Threats to U.S. Supply Lines on the Rise, Says Transportation Command Chief
Supplying U.S. forces in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly more dangerous and expensive. For the past several years, truck convoys have been struck frequently by roadside bombs; military airplanes have become recurrent targets of Taliban small arms, and pirates are a regular menace to cargo ships. Adding to the mix of threats against supply lines are cyber attacks intended to disrupt U.S. troops’ fuel, water and food lifelines.
“We are the most attacked of all the cocoms [combatant commands],” said Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb, chief of U.S. Transportation Command.
Improvised explosive devices have been scourges for the U.S. military for eight years. And despite the introduction of new technologies and tactics to counter IEDs, they are still a “huge” problem for supply convoys in Afghanistan, McNabb said Feb. 7 at a military strategy forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C.
In 2010, ground convoys were struck 1,100 times. The only way to guarantee supplies are safe from IEDs is to move them by air, said McNabb. Air is “our ultimate ace in the hole,” he said. Aerial deliveries, however, are 10 times more expensive than ground shipments, he noted. Considering that it takes the equivalent of 165 shipping containers a day to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan, air transportation is a tool of last resort, McNabb said.
When the Defense Department started shipping 500 MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) armored trucks per month to Afghanistan two years ago, the vehicles were flown in. When TRANSCOM came up with an intermodalsea-surface-air alternative, it cut shipping costs by $116 million per month, said McNabb. Aviation fuel accounted for most of the savings.
The expected introduction of a new U.S. Air Force aerial refueling tanker, several years from now, could lead to big savings, said McNabb. The most commonly used tankers today, the KC-135s, cannot receive fuel in flight, so they have to travel back and forth from the combat zone to their home base, instead of being able to stay longer on station. A new tanker that will be able to take gas in flight, combined with a smart deployment strategy, could result in 20 to 25 percent greater efficiency, said McNabb. “When we’re talking about five million pounds of fuel a day, 25 percent is not bad.”
Worldwide, only about 10 percent of military supplies are shipped by air, but because of the dangerous conditions and harsh weather in Afghanistan, approximately 30 percent of supplies arrive by military or civilian cargo planes. Since the Afghanistan conflict began, 32,000 containers have been delivered to the war zone. Transportation Command oversees about 900 aerial sorties per day. It costs about $3 per pound to ship by air, compared to 30 cents for surface delivery.
Transporting goods by helicopter is even more expensive than fixed-wing air, McNabb said. Dropping bundles of cargo from helicopters in remote areas, near troops’ forward operating bases, is costly but is becoming more commonplace, as it helps free up military C-17 transport jets, he said. In 2005, 2 million pounds of cargo were air dropped in war zones, primarily in Afghanistan. In 2010, airdrops soared to 60 million pounds. They are conducted with a range of devices, from low altitude disposable parachutes to satellite-guided "precision systems" that can deliver at night and in bad weather. “This has been a growth industry,” said McNabb.
Airdrops also help protect airplanes from enemy shoulder-fired missiles and small arms, he said. “Strategic aircraft [C-17s and C-130s] are primary targets, next to helicopters.” Although there have been rare instances of U.S. aircraft being shot down by enemy fire, “it is something I worry about every day,” said McNabb.
Cyber intrusions, although aimed at computer networks, are a growing concern because they could impede or slow down deliveries of critical supplies. “About 90 percent of TRANSCOM command-and-control operations are done on unclassified systems,” said McNabb. “We work that [cyber security] every day.”