A senior figure in military logistics has spoken to BFBS Sitrep, explaining the shifting challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
This year's response to COVID by the Armed Forces has seen several examples of co-operation between civilian and military planners and logistics experts, from the delivery of protective equipment to testing and vaccination.
With more than 30 years' of experience as a military logistician, Major General Simon Hutchings, Director of Joint Support at UK Strategic Command’s Defence Support Organisation (DSO), was one of those orchestrating the country’s fightback against COVID-19.
As he started in the newly-created post under the DSO in late March, it was evident the first task in his inbox may be one of his largest.
"It was then apparent that the first wave COVID pandemic was going to require some military support as part of the overall civil authority requirement," he said.
Speaking from the military’s perspective, supporting the NHS and local authorities throughout the response, he continued: "The challenge initially was PPE [personal protective equipment], and that was replicated across the country, I think."
PPE stockpiles at the time could only stretch to a "flu pandemic need", leading to procurement becoming the first major hurdle, as the entire world reached for the same resources.
"We didn't have sufficient stockpiles and, of course, any that we did have were quickly consumed, so I think the sourcing, the procurement, became the initial challenge," Maj Gen Hutchings added.
Demand for PPE could not be immediately met, so was sorted by operational and medical priority – forming the most challenging aspect of the pandemic so far for the DSO.
The handling of data at this stage stands out in the memory of Maj Gen Hutchings, as a lesson learned from the COVID response.
"We’ve got some quite ancient and long-in-the-tooth logistic information systems in Defence, so it was very difficult to extract the data and present it into MOD ‘main’, to be able to make some dynamic decisions," he said.
Many procurement, storage and distribution tasks have now been outsourced to Team Leidos, in partnership with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) for five years, a proven positive throughout 2020.
Reflecting on the COVID-19 experience, Maj Gen Hutchings stressed the importance of "enduring relationships" that "pay dividends" when the department comes under pressure.
In addition, he learned that more focus should be given to the resilience of a supply chain, rather than simply its efficiency, "to make it effective during times of crisis".
"Logistics as a profession hasn’t always been as valued as I think it ought to be," said Maj Gen Hutchings, explaining that manpower in planning had been a setback in several instances this year.
"We are doubling down on some of these lessons and ensuring that they stick going forward," he added, keen for defence to bring a new appreciation for logistics into wider operations.
You can hear the programme live on Thursdays on BFBS Radio 2 at 16:30 (UK time) and at 18:30 (UK time) BFBS via DAB+ across the UK.
Listen online and via our radio App in the UK and overseas. Hear BFBS also on FM in Scotland, Colchester, Salisbury Plain, Aldershot, Catterick, Brize Norton, Lisburn, Holywood and Aldergrove and Blandford Forum in the UK and on all overseas stations.
On Sky Channel 0211/Freesat 786.
Cover image: Queen's Dragoon Guards delivering coronavirus tests in May (Picture: MOD).