can carry.
Warfare comes to a crawl at the point of combat. Technology never solved this logistical problem and I’m not sure if it ever will. Enemy action constrains movement.
This is what most people will never understand about warfare.
Take Representative Patricia Schroeder’s ignorant comment about combat, “A woman can push a button just as easily as a man.”
Warfare is not, and never will be, about pushing buttons. It’s about logistics.
This is what I’m talking about (via Military Motivators):
Indeed, pray for stronger backs.
I believe this 70lb problem is one of the great limitation on warfare. Only a tiny faction of the human population is strong enough to fight. Nearly all old men, teenagers and women are physically incapable. Even most young men are not fit for war.