While many attendees at #ISM2017 were waiting to hear what General Colin Powell would say about President Trump, the former Secretary of State also provided some valuable insights into supply management.
“An army marches on its stomach,” says Powell to a packed ballroom at #ISM2017. “It’s the logistics that allows you to face an enemy.”
Powell draws on his experience in the Vietnamese jungle 55 years ago to illustrate how dramatically the military supply chain has improved. “We just didn’t have efficient supply systems then.” The young Powell was eating plain rice 21 times a fortnight with the occasional slaughtered pig thrown in, because the supply chopper would only come once every two weeks.
Fast-forward to Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the biggest military operation since the Normandy landing. “We realised that it was logistics that would matter. We had to change some rules of behaviour.” Powell talks about some of the creative solutions to logistical challenges in the Gulf, including sourcing trucks from Egypt to move American tanks, early adoption of bar-code tech and using GPS to track those trucks (“we cleaned out every Radio Shack in America”), water scarcity and a vast amount of mail for 425,000 troops that had to be flown in: “I had to get three extra C5A’s, just for the mail.”
Powell believes there’s a lot the military and commercial worlds can learn from each other. “Both sides have to learn what’s going on the world today in terms of speed, service, quality of product and keeping up with the information revolution.”
On Global Security
“America is not facing existential risk to our existence as it was in the Cold War,” says Powell. “There are problems that are real, but they’re overplayed and blown up.”
Powell gives North Korea as an example. After noting the poor state of their missile technology, he says there simply isn’t going to be an attack. “Give me a strategic reason why North Korea would shoot a missile at Honolulu or San Francisco. What would that achieve apart from ensuring the destruction [of Pyongyang] the following day? All that counts there is the preservation of the regime.”
Similarly, Powell believes concerns around China are overblown. “China won’t be an enemy. They won’t block the routes … It’s a nation that’s extremely important on the world stage. They want to create more influence around the world, [and they’re doing so by] building train systems in Africa, Latin America, the third world. They’re building because they want influence.”
Powell also points out that China is holding a trillion dollars of US paper. “It’s a complex country, but we have to welcome their products and an open, fair trading relationship. China has brought 400 million people out of poverty, not by raising taxes or invading people – they did it by selling stuff. Predictably, as people became more wealthy, they want more. Chinese labour costs will rise.”
“I think what Mr Trump has to do now is reverse some of the campaign promises he made that frankly could never have been implemented, such as declaring China a currency manipulator,” says Powell, noting that Trump is maturing in his understanding of these issues.
“It’s in our interest to see him do well. Countries around the world [are] waiting for stability and clarity, and for these campaign promises to settle down. The rest of the world wants to see coherence and consistency over time in what we say and do.”
Responding to a question about the political and economic impacts of withdrawing from the TPP, Powell says it was an unfortunate decision. “It was in our interest and would have benefited us over time.”
Powell says that the real beneficiaries now will be the Chinese, who are putting together their own trade agreement. “All our [trade] allies are joining China, and we’re standing aside.”
“The world is globalised. I’ve watched our factories going up in China – that’s just the nature of it. Success [can be had] by playing in that game, not wishing it would go away.” Speaking of globalisation in general and NAFTA in particular, Powell says that being mad about problems with trade doesn’t get you anywhere. “Fix it, but don’t throw it away.”
On Generation Next
“I have faith in the millennials and faith in the kids coming afterwards,” Powell says. “I do a lot of work with youth. I can’t change the past, I can [only] watch the present, but I can influence the future through the hearts and minds of young people.”