Iraq and Beyond

Sustaining Army Forces

By Eric Peltz, Marc L. Robbins, and Kenneth J. Girardini

Eric Peltz is a senior management systems analyst and director of the logistics program within RAND Arroyo Center. Marc Robbins is a senior management scientist at RAND. Ken Girardini is a senior operations researcher at RAND.

By virtually every account, the major combat operations of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in the spring of 2003 were remarkably successful in terms of achieving the military objectives. Yet there is a general belief within the U.S. Army and the broader defense community, supported by our analysis, that this success was achieved despite numerous logistics problems.

When ground forces attacked in March 2003, there were not enough cargo trucks to move the needed supplies. This shortage was due to both higher-than-anticipated demands on trucks and factors that limited their number. As a result, supplies ran low for all commodities except fuel. (Compared to other commodities — such as food, water, and ammunition — fuel had been the subject of better planning and received greater resources.)

The advancing combat units also lacked the communications equipment needed to order repair parts while on the move. This became particularly problematic for the army’s 3rd Infantry Division, because it had to rely on parts, prepositioned in Kuwait, that fell far short of adequate.

Under an orange sky, Sgt. Steven Brussel covers up from a blowing sandstorm.
Under an orange sky, Sgt. Steven Brussel covers up from a blowing sandstorm, or shamal, in the desert near Karbala, Iraq, on March 26, 2003. Troops from the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division were stalled in the desert less than 100 miles from Baghdad.

Soon after the invasion, severe problems cropped up in the distribution of supplies from the United States. These problems substantially delayed delivery of repair parts to U.S. troops in Iraq. In fact, the inventories of repair parts held by major combat units shrank to less than ten percent of the parts needed to repair broken equipment.

Shipments from the United States were hobbled initially by miscommunication between the army and the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency on how to consolidate shipments stateside. This generated an unexpected re-sorting workload in theater, which in turn led to delays and some “lost” shipments, as units in Iraq often received items intended for other units. Later, as the scale and pace of stability operations grew, the demand for repair parts and other supplies outstripped the capacity of the major stateside distribution center supporting OIF. It took nine months for the Defense Logistics Agency to gain funding approval, increase capacity, and work off the backlog.

As the heavy pace of operations continued into the summer of 2003 and beyond, the army’s inventories ran low on a wide range of repair parts. There were insufficient national war reserves, insufficient replenishment capabilities, and insufficient funding. Combined, these factors caused the backorder rate for key repair parts managed by the army, such as engines, to skyrocket to 35 percent of all orders (see the centerpiece). Recovery from these problems extended into late 2005.

To prevent such problems in the future and to reduce the risks for troops, we offer several suggestions. These range from a shared vision of an interorganizational structure for the supply chain to numerous logistics particulars. The shared vision is needed to build better integration among the private sector, the army, the other military services, and the other defense organizations involved in supplying army forces. The logistics particulars include improved communications systems for army logistics units, improved inventories to accommodate potential contingencies, planning and budgeting processes that account for uncertainty and surprise, and thorough joint and interagency training for the entire logistics system.

The supply chain needs to be integrated through a common vision of an interorganizational structure, fleshed out with principles and roles agreed upon by all of the military supply chain’s organizations. Such agreement will ensure that each process and organization is focused on overall effectiveness rather than on internal optimization. Many of the logistics problems we identified were the result of elements of the supply chain either not being aligned with other parts of the system or being designed without a clear focus on sustaining the units on the battlefield.

Higher funding priority should be given to communications systems for logistics units. Non-line-of-sight, mobile communications are essential for logistics forces operating over extended distances. To operate effectively, it is imperative that logisticians be able to respond quickly to changes in the battlefield situation. Timely and accurate information about the availability of supplies en route is also critical to operational commanders.

Stability operations require adequate treatment during inventory planning. Some supply problems were driven by the long-continuing high demands of stability and counterinsurgency operations. In hindsight, this is not surprising, because such operations are not generally embedded in the formal planning processes used to determine logistics resource requirements. Henceforward, stability operations scenarios should be considered in both deliberate and crisis-action planning to identify inventory and other logistics requirements.

Resource planning should account for uncertainty and the implications of capacity shortages. Once a backlog develops, capacity must ramp up not only to work off the backlog but also to meet the higher, ongoing level of unanticipated demand. Risk assessments during planning should recognize the long-term operational effects of insufficient capacity, informing decisions about how much slack or buffer capacity should be in the system. Surprises must be expected, and the supply chain must be agile enough to respond.

Joint training should exercise the entire logistics system. The army should review all logistics processes to determine which ones are not exercised in training with all requisite joint organizations. During exercises, tactical units should have to set up logistics operations from scratch. Theater commanders need to plan theater distribution systems. Theater distribution centers need to be set up. Ports need to be opened. Even the national- level spare-parts planning and financial approval processes should be exercised. Exercises will reveal roadblocks and bottlenecks as well as improve execution during the next war.

In all cases, the levels of acceptable risk need to be carefully examined. Just a few days into Operation Iraqi Freedom, a severe sandstorm, known as a shamal, generated a dramatic example of how a two- to three-day disruption could hinder a force operating with limited supplies. The logistics system was able to handle the storm, but just barely, thanks to just enough inventory held by tactical units. The goal now is to determine how to make the logistics system work better, particularly in expeditionary operations, and to anticipate what future storms it might be called upon to weather when determining what is just enough. square

Related Reading

Sustainment of Army Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom: Battlefield Logistics and Effects on Operations, Eric Peltz, John M. Halliday, Marc L. Robbins, Kenneth J. Girardini, RAND/ MG-344-A, 2005, 116 pp., four-color illustrations, ISBN 0-8330-3806-0.
Sustainment of Army Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom: Major Findings and Recommendations, Eric Peltz, Marc L. Robbins, Kenneth J. Girardini, Rick Eden, John M. Halliday, Jeffrey Angers, RAND/MG-342-A, 2005, 152 pp., four-color illustrations, ISBN 0-8330-3783-8.