The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


Desert Shield / Desert Storm

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, triggered what DOD calls the largest rapid deployment of U.S. forces and supplies in history. The Transportation Command supported the Central Command, which is responsible for the Southwest Asian theater, in planning and moving troops, equipment, and supplies required by Operation Desert Shield/Storm.

Following World War II the primary strategic sealift mission was to rapidly move men and equipment to Europe to defend against a Soviet/Warsaw Pact attack. The central front was 3,600 miles away and sealift would be provided by over 600 NATO merchant vessels and an active U.S. merchant fleet that still numbered 578 major ships as of 1978. Those 578 ships dwindled to 367 over the next 12 years.

The Iranian crisis and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s focused emphasis on developing rapid deployment forces to respond to contingencies in distant regions, such as Southwest Asia, in addition to the continuing NATO mission in Europe. Planners recognized existing and emerging short falls in sealift capability. Alternative fast cargo ship and prepositioning prograrns were evaluated with respect to possible contingencies in the 1980s and l990s.

Following a comprehensive examination of the alternatives the Maritime Prepositioning Ship (MPS) and Afloat Prepositioning programs were approved in 1980. In 1984, the Secretary of the Navy formally recognized the increased importance of strategic sealift and accorded it equal status with the Navy's three other main missions: sea control, power projection and strategic deterrence.

In all, $7 billion was invested in improved sealift during the 1980s. That investment purchased, modified or long-term leased: 96 Ready Reserve Force (RRF) ships, 25 prepositioning force ships, eight Fast Sealift Ships (FSS), two hospital ships, and two aviation logistics support ships.

Within hours of the initial deployment orders, Navy and civilian merchant marine sailors aboard Military Sealift Command's (MSC) sealift force ships swung into action. Maritime Prepositioning Ships (MPS) loaded with Marine Corps supplies and equipment from Guam, Saipan and Diego Garcia headed for Saudi Arabia. As in previous large logistic support operations during World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War, more than 90 percent of the heavy equipment, ammunition, fuel and other supplies for DESERT SHIELD/ STORM was carried by sealift. The strategic sealift mission included both surge shipping during initial mobilization and resupply or sustainment shipping.

The first three ships of MPS Squadron TWO raced from their Diego Garcia homeport to reach Saudi Arabia 15 August, marking the first use of the MPS in an actual crisis. BGen John Hopkins was initially miffed about the delay in sending the Maritime Prepositioning Ships that held the brigades arms, until King Fahd formally assented to the deployment of American troops. Within four days of their arrival in the port of Jubail, Navy cargo handlers averaging 100 lift-hours per day offloaded more equipment and supplies from the three 755-foot ships than could have been moved by 3,000 C-141 cargo flights. The 16,500 Marines of the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), a component of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), arrived via the Military Airlift Command. They "married-up" with the MPS equipment and were ready for combat on 25 August-- the first heavy ground combat capability in-theater.

The unloading of the ships was also hindered by the priority given the movement of combat troops over support troops. Infantrymen soon found themselves doing engineering and longshoreman work until the deployment plan was modified to bring in more logistical and maintenance teams. The five ships of MPS Squadron TWO brought the essentials to support the 7th MEB Marines for 30 days of combat-- food, water, fuel, millions of pounds of ammunition for aircraft, artillery and small arms, construction materials and medical supplies. The balance of the equipment for the 1st MEF arrived from Guam aboard the ships of MPS Squadron THREE. Delivering all the equipment delivered by MPS ships to the 45,000 men of the 1st Marine Division would have required 2100 lifts by C-5s, America's largest military transport aircraft.

MSC's eight fast sealift ships (FSS), the fastest cargo ships in the world, sped eastward at 33 knots, carrying 24,000 tons of equipment for the Army's 24th Infantry (Mechanized) Division and the 1st Corps Support Command. When the 24 Mech division began loading its equipment onto the Capella in Savannah harbor on August 12, the vessel became stuck in the mud. The division's logisticians had estimated the weight of the equipment to be put on the ships without taking into account the fuel and ammunition, and the oversight did not become apparent until the tide receded. Although normally on 96-hour standby, the first FSS, USNS Capella (T-AKR 293), was ready to deploy in only 48 hours. The next two FSSs were only a day behind Capella. A typical FSS load included more than 700 Army vehicles such as M-l Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and fuel trucks. Three of the fast sealift ships were delayed an average of ten days because of unscheduled repairs.

