U.S. military agencies charged with managing the drawdown from Afghanistan are faced with a tangle of complexities, a situation far more challenging than the similar process that took place at the end of the Iraq conflict. In Iraq, vehicles that were headed home to the States could simply be driven across the border to Kuwait, where the U.S. military had staging, preparation and shipping facilities. The same vehicles being removed from Afghanistan must be trucked through Pakistan to the port of Karachi, a process complicated by touchy U.S.-Pakistan relations, or north to rail facilities in former Soviet republics for shipment to ports in eastern and central Europe. Particularly sensitive equipment, in some cases massively heavy vehicles like MRAPs, sometimes has to be airlifted out of the country, an expensive proposition.
Related to the costs and complexities of the Afghanistan drawdown is the decision to leave some equipment behind, either to be destroyed or sold or donated to other countries. The cost associated with transporting equipment out of Afghanistan creates an incentive, especially in these budget-constrained times, to leave more equipment behind. The decision not to remove all of the equipment and how to dispose of equipment not leaving Afghanistan triggers even more complexity.
On top of all that, there are still equipment and supplies coming into Afghanistan to sustain the shrinking U.S. and NATO presences in that country. “Supplies into the country are coordinated with movements out of the country to the greatest extent possible,” said Army Colonel James Utley, chief of the East Division, U.S. Transportation Command’s Operations Directorate, “although we are not moving a lot by surface transportation into the country. We are carrying primarily food supplies via the Northern Distribution Network,” the route that takes cargo through the former Soviet republics. “Units carrying critical sensitive equipment inbound has pretty much dried up.”
“To reduce cost and leverage throughout, we are taking advantage of opportunities to use empty backhaul flights to load materiel and ship it out of Afghanistan,” said Army Brigadier General Francisco Espaillat, executive director of operations in DLA Logistics Operations. “But we still have a requirement to supply the forces with fuel, food, repair parts and other commodities like medical supplies. We stay very close to the warfighter as part of our deliberative planning efforts.”
DLA has personnel assigned to Central Command headquarters in Kuwait as well as 190 DLA military and civilian employees in Afghanistan. Espaillat is currently serving a six-month deployment as the director of CENTCOM’s Deployment & Distribution Operations Center in Kuwait.
“Afghanistan is one of the most difficult places in the world to get to,” said Major General (Ret.) Charles Fletcher, a NATO logistics senior mentor and a senior vice president at Alion Science & Technology. “In the north, it has some of highest mountains in the world, and it has deserts in the south. There are over 30 nations in the alliance fighting in Afghanistan and many of them have a different view on how rapidly they want to get out of the country.”
“We still have product going into Afghanistan, but the volume has dropped off considerably,” said Tim Smith, government program manager for Stanley Vidmar, a maker of storage cabinets for tools, supplies and bulk items. “They are winding down, but they are not getting out of Afghanistan completely. There will be a small contingency for the foreseeable future.”
The continued in-flow of equipment adds a degree of complexity to the problem, noted Fletcher, but the drawdown itself is enormously complicated. “You don’t want commanders on the ground who are in the process of building up Afghan forces focused on all the requirements of moving equipment out,” he said. “Additional people had to be put in country to manage this process in coordination and cooperation with all the other needs in theater.”
In his position as a NATO senior mentor, Fletcher has been involved in months-long discussions on the coordination of outbound shipments. “A large problem involves flying out high-priority equipment,” he said. “It would be advantageous to fly them to a regional port and ship them out from there, but there is a finite amount of airlift and not a lot of space at area ports to stage the equipment.”
Another problem is raised by the issue of just who owns the equipment. “Some of it is U.S. equipment that was loaned to other nations that now want to keep it,” said Fletcher. “This raises the question of whether it is in U.S. interests to give or sell the equipment to the country that has been using it. If so, we may be the ones to ship the equipment out of the country.”
“The armed services are the ones making the decisions to bring out a certain amount of equipment and leave other equipment in place, whether for destruction or to be designated as excess defense articles,” said Utley. “Excess defense articles have to be approved for sale to the other countries. We may or may not play a role in moving that equipment. Typically we do not. Usually the country that buys the equipment is responsible for moving it.” Transfers of equipment to other countries have yet to begin.
TRANSCOM is the end-to-end distribution process owner for the Department of Defense and manages all strategic transportation for all of DoD. “We have several partners we work with,” said Utley. “The Defense Logistics Agency is one primary partner. They procure supplies going into theater and we move them into theater through the Defense Transportation System.” The defense transportation system consists of both organic military assets and capabilities as well as those provided by commercial providers.
It’s DLA’s job to screen equipment for reutilization within DoD, federal civil agencies, and state and local governments. “Every effort is made to reutilize materiel back to the military services first and foremost,” said Espaillat. “We also see what opportunities there are to use materiel as part of the Foreign Military Sales program. If it is determined equipment is no longer usable, it is demilitarized in theater and removed from the inventory. That saves billions in transportation costs as we don’t have to bring the material back to the U.S. for disposal.”
