Sealift in Operation Iraqi Freedom

The 3-week war with Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom, was a dramatic demonstration of the epitome of industrial-age military power. By almost all traditional measures of military effectiveness, the operation rates as one of the most successful military campaigns in history. Logistically, it showed that the United States? ability to move large amounts of military materiel globally, quickly, and efficiently has continued to improve. It underlined the distinction between the expeditionary capabilities of the U.S. military and all other militaries, iterated the status of the United States as the world's only military superpower, and underlined the fact that the disparity between U.S. military power and that of all other nations continues to grow.

The build up and use of prepositioned equipment started increasing after Operation Desert Shield/Storm. After the Gulf War there was a pressing motivation to reduce the timeframe it takes to deploy and equip soldiers on the battlefield. The Army shifted to Force Projection and made the equipment available in probable hot spots to reduce the transportation requirements for rapid deployment. The Joint Chief of Staff's (JCS) answer was to place prepositioned stocks of heavy equipment and combat support units afloat at sea close to potential conflict areas.

On 11 September 2001 the attacks on American soil brought forth a true test of the Army's readied stance. With each political outcome, steps to move equipment into theater were taken by the APS program. On 29 Jan 2002 the State of the Union labeled Iraq part of the "axis of evil" group. At this point APS planners were sent to Southwest Asia (SWA) and APS Qatar started to ship a brigade set and division base to Kuwait. CEG-Europe also began realigning stocks to theater.

In the summer of 2002, MSC began off-loading some of prepositioning ships in Kuwait for Army exercises that took place through December 2002. In July 2002 preposition ship USNS Watkins was downloaded, the Qatar BDE was moved to Kuwait, and Exercise Vigilant Hammer began. Much of the equipment MSC off-loaded was retained in theater against possible future use. The download of USNS Watkins was intended to be a clear signal to Saddam Hussein of American seriousness. In retrospect, increasing the stockpiles was a clear signal of the approaching conflict. Operation In October 2002, the Coast Guard received a request for forces from U.S. Central Command for a variety of Coast Guard forces to support possible military action against Iraq. President Bush signed a congressional resolution allowing the use of military force against Iraq and on 16 October 2002 APS-3 downloaded the USNS Watson. Sealift began in earnest in November 2002 and continued at a surge level through the initial days of the war.

In January 2003, MSC began the build-up for what would become Operation Iraqi Freedom. In January 2003 momentum was really gaining and APS-3 downloaded several ships of equipment into theater. In late March 2003, MSC reached a peak of 167 ships in the "Steel Bridge of Democracy", carrying "the torch of freedom to the Iraqi people" in the words of RADM D.L. Brewer III, Commander, Military Sealift Command.

The span of that bridge was literally a ship every 72 miles from the US to Kuwait. That was more than 78 percent of the total MSC active fleet of 214 ships that day -- ships dedicated to supporting the US forces engaged in freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny and persecution. The mix of ships encompassed all four of MSC's programs, and included the U.S. Maritime Administration's Ready Reserve Force, and more than four times the normal daily number of commercial ships. Twenty-five of 33 Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force ships were providing combat logistics for the carrier strike groups and amphibious strike groups involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Three of 25 Special Mission ships were directly supporting Navy combatants with telemetric, hydrographic and acoustic data.

Thirty-three of the 42 ships in the Prepositioning Program were underway or had already off-loaded gear for war-fighting forces in the Persian Gulf area. In the MSC Sealift Program, 106 of 115 ships, including government-owned surge sealift ships, MARAD RRF ships and chartered commercial ships, were carrying equipment and supplies for the Army's 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions, 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and V Corps and the Marine Corps' I and II Marine Expeditionary Forces.

As the war approached, the US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) began the activation of ships in the Ready Reserve fleet. These are merchant ships in mothballs that can be re-activated to support emergent sealift requirements. Ultimately, 25 to 30 of these ships were activated to support OIF. The Coast Guard had to certify them as seaworthy. This was a major task given that many of these ships had been inactive for years. The Atlantic Area commander, VADM Hull, commented that: "We had to take care of ships that had been sitting in Charleston. Ships that had been sitting there for years without smoke coming out of them, and all of a sudden now all the ships are starting to move from pier to pier. Things were happening."