Ten afloat prepositioning ships (APS) carrying Army and Air Force equipment, fuel and supplies also headed for Middle East waters. Aboard the APS MV Noble Star the sprawling, 28-acre Fleet Hospital 5 was stored in over 400 international standardized containers. Those containers were soon offloaded in the first-ever deployment of a Navy fleet hospital.

MSC called on 40 Ready Reserve Force (RRF) ships to provide the surge sealift capability needed to sustain support for U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. Civilian mariners answered the call and crews were quickly assembled. MSC also chartered commercial vessels to support the flow of cargo to Saudi Arabia.

Because Iraq was laying mines in the northern Persian Gulf, MSC contracted the heavy-lift ship Super Servant III, to transport three Navy minesweepers plus the newly-commissioned mine countermeasures ship, USS Avenger (MCM 1), to the Gulf.

USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), 1000-bed floating hospitals, went from reduced operational status to fully-operational status within five days of the initial DESERT SHIELD deployment order. The two ships were quickly staffed by nearly 2,500 Navy doctors, nurses and corpsmen from Navy medical facilities on both coasts.

By September 1990, more than 100 MSC controlled ships were supporting DESERT SHIELD. More than 100,000 U.S. military personnel and their equipment had been deployed to Saudi Arabia and the surrounding area in the first 30 days. Sea control-- assured from the outset by the U.S. Navy -- made possible the safe rapid deployment of MSC ships and assured the availability of required civilian charter vessels at reasonable rates.

When Sealift Phase I -- supporting the initial deployment -- ended in mid-December 1990, more than 180 ships were assigned to or chartered by MSC. The entire sealift operation had already transported nearly 7 billion pounds of fuel and 2.2 billion pounds of cargo -- moving more cargo farther and faster than any other time in history.

Sealift Phase II -- which supported the additional reinforcement of DESERT SHIELD forces -- saw 220 ships come under MSC control. Winter storms and nearly 40-foot seas did not slow the largest sealift effort since World War II. By March, an average of 84 million pounds of cargo was arriving in Saudi Arabia daily. That average is even more impressive when contrasted with the 57 million pound daily average during the 37-month-long Korean conflict and the 33 million pound daily average to the Pacific theater during World War II.

In the last week of December 1990, dozens of ships loaded U.S. Army equipment in Northern European ports. MSC moved more than 2,000 tanks, 2,200 armored vehicles, 1,000 assorted helicopters, hundreds of self-propelled howitzers and other equipment for the Army alone. Hundreds of additional aircraft, trucks and other combat equipment were also transported for the Marines and Air Force. Ironically-- but perhaps not surprisingly --only 4.4% of the dry cargo moved by sealift went to support naval forces. That total included tons of equipment for three Navy Fleet Hospitals, including ambulances, generators and other support gear. During DESERT SHIELD/ STORM, MSC also moved nearly 12 billion pounds of fuel and hundreds of millions of pounds of ammunition.

During Desert Shield deployment, actual deliveries of troops and supplies lagged behind Central Command requirements, but the Transportation Command was able to substantially meet requirements before armed conflict with Iraq began. Due to the absence of hostilities during deployment, the Transportation Command had more than 6 months to overcome initial problems and deliver the needed supplies and forces before offensive operations began. The Transportation Command's support of the deployment needs of the Central Command was not accomplished, however, as rapidly, efficiently, and effectively as intended. Despite these problems, sealift moved millions of tons of cargo. Overall, the component units of the Transportation Command performed responsively, at a high operating tempo, and with an overall high utilization and reliability of ships.

Deployment began on 07 August 1990 and by 01 February 1991, less than 6 months into deployment, the Transportation Command had moved about 440,000 passengers, 3 million tons of unit equipment and supplies, and 4.2 million tons of fuel supplies to Southwest Asia in preparation for offensive action against Iraq. Almost all of the troops moved by airlift, while the vast majority of the cargo required sealift.

