Forging an Alliance:  Army Transporters in Europe

by Major Earl Kennedy

Moving tanks to Camp Able Sentry aboard the Victory Train was a triumph for American ingenuity.

Last April, in an unprecedented use of the Eastern European transportation system, the Army deployed combat forces by train on short notice from their home base in central Germany to Camp Able Sentry in Macedonia.

On orders from the National Command Authorities, the 1st Transportation Movement Control Agency (TMCA), part of the 21st Theater Support Command (TSC), headquartered in Kaiserslautern, Germany, planned and executed the movement. A company of M1 Abrams tanks, a battery of M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzers, and support equipment from the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) departed by rail from Germany on 9 April, traveling through Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece to its final destination. By 15 April, the last of the equipment had arrived in Macedonia—ahead of schedule and without incident.

The mission was a rousing success, but more importantly, the story of how it was carried out is a valuable lesson for future operations in uncharted territory. What ended with the enhancement of security at a Kosovo Peacekeeping Force (KFOR) base started months before as a perplexing challenge.

Plotting a Strategic Rail Deployment Route

Colonel Charles Sumpter, the commander of 1st TMCA, put it plainly. "We had, since our initial deployment to Kosovo, been taking units by rail to the northern German port of Bremerhaven, then moving them aboard strategic sealift to Thessaloniki, Greece. From there, we either would drive the equipment north to Camp Able Sentry, load it on commercial trucks or, when possible, rail load it straight up to the railhead in Skopje, about 15 miles from Camp Able Sentry. It was slow, and it was expensive."

Transportation planners knew that commercial rail lines existed through the former Soviet Bloc nations of Eastern Europe to the Balkans. However, they had never moved combat equipment over that route.

For generations, rail has been an effective way to move personnel and materiel quickly in Europe. During World Wars I and II, rail was used extensively to shuttle equipment from one front to another and from the factory to the front line. Even today, rail is an indispensable part of the daily mission to keep U.S. forces in Europe sustained. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has standardized rail procedures somewhat. At 1st TMCA, we were soon to learn that the procedures used in the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe were anything but standardized with our own.

Gaining Diplomatic Approval

Starting soon after the initial deployments of U.S. forces to support KFOR, transportation planners began laying the groundwork to open a rail route for strategic deployments. Unlike rail movements during World War II, any movement of forces now would require the approval of each sovereign nation along the way. Each had different customs procedures, oversized cargo standards, and hazardous material restrictions. While one nation might require only 3 days to grant diplomatic approval for transporting military equipment, another could take as much as 2 weeks.

The task of bringing each nation to a common understanding fell to a group of military and civilian transportation experts from a wide variety of commands, agencies, and activities. According to Mike Riedl, TMCA's senior rail planner, "Back in 1995, when we were trying to get things sorted out in support of Bosnia, we decided to try and bring all the nations together for a rail conference to try to hammer everything out. It worked well because we had all the players in one place." Out of that first rail conference came an agreement that set common standards and business practices. So 1st TMCA decided to do the same thing for KFOR.

In October 1999, 1st TMCA hosted the first KFOR rail conference in Bucharest, Romania. Rail, highway, and defense representatives from 13 nations met with transportation experts from 1st TMCA and logisticians from U.S. Army, Europe, the U.S. European Command, and the Military Traffic Management Command. Discussion centered on identifying differences in limitations on oversized equipment, tie-down procedures, tariffs, customs, timetables, and diplomatic and technical clearances.

t the railhead at Radomir, Bulgaria, a tank is offloaded from the heavy train. Later, the tank was loaded onto a HET and transported to Camp Able Sentry.

At the railhead at Radomir, Bulgaria, a tank is offloaded from the heavy train. Later, the tank was loaded onto a HET and transported to Camp Able Sentry.

 

To use this route, we needed to know if the tunnels and bridges along the way could accommodate our equipment. A set of technical drawings of equipment that potentially could be deployed on the prospective route was submitted to each national railroad. They would match these "profiles" against their infrastructure and tell us which, if any, of our equipment would not be allowed past a certain point.

Each attending nation signed a nonbinding protocol identifying not only what had been agreed upon, but also what was yet to be resolved. The need for continued negotiations, both in a conference setting and individually with each participating nation, readily became apparent. Transportation planners began an exhausting round of negotiations in Vienna, Austria; Budapest, Hungary; Bucharest, Romania; Sofia, Bulgaria; Athens, Greece; and Skopje, Macedonia. These talks were not solely with the heads of the national railroads, but often included Ministers of Defense, Transportation, Foreign Affairs, and Internal Affairs. These efforts were paramount to reassuring each nation that moving U.S. Army combat equipment was vital to the mission of KFOR and not a threat to its sovereignty.

Good News, Bad News

Planners in 1st TMCA set their sights on making the inaugural rail move in the summer of 2000. The pieces slowly began to fall into place as each nation began to consent to the move. Austria, long accustomed to rail movement between U.S. bases in Germany and Italy, was first; Romania soon followed.

Then came the bad news. Officials from Bulgaria notified us that two tunnels southwest of the capital city of Sofia were too small to allow the M1 tanks to pass. What had been a promising concept to slash deployment times appeared to have a fatal flaw. Without the ability to get our largest and most powerful combat vehicle to Macedonia, the use of an Eastern European rail route was now questionable.

"We had put in far too much effort to simply give up on this plan," said Major Margaret Devereux, 1st TMCA's senior KFOR planner. A look at maps of the countries involved offered a possible solution. Macedonia, the final destination, is adjacent to Bulgaria, but because there are no rail lines from Bulgaria to Macedonia, rail traffic was forced to continue south into Greece to just north of Thessaloniki before turning north into Macedonia and, eventually, to Skopje. Perhaps there was a way to rail everything except the M1's all the way to Skopje. If so, the tanks could be offloaded somewhere relatively nearby in Bulgaria and moved by heavy equipment transporters (HET's) overland to Camp Able Sentry.

The plan to test the route developed into two parallel efforts. A test train would be sent along the proposed route with equipment that had been cleared all the way to Skopje. That train would be accompanied by rail experts from 1st TMCA, who would establish timelines and validate necessary technical procedures, particularly at the critical border crossings.

A Bulgarian police officer helps provide security during offloading of the trains from Germany.

A Bulgarian police officer helps provide security during offloading of the trains from Germany.

 

The second effort would be to figure out how to get the M1 tanks to U.S. forces in KFOR, which meant finding a suitable route from Bulgaria to Macedonia. We needed to know how close to the border the M1's could be railed, which involved identifying the exact route and determining if it could sustain such oversized loads.

A Possible Solution

The last rail stop before the tunnels was the sleepy little hamlet of Radomir, which lies approximately 25 miles southwest of Sofia. The map showed a road that snaked from Radomir through the Bulgarian border town of Gyushevo west to Skopje, less than 125 miles away. But could the railhead support the offload? Could the road support the move? Would the bridges and overpasses allow a HET loaded with an M1 tank to get to Skopje? Within days, transporters were on their way to Radomir to find out.

The team, made up of transportation planners and engineers, began the meticulous process of analyzing the route from Radomir to Skopje. A joint U.S.-host nation inspection included grades, roadbed conditions, access through populated areas, and the capacity of the bridges, overpasses, and tunnels. The commander of the Bulgarian National Logistics Coordination Center assembled a team that included Army logisticians, customs officials, border police, and national railroad representatives to assist in a reconnaissance of the railhead at Radomir and the route from there to the border. Although the railhead was spartan, the Radomir accommodations and support inadequate, and the route narrow and hilly, it looked like it would work.

Bypassing a Fatal Flaw

The following week, the TMCA team met with a similar group of experts in Macedonia to conduct another reconnaissance, this time from Skopje back to the same border crossing. The freedom of movement agreements signed earlier by the Macedonian Government and NATO eliminated many of the difficulties normally associated with opening new routes.

However, one problem threatened the entire operation. Macedonian bridges, designed to withstand the weight of a Soviet-built HET transporting a main battle tank, would not support the combined weight of a heavier U.S. M1 tank and the HET carrying it. An engineering study by bridge stress experts from the University of Skopje and validated by structural engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded that there were 15 bridges along the route that were of concern. Twelve of them were deemed marginally suitable, but three were ranked as incapable of sustaining the proposed load. Engineers from the 21st TSC and representatives of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications in Skopje worked to find a solution.

We knew that neither the truck nor the tank alone exceeded the maximum. Together, the Macedonians and the transporters from TMCA devised a plan in which the trucks would stop before crossing the first bridge, download the tanks, and drive the tanks and the trucks separately across all three bridges. Luckily, the three bridges were less than 2 miles apart.

Victory Train

A test train was launched from Germany in December 1999 and proved, at least in a limited sense, the potential for a rail movement. During the test, 1st TMCA observers aboard the train were able to resolve communication problems that caused delays at several borders. Putting observers on every train during a major movement would be impractical, so Colonel Sumpter decided to place transportation liaison officers in every country along the route. This practice had started during the Implementation Force's early days in Bosnia. Those liaison officers were able to handle most issues that came up and to interact with both the host nation and the U.S. Embassy staffs. They had established a reliable network that provided in-transit visibility, "put out fires," and expedited movements often beset by local bureaucracies.

We focused all of our efforts on moving forces to and from KFOR during the scheduled May-June 2000 rotation. A second rail conference, held in Sofia and hosted by 1st TMCA during the first week of February, nailed down the final details.

 

An M1A1 tank offloaded from a HET is driven across a bridge in Macedonia on its way to Camp Able Sentry.

An M1A1 tank offloaded from a HET is driven across a bridge in Macedonia on its way to Camp Able Sentry.

 

The tactical situation on the ground in Macedonia soon moved up the date of the first operational use of the new rail route and drastically compressed the planning timeline to execute it. Tensions in nearby Kosovo rose with the spring temperatures, and senior commanders decided that deployment of additional firepower to Camp Able Sentry would send a strong message and act as a credible deterrent to possible action against that vital U.S. support base.

Plans to enhance the force structure at Camp Able Sentry included moving a tank company, a battery of howitzers, and long-range surveillance soldiers on short notice. The total package, dubbed the "Victory Train" in honor of V Corps, was approved for deployment on 1 April, with a projected departure date of 10 April. Preparations to operate out of Radomir went into overdrive.

A team that included preventative medicine experts was dispatched to Radomir to evaluate food, water, and medical facilities. After intense negotiations, both the Bulgarian and Macedonian Governments agreed to provide security, traffic control, medical support, interpreters, and assistance at the Gyushevo border. Commercial HET's were contracted to augment the U.S. Army HET's already in the Balkans.

Movement control teams from both 1st TMCA and V Corps would provide complete coverage of the entire route. Military police from the 95th Military Police Battalion in Mannheim, Germany, would control the vital bridge crossings and provide route and convoy security. Brown & Root Services Corporation, the Army's Logistics Civil Augmentation Program contractor and the logistics backbone of Camp Able Sentry, would provide portable toilets, vehicles, fuel, and other services. All of these elements, organized as Task Force Radomir, arrived in Bulgaria on 9 April.

The 1st Infantry Division's equipment was loaded onboard the Victory Train at two separate railheads in Germany. The equipment that had been cleared through to Skopje was loaded on one, called the "light" train, and 14 M1 tanks and an M88 recovery vehicle were loaded on another, called the "heavy" train. Both departed ahead of schedule on 9 April. The light train arrived at the Skopje railhead on 14 April. The heavy train arrived in Radomir on 13 April.

At Radomir, the task force, under the command of Major Devereux, quickly offloaded the equipment, uploaded it aboard U.S., allied, and commercial HET's, and moved it by convoy. Using cellular phones, FM radios, and the Defense Transportation Reporting and Control System (DTRACS), the convoy maintained constant communication with its Macedonian counterparts and its higher headquarters both at Camp Able Sentry and in Germany.

Just west of the Bulgarian-Macedonian border crossing, U.S. military police supervised the difficult task of downloading the tanks from their HET's, moving them safely across both bridges, reloading them, and continuing the convoy to Camp Able Sentry.

"Our major problem was controlling the civilian traffic," said First Lieutenant Jason Clark, commander of the military police. "The bridge crossing required us to stop traffic in both directions until all the equipment was across and uploaded. That stopped everything for a couple of hours. We worked closely with the 21st TSC Provost Marshal and the Macedonian police. They made a tough job a lot easier."

The M1 tanks were delivered to Camp Able Sentry ahead of schedule, and Task Force Radomir packed up and headed back to Germany.

"It was a tough few days," said Devereux, "but it created an educational environment. We learned that we could move on this route, that we could do it safely, that we could do it faster and cheaper than by sea, and that we could meet the commander's intent to strategically deploy by rail through Eastern Europe."

The hard work of the soldiers and civilians who made the Victory Train a success proved more than the viability of a route. It proved the U.S. Army's ability to open new doors with new countries and forged an alliance that offers our Nation faster strategic deployment. ALOG  

Major Earl Kennedy is the Brigade S3 in the 1st Transportation Movement Control Agency in Kaiserslautern, Germany. He has a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Georgia and a master's degree in administration from Central Michigan University. He is a graduate of the Transportation Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, the Combined Arms and Services Staff School, and the Army Command and General Staff College.