Shipping Out Equipment

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

Shipping Out Equipment

Once equipment is cataloged and tagged, it needs to get to a port to be shipped back to some other overseas installation or directly to the States.

It's about 750 miles from northernmost Iraq down to Kuwait, which offers the biggest seaports where much of the equipment to fight Operation Iraqi Freedom passes through. Convoys are vulnerable as they rumble down that long road through the desert. The trip can take more than three days.

When the troops are ordered home and the tanks start rolling, stevedores and soldiers will gather at a designated pier—sometimes the size of six football fields-to guide cargo aboard one of the military's 19 medium-speed roll-on/roll-off vessels, nicknamed "RoRos." At about one football field wide and nine long, RoRos are among the biggest ships in the U.S. fleet. Each one can carry 2,000 Abrams tanks.

The stevedores will consult a printout or a handheld device showing diagrams of exactly where each tank should go—which deck and which spot on the deck, each tank facing out for quicker unloading. Logisticians have created this plan over several weeks using ICODES, a computer-aided-design application from contractor CDM Technologies that is programmed with the RoRo layout and data about the cargo. The dimensions and weight of each piece, as well as the priority for later unloading, are provided by the military unit that owns the equipment. If the ship will carry different kinds of ammunition that can't sit next to each other for safety reasons, the software factors that in, too.

On command, a soldier will drive the tank onto the ship at about 15 m.p.h. As stevedores or soldiers chain it to the deck, the driver will hop a shuttle bus back to the pier staging area to grab another tank.

Loading one tank on a RoRo takes four to eight minutes, and this RoRo can be loaded fully in 2 1/2 to four days.

But the planning for a load like this takes six to eight months, Benoit says. That's to get an available ship to port, create the stow plan, get the equipment to the pier and schedule people to do the work.

"We would just send ships and keep loading them and sending them back," he says. The work will go on around the clock.

How equipment travels will also have an impact on the withdrawal timetable. Suppose 125 containers of extra tracks for the M-1 Abrams tank now sit damaged at a base near Mosul, 200 miles north of Baghdad. Those tracks could be transported across the desert, probably in a convoy, perhaps to Kuwait's Shuwaikh seaport about 650 miles away. There the containers could be stowed on a U.S. ship, such as a RoRo, and sailed to a nearby base, or the whole 12,000 miles back to the States. Or, the tank tracks could be trucked to Baghdad and flown out. They could also be demilitarized, with the resulting scrap sold to locals.

Sending home those tank treads would take two to three days by air but cost $17.5 million. Sailing those same boxes on ships would be 98% cheaper—$364,000—but transit takes up to one month.

It will be up to the Transportation Command to present the options. Each military branch decides what to do, balancing its needs with political and battlefield realities and how much taxpayer money to spend, Fletcher says. Like a corporation considering whether to green-light a project, the command, he says, is "working that business case analysis."

Every day, in a windowless room inside a low, white-trimmed brick building at Scott Air Force Base, surrounded by cornfields and suburban housing tracts near Shiloh, Ill., the Transportation Command takes the pulse of a war on the other side of the world.

Soldiers here, dressed in boots and camouflage or olive green, supervise computers. They divide their attention between the monitors scanned by men and women sitting at clusters of desks, the televisions on the walls broadcasting news from CNN and MSNBC, and a large screen.

Many of the military's major I.T. systems, including the command's Global Transportation Network, used by the military and companies working with the Defense Department, feed into this room.

"If a bridge is knocked out in Iraq, and [there's] food on those vehicles going to dining, we chart the status of every dining facility in Iraq....so we can develop [alternate routes] so the user never sees the problem," Fletcher says.

Next Page: The View From the Ground

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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