Commentary: Logistical conundrums

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large   |   Oct. 3, 2007 at 11:25 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 (UPI) -- Watching them drive by at 30 mph would take 75 days. Bumper-to-bumper, they would stretch from New York City to Denver. That’s how U.S. Air Force logistical expert Lenny Richoux described the amount of vehicles that would have to be shipped back from Iraq when the current deployment is over. These include, among others, 10,000 flatbed trucks, 1,000 tanks and 20,000 Humvees.

Even in an emergency, Col. Richoux said in Defense News, the evacuation of 162,000 troops in 23 ground combat brigades and millions of tons of equipment would take some 20 months. Military shipping containers, end to end, would stretch from New York City to the gates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The main resupply route for convoys that runs 344 miles from Kuwait (skirting Basra to the north) to Baghdad is already under the constant threat of hit-and-run insurgency attacks, including improvised explosive devices. Driving empty on their way back to pick up another load in Kuwait, convoys are just as vulnerable.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the military has some 300,000 “heavy” items that would have to be shipped back, such as ice-cream machines that churn out different flavors upon request at a dozen bases throughout the California-sized country. And before it can be loaded onto ships, equipment has to be scrubbed clean to conform to U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations. The United States maintains some 200 wash points in Kuwait. Helicopters have to be shrink-wrapped.

Clearly any major withdrawal from Iraq would have to be a phased operation, and some of the equipment would have to be destroyed or transferred to the new Iraqi army. Since the first Gulf War (1990-91), the U.S. Military Sealift Command has acquired a fleet of 18 large, roll-on/roll-off ships, each nearly the size of an aircraft carrier, capable of carrying more than 300,000 square feet of cargo. Eight of these ships are normally assigned to MSC’s Afloat Prepositioning Ship Squadron, loaded with Army equipment and supplies in the Indian Ocean theater ready to meet up with troops flown in to an emergency situation in the Gulf region.

MSC cargo ships make regular runs to Iraq from San Diego and Jacksonville, Fla. For the first two years of the war, units were rotated in and out of theater with all their equipment. Thus, the 5,200-strong 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s equipment -- 300 armored vehicles, 57 aircraft, 900 trucks and Humvees -- made the trip from Fort Carson to Kuwait three times before the Pentagon changed back to the Gulf War I and Vietnam War system of leaving the heavy stuff in place for the incoming replacement unit.

The constant movement of some 100 freighters and thousands of railroad cars has cost almost $30 billion. After a year of use in Iraq’s desert climate, the Army’s 70-ton M1A2 tank morphs from an awesome fighting machine to a repair nightmare as sand infiltrates everything down to electronics. These can only be overhauled stateside where 25-ton turrets can be lifted off the rest of the tank. Major overhauls cannot be done either in the field or in rear echelon bases in Kuwait.

Gone are the conventional wars when troops could periodically pull back from clearly defined battle lines. The insurgency’s tactics mean soldiers are on alert 24/7 and have to be rotated home at the end of a year for a year of less dangerous training before returning to combat duty in Iraq.

Unit commanders begin working with logistics planners for redeployment as soon as they rotate to home base. Heavy equipment used to leave base on railroad cars to be loaded at ports a month before troops were flown out to Kuwait.

In Congress, those arguing for a rapid, precipitous withdrawal are butting heads with those who favor an extended redeployment over several years as a means to “stay the course” in the interim. Logistics seem to favor the latter. They make the case for staying by cherry-picking logistical impediments. Opponents argue a massive redeployment of U.S. forces “is well within the exceptional logistical capabilities of the U.S. military.” And these are indeed awesome.

Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan defense buildup (through 1985) and director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues the choice between “a swift or extended redeployment is a false dilemma” and “an orderly and safe withdrawal is best achieved over a 10- to 12-month period.”

This would require what Korb and his team of co-authors (Max A. Bergmann, Sean E. Duggan and Peter M. Juul) call an "invasion in reverse." "If orders were given to pull back to Kuwait," Korb argues, such a withdrawal would sacrifice a significant amount of equipment "and create an instantaneous political and security vacuum similar to that created by the initial overthrow of Saddam Hussein." Feasible, says the team, but not "the best course of action."

A startling new development in Iraq, such as the assassination of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Shiite Iraq’s senior cleric, “or a large sectarian attack leading to all-out civil war could well compel our forces to withdraw in as little as three months,” Korb and his team wrote last month in a report released by the Center for American Progress. Those who say withdrawal will take several years “base their analysis on the time it takes to complete a meticulous extraction and dismantling of all U.S. equipment and facilities.” Whichever which way will push total costs of the war over $1 trillion.

The authors’ report detailed how the Pentagon was able to organize the rotation of nearly 235,000 soldiers and all their equipment in the spring of 2004 in and out of Iraq as the forces who led the invasion reached the end of their one-year deployment.

To maintain an offensive and deterrent capability in the region, the “Korbists” recommend temporarily stationing some 10,000 troops (two brigades plus support and command) in the Kurdish north for an extra year to prevent the outbreak of Turkish-Kurd violence, as well as Marine units tasked with security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and another ground brigade and tactical air wing based in Kuwait. The new lineup would include a carrier battle group and a Marine expeditionary force in the Persian Gulf. Bases in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates would be maintained.

“The time for half-measures and experiments is over,” they argue. Now’s the time “for a logistically sound strategic redeployment.” Ignored was how the possible bombing of Iran before President Bush leaves the White House would affect the timetable.

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