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SDDC operations branch the 'hourglass' of DOD surface transportation

January 17, 2012

By Mr Mark Diamond (SDDC)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Many military operations centers tout themselves as the "nerve center" or the "heartbeat" of their organization.

The deputy chief of Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command's Command Operations Branch described SDDC's operations center as an hourglass.

Sand trickling through a 14th Century time device may not conjure images of a hustle-and-bustle ops center, but as Marisa Bealor scribbled an outline of an hourglass on a scrap of paper and began describing her analogy, it was clear that the mission, the people and the purpose -- keeping American forces sustained and alive -- were far more important than elaborate adjectives and descriptive phrases.

According to Bealor, the Command Operations Branch -- which is comprised of both the Command Operations Center, or COC, and the Fusion Center -- is manned by active-duty and Reserve Soldiers, Department of the Army civilian employees, and several U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy personnel, as well.

The hourglass analogy

Pointing to the top of the hourglass, she said, "Up here you have U.S. Army; [U.S. Transportation Command]; [Army Materiel Command]; the combatant commands; the Defense Logistics Agency; the separate armed services; and so forth. And down here (the bottom of the hourglass), you have our brigades and their battalions, and our commercial partners.

"Right here is the Command Operations Branch," Bealor added, pointing to the center of the hourglass sketch. "Information is funneling in; information is coming up; we're analyzing and deciphering that information; we're making sure [the information] makes sense; and we're up-channeling and down-channeling information."

She said the Command Operations Branch's core competencies are to plan, direct, monitor and assess surface deployment and distribution requirements for the Department of Defense. To provide oversight for exercises, contingencies, traffic management, transportation systems, and customer support, the COC maintains operational oversight of all SDDC operations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Bealor said the command's brigades and commercial carriers are pushing up a great deal of data, and the folks in the COC and Fusion Center are taking that data, synthesizing it, linking it together, and pushing it up to the combatant commands, armed services, and so forth -- those organizations in the upper half of the hourglass.

According to Tony Breeze, the COC's West Section chief, having enough information isn't a problem; he said having too much information is the problem.

"Not to oversimplify it, but we're information managers," explained Breeze. "We orchestrate this dance that occurs between higher requirements, lower requirements, and the flow of information between the two."

He said the Command Operations Branch takes all this information and creates a common operating picture, or site picture, that's valuable, understandable and actionable to everyone involved.

Bealor said the goal of the Command Operations Branch is to shape movement requirements before those requirements get "too far down the road."

"We want to make sure we've completely shaped these movement requirements with U.S. TRANSCOM, so when [the time comes], we can turn it over and say 'execute.' It's much more complicated than that, but the idea is to shape these requirements and get in the [combatant command] decision cycle far enough to the left of execution so we don't have those ripples, or problems."

Once the requirement is in execution at the brigade and battalion level, the Command Operations Branch begins directing, monitoring and feeding information back up the chain.

A dramatic example

Examples of the Command Operations Branch's "plan-direct-monitor-assess" process occur every day. As Bealor explained, "the sun never sleeps on SDDC." However, Peter Soule, the COC's East Section chief, said the first Stryker brigade deployment to Afghanistan two years ago is a dramatic example of how a large, joint movement requirement occurs. He said the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division (now designated the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team) -- along with the unit's Stryker vehicles and associated equipment -- was tasked to deploy to Afghanistan.

According to Soule, when the requirement came to SDDC through U.S. TRANSCOM and U.S. Central Command, SDDC planners in the Fusion Center sat down with all the stakeholders -- U.S. TRANSCOM, Military Sealift Command (U.S. Navy) and Air Mobility Command (U.S. Air Force) -- and developed, or shaped, the requirement.

"Should we sail [the Stryker vehicles] from Washington state through the Panama Canal? Should we line-haul it (truck or train) from Washington state to the East Coast and put it on a ship? Should we do a multi-modal, ship-to-air transfer in Rota [Spain]? Or should we use a new multi-modal location that might work better?"

