SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --- After redeploying 33,000 surge forces and their equipment from Afghanistan nine days ahead of the presidentially mandated deadline, U.S. Transportation Command is assessing the lessons learned to improve its processes for ongoing drawdown operations.
Air Force Col. Rob Brisson, chief of Transcom’s Fusion Center, called the successful drawdown to pre-surge levels “a huge statement” about the collaboration between U.S. Central Command, U.S. Forces Afghanistan and U.S. Transportation Command and its components and partners.
But the success was no mistake, he emphasized during an interview here with American Forces Press Service.
Despite not knowing exactly when the drawdown would happen, the Transcom team had been planning for it since 2009. “As soon as those troops went in, we were already thinking in this building about how they were going to get out,” Brisson said. “For us, when somebody is talking about delivery, somebody else is already talking about redeployment or retrograde.”
When it comes to drawing down in Afghanistan, officials agree that there’s plenty to talk about. Afghanistan’s challenging geography, weather and security situation, its limited transportation infrastructure and uncertainty about the future U.S. presence there all present a Rubik’s cube of challenges.
By comparison, the redeployment from Iraq was a cakewalk. Largely relying on Kuwait as a staging point and shipping the vast percentage of the equipment from ports there and in Iraq, Transcom, its service components and commercial partners redeployed more than 60,000 troops and more than 1 million pieces of equipment by the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline.
“Leaving Iraq was a lot simpler,” said Curt Zargan, deputy director for Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s Transportation Engineering Agency. “There were a whole lot fewer issues to deal with and a whole lot less complication.”
Because Afghanistan is landlocked, all the troops and much of the equipment must leave by air, at least for the first leg of their return, Zargan said. That applies particularly to weapons systems, combat vehicles or anything that regional neighbors might view as implements of war and won’t allow to transit across their borders.
“When you are deploying from a landlocked country, you are not going to drive them out of there. You are not going to sail them out of there. You are going to fly them out of there,” Brisson said. “That takes a well-coordinated flow plan that ensures sufficient airport capacity and prevents a logjam at any one node.”
That plan, coordinated closely with Centcom officials who periodically travel to Transcom to iron out redeployment plans in about six-month intervals, has to factor in demand on four major air bases in Afghanistan, Zargan noted. It also recognizes the ripple effect on air bases that receive redeploying flights during transit.
“You can’t push 15,000 people to Manas [Air Base in Kyrgyzstan] the last week of September and expect them to get out and make the president’s mandate,” Brisson said.
Using computer simulation models, Transcom planners evaluate the entire transportation and distribution network in the Centcom area of operation to come up with the best methods of exodus. Some involve “multimodal transport,” with an initial movement to one country, usually by air, then a transfer to other conveyance, such as a ship, for the rest of the trip.
“With multimodal, you rely on short air legs, or only as much air as you absolutely need to overcome the obstacle or access challenge,” Zargan said. “Whenever you can find a capable multimodal hub with ease of transfer from one mode to another, it offers a lot of efficiencies and cost savings.”
The shortest and least-expensive ground routes out of Afghanistan, referred to as the Pakistan ground lines of communication, remain closed to U.S. traffic for political reasons. The U.S. military had made heavy use of these routes, which originate at Pakistan’s port in Karachi, until November 2011. The Pakistani government suddenly closed them, however, after a border incident with U.S. forces left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.
Pakistan announced July 3 that it would reopen the routes, but some of the required agreements have yet to be finalized.
“We still haven’t been able to use the [Pakistani routes] to move any supplies out,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Samuel D. Cox, Transcom’s operations and plans director. “It’s one of the issues we are working to resolve. As the [route] opens up again, it will give us another avenue to be able to bring equipment out of Afghanistan and back to the United States.”
Transcom plans to move much of its retrograde shipments out of Afghanistan through Pakistan, the fastest and most cost-effective option, Brisson said. But based on current projections, officials estimate that it could take until February -- the heart of the winter season -- before outbound equipment begins flowing through Pakistan.
So for now, Transcom is focused on moving about 7,000 shipping containers that had been stuck along the route for more than seven months -- with much of the contents no longer useable or needed in Afghanistan.
In addition, command planners hope to make extensive use of the Northern Distribution Network Transcom established in 2009. This elaborate network of rail, sealift and trucking lines and material handling teams and their equipment includes several major routes across Eastern Europe, Western Asia and into Afghanistan.
Air Force Gen. William M. Fraser III, the Transcom commander, credited the Northern Distribution Network with enabling Transcom to provide uninterrupted service to Centcom even after Pakistan closed its supply routes.
Fraser recently visited several of the countries that make up the network to thank them for their support and to ensure they are ready for the role they will play in the drawdown.
“We are capitalizing on that network that had been built to take things into Afghanistan to now taking things out, and we have multiple lanes that we can use,” Fraser said. “Some of the routes are more mature than others. … But we have people coming to us, wanting to know how they can help, whether by air or sea, and what they can do to help facilitate this. It’s been very positive.”
For now, planners are evaluating the capacity of these routes to ascertain whether they can stand up to drawdown demands.
“There are literally physical limitations in some of the infrastructure,” said Army Col. Glen Baca, Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s operations director. “We have some very big, very heavy pieces of equipment that, if you tried to push it up those lines of communication, you could compromise their infrastructure to the point that they might not be able to use it.”
Meanwhile, Transcom is testing out new additions to the network. “We’re working the proof of principle right now to add additional capacity,” Brisson said. “Anything we have not done before, we check it out to make sure that what we have generated through prudent planning makes sense before we move into execution. And once we make those first couple of moves, then we figure out how we can do that on a consistent basis.”
Other factors complicate the drawdown planning effort. Some countries in the network specify what kinds of equipment can and can’t transit through their territory. Most, for example, want clean cargo -- a challenge, because forces in Afghanistan don’t have a willing Kuwait across the border that offers up space to clean and stage their vehicles, equipment and gear for shipment. Other counties won’t allow wheeled vehicles, or cargo that’s obviously wartime equipment, across their borders.
For some nations in the network, the caveats boil down to volume. To allow the United States to ship cargo through their transportation systems, they require a minimum quantity of business so they can predict workflow.
That can be a challenge, particularly because the redeployment rate isn’t set in stone, explained Navy Cmdr. Matt Secrest, chief of Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s operations division.
“It’s not just a straight plan with a linear chart going down saying it is going to be 100 vehicles per month for the next year and a half,” he said. “More likely, it is going to be 450 this month and 25 next month. And so you have to work with those variables.”
“All of these factors go into our planning and analysis,” Zargan said. “It’s a challenge to figure out.”
In “figuring it out,” Transcom is making certain there’s no “point of failure” that can be the undoing of its planning efforts.
“One reason we have so many routes is to ensure that we are not reliant on any single host nation affecting our ability to redeploy out of Afghanistan,” Secrest said. “We need lots of options so no one country’s policies could affect our operations. That way, we have a variety of reliable solutions to redeploy out of Afghanistan when the time is right, as we are directed.”