US Military Logistics Strained, But Healthy, Official Says

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.

Twen­ty pal­lets of para­chute-deliv­ered sup­plies float down over For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Bay­lough in Afghanistan’s Zab­ul province, June 13, 2010. The sup­plies were for sol­diers assigned to Com­pa­ny D, 1st Bat­tal­ion, 4th Infantry Reg­i­ment. U.S. Army pho­to by Staff Sgt. William Trem­blay
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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) 

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