Combat service support has been vital in all wars, from the sinking of cargo ships in World War II to the insurgent threat to supply convoys in today’s main theatre, Afghanistan.

The range of operations involving today’s military forces is no longer dedicated solely to deterring aggression or invading countries but also includes combat and humanitarian missions, interception of drugs and other forms of trafficking, piracy, civil support, and above all, counter-insurgency. Logistics infrastructure and processes must evolve to support the new spectrum of demands.

Afghanistan: disrupting the supply chain

Multinational logistics in Afghanistan have a unique and expanding set of challenges, with a surge of 30,000 more troops in theatre for the instigation of Operation Moshtarak in February 2010 increasing to unseen levels the support demands of operating in very difficult terrain in a remote, landlocked country riddled with insurgents. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, logistics in Afghanistan is more difficult than it was in Iraq, where Kuwait was a staging ground.

Everything has to be procured from outside the country, with much being transported over rough and dangerous terrain. Building materials such as concrete come from Pakistan, which is becoming more insecure and suffering increasing attacks by insurgents. Heavy-lift cargo planes carrying troops or armoured vehicles have to land in airspace already crammed with jet fighters, unmanned drones, bombers, helicopters, and small cargo and passenger jets.

Afghanistan has no port and roads are mainly dirt tracks. Some 80% of cargo has to be land-transported through one of five major bridges or mountain passes. The equipment and materials pass through many hands, with local handlers paying the Taliban protection money to ensure safe passage. The troop surge means a greater logistical network, which enhances its vulnerability. In effect, the allies are paying the Taliban to ensure the safety of equipment to fight and defeat them, further funding them in the process.

“New technologies in surveillance and reconnaissance are of increasing logistical importance.”

The rising incidence of improvised explosive device (IED) strikes by Taliban insurgents is the biggest threat to ISAF supply chains. Not only were almost 4,000 IEDs, many of them hidden roadside bombs, detonated or pre-empted in 2008 (45% more than 2007) but the insurgents hit vital routes during August of that year – most notably Highway 1 between Kabul and Kandahar, destroying several bridges and purloining materials.

Rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms attacks on ISAF forces, civilian contractors, and humanitarian organisations continue to threaten the freedom of movement vital for logistical supplies.

The Taliban know their territory and can wreak havoc with limited means: an insurgent rocket attack on cargo planes can result in them blocking a runway.

Construction of new roads and runways means de-mining the land. Local Afghans are hired to do the most primitive IED reconnaissance; probing the ground with sticks, or the troops clear it with armoured bulldozers. At Bagram, land has been cleared and foundations built to install stacked steel shipping containers as prefab offices and living quarters with basic power and ventilation.

The cost of logistical supplies is exemplified by the cost of getting fuel into theatre and its tortuous route: to transport one gallon of gasoline to Helmand province costs $400. That includes shipping it to the port of Karachi in Pakistan, then trucking it up the Khyber Pass or Chaman towards Kandahar, and finally air-lifting it to supply outlying posts.

“Logistics infrastructure and processes must evolve to support the new spectrum of demands.”

Getting troops and supplies in safely

Coping with the extra flow of troops and equipment has necessitated the expansion by engineering crews of runways, aircraft parking and cargo unloading areas, new forward operating bases (FOBs), air strips and logistics bases. Problems centred on Bagram, formerly used by the Soviets during their occupation and now the main US operating hub of the country, where up to 2,000 inbound and outbound troops a day have passed through, along with 925t of cargo a day, compared with 400t a day in mid-2008.

Sometimes the expensive but far speedier option, airborne delivery, is the only way to ensure supplies get in. The US has been airlifting the new and urgently needed M-ATV armoured vehicles non-stop into theatre by Boeing 747-400 freighter, directly off the production line in Charleston SC; five M-ATVs a flight. The US military has trialled a faster route over the North Pole and south across Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In mid-March the army applied the new “multimodal concept” of operations – transporting kit by sea as well as air – sending 130 M-ATVs on a three-week journey, initially by ship to an unnamed Southwest Asian ally, then loading them onto C-17 aircraft and flying them for six hours to Afghanistan. The army intends to continue using this route to transport 1,000 M-ATVs a month.

The mission of the US Army Logistics Innovation Agency (LIA), the field operating agency of the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Logistics is to reassess and augment the army’s logistics capabilities to improve their effectiveness. New LIA technologies in support of army logistics include active radio frequency identification, which has become the US Department of Defense (Dod) standard for the global tracking of cargo.

More recently, the LIA has provided a suite of improved aerial delivery systems in order to resupply hard-to-reach locations in Afghanistan. Other emerging technologies are in the areas of energy, unmanned systems and data fusion, such as LIA’s agile robotics project, a robotic forklift that is aimed at reducing Jet Propellant 8 fuel consumption, reducing the number of road convoys by air-dropping ruggedised cargo rigged to parachutes out of C-130 cargo planes. Small but valuable cargo could be collected and delivered by unmanned cargo aircraft, which would save air cargo crews from the dangers of anti-aircraft fire.

“Logistics in Afghanistan is more difficult than it was in Iraq, where Kuwait was a staging ground.”

New technologies in surveillance and reconnaissance are of increasing logistical importance. The US Joint Forces Command is deploying the Valiant Angel system, which adapts civilian surveillance technology through computer servers to enable far more photographs and video footage to be stored than previously. Advanced software will also give field-based intelligence analysts and troops greater and improved access to the vast amounts of video surveillance footage acquired in combat zones. As well as accessing digital surveillance images, the total data can be saved for later searches and can be condensed for use by troops in the field, who have access to low bandwidth only.

Supplies for UK troops

The Tri-Service Headquarters of the Joint Force Support, formed around HQ 8 Force Engineer Brigade, commands 2,200 logistics troops based in Kabul, Lashkar Gah, Camp Bastion and all the FOBs in the UK area of command. In February 2010 the UK MoD reported that 35 vehicles of 1st Combat Logistic Patrol (CLP) of Op.

Moshtarak delivered vital heavy equipment and supplies that could not be airlifted, and that supply routes were being opened to leave helicopters free for other vital tasks. However, IED-ridden “safe routes” continue to take casualties almost daily among troops in the process of gaining control of targets in the Nad-e-Ali district. A further 3,000 UK troops are lined up for extra logistics support and moving equipment. The Counter-IED Task Force, comprising the renowned Royal Logistic Corps EOD and Royal Engineers search teams, has developed new tactics and equipment to search out and destroy IEDs before they are detonated, using remotely tracked vehicles and state-of-the-art mine detectors such as the Vallon.

The first CLP set out from Camp Bastion on 18 February bound for Shahid, 18km away. According to LP Commander, Major Patch Reehal, 10 The Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment: “We got through to our off-load points and now we’re starting to off load not just the supplies, but also the stores to enable the coalition forces to build the bases. And that’s quite symbolic because they’re going to stay there and protect the population.”

This article was first published in our sister publication Defence & Security Systems International.