Modern ‘Red Ball Express’

CENTRAL IRAQ-On the 50th anniversary of World War II's Battle of the Bulge, Brig.Gen. Charles Fletcher, who heads the Army's 3rd Corps Support Command, known as COSCOM, went to Europe and bicycled the same route between Cherbourg and Bastogne in France that Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army had followed on its famous march to relieve Army forces surrounded by German troops during a last-ditch counteroffensive that began on Dec. 16, 1944. In a desperate attempt to keep Patton from outrunning his supply lines, the Army launched the "Red Ball Express," a transportation bucket brigade that pushed supplies across France hurriedly in the 3rd Army's burning wake.

Fletcher sees strong similarities between that operation and the effort to resupply the Army's V Corps in Iraq along a 310-mile logistics trail stretching from Kuwait to Baghdad's outskirts. "The Red Ball Express was . . . really the first attempt at resupplying a mobile armored force on a breakout offensive," says Fletcher.

As the adage goes, armchair strategists talk forces, while military professionals talk logistics. And the logistics of Operation Iraqi Freedom break down to a set of daunting statistics. An armored or air-mobile division on the move consumes roughly 550,000 gallons of fuel a day. COSCOM, just to supply V Corps's forward forces with the requisite 1 million gallons of fuel, needed 3 million gallons in its pipeline. Each of the tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in the Iraqi theater, meanwhile, consumed at least a liter of water an hour. The harder those units and soldiers fought, the higher their ammunition, fuel, and water requirements climbed.

Fletcher's COSCOM forces, which outnumbered any U.S. fighting division in the theater, tried to fill those gaps in capability on the ground with technology and synchronization. "Doctrinally, we typically travel in large formations with short communications lines, so trucks without GPS, and radios with only a 30-kilometer range, are standard," Fletcher says.

COSCOM purchased 400 commercial satellite trackers off the shelf so it always could locate its highest-priority vehicles, including many fuel trucks, ambulances, and military police command vehicles. Satellite phones were purchased for many drivers. High-priority cargo containers were labeled with radio-frequency tags that revealed their location and contents at a simple query from headquarters. An Army Movement Tracking System that uses technology similar to "E-ZPass" highway tollbooth cards identified much of the other cargo. Movement-control teams armed with computer software that has analyzed optimum traffic flow and detours at every key crossroads and intersection on the road to Baghdad also helped manage traffic congestion. In the event all of that failed, plans were in place to airdrop supplies to isolated units or those running dangerously low on critical supplies.

However, the capture of some members of a lost U.S. maintenance crew in the first days of the war, as well as spot reports that some U.S. combat units at the front were running low on fuel and ammunition, showed the substantial risks that U.S. commanders assumed by pushing combat forces so far forward on such short timelines while leaving hundreds of miles of Iraqi territory unsecured.

"We've accepted some significant risks given the mission and our battle plan, which is all the more reason why we need to win this war quickly," Fletcher said shortly after the start of the war. "But our forces are notgoingtorunoutofgas."

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