Basra, Iraq -- After three years of training by coalition advisors, Iraqi forces in southern Iraq are capable of planning and commanding operations. But their logistics systems remain deeply flawed, and the Iraqis rely on British and U.S. forces for supplies and spares support for all but the most basic functions.
"Logistics -- that’s a major concern for us,” says Maj. Gen. Abdul Lateef, commander of the Iraqi Army 10th Division, headquartered in Basra.
"As a piece of real estate, southern Iraq is very important," says British Army Lt. Col. Tim Barrett, a liaison to Iraqi forces in the area. The south contains most of Iraq's oil, many of its large power plants, its only ports and offshore oil terminals and major communications nodes including highways, waterways and Basra International Airport. The region generates no less than 97 percent of Baghdad's revenue. Security here depends on approximately 8,000 coalition troops, most of them British, as well as the 11,000-strong 10th Division and elements of the Iraqi navy and air force.
In the past year, there has been a slow drawdown and consolidation of foreign forces in the south, but as long as local Iraqi forces rely on the coalition for logistics support, a complete withdrawal is unlikely.
The 10th Division is capable of planning and executing its own missions, but usually operates alongside British forces. The division, a light infantry formation, has four brigades each with two line battalions of 800 troops apiece, plus engineer and bomb disposal companies. Small divisional attachments including signals troops and military police are just now standing up with foreign assistance. There are currently no organic logistics troops.
This is consistent with the overall structure of the Iraqi Army. No more than 15 percent of Iraq’s 120,000 soldiers are involved in logistics, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gerald Ostlund told the Associated Press. By contrast, Western armies feature more logisticians than combat troops.
"What you see is what you get," Barrett says, referring to the 10th Division's infantry-heavy structure. While the battalions are adequately equipped with light arms and machine guns, there is a "desperate need" for vehicles, Lateef says. Currently, a handful of Russian-built medium trucks comprise the division’s major motor assets.
A dearth of vehicles plus a broader lack of logistical support means the 10th Division is incapable of sustaining operations away from its bases for more than a few hours, according to Barrett. This effectively limits it to urban operations in Basra and short sorties from a handful of rural installations.
Iraqi navy and air force units in the south suffer from their own logistical problems.
The 70th Squadron of the Iraqi air force flies four light surveillance aircraft from Basra Air Station. It has been capable of planning and flying independent sorties since 2004. Its major missions include spotting targets for the 10th Division and for the Iraqi navy using infrared and daylight cameras. But the squadron often lacks spare parts for its propeller-driven Sama CH-2000s and its pusher-type Seeker SB7L-360s, says the squadron's U.S. Air Force advisor, Lt. Col. Kelly Latimer.
The navy, which owns a half-dozen 100-foot patrol craft and several dozen small boats, sails from the port of Umm Qasr. It has handled its own command and control for almost two years. But the navy periodically stands down large portions of its sole flotilla owing to a shortage of engine parts and diesel fuel. Navy engineer Raad Talib says requests for spares go unheeded by the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad.
Mechanic Mosab Shebeb says the navy does not have enough spare parts for the patrol boats, which cannot stay under way for more than 12 hours at a time. This makes it virtually impossible for the navy to meet its stated goal of having one boat on patrol at all times.
Bureaucratic and sectarian squabbles account for some of the shortages. The navy belongs to and gets its spares from the recalcitrant ministry of defense, but its diesel is provided by the even more stubborn ministry of oil, which has strained relations with defense and has been known to withhold fuel shipments. For its part, the largely Shiite 10th Division is "at the end of the food chain," as far as the Sunni-dominated ministry of defense is concerned, Barrett says.
The air force's problems are unique. Its aircraft relies on aviation gasoline instead of the jet fuel used by coalition aircraft at the same facility. That means it needs a separate and relatively small supply line that's prone to interruption. The CH-2000 spares problem is a result of an expiring support contract. Latimer says the new contract will mean better reliability for the aircraft. More fundamentally, that the squadron flies just two different types of donated aircraft complicates its spares picture.
Aged equipment, much of it donated by coalition countries, only compounds the Iraqi military’s logistical problem by gobbling up disproportionate amounts of spares. The Iraqi air force’s three U.S.-sourced Lockheed Martin C-130E Hercules are around 40 years old and have logged low mission-capable rates. And the navy’s Chinese-built patrol craft are so fatigued that they’re “useless,” according to one boat’s commander, Lieutenant Abdullah Al Khalidi.
Perhaps more worrisome, widespread logistical problems reflect a deeply ingrained culture of corruption that has long plagued the Iraqi military. British forces in Basra have found it difficult to keep the city’s police force adequately equipped because officers take home or give away weapons and vehicles. The U.S. Army has had similar problems keeping up with body armor supplied to the Iraqi army.
At a higher level, last year the Iraqi government reported that theft and corruption had drained $1 billion from ministry of defense coffers.
Granted, it’s not all bad news at the ministry. It has taken over “life-support” for about 80 Iraqi military bases since April by providing food, power and base maintenance to tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and cutting coalition expenses by $24 million a month. And it has increased manning at a major logistics base in Taji, in north-central Iraq, to more than 300 soldiers against an eventual total of 1,200.
While awaiting further reform in Baghdad, Iraqi and coalition forces in the south are attempting a wide range of solutions to resolve local units’ logistical problems. Both the navy and air force are considering swapping out old equipment for newer systems of fewer types, increasing spares and fuel commonality.
Meanwhile, British forces in Basra have boosted the number of trainers dedicated to Iraqi army logistics "in direct recognition that there are problems," Barrett says. These trainers are helping stand up a 700-strong motor transport regiment to support the 10th Division. This regiment will be based at Talil, 100 miles northwest of the division’s headquarters at Basra Air Station, where the ministry of defense maintains a large military warehouse and its sole C-130 squadron. Once its initial training is complete, the motor transport regiment will conduct independent convoy operations between Talil and Basra.
If experience further north is any indication, the motor transport regiment should make a big difference. The 6th Motor Transport Regiment based at Taji stood up in July and has run supplies from the Taji warehouses to Iraqi units all over Iraq. And it has done so without U.S. supervision, Army Lt. Col. William Schiek told the Associated Press. "They're doing 100 percent of the heavy lifting," Schiek said. "This is not a U.S. show by any means."
But the 10th Division’s problems just might get worse before they get better. At the same time that it’s standing up the motor transport regiment at Talil, the 10th Division is also adding four new infantry battalions, which will only increase demand for food, water and ammunition while on operations. And a number of American-donated Humvees slated for the battalions will increase fuel demand and diversify the unit’s motor assets, thus complicating spares needs.
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