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Capturing the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif was a key victory in the campaign to win control of Afghanistan. The fall of the Taliban stronghold opened access to one of the country's three main airfields.


ut as U.S. troops and rag-tag Northern Alliance forces marched up the Balk Valley into the city in November 2001, they quickly realized their extensive air bombing campaign had left the base in ruins. Massive craters from U.S. bombs rendered much of the runway useless. The windows in the air control tower were shattered. The Taliban had removed most of the airfield's avionics equipment. What remained was stripped and inoperable. And as the city fell, the Taliban left an obstacle course of bombs and booby traps throughout the base.

While ordnance teams blew up scores of pipe bombs surrounding the airfield, Air Force combat controllers-air traffic controllers trained to operate on the battlefield-debated options for getting planes flying in and out of the city. The shattered tower would be replaced with a makeshift air traffic center using vehicles and portable radio and lighting systems. Meanwhile, an adjacent Soviet airstrip was rejected as an alternative runway because it was in no shape to handle heavily loaded cargo planes. The only choice was to repair the main runway at Mazar-e-Sharif.

Air Force civil engineers were called in to make the repairs. Though some 4,000 feet of the main runway had been turned to rubble, an airfield pavement evaluations team found that another 7,000 feet of runway could be used if eight craters, which were at least 5 feet deep and 8 feet wide, could be filled. The Air Force's 823rd Red Horse Squadron, combat engineers trained to build and repair air bases, got the job. But they had no access to asphalt or concrete since the region's few manufacturing plants had been destroyed during decades of war. Moreover, the squadron's bulldozers and pavement smoothers could not be driven to the airport because a land route from Uzbekistan had yet to be opened.

With few other options, the commander of the Red Horse Squadron turned to local contractors. Under the supervision of Red Horse engineers, Afghans shoveled gravel into small pickup trucks, drove them to the airfield, unloaded them and then pounded the gravel into the craters with hand tools. Alongside the runway, Red Horse members and local laborers boiled a crude tar mixture in 55-gallon drums. They used the hot, tarry ooze to seal the gravel patches. An Air Force civil engineer likened the process to fixing the runway with "bubble gum and Skittles."

But it worked. The Red Horse Squadron was able to repair enough runway to enable special operations aircraft to fly into Mazar-e-Sharif within 10 days of the city's capture. Over the next few weeks, controllers and engineers steered runway traffic around the filled-in craters, which needed re-patching at least every two days. By January, more advanced paving equipment arrived, making lasting fixes possible. Before the month was out, Air Force cargo planes could fly in and out of northern Afghanistan.

Kathleen Ferguson, deputy Air Force civil engineer, says the challenges in setting up the Mazar-e-Sharif air base emphasize the need for combat engineers near the front lines. "We are exploring the use of airborne Red Horse troops. If we add an airborne capability, that would allow [cargo aircraft] to get in quicker," she says. Along with logistics managers and civil engineers across the military services, Ferguson is harvesting lessons from the campaign in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, to improve the way the military sets up and maintains bases around the world.

Among the approaches are increased pre-positioning of equipment in potential hot spots and at sea, U.S. partnerships with other nations to build military facilities and make more extensive use of existing ones, and greater reliance on contractors to build and operate bases overseas.


The strategic importance of the Middle East, and increasingly of Central Asia, has made those areas test sites for the new approaches. Through much of the 1980s, the U.S. military presence in the Middle East consisted of little more than small Navy offices in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, an Air Force contingent training Saudi Arabian military forces, and stockpiles of supplies in warehouses of friendly nations, such as Oman. The fall of the Soviet Union and the start of the Persian Gulf War in 1990 brought dramatic shifts of U.S. resources to the Arabian Peninsula. Since the early 1990s, no fewer than a dozen U.S. military bases or U.S.-funded facilities have been built in the Persian Gulf area, according to John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, a research group in Alexandria, Va. "We just sort of never have come home after the Gulf War," he says.

Middle Eastern nations friendly to the United States built many of the facilities with U.S. needs in mind. In essence, these countries found spending hundreds of millions of dollars a small price to pay for an ongoing U.S. relationship. For example, Qatar is making $400 million in upgrades at Al Udeid Air Base, just south of the capital city of Doha on the Persian Gulf coast. They include building a command and control facility, permanent housing, and aviation fuel tanks. The facility could become headquarters for a U.S. war on Iraq if Saudi Arabia resists a U.S. presence. In October, 600 civilian and military personnel from the Defense Department's Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., were sent to Al Udeid for a training exercise that some Defense experts see as a preview of how a war against Iraq would be run. Meanwhile, Kuwait recently built a $200 million, state-of-the-art warehousing facility just south of Kuwait City, known as Camp Arifjan. There, equipment for thousands of U.S. soldiers is stored. "If they build it, we will come. These are small countries in a dangerous neighborhood," says Pike.

