"Amateurs talk about tactics. Professionals talk about logistics." Or, as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel – the "Desert Fox" – put it, "battles are decided by the quartermasters before the first shot is fired".
Yesterday, commanders in the field announced there would be a four- to six-day "operational pause" in the advance towards Baghdad while US forces were rearmed, refitted and resupplied, although the Pentagon insisted there would be no overall halt in the campaign. Enemy resistance has been a factor. But the resupply of the 3rd Armored Division, which has moved faster and harder than any comparable formation in the history of war, is the critical issue.
Four to six days is just the time it will take the 4th Infantry Division to start arriving in Kuwait and unfolding into the theatre of war, though it will be at least a further two weeks before it reaches the battlefield. The 4th division is among 100,000 US troops to be committed to the theatre over the next few weeks – a handy number, just enough to occupy Baghdad.
Remember that the UK kept about 17,000 troops in Northern Ireland, a province with 1.5 million people, in support of the police. On that basis, 100,000 troops would be enough to secure Baghdad – a city of five or six million people, or four times Northern Ireland's population. In the interim, the 4th Division must relieve and reinforce the 3rd Division and help encircle the Iraqi capital.
But troops without ammunition, fuel, food and water are useless. All the great commanders of history have understood the dominance of logistics. Either their logistic requirements were incomparably simple – like Genghis Khan's – or they were meticulously supplied. The Romans did it brilliantly, every man carrying everything he needed, plus digging tools and sharpened stakes to build fortified camps every night. William of Normandy brought a pre-fabricated fort with him when he landed at Pevensey to conquer England.
Napoleon and Wellington were masters of the art. When Wellington wrote "genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains", he was writing, primarily, about logistics.
Russian logistics have been masterfully simple: I recall a Russian Interior Ministry regiment rolling past us towards Grozny in January 1995 carrying five things, in order of priority: ammunition, troops, firewood, fuel, and bread. It was basic, but its very robust simplicity made it deeply impressive.
Nowadays, logistics are inevitably far more complicated than they were. A force that relies on hi-tech weapons and software is more difficult to keep supplied than a medieval army. On the grand strategic level, the US forces in the Gulf are far more difficult to keep supplied than they were even 12 years ago. Then, 7 per cent of the air-delivered missiles were precision-guided. Now, they all are. Or, at least, they will be until they run out. Hence the scores of billions of extra funds suddenly voted to maintain the war effort.
As we all know from our own professional lives, we cannot function efficiently if we have no time to rest, sleep and refuel. No surprises there. Troops on exercise for 10 days or two weeks become exhausted. The allied troops who have pushed forward so far, so fast, need to be relieved. The US generals knew that: maybe the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who considers many of them stick-in-the-muds, did not.
The previous Gulf War was a logistical triumph. As Lt Gen Sir Peter de la Billiere, then the UK joint force commander, said: "the Gulf War was kept short, sharp and with the minimum casualties. I am in no doubt that the efficiency of the logistic back-up was a major and critical factor in this achievement." Sir Peter promoted Colonel Martin White, the UK's logistic commander, to brigadier in the field. Anybody who can sort out the present problem deserves the same. And more.
The other significant innovation yesterday was the arrival of the bodies of British servicemen killed in the Gulf at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. Traditionally, the British have interred their dead near the battlefields where they fell, in cemeteries wonderfully maintained by the War Graves Commission.
In the Falklands in 1982 some families elected to have their loved ones' bodies brought home, but some are buried in those same, immaculately maintained, cemeteries in the Falklands. On Friday, some remarkable film from southern Iraq showed a long-forgotten cemetery or memorial to British troops killed in the Mesopotamian campaign, starting in 1914. The Black Watch found members of their own regiment recorded on the monumental stone.
The dates on the memorial were significant. They ran for seven years, from 1914 to 1921. The Great War ended in 1918. But the Iraqis, "liberated" from the Ottoman Empire, had not given up then and fought on against the "invaders". Maybe they did not want to be "liberated". History repeats itself.
Christopher Bellamy is professor of military science and doctrine at Cranfield University
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd