On 27 February 2009, President Barack Obama
directed the Department of Defense to reduce
the total number of military personnel deployed
in Iraq to 50,000 by 1 September 2010. The directed
cap of 50,000 troops in Iraq required the 1st Armored
Division, U.S. Division–Center (USD–C), to reduce
its footprint from 5 brigade combat teams (BCTs) and
1 combat aviation brigade (CAB) to 2 BCTs without
a dedicated CAB. This reduction took USD–C from
about 19,000 troops to about 7,000.
The purpose of this article is to provide an example
of a successful retrograde of forces from a combat theater.
The techniques that the 1st Armored Division used
in Iraq can possibly be replicated as the drawdown in
Afghanistan is being planned. The challenge that must
be met is how to maintain focus on partnership operations
while building and executing a drawdown plan
and providing the division command group the flexibility
required to react to the ever-changing operational
environment (OE). This article focuses on how USD–C
built operational flexibility into the plan and how the
division used that flexibility to react to change in the
The drawdown plan executed in Iraq can be understood
only within the strategic context of time.
President Obama had decided to increase the focus of
wartime operations in Afghanistan, resulting in additional
forces being deployed to Afghanistan from home
The timing of the surge deployment coincided with
drawdown operations that were already planned in Iraq,
as directed in the Iraqi Security Agreement approved
by the Iraqi Presidential Council on 4 December 2008.
This agreement required that all U.S. forces exit the
country no later than 31 December 2011. President
Obama added the further requirement that no more
than 50,000 U.S. troops would remain in Iraq after 1
September 2010. Consequently, the strategic defense
transportation system had to be prepared to support
the drawdown operations in Iraq while simultaneously
surging troops and supplies into Afghanistan.
The OE and mission in Iraq also required that U.S.
forces remain involved in training, mentoring, and
assisting Government of Iraq (GOI) security forces
up until the last possible moment. These operations
served two goals in support of one end state. The first
goal was to help the GOI security forces for as long as
possible until the final drawdown took place. This was
done to increase the likelihood that the security forces
would be able to deal with the internal security situation
in Iraq and deter possible aggressive action from
external actors after the U.S. troops’ departure.
The second goal was to increase U.S. situational
awareness of the OE during operations. Without having
troops partnered with the GOI security forces, U.S.
commanders would have a severely degraded understanding
of the security situation on the ground. The
lack of understanding would hinder their ability to
direct the drawdown in a manner that simultaneously
achieved the directed benchmarks and reduced risk to
The drawdown was frequently described as a waterfall
because, when it was depicted in a bar graph, the
precipitous drop in troop numbers over time resembled
a waterfall. From the high of about 19,000 troops, the
division shed about 12,000 troops in 6 months. This
had to be done in a way that avoided gaps in partnering
operations and maintained pressure on the enemy.
Some transportation assets had to be shared with the
two other divisions in theater and the separate corps
units, which were all going through similar personnel
and equipment reductions.
The primary USD–C focus was on elements in
the Baghdad OE since there was only one brigade in
the Al Anbar Province and it would remain in place
until sometime in 2011. Although it would lose many “below-the-line units” (units that are smaller than a
brigade), the mission for an advise and assist brigade
(AAB) would remain until well into 2011.
When the plan was first developed, USD–C leaders
decided that brigades would be pulled from the area
of operations in two ways. The first way was to simply redeploy identified units at the completion of their
1-year tour and not backfill them. This is referred to as “off-ramping.”
An example of off-ramping is the deployment of the
1st AAB, 3d Infantry Division. When it arrived in theater,
it essentially conducted a relief in place with both
the 30th Heavy BCT and the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry
Division, while the remaining BCTs in the USD–C OE
shifted their battlespaces to cover the rest of Baghdad
Province. The 1st Air Cavalry Brigade conducted a
relief in place with the 1st CAB and then transferred
from USD–C control to U.S. Forces–Iraq (USF–I) control
as the theater CAB. This was significant because,
as the pool of available rotary-wing assets shrank, one
CAB executed the work of three CABs and the assets
were direct-support assets, which could not be tasked
directly by the division.
