Why did Ike construct the Interstate system if the objective was to improve military logistics?

Nov 2014
224
ph
#1
If the objective was to improve military movements in the US , why not spend the money to improve the rail network instead? I remembered that it was stated from experience in Europe, that it was more efficient to move men and materiel by rail instead of by road, so if you want to improve military logistics in the US in the 50s, wouldn't investing in rail infrastructure make more sense instead?
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,380
Dispargum
#2
Because the real reason to build the interstate highways had nothing to do with military logistics. It's true that in the 1920s Eisenhower had been involved in a military exercise to move an army unit from the Eastern US to the Western US and it had taken several months to complete the movement because America's roads were so bad. It's also true that during WW2 Eisenhower had been impressed with the German autobahns. It is still true that railroads are more efficient at long distance movement than are roads, but you have to weigh the efficiency of movement against the difficulty of loading and unloading military vehicles onto and off of rail cars. For short distances, road transportation is faster and more convenient.

The interstate highways were built to facilitate private transportation (cars and trucks) over public transportation (trains). Railroads had always been controversial because they sometimes charged monopolistic rates if they were the only railroad serving a certain city. Today airlines are accused of the same practice. Airfares are higher is smaller markets that are only served by one or two airlines. Eisenhower didn't think of the interstate highways system by himself. Someone else thought it up and convinced Eisenhower to support the idea. The military argument was made because that was something Ike, as a soldier, could easily understand. He may not have responded as strongly to an argument about undermining the railroads.

The roots of the Interstate Highway System go back to the early 20th century. At that time, there was a belief in limited federal government. Saying that the new roads were necessary for national defense was a way to justify federal spending on a program was usually the responsibility of the states and local governments.
 
Last edited:
Sep 2017
109
Pennsylvania
#3
There are a lot of layers to your question. I can accept the premise that rail transport was more efficient for military purposes in continental Europe during and prior to WW2 for any number of reasons.

However, IMO, which is backed by military experience, it is not more effective . I think Ike would have recognized and considered this.

Rail transport limits combat power by restricting the ability to project force. A unit carrying out movement by train is definitely not able to employ it's full combat power freely.

1. Loading and Unloading material for rail transport(Tanks, Vehicles, Artillery, Etc.) requires specialized equipment and facilities.

A unit in transit by rail can't simply deploy its resources in response to an attack on route. Nor can it reroute to another location in response to new developments.

This is fine for infantry units, who ultimately can deploy the the majority of their combat power independently of logistical or mechanized support for limited periods of time. For the vast majority of units however this is not ideal due to their training and equipment (or lack thereof) which is driven toward employing the equipment they cannot effectively access.

2. Personnel and Material transported by rail can expect greater degree of loss in the event of an incident.

Everything and everyone inside a train is going to be effected by any incident. Rail transport in peace time is safe, but during war it will become significantly less so as part of a nation's military infrastructure and supply chain.

So if the train gets hit, everything on the train is effected. Compare this to a convoy traveling via road. If one vehicle gets hit the others do not always get taken out, damaged or otherwise see a degradation of combat power.

Simultaneously, they retain a greater degree of flexibility to respond as discussed below. meaning that the severity of any incident is likely to be lower.

3. Corollary to the above, personnel transported by rail have limited response options (TTPs) in the event of attack or accident to prevent loss of men and material.

In the event that a train gets hit, even if it's only stopped, the material and personnel on board are out of the fight until recovery operations can be carried out.

They're likely limited to defensive operations with small arms and squad automatic weapons, supplemented by foot patrols (very risky) for the duration. Compare this to roadway transport, which can reroute as practical and can deploy a greater degree of it's combat power more readily to clear obstacles, conduct recovery or defend their position.

4. While the difficulties listed above can be overcome, doing so drains combat power and resources from offensive operations and therefore eliminates the efficiency of rail transport.

All the difficulties listed above could be overcome with sufficient effort. For instance, the risk of aerial attack could be negated by installing flak cannons and screening movements with aerial support. But doing that removes those guns and planes from the front lines, which can only be overcome by building more guns, more planes and paying more men to operate them.

The specialized facilities could be overcome by say, building cranes onto the rail cars. Doing so introduces complexity, which increases cost, maintenance and risk of failure, while increasing the amount of labor required.
Alternatively more transfer terminals could be constructed but again you're increasingly complexity and adding cost and labor, worse yet you're ensuring that these costs will be ongoing, even in peacetime, so then civilian customers have to bear the burden or your military infrastructure will fail.

You could enable units to respond with greater flexibility through force reorganization and training, but again, you're talking about massive back end costs.

Roads are cheaper to build. Cheaper to maintain. Roadway transport reduces a unit's combat power very little and in doing so does not add additional complexity or costs as result.

When compared to what I consider the gold standard of military transportation, aerial - after all a plane in flight is a plane in the fight - the insterstate highway system comes much closer than railway transport to maintaining combat power and force projection capability while simultaneously effecting movements.
 

royal744

Ad Honorem
Jul 2013
9,804
San Antonio, Tx
#4
Because the real reason to build the interstate highways had nothing to do with military logistics. It's true that in the 1920s Eisenhower had been involved in a military exercise to move an army unit from the Eastern US to the Western US and it had taken several months to complete the movement because America's roads were so bad. It's also true that during WW2 Eisenhower had been impressed with the German autobahns. It is still true that railroads are more efficient at long distance movement than are roads, but you have to weigh the efficiency of movement against the difficulty of loading and unloading military vehicles onto and off of rail cars. For short distances, road transportation is faster and more convenient.

The interstate highways were built to facilitate private transportation (cars and trucks) over public transportation (trains). Railroads had always been controversial because they sometimes charged monopolistic rates if they were the only railroad serving a certain city. Today airlines are accused of the same practice. Airfares are higher is smaller markets that are only served by one or two airlines. Eisenhower didn't think of the interstate highways system by himself. Someone else thought it up and convinced Eisenhower to support the idea. The military argument was made because that was something Ike, as a soldier, could easily understand. He may not have responded as strongly to an argument about undermining the railroads.

The roots of the Interstate Highway System go back to the early 20th century. At that time, there was a belief in limited federal government. Saying that the new roads were necessary for national defense was a way to justify federal spending on a program was usually the responsibility of the states and local governments.
Wasn’t the Interstate System called the “National Defense Highway Act when it was first posited? Put the word “defense” on anything and its chance of passage will be greatly facilitated. The George Washington Parkway in DC was, I am told, built by Roosevelt in the late 30s as a riposte to the German Autobahns, but there was no national highway act here at the time. This has to be one of the largest and Longest lasting Federal programs in US history.