The Coast Guard provided the necessary security at the primary out-load ports--Charleston, South Carolina; Beaumont, Texas; and Jacksonville, Florida. In addition to these ports, significant operations took place in Savannah, Georgia and Corpus Christi, Texas. Philadelphia and Norfolk also saw some military traffic, but not at the level of the other ports. Often, the security personnel were shifted between ports as needed if the ports were geographically close to each other. The two ports in Texas often shared security forces, as did the three along the Atlantic seaboard.

During the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, MSC had 167 of its 214 active ships directly supporting the war. Of these ships, 26 were operated by federally employed mariners and 141, or 84 percent, were crewed by merchant mariners employed by commercial companies under contract with MSC. Of the 141 ships, 127 ships were carrying combat equipment and cargo from the U.S. or Europe into the theater of operations, or were en route to load cargo for the operation.

Navy cargo handling battalions and contracted stevedores offloaded the sealift and the Maritime Prepositioning Ships. Sufficient offload capacity and efficient sequencing of the arriving ships permitted around-the-clock port operations and resulted in ship offloads within 24 hours of docking. The pace of ship offloading was principally constrained by two factors: the capacity of transportation assets to remove supplies from pierside, and intensive port security. Following attempted Iraqi missile attacks on Kuwait, elements of the 101st Airborne augmented assigned port security units.

From January 2003 through the end of April 2003, MSC delivered more than 21 million square feet of war-fighting equipment and supplies, 260 million gallons of fuel and 95,000 tons of ammunition to the Persian Gulf area for the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy war fighters involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom. More than 90 percent of the military cargo to support OIF was delivered via MSC ships. At the same time, Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force oilers pumped more than 117 million gallons of fuel to Navy combat ships for bunkering and aircraft fuel.

During the build-up of forces and throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom, the staff at Sealift Logistics Command Europe, as well as 36 mobilized reservists, worked around-the-clock facilitating the flow of 124 MSC ships, carrying critical war fighting materials in support of OIF, through the SEALOGEUR area of reponsibility.

Sealift Logistics Command Europe established MSC Office, Souda Bay, on the Greek Island of Crete, managing the delivery of more than 1.3 million barrels of fuel to MSC ships heading to and from the Persian Gulf, including 40-plus ships carrying the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division's cargo, orginally destined for Turkey. Also of note, MSCO Souda Bay administered over a thousand anthrax and 700 small pox immunizations to MSC ship crew members. Further, SEALOGEUR coordinated the embarkation, transfer, and debarkation of security forces which provided an organic force protection capability while MSC's government-owned and contracted ships, on their way or returning from the Middle East, made 270 transits through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar. SEALOGEUR also ensured our ships remained on schedule enroute to the Suez Canal, conducting no less than 220 transits.

SEALOGEUR also loaded and unloaded ships at 32 ports throughout Europe, including the loading of hundreds of ammunition containers at Nordenham, Germany, and thousands of tons of heavy combat equipment for the U.S. Army's V Corps and 4th Infantry Division at Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Antwerp, Belgium, also heading to support OIF. The coordination included scheduling ship arrivals and departures to and from the regional ports, working with various port operators, and other logistical suppport.

Commander Task Force 51 (CTF 51) command of two expeditionary units provided the build-up and sustainment of a 4,500-person expeditionary base camp in Kuwait Naval Base, Kuwait to support the offload of two MPF squadrons and more than 100 Military Sealift ships while supporting the Joint Logistics Over the Shore mission during build-up and sustainment phases of the operation. CTF51 forces commenced the MPF offload on 15 January 2003 and completed the full two squadrons worth of MAGTF gear and equipment within 18 days.

When it became apparent that MSC wasn't going to off-load the 4th Infantry Division in Turkey, plan B went into effect, and the 37 RRF ships sailed for Kuwait. The trip from Turkey to Kuwait went through the Suez Canal, a very narrow body of water with an even narrower navigable channel. That made everyone involved a little nervous when it came to the subject of force protection.

MSC crews owed thanks to the fleet force protection teams and the Guardian Mariner program for defending MSC ships against potential terrorist attacks from small boats. As the buildup for OIF began in January 2003, force protection teams from primarily the Army and Marine Corps provided shipboard protection for MSC ships. The first team was from the First Marine Expeditionary Force and reported aboard USNS Antares in late January. This was an interim solution for force protection until the Guardian Mariner program came into full operation.

