Logistics Lessons

Troops, equipment and supplies moved faster and more efficiently to war in Iraq than in any previous conflict. Now military planners must build on that success.

While troops raced toward Baghdad this spring, digital maps hanging from a wall inside the Joint Mobility Operations Center at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., blinked updates every four minutes to show the path cargo planes and ships were taking to the Middle East. During the height of the war in Iraq, every one of the military's 450 daily cargo flights and more than 120 cargo ships at sea were tracked on the screen, as was everything stowed aboard them-from Joint Direct Attack Munitions to meals for soldiers.

In rows of cubicles beneath the digital displays, dozens of military and civilian workers from the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) looked at the same maps on their computer screens. The maps, along with an extensive database with details on more than 5 million items and troops in transit, came in handy as telephone calls and e-mail queries poured in from logisticians at ports and airfields in the Persian Gulf: How soon would a spare part arrive? When would the next shipment of meals arrive? When was the next batch of troops due? With just a few mouse clicks, TRANSCOM workers not only could report where a ship or plane was and when it was due to arrive, but also could determine which pallet or shipping container carried what. In many cases, logisticians in the field also could go online, pull up the map and data and answer their own questions.

"We've performed for our customers," says Navy Rear Adm. Christopher Ames, director of plans and policy for TRANSCOM, who is overseeing ongoing reviews of how the command performed during the war. TRANSCOM, based at Scott Air Force Base, oversees the transport of military personnel and equipment around the world.

Vice Adm. Keith Lippert, director of the Defense Logistics Agency, says the war in Iraq validated a new business model that moves away from "stuffing items in warehouses" to relying on technology and contractors to provide inventory as needed. The agency, which operates separately from TRANSCOM, is responsible for ordering, stocking and shipping supplies shared across the services. In addition, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have their own supply operations to ship items unique to each service. DLA supplied several billion dollars worth of spare parts, pharmaceuticals, clothing and 72 million ready-to-eat meals to troops during the war.

Military logisticians have won high marks for quickly assembling the forces and supplies needed in Iraq. Advances in logistics tracking technology, investments in a new fleet of cargo airplanes and larger ships, and the pre-positioning of military equipment in the region allowed troops to move halfway around the world with unprecedented speed. Troops were not digging through containers looking for supplies they had ordered weeks earlier, nor were they placing double and triple orders in hopes that one of their requests would be acted upon, as they did during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. While the military transportation and distribution system may never be as fast or efficient as FedEx or UPS, its reliability has increased over the past decade.

Nonetheless, interviews with Defense Logistics Agency and TRANSCOM officials, retired military logisticians and military analysts, suggest challenges remain. Several changes to the way troops and supplies are sent to war are under consideration, including:

  • Further improvement of logistics information technology systems.
  • Development of a faster way to plan troop deployments.
  • Consolidated management of the Defense supply chain.
While TRANSCOM has gotten positive reviews for moving troops and supplies to the Middle East, concerns have been raised about how the services moved supplies after they arrived in the field.


Six weeks before troops entered Iraq, Air Force Col. Stephen Tate, who manages TRANSCOM's key logistics systems, was worried. The Global Transportation Network, the computer system that pulls data from various military networks and dozens of commercial suppliers to create the near-real-time digital maps and databases, was about to crash. The system was stressed with a workload far larger than the 2.5 million items it tracks and the 3,200 queries it handles each day during peacetime. With combat yet to begin, it was taking hours to update information normally processed in minutes. Aircraft were landing in the Persian Gulf before the system even had recorded they'd taken off. "We no longer could say where stuff was, [only] where it was three hours ago. The credibility of the system was at stake," says Tate.

Tate knew the Global Transportation Network needed upgrading. So, on Feb. 6, he called together 25 engineers, program managers, contractors and users and told them to figure out how to speed up the system. The team found that the system's servers were being overwhelmed by the volume of data and needed to be replaced. But doing so would take nine months and costs tens of millions of dollars. By then, Tate observed, the war probably would be over.

So the team came up with an alternative: Buy two new servers and four refurbished models, along with other new hardware and software upgrades to double the system's capacity by mid-March for less than $1 million. Tate liked the idea, but knew it was risky. During the upgrade, the servers being replaced would have to be turned off and backup servers would have to be used. If the backups failed, there were no replacements. Tate told the team to take the chance-and it paid off. By the time the first cruise missiles began landing in Baghdad, the servers had been upgraded and the network was tracking nearly 6 million items a day.

Air Force Gen. John Handy, commander of the Transportation Command, says that because the servers were easily available commercially, TRANSCOM could make changes during the war. The military-specific hardware in place during previous conflicts wouldn't have been available for months or years. "In today's conflicts, because of the robust nature of technology and the quick-turn capability, you'll learn a lesson and you don't draft it up at the end of the conflict. You are able to look at it, apply a solution, learn that lesson and implement virtually right away," Handy says.

Perhaps the most valuable logistics investment during the war was not in expensive cargo aircraft or advanced tracking systems, but in thousands of plastic radio frequency identification labels that cost $150 apiece. The tags, which measure 8 inches long by about 2 inches wide, contain memory chips full of information about when a shipment departed, when it is scheduled to arrive and what it contains. They are equipped with small radio transponders that broadcast information about the cargo's status as it moves around the world. The tags enable the Global Transportation Network to almost immediately update logistics planners on the location of items in the supply chain.

