Major challenge for Pentagon is getting fuel to U.S. troops in Afghanistan

By Steven Mufson and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

President Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan will magnify one of the Pentagon's biggest challenges: getting aviation and diesel fuel to U.S. air and ground forces there.

As the number of U.S. and coalition troops grows, the military is planning for thousands of additional tanker truck deliveries a month, big new storage facilities and dozens of contractors to navigate the landlocked country's terrain, politics and perilous supply routes. And though Obama has vowed to start bringing U.S. forces home in 18 months, some of the fuel storage facilities will not be completed until then, according to the contract specifications issued by the Pentagon's logistics planners.

"Getting into Afghanistan, which we need to do as quickly as we can possibly do it, is very difficult because . . . next to Antarctica, Afghanistan is probably the most incommodious place, from a logistics point of view, to be trying to fight a war," Ashton Carter, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said recently. "It's landlocked and rugged, and the road network is much, much thinner than in Iraq. Fewer airports, different geography."

Navy Vice Adm. Alan S. Thompson, who directs the Defense Logistics Agency, earlier this year called support for operations in landlocked Afghanistan "the most difficult logistics assignment we have faced since World War II."

The military's fuel needs are prodigious. According to the Government Accountability Office, about 300,000 gallons of jet fuel are delivered to Afghanistan each day, in addition to diesel, motor and aircraft gasoline. A typical Marine corps combat brigade requires almost 500,000 gallons of fuel per day, according to a recent study by Deloitte Analysis, a research group. Each of the more than 100 forward operating bases in Afghanistan requires a daily minimum of 300 gallons of diesel fuel, the study said.

The GAO report said that in June 2008 alone, 6.2 million gallons of fuel went for air and ground operations, while 917,000 gallons went for base support activities including lighting, running computers, and heating or cooling.

The U.S. military remains heavily dependent upon supplies traveling long, windy and dangerous roads in the south from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Along those mountainous routes, theft is common and cash payoffs to insurgents and tribal leaders are believed to be made frequently by truck drivers navigating the region. The Defense Department reported that in June 2008, 44 trucks and 220,000 gallons of fuel were lost because of attacks or other events, according to the GAO.

"This has become a business," said Tommy Hakimi, chief executive of Mondo International, which arranges deliveries by 300 to 500 trucks a month. "The Taliban doesn't have interest in taking the life of a driver. And instead of blowing trucks up, they take possession. It's an asset. . . . Most of the time, they will sell it on the black market."

Bribery is illegal for U.S. firms, but local drivers and truck owners make their own decisions. People "factor into the cost of services the bribes or tributes or whatever you want to call it," said Brian Neuenfeldt of Atlas Freight Systems, which is seeking Pentagon contracts and proposing a way to make fuel tankers more secure.

In an effort to diversify its supply sources, the Defense Department is asking contractors to bring in more fuel supplies by northern routes. Although the routes are more secure, they are still long and costly. Contractors bring refined oil products from Russia and central Asia through pipelines or from Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea before transferring the product to tanker trucks. It means making transit arrangements across Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

Although the Pentagon declined to give details, the blog of Sohbet Karbuz, an engineer and economist who specialized in fuel logistics, says that refined oil products are shipped more than 1,000 miles by rail and truck from a Turkmen refinery or by barge and railcar from Azerbaijan to U.S. facilities in Afghanistan. The fuel takes up to 10 days to reach the Afghan border. There it is loaded onto trucks and can take two to four days to reach one of the military's fuel hubs.

In August 2008, the Pentagon gave a $308 million two-year contract for jet fuel delivery to Red Star Enterprises, a London-based company that is bringing in fuel from the north. The Pentagon's Defense Energy Support Center said that Red Star has been working in the region for about 15 years. Earlier that month, Red Star received a $721 million contract to deliver fuel to Bagram Air Base through a six-inch pipeline it built from its 3 million gallon storage facility near a former Russian air base. Under that contract, it delivers about 250,000 gallons of jet fuel a day to the base.

To facilitate increased supplies from the north, the Pentagon has been talking to other contractors such as Hakimi, who is part Uzbek and speaks Uzbek, Farsi and English. Hakimi said he is negotiating with two refiners for possible deliveries through northern Afghanistan. The Pentagon is also seeking help in tracking possible shipments across the Caspian Sea from Baku, a major oil city.

Another measure of the fuel needs -- and the long-term planning associated with them -- can be seen in the number of solicitations for storage facilities being put forward in the past months.

The largest would construct a new bulk fuel storage system for Bagram. It would require tanks to hold 1.1 million gallons of fuel, along with pumps, controls and supporting facilities. The overall facility, including electric, water, sewer, curbs and security measures, is to cost up to $25 million.

Although Obama has said that U.S. forces would begin returning home in 18 months, the fuel storage facility at Bagram would take almost 15 months to build, once the contract is awarded early next year. The contract requires storage for 6 million gallons of U.S.-standard jet fuel, 3 million gallons of Russian standard jet fuel and 1 million gallons of diesel fuel. The facility must be capable of receiving fuel from up to 100 tank trucks a day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Facilities that can store 3 million gallons will be built in Ghazni and at Sharana.

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