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Afghanistan logistics challenges to be greater than Iraq

Dec. 6, 2009 - 06:00AM   |  
By ELISE CASTELLI   |   Comments

The logistical challenges of supporting the 30,000-troop surge in Afghanistan will be "significantly greater than Iraq," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week.

Rugged terrain, a backward infrastructure, the lack of a staging area near the combat zone, poor weather and hostile environments will test the tens of thousands of Defense Department logistics and contractor personnel who will support the surge in the coming months.

"A big difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is we don't have a Kuwait" from which to have a nearby staging area, Mullen told Congress on Dec. 2. "So what we deploy into Afghanistan in great part goes straight in. And [Afghanistan is] not as robust from an infrastructure standpoint."

Nevertheless, officials from the Defense Logistics Agency and the Army's Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) the two primary sources of logistics support in theater say they have several factors working in their favor:

Lots of planning.

"Being on the front end of the planning, as simple as it sounds, is the key to success having a good picture of the demand pattern," Paul Peters, deputy director of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), said in an interview. "It is one thing to say I need this recorder, it is another thing to say I need five recorders and I need them by this date."

Multiple supply routes. Defense and contractor officials say they will make greater use of lesser-used northern supply routes in Afghanistan to transport equipment in addition to the traditional main routes in the south from Pakistan.

"Having those multiple routes has helped to ensure greater security and lower cost and greater reliability in the delivery of the products," Peters said.

Shorter transits for materiel. The military won't have a large distribution depot as close to the front lines as it has now in Iraq. That's because that depot is in Kuwait, which is adjacent to Iraq but still a thousand miles from Afghanistan. Nevertheless, that depot still is far closer to troops in Afghanistan than distribution centers in Europe or in the United States.

"So when [materiel] is transported into theater, we've cut travel time in half and reduced the cost," Peters said. "We're leveraging that depot in Kuwait to be the primary distribution support for Afghanistan."

More contractors playing a role. The logistical support provided under the Army's mammoth LOGCAP III contract was provided by one company: KBR. In Afghanistan, there will be three companies playing a part under a newer follow-on contract called LOGCAP IV: KBR, Dyncorp and Fluor.

Army officials say that will enable greater capacity and responsiveness from contractors that are assisting logistics operations.

A greater in-theater presence of logistics personnel.

"DLA has a presence much farther forward than at any part in its history," Peters said. "We're not sitting back here in northern Virginia trying to support the war fighter in Iraq or Afghanistan. We have our people embedded in those countries, and that allows us to bring our expertise to bear more quickly."

Approximately 200 of DLA's 27,000 employees are in theater at any given time, according to the agency. Embedding in both Iraq and Afghanistan has given the agency an acute awareness of the challenges posed by the terrain in both countries, particularly Afghanistan, which lacks a developed transportation infrastructure of roads, runways and railways and has harsh weather, Peters said.

Embedding "provides greater confidence in the supply system because it provides us greater knowledge and understanding of the environment our war fighters are operating in," Peters said. "When winter comes [to Afghanistan], we pre-position supplies in advance so, when it is needed, [delivery] is less susceptible to weather."

DLA may expand its presence in Afghanistan even more. The agency is considering setting up an in-theater depot as troops start moving into Afghanistan, Peters said.

More contractor support

Base support services in Afghanistan, such as dining facilities, recreation facilities and maintenance services at many bases, are provided by contractors through the LOGCAP IV contract.

In Afghanistan, four task orders have been awarded under the contract. Two were for work performed previously by KBR under the old LOGCAP III contract, and two were for new work in response to the anticipated troop surge, said Lee Thompson, executive director of LOGCAP. Two of those task orders were awarded to DynCorp and two to Fluor. So far, no task orders awarded under LOGCAP IV were awarded to KBR.

Afghanistan's terrain and lack of infrastructure pose an additional challenge in terms of moving the new contractors' employees in and the old contractor's employees out, Thompson said. "It's like biblical times," Thompson said. "You have the ring route, one major road that goes around, so it's tough to get in there to the forward operating bases."

DynCorp, which is providing transportation and base maintenance and support services, plans to use northern routes it has used before in Afghanistan, said Spence Wickham, DynCorp's LOGCAP IV program manager.

In addition to dealing with terrain and weather challenges, "it's very difficult to move materials in the region because of the hostilities," Wickham said. So DynCorp also made plans to use its own aircraft to move its personnel and equipment where they're needed when they're needed, lightening the burden on military aircraft, he said.

DynCorp is also using radio frequency identification tags to keep an electronic eye on goods that move about the country, ensuring that what DynCorp puts on the truck arrives at its destination, he said.

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