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Fueling the Fighters: A Small Team With a Big Mission

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 9, 2002 -- When U.S. and coalition air forces first launched attacks against terrorists and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a 10-person U.S. team based in Bahrain was critical to keeping the warplanes flying.

It was up to Army Lt. Col. Ralph Wells and his team at the Defense Energy Support Center Middle East to supply fuel for the big birds.

"In the past year, we've issued over a billion gallons of fuel to U.S. and coalition forces," said Wells, commander.

The center is the Defense Logistics Agency's regional fuel support office in the Middle East. It supports all Defense Department fuel operations within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. This includes 25 nations and stretches from Kazakhstan in the north, down through the Arabian Peninsula, and as far south as Kenya.

Daily operations supporting U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard involve quality surveillance of fuel, including loading and unloading tankers, and continual coordination between host nation contractors and Central Command component forces.

The center also supports coalition countries that have agreements with the United States, Wells said. "Some take fuel extensively from us. Some, it's specific to location," he said. "With these agreements, we also get fuel from the British or the French if they're the primary force in that area."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Wells said his team has grown to 15, including reserve component personnel -- 33 in all -- who have come in for anywhere from 30 days to a year. Donnie Robinson, who joined the team as deputy commander in the wake of last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attack, summed up the team's role in the war against terror.

"It's our responsibility to provide fuel to the war fighter, where he needs it and when he needs it," he said, "and it should be on specification and in a condition that he can consume it."

The most challenging part of the job is the "uncertainty," Robinson pointed out. "You never know what's going to happen from one day to the next." When the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, Wells and Robinson said the team faced several new challenges

"A lot of the areas we work in," Robinson said, "JP-8, the fuel of choice, is not available. In some instances, the commercial jet fuel that we're normally accustomed to wasn't available."

In some Central Asian countries, he noted, the jet fuel that was available was "a brand new commodity" to the Americans, and testing was required to ensure it was compatible with U.S. and coalition aircraft.

Each country within the Middle East, Wells pointed out, is completely different from one another.

"The first issue we had to overcome was the fact that the Air Force was coming into numerous bases throughout our area of operation," the commander said. "We had very little time to react and no plan as far as what kinds of aircraft were going to come in, or what the consumption rates were going to be."

The energy support center team, which was already divided into smaller country teams, went into action. "We went out to the different areas to identify what the requirements were and to ensure that the appropriate assets were in place to do the fueling for the force," Wells said.

"In Bahrain itself, where we're located," he added, "the Air Force came in so fast that they arrived prior to their fueling personnel arriving. So I had to take my personnel and have them activate war reserve equipment that belonged to the Air Force and also conduct the refueling of their Air Force aircraft for a couple of days until the Air Force personnel arrived."

That was one challenge, Wells said. Others included going into countries that never expected to see a need for the amount of fuel required at specific air bases for the incoming planes.

"We had to overcome within a 15-day period in Oman, for example, shortfalls of approximately 300,000 gallons a day to meet the demands of the Air Force as they were coming in," he said.

Wells and his teammates met with U.S. embassy staff that got them in to see officials at the Royal Oman air force ministry of defense. "We sat down with the director of supply and discussed what our requirements were," Wells recalled. "They in turn went to their contractors and attempted to utilize their contractors to meet our needs, but they quickly realized they couldn't."

The U.S. officials ended up implementing a pre-existing memorandum of agreement between the United States and Oman.

"One clause was that if they couldn't meet our requirements, we could take over and do it all ourselves," Wells said. "We ended up having to implement that clause. Then we went out ourselves and contracted for assets within the country, and from outside the country, to actually take over a fuel depot. We also arranged to bring in commercial tank trucks from the United Arab Emirates to meet our requirements.

"The Omanis didn't like the fact that they had to allow other Arab countries' assets to come in to their country to meet the needs," he noted, "but they understood the importance and were fully supportive of our efforts."

KC-10 refueler aircraft dominate the flight line at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Aerial refueling of coalition aircraft supporting Operation Enduring Freedom is a major part of the mission at Al Udeid. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jack Braden, USAF. (Click photo for screen-resolution image.)

U.S. and contract personnel ran the depot for about eight months, Wells said, "until Omani officials got the sufficient infrastructure in place to do it themselves. We've now transferred that back to them and they provide all the support for us."

As Robinson had also mentioned, the quality of fuel available in the region was another cause for concern, according to Wells.

"We have transitioned throughout the '90s to a single fuel on the battlefield so that all of our equipment from ground transportation to aircraft burn one fuel type called JP-8," the commander explained. "It's a jet fuel with additives in it, and these additives are very hard to get. One of them is a fuel system icing inhibitor."

The fuel support team discovered they didn't have enough additive for the amount of fuel required by incoming aircraft.

"We didn't have any in stock ourselves and we found that the supply chain wasn't going to catch up with how fast the aircraft and equipment were coming into the country," Wells said.

They turned to the host nation countries for help and the Kuwaitis provided 80 drums of additive. Wells said the general manager of Kuwait's aviation fueling company activated their entire organization on a Thursday -- which is their Saturday in the Middle East -- and got all the workers in.

"They loaded up the 80 drums, delivered it to one of our air bases in Kuwait," Wells said, "and then our Air Force distributed it to all the different sites so that they could add it to the fuel and provide the on-spec quality product to all our forces."

Wells said the team is incorporating lessons learned to date into their operating procedures for future contingency operations. Steps have since been taken, for example, to ensure enough additive is on hand at all times.

"We talked with our bulk fuels personnel," he said, "and we've now put in place clauses in our current contracts so that these companies will store additional additive for us."

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