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The San Francisco Chronicle March 26, 2003

Protecting supply lines crucial in war; Armies march on their stomachs

By Matthew B. Stannard

There is an old proverb in the military, paraphrased many ways and attributed to everyone from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to Tom Clancy: Good generals study tactics. Great generals study logistics.

Keeping armies supplied is a crucial component of any military campaign and has been since Hannibal loaded elephants with enough food to cross the Alps.

That need is now one of the most important components in the U.S. drive on Baghdad. To keep on the attack, troops need food and water, fuel and ammunition, and myriad supplies from engine oil to medicine to replacement goggles and thousands of other parts that keep armored convoys going.

On Tuesday, U.S. forces reinforced supply lines from Kuwait all the way up through central Iraq to units now stationed just outside Baghdad. Marines were assigned to guard key bridges in Nasiriya.

There were reports that some units of the 3rd Infantry Division were short of fuel. Getting supplies to the long line of armored vehicles poised to attack Baghdad has worried U.S. commanders constantly, and the Pentagon conceded Tuesday that harassment of U.S. forces by the Fedayeen Saddam -- irregulars who are devoted to Saddam Hussein -- is threatening security of the supply lines. And without supplies, the troops are in big trouble.

"There is no war without logistics," said John A. Lynn, a professor of history at the University of Illinois. "Unless you feed your soldiers, unless you can supply them with the weapons they need, they are ineffective." And in wartime, these support units are subject to the same lethal dangers as the troops they're supplying.

That was dramatically demonstrated Sunday in the U.S.-led assault on Iraq when a dozen members of the 507th Maintenance Company were reported missing or captured after taking a wrong turn as the unit raced to support frontline troops advancing on Baghdad.

UNACCEPTABLE VULNERABILITY

Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies and a former British infantry officer, called the vulnerability of a supply chain that in some areas stretches hundreds of miles with little protection unacceptable.

"I couldn't find a supply chain that long in history that's unprotected," he said. With a coordinated attack in the right location, he added, "(Iraqi forces) could halt the flow of supplies for 24 hours or so. When it comes to fuel and ammunition, that's critical."

But several U.S. analysts said casualties such as those suffered by the 507th are acceptable in light of the overall campaign strategy of winning Baghdad quickly and decisively.

"The key objective in this war is not capturing little towns on the way to Baghdad, it's capturing Baghdad. You win Baghdad, you win the war," said Patrick Garrett, an analyst at GlobalSecurity.org.

The value of taking the capital is worth the inevitable cost of casualties among the rear forces, Garrett said, even though the stretched coalition supply chain makes future casualties like those suffered by the 507th almost inevitable.

Nor are losses sustained by logistics units in the field stopping the flow of supplies to front line troops, according to officials at the U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees the military's logistics efforts.

THIRD-LARGEST AIRLIFT

Already, Operation Iraqi Freedom has involved the third-largest airlift in history -- behind the Berlin Airlift in 1948-1949 and Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-1991 -- with 163,000 passengers shipped by air and 360,000 tons of cargo shipped by air and sea as of Tuesday, according to Transportation Command.

At the same time, supplies have reached troops in the current conflict much more quickly than in past campaigns, military officials and analysts say, thanks to a combination of improving technology and streamlining.

U.S. Army officials say equipment prepositioned on ships and in bases in Europe, Africa and elsewhere and standardization of parts and equipment have allowed them to do more with less, moving in days a quantity of equipment and support troops that would have taken months during the 1991 Gulf War.

At the same time, the front lines are being supplied by an improved fleet of airplanes and ships, according to Transportation Command. Those include the Air Force's C-17 Globemaster, which can carry 179,000 pounds of cargo, and large roll on/roll off ships, each of which can move the equivalent of 300 loaded C-17s.

In Iraq, analysts and military officials say, those supplies are moved overland from the south and west, and by air to captured Iraqi airstrips deep within the country. And, once the mines are cleared, seaborne supplies will likely move through the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, already expected to be a major port for humanitarian aid.

ROADS CALLED FAIRLY SAFE

In general, military officials have said support units should be fairly safe on major roads. But experts say that is far from guaranteed.

After all, the 507th was hardly the first support unit to suffer casualties. Sniper attacks on supply trains were common in World War II.

During the first Gulf War, the most casualties suffered by any allied unit came from the 14th Quartermaster Detachment, a water purification unit based in Greensburg, Pa., which lost 13 soldiers when a barracks was hit by pieces of an Iraqi missile in February 1991.

First Sergeant Ken Bier, 43, one of the few members of the 14th Quartermaster Detachment to remain in the reserves, said support personnel understand they can come under fire and accept it as part of their mission.

"That's what they're facing, the distance between where they're picking their supplies up and where they're delivering to their customers," he said. "But that's the nature of the beast. The front line's got to move, and if the supply depot isn't moving fast enough, that's what you've got to do."

Chronicle news services contributed to this report. / E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at mstannard@sfchronicle.com.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, GRAPHIC, Iraqis smile and wave to a convoy of Marines after receiving food from the troops. The convoy is pushing deeper into Iraq, north of the town of Nasiriya, on the Euphrates River. / Oleg Popov/Reuters, GRAPHIC: SUPPLYING THE TROOPS / New York Times Graphic


Copyright 2003, The Chronicle Publishing Co.