The Military Sealift Command activated cargo ships and began chartering commercial vessels in the first days of deployment. Prepositioned ships set sail immediately and delivered needed equipment and supplies to the theater within 1 week. During the deployment, the Command managed a diverse fleet of over 200 Navy, Ready Reserve, U.S. commercial, and foreign-flagged vessels to move the unit equipment and most of the supplies needed by the troops.

Some aspects of Desert Shield were conducive to a successful deployment. In particular, the absence of hostile Iraqi action during deployment allowed for more than 5 months to resolve lift problems, mitigate lift shortfalls, and deploy the required forces needed for Desert Storm. Operations were neither disrupted by nor were lift assets lost to enemy actions. The modern and capable air and seaports in the region, excellent host nation support, and worldwide political and economic assistance from allies were cited as additional factors aiding the deployment effort.

Deployment constraints that Transportation Command officials a cited include the poor condition of ships held in reserve and a shortage of the right kinds of ships. For example, 30 percent of ships requested from the Ready Reserve Fleet (former commercial ships maintained in a reduced readiness status) set sail 10 or more days late. Some ships also experienced mechanical problems. One of eight fast sealift ships (former commercial container ships capable of high speed) broke down and required a major overhaul. Officials also said that some ships were not well suited for transporting equipment, and they needed additional ships designed for transporting tanks and other vehicles. Officials said they were able to readjust arrival dates and substantially fulfilled the Central Command's requirements before commencing Operation Desert Storm.

A critical element in developing an operational plan is the time-phased force and deployment data, This is a computer-supported data base containing information on deploying forces, movement characteristics and requirements, and prioritized times for arrival in theater. In planning a deployment, the Command coordinates force priorities and closure dates (the times required for units to arrive in the theater) with the theater commander and ensures that adequate lift is available. To do this, the Command and its components assign ports of embarkation, identify modes of transportation, develop feasible transportation schedules for deploying forces, and attempt to optimize the use of available transportation capability.

The Central Command's draft operation plan for a contingency similar to Desert Shield had not yet reached the stage where the Transportation Command would have prepared the detailed transportation plan. The deployment data had not been refined; did not identify all the forces, support, and sustainment required; and, according to officials, exceeded available transportation assets. Specific plans for the force requirements, support needs, and movement priorities had to be developed and modified as the operation progressed. Throughout most of the deployment, Transportation Command officials could only focus on the immediate, near-term movement requirements.

Military Sealift Command reported identified several instances where the types of ships sent to seaports were not well matched or able to transport the waiting cargo. This necessitated calling in equipment and supplies out of priority order to load these ships and scheduling additional ships for the original cargo. In another instance, the number of ships sent to a seaport was not sufficient to load an Army division's cargo because requirement data was inaccurate and the division had more equipment and supplies than authorized.

Troops and cargo were often loaded on a first-in, first-out basis, regardless of their relative priorities for arriving in the theater. In addition, it was difficult to establish priorities because some cargo was mislabeled and much of the cargo was coded as top priority.

With the exception of the allied invasion of Normandy, during which-- after two years of preparation --more than 20,000 vehicles and more than 176,000 troops assaulted five beaches in two days, sealift for DESERT SHIELD/STORM, with no prior buildup at all, represented the largest and tastest sealift to a single theater in the history of warfare. It was also the farthest, with the average voyage covering nearly 8,700 miles.

Sealift moved 2.4 million tons of cargo during the first six months of DESERT SHIELD. By comparison, that is more than four times the cargo carried across the English Channel to Normandy during the D-Day invasion and more than 6.5 times that of the peak force build-up during the Vietnam War during a similar period. On 2 January 1991, at the peak of the DESERT SHIELD deployment, MSC had 172 ships underway.

The sealift deployment was not without difficulties. One of the Fast Sealift Ships suffered an engineering casualty on its initial outbound voyage. There were additional engineering difficulties encountered on breakout of some of the RRF vessels, due in part to shortfalls in maintenance funding during the previous year. There were not enough roll on/roll-off (RO/RO) configured ships to carry all the Army rolling stock. Despite these few problems, MSC got the job done.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:41:22 ZULU