Logistics: November 15, 2003

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The Iraq campaign has proved a bonanza for logistical and maintenance troops. Now they have practical experience to back their claims that the army has been shortchanging them when it comes to equipment, training and personnel. Field exercises are expensive, but putting all the troops into the field, at once and under combat conditions is the only way to see what works and what doesn't. But these exercises rarely last longer than a week, and are conducted mainly to give the combat troops a chance to move around, run through some of their tactical maneuvers and, well, "exercise" the unit (usually a battalion, brigade or division). The support (logistics and maintenance) troops don't get that much of a work out. When the support officers point out that more intense operations (like those during the advance on Baghdad) would find the unit without sufficient support resources to keep them going, they are generally ignored. No more. What support officers have been warning about for decades proved all too true during the Iraq campaign. First, there was the shortage of trucks to move the fuel and ammunition needed to keep the fuel, munitions and other stuff coming. This was foreseen, and it was thought that civilian truck companies from Kuwait could pick up the slack. But then the Iraqi irregulars began shooting at the supply convoys, and the Kuwaiti truckers pointed out that they were civilians and wound not provide target practice for trigger happy Iraqis. That's when it was discovered that decades of slacking off on combat training for support troops made it difficult for these supply convoys to defend themselves. Combat troops had to be diverted from the fighting to help with security, and provide on-the-spot refresher combat training. At this point, the support troops were eager to learn. 

But trucks weren't the only problem. Maintenance troops were not up to maintaining armored vehicles traveling so far in such a short time. Armored vehicles are complex beasts with lots of components that are prone to failure. The result was maintenance troops worked to the point of exhaustion, and lots of armored vehicles operating with broken gadgets (usually communications, navigation or one of the many computers carried.) Even the support units found the tempo of operations more than their equipment could handle. Often truck convoys and support units were out of range of each others radios. The support units had never operated so far from each other before. Now everyone realized that new radio equipment was needed, along with a lot of other new stuff. 

Why hadn't these problems been seen in advance? Call it tradition. Logistics is not sexy. Support officers are considered a bunch of geeky drones and the combat arms officers who populate the upper ranks generally ignore them. This is nothing new, it's been going on for centuries. It's not a uniquely American problem either. In fact, the United States is regarded as having one of the better attitudes towards logistics. But even with all that, things got messy on the road to Baghdad. Lessons were learned, but it remains to be seen if the lessons will turn into solutions.

 


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