Land-locked, Interesting Neighbors
US military planners are building transport options to support the Afghan surge.
—Michael C. Sirak
Dec. 10, 2009—As US military planners refine the details of how to move an additional 30,000 troops and their equipment into Afghanistan by mid-2010, US Transportation Command officials are focused on creating more transport capacity to support this troop surge and optimizing the flow of these forces, says the nation's top uniformed logistician.
"Afghanistan is a very unique place," Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb, TRANSCOM commander, told defense reporters Wednesday during a breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C. He added, "If you wanted to pick a place that was hard to go into, Afghanistan would be one of those places."
That nation is land-locked with very high terrain and has "some very interesting neighbors," said McNabb.
Moving large numbers of troops and quantities of materiel into Afghanistan has proved to be challenging, but doable, despite the nation's limited infrastructure.
McNabb equated the supply pipeline into the country today to the 14th Street Bridge, a vital artery connecting Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia that spans the Potomac River.
'The 14th Street Bridge can handle so much and, at some point, it gets jammed up and if you want to put more stuff in it, you just jam it up worse," he explained.
Accordingly, to prepare for the troop surge, the best way, is to "open up another lane" and then "open up another bridge," said McNabb, carrying forward this analogy.
"You want to have options," he said.
Moving a brigade entails carrying about 1,200 short tons by air and then another 200,000 sq. ft. of cargo—about one to two ships' worth of equipment—and then about 3,500 passengers, he said.
Today, about one half of all cargo destined for Afghanistan traverses two land routes through Pakistan. Another 30 percent of supplies travels over northern land routes from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The final 20 percent comes in by air and that includes "everything lethal and sensitive by air," said McNabb.
While he said he thinks the US military has the air and over-land capacity today to support the troop increase, he is still looking to increase that capacity twofold to mitigate the effect of potential disruptions to one means of access that could arise from issues like severe weather or man-made factors.
"Whether we need it or not, we want to make sure we have that capacity," he said, noting that this capacity boost is not yet in place.
As a fallback, McNabb said he wants to be able to move everything into Afghanistan by air, if necessary, although that option is not optimal and would be "a lot more expensive." In fact, moving an item by air is generally about 10 times more expensive, he said.
"But if we need to do that, it needs to be your ultimate 'ace in the hole,'" he said.
One promising "niche" air option now being explored is to utilize air routes that would extend from the US over the North Pole and then over parts of Russia and the Central Asian republics directly into Afghanistan, said McNabb.
Such access would allow modern commercial freighters like 747-400s and military C-17s to fly nonstop from places like Alaska, Chicago, Charleston AFB, S.C., or Travis AFB, Calif., into places like Bagram Air Field, he said. One scenario is being able to evacuate wounded soldiers from the war theater directly back to the US without the need to stop in Germany, he noted.
"I think there might be some really nice opportunities once we get that whole thing sorted out," he said. He added: "We haven’t done a lot of polar ops. So now we have got to figure out all of the pieces of the puzzle."
The US and Russia in June signed a transit agreement that will allow up to 4,500 military flights through Russian airspace to Afghanistan. This will encompass these polar flights. McNabb said there have been two such US military flights so far to flush out the bilateral procedures. The first of these occurred in October.
TRANSCOM is also investigating new transloading and staging areas around Afghanistan, he said.
"Right now I have the options that we need to make sure that we get this [troop/supplies surge] done, but my take is that there are probably some other things that could increase the flow," he said.
Beyond transport capacity, the issue of beddown looms large for the troops that are going into Afghanistan as well as the added air assets bringing everything in, said McNabb.
"The big thing is once you get the stuff in, how do you distribute it within the country?" he said. Options there include convoys or vertical delivery, meaning helicopters, airdrops, or aircraft like C-130s and C-17s operating out of austere fields within the country.
Airdrop is becoming an increasingly important means of delivery, he noted. In 2005, the Air Force airdropped about two million pounds of supplies there; this year, that number is expected to reach 20 million pounds, he said.
"It's really about throughput," he explained. He continued: "It is not takeoffs and landings. It is how much can you get in there. That's why you want to maximize your airplanes properly."
McNabb said commercial and military aircraft have already delivered the first 236 of thousands of MRAP all-terrain vehicles destined for the troops in Afghanistan.
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