September 29, 2014
thought leaders | The DC Velocity Q & A

"There's always a solution": interview with Lt. Gen. Robert Ruark

"There's always a solution": interview with Lt. Gen. Robert Ruark

When it's your job to figure out what military logistics capability the U.S. will need three to five years out, it helps to have a "can do" attitude. Fortunately, Lt. Gen. Robert Ruark believes there is always a solution to a problem.

By Steve Geary

In his current position, Lieutenant General Robert R. Ruark, USMC, must be able to see over the horizon. Lt. Gen. Ruark is the director of logistics for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and works directly for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS). It's his job to figure out what we need to be doing in terms of military logistics capability, logistics flexibility, where we need to have assets deployed, and what sort of network we'll need to support what's going to happen in three to five years. And he has to ensure that our forces are ready and maintain the combatant commanders' freedom of action, delivering logistics advice to the CJCS.

To understand the criticality of that advisory role, it helps to know a little bit about the responsibilities of the CJCS. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the principal military adviser to the president, the secretary of defense, and the National Security Council. As the senior ranking member of the armed forces, the CJCS consults with other Joint Chiefs of Staff members and the combatant commanders. The organization he leads is the sounding board and objective adviser to command authority at the highest levels and around the world.

Lt. Gen. Ruark brings broad experience in the military to his role. Prior to his current position, he served as the director of logistics, U.S. Central Command, and consecutively as the director of logistics and the director of facilities for the Marine Corps. He has served on six Marine deployments—in Operations Desert Storm, Provide Promise (Adriatic Sea), Guardian Assistance (Rwanda), and Stabilize (East Timor)—and was commanding general for the 1st Marine Logistics Group in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

DC Velocity Contributing Editor Steve Geary sat down with Lt. Gen. Ruark at his office in the Pentagon in early September.

Lt. Gen. Ruark Q: How would you describe what you do at the Joint Staff?
A: That's a good question. Sometimes, people in logistics outside of the military, out in the commercial world, don't really understand our role on the Joint Staff. The chairman doesn't have command authority and he doesn't have funding, but he does have the convening authority to bring people to the table.

In my directorate, we can convene just about any group around any logistics issue. We've got more forums than you could probably list in one sitting, all of them established as a way to get a problem out in the open so we can work it. But what comes with that is the responsibility to get people to work together ... to come to a decision.

Q: So, if you don't actually have command authority over the combat force, how do you actually move the ball?
A: You collaborate.

I had a first sergeant tell me once that the two best ranks in the Marine Corps are company commander and company first sergeant. "After that, it's all downhill."

I don't know if I agree with that, but command certainly is what every officer aspires to ... and to get there, you have to pass through a bunch of staff learning experiences. Those staff billets teach you more about collaboration than anything else.

I had the benefit of working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and being deployed to a couple of crisis spots in the world with Disaster Assistance Response Teams, where you had to collaborate outside of the military. To collaborate with NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and international organizations and private volunteer organizations and the U.S. Embassy and other nations and other services really teaches you a lot.

Q: So it's leadership?
A: One of the things I was taught early on is that there is always a solution to a problem. It may not be the solution that everybody wants, but you can always drive forward. At the same time, you don't rush to make a bad decision.

There are a lot of avenues to work, but it is just basic blocking and tackling: applying the principles of leadership that you have learned as a commander and as a staff officer.

One lesson I'll never forget is when I was a monitor in the Marine Corps for about 1,800 officers and had a particular challenge with this one assignment. It was when I was a captain, and I brought in one of my recommendations to my lieutenant colonel and told him the Marine didn't want to go where I needed him to go.

He said, "Go back and work it. There is always a solution. It may not be as fast as you want, but working it more will get you there."

I've never forgotten that. There is a solution, and you are going to have to arrive at it over time. Sometimes, it just takes a while. It's a lot of work and a lot more listening. Never be in a hurry to make a bad decision.

Q: Can you provide an example of the types of issues you address at the Joint Staff?
A: One example would be looking at how we can become more globally agile, more integrated across the force, and better able to conduct and sustain distributed global operations. The future is unpredictable. We don't know where the next conflict is going to be, but if we can position ourselves for multiple scenarios, I think we are going to be ready. As we come out of Afghanistan and as we rebalance to the Pacific, as we look to a revitalized NATO alliance, as we address the worldwide terrorist threats, as we think through Africa, I think we are going to depend more than ever on some of our asymmetric [unique] capabilities.