Long-standing Middle Eastern alliances also have included cooperative basing agreements. In the 1980s, the United States and Oman forged an agreement to store equipment for Air Force personnel. In return, the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading airfields and hangars for the country. The United States retains the right to use those facilities with the permission of the sultan of Oman. The arrangement paid off when Oman became a key staging area and home to more than 3,000 U.S. troops during the Gulf War. More recently, Oman announced a $70 million contract to build a new air base on Masirah Island, from which U.S. planes reportedly launched bombing attacks on Afghanistan.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Va., says U.S planning for war with Iraq is more difficult due to erosion of access to some bases in the Middle East. The Saudis, for example, repeatedly have said they would not support a U.S. attack on Iraq because of internal opposition to a war on another Muslim nation. America likely will gain the access it needs, including to bases in Saudi Arabia. But it may take some 11th hour diplomatic maneuvering similar to the Bush administration's push to get basing rights from former Soviet states, such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, as Operation Enduring Freedom unfolded in Afghanistan.


The military services have developed backup options in case bases are not available. During the war on terrorism, nearly all fighter aircraft used in Afghanistan took off from ships. Delays in negotiating basing and flyover agreements blocked the use of many foreign airfields. And for the first time, special operations troops used an aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, to stage, organize and deploy troops and equipment to Central Asia. "I expect you will see more of this," says Navy Secretary Gordon England. "The Navy view is that we will have more sea basing than we have had in the past. We will use those sea bases to influence events ashore."

The increasing capabilities of U.S. aircraft make it possible to build or use bases farther from the theater of operations, an advantage especially when relations are shaky with countries close to the action. Air Force B-2 bomber pilots broke endurance records during the Afghanistan operation by flying more than 40 hours on round-trip bombing runs from Whitman Air Force Base, Mo., without touching down on foreign soil. The Air Force recently announced that some portion of the B-2 fleet would move overseas to Royal Air Force Base Fairford, England, and the British-controlled Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, about 1,800 miles south of the Indian Coast.

The Army and Marine Corps are reducing their need for bases abroad by storing equipment and supplies at sea. The Marine Corps has a fleet of 16 ships in the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. Three squadrons of four to six ships can provide enough equipment and supplies to support a Marine expeditionary unit-about 17,000 troops-for 30 days. The Army also has a fleet of 13 pre-positioned ships, including eight large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ships and smaller ships that carry enough equipment and supplies for an armored brigade of about 10,000 soldiers The Army's eight LMSRs are anchored off Diego Garcia and could be deployed to the Persian Gulf region in a few days as opposed to the weeks it would take to move the equipment from warehouses and bases in the United States or Europe. Meanwhile, the Defense Logistics Agency, the Air Force and the Marine Corps also use smaller pre-positioned ships to store munitions, petroleum and other supplies.

Where agreements are in place, the Army will continue to pre-position equipment in warehouses in allied nations just as it did in Western Europe during the Cold War. As the Soviet threat waned, much of that materiel moved south to Middle Eastern nations. The Army maintains enough equipment and gear in Kuwait and Qatar to outfit two brigades, including 70-ton Abrams tanks and medical supplies for more than 10,000 soldiers.


As the military downsized throughout the 1990s, support jobs were contracted out to free up troops for front-line warfighting jobs. During peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, contractors boasted that they could do any job that did not require a gun. In Kosovo, the Army has at times had more contractors on the ground than it has had soldiers. The Army has had as many as 20,000 soldiers in the Balkans, but in the past few years, that figure has dipped to well below 10,000.

Today, contractors maintain pre-positioned equipment in Middle Eastern warehouses, assist in building camps and airfields in austere Central Asian locations, and run overseas bases for thousands of soldiers. Some even find themselves on the battlefield repairing weapons systems.

About 5,200 contractors supported 541,000 soldiers during the Persian Gulf War-roughly one contractor for every 100 soldiers. "We're going to see a lot of contractors in the Gulf" if we go to war again," says Brookings Institution Fellow P.W. Singer, an expert on privatizing military work overseas. Singer predicts the contractor-to-warfighter ratio for a second Iraq campaign would be 1-to-10.