Under the Guardian Mariner program, more than 1,300 Army reservists were activated to provide force protection and security aboard MSC ships sailing to and from Southwest Asia. The soldiers, from the Puerto Rico National Guard Unit 92nd Separate Infantry Brigade, were organized into 110, 12-person teams. They began reporting aboard MSC ships 19 March 2003. In all, around 70 fleet force protection teams and 75 Guardian Mariner teams were used aboard MSC ships during OIF.

Weather is always a potential problem when crossing the open seas. SS Cape Texas, a MARAD RRF ship, saw some very large waves as she crossed the Mediterranean Sea on her way to Turkey. The weather took on an altogether different face in the desert climate of Kuwait, through the desert sandstorm that hit USNS Brittin waiting to off-load in Kuwait.

One other challenge that MSC faced was the use of limited port facilities in-theater in Southwest Asia. All MSC ships had to off-load mostly in one port - the port at Ash Shuaibah in Kuwait. MSC was limited to a maximum of only six ships at a time, and that meant Ash Shuaibah was very busy all the time, sandstorms notwithstanding. More than 150 MSC ships had off-loaded in Kuwaiti ports by late April 2003.

A great deal of timely logistics support occurred in Operation Iraqi Freedom mostly by chance. That is, that the success of the effort stemmed more from luck than design. This view was due primarily to how the logistics system reacted to the breakdown of the "pull" processes. As the combat units raced toward Baghdad in the initial days of the war, the line-of-sight communications on which the logistics pull system depended were unable to maintain enough connectivity to assure that end-user requests for materiel could generate the support needed. The logisticians met that problem by emphasizing a "push" system?they pushed materiel forward without waiting for a request.

Inventory visibility was mixed, as was the interpretation of the inventory visibility that existed. The visibility of material flowing globally was probably the best it has ever been, due largely to the improved tracking technology. That conclusion has to be balanced by the differences within strategic sealift among commercial carriers. Some of these carriers, carrying mixed government and commercial loads and making deliveries along the way to the theater, maintained less visible track of the materiel destined for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The ability to identify what containers arriving in theater were carrying was clearly and generally much better than a decade earlier in Operation Desert Storm. Visibility after in-theater distribution declined dramatically, perhaps due in part to the emphasis on pushing materiel forward.

One of the MSC ships, USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), arrived on station mid-March 2003, and provided hospital-quality medical care for coalition forces, freedom fighters, Iraqi civilians, and Iraqi enemy prisoners of war. Under the Geneva Convention, the hospital ship treated all patients solely on their medical needs.

The first combat casualties arrived aboard Comfort 20 March 2003, and by the time the ship departed the AOR, it provided trauma care to more than 196 Iraqi EPWs and civilians. To put the surgical response of OIF in perspective, 337 surgical procedures were performed in about eight months during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. During the first five weeks of OIF, Comfort performed more than 590 surgeries. Throughout the entire span of OIF, there were more than 2,400 radiographic studies producing more than 8,500 exposures, as well as more than 600 units of blood transfused in support of the 50-bed trauma area and 12-room surgical complex.

U.S. Military Sealift Command ships have been a familiar site in this and other Baltic seaports since 2003 when U.S. ships began using them to load coalition cargo bound for the Middle East and for use in Operation Iraqi Freedom. An important partner in OIF, Polish military forces took part in the initial stages of the operation that began in 2003. At the height of Poland's engagement in the newly democratized country, Poland had 2,500 Soldiers deployed to the region. Since 2003, U.S. ships moved nearly 430,000 square feet, or seven and a half football fields, of combat equipment for Poland.

By April 2006, from the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism and operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, the Military Sealift Command had moved more than 88,634,187 square feet of combat equipment for troops in theaters worldwide. That is equal to 932,991 SUV's, which, if lined up bumper-to-bumper, would stretch nearly 2,800 miles from New York City to Los Angeles. The command's ships had also delivered more than 8,808,380,000 gallons of fuel. That is enough fuel to fill the Empire State Building nearly 32 times.

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