There are two buckets of equipment that are getting shipped back from Afghanistan: unit equipment and theater-provided equipment. “Unit cargo is brought into theater by the unit and it goes back with the unit to the home station,” Utley explained. “The theater-provided equipment, things like big trucks that the units acquire in theater, is considered retrograde and goes through a somewhat different process.”
“In the first place, units decide which of their equipment they want to take back,” said Smith. “They may designate 90 percent of the equipment to be shipped back because the rest is a maintenance nightmare. The unit sends its proposal to headquarters and headquarters sends it to division for approval. They may actually cut down on the equipment to be shipped back based in need. Eventually, the Department of the Army OKs the plan.” The heavy equipment considered to be retrograde is not owned by units but by the theater command. “Units that need the equipment requisition it and then turn it back when they are finished with it,” said Utley. “Units that want to ship equipment out submit a requirement 120 days in advance to the U.S. Central Command.”
That request is analyzed through the Joint Operation Planning and Execution System (JOPES), an electronic information system that is used to monitor, plan and execute mobilization, deployment, employment and sustainment activities associated with joint operations. JOPES provides users with access to joint operations planning policies, procedures and reporting structures that are supported by communications and automated data processing systems. “CENTCOM uses JOPES to validate the requirement,” said Utley, “and we at TRANSCOM analyze its transportation feasibility. We plan the movement through transportation mode and port of embarkation. We can usually accommodate unit requests unless it is last-minute.”
Retrograde goes through a more expedited 10-day process. “The equipment is returned to yards in Afghanistan where sensitive items such as radios are removed,” said Utley. “Army Materiel Command identifies the requirement to remove the equipment using the same process but on a more condensed timeline. If the equipment is severely damaged or broken, the decision is made whether to send it home for repair or to destroy it because it’s not worth the cost of transportation.”
For equipment that is identified for transport, a decision of how it will be removed from Afghanistan is made. “Instead of driving equipment to Kuwait, as was done from Iraq, some of it is trucked or railed across 26 countries to ports in Eastern Europe or Russia,” said Smith. “Some sensitive equipment such as MRAPs often is flown out of the country.” Smith was referring to one option, the northern distribution route, which brings equipment in and out of Afghanistan through neighboring former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan to ports on the Baltic Sea.
“We generally move sensitive equipment out by air,” said Utley. “The equipment is flown out of Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan to Dubai or other locations.
Other equipment is trucked from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where it is loaded on board vessels in Karachi.
Delivery of materiel is facilitated through DLA Distribution’s 25 distribution centers worldwide. “DLA Distribution is responsible for all receipt, storing and issuing of it,” said Espaillat. “DLA uses our strategic alliances with U.S. Transportation Command to deliver to customer destinations. DLA Disposition Services is also responsible for demilitarizing and disposing of scrap no longer required by the military forces. It is also responsible for disposing of materiel for coalition partners.”
The starting point for trying to figure out what equipment goes and what stays, according to Fletcher, is whether the U.S. military needs the equipment and whether the Afghan military can use it and maintain it. “We equipped the Afghan army and security forces with HMMWVs,” he said. “Some HMMWVs could logically be left behind particularly those original HMMWVs that were not up-armored. They might be of value to the Afghans but less so to us. Other equipment like power-generation equipment and lighting equipment we will also probably want to leave behind.”
Some damaged or otherwise useless items could be sold as scrap. “There are scrap brokers and dealers in that part of the world that will want to pick that up,” said Fletcher. “But some damaged equipment, such as those that have been hit by IEDs or projectiles, can’t be sold because we don’t want anyone looking at the effects of what a projectile or an IED has on our vehicles.”
Once a decision for scrapping is made, DLA Disposition Services gets involved. “DLA Disposition Services operates four disposal sites throughout the area of responsibility,” said Espaillat, “and provides mobile disposal teams that deploy to forward operating bases, thereby decreasing the amount of times materiel is touched and reducing the volume of transportation requirements in Afghanistan.”
Beyond donating excess equipment to Afghanistan, there is also the possibility of selling equipment to other countries. Coalition forces have expressed interest in acquiring some of the equipment the U.S. may be leaving behind, according to Fletcher.
“In the first place, the U.S. military is going to see whether the equipment is of use to the military, to government agencies, or even if it could meet non-government requirements,” said Fletcher. “If it is not needed, it could be a good candidate for a foreign military sale. At that point, the State Department gets involved to analyze the political implications of selling the equipment to a particular recipient nation.”
Today’s budget constraints create an incentive to leave more equipment behind, according to Fletcher.
“In previous years, additional funds were given to the services to pay for the additional requirement of operating in Afghanistan,” he said. “With the recent budget cuts, the services might have to pay for some of the transportation costs out of Afghanistan from elsewhere in their own budgets.”
Fletcher believes the process is going as well as can be expected, given budgetary constraints. “In the past there may have been more discretionary funding to support the process,” he said. “These days you have to go through the narrow confines of the military budget and there is not much money coming in from our coalition partners because most of them are in worse economic shape than we are.
“This is a top priority for many people,” Fletcher added. “Everyone understands the future implications for readiness of not bringing equipment out. This issue is consuming a lot of energy both here and in Europe.” ♦
- Issue: 8
- Volume: 7