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Air Sustainment Operations at LSA Anaconda

At the beginning of our deployment to Iraq, my platoon, 3d Platoon, 21st Cargo Transfer Company, from Fort Lewis, Washington, was tasked to provide materials-handling equipment (MHE) support to the forward redistribution point (FRP) at Logistics Support Area (LSA) Anaconda near Balad. The mission of the FRP is to stock serviceable class II (clothing and individual equipment), IIIP (packaged petroleum, oils, and lubricants), IV (construction and barrier materials), and IX (repair parts) materials that are excess to 25 supply support activities (SSAs). In addition to MHE support, we also palletized a small amount of class II, IV, and IX supplies for movement by aircraft to airfields in Iraq.

Shortly after our transfer of authority, the air sustainment portion of our mission grew rapidly and became our main focus. The 3d Platoon Soldiers did not realize at first the tremendous importance of this new priority or the impact it would have throughout the theater, but we accepted the mission and worked many hours performing cargo-handler duties.

Air Sustainment

Air sustainment is the intratheater movement of supplies using Army or Air Force aircraft, versus transporting them by ground convoys. Moving cargo by air has two huge advantages over ground transportation. First, materiel usually arrives at its destination from 3 to 4 days faster. Second, Soldiers and equipment are not placed at risk by traveling on the dangerous roads of Iraq to deliver supplies.

After the 3d Platoon’s rotation to Iraq began in October 2005, the emphasis on air sustainment increased theaterwide. Fewer than 4,000 pallets were shipped by air throughout Iraq in October 2005. Each month thereafter saw a notable increase in the number of pallets flown. During April, May, and June 2006, more than 48,000 pallets were moved by air. The two significant reasons for this increase were the implementation of the Air Force’s hub-and-spoke system and the 3d Corps Support Command’s emphasis on flying supplies—including many of the retrograde supplies going to Kuwait—whenever possible.

Pallets are transported not only on Air Force fixed-wing aircraft but also on Army rotary-wing aircraft, primarily CH–47 Chinook helicopters. These helicopters enable small forward operating bases that do not have landing strips to receive sustainment without having to cross-load supplies from air to ground conveyance. In March 2006, Chinooks delivered 52 pallets from LSA Anaconda. Three months later, that number had increased to an average of 244 pallets a month.

Reducing Customer Wait Time

The shift to flying sustainment instead of sending it by truck has drastically decreased the customer wait time for supplies ordered in theater. Instead of waiting for an entire convoy’s worth of outbound cargo to accumulate for one location, regularly scheduled aircraft move pallets that are staged in the airfield’s sterile yard.

The FRP further speeds up the delivery of supplies to the warfighter. Serviceable and unserviceable excess from all over Iraq is sent to the FRP, and items selected for retention are stocked there. When retention items are ordered by a unit in Iraq, the unit checks its SSA first and then the FRP. If the item is on hand at the FRP, it is sent by air directly to the unit. Having the item available for shipment from Balad instead of Kuwait drastically reduces the transportation time.

Convoy Mitigation

The greatest danger faced by U.S. service members in Iraq today is improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Convoy mitigation provided by air sustainment is vital because it keeps Soldiers and materiel out of the reach of IEDs. For 16,000 pallets that are moved by air, 4,000 trucks of cargo and 800 convoy-protection or convoy-escort platforms are kept off the road. This keeps at least 5,200 Soldiers and civilians off the perilous roads of Iraq—a significant reduction in the risk to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines serving in Iraq. Air sustainment also keeps valuable equipment from being damaged or destroyed. For these reasons, air sustainment is a worthwhile endeavor.


Challenges

The 3d Platoon faced several challenges that made completing the air sustainment mission more difficult. These included overcoming a theaterwide shortage of 463L pallets, nets, and straps; getting cargo to the designated location; and obtaining hazardous materials (HAZMAT) certification.

Air sustainment requires the use of Air Force materials that are in limited supply throughout the theater, such as 463L pallet and net systems and 5,000-pound cargo straps. These items also are commonly misused. The 463L pallets often are used as makeshift flooring, and the cargo straps sometimes are used as troop straps for high-mobility, multipurpose, wheeled vehicles or 5-ton trucks. This misuse further diminishes the already-short supply of these items and hinders the overall mission.

As Coalition Force support to Iraqi Security Forces changes, we must ensure that cargo is shipped to the right destinations. If we are not getting the right cargo to the right unit at the right location, then the rest of the air sustainment process means nothing. Misshipped cargo then will have to be moved to the right location, possibly putting trucks on the road, or the items will be sent back to LSA Anaconda to be reprocessed. Either way, the customer’s wait time will be drastically increased, possibly causing him to reorder the item.

The platoon experienced shipping delays early in the operation because it was unable to obtain HAZMAT certification. To solve this problem, another company in Logistics Task Force 548 allowed its HAZMAT specialist to move to the support operations office to provide HAZMAT certification to the FRP and the Joint Distribution Center, LSA Anaconda’s two highest-volume pallet producers. This effort made it possible for the platoon to send more items by air.

Joint Operations

Air sustainment is truly a joint operation. Without a close working relationship with the Air Force, air sustainment cannot be successful. We were told that the Air Force’s position was “Build it, we’ll fly it.” As long as I have been working in air sustainment, the Air Force has always made good on that promise. Several times during our tour, the Air Force sent cargo experts to the FRP to train us on how to properly build and inspect 463L pallets. The experts did everything they possibly could to help us get the supplies we needed to build air pallets. Every week, our support operations transportation officer met with the other elements involved in air sustainment at the Air Terminal Operations Center of the 322d Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron to iron out any issues and ensure smooth-flowing operations. This positive working relationship enabled our operation to be successful and was a great example of joint service partnership and “purple” logistics.

Soldiers in the 3d Platoon executed the air sustainment mission for nearly a year and had the chance to talk to many senior decisionmakers who visited the FRP to see their work. These Soldiers understood that they were not just building pallets. They were helping to safeguard the lives of their fellow Soldiers, and they were getting essential supplies and repair parts to the warfighter as fast as possible. They took great pride in the fact that their efforts significantly contributed to Balad leading the theater in cargo sent by air, and they felt a great sense of accomplishment at the end of each day.
ALOG

First Lieutenant Brian J. Furber was the Platoon Leader for the 3d Platoon, 21st Cargo Transfer Company, at LSA Anaconda during his Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment. He is a graduate of the Officer Candidate School, the Transportation Officer Basic Course, the Psychological Operations Specialist Course, and the Basic Airborne Course.