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Spare Parts Recovery and Storage at Camp Taji

A pile of debris left by Saddam Hussein’s Army provided an opportunity not only to obtain critical parts for Iraqi combat vehicles but also to train the next generation of Iraqi supply specialists.

After the dust from the initial offensive of Operation Iraqi Freedom began to settle, the long process of rebuilding the Iraqi Army started, one step at a time. One site involved in this rebuilding process was a salvage yard at the North Depot of Camp Taji. The yard was established at an old Iraqi Army supply depot, where mountainous piles of debris were spread over 2 acres. What made this site attractive for a salvage yard—and for a significant role in reconstituting the Iraqi Army—was the existence, beneath those debris piles, of critical Iraqi tank parts.

To capitalize on the readily available tank parts, U.S. Army planners awarded a spare parts contract to Iraqi nationals. Under this contract, serviceable spare parts were transported to the South Depot at Camp Taji for storage in four newly created warehouses for the 9th Iraqi Army Division. In essence, those warehouses reduced the dependence of the Iraqis on the U.S. Army and increased their self-reliance.

Recovering Parts

The contract workers recovered the spare parts from the North Depot and then checked them for serviceability. If the parts were serviceable, they were cleaned, packaged, inventoried, and shipped to the South Depot warehouses for stocking. If the parts were deemed unserviceable, they were set aside to be used as scrap metal. Sales of scrap metal became an alternative source of revenue for the U.S. Government, but undertaking the sales required that the scrap be neatly segregated from the recovery of serviceable parts.

The recovery process was quite labor intensive and required both Iraqi experts in tank parts and general laborers. They relied heavily on each other to locate, recover, and determine part serviceability. The extremely high summer temperatures only added to the grueling nature of the work. The recovery crews relied on the tank-part experts primarily for identifying parts. The part experts drove the process, and recovery work was delayed if any of them were absent. Most of the skilled workers commuted daily from Baghdad with their equipment.

Most of the parts had to be recovered by hand to prevent them from being damaged. The workers placed the parts in baskets alongside the debris piles for later removal by forklift. A crane lifted the larger bulk parts from the piles, though those parts made up a small percentage of the recovery. The workers moved the serviceable parts to temporary holding areas for cleaning, packaging, labeling, and inventory. Parts were temporarily stored by type and size before being shipped to the new warehouses.

Road closures and acts of terrorism caused dramatic swings in productivity throughout the process. Terrorism created a daily struggle for workers and the recovery process to overcome. Many of the workers’ lives were threatened simply because they worked for the U.S. Government. Some workers were murdered, and others quit when terrorists threatened their lives. One day, all of the workers would report to work; the next day, only half would. This fluctuation in the strength of the work force significantly and negatively impacted the project’s sustained productivity.

Creating Warehouses

The four newly renovated warehouses at the South Depot were designated to store the serviceable parts that were recovered. The warehouses ultimately would store T–55, T–72, BMP–1, and MTLB tank parts. (All of these vehicles were old Soviet tracked, armored models.) Everything used to establish the warehouses was salvaged from the North Depot. Those items included shelving, storage baskets, pallets, and, of course, the valuable spare parts themselves.

Initially, an assessment was needed to project the approximate number of tank parts to be recovered from the debris piles. This helped to determine how each warehouse would be configured for storage space. Based on the initial assessment, the planners determined that 60 percent of the parts were T–55 parts, 25 percent were T–72, 10 percent BMP–1, and 5 percent MTLB. A further assessment determined the numbers of small parts and of medium and large parts that had to be stored. The planners allocated one warehouse for small parts storage and the other three for storing medium parts. The initial assessments paid off: very few changes were required throughout the project.

Once the planners established the percentages of parts to be stored, it was time to recover and dismantle shelving from the North Depot to be transported and reassembled at the South Depot. Excess storage capacity was automatically built into the original estimates. The shelving was an important stage in establishing the warehouses. All shelving, baskets, and pallets were hand-picked for quality and durability. The shelving recovery process was almost as labor intensive as the parts recovery.

The shelving systems were either dismantled or cut out by blow torch from the old warehouses and reassembled in the new facilities. After the workers installed the shelving, it had to be sand-blasted and painted. The painting process offered its own challenges. The paint had to be shipped from Baghdad, a process that was notorious for delays. Once the shelving was erected, it needed to be stocked with parts. This phase also faced daily obstacles.

The unique challenge presented was the ability to determine exactly how many parts, by type, would be recovered. Every day, a new debris pile could turn up an entirely new series of parts. In a new U.S. Army warehouse facility, planners know exactly how many lines will be stocked and can organize the shelving and storage space accordingly. In this project, locations of parts required some periodic adjustments until the work neared completion.

As workers refurbished the warehouses, a few enhancements were required to complete the project. These enhancements included a supply gate and fencing system to establish two separate bulk storage areas. The final addition added warehouse lighting to the interior of the small parts warehouse. The additional lighting was needed to light up the bottom level of shelving because the top level of shelving was blocking the light coming from the ceiling lamps.

