Logistics: The Long Pole in The Tent

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“Logistics, logistics, logistics!” That’s what I immediately thought of last December when I heard the President’s decision to double down in Afghanistan and increase the current troop strength by 30,000 over a 5-month period. The most honest answer to the question that immediately comes to mind — How the Hell’s the U.S. Military going to pull this one off? — came from General Webster, the Commander of the Third Army: “Hannibal trying to move over the Alps had a tremendous logistical burden, but it was nothing compared to the complexity we have now.”  Notice it really wasn’t an answer…

At the time I would have loved to have seen the Pentagon’s J4/G4’s Power Point slide desk on the additional stress the new “surge” would place on Afghanistan’s already stressed lines of communication. Poor bastards, I would have hated that job. Can you imagine the staff guidance they received when all of the hand-wringing was going on in the Situation Room or the Tank? As I recall, the Chiefs pushed back at the NSC and asked for a longer timeline to get the new “surge” in place but never mentioned that the lack of logistics was the long hole in the tent. So the NSC and POTUS ignored the request and ordered them to shorten the deployment timeline and get the 30K troops in place even quicker. It would have been helpful to get a straight answer on the logistics then, don’t you think? Shouldn’t Mom and Pop, rightfully uptight in Peoria, Illinois with a son-in-law on his third deployment, have a right to know?

Any hoot, from what I heard, the logistic planning guidance went something like this: “Okay staff, before we start the slides, here’s the basic guidance on how we’re going to do this. First, build me a plan that squeezes another 30K worth of troops into the current deployment models using limited air-frames and access-entry-departure airfields. Yeah, I know we were hoping to rest the boys some as we drew down in Iraq but that ain’t going to happen any time soon. You heard the Chief, we’re in an era of “persistent conflict.” Yeah, I know we’re supposed to win straight out but that crap went out with Powell and Scowcroft, so suck it up and get your 21st century war mask on. Second, ensure you secure the LOC’s somehow for all of the line haul movement we’ll have when we’re moving supplies and vehicles on the ring road. Got it that it’s interdicted but we can hire some contractors to secure the loads or pay off the local militias. Third, someone has got to convince the Pakistanis to provide security for port operations and line hauling of supplies to the border crossings. Hey look, Major, I’m not the one that thought it was a good idea to go through Pakistani ports back in 2001 but we had no other choice. I got it that all of the Punjabis and Pashtuns try to outdo one another by torching our supplies, but figure out how to keep’em happy. Fourth, you over there, get with CENTCOM, EUCOM and TRANSCOM and create a new northern route for gear, supplies and troops in case the Pakistani ports and routes into eastern Afghanistan don’t work out. And while you’re at it expand the air bridge so we can get critical supplies and engineers in to country to build X amount of new FOBs and combat outposts. True, we already have over 400 FOBs and Outposts in Afghanistan, so don’t ask me why we need more, but we need more, dammit, so get’er done! Fifth, increase stock of all classes of supply at every FOB and outpost. Sixth, plan for bad weather that limits rotary and fixed wing access to remote airfields. And if we get favorable weather, have a plan to surge assets even though at this point we don’t have a clue where that would come from. Seventh, pay-off Krygystan for use of that airbase in Manas even though we’re paying another corrupt government with a garbage human rights record. Eighth, speaking of garbage, figure out how KBR can dispose of FOB waste without getting the troops sick, I heard it’s starting to become an issue. So no more new burn pits, tell them to use incinerators.

Next figure out what we don’t want to give to the Iraqis as we high-tail it out of there and haul all of the good kit to Kuwait. When you do this, don’t piss off any state Governor or their Adjutant Generals or for that matter our National Guard senior leaders when you brief them that they’re not getting any of the US equipment sets from Iraq to fill their stateside armories. We can’t afford to do that anymore even though we promised them we would – just tell them tough luck when they have to respond to national disasters in the “homeland” without their equipment. Also, don’t forget to increase the contractor footprint in Afghanistan with the new LOGCAP award. And somehow limit their downrange capability because every time we let those jokers out of the wire they shoot dozens of civilians. I know that increases the overall maintenance time for critical equipment because you have to backhaul everything to major FOB’s but you know the trade off. Oh and I almost forgot, the Marines want to stay relevant in the fight because they’re more than “Expeditionary” now but have doctrinal challenges in sustaining themselves longer than 30 days, so task the Army to do their logistics. Oh and another thing, just as you get everything set, the President wants us to start withdrawing, so figure that out in the plan too.

Last, I don’t have to remind you that the Afghan Army is going to need a lot of logistical support as well. But remember, Afghanistan is complex with virulent ethnic and tribal stuff going on with that Army of theirs—you know the Tajiks don’t like the Pashtuns, everyone hates the Hazaris and Karzai has intermingled his ministries and provincial leaders with a rogues gallery favoring his tribe and ethnicity, so deal with it. Any questions?”

“Sir, what is a LOC?” “Well, generally speaking, LOC’s or lines of communication are routes that interconnect military units, supplies and logistic nodes. Their security is vital to a unit’s command and control and its logistics lifeline –they’re key to any successful military operation.” “Sir, how many US troops will deploy in total?” “Approximately 102,000. ISAF troops? Approximately 47,000 from 44 countries. Contractors? Over 100,000.”

Can you imagine what we’ve asked our military to bring off?

Nevertheless, great credit is due to all of the hard working staff, agencies and contractors that had to form a plan from this guidance and somehow try to meet intent under incredibly difficult circumstances. My understanding is that the ramp up continues and that not all the additional troops and enablers have closed yet. But the party line continues that by and large this Hannibalistic effort has been largely successful.

Yet when I query the force, here’s what I get:

“…we really don’t control our LOC’s per se throughout our AO…we are bursting at the seams here on this FOB…if we really press and dedicate assets then we can conduct ground re-supply operations…the aerial delivery systems are working overtime…the Marines in the south just don’t get it…man, when we got here we sat forever because the battalion’s vehicle set was simply missing, and when we recovered it we didn’t have all of the required commo gear and jamming equipment required to be operational…if something breaks down, forget it, it’s a two week adventure to either backhaul it or get a maintenance team forward to fix it, but often without the necessary parts…the connex at Bagram and Kandahar could fill an ocean…when we do control some limited LOC, even then, nothing barely gets through…”

Not much squares here. My thought is that indeed there were necessary strategic and operational muscle movements in the area of logistics conducted over the past eight months to get the new “surge” into Afghanistan, but the matching tactical posture required to regain the initiative is missing. As one contact put it, “We are simply out of Schlitz.”

It wasn’t that long ago that LOC’s also served another purpose, to provide secure routes for runners or dispatch riders to shuttle orders and updates from the front between battlefield commanders. Then, it was ink and parchment: “Benteen, Come On. Big Village. Be quick. Bring packs. PS Bring pacs…”Too often the result was too little too late. Custer did get wiped out. So the question is: After almost 10 years in Afghanistan, can US forces secure their lines of communication and sustain the warfighter effectively or have we reached the breaking point? Can Benteen get the supplies to the beleaguered troops in time?

Meanwhile, I’m sure the American public neither knows the answer nor cares to know what the life and death question even is. Go figure then what the response will be if the US has to commit to another crisis with men and material anytime soon. My guess is that we’ll be out of Schlitz. Big time.

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