The second way brigades would be pulled from
the area of operations before 1 September was simple
and straightforward. The two remaining BCTs, the
4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2d Infantry Division
(4–2 SBCT), and the 2d Infantry Brigade Combat
Team, 10th Mountain Division (2–10 IBCT), would
thin their lines, battalion by battalion, while simultaneously
transferring the battlespace to the remaining
BCTs in Baghdad Province. The thinning of the lines
was to begin shortly after the parliamentary elections
Once the initial plan was established, operational
flexibility became the priority so that the senior commanders
could react as required to the changing battlefield.
This was done in three ways. The first was to create
a new strategic fixed-wing hub to alleviate pressure
on the Kuwait intermediate staging base. The second
was to leverage commercial carrier surface assets so
that more military transportation units could be redeployed
in support of the drawdown. The final way was
to turn Taji Air Base into a permanent fixed-wing hub
to relieve pressure on the stretched rotary-wing fleet.
With the drawdown in Iraq taking place concurrently
with the surge in Afghanistan, it became clear that
Kuwait was a chokepoint for all redeploying forces.
The number of troops that could flow through Kuwait
was capped by the housing capacity for transients and
the number of commercial carrier aircraft that could be
contracted to provide support on a given day.
Al Asad Airfield was identified as a fixed-wing hub
that could be used to redeploy a large portion of the
force because of its existing infrastructure and transient
billeting capability. Marine Corps forces had used Al
Asad for that purpose when Multi-National Forces–West redeployed. The only difference was scale. In order
to support the requirement, multiple improvements
would have to be made in concert with the Al Asad
Base Control Group, the expeditionary sustainment
command, USF–I, the U.S. Army Central customs program
manager, and U.S. Air Forces Central.
The primary methods used to increase throughput at
Al Asad were to leverage technological capability and
apply Lean Six Sigma concepts to create the most efficient
process possible. These methods focused on the
longest part of the redeployment process, the customs
clearance that is required for all forces leaving the U.S.
Central Command area of responsibility.
By changing the customs clearance process from
a 100-percent hands-on examination to a 90-percent
backscatter screening and only a 10-percent hands-on
examination, the throughput level was dramatically increased.
Once the technology was in place, throughput
could be increased by decreasing the overall process
timeline. USF–I sent out a Lean Six Sigma expert to
study the process and develop a more efficient process.
When the new process was coupled with the technological
improvements, the throughput was raised to the
level required to support the drawdown.
Another way that operational flexibility was created
was by using commercial carriers, including local national-owned carriers and multinational corporation
carriers. The drawdown cap of 50,000 personnel placed
a significant restriction on the amount of logistics support
that could be provided by military logisticians. Before
the drawdown, more than five logistics battalions
supported U.S. military operations in Baghdad. After
1 September 2010, only one battalion would remain.
In order to increase operational lift capability, local
carriers were contracted to provide lift capability and to
mitigate the identified shortfall.
The Military Surface Deployment and Distribution
Command (SDDC) had been working for many years
to open the Port of Aqaba in Jordan to U.S. forces’ redeployment cargo in order to reduce the strain on the
ports in Kuwait and Iraq. It had also been working with
servicing carriers to provide a door-to-door service for
units. What this meant was that the contracted carriers
would go all the way to a redeploying unit’s forward
location and pick up its cargo. The carriers would
handle all transportation requirements from that point
The 1st Armored Division made the most of this by
coordinating with SDDC to embed a redeployment
support team with the division transportation section
and pushing it out to all redeploying units as required.
This enabled the division to keep forces partnered for
a longer period of time since the requirement for a port
support activity was reduced.
The final manner in which operational flexibility
was created was by opening Taji Air Base as a tactical
fixed-wing airfield. Before the drawdown, the airfield
had been opened intermittently to allow for Air Force
fixed-wing assets to redeploy troops. When the division was no longer supported by a dedicated CAB, it
became obvious that rotary-wing assets, particularly
CH–47 Chinooks, would be severely taxed.
Opening up Taji as a permanent fixed-wing hub had
two effects. The first was that it reduced the requirement
being placed on CH–47s, allowing them to be
dedicated to other actions. The second was that it allowed
the redeploying units stationed at Taji to bypass
a layer of the redeployment process; they would not
have to fly to Baghdad in order to meet up with the
Air Force assets that would take them to Al Asad. This
enabled the commanders to keep their force focused
on partnering operations for the longest amount of time
The second order effects of working to create operational
flexibility through multiple methods provided
additional, unexpected benefits. For example, with
Taji being a tactical fixed-wing hub and Al Asad being
a strategic hub, the Air Force was able to work more
economically thanks to the significantly reduced distance
by air from Taji to Al Asad versus Taji to Kuwait.
This increase in efficiency condensed the redeployment
timeline and allowed troops to remain engaged in partnered
operations for longer.
The Election Has No Clear Winner
On 7 March 2010, the Iraqi people went to the polls
to elect a new national government. Although the election
itself was successful (the population was able to
safely exercise its right to vote), it resulted in a near-tie
among the leading parties and months of deadlock. The
national government was finally formed on 11 November
The political deadlock changed the strategic environment
in which USF–I and USD–C were operating. The
senior commanders came to the understanding that the “thinning of the lines” plan was no longer appropriate.
Instead, they decided to delay the redeployment of
certain units in order to assist the GOI security forces
in providing security during the political stalemate.
Two USD–C BCTs had to delay their redeployments.
(Neither stayed longer than 365 days.) The 2–10
IBCT maintained its mission, and a revised, condensed
flow of forces out of the theater was planned. The 4–2
SBCT offered to make use of the enhanced mobility
that a Stryker brigade provides and drive out of Iraq
instead of fly. This extended the amount of time that
the BCT had to conduct partnership operations. The
operation became known as “the Last Patrol,” and the
4–2 SBCT was the last combat unit to leave Iraq. All
remaining troops would be there to advise and assist.
The plan to redeploy 2–10 IBCT out of theater was
driven by partnering concerns, the return of occupied
real estate in Baghdad to the GOI, and the requirement
to redeploy the brigade before it reached 365 days in
theater. The operational flexibility that USD–C had built into the initial plan allowed for a change like this
to be made at the last minute.
With the 4–2 SBCT conducting the Last Patrol, the
overall requirement for units to fly out of Al Asad and
Baghdad was substantially decreased. This increased
the availability of both Air Force tactical fixed-wing
assets and commercial airlift assets out of Al Asad. In
the end, the 2–10 IBCT’s redeployment was shifted to
a later date and the amount of time it needed to leave
the theater was condensed, meeting the commander’s
The 4–2 SBCT’s Last Patrol provided USD–C with
multiple first-order benefits. The first was that, since
the patrol required a large portion of its combat power
to safely move to Kuwait over the roads, the brigade
maintained its combat power until the last possible moment.
This increased USD–C’s combat power during
the political stalemate while still meeting the 50,000
cap and having the troops out of Iraq by 1 September.
The second effect was that it substantially reduced
the logistics effort required within Iraq to support the
redeployment. The patrol essentially halved the number
of Air Force flights required, reduced the number of
required rotary-wing flights to near zero, and allowed
the expeditionary sustainment command to provide lift
capability to other units redeploying.
When 1 September arrived, USD–C had accomplished
its tasks to reduce its footprint from about
19,000 to 7,000 troops and redeploy or turn in over
10,000 pieces of equipment. It had done so while maintaining
its focus on partnering operations, supporting
the Iraqi national elections, and providing operational
flexibility to senior commanders to respond to situations
as they arose. These accomplishments laid the
ground work for the next drawdown that took USF–I
from 50,000 to 0 troops by 31 December 2011.