The warehouses were not on a power grid, so all power had to be provided by generator. However, the generators were unreliable, and maintaining a sufficient fuel supply to power them was a constant problem. The generators were old and would break down after about a month of use; when that happened, a replacement generator had to be brought in from Baghdad. Fuel rationing was a daily occurrence and made it a challenge to keep records up to date.

The small parts warehouse consisted of a two-level catwalk shelving system. This warehouse, designated Warehouse One, primarily stored T–55 small parts along with some T–72, BMP–1, and MTLB parts. Warehouse Two contained T–55 medium-sized parts; Warehouse Three included T–55 and T–72 parts; and Warehouse Four stored BMP–1 and MTLB tank parts. A T–55 and T–72 bulk storage yard was located between Warehouses One and Two. A bulk storage area was added between Warehouses Three and Four toward the end of the project; this supply yard stored the BMP–1 and MTLB bulk tank parts.

After parts began flowing into the new warehouses at the South Depot, the inventory system was launched. This involved labeling and storing parts in locations in a manner that made logical sense to the Iraqis. Their system needed to flow from right to left, reflecting the Arabic language, which is read from right to left; that, of course, is the opposite of the English language and thus of the U.S. system. The location labeling system also needed to be bilingual for U.S. and Iraqi personnel to understand what was stored in each location. This became very important as development of a database began.

All inventories were updated initially on a running spreadsheet. Later in the project, planners developed a database system. The database also needed to be designed bilingually to transfer complete control of the process to the Iraqi Army. The database allowed Iraqi soldiers to print reports and capture inventories. The trainers ensured that all data were entered efficiently and accurately.

Locations needed to be spot checked as a quality control measure to ensure that parts were not misstocked or miscounted. This system proved to be essential because parts were periodically misstocked or mislabeled. Workers conducted several 100-percent inventories to verify stock balances. Spot checks were very helpful in determining location accuracy. Whenever accuracy dropped below 95 percent, the database system generated a 100-percent inventory.

Logistics Training

Once Warehouses One and Two neared completion, the planners began to introduce the Iraqi warehousemen into the process. This required development of a comprehensive lesson plan that included classroom work, practical exercises, and a formal graduation. The training of the Iraqi soldiers was a challenge in itself. The Iraqis’ liberal leave policy meant that about half of the soldiers would start to leave midway through the 2-week course; these soldiers then had to be rescheduled to complete their training during the next course offering. Departures for leave occurred even when class dates were prearranged with the Iraqi commanders.

The classes also required an Iraqi interpreter to translate slides and class discussions. The soldiers would ask many questions, which helped instructors to gauge if the material was being understood. Unfortunately, it was common to graduate a class and then see one or two soldiers diverted to another unit. This meant that new soldiers had to be identified and trained from among the limited number of Iraqi personnel available. As a result, the best and brightest Iraqis did not always get selected for warehouse training.

The course work included basic MicroSoft Windows training, if required by the students, before moving to more advanced database concepts. Computer training was one of the greater challenges because most of the Iraqis had never touched a keyboard. The selected soldiers either needed to have a basic background in computers or would have to be taught basic computer and Windows concepts. As a result, potential students required a computer aptitude assessment before they started the database training. The instructors received great satisfaction watching the Iraqi soldiers grow and develop. Most of the soldiers were motivated to learn and wanted to be successful.

Out of the four Iraqi soldiers who were identified to be stock control clerks, one ended up becoming fairly proficient on the database system. He became the primary user and assisted in the training of the other three soldiers. The designers developed the inventory system in partnership with the Iraqis to ensure that all phases of development were understandable.

The total training lasted more than 2 months and graduated 14 solid warehousing soldiers. The soldiers are working in the warehouses today and making steady progress in supporting the 9th Iraqi Army Division. This is the first known effort of its kind to completely transfer logistics operations to an Iraqi divisional unit. They took over complete control of the operation with limited adviser oversight.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the warehouse complex occurred on 25 September 2006. This effort received visibility throughout the U.S. and Iraqi chains of command. The event attracted the Commanding General of the Iraqi Assistance Group, the Commanding General of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team, the 4th Infantry Division’s Assistant Division Commander for Support, several colonels and lieutenant colonels, and a host of distinguished guests. The event received American Forces Network coverage and was considered a victory for logistics operations in Iraq.

In the end, the spare parts recovery effort saved the U.S. Government an estimated $50 million. The project originally began in September 2005 and, after several setbacks, reemerged in February 2006. Many felt that the project could not be completed in the 6-month timeline. When looking at performing the daunting recovery mission with limited personnel and inadequate equipment, it looked like an impossible task. The sheer magnitude of the project had most officials estimating that 12 to 18 months would be needed to finish. However, after just 7 months, the warehouses were transferred to fully trained Iraqi warehousemen.

Major Shawn P. Ward is the Support Operations Officer for the 9th Iraqi Army Division Logistics and Administration Military Transition Team at Camp Taji, Iraq. He has a B.S. degree in economics and holds a master’s degree in business administration from Xavier University in Ohio. He is a graduate of the Quartermaster Officer Basic Course, the Combined Logistics Officers Advanced Course, and the Combined Arms and Services Staff School.