WASHINGTON— As the December 2014 Afghanistan drawdown deadline draws near, thousands of service members and civilians at bases around Afghanistan are preparing tens of thousands of vehicles and containers filled with equipment and supplies for an intricate journey.
That journey — whether it ends at a depot in the United States, or with a return to the field, sale to a foreign partner, or demilitarization — could include transportation by air, ground or sea, or even some combination of the three. And the work won’t end until the last containers and vehicles arrive at their destinations.
Determining the final disposition of the more than 24,000 pieces of rolling stock and 20,000 container equivalent sets in Afghanistan is the job of the unsung heroes of the Centcom Materiel Recovery Element, said Army Brig. Gen. Duane A. Gamble, the deputy commander of 1st Theater Sustainment Command, based at Fort Bragg. The command is responsible for supplying and moving troops throughout Afghanistan.
The fact that the CMRE exists speaks to the major difference between the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gamble said. When the drawdown in Iraq happened, theater-supplied materiel -- equipment and vehicles that stay in theater and are transferred from outgoing units to incoming units -- could be sent to Kuwait and sorted through there.
“Kuwait was our ‘catcher’s mitt’ in Iraq,” Gamble said.
With no precedent for need for an Army recovery unit, the task fell to the newly established CMRE and the 401st Army Field Support Brigade. They established central retrograde sorting facilities at Kandahar and Bagram Air Fields and began picking through the masses of equipment and vehicles arriving daily from across Afghanistan.
In April, that work was shifted out to the forward operating bases when seven joint field teams started performing the cost-benefit analysis of moving retrograde materiel, Gamble said.
Each team consists of a military forward retrograde element and a Defense Logistics Agency hub-based disposal operations team. The teams move from base to base, Gamble said, opening and sorting through containers and rolling stock.
“They’re enabled with our standard Army retail supply system, where they’re actually zapping each item and then...it tells what the disposition is,” he said.
As recently as this spring, there were thousands of containers waiting to be processed at the sort yards in Kandahar and Bagram, Gamble said, but the advent of the joint sorting teams helped eliminate that backlog.
“We hit a tilting point in about July where we were retro sorting and demilitarizing and shipping back to the United States more from our forward locations than we were from (Bagram) and (Kandahar),” he said.
Altogether, the CMRE and joint sorting teams are recovering about 91 percent of the value of the retrograde equipment, the general said.
“So, the high-dollar value items are being retained and shipped back to (the U.S.), where the high-volume, low-dollar items that don’t make sense to retain or are just plain excess to requirements are either being redistributed forward or being disposed of forward,” Gamble said.
Reducing the number of convoys moving retrograde equipment to and from centralized facilities, this setup saves time and money, he said, but more importantly, it saves lives.
“It keeps Soldiers off the road, it keeps us from spending money on host-nation trucking to move stuff only to sort it out later and find out that maybe it wasn’t worth that much money to begin with,” the general added.
In contrast, equipment and materiel that is being retrograded is being moved out of theater over various land routes or flown to a multi-modal site. From there it will move by sea back to depots in the U.S. to be prepared for redistribution and reuse. The routes are directed by U.S. Transportation Command, but the destinations are determined by the type of equipment being retrograded.
That means, for the Army, vehicles are sent to a ‘hard iron’ depot like Anniston Army Depot in Alabama, while replacement parts or supplies are sent to supply depots like Sierra Army Depot in California, which processes conventional ammunition.
The same holds true for the other services, the general noted. The Air Force and Marine Corps send their equipment to their own depots.
With the total cost of the retrograde estimated to be between $5 and $7 billion, according to a senior defense official, there’s particular emphasis on using the most economical routes to move retrograding equipment.
In its route planning, Transcom must balance cost with external factors like the political climate and the effect of holidays on the availability of labor with internal security conditions and with the need to “keep most routes warm,” Gamble said.
For example, in August, 60 percent of retrograding equipment was transported via air -- both direct and multi-modal -- in a deliberate strategy to mitigate the effects of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, he said. And in February, 100 percent of the retrograde equipment was transported by air because the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication were closed.
However, very little of this movement is ever via direct air, the general noted. What little retrograde equipment does arrive in the U.S. via direct air is usually “opportune air,” he said. By pre-staging retrograde equipment at airfields, the military is able to take advantage of available cargo slots on transport aircraft.
In normal circumstances, “the amount of retrograde that goes back direct air to the United States … is so small it’s not even worth mentioning, so when we say air for retrograde, we’re talking multi-modal almost exclusively,” Gamble said.
With several different routes and means available for retrograding equipment, Transcom directs the movement of retrograde equipment based on traffic and price, the general said, noting that price is usually the deciding factor.
The Northern Distribution Network presents several challenges. The network transits several countries with restrictions on the types of equipment that may enter or be visible. So, Gamble said, cargo sent via the NDN must be containerized.
“We just finished a trial run with some armored vehicles, but they had to be containerized, so that limits it -- if you have to put it inside a container to transit the countries, that’s quite limiting … we don’t have a lot of small armored vehicles,” he said.
The route isn’t as fast as the Pakistan GLOC, but it will serve containerized equipment very well, Gamble said.
“So, we’re mostly for October scheduling materiel like repair parts, etc., in containers to go out the NDN,” he noted.
The Pakistan GLOC is the cheapest route, said the senior defense official, but it reopened only recently after Pakistan closed it in 2011 and Afghanistan closed it briefly again earlier this year.
After the Pakistan GLOC reopened, it quickly became the dominant route for retrograde, Gamble said.
By September, 70 percent of all retrograde equipment was moved out of the country over land, and 98-99 percent of that movement was via the Pakistan GLOC, he said. For October, approximately 60 percent of all retrograde equipment will be moved out of the country by land.
“When the ground is working, or it’s not interrupted by holidays, we take advantage of the ground and we minimize the air. When the ground isn’t as attractive because of stuff like holidays, then we tilt the other direction,” Gamble said.
“It’s this flexibility that keeps us very confident that we can continue the retrograde mission no matter what Mother Nature throws at us, no matter what the holiday seasons throw at us,” the general said.