Amazing Race: Questions & Answers with Brigadier General John O’Connor

Tags: Middle East, Military Logistics

Inbound Logistics goes behind the scenes of a five-month pursuit to move the U.S. military from Iraq to Afghanistan with Brigadier General John O’Connor, director of logistics, Third Army, and commanding general of the Army Materiel Command.

What does it take to move an army? It’s the silver bullet question that has dogged military commanders throughout the course of history, from Alexander the Great to General Patton, and more recently Generals Swarzkopf and Petraeus.

The U.S. military is currently in the middle of a race to reposition assets and soldiers as part of President Obama’s directive to scale operations in Iraq and build up forces in Afghanistan.

Active in Afghanistan since 2001, and Iraq since 2003, the U.S. military faces a monumental task drawing down activity in one theater and expanding in another. In terms of scope and magnitude, the Department of Defense and its commercial partners are working toward a charter of redistributing 3.4 million pieces of equipment by Aug. 31, 2010. This involves the redistribution of 2.8 million assets from Iraq, including 88,000 containers and 41,000 vehicles of all types.

As of July 2010, the military had redistributed 2.2 million pieces out of more than 350 forward operating bases in Iraq, leaving an additional 1.2 million items to be moved by August. It’s a constant, ongoing process of identifying the future needs of each piece of equipment, then positioning accordingly.

From airlifted armaments to tents and construction materials crated in ocean-going containers, via contracted “jingle” trucks and the antiquated Soviet rail lines of Uzbekistan, the Third Army is orchestrating a supply chain exodus spanning thousands of miles through countless countries—all within a five-month window between March and August 2010.

It’s a complex mission that involves service members, civilians, and government contractors, leveraging the shared expertise of the Army’s Materiel Command, the Defense Logistics Agency, and Transportation Command to expand an existing theater of operations and ensure soldiers have necessary resources at the right place, right time, and in the right quantities.

Inbound Logistics recently spoke with Brigadier General John O’Connor, director of logistics , Third Army/Army Central Command and commanding general for the Army Materiel Command, based in Kuwait, to get a status report on how the U.S. military is managing this redeployment of assets.

Q. What is the role of the Third Army, and yours specifically, in managing the drawdown in Iraq and build-up in Afghanistan?

A. Our responsibility as the Third Army is to set the theater in accordance with the Commander in Chief’s priorities and guidance. President Obama’s current guidance is to draw down forces in Iraq to 50,000 and build up forces in Afghanistan by 30,000 to 98,000.

Third Army’s role, my role, is to help synchronize and support field commander priorities. Here in Kuwait, we act as the center of gravity for all things logistics. To ensure we provide proper synchronization, we have developed some very detailed plans to draw down and build up resources in these theaters and to provide necessary flexibility in that plan in case of outside contingencies—from erupting volcanoes to flooding in Kyrgyzstan.

From a logistics perspective, this is probably one of the most complicated and dynamic maneuvers in modern history. We recognize that we can’t do this alone. We are part of a team of teams. Our job is to orchestrate this complex operation, integrating and prioritizing the movements of people and equipment through multiple information databases and systems to make sure we have accountability, visibility, and oversight in support of our war fighters.

We’re currently building up a force of 30,000 in Operation Enduring Freedom and we have to move 5,100 pieces of equipment—60 percent of that will come from here in theater, 40 percent will come from the United States.

To facilitate this, we’ve established forward command posts both in Iraq and Afghanistan—our ARCENT (Army Component of U.S. Central Command) coordination support elements. This helps integrate decision-making going into Afghanistan, as well as give disposition to all the equipment coming out of Iraq so that it gets back to our army in time to reset and refit for future operations.

Q. What controls and measures are in place to prioritize and redistribute the flow of materials into and out of these theaters?

A. We are learning a lot as we go along. For example, we recently set up a new organization—the National Association of State Agencies for Surplus Property—to help us with this responsible drawdown of forces from Iraq. This way we can turn over equipment that is excess to our requirements but may not be excess to requirements in the United States. We have states involved, as well as the governments of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as we transfer assets to help them stabilize and provide a secure environment for their forces.

In doing this, we go through a four-step process: consume what is already here; redistribute assets within Iraq and Afghanistan, or one of the other 20 countries we oversee; transfer equipment to other governments through foreign military sales or excess defense article transfers; and turn equipment over to the Defense Logistics Agency for disposal and demilitarization.

Since third quarter fiscal year 2009, we’ve drawn down 68 percent of stocks in Iraq. We’ve reduced ammunition stocks in Iraq by about 73 percent. We’ve reduced our vehicles by about 30,000 and we’ve also brought down 700,000 non-rolling-stock items. We’ve also transferred 738 items to the government of Iraq, which has generated approximately $77 million in sales.

Our biggest challenge is working against the clock. August is critical for both theaters. Our success will be contingent on the flexibility we have in making good running estimates—so we can make adjustments to the plan and leverage the great work of our commercial partners.

Q. How is history and experience helping you plan for a military move that might surpass historical precedence?

A. One initiative we took was to establish ARCENT support elements in Iraq and Afghanistan to help coordinate and project unforeseen requirements that may come along.

When you look at history, this is no different than what we did in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. General Pagonis was the kingpin in orchestrating Desert Farewell, what he called one of the toughest parts of any operation—the last phase of retrograde, removing all forces and equipment from the theater. That’s the process we’re in as we look to build accountability, visibility, and control over this operation.