Already, thousands of military contractors are in the Middle East maintaining pre-positioned equipment. The Air Force pays DynCorp, a logistics services provider headquartered in Reston, Va., $30 million a year to maintain enough equipment in Qatar, Oman and Bahrain to supply as many as 26,000 U.S. airmen. Similarly, the Army pays Dyncorp $25 million annually to maintain the service's floating stockpiles of support equipment stored on ships in the Indian Ocean. Other contractors maintain Army gear stored in Kuwait and Qatar. "The pre-positioned equipment would be there either way, but if you didn't use a contractor it would be at a much higher cost to the government," says Jacques Gansler, who was undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics in the Clinton administration. Contractors can hire workers in foreign countries at local prevailing wages, which usually are much lower than in the United States.

David Young is deputy commander for international operations at the Defense Contract Management Agency. He says that using contractors also allows the military services to get around limits that Middle Eastern nations have placed on the number of U.S. military personnel on their soil. The Defense Department and the military services won't say how many contractors are in the Persian Gulf region, but GlobalSecurity.com's Pike estimates there could be as many as 10,000 spread across a number of countries-including several thousand in Saudi Arabia, 1,000 in Kuwait and 500 to 1,000 in Qatar.

Since the Persian Gulf War, the Defense Department has managed its support contractors differently. Instead of negotiating scores of contracts with thousands of companies, each military service has awarded indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (ID/IQ) contracts with prime contractors that manage smaller firms providing goods and services at pre-approved prices. The deals are designed to save time and money by avoiding a fully competitive, cumbersome procurement for each purchase and by preventing the headaches involved in managing hundreds of small contracts.

Don Trautner, manager of the Army's Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), calls the umbrella agreement he runs "a 24-7 contract that covers the Army worldwide." The Army began using LOGCAP, an ID/IQ contract, in Somalia in 1992, spending about $62 million to build base camps. But the deals came of age as troops deployed to the Balkans. The Army paid $2.2 billion to have Brown and Root Services, the lead LOGCAP contractor, build, operate and maintain bases for as many as 20,000 troops. Last year, the Army created a separate umbrella logistics contract with Brown and Root, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to provide support service to troops doing peacekeeping work in the Balkans.

The Army has used LOGCAP to purchase some services and equipment needed in Afghanistan, but not on the scale of the Balkans. The longer the Army stays in the region, the more likely it is to tap contractors for support. For example, the Army now is using LOGCAP contractors in Uzbekistan to build sturdier, more permanent housing as the winter approaches.

While the Army has used contractors to provide a host of base services, the Air Force has used the Air Force Civilian Augmentation Program (AFCAP) contract to provide engineering services. Air Force Maj. Patrick Morris, deputy commander of the 820th Red Horse Squadron, says that when combat engineers were building runways costing $25.4 million in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year, they relied on local vendors in the AFCAP network to provide heavy equipment that would have been too expensive to fly in.

The Air Force has been increasing its use of AFCAP in recent years, especially in support of operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Since February, the Air Force has awarded $90 million in AFCAP contracts ranging from support for runway repair projects in the United Arab Emirates to providing and maintaining power generators for nine locations throughout Central Asia. In the previous five years, the Air Force had spent a total of $140 million on AFCAP services. The Navy meanwhile, has used smaller regional logistics contracts to provide base operations support services. The Navy's worldwide spending on such services and construction has more than doubled from $728 million in 1991 to $1.48 billion in 2001. In Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Navy used contractors to build permanent facilities for al Qaeda prisoners. Navy Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, commander of the First Naval Construction Division, which oversees Navy construction engineers and workers known as Seabees, says contractors' habit of hiring local workers has improved ties with some Central Asian nations.

Defense experts do not doubt the manpower and dollar savings created by using the private sector for battlefield support, but some question whether contractors can be counted on when the bullets begin to fly. Former Pentagon acquisition czar Gansler says risks to contractors have grown with the rise of weapons of mass destruction. DCMA's Young says military personnel often wonder whether contractors will stay for the duration of a conflict. Paul Lombardi, chief executive officer of Dyncorp, dismisses questions about the reliability of contractors. "Every once in a while you get a rogue service guy who says, 'They'll desert us on the battlefield,' but that's a crock," Lombardi says.

As terrorist attacks on military facilities have become more common and as enmity toward the United States grows, contractors and Defense contract managers have become more concerned about hiring foreign workers. Contractors have become more stringent about requiring background checks on local workers and screening local companies. "In today's climate and this part of the world, very keen attention must be paid to security and force protection, particularly in regard to possible terrorist attacks," Kubic says. "Although, the majority of the local population may be supportive, there may be groups who wish to do us harm."