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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service April 1, 2003

Protecting supply lines is a dangerous task

By Peter Smolowitz

DOHA, Qatar _ Kinks in supply lines are as much a part of war as dirt in foxholes.

But the American and British generals in charge of shipping supplies _ enough drinking water each day to fill more than 26 backyard pools and enough fuel to power all of the cars in Florida _ guarantee they can move combat necessities along a 250-mile corridor.

"The distance to Baghdad hasn't changed," said Army Maj. Gen. Dennis K. Jackson, U.S. Central Command's logistical director. "We've known that distance up front. We thought of this months ago and said, 'What are the preparatory tasks?'"

Keeping front-line troops supplied might be the most crucial aspect of war, and in some ways, the most dangerous. All troops train for battle, but supply convoys do not have the armored protection of tanks, and they do not travel in combat formations.

Iraqis staging guerrilla attacks have disrupted the supply flow and captured some soldiers traveling in the rear. Reports from the front lines indicate some Marines were down to one meal a day.

The top U.S. Army ground commander, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, told reporters that Iraqi tactics have stalled the march toward Baghdad.

Now, as coalition ground forces pause to rest and resupply before the final showdown, commanders added soldiers from the 101st and 82nd airbornes to protect the convoys traveling in the rear, where resistance continues.

"I know the word 'pause' is not in vogue," said P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel and former special assistant to President Clinton for national security affairs. "But you've got to take steps to firm up your supply lines because that's where you're going to be vulnerable. It's right in line with military doctrine."

The build-up for war posed enough of a logistical challenge.

The British needed 68 ships and 5,500 tractor-trailer-like containers to move 43,000 troops and their equipment and 15,000 vehicles.

The Americans used planes to move the equivalent of every household in Santa Barbara, Calif., and ships carried enough supplies to fill 150 Super Wal-Marts, Jackson said.

But after coalition forces surged through the Iraqi desert, moving to within 60 miles of Baghdad in just days, logistics turned more complicated.

"Even in perfect conditions, it would take time to get these supplies up," said Mark Burgess, a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "The fact that the Iraqis appear to be in rear areas, that's going to complicate things further."

Similar blitzkriegs have traditionally outrun their supply lines. In World War II, Gen. George Patton had to pause as he moved across France; Gen. Erwin Rommel was delayed in North Africa, and German tank columns in France stopped repeatedly, sometimes using supplies found along the way to refuel.

"That has historically been the challenge of maneuver warfare," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington nonprofit group focused on defense issues. "The notion that they have gotten ahead of their supply lines and resupply becomes a problem comes as no surprise."

The Army adjusted after the first Gulf War, buying a fleet of 10-ton trucks with big tires to haul essentials across the desert, Pike said. The problem has been defending against ambushes.

But the Marines do not have off-road capability, relying instead on clogged main arteries through the center of Iraq, Pike said. Whether they plan to be part of the Baghdad invasion or simply an American presence to curb ethnic clashes will determine whether their resupply problem becomes an annoyance or something more serious.

Generals will not discuss future operations, but they insist resupply will not be a problem for any troops. Allied commander Tommy Franks said Sunday the plan was "absolutely remarkable."

There are "sufficient stocks across the battlefield," Franks said.

The British forces learned lessons about how to defend their supply lines in the Balkans, when they faced angry residents similar to Iraq's paramilitary fighters.

"One learns about the dangers of being caught in roadblocks," said Air Commodore Andy Spinks, a British one-star general who oversees logistics. "There are areas through which forces sometimes get channelized."

Sometimes the civilians, if they are against the military, can cause a danger by stoning vehicles or blocking roads.

"The paramilitaries and the death squads, the threat from them is very difficult to assess," Spinks said. "We might take more escorts."

American supply efforts have improved dramatically since the first Gulf War, Jackson said. U.S. forces now use electronic sensors and computer bar codes to track shipments and their contents on an 8,000-mile trek from the United States. In 1991, when containers arrived no one knew what was inside.

But the biggest challenge remains how battlefield dynamics will alter plans.

"Even if you can predict it, you might not be able to control it," Jackson said, citing last week's sandstorm. "You're driving up a road you've never been up before, and the sand is blowing. It's difficult to travel."

There might be "isolated" shortages, Jackson said. But a soldier or Marine needing equipment will always get it.

"If he's ever without a battery, he's probably not without a battery very long," Jackson said.

Copyright 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service