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The last tactical mile 

December 2021: Bill Peterson explores supply chain issues ahead of a more in-depth article that will appear in CRJ 17:1 in March, 2022.
in CRJ 15.2, I related the problems being experienced in the supply chain at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as some of the causes. Everything seemed to straighten itself out back then after a short adjustment period, and everyone expressed a sigh of relief as bathroom paper products appeared back on the shelves of our neighbourhood supermarkets and retail stores.
Peterson main
Image: 123rf

So, what's happening now? Container ships are moored outside of ports in the USA and Canada, waiting for limited docking vacancies, so they can unload their containers filled with goods from China. Warehouse storage space is virtually non-existent in and around those ports and distribution hubs. because of an inability to move them, by rail or road, from the ports to their intended shipping destinations. Retail employers have millions of unfilled job opportunities in the sector. And in the United Kingdom, a fuel crisis resulted in vehicles lined up at gasoline (petrol) stations reminiscent of the shortages witnessed in the 1970s, yet the manufacturers reported plenty of plenty of fuel at UK refineries and terminals. As for the US, I’m not aware of any widespread fuel shortages, but there are scattered reports. Here’s one from the Dallas, Texas area seen on Twitter:

"The last mile in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area ...for the last month, the gas station we usually go to has been out of gas much more than when it has gas. Asked the attendant, and he said they can't get it delivered. No truckers, plenty of gas, but no deliveries."
Source: Twitter

This might be referred to as Pandemic Supply Shortage V2.0, but the current situation could retrospectively, and potentially, be seen as being a bigger disaster than the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020. It's even got Santa Claus worried!  Will the Grinch's to steal Christmas from the inhabitants of Whoville and elsewhere this year be succesful? Are the rhymes we have all read to our children be prophetic of what we can expect to experience this coming December?

If we believe what is being reported in both the print and electronic media, there is a number of factors that have come together in a perfect storm to cause the current situation, including panic buying by the public at the first sign of a product or commodity shortage. 

As an emergency manager, I think my first exposure to the term the ‘last tactical mile’ was in 2006 upon assuming a new role as a Regional Administrator in the US Department of Homeland Security. This was as a result of the poor performance of the US Government after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. During my initial Regional Situation Assessment, regional staff related issues experienced in the logistics supply chain and the resulting inability to get the resources where they needed to be because of supply chain problems at the last tactical mile.

The current situation has clearly been defined as a failure of the global supply chain that has been developed over the last 40 or more years. When the supply chain all works, we (at least in developed countries) have on-demand access to luxuries that were unimaginable even a few generations ago; and we regard this as normal. 

George Friedman is a US geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs. The founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, an online publication that analyses and forecasts the course of global events, recently noted that: “These shipping and production problems are what you expect in wartime, when countries are shooting at each other. They aren’t normal in a growing global economy.”

From a logistical perspective, the Last Tactical Mile is: "Where strategic distribution ends and tactical distribution begins; from the ship, port or airfield and forward." This is illustrated by the following diagram:


Diagram 1, The Last Tactical Mile: Source: CLL037 Department of Defense Supply Chain Fundamentals

In an emergency management situation, the illustration depicts a ‘supply pipe’ representing supply lines of support for delivering resources and disaster related resources, supplies and commodities to a needed location for ultimate distribution to the intended disaster affected recipients. The illustration is helpful in picturing the challenges posed by both logistical operations required in a disaster situation, or in this current case of pandemic-centred business continuity operations, in the last tactical mile. 

As the pipeline carries support forwards to the desired delivery point or location, its diameter becomes smaller as it gets longer. At the wide end, where lift is plentiful and communication and transportation infrastructure are mature, manufacturers and vendors can support their customers efficiently, employing a ‘just-in-time’ logistics delivery strategy. But at a distant disaster location, port or airfield, the pipe becomes much smaller. 

With respect to the movement of disaster supplies, or in the current Covid Pandemic supply chain shortage situation, there is a sudden unforeseen or unintended bottleneck as transportation capacity is diminished. Planes and ships can haul ordered and needed goods – or virtually anything – but only so far. With a lack of available container ship unloading capability or warehousing space, shortage of transportation vehicle units, and/or vehicle operators, those at the end of the pipe who are tasked with ultimate delivery to the end user are faced with a ‘just-in case’ delivery dilemma instead of the normal just-in-time delivery solution.

Coupled with the current USA situation where people are heading into the upcoming Christmas Holiday season with plenty of available money to spend will the Grinch, with his reluctant pooch sidekick, Max, be able to steal all the Christmas presents and treats in an attempt to stop Christmas from happening in 2021?  Or, will the combined efforts of all the Whos in Whoville, along with others involved in supporting the supply chain  challenges caused by the difficulties experienced during the Covid pandemic,  come to the rescue and foil the Grinch's devious plot?  

I'll be carefully watching developments in shipping, trucking, employment, retail, and national and global finance over the next few months and will provide a follow up comprehensive situation report in 2022, along with any lessons learned. I'll take a look to see if, and hopefully how, we have managed to survive through the current situation as we muddle through the unintended consequences of the cheap and previously reasonably effective supply chain model that has been created globally. And, in the process, I will discover if there is something more important to the upcoming holiday season than the material things jam-packed in Santa's sleigh. In the interim, your thoughts and comments are welcomed. Best wishes for a Safe, Healthy, and Happy Holiday Season!

  • Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904 -1991) was an American children's author, political cartoonist, illustrator, poet, animator, and filmmaker. He is known for his work writing and illustrating more than 60 books under the pen name Dr Seuss
  • The US Government recently reported that of all the US Dollars ever printed and put in circulation in the US economy, 40 per cent of US dollars in existence were printed in the last 12 months  as part of its effort to stimulate the economy. The US Government issued stimulus checks to millions of employed Americans. 
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