A Huge Logistics Challenge

By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2007-08-28 Print this article Print

On Sept. 15, Gen. David Petraeus, who commands the troops in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to that country, will return to Washington, D.C., to report on how the war is going and whether the extra combat troops President Bush ordered last January have made any difference. The president says he is awaiting their report. For months, he has resisted pressure from Congress to set a date for calling the troops home.

But, as public support for the war fades, Congress is sure to pressure Bush to end, or at least cap, the role of American combat troops in Iraq. When the U.S. invaded Baghdad in March 2003, military planners expected the fighting to be over in less than five months, according to de-classified documents turned over to the National Security Archive. But 4 1/2 years later, with more than 3,700 American troops killed and 27,000 wounded, the American public is losing patience. Many—among them Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.)—have called for the immediate return of U.S. forces.

The president has promised to veto any bill that mandates a quick pullout of U.S. troops. But even if Congress somehow manages to override him and get an immediate withdrawal, few people realize just how long "immediate" will take.

An order to pull out some portion of 160,000 American troops, plus the 9 million tons of equipment and supplies the U.S. has shipped to Iraq—everything from bandages to bullets to Bradley fighting vehicles—is not only a huge logistics challenge, it's also a monumental information management task. The military will need to determine when troops and equipment move, which routes they will take, and what supplies should stay or go.

And should a pullout be ordered, how well the military's information management systems work will be a significant factor in determining how quickly that mission is accomplished.

A quick pell-mell pullout with no setbacks could take six months, according to retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank.

On the other hand, a withdrawal of this magnitude—which, in addition to the logistical challenge, could risk attacks by Al Qaeda or Iraqi sectarian forces trying to make a withdrawal look like a rout—could take two years, says Maj. Gen. Michael Diamond, deputy director of the logistics directorate at U.S. Central Command, the unified combat command in charge of Iraq.

"[That's] to do it right, to pool equipment and people out of the war theater, and transition to a legitimate, steady state of security, whatever decision is made," he says. "It's not going to happen overnight."

Indeed, in the first Gulf War in 1991, Operation Desert Storm, preparations and combat lasted six months. But it took roughly 18 months to get troops, equipment and supplies out, Diamond says. That force was larger (there were about a half-million U.S. troops in Desert Storm, more than three times the number in Iraq now), but didn't have to travel as far because they never had to go beyond Kuwait. And, he adds, in any withdrawal, "The enemy always has a vote."

If Bush orders complete withdrawal, all troops and equipment would go. The exception would be small, consumable items like bandages and antibiotics that are time-consuming to pack and could be used by the Iraqis "in a positive way," says Nash, the retired Army major general. Even portable X-ray machines, although small compared to a 1-ton Humvee or an 8,250-pound howitzer, would come back so their internal technology couldn't be scavenged.

The military has been working on exit plans for several months. The withdrawal is being managed by U.S. Central Command—one of the Defense Department's 10 multiservice regional units—which is in charge of an area that includes Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. Central Command will work most closely with the U.S. Transportation Command, which orchestrates the movement of troops, heavy equipment and supplies in and out of Iraq; the Defense Logistics Agency, a combat support agency in charge of procuring and recycling; and the individual services.

Withdrawal plans are being shaped and set through the military's Joint Operation Planning and Execution System (JOPES), which connects defense agencies through a secure classified network called SIPRNet. JOPES is a a set of processes for planning and executing military operations that goes back to World War II. Planners would consider, for example, the location and condition of troops, possible exit routes, availability of equipment and supplies, and a wealth of other data. JOPES is supported by a series of databases and applications, some classified, that are fed by 170 outside systems. One system, the Transportation Command's Global Transportation Network, tracks movement of troops and equipment.

For the last year, Central Command has kept an online matrix, which combines data from the Global Transportation Network and RFID tags, to track equipment in Iraq and whether it would need to be demilitarized—crushed, burned, torch-cut or otherwise stripped of parts that could be used against the U.S.—when the Americans leave. Diamond says the matrix should help control "the high adventure of reverse logistics."

To estimate withdrawal times, Central Command has also made "rough, back-of-the-envelope estimates" on gross numbers of people and tonnages of equipment that can go through a particular airport or seaport, Diamond says. These are big numbers—as of May 31, the Transportation Command says it has overseen 4 million passenger trips and moved 9.1 million tons of cargo and 4.5 billion gallons of fuel in or out of Iraq.

The Defense Logistics Agency, which procures and supplies consumable items like food and fuel and destroys damaged or sensitive equipment to keep it away from enemies, has military and civilian personnel in Iraq now. They are conferring with the four service branches about their projected equipment flow during a drawdown, according to Mary Legeret, an operations officer with the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service (DRMS), a unit of the Defense Logistics Agency that handles reverse logistics for the military.

During a war, plans are re-evaluated at least daily. When the exit starts, Diamond says, "Once we've maxed out [a node's] capacity, it causes us to give feedback to the joint chiefs and say we overshot the mark here. On the next go-round, we may need to adjust fire."

Generally, it takes three weeks to process a brigade combat team—about 5,000 troops and its gear—for home, says Lt. Col. Marvin Benoit of the Transportation Command's Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, which helps the services coordinate the movement of troops and their heavy equipment. This includes getting everyone and everything through Customs in Kuwait; processing the turn-in paperwork; and running the equipment through the wash racks in Camp Arifjan, the Army base in Kuwait, because the Department of Agriculture doesn't want Iraqi dirt or wildlife coming into the States. Equipment that fails Customs or Department of Agriculture tests gets left behind for the theater support command to marshal through the rest of the process at the port.

At that rate, moving all 160,000 troops would take nearly two years.

If a faster exit is needed, the military may go to a crisis plan, which Nash refers to as "cut-and-run in the most pejorative sense of the term." For example, equipment or supplies that can't be hauled home quickly might be demilitarized and buried, says Paul Peters, director of DRMS, but that is "an action of last resort." Diamond says the military won't bury equipment, though he declines to discuss any specific contingency plans.

The most likely scenario, however, is a gradual reduction of U.S. forces, while keeping some troops in-country to train Iraqi security forces and rebuild water, electrical and other infrastructure systems. In that case, the U.S. military must sort through all of its equipment and supplies, using both human judgment and supply-tracking software (such as the Standard Army Retail Supply System) custom-built by each branch of the service. They will have to figure the cost-benefit of what to take back and how to move it.

An exit is as delicate an operation as an invasion, notes Maj. Gen. Charles Fletcher, who directs operations and plans for the U.S. Transportation Command. "The Secretary of Defense talks to the services and to us, and he flies in to talk to Petraeus," he says. "The operational impact of the decisions made by the secretary must be fully understood and evaluated by both sides."

Next Page: Reversing the Supply Chain

Senior Writer
Kim has covered the business of technology for 14 years, doing investigative work and writing about legal issues in the industry, including Microsoft Corp.'s antitrust trial. She has won numerous awards and has a B.S. degree in journalism from Boston University.

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