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David Ignatius

To Keep The Trucks Moving

By David Ignatius
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page A27

CAMP NAVISTAR, Kuwait -- As a cold rain falls on the desert here near the Iraq border, Sgt. Allen Maresh briefs the drivers of a convoy that's carrying urgently needed spare parts to a base north of Baghdad. He's a big, plain-spoken man from Dodge, Neb., and when he tells his drivers to "saddle up and get going" for the dangerous journey, you can't help but think of a wagon train heading out into bandit country.

The 30 trucks rumble off into the gray morning for the 900-mile round trip. They are part of what might be called the "logistical war" in Iraq -- a vast but often invisible side of the conflict. Between 700 and 1,000 U.S. trucks cross the border each day from Kuwait into Iraq: This fleet has shipped 4 million liters of drinking water into Iraq so far this year; it delivered food for 33 million meals between January and September; it carries much of the 1 million gallons of fuel consumed each day by U.S. forces.

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The measure of success in Iraq is complicated, but people like Maresh are solving an unglamorous but essential problem of this war: how to keep troops supplied in a hostile environment. The insurgents have tried to break the supply line with roadside bombs, ambushes and gruesome beheadings of kidnapped drivers. But the wagon train keeps rolling every day, and there have been no significant shortages of food, water, fuel, ammunition or any other essential supplies.

If the insurgents hoped to make it impossible for U.S. forces to operate in Iraq, they have failed. The soldiers fighting the logistical war have adapted, innovated and persevered. "It would be difficult if not impossible to stop our sustainment effort," says Maj. Gen. Paul Mock, who heads the transportation command in Kuwait.

All the political and strategic questions that bedevil the war in Iraq continue. But in this war, as in others, America has an easily overlooked advantage, which is its genius in logistics. Skillful management allows U.S. forces to sustain operations in hostile environments and, at least in theory, gradually wear down adversaries. This logistical prowess is clear in dozens of interviews, and it's one of the Iraq war's untold stories.

The biggest challenge was to keep the trucks moving. The U.S. transport crews were nearly all reservists, who signed up to drive trucks, not fight a guerrilla war. The civilian drivers who accompanied them were initially recruited from Third World countries by the lure of easy money. When a nationwide insurgency exploded in April, the roads turned deadly. The reservists quickly became combat veterans, and the frightened civilian drivers were replaced by civilian recruits who understood the dangers.

Capt. George Petropoulos, an ex-cop from Milwaukee, arrived around the time of the April insurgency. He immediately started doodling with designs for improvised armor for the Army's 16-wheelers. He showed how the armor could be fabricated from locally bought steel, at a cost of about $1,600 a truck. Army mechanics bolted steel plates on trucks as fast as they could, and now many of them have what Petropoulos calls his "feel-good armor."

The Army bungled initially by sending only 900 armored Humvees to Iraq, but here, too, there was a process of adaptation. Thousands of improvised armor kits were rushed to the war zone, and the Army is working round-the-clock to harden the vehicles. U.S. officials say there are now about 15,000 armored Humvees in Iraq, with more on the way every day.

To communicate with convoys on the long supply routes, the Army installed a Movement Tracking System, or "MTS." It's a kind of dashboard computer that transmits a vehicle's position via satellite and sends an electronic warning each time it stops or deviates from its planned course. The system also allows vehicles to send and receive brief messages via computer, so crews can instantly communicate about threats on the highways.

Aiding the logistical flow are modern inventory-management tools. They tell supply officers what's on the way, what's arriving at depots, what has been consumed and what must be reordered. Electronic tags tell computer "interrogators" what's on each pallet. "We're trying to be as sophisticated as Wal-Mart, but we aren't there yet," says Mock.

War is about breaking the enemy's will and imposing your own. America's success in managing logistics won't win the Iraq war, but it has allowed the United States to stay in the fight. We've seen so many mistakes in the Iraq war that it's nice to see something America is doing right.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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