With these questions in mind, Soule said the Fusion Center assessed all courses of action, taking many factors into account, including the origin and destination; the timeline; and the sheer size of the movement. A single armored Stryker vehicle weighs in at about 18 tons and is nearly eight feet longer than a HUMVEE. For the 5th Bde./2nd ID movement, SDDC was tasked with moving 328 of the mammoth vehicles, in addition to more than 500 containers, more than 45 trailers, and about 50 rolling stock, which includes transportation equipment or vehicles that can be driven or pulled onto the vessel.

Soule said SDDC planners -- in coordination with U.S. TRANSCOM -- decided the best course of action was a multi-model shipment in which SDDC would ship the Stryker vehicles from Washington state to the Seaport of Debarkation -- a small U.S. military installation in the Indian Ocean. At the Seaport of Debarkation, also known as the SPOD, the vehicles would be loaded onto U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft destined for Afghanistan.

In the transition from "strategic planning" to "operational planning," the COC began working with the 599th Transportation Brigade in Hawaii; the brigade responsible for the tactical execution of the Stryker movement. He said the 599th -- along with the Airmen from 618th Tanker Airlift Control Center (Air Mobility Command) and members of the 5th Bde./2nd ID -- then performed a tactical assessment at the SPOD.

Bealor said it's important to note that, at the time, SDDC was working with U.S. TRANSCOM in the development of the Joint Task Force - Port Opening concept. U.S. TRANSCOM developed JTF-PO to rapidly open and establish ports of debarkation and initial distribution networks in support of combatant commander-executed contingencies.

As part of the JTF-PO, an Air Force Contingency Response Group and an SDDC Rapid Port Opening Element, from the 597th Transportation Brigade, were brought in to support the operation.

Soule said the operation involved several countries; three U.S. Armed Services (Army, Air Force and Navy); the JTF-PO (CRW and RPOE); three SDDC brigades (the 595th, 597th and 599th); three areas of operations (U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Pacific Command, and U.S. Central Command); two cargo ships; and about 140 flights using commercial An-124s and U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo aircraft.

"This was a dramatic, global mission that was executed by the [Command Operations Branch]," explained Soule.

He said the mission was hailed a great success, especially considering the size and scope of the operation, as well as the addition of the then-new JTF-PO and a new multi-modal operating location. "It was absolutely huge, and it was U.S. TRANSCOM and its [component commands] that made it happen."

Thinking 'outside the box'

Breeze said although operations like this were, at the time, "out of the norm," they are now becoming the "new norm."

Bealor and Soule agreed.

"We're creating something new every day," said Bealor. "We're in that constant mode of 'thinking outside the box.'"

She said the Northern Distribution Network, commonly called the "N-D-N," and the Trans Siberian Route are good examples of "thinking outside the box."

Before the NDN and Trans Siberian routes, cargo destined for U.S. troops in Afghanistan primarily entered the country from the south (through Pakistan), or was flown in on U.S. military and commercial cargo aircraft. Using the NDN, cargo is delivered from the north, through several countries to include Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Also from the north, the Trans Siberian Route is used to transport cargo into Afghanistan via truck and rail through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

"Today, people think the NDN is commonplace, but a couple of years ago we never imagined it would happen," said Bealor. "And five years ago, who would have thought that we would be crossing Russia and Uzbekistan to take cargo into Afghanistan."

She said the new routes give our nation's military more options when delivering equipment and supplies to troops in land-locked Afghanistan.

Whether transporting cargo to troops in Afghanistan, withdrawing military equipment from Iraq, or delivering humanitarian aid to victims of natural disasters around the globe, SDDC is always in motion.

And while some might describe the work they do as an hourglass, there's no doubt the SDDC Command Operations Branch is truly the "heartbeat" and the "nerve center" of U.S. military surface deployment and distribution.

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