Lippert says the tags were a key factor in avoiding the equipment pileups in warehouses and at desert outposts that came to symbolize logistics failings during the first Gulf War. The tags also saved hundreds of millions of dollars in shipping costs, logisticians say. For example, British soldiers spent almost a full day of the war searching cargo containers for $3 million in gear needed to repair vehicles. Just as they were about to place a second order for the gear, a U.S. logistician tapped into a logistics tracking system and was able to locate the supplies in the American supply network.

But use of the tags still could improve, according to Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and author of the recent report "The Lessons of the Iraq War." While the tags eliminated some confusion in the supply chain, their transponders sometimes failed, Cordesman notes. Moreover, the tags were widely used for shipping gear to the Middle East, but not for tracking supplies and equipment within the theater of war. "The war validated the use of transponders," Cordesman says, "I expect an effort to move them further into the field."


For a year and half before the war, top logisticians and military planners from Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, came to Scott Air Force Base for two- to three-week visits to craft a meticulous plan for deploying forces to the Middle East. The standard plan, known as the time-phased force deployment process (TPFD), was designed for the Cold War. It envisioned a slow and steady buildup of troops over time in Germany or Korea. The more than 250 planners had a hard time modifying it to move troops and equipment to Iraq because battle plans weren't finalized and overseas base arrangements were still up in the air. "From the very high strategic level, it's clear we learned some lessons about the joint planning and joint deployment process. On joint planning, we have to be more fleet of foot in how we plan for major war plans, as well as contingency planning," Handy says.

Air Force Maj. Gen. William Welser, director of operations for TRANSCOM, says planners decided to scrap the standard TPFD and instead rely on a crisis deployment process that had been used to supply troops fighting in Afghanistan. "We could not have a TPFD in Afghanistan because we never knew where we'd be next," he says. Under the crisis model, known as a "request for forces deployment order," TRANSCOM would not move all the pieces of a fighting force at once, but rather would move smaller combat units able to begin fighting quickly.

For example, TRANSCOM estimated it would take 30 cargo ships and 20 aircraft to move the equipment and 19,000 soldiers of the Army's 101st Division to the Middle East. As cargo ships were loaded in Jacksonville, Fla., logisticians did not simply cram them with gear, but carefully planned what to send when. The first five ships carried fighting gear; the next five held backup supplies. Welser says it took 45 days to move the entire division to the Gulf, but parts of it were in the region and ready for war much more quickly. "I don't think we'll ever go back to that elongated, sequential planning process," says Welser.

Cordesman says logisticians had little choice but to scrap the traditional approach. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "repeatedly questioned the size and nature of the force called for by such planning methods and did repeatedly press for cuts and changes in the early phases of the war plan," he wrote in "The Lessons of the Iraq War."

Agile logistics planning proved critical when the United States was unable to work out a base agreement with Turkey, which was supposed to be the staging ground for the military's push into northern Iraq. Instead, over a few nights in late March, about 2,000 Army soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into northern Iraq and captured an airfield. It became a supply hub for bringing equipment, including 65-ton Abrams tanks, into northern Iraq. In other instances, cargo ships carrying soldiers and equipment for Turkey were rerouted from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.

Putting personnel forward in the field with troops also aided in deploying supplies, says DLA's Lippert. About 75 uniformed and civilian DLA personnel were on the battlefield alongside troops to monitor potential problems and run a newly created DLA supply warehouse in Kuwait. In one case, DLA troubleshooters were called upon to locate more than 30,000 Kosher meals for Jewish troops during Passover.


Based on experiences in Iraq, the Pentagon is weighing further logistics changes. The Office of the Secretary of Defense is reviewing a proposal to consolidate TRANSCOM and DLA into a single command.

The Pentagon declined to discuss the study or when such a move might be made. TRANSCOM backs the merger, saying it would create a single supply line and break up bottlenecks. DLA officials argue that the plan would needlessly create a larger bureaucracy and Defense would be better off improving coordination between the two agencies.

"One thing is clear: There are too many seams in the [supply chain] today," says Handy. "If you try to do a chart of all the things that happen, you find a cobweb of networks, each with different [technology] and cultures. The focus has to be on the warfighter." Ultimately, he says, not only TRANSCOM and DLA, but the military services' own logistics organizations should be brought under a single command to ensure that warfighters all get the same level of service.

Lippert, however, says TRANSCOM and DLA should focus on working together to improve logistics management, rather than bickering over ownership. He cites the ongoing $500 million upgrade of DLA's information systems as an example of the types of reforms that are needed to create a seamless supply line. Also, DLA has a cadre of civilian employees who manage more than 6,000 contractors. Their expertise could be lost, Lippert says, if the independent agency became a combatant command.

Retired Gen. William Tuttle, who headed the Army Materiel Command during Operation Desert Storm, advocates folding DLA's distribution operations into TRANSCOM to provide an "end-to-end" supply chain. But DLA should continue to manage the ordering and stockpiling of the millions of items in its inventory, he says. "Why would TRANSCOM want to take that on? What's to be gained by having this monster organization?" he asks. Ultimately, Tuttle expects DLA will be phased out as Defense hires contractors to manage inventories and harness information technology systems to send supplies directly to military customers on a "just-in-time" basis.

Handy says going slow with a logistics merger may be the best option. "If you try to do the whole thing at once, it's a dramatic emotional event and you may defeat the whole thing," he says. "Start slow, plant that seed and work your way through that process."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec