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A Proposed Modular Distribution Unit

Supplying the Army’s new brigade combat teams (BCTs) requires a fundamental change in how logisticians provide support. Concepts developed to support the traditional battlefield are no longer valid for today’s nonlinear, noncontiguous battlespace without front lines.

Distribution-based logistics provides the most efficient and effective use of assets to support BCTs. Currently, the performance of sustainment operations requires that a series of distribution hubs be set up throughout a theater of operations. Distribution hubs, or centers, allow commanders, item managers, shop officers, maintenance officers, and support operations officers to track supply status effectively using interrogators and radio frequency (RF) tags. Transportation assets that are not aligned with maneuver BCTs can be consolidated at these hubs, which improves command and control of those assets and allows leaders to place them where they are needed most. Consolidating forward operating bases (FOBs) under regional distribution hubs also helps to fill sustainment convoys faster because units at smaller FOBs receive supplies at the hub as quickly as units at larger FOBs.

While the establishment of corps- and division-level distribution hubs supports the combatant commander’s plan of attack, no standard governs how a distribution center is to be formed or operated. No organization with a modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE) exists to serve as a distribution center. To better support the warfighter, modular units that are organized for the distribution mission must be established. This article presents a proposal for the creation of a modular distribution unit.

Iraqi Freedom Distribution Hubs

During Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) 2, the 1st Cavalry Division’s Division Distribution Center (DDC) used Alpha Company from the Forward Support Battalion (FSB) of the 39th Enhanced Separate Brigade, Arkansas Army National Guard, to perform the DDC mission. Alpha Company’s automated logistical specialists [military occupational specialty (MOS) 92A] were not operating a supply support activity (SSA) and thus were available to execute the DDC mission. With Alpha Company operating a DDC, the 39th Brigade decided to use the consolidated SSA operated by the 27th Main Support Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division. Alpha Company’s replacement for OIF 04-06—Alpha Company, 125th FSB, 3d Brigade, 1st Armored Division—was responsible for establishing and operating an SSA and thus was unavailable to operate the DDC. Operating the DDC during OIF 04-06 became the responsibility of the 226th Quartermaster Company, 87th Corps Support Battalion (CSB), Division Support Brigade, 3d Infantry Division, which also became responsible for operating the 27th Main Support Battalion’s SSA.

DDC and SSA Similarities and Differences

In many ways, a distribution center resembles the receiving and issue sections of an SSA. In a process similar to that of an SSA receiving section, commodities arrive at the distribution center on convoys and must be processed and segregated. Commodities designated for units either assigned or attached to the Multinational Division-Baghdad area of responsibility first go to the Corps Distribution Center at Balad. All commodities for 3d Infantry Division’s area of responsibility then are transported to the DDC at Taji. Soldiers process incoming shipments and place supplies and equipment into segregated routing identifier code (RIC) lanes for each SSA (a task similar to that performed by the SSA’s issue section). Mixed shipments must be broken down and placed in the appropriate lanes.

A distribution center also resembles an SSA’s turn-in section. Units turn in serviceable and unserviceable excess to an SSA. The SSA processes the parts and attempts to fill shortages in one unit with excess parts turned in by another. Reparable parts are sent to the maintenance unit for repair and return to the system. The SSA cross-levels excesses and shortages among the units it supports. All serviceable and unserviceable excesses are retrograded to the regional distribution center, where the process is repeated on a larger scale. The two goals of retrograding excesses are to keep units and SSAs from being swamped with unneeded parts and to identify parts that can rapidly fill shortages in sister units without having to reorder the same part, ultimately saving the Army money and reducing transportation requirements.

Despite these similarities, the distribution center is not a large SSA. An SSA is a warehouse that stores authorized lines of supplies determined by commanders, demand, and item managers. A distribution center, meanwhile, holds supplies for a short time before they are shipped elsewhere and therefore more closely resembles a transportation unit’s trailer transfer point. Depending on supply priorities and available transportation assets, the distribution center will hold items for several hours to a few days.

Distribution centers are most effective when they are not restricted to one mode of transportation. They work best when they are located near major road networks, railheads, and airports because each node provides access to a different way of moving commodities. Important, “war stopper” items can be moved forward using helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, while large, bulk commodities can be shipped most efficiently by rail. Meanwhile, ground convoys are the primary means of shipping supplies throughout the area of operations and move the great majority of all classes of supply within the Iraqi theater.

Distribution Problems in Iraq

A variety of problems confront the current distribution hubs used in Iraq. Leaders have identified many of these problems and are in the process of addressing them. However, the most significant issue remaining is that no unit exists to conduct distribution center operations as part of its mission-essential task list. Combat service support (CSS) units with defined missions find themselves operating distribution centers in an ad hoc fashion. While the Soldiers in these units do an admirable job in executing their new mission, the units are not properly resourced with personnel, equipment, or training.

Quartermaster direct support companies like the 226th Quartermaster Company possess the capabilities and personnel to inventory and segregate commodities. Their SSAs also have some of the materials-handling equipment (MHE) and operators needed to move bulk pallets and CONEXs (containers express), but they do not have personnel to track convoy movements; their 92As are needed for other SSA duties. Transportation movement control teams have the expertise to track convoy movements effectively, but they possess neither the personnel nor the equipment to handle the commodities transported by convoys. Transportation cargo transfer companies have the equipment needed to cross-load equipment rapidly, but they lack people to inventory commodities and track movements.

Creating an MTOE distribution unit would effectively blend the capabilities of these three types of units into a single unit that better supports distribution-based logistics.

Proposed Modular Distribution Unit

The Army needs MTOE units that are already organized, before a deployment, to support distribution-based logistics. These units must be modular to support rapid deployment in support of any contingency. They also must possess the personnel, equipment, and maintenance assets needed to accomplish the distribution mission.

Whenever a distribution unit is deployed, it must work closely with other CSS units. The battalion support operations officer must assist the distribution unit in establishing a working relationship with transportation units to receive and distribute supplies. The distribution unit also must establish habitual ties with a “servicing” SSA and maintenance unit to process and repair reparable exchange parts for return to the supply system. These servicing units must be located near the distribution unit.

The proposed modular distribution unit would be a platoon-sized element with multifunctional characteristics and would consist of a headquarters section, operations section, receiving and issue section, cargo transfer section, retrograde section, aerial supply section, and maintenance section. A total of 44 Soldiers would be needed to operate 3 shifts at full strength. Many of the positions would be MOS immaterial, but some sections would require the skill sets of today’s 62Bs (construction equipment repairers), 88Ms (motor transport operators), 92As, 92Rs (parachute riggers), and 92Ys (unit supply specialists). The chart above shows the structure and personnel of the proposed organization.

The platoon would require a variety of equipment to perform its mission, especially MHE, organic bulk transport equipment, either stake-and-platform (S&P) trailers or palletized load systems, light sets, generators, tents, computers, RF interrogators, and radios.

A distribution center requires a large area for operations. The center must be located near major road networks, airfields, and railheads to receive and distribute supplies through a variety of means. Pilferage has been a problem encountered with many distribution centers, so special attention must be given to ensuring that the area remains secured with controlled access.

The area must support heavy traffic and be clear of obstacles or debris that may damage equipment. Overhead cover and some climate-controlled facilities are needed to protect weather-sensitive supplies. Unless the center establishes operations in a prepared location, engineering assets may be necessary to prepare the site.

Section Personnel and Responsibilities

The headquarters section would consist of the platoon leader and platoon sergeant and would be responsible for providing leadership, training, and accountability of all Soldiers and equipment. Like other headquarters sections, the platoon leaders would be responsible for processing all administrative actions (awards, monthly counseling, and evaluations).

