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The Theater Express Program:
A Combat Logistics Force Multiplier

A U.S. Central Command program uses commercial carriers to supply units in Southwest Asia, reducing demand on military airlift and ground convoys.

The Theater Express program employs commercial airlift to move nonsensitive Department of Defense (DOD) sustainment cargo and rolling stock (vehicles) to customers throughout the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility. The Government purchases, on average, $390 million worth of capacity on commercial aircraft each year, which allows the commercial carriers to utilize their own supply chains.

The program is managed by CENTCOM's Deployment and Distribution Operations Center (CDDOC) at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Other key stakeholders and their responsibilities include the—

  • CENTCOM J−4 Mobility Division at Tampa, Florida, which establishes strategic policy.
  • U.S. Air Forces Central's Air Mobility Division Aerial Port Control Center at Al Udeid, Qatar, which executes policy and operations for intratheater airlift support.
  • U.S. Transportation Command's Directorate of Acquisition at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, which exercises contracting authority.

The Theater Express program was established in 2006 to ease the demand for organic airlift within the theater and to reduce the need for convoys on highly trafficked Iraqi roads riddled with improvised explosive devices. As a result of the program, the safety of service members and the operational life expectancy of the Air Force's aviation fleet have both been effectively increased. Since its origin, the program has expanded to meet Operation Enduring Freedom's requirements in Afghanistan.

Spartan Field Kitchen
Cargo is loaded onto a Theater Express commercial carrier at Al Mubarak Airport in Kuwait for delivery into Afghanistan.

The Theater Express Process

Customers (that is, units in the field) send their cargo that needs to be shipped to one of 64 aerial ports for movement on one of the 4,323 city-pair combinations (flight routes such as Kuwait to Bagram, Afghanistan; Kabul to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan; or Balad to Basra, Iraq) through which the Theater Express program operates. The Air Mobility Division then determines if it will ship cargo by military or commercial airlift, based on the operational priorities on any given day.

Once the mode of travel is determined, all five commercial carriers (Air Transport International, National Air Cargo, UPS, FedEx, and Evergreen) have the opportunity to bid on the cargo by offering a price per pound. The award winner is chosen by the factors of historical performance (i.e., delivery time and cost). Performance is determined by the company's ability to deliver cargo within 72 hours to meet contract terms 85 percent of the time. If cargo is not delivered by this agreed-upon time, the company will lose points, which will affect its future bids.

To ensure that the tracking of cargo is as accurate as possible, the program relies on a number of intransit visibility media, including electronic data interchange, radio frequency identification, and the Global Air Transportation Execution System. The redundancy in intransit visibility systems confirms that the carriers are properly credited for the pallets that they are contracted to deliver within the 72-hour window.

Working With the Kuwaitis

Al Mubarak Air Base, located on the military side of Kuwait International Airport, is the largest outbound port for the Theater Express Program. In March 2010, the Kuwait Directorate General of Civil Aviation implemented a trial period that affected all carriers that requested to land at the airfield. Specifically, the number of parking spots was reduced from seven to five and the times that were available to land were shortened. All this was due to the Kuwaitis' need to manage their expanding air traffic.

Theater Express carriers took these changes in stride and were able to recalculate their trip planning so that cargo continued to be delivered within 72 hours. The relationships that the CDDOC built with the Kuwaiti airport personnel proved to be invaluable as it finalized the memorandum of agreement that officially established the rules and procedures governing Theater Express operations. These rules pertained to safety compliance, notifications of safety violations, timeslot availability, and parking availability.

Partnering With the Defense Logistics Agency

The number one Theater Express program customer—accounting for 41 percent of the program's market share—continues to be the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Distribution Kuwait, Southwest Asia (DDKS). DDKS's mission is to provide forward stock-positioning support and enhanced physical distribution services to the Armed Forces located in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

DDKS's distribution facilities, with locations in Kuwait, Bahrain, and a newly established expeditionary site in Kandahar, Afghanistan, are strategically positioned in Southwest Asia to reduce transportation and customer wait time. The commodities they distribute include repair parts, construction and barrier materials, and clothing, textiles, and tentage, all of which qualify for shipment by Theater Express. Once materiel release orders are received at DDKS, pallets are configured and then trucked to Al Mubarak Air Base where they are flown to the customer's destination.

Spartan Field Kitchen
Following the establishment of the Theater Express contract, the program reached its goal of moving 10,000 tons of cargo in June 2010. “Gray Tail” refers to Air Force transports, both C−130s and C−17s.

Improving the Theater Express Foxhole

After arriving in theater, I was given the task of managing the Theater Express program. However, I was an Army logistician and my experience in air logistics was limited. By “limited,” I mean that my background was confined to sitting next to cargo on many hops via C−130 Hercules and C−17 Globemaster III aircraft during my previous deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was inundated with many unfamiliar terms, such as “pallet position,” “PPR” (prior permission required), “MOG” (maximum on the ground), “ATO” (air tasking order), and “DIP” (diplomatic international permission) clearance.

Initially, the program had many issues to work through, such as establishing the new 1-year contract with a 1-year option. Placing the program under a contract that complied with the Federal Acquisition Regulation was a major change. Previously, the program had worked off a “tender agreement” with the carriers. The Office of the Secretary of Defense determined that since Theater Express was an established program that had existed since 2006, it was necessary to implement a contract to ensure that the carriers complied with requirements such as a standardized safety reporting system. This newly added feature required that safety incidents be documented and investigated and that compliance with safety regulations be enforced.

After the first briefing to the CDDOC director, Air Force Major General Robert H. McMahon, it appeared that the total number of pallets that were being tendered via the Theater Express program had been declining for many months. Admittedly, one of the reasons for this was the initiation of the Black Jack Express in November 2009. The Black Jack Express was a 1st Theater Sustainment Command program that mandated that all cargo moving from Kuwait to Iraq be pushed via line-haul truck since it was more cost effective to transport via surface shipping. The direct impact to the Theater Express program was a 20-percent reduction in cargo carried.

In January 2009, Iraq took control of its airspace. In May, the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority issued a directive for all non-DOD commercial carriers to enter into an agreement with Iraqi Airways for payment of landing and parking fees and an additional royalty of 10 cents per kilogram of cargo. Unfortunately, most carriers considered this arrangement to be monopolistic and decided not to continue operating in Iraq.

In order to increase the importance and benefits of the program, we set a goal of moving 10,000 tons per month by Theater Express. The philosophy was that maximizing the commercial carriers for the shipment of sustainment cargo would make additional military airframes available for other, higher priority missions, such as humanitarian relief, ammunition shipments, and troop movements.

Based on the previous high of 15,000 tons a month and a low of 5,000 tons, 10,000 tons was determined to be an achievable goal for Theater Express. Later, we quantified the goal as 200 pallets per day. In theory, if we moved 200 pallets per day via Theater Express, an additional 20 C−130s would be available for other operational needs based on the airframe's ability to make 2 full trips per mission.

The plan to increase the pallet count for Theater Express consisted of first garnering the support of the Air Mobility Division, which was the executor of the program and determined what flew by civilian or military aircraft. Once the division's personnel understood the concept and how the enterprise would benefit from this initiative, they determined that the best way to support our plan was to have a proof of principle to ensure that all eligible cargo would fly by Theater Express commercial carriers.

Turning the Plan Into Practice

This 2-week plan quickly demonstrated that the new policy was effective and was well received by the aerial porters. It resulted in the movement of 8,500 tons in May, which was an increase of 3,500 tons over the previous month. In June, we reached our goal of 10,000 tons per month. Theater Express use then declined slightly in July and August 2010. (See chart at left.)

Once the proof of principle was concluded, the next step was to transfer the proof of principle successes into policy. We subsequently campaigned to have “Tender/Theater Express first” permanently amended into the CENTCOM Aerial Port Letter of Instruction. We partnered with all stakeholders, including the CENTCOM J−4 Mobility Division, the director of mobility forces, the U.S. Transportation Command Directorate of Acquisition, and U.S. Air Forces Central A−4, to develop the letter of instruction.

We concluded with the appropriate language in the letter of instruction that dictated that if the cargo met the criteria for tenderable cargo, it must be transported via commercial air. However, if carriers do not bid on the cargo within 48 hours (because of lack of return on investment, carriers may opt not to bid), then it will be moved by military airlift.

The Theater Express program is a combat logistics multiplier for the CENTCOM area of responsibility and currently delivers 30 percent of all cargo for Operation Enduring Freedom (which receives 85 percent of all of the program's shipments) and Operation New Dawn (which receives 10 percent of its shipments). The cost benefits in comparison to flying military airlift are a matter of simple math. It costs approximately $2.10 per pound to ship via Theater Express, which is more than by surface transportation but less than by military airlift. In fiscal year 2009, the Theater Express program saved $984 million over what it would have cost to ship cargo via C−17 or C−130.

During the drawdown in Iraq, we saw firsthand the importance of Theater Express's commercial lift capability. If the Theater Express option did not exist, we would not have been able to close the force without requesting additional military airlift. Using Theater Express also meant that less cargo had to be pushed by ground, which reduced the chances of injuries caused by improvised explosive devices on the roads of Iraq and Afghanistan.

As we continue under the contract phase of the program, Theater Express will remain a vital asset to the logistics fight because of its cost effectiveness, emphasis on performance, reliability, and safety. It also has the additional advantage of reducing aircraft and crew deployment and usage rates on the Air Force's airlift fleet and thus increasing that fleet's lifespan. Simply put, the Theater Express program has proven since its inception to be a combat logistics force multiplier.

Lieutenant Colonel Dean A. Huard is a branch chief in the Intermodal Programs and Infrastructure Division J−5/4, U.S. Transportation Command, at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. When he wrote this article, he was the Theater Express program manager at the U.S. Central Command Deployment and Distribution Operations Center at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. He holds a B.A. degree in political science with a minor in public policy and management from the University of Oregon and an M.A. degree in public administration from American Military University. He is a graduate of the Quartermaster Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, the Army Command and General Staff College, and the Joint Forces Staff College.

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