Q: By asymmetric capabilities, you mean taking advantage of strengths we have that the other side doesn't have? Can you give us an example?
A: We've had a lot of success in Afghanistan—gaining access to a landlocked country—and we developed a lot of flexibility to get there in a number of ways [mixing and matching modes, developing multiple routes, and blending commercial capability with military capabilities]. I think this is a great example of how we can leverage asymmetric capabilities in an environment where we may not necessarily be expected to do so well. If you look at NATO, only four of 28 nations in NATO can actually lift and move themselves. Our logistics, notably our strategic lift, is certainly an asymmetric capability.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about current events in Iraq, at least from a logistics perspective?
A: We're building coalitions. There are multiple nations providing logistical support and materials. Our primary interests in Iraq are to protect U.S. citizens, protect U.S. facilities, and prevent a humanitarian crisis from occurring. Ultimately, our role is to provide space for the new government of Iraq to take charge. Fortunately, we have some very good folks on the ground there in the Office of Security and Cooperation, led by Lt. Gen. Bednarek. We have access, visibility, and partnerships thanks to him and his team. Access, visibility, and partnerships mean that when we are asked to support something, we can do it.

Q: How important is the commercial sector to defense logistics?
A: Our commercial providers, whether it is airlift or sealift, have been instrumental in our success.

The Maritime Security Program has 60 ships that are commercial ships, commercially managed but U.S.-flagged and manned with American merchant mariners. They have transported the majority of our equipment and supplies to and from Afghanistan and Iraq over the years. They have been absolutely essential.

We grew that force [the Maritime Security Program fleet] from, I think, 47 ships in 2001 to 60 ships today, and we are concerned about keeping them viable. We pay them a stipend, but then they also need business to be afloat. They may not be the source of the initial combat power in the initial phases of an operation—the sustainment is where they come in. One of the things we have to do is keep that sealift, that commercial sealift, viable in the future.

Q: What about air transport?
A: Commercial airlift is vital. TRANSCOM [the U.S. Transportation Command] is really looking at the commercial airlift providers. Those smaller charter carriers are the ones—as long as they are competitive—we need to keep offering corridors [freight lanes] to in order to keep them viable in peacetime. They are a very important part of the commercial industrial base that supports the Department of Defense, and we really can't do without them.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about logistics in Africa?
A: Africa is one of my concerns. I think that one of the things that got my attention right away was that the continent itself is three or four times the size of the United States. I think you can fit the United States and China and several other countries from Europe in there as well, so our distribution network, which we are trying to mature, is enormous. It is beyond proportions a lot of us can even fathom.

Q: What are the implications of such a scale challenge?
A: There may be one continental distributor/provider with several regional ones. The real objective is to connect them, because connectivity across regions on that continent can be a challenge. Beyond that, we have to connect the African continent with the entire global distribution network. We've got to get it networked in. If you look at AFRICOM [U.S. Africa Command], they are obviously working hard on improving their distribution network with military and commercial components. There are not a lot of our folks there, and there are all kinds of security issues and challenges. We all know about some of the threats there across the continent.

Q: So, what's your plan for Africa?
A: The Marine Corps has been using the term "distributed operations" for a long time. The first thing I said when I saw what we had as a footprint in Africa was "Oh, my gosh. This is distributed operations!" We could potentially have small groups of very capable soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines spread across this continent from east to west, all requiring support, supply, access, permissions, and all those kinds of things. So how do we even begin supporting that?

Q: You asked the question. How do we even begin supporting that?
A: We have allies in Africa. The French are there, and we have been cooperating with the French mostly with logistics support in several central African countries for the last couple of years. We've learned a lot from Afghanistan and Iraq about what to do with contingency basing and how to set up joint or coalition bases and things like that. One of the projects we have is to document some of the forms of basing that we have used over the recent past—expeditionary basing, semipermanent basing, and then the more permanent base structure. And we have to continue to develop sustainment concepts for distributed operations.

Q: Can we afford more permanent base structures in Africa, like the ones we set up in Western Europe and on the Pacific Rim?
A: My personal opinion is that with few exceptions, the era of constructing military bases overseas is largely going out the window. The budget is probably too stressed to support something like that, so I think more expeditionary, temporary, and austere basing is our future.

Q: Switching gears here, what advice do you have for a young professional considering a career in logistics?
A: While logisticians aren't always heralded, one of the quotes that I remember from some of my history reading years ago was from Erwin Rommel, who wrote, "Before the fighting proper, the battle is fought and decided by the quartermasters."

If you want a career in logistics, come to the military, either as a civilian or by joining one of the services. With us, you will probably learn more than you ever could anywhere else. You are going to learn about access, visibility, partnerships, and how logistics is done overseas, and you are probably going to get overwhelmed by the number of supply chains we run.

Editor's note Because of the range of national security topics touched on in this interview, the manuscript was submitted to the Pentagon prior to publication to verify that no sensitive information was revealed. We would like to acknowledge the Pentagon's collaborative approach and delicate touch.

About the Author

Steve Geary
Editor at Large
Steve Geary is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Tennessee's College of Business Administration, and is on the faculty at The Gordon Institute at Tufts University, where he teaches supply chain management. He is the President of the Supply Chain Visions family of companies, and Chief Operating Officer at ROSE Solutions, consultancies that work across the government sector. Steve is a contributing editor at DC Velocity, and editor-at-large for CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. He is listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in Science and Engineering, and Who's Who in Executives and Professionals. In November of 2007, Steve was recognized for "Selfless Service to Our Nation and the People of Iraq" by the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

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