WASHINGTON, Jan. 10, 2012 — The state of military logistics is healthy and service members are doing amazing things to supply operations around the world, but the system is strained as a result of 10 years of war, the Joint Staff’s director of logistics said here.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Brooks L. Bash said military logisticians are, in many respects, the unsung heroes of America’s 21st-century wars. In the past year alone, they orchestrated the withdrawal of tens of thousands of American service members and millions of pieces of equipment from Iraq. They supplied forces fighting in Afghanistan, even as political considerations closed a key route into the landlocked country.
They did all this while continuing their “everyday” missions handling permanent changes of station for tens of thousands of service members, ensuring training requirements are met and ensuring that forward-deployed personnel around the world have what they need to do their missions. They also have supplied allies and other U.S. government agencies, and they have kicked into even higher gear to aid people around the world hit by natural disasters.
“No other country in the world can do what we’re doing,” Bash said. “We’re flying and taking stuff halfway around the world. The fact that Afghanistan is a landlocked country adds to the challenge. Simultaneously completing the Iraq drawdown and then, oh, by the way, doing Haiti, tsunami, and whatever else pops up, and also supporting the combatant commanders in their regions with what they’re doing every day.”
And logisticians are sustaining the effort. Other countries can get troops to remote areas of the world, but they cannot sustain operations in those regions like the U.S. military can, the general said.
Afghanistan is a case in point. It is one of the more remote areas on the planet. It is landlocked. Pakistan closed the border crossings from the port of Karachi to Afghanistan following an accident on the border that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Even though those gates are closed, Bash noted, American, international and Afghan forces are still getting what they need. The American logistics effort supplies 91,000 U.S. personnel with the food, ammunition, fuel, spare parts, armored vehicles and whatever else they need.
“The first thing we did was we planned for it,” the general said. The Pakistanis had closed the gates to Afghanistan before, and logisticians planned for the possibility.
Planners looked at alternatives to the Pakistani gates. They examined supplying troops by air, Bash said, but that is expensive and can be limited. They developed the Northern Distribution Network an effort that connects Baltic and Caspian Sea ports with Afghanistan through Russia and the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus.
“We … have shifted about 30 percent of what was coming in through Pakistan to the northern distribution,” Bash said. “It has more capability, and then we built up some of our stocks.”
Logisticians built up 60 days worth of stocks in Afghanistan. “But because of the northern distribution being open, … it is having little to no operational impact,” he said.
This is more expensive, but it is effective, the general said. About 85 percent of fuel, for example, comes through the Northern Distribution Network. Logisticians also are using more airlift, and that causes problems on its own, the general said.
Allies, likewise, built up stocks. “We have acquisition cross-servicing agreements with them so that, if they do come up short, then we can help them out through those sorts of agreements,” Bash said.
So while there are no shortages, the increased tempo imposes its own price on logisticians.
“There are areas in logistics some of our specialty areas and our equipment and others that need to be recapitalized and reset,” Bash said. Putting flight hours on airplanes and helicopters and putting miles on mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, for example, takes a toll on the equipment, he explained.
And there is a cost to the people in the logistics enterprise as well, Bash said, but they continue to get the job done.
“I would say our logisticians are the most experienced in history,” he said. Logistics personnel are the greatest combat multiplier in the logistics enterprise, he added.
Educating and training those personnel is key to success in the future, the general said.
“We might decrease the number of our people, but the people we do have, we need to make sure they’re experienced and trained properly,” he said. “We can’t shortcut ourselves on that piece to save some money, because it’s the people when we talk about avoiding a hollow force.”
Force structure adjustments will be necessary in the logistics field, the general said, and the Defense Department must be careful to preserve what truly is necessary — first of all, the people needed for the effort — regardless of the budget situation.
It’s also important, Bash said, to ensure there is not a mismatch between strategy and resources.
“If you have a strategy that’s larger than your force structure, then that’s a different type of hollowness than we typically think of as a hollow force,” he said.
Another necessity is access. The best fighting force in the world is no good if it cannot get to the scene of a fight and sustain itself, Bash noted. This means getting the airports, seaports, railheads and overflight permissions needed. It also means the combatant commanders, long before any problems develop, must have the relationships needed to make it happen when push comes to shove, he said. A final multiplier is operational contract support.
“Now, this is a maturing and evolving mission area that, 10 years ago, we had no doctrine for and we didn’t think about much,” he said. The general used Iraq as an example. “Two years ago, we had 170,000 contractors [in Iraq],” he said. “They were providing a lot of logistic capabilities.”
Contractors handled food service, fuel, security and the mission. Bash cited a Congressional Budget Office report that said the U.S. government saved about 90 cents on the dollar by using contractors over uniformed personnel.
“How is that possible?” he asked. “Well, you don’t have to recruit. You don’t have to train. You don’t have to retain. You don’t have pay and allowances. You don’t have retirements. You don’t have health care.
“That’s 170,000 people we would have had in uniform to do the same job,” he continued. “We were able to quickly expand and quickly retract.” He called this the epitome of the “reversibility” that defense leaders increasingly are talking about in military strategy going forward.
A quote variously attributed to Gen. of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. of the Army Omar Bradley is: “Amateurs study strategy. Professionals study logistics.” The U.S. military certainly subscribes to this, Bash said.
The bottom line, he added, is that the logistics enterprise system is healthy and able to do all the country asks of it now. It needs study and care, however, if it is to remain the world-class operation for the future, he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)