Equipping Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, more troops will equal more equipment, but has the US thought out its plan well enough? Can it ensure it can deliver on this equation? Gordon Feller investigates.


Following Obama's West Point speech in which he laid out the new strategy for war in Afghanistan strategy, questions about practical issues have begun piling up alongside doubts about the strategic wisdom of the plan.

Included in the practical concerns of leaders in the defence community are fears that defence contractors may not be geared up sufficiently to rapidly deliver all the technology and materiel and equipment needed for many new deployments. Concerns also exist about the knowledge on what is actually required in the first place.

Leaders want to know what's needed, other than a fresh set of orders. Numerous companies will be asked to equip these new deployment levels, from ground-level technology – such as mine resistant ambush protected vehicles – to the hi-tech, such as the systems that manage the constant aerial activity of unmanned aerial vehicles and other Predator-type assets.

Where exactly obstacles and bottlenecks are going to show up will prompt big challenges for on-time delivery from factories and suppliers, who are still unsure how smooth logistics and supply chains will run, despite the critical nature of military deployment.

"Nobody knows whether or not we can handle the requirements for the 30,000 new troops being deployed."

As Winslow Wheeler of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information says, "the sad truth is, nobody knows whether or not we can handle the requirements for the 30,000 new troops being deployed".

Working for the non-partisan non-profit on national security issues for 31 years for members of the US Senate and for the US General Accounting Office, Wheeler can confidently say he thinks "neither the US Congress nor the Pentagon" have a firm grasp of the facts. Despite its mandate to provide oversight, the US Federal Government, he says, has not done enough to offer a clear picture of the work involved in equipping new deployments of troops to Afghanistan, at least not in the public view.

"The last time anyone unclassified the readiness ratings, not a single active or reserve unit at brigade level in the US was rated 'fully ready'," Wheeler says.

So what do we know that can help prepare forces for new planned deployments?

From Vietnam to Iraq

The first new waves of technology, weapons and materiel will be delivered from the air.

Today the skies above Afghanistan are alive with C-130s, jet fighters, unmanned drones, commercial 747 cargo aircraft, transport and attack helicopters, and the occasional artillery shells. Air cargo moves in a never-ending ballet, set among all the other traces of combat and commerce.

According to Air Cargo News editor and publisher Geoffrey Arend any number of US flags that are part of the CRAF programme are utilised to move troops and critical supplies to and from the US to forward bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. "That task was made quite a bit easier when the US and Russia agreed on a one-year plan that allows up to 4,500 US military troop and supply aircraft to fly over Russian Federation airspace," he says.

"The agreement not only saves about $140m in fuel costs annually but ensures safer passage in and out without having to move overland through Pakistan where attacks have been attempted."

"All cargo travels at times aboard vintage equipment into war zones around the clock."

Dubai also has a number of independent operators who operate from there sending hard cargo and other supplies into Iraq and Afghanistan. Rus Cargo and several small-to medium-ad-hoc carriers come to mind.

"Air cargo into these war zones will, at times, resemble operations that could have been lifted straight from the pages of Terry & The Pirates, a 1930s comic strip that glamourised air cargo flights to faraway places like China and India," Arend says. "Right now, daily with Dubai as conduit, all cargo travels at times aboard vintage equipment into war zones around the clock."

Despite appearing quite dated, this ability to airdrop supplies and land C-130s with cargo on remote dirt airstrips is still key to keeping the war effort in Afghanistan supplied and in business, just as dispersing the troops safely is a key element of the strategy that will add 30,000 more of their numbers to provide security for Afghanistan's population, which is scattered in thousands of rural villages and dusty crossroads and deep mountain valleys.

The roads are too dangerous to convoy supply trucks, as loss figures gathered by the US Pentagon attest.

But will the US be ready for such a large deployment using such dated measures, and will it be able to bring in the technology fast enough to keep troops safe?