Daily operation of the distribution center would be handled by the operations section. It would consist of an officer in charge (OIC), a noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC), and three clerks. The OIC and NCOIC would work alternate 12-hour shifts, and each clerk would work a separate 8-hour shift to process reports. The operations section would serve as the “brains” of the operation, synchronizing the efforts and priorities of each section to ensure smooth, uninterrupted operations. The section would gather information, manage reports, identify items with missing documentation, and manage MILVAN (military-owned demountable container) and trailer accountability.

The receiving and issue section would be responsible for escorting host nation convoys from the base gate to the distribution center and receiving all convoys. The section also would receive convoys arriving to pick up supplies. The receiving and issue section would consist of an NCOIC, three shift leaders, and six Soldiers. Using interrogators, the Soldiers in this section would check RF tags and inventory each truck as it entered and left the distribution center. The section would sort mixed shipments and process special unit bulk items, such as division acquisitions, for distribution to the FOBs. The NCOIC and shift leaders would use the information gathered from incoming convoys to direct the cargo transfer section properly. They also would enforce quality assurance and control by ensuring that the cargo transfer section placed items in the correct locations.

The cargo transfer section would be the unit’s largest section in terms of personnel and equipment. It would download incoming convoys and place containers and pallets in the correct locations. The section also would upload departing convoys and transport supplies to the airfield for the aerial supply section. The cargo transfer section would consist of an NCOIC, 3 shift leaders, and 12 Soldiers who would operate a variety of MHE and S&P trailers. Their primary pieces of equipment will include forklifts, container handlers, and cranes. At a minimum, the section would require four 10,000-pound forklifts, two 6,000-pound fork-lifts, two 4,000-pound forklifts, one 22-ton crane, two Kalmar Industries rough-terrain container handlers, and two S&P trailers with prime movers.

The retrograde section would maintain accountability of all items delivered for retrograde. Consisting of an NCOIC and three Soldiers, the retrograde section would manage the flow of retrograde items in the distribution center. They would identify and segregate serviceable excess items and prepare them for possible immediate issue to another FOB, thereby saving the Army time and money by returning supplies to the system for nearby units in need. Reparable exchange parts also would be identified, marked, and shipped to the distribution center’s servicing SSA for release to the nearest maintenance unit for repair. Unserviceable parts and serviceable excess that could not be used within the distribution center’s region would be identified and prepared for retrograde out of the theater.

The aerial supply section would consist of an NCOIC and two Soldiers, who would be responsible for building, weighing, and uploading aircraft pallets with mission-critical, “war stopper” items for immediate resupply. Conducting aerial resupply missions was a rarity during OIF 2. In OIF 04-06, air missions occurred several times a week. Soldiers currently build and weigh up to 12 Air Force 436L pallets a week for air movement; 3 pallets fit in a CH–47 Chinook helicopters. Transporting pallets by air reduces ground transportation requirements and places fewer Soldiers at risk of injury from improvised explosive devices. While building pallets and conducting slingload operations are branch and MOS immaterial, the NCOIC should be a 92R parachute rigger.

The maintenance section would be responsible for ensuring that MHE remains fully mission capable. This section would include an NCO and three MHE mechanics. They would need a contact truck, mechanic’s tool boxes, and a 15-day prescribed load list for MHE. Typically, the mechanics in this section would work directly with the company organizational maintenance section to which the distribution unit is task organized.

The proposed distribution unit is designed to fill the Army’s need for a ready-to-deploy modular organization that serve as a distribution hub. If the Army is to realize the full potential of distribution-based logistics, it will need a dedicated, modular MTOE unit to do the job.

Captain Jeremy D. Smith is the Commander of the 226th Quartermaster Company, 87th Corps Support Battalion, Division Support Brigade, 3d Infantry Division. His company operates a consolidated SSA, division distribution center, and division class I (subsistence) and IV (construction and barrier materials) yard and distributes fuel to forward operating bases throughout the Multinational Division-Baghdad area of operations.