Also reflecting history, General Webster, Third Army Commander, has designated this effort Nickel II. During World War II, when General Patton swung his forces to support the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, he had a code word to initiate this operation: Nickel. That’s all he had to say and all his division commanders knew what it meant—to withdraw from current operations and execute this new mission against German forces in the Ardennes. We’re seeing Nickel II happen in a similar fashion.

It parallels a lot of what we learned in Desert Farewell in the early 1990s. General Pagonis leaned on Army Materiel Command to help execute that mission and during Desert Storm they stood up a redistribution retrograde facility in King Khalid Military City. It required centralized planning and decentralized execution.

We have turned Army Materiel Command again, and established a responsible reset task force led by Lieutenant General Pillsbury at Fort Belvoir, Va. He has forward deployed about 30 personnel to Kuwait to help shape and guide our drawdown of forces in Iraq. We’ve been given dates when we need to be out to make sure we have accountability systems in place, leave nothing behind, and get our forces into Afghanistan.

Even back in Vietnam we stood up organizations such as the Pacific Utilization Redistribution Agency in Okinawa to handle all the equipment coming out of that theater. After every major operation, billions of dollars worth of equipment has to be accounted for and critical decisions need to be made. Often, procedures are not in place and have to be quickly developed. We’re doing that, writing orders to give guidance to forces in the field on how to get disposition on equipment and what to do with it.

Q. How is technology helping the military control and track assets?

A. Industry uses the term ‘reverse logistics.’ It’s no different in the military. We leverage all the tools available to us to get rapid disposition to our forces as we manage the multitude and magnitude of all this equipment moving both in and out of the theater.

We have developed our own homegrown system called the ARCENT-Theater Common Operating Picture. This is essentially an Oracle database that ties together our automation systems for property accountability and distribution of equipment and personnel moving in the defense transportation network. All these systems feed the database.

The system gives us visibility, generates reports, and provides updates to our customers—whether TRANSCOM, CENTCOM, ACOM, or the Defense Logistics Agency—so they have transportation and supply chain visibility. It also gives us predictive analysis as we make changes to our plans. It’s a combat and force multiplier.

We also use a system called the Army War Reserve Deployment System (AWRDS) that takes our equipment from retail, at the unit level, and moves it up to wholesale. This is another database that allows us to quickly move equipment in and out, get visibility and a wholesale perspective, so we can track and make decisions on equipment.

All of this moves through common RFID systems and other tagging that allows the defense supply chain to reap the benefits of commercial industry technology as well as systems of record within our own formations. Technology plays an important role on the ground and remotely as we work through this complex environment.

Q. What role has the private sector played in this operation?

A. One of my roles prior to coming into this position was as deputy commander for surface deployment and distribution command, which is a component of U.S. transportation demand. So I have been able to apply these experiences and lessons learned.

Nothing happens unless something moves. So we are dependent on commercial ocean carrier partners such as APL, Maersk, Liberty Lines, and Hapag-Lloyd and air cargo companies including FedEx and UPS.

Certain laws guide the distribution of cargo; for example, the Cargo Preference Act of 1904. This requires all items procured or owned by the U.S. military to be carried exclusively by U.S.-flagged carriers at reasonable rates. The Cargo Preference Act of 1954 stipulates that at least 50 percent of all tonnage generated by government needs to be transported on privately owned U.S.-flagged vessels. This is a policy we strictly adhere to in support of the private sector.

For Desert Shield and Desert Storm, we used a lot of ‘grey-bottomed vessels’ [i.e. U.S. Navy]. In this operation, we’ve been able to leverage our commercial partners 100 percent in the distribution to and from the theater of operation. The private sector plays a tremendous role in deploying and redeploying our equipment.

We used to do a port-to-port model, now we’ve moved to a door-to-door model. That’s where our commercial partners go right to the port and deliver to the foxhole. All of that is being leveraged under the auspices of the U.S. Transportation Command Universal Services Contract—which provides us the opportunity to book cargo against best value, opening up contractual arrangements with many vendors.

We essentially buy space. When we need to move something, we offer up cargo. We may not need the whole ship, but we can put cargo on a specific vessel and we let the carriers work out the details on how much space we get and how many ships we need.

The same works for surface transportation. Moving up the theater into Afghanistan we use ‘jingle trucks’ and regional transport contracts to support operations where we don’t have U.S. forces or need to augment operations because the scope and magnitude far exceeds the military’s capacity.

Q. How do you prepare for the unexpected?

A. It would be nice to have a crystal ball to project future requirements, but every good military operation requires a great plan. Many times the first casualty of an operation is the plan. You have redundancies in place, which is well-demonstrated in our efforts to open up operations through the central Asian states.

For example, when we were originally operating in Afghanistan, 100 percent of our cargo until 2008 moved through the Port of Karachi in Pakistan. In less than one year, we’ve now moved 13,000 containers across the northern distribution network, leveraging the central Asian states—Russia, all of the ‘stans,’ Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey—so we now have additional gateways to come into northern and southern Afghanistan.

We have shifted 60 percent of our deliveries to the northern distribution network through all the diplomatic agreements we have established with our partners in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

In terms of operational flexibility, every day we come to work looking for another way to do our business because we know that at any time we can lose important grounds of communication—Pakistan, for example. We might have to turn to other countries to get our equipment in to support that operation. We continue to aggressively engage all the nations that surround Iraq and Afghanistan to allow us that flexibility and agility to support our forces at any time in the event we lose a major line of communication.

As good military planners, it is our responsibility to prepare for contingencies in every place where we have a node that could potentially be impacted by a diplomatic or political incident.