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April 27, 2004

Point A to Point B

I was reading Phillip Carter's "Hollow Force" in Friday's Slate, and he reminded me of one of my favorite military expressions: "amateurs study tactics—professionals study logistics." Carter explains:

The reason for this axiom is that even the simplest military task—like moving a unit from point A to point B—requires a Herculean logistical effort. Planes have to be scheduled; trains have to be contracted and loaded; ships must be diverted and filled with military equipment. Just consider what it takes to move a single tank company from Fort Stewart to Fallujah. Soldiers have to spend days inspecting and packing their vehicles before loading them onto trains that will take them to the port at Savannah, Ga. The trains will be met by more soldiers at dockside, who will work with longshoremen and contractors to put the tanks on a ship. Then the ship has to sail across to Kuwait, where it will be met by more troops and contractors. Only then can they roll north to Iraq. Moving one tank company costs a fortune and requires hundreds of people.

Reading this reminded me of a middle-of-the-night History Channel program I watched some months ago telling the story of the Army’s Quartermaster Corps in World War II. The Quartermaster Corps (QMC) is responsible for supplying soldiers in the field. They make sure the troops are fed, showered and clothed; supply gasoline and spare parts for equipment; and pack parachutes and deliver supplies via air-drop. Certainly their most solemn mission is what is termed "mortuary affairs". The Assistant to the Ground Quartermaster in Europe during WWII congratulated the QMC on

the successful accomplishment of the supply mission during 154 days of continuous combat, over 564 miles of enemy territory, under every conceivable condition of weather, terrain, and combat hazard, without loss of any supply and with a minimum loss of seven trucks (worn out) and three men wounded.

To get a sense of the importance of logistics to the Allied war effort, check out "POL on the Red Ball Express" by Dr. Steven Anders. Anders tells how the Quartermasters managed to continue supplying Bradley's First and Patton's Third Armies with gasoline even though the breakout from Normandy and mad dash across France put them well ahead of schedule. The decision to depart from the plan and let Allied forces advance as fast as they could resulted in what war correspondent Ernie Pyle called "'a tactician's hell and a quartermaster's purgatory'". The QMC responded gamely, setting up the Red Ball Express which, at its peak, used 6,000 trucks to deliver 800,000 gallons of gasoline per day to American forces.

Despite all we learned from WWII -- and presumably from other conflicts as well -- some say that the US has not managed logistics and supply lines well in Iraq. To be sure, the speed of 21st century warfare presents new challenges to logisticians (the mad dashes are madder, if you will), and in the case of Iraq one must keep in mind the ever-present challenge of joint (Army and Marine Corps) operations. But if you take the time to read about the Quartermaster Corps in WWII, passages like this one from a National Defense Magazine article really jump out at you:

The failures of the logistics apparatus during military operations in Iraq have been documented in various reports and studies. Soldiers and Marines have complained about shortages of basic supplies and difficulties in obtaining spare parts for ground vehicles and aircraft, among other gripes. As to why logistics has been a tough nut to crack, the explanation is that the system works very well at the "strategic" level, but collapses once the containers get unloaded from ships and cargo aircraft.... Designed for the Cold War, U.S. logistics systems can track all shipments and deliveries from the United States to overseas port of debarkation. But it lacks full "factory-to-foxhole" visibility of the supplies once they enter a theater of war.

In an effort to improve the situation, the Pentagon sent a group to set up the deployment and distribution operations center (DDOC) in Iraq under CentCom authority. According to the article, while the DDOC has improved the situation in Iraq it is an ad hoc, quick-fix solution to the military's "endemic flaws in battlefield logistics". And while endemic flaws call for systemic change, the creation of the DDOC has allowed the Pentagon brass to avoid committing to a suggested long-term alternative: the merger of the Defense Logistics Agency and Transportation Command into a four-star "Logistics Command".

Posted by shannon at April 27, 2004 9:01 PM | For related posts:


How odd is this - my sister says that there's not enough food getting to Tikrit, but her mail gets in every day, so I have to send her cooking supplies, like instant pancake mix and syrup, etc.

Posted by: PLC at April 28, 2004 1:19 PM

I can only assume that food and mail are delivered by different mechanisms/units. It's annoying, though -- you'd hope that they'd shift some of their "get mail to the front" resources to their "get FOOD to the front" effort when this sort of disparity arises.

In any event, I hope your sister stays safe over there.

Posted by: shannon at April 28, 2004 3:14 PM

While camping in the Olympic Mountains this weekend, I had a conversation with some guy from Ft. Lewis who just got back from a year in Mosul. He said the contractors who caravan the food and supplies up from Kuwait had quit because of constant attacks on the supply lines, but that mail was coming in via C-130s.

Posted by: PLC at May 3, 2004 6:08 PM