“Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.”
It’s an old military adage, and it’s true. Moving stuff around the battlefield defined the war in Afghanistan, even though most Americans never saw or thought about it.
It wasn’t just the obvious, like food, medical supplies, weapons. One of the key aims of counterinsurgency doctrine is to build bases in and among the population, to secure each little village. That means erecting buildings, semi-permanent tents and thick walls — often from scratch. This construction required hundreds of thousands of tons of building materials and heavy equipment like bulldozers.
I was privileged to lead a Marine Corps truck platoon, running off-road convoys through dangerous territory controlled by the insurgents to resupply units in Helmand Province. Here are 14 things I learned along the way and talk about in my book “The Lieutenant Don’t Know“:
1. There are only enough helicopters to move a fraction of stuff
Helicopters, like this Marine Corps CH-53, can move some cargo and passengers. But they can only haul a couple thousand pounds. And since aircraft require several hours of maintenance for every hour they’re in the air, they can only fly for a few hours a day. Thus, the only payloads that get prioritized are urgently needed maintenance parts, passengers and cargo for very remote positions.
2. Planes can dump a lot of cargo
Air Force planes drop bundles of water and food at low altitudes to drop zones near friendly bases. Even so, there weren’t enough planes to support even 10 percent of the cargo required for the war in Afghanistan at its peak.
3. Air-dropped cargo is a challenge to recover and is often destroyed in the drop
Every air delivery mission requires several hours of work recovering the bundles and loading them on a truck to bring back to base. Because the large drop zones are always “outside the wire,” the Marines retrieving the payloads risk constant attack. Even with parachutes, 40 percent of the cargo in each bundle won’t survive the drop. For example, as a bundle of bottled water hits the ground, the weight of the bottles at the top crush the ones on the bottom. Anything damaged is burned where it lands.
4. Most supplies, especially heavy payloads like fuel, have to be moved by ground convoy
Air drops and helicopter resupplies simply cannot move the volume of cargo needed to support combat operations. Convoys with anywhere from 15 to 225 trucks have make treacherous overland treks to deliver supplies. The lighter trucks weigh 32,000 pounds, but many tip the scale at more than 100,000 pounds fully loaded. Off-road in Afghanistan, convoys could travel less than 10 mph. Heavy and slow, a logistics convoy makes an attractive target for an insurgent attack.
5. Combat logistics missions are not quick road trips — it often took 48 hours to travel 50 miles
Convoys in Afghanistan were impaired by terrain, heavy loads, mechanical breakdowns and enemy attacks. Missions lasting several days meant we had to either continue driving through the night or establish a security position in the desert. The platoon would “circle the wagons” and put gun trucks around the perimeter. Marines would take turns sleeping and standing watch. After a restless night sleeping in a cramped truck cab or on the hard ground, we were back on the road.
6. Local truckers were often hired to augment American units
In many areas, local truckers were hired to help haul cargo. Having local trucks embedded was an added stress for the Marines. The civilian trucks struggled on the terrain, and there was no way to know whether one of the truckers would use a cellphone to alert the enemy about our timeline or location.
7. Logistics convoys in Afghanistan were attacked … often
My missions always began with a brief that included the phrase “When we get hit … ” not “If we get hit.” Because the mission of a logistics unit is to support other units, there are constraints that cannot be changed. If an area is bad, we couldn’t necessarily just “go around.” We had to fight our way through to our destination.
8. A logistics convoy carries more firepower than an infantry unit
Every third or fourth truck will have an M240 medium machine gun, M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun, or Mk19 automatic grenade launcher. As many enemy insurgents discovered in Afghanistan, we were anything but helpless.
9. The list of things to move is never-ending
Most bases are surrounded by steel Hesco cages, lined with burlap cloth and filled with dirt. Tons upon tons of building materials, including lumber, concrete, razor wire and gravel, were moved to build these bases. Logisticians never run out of cargo people want them to move.
10. Building bases and unloading tons of cargo means you need bulldozers and forklifts
Moving cargo requires forklifts which become cargo themselves. And lots of heavy equipment is required for base construction. Trucks and trailers to haul bulldozers, tanks, forklifts and other vehicles were always in short supply. The trailers swing wide going around turns, which means they often hit IEDs missed by the route clearance vehicles up front.
11. Every vehicle that gets hit or damaged has to be hauled somewhere
Among the Army, Marines and other NATO nations, there were more than a dozen combat logistics battalions in Afghanistan at the peak of the war. Each unit had as many as 300 or 400 trucks. Thousands of vehicles were required to support multiple simultaneous missions given the number of vehicles that were damaged or destroyed and awaiting maintenance.
12. All the equipment has to be shipped or flown from the United States
These mine resistant ambush protected all terrain vehicles (above) were flown from the United States to Bagram Air Base to get them to the war zone as quickly as possible. Other supplies were shipped through the Port of Karachi in Pakistan or through the Northern Distribution Network, which runs from Latvia through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. By the time a piece of equipment arrived in Afghanistan, it is debatable whether it cost more to manufacture or to ship.
13. The infrastructure for a war includes all kinds of things you’d never think about — like fire stations
The infrastructure needed to support a war comes with its own requirements. When you build a big base like Camp Leatherneck, you need create new requirements, like the need for a fire station, firetrucks, housing tents, water sources and so on. The more stuff you bring, the more stuff you need.
14. You will need that fire station, and everything else you didn’t think of
In May 2010, the Supply Management Unit at Camp Leatherneck caught fire. The resulting blaze lasted for hours. Millions of dollars of supplies and equipment were damaged. Completely recovering from this setback took months.
Without firefighting assets, the fire would have burned for days and consumed much of Camp Leatherneck. It’s not just about fire stations, though. Eventually anything that can happen will happen, so logistics Marines have to be prepared for everything.
We are, by the way.
Unless noted, all images by Jeff Clement.