One of the most difficult jobs in Afghanistan today is making sure Soldiers and their vehicles receive fuel. Without fuel, U.S. forces and their coalition partners simply cannot move or conduct operations with any meaningful impact. In order to deliver fuel to Soldiers on time, sustainers must overcome tough terrain, coordinate with diverse military units, avert enemy attacks, and be patient in dealing with host-nation trucks and local nationals.
Shortly after taking over as the senior logistics unit in Afghanistan's Regional Command (RC) South, RC Southwest, and RC West (RC–S, RC–SW, and RC–W), the 43d Sustainment Brigade began addressing each of these challenges to ensure mission success.
Environmental and Cultural Challenges
The first challenge Afghanistan presents to any logistics unit is the nearly complete lack of infrastructure. Local villages and coalition forward operating bases (FOBs) are connected by a series of treacherous gravel paths and narrow mountain passes that are often closed during winter months because of heavy snow accumulation. Such terrain is ideal for ambushes by the enemy, which preys on slow-moving convoys. The constant threat of ambush and the challenging roads caused the 43d Sustainment Brigade to rely on aerial delivery more than it would have liked in order to distribute bulk fuel to remote locations.
Reliance on host-nation contractors to reach these locations can minimize coalition casualties and in turn maximize the number of troops available for other operations. But this reliance on private contractors presents two problems. First, host-nation drivers often arrive behind schedule after making extended rest stops and taking detours to visit local relatives. Second, the quantity of fuel delivered quite often differs from the amount shipped and, to compound the problem, water might be added to make the volume appear close to the quantity stipulated on the shipping papers.
Receiving units must always be on guard. They must test all incoming fuel to ensure the product is within specification and can be safely used for aircraft and ground vehicles. The 43d Sustainment Brigade instructed units to disregard the quantity of fuel annotated in the shipping papers and to write instead the exact quantity downloaded. Since contractors are penalized or not paid for missing fuel, the units' diligence is the best deterrent to prevent shortages.
Another added headache of using host-nation trucks to transport and deliver bulk fuel comes from Taliban sympathizers who may allow the enemy to emplace improvised explosive devices on loaded fuel trucks. This risk has forced coalition forces to use specific countermeasures. Those countermeasures are critical to avoiding deaths and minimizing damage to coalition resources, but they add time between fuel request and fuel delivery.
The lack of standardized reporting from the more than 65 FOBs or combat outposts preparing and sending daily reports is an added challenge for anyone dealing with fuel in RC–S, RC–SW, and RC–W. Many fuel system supply points (FSSPs) and forward arming and refueling points (FARPs) are managed and operated under the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program. Civilian contractors are often unaware of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) policies intended to guide fuel operations in Afghanistan, and they manage locations with over 2 million gallons of fuel while having no previous training on how to conduct bulk fuel accountability procedures in a military theater of operations.
Making matters worse, the FSSPs and FARPs they run may be equipped solely with collapsible fabric tanks without gauges. The lack of gauges requires site managers to conduct physical inventories using a cumbersome and unorthodox method called "gauging," which is prone to errors. To estimate the volume of fuel in the bag using the gauging method, fuel handlers need a cord or string, a ruler, a line level, a gauging stick, a "strapping" chart, math skills, and superb attention to detail.
Many of those contracted sites have minimal military oversight. Even when there is military oversight, many of the assigned contracting officer's representatives (CORs) are not familiar with fuel operations because their military occupational specialties are not associated with fuel, so they are ill-prepared to perform their COR duties.
To correct the gauging and accountability problems, the 43d Sustainment Brigade's higher headquarters actively worked to bring a fully automated data collection and tank gauging system to the combined joint operations area. The system, called Tactical Fuels Manager Defense, was deployed in March 2011 and reduced theft and improved management by enhancing oversight.
In its quest to standardize reporting and minimize mistakes, the 43d Sustainment Brigade's class III (petroleum, oils, and lubricants) section, with assistance from the Joint Sustainment Command–Afghanistan, enforced the use of the fuel report (REPOL) as the only acceptable way to report fuel operations. The REPOL details how much fuel a FOB is consuming on a daily basis, how much it currently has on hand, and how much it is receiving. This fuel picture allowed the 43d Sustainment Brigade to forecast consumption and recommend future fuel orders to keep the area of operations properly resupplied.
Even with standardized reporting, the brigade's class III section spent a considerable number of hours each day scrutinizing each report before combining them and forwarding them to higher headquarters for review and disposition. Surprisingly, most of the time spent on these reports was spent fixing simple errors that could have been avoided or corrected if the reporting unit's mid-level leaders had been involved.
Another major challenge the 43d Sustainment Brigade encountered while conducting fuel operations was changing the mindset of many Soldiers and civilians who were working in Afghanistan without oversight from a sustainment brigade. Many of the key players dealing with fuel operations adopted the attitude that if something did not appear to be broken (because it seemingly worked from their own vantage point), it did not need to be fixed—that is, until a unit found itself low on fuel and could not figure out why.
Although the U.S. Armed Forces conduct numerous military exercises with other nations, operational differences exist among all of the nations. Even worse, there is a certain level of mistrust, which is manifested when a nation blocks another from accessing its war stocks or records.
Thus, the 43d Sustainment Brigade had to bridge gaps in understanding among units scattered across the country and bring them together so they could work cohesively toward mission accomplishment. As such, the brigade commander conducted a distribution synchronization board twice a week, where all important players came together and coordinated how to better use resources.
The class III section coordinated, by email or memoranda, with NATO forces to gain access to their fuel farms to test questionable fuel. The class III (bulk) officer and noncommissioned officers conducted staff assistance visits to see firsthand how U.S. and NATO soldiers conducted fuel operations. The visits helped everyone put faces to the voices they heard on the phone several times a day.
The arrival of the 10th Mountain Division and its appointment as the unit with overall responsibility for fuel operations in RC–S presented another test to the sustainment brigade. It was obvious the two units were competing for the same turf. However, the friction had a short lifespan. The division and the brigade support operations officers called a meeting, defined specific areas of responsibility for each unit, and steered the units toward playing strong complementary roles.
As a result, the 10th Mountain Division assumed responsibility for fuel issues at the strategic level while the 43d Sustainment Brigade took the lead at the operational level. Eventually, the units cochaired the weekly logistics synchronization meeting and, working as one, solved issues and facilitated the work of the task forces.
As challenging as conducting fuel operations in Afghanistan's RC–S, RC–SW, and RC–W was, the 43d Sustainment Brigade's presence made a positive impact. It overcame obstacles and succeeded in raising the overall on-hand average fuel levels from 21 days of supply to a healthier 42 days of supply across all three RCs. The 43d Sustainment Brigade, living up to its motto, "Provide With Pride," was successful in its quest to provide guidance and assist units and civilian contractors with identifying and fixing fuel issues before they turned into big problems.