Friday, May 15, 2009

Logistics


The old military adage says that amateurs talk tactics, while professionals study logistics. It's hard not to think about logistics after having just been shipped home for 15 days along with 200 other military and civilian personnel stationed in the Middle East and Central Asia. The flight that I was on was not special - they go every day bringing 200 or more people halfway around the world to visit home briefly before bringing them all the way back.

No doubt exists that our military has mastered the logistics of warfighting. But sometimes I wonder if our logistical prowess is always being used in the best way to ensure we're successful in the war. I met a company commander on the flight who had been shipped home for a few days to accept an award. His tour ends soon, but he was required to go back to the States for the award and will end up being gone from his unit for two weeks with all the travel time. Just because we can do something, does not necessarily mean we should. It's great he got to accept his award in person, but shouldn't the conduct of the war take precedence?

I'm on a nine-month tour here, which is not long compared to what some of the Army units out here have to deal with. Nine months would have been very doable without leave, but since it was offered, most of our guys chose to take it. As a result, we're incapable of operating to our capacity for two plus months of our deployment due to lack of personnel.

I'm certainly not complaining about being a member of the most technologically advanced and well-supplied military on earth. It's great that we have such great equipment to use and rarely want for anything. Even when I was at one of the most remote outposts in the country we still had all we needed. It's great that we can build outposts in the middle of nowhere with no road access and still support them logistically. But there are costs and risks involved with supplying remote outposts. It was commonplace in our valley to receive supplies airdropped from C-17s - the term is CDS drop for control-descent system. I had an amusing morning several months ago as I was woken by gunfire and someone glibly talking over the radio, "Yeah, they're shooting at the C-17 again." I felt obligated to get out of bed and put down some suppression fire in the direction of the gunfire's origin, but all along I couldn't stop laughing at the absurdity of the insurgents shooting small arms at plane flying at 10,000 feet. While the aircraft was under no danger, and we usually managed to recover most of the supplies dropped, the expense of conducting such an operation has to be substantial. You have to wonder if that money would be better spent on the Afghan people themselves.

Since we are without a reliable road out in the valley, most supplies come in via helicopter. The helos would "sling" the supplies in by carrying them underneath the aircraft using slings and ropes. The more supplies you need, the more trips you make. And the more trips you make, the more your chances of a mishap. And in the most disheartening moment so far in my tour, at one point I saw a helo get hit by gunfire as it approached a mountaintop base with several slings of supplies. The helo went down on the other side of the valley, fortunately only killing one person. Realistically, the fact that we can supply those outposts by air has prevented us from having the urgency necessary to get a road constructed. With no road leading to the valley, the situation will likely not improve much for the Afghan people and ourselves in that place. And so indirectly our capabilities have retarded our progress.

Helicopters aren't the only ones exposed - convoys are as well. There's no telling how many individuals were wounded or killed in Iraq delivering supplies. And the fact is, that even in the most remote and difficult to supply areas, we still waste supplies because we know we can get more. I've seen a large amount of supplies just abandoned to the elements at different bases.

Not only is bringing in all these supplies dangerous and expensive, but it leads to complacency in a lot of areas. When we're logistically able to supply nearly everyone with outstanding food and bring in plasma screen televisions and internet cafes, you have to believe these distractions detract from the mission. Morale is important of course, but so is focusing on why we here.

I'm an advocate for shorter, tougher tours, with less distractions, as opposed to the lengthy tours most people serve now, characterized by slow optempo and relative comfort. Of course, being a marine, it's natural that I feel that way, since the Marines serve seven busy months, while the Army serves one long slow year. And I really can't blame the Army for their slower optempo since their tours are so much longer than the Marine Corps. I just don't think it's the way to go. If we actually had a tighter budget, reduced some of the frills and used our logicistical capabilities more wisely, I think we'd perform a little better in the end.

2 comments:

Ky Woman said...

Hi K,

Just found your blog, Interesting to read your take on activities in your area. Doesn't seem like much has changed since I've started reading milblogs +2yrs ago.
But...You don't think that the (Army)longer tours give a better continuity to the mission than the (Marine) shorter tours do? It just seems to me that even with the yr. deployed, much of that is spent doing other things beside accomplishing the mission of an ETT. Then just when you are actually showing some progress, tour is up. And the mission is handed off to another group coming in.

As for the tighter budget, reducing frills and utilizing the logistical capabilities, how would you go about that? I agree with eliminating some of the frills, especially for fobbits at BAF, J-bad, and Eggers... Send the best of what is available to the guys out in the FOB's, COB's and FB's. Unfortunately, doesn't seem to work that way.

Oh, have you read A.L.L. Afghan Lessons Learned? Maybe you could contribute to their content.

I see that you have the best mil-bloggers on your bloglist. ;-) Y'all take care, Stay safe.

K said...

Ky Woman,

Thanks for reading and responding. Funny one of my first commentators would be from my home state. Pros and cons both ways on the tour lengths. I've done tours of 7 months and 1 year in Iraq, and now we're 6 months in to a 9 month tour here. The big problem with the year-long tours is you have people on leave nearly all the time. 15% of your unit is gone at any given time for the middle eight months of the tour. The obviously reduces what you can get done. The unit itself has no continuity while it's in theater because it's always dealing with manpower shortages and people filling in jobs they aren't accustomed to.

I agree we need more continuity between units as they switch out, but I don't see an easy way to achieve that and to me a unit coming in full throttle for 7 months will get more done to turn over their replacements than a unit going half-speed for a year. I think 9 months without leave would be about right. 9 months is the minimum time you have to serve to take leave, so most of our guys took it including myself, though I wish I hadn't for various reasons.

As for the logistical issues, my point was that we have more than we need, not only on the grand FOBs like Bagram, but nearly everywhere. I was happiest and got the most done when I lived at a base with no running water, no internet, and eating all of my food with the Afghans or from care packages. There is no feeling in the world like satisfaction and satisfaction doesn't come from having it easy. I'm not saying you have to live badly to get satisfaction out of being in a war, but I am saying that all those extra niceties might be getting in our way and reducing our focus.

I haven't actually delved in to the A.L.L yet, though I've been aware of it.