Afghanistan — On the road with the combat logistic patrols

Keep­ing the for­ward oper­at­ing bases sup­plied in Afghanistan is no easy task, but one that is cru­cial to the suc­cess of the mis­sion. Sharon Kean reports on how com­bat logis­tic patrols (CLPs) do their work.

A supply convoy makes its way cautiously through the Afghan desert
A sup­ply con­voy makes its way cau­tious­ly through the Afghan desert
Source: Sergeant Antho­ny Boocock, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

A con­voy of mil­i­tary vehi­cles stuck in the mid­dle of the Afghan desert is a sit­ting duck — an easy tar­get for the Tal­iban. So, the lor­ries and armoured sup­port vehi­cles that take sup­plies to sol­diers on the front line don’t stop, unless it’s absolute­ly nec­es­sary:

“Troops eat on the go, they pee on the go,” said Cap­tain Julie Booton, a reservist attached to 12 Logis­tic Sup­port Reg­i­ment dur­ing its cur­rent stint in Hel­mand.

She mon­i­tors the con­voys and tracks their progress from an oper­a­tions tent in Camp Bas­tion:

“Even the girls are issued with bot­tles and ‘she-wees’ [card­board fun­nels],” said Cap­tain Booton.

“Some of the female dri­vers were con­cerned at first, but we try to put them in cabs togeth­er. It’s harsh but they get on with it and get used to it.”

Pri­vate Jes­si­ca Cheek is a com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ist who trav­els in a Mas­tiff armoured vehi­cle as part of the force pro­tec­tion team that guards con­voys on their long haul jour­neys:

“There’s quite a few of us in there,” she said, point­ing to the Mastiff’s for­ward cab and com­pact rear com­part­ment.

“Dri­ver, vehi­cle com­man­der, force pro­tec­tion com­man­der up on the top, an inter­preter, some­one mon­i­tor­ing updates from oth­er patrols, and myself.”

Con­voy loads are not lim­it­ed to ammu­ni­tion, fuel, food and water, although these must take pri­or­i­ty. Just as often the trucks will car­ry earth-mov­ing vehi­cles used to build and devel­op small­er bases across Hel­mand.

Com­bat logis­tic patrols, gen­er­al­ly of 50 or more vehi­cles, leave the main British and US base at Camp Bas­tion every week or so. They may be gone for a week, and must be self-reliant.

Major Joe Chest­nutt is a reg­u­lar con­voy com­man­der:

“They can be very long trips — more than 40 hours,” he said. “We trav­el slow­ly because there are threats all along the routes. We car­ry out checks, which add time, as do any inci­dents along the way.”

The vehi­cles tend to begin their trips under cov­er of dark­ness, min­imis­ing any imme­di­ate Tal­iban threat. How­ev­er, trav­el­ling by night pos­es its own risk. It is much hard­er to spot signs on the ground that might indi­cate an impro­vised explo­sive device (IED):

“Adren­a­lin and some good ban­ter with the boys keeps you awake,” said Major Chest­nutt.

He led one of the biggest con­voys ever to leave Camp Bas­tion, a 217-vehi­cle patrol with over a 60-hour out­bound jour­ney. That com­bined UK-US oper­a­tion saw 609 sol­diers trav­el 90km north of Bas­tion to Musa Qal’ah.

The con­voy took earth-mov­ing machin­ery and pow­er-gen­er­at­ing plants to the Amer­i­can Marines who were mov­ing into the area, and brought back British equip­ment. The round-trip took more than a week:

“We can’t just use the eas­i­est routes, because that would make us an obvi­ous tar­get,” said troop com­man­der Lieu­tenant Dave Web­ster.

This means dri­vers and their vehi­cles must bat­tle with the harsh­est aspects of the Afghan land­scape — dried-up riv­er beds and up to 90-degree ascents and descents over rock-strewn tracks.

Desert sand brings its own prob­lems, said Lieu­tenant Web­ster. Dri­vers have to deal with sand being blown up by the wind, mak­ing vis­i­bil­i­ty very poor:

“The soft desert sand makes manoeu­vring very dif­fi­cult,” said Lieu­tenant Web­ster. “It makes it hard to see the vehi­cle in front, and also makes it hard to spot boo­by traps, even in day­light.”

 A convoy prepares to leave Bastion under cover of darkness
A con­voy pre­pares to leave Bas­tion under cov­er of dark­ness
Source: Cor­po­ral Lyn­ny Cash RAF, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Excite­ment and even enthu­si­asm are almost pal­pa­ble as the sol­diers get ready for their night-time depar­ture. The padre bless­es every vehi­cle and hands out sweets. Some­times (but not tonight) there’s a piper at the gates. It all adds to the buzz of antic­i­pa­tion and the vital sense of cam­er­aderie.

A sol­dier, bran­dish­ing two glow sticks, mar­shalls the enor­mous armoured trucks out of the camp’s main gates. One by one, they leave to a cho­rus of horns and cheers from those left behind.

Those remain­ing in camp hone dri­ving skills, main­tain vehi­cles and gen­er­al­ly pre­pare for the next time they must dodge the bul­lets and IEDs:

“The insur­gents’ home-made bombs have had a mas­sive effect on the way the reg­i­ment works,” said Cap­tain Booton.

“Under­stand­ing the threat and learn­ing how to counter it is a huge part of our train­ing. The threat dom­i­nates every­thing we do, from the met­al-detect­ing drills to the way we dri­ve.”

“It’s not uncom­mon for a con­voy to be hit by three or four IEDs dur­ing a patrol, and to come under small arms attack between ten and 15 times. Gen­er­al­ly, it is the vehi­cles that are dam­aged rather than the crews inside,” said Cap­tain Guy Mason, one of the offi­cers who helps plan the com­bat logis­tic patrols.

“Although last time two casu­al­ties had to be evac­u­at­ed by heli­copter and flown back to Camp Bas­tion.”

Clear­ly, the insur­gents’ objec­tive is to stop such con­voys leav­ing camp at all, iso­lat­ing the for­ward oper­at­ing bases and mak­ing it impos­si­ble for civil­ian and mil­i­tary teams to bring devel­op­ment aid to local civil­ians.

That the jug­ger­nauts con­tin­ue rum­bling through the gates and into the Afghan desert is evi­dence that, so far at least, the insur­gency has failed.

This arti­cle is tak­en from the July 2010 edi­tion of Defence Focus — the mag­a­zine for every­one in Defence.

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK