Army airborne troops load ships for massive mobilization

One of the Army’s premier warfighting divisions is relying on an unprecedented military sealift operation to carry its equipment to the Middle East.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.- of the Army's premier warfighting divisions is relying on an unprecedented military sealift operation to carry its equipment to the Middle East.

Sandwiched between commercial cargo ships at port in Jacksonville, Fla., troops from the Army's 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Ky., are simultaneously loading two of the military's largest cargo ships, the USNS Dahl and USNS Bob Hope, with everything from helicopters to Humvees. By the end of the weekend, the ships, their seven decks brimming with military cargo, will begin a three-week voyage to the Middle East for a possible war in Iraq.

Army Brig. Gen. Edward "E.J." Sinclair, assistant division commander for the 101st Airborne, said the division got orders to deploy to the Persian Gulf last week. By early next week, 3,800 vehicles, more than 250 helicopters and other gear for the division's roughly 17,000 soldiers will be loaded and sailing to the region. In the past, loading all that equipment would have taken a month and required more than a dozen ships. Now it will be done in about 10 days on six ships, Sinclair said.

"This has never been done before," said Lt. Col. Paul Giovino, the Military Traffic Management Command's port manager at Jacksonville. The Army has long used sealift for transporting equipment, but has never before tried loading two of the world's largest cargo ships, each about three football fields in length, at once in the same port.

The Army oversees the loading of all military equipment onto cargo ships, although the dock work is done by contractor longshoremen. The Navy's Military Sealift Command maintains the cargo ship fleet and hires contractor crews to sail the ships-with a handful of military personnel on board for security and maintenance.

Similar military cargo loading operations have been underway since earlier this year at commercial ports across the country from Savannah, Ga., to San Diego, Calif.

The enhanced sealift is the result of an investment of more than $6 billion by the Defense Department in cargo ships since the last Gulf War. In 1991, the Defense Department relied on a fleet of smaller, commercial cargo ships, but concerns about security and the design of those ships prompted the service to buy its own fleet of 19 ships. The Military Sealift Command activates the fleet as needed for various deployments. The ongoing buildup in Iraq is the largest test yet of the new fleet.

Army Col. Tom E. Thompson, chief of staff for MTMC, said the advantage of buying a fleet of cargo ships is that they can be designed to handle the heavy weight of military vehicles, such as 60-ton Abrams tanks, and have wide-open decks for stowing various pieces of cargo. Commercial cargo ships are primarily designed to handle large storage containers stacked on each other in long rows.

Some of these kinds of containers will be stowed aboard the Bob Hope, but most of the space is taken up by military trucks lashed to the deck with large metal chains and helicopters that have been shrink wrapped in white, plastic cocoons and secured to the deck with yellow nylon straps. All told, about 75 percent of the ship's 387,000 square feet of space will be filled with equipment, making it, in essence, a floating parking garage.

Advanced computer software calculates precisely where each piece of equipment will be placed, and electronic tags are used to identify the equipment as it moves from the Kentucky base to the Middle East.

Sinclair says the biggest challenge is not loading the ships, but getting the equipment to the dock. The 101st Airborne requires that ships be loaded in "force packages" tailored to specific missions, so they can be rapidly unloaded if necessary. Creating those packages requires synchronizing everything from the arrival of cargo on rail cars to flying helicopters to the ports, where they are shrink-wrapped.

"I haven't figured how one rail car can pass another that left Fort Campbell first, but it does," said Sinclair. But he said it will all come together by mid-March, when the 101st Airborne and all its equipment will be fully deployed.