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A Single Day Changed Supply Strategy in Iraq  


by Joe Pappalardo 

On April 7, 2004, the war in Iraq turned a corner. It was the day that the insurgency showed a more capable face than previously seen by launching a coordinated sabotage of the roads upon which U.S. supply lines depend. The attacks were so effective that they derailed U.S. logistics operations for a week. It also changed the way the Army’s support command had to do business from that point on.

Brig. Gen. James Chambers, who until a recent promotion was the commanding officer of the 13th Corps Support Command in Iraq, described this obscure turning point in detail.

The 13th COSCOM is one of only four throughout the active Army. The command’s mission is to provide combat support and combat service support to units of III Corps in the areas of supply, maintenance, transportation, field services, medical engineering construction and decontamination.

The stress of operations in Iraq is changing the doctrine and equipment of the command in fundamental ways, said Chambers, who will become director of sustainment at the Pentagon. In his new job, he will draft policy and oversee equipping of these support units, which drive convoys through long stretches of Iraqi roads to deliver supplies.

Many of the components of Chambers’ command linked up for the first time in Iraq. “We built the team in place, on the run,” he said. But by the end of the one-year tour, the men had bonded and developed “more of a warrior kind of mindset.” Attacks became a daily occurrence, he said.

To Chambers’ eye, contrary to the comments of other observers, the frontline of the war against insurgents in Iraq is linear. The major road used for resupply ran south to north, with one major east-west branch at Baghdad. It can take a combat support unit nine full days to deliver supplies from Kuwait to a northern city, like Mosul. “When you look at the distances involved … there’s no way to secure those roads. The philosophy has to be, you have to protect the things moving on those roads.”

In some places, houses push right against the road, providing cover for insurgents triggering improvised explosives or firing at passing or bomb-stricken convoys, he said.

Supplies flow along a system of fortified support centers spaced along the route. At the start of the insurgency, all commercial and military trucks were routed through a single hub, and from there moved to other destinations. Commercial trucks commingled with military transports, and safety meant driving at acceptable speeds.

“We used to tell our soldiers, ‘Speed kills, speed kills, speed kills,’” Chambers said. “In Iraq, speed saved lives … We had to train the soldiers how to drive fast after teaching them how to drive slowly.”

As attacks continued, the insurgents developed ingenuity in targeting the convoys. Munitions are easy to find in Iraq, and these were being adapted into improved explosives that tore into trucks. “They’re not aiming at Humvees; they are trying to hit fuel tankers,” Chambers said.

Iraq’s roads are critical ground. The country’s network of railroad lines are not functional, mainly because of old infrastructure and a successful intimidation campaign against the families of the Iraqi civilians who run the trains, according to Chambers. “Reinvestment would not be worth it at this time,” he added, “but it’s something we may do in the future.” That left the roads, and weeklong convoy missions, as the way U.S. and coalition forces were kept in operation.

The route from south to north runs through the “Sunni triangle,” where insurgent attacks on truck convoys are daily, dangerous occurrences. Insurgents were clearly targeting the coalition supply line, but U.S. military officials did not believe their enemy had the acumen or organization to sever it. They were proven wrong in early April 2004.

The tactic described by Chambers was simple: “They went after our bridges.”

The south-north highway, over which all the deliveries out of the main supply hub crossed, was marked with more than 300 bridges. The bulk of these bridges are low, culvert-style structures. Insurgents cut as many as they could in any way possible. They punctured oil pipelines under bridges and set them aflame to inspire a collapse. They detonated explosives to punch ragged holes in the roadway. In one instance, insurgents dissembled a tall bridge spanning a river. They also targeted likely alternative routes. “They effectively shut us down,” he said. “When they took out the bridges … we lost about seven days. In conjunction, they increased the op tempo in the north, especially in the Fallujah area … I didn’t sleep for eight days.”

The military forces in Iraq consume massive amounts of resources, requiring more than 200 convoys daily. For example, every day more than a million gallons of gasoline are used. Water, ammunition and mail are each essential for the fight, and must be distributed by trucks.

And in April that supply was interrupted. “It was a very critical time for U.S. forces,” Chambers said. “We learned some very hard lessons.”

In the short-term, the U.S. military felt the pinch of the attacks. Worries increased as stockpiles of ammunition were drained. Emergency airlifts to Balad were undertaken to bring in ammunition. More resources were devoted to supply escorts. “We used to be self-protected,” he said. “After April, we changed.”

New assets, including a Stryker unit, were temporarily assigned to protect the convoys. Unmanned drones and aircraft targeted insurgent bomb-layers. But it was clear that a major reorganization was needed.

So as a result of the insurgent’s April operation, the long-term logistics strategy in Iraq changed. The single hub was divided into four supply centers. Stockpiles of critical goods were increased to withstand disruptions. The effort cost millions of dollars, he added.

Before April, logisticians assumed supplies in Kuwait could easily be distributed to units in Iraq. After the insurgent attacks, the distribution planning process had to be adjusted to account for the risk of transportation, Chambers said.

Response from the Pentagon came in the form of armor kits, improvised bomb jammers and remotely operated weapons stations. A new land route opened from Turkey. That new point of entry diversified and shortened the overland routes for food and water.

The truck crews themselves were receiving upgrades to protect themselves on the road and while inside a base. Ballistic shields, additional armor and better weapons helped save lives, he said.

Chambers noted that he and his men appreciated creative solutions sent to the front, but expressed the need for greater contractor support.

“When you send something to the field, you need to send a team to set up and maintain it,” he advised defense contractors. “It will be to your own benefit, believe me.”

Equipment upgrades are ongoing, he added. Helmets on par with those used by Blackhawk pilots, with ballistic and communications capabilities, are being considered for use by supply units, Chambers cited as an example. “We asked for them, and I think we’re going to get them.”

Force protection equipment is effective, but the insurgents’ ability to adapt continues to frustrate. For example, once counter-battery fire proved its ability to wipe out enemy mortar teams, the guerillas responded by relying on rocket attacks triggered by egg timers.

On Dec. 12, 2004, the 13th Corps Support Command transferred authority to the 1st Corps Support Command. During its year in Iraq, the 13th COSCOM oversaw 62,000 convoys, processed 2,000 tons of mail and installed quality-of-life improvements to the base camp, including indoor and outdoor swimming pools and movie theaters.

To Chambers, another statistic demonstrated the overall lesson of Iraq: 38 soldiers from 13th COSCOM and its supporting units were killed. “We need our own protection … in the logistical corps,” he said. “Every truck has to be protected.”

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