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The Distribution Dilemma: That Last Tactical Mile

The mountain of unopened containers and stockpiled supplies left in the wake of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (ODS) in 1990 and 1991 proved that our antiquated logistics systems required a complete overhaul. The economic conditions and the downsized military structures of the post-Cold War period required a refined and more responsive logistics architecture to serve the next generation of military operations more efficiently. Army leaders looked at successful commercial enterprises—companies such as Federal Express (FedEx), United Parcel Service (UPS), and a host of others—for potential answers. Catchy business phrases like “just in time logistics,” “logistics pipeline,” and “end-to-end distribution” rapidly surfaced during the 1990s. But did commercial practices offer suitable models for military operations? While many believed so, the daunting logistics failures in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) demonstrated the limitations of end-to-end distribution in the military, particularly in that portion of the process we call “the last tactical mile.”

The purpose of this article is to examine the application of commercial business models to military operations, identify some key shortfalls, and recommend potential solutions to resolving the last tactical mile dilemma Army logistics forces faced in OIF and will likely face again unless the Army changes its processes.

The Problem: Desert Storm’s Iron Mountains

We must first look at the catalyst for change in Army logistics. We need to conduct a brief background examination of logistics problems revealed by ODS and the solutions the Army applied in its wake that proved to be inadequate.

Our country has always answered the call and flexed its industrial might when faced with global, and even internal, conflicts. In times of war, the Nation’s capacity to produce, ship, and build incredible stockpiles of wartime goods has been unprecedented and unmatched anywhere in the world. We have relied on our ability to produce and stockpile mountains of materiel to overwhelm any enemy.

Despite General Norman Schwarzkopf’s intent to do things differently, ODS was no exception. Schwarzkopf wanted to avoid creating the large “rear area log bases like the ones at Long Binh and Qui Nhon that he remembered from Vietnam.”1 He believed that large logistics bases limited operational flexibility and reach and subjected long logistics tails to the risk of interdiction. Yet the decisions Schwarzkopf and other operational commanders made in planning and sourcing ODS did exactly that. Their sequencing of combat elements before combat service support elements on the time-phased force deployment document (TPFDD) meant that large quantities of equipment and supplies arrived in theater with only a small logistics support infrastructure on the ground to process and distribute them in theater.2

By the end of September 1990, in the early stages of Desert Shield, “some 17,450 tracked and wheeled vehicles, 450 aircraft and 1,521 sea land containers had been discharged at air and sea ports.”3 But appropriate cargo documentation teams and logistics organizations had yet to deploy. Without the ability to document items coming into the theater or to push them forward, backlogged airports and seaports became massive holding areas for cargo, with little room for more. Schwarzkopf made this already problematic logistics infrastructure worse when he ordered that a 60-day supply of ammunition be available in theater.4 The “iron mountain” so often used to describe logistics in ODS was formed.

These decisions significantly affected the ability of anyone to account for what was actually on the ground in theater or to determine what was not there but should have been. Many units believed the supply system had failed and reordered supplies until, at some point, they arrived. These requisitions created additional burdens on an already bogged down logistics and distribution system. “Once logistical support units began to arrive in theater and the supply system graduated from a ‘push’ to a sustainment mode the supply units began to get some visibility of the supplies being stored at the ports.”5

But the iron mountain obstacle endured. After the war, it took Army logisticians over a year to sort through the chaos and identify the contents of the containers stacked at the ports. The costs associated with shipping, storing, accounting for, and returning this mountain of unused supplies and equipment warranted investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO) and served as a change engine to prevent such waste in the future.

The Perceived Solution: Velocity Management


Once the Army recognized it had a logistics problem requiring serious attention, it sought the best mechanisms for change. Army leaders looked to the RAND Corporation to assess its logistics failures and recommend potential solutions.6 According to the GAO report on ODS distribution, the Army’s problems did not stem from an inability to get supplies to the theater; they resulted from an inability to capture visibility of incoming supplies and from difficulties in distributing supplies to units arriving in theater. The RAND study agreed. Army organizational structures lacked the cargo classification assets, transportation, and distribution management resources to receive and keep supplies and equipment flowing forward. Large stockpiles of materiel meant little if they could not be delivered to their intended users. The Army logistics system was “unreliable, inefficient, unresponsive to changing customer needs, and expensive.”7

The RAND study concluded that commercial distribution processes used by FedEx and UPS appeared to be likely models for resolving the Army’s distribution woes. These companies operated efficient distribution centers that routed and tracked a constant flow of parcels in a process termed “velocity management.” This modern business model could improve the efficiency and accuracy of receiving centers to facilitate timely distribution forward. Streamlined, just-in-time logistics with interconnected distribution centers would replace cumbersome, costly stockpiles.

The Army believed that RAND’s velocity management model was the answer to the issues raised by ODS, and it accordingly implemented change in selected organizations.

Testing the Solution: Early Success

The test organizations appeared to validate the velocity management initiative as it “succeeded beyond all expectation.”8 Costs of storage dropped dramatically as supplies stayed in motion through this perceived logistics pipeline from depot-level centers to supply support activities and end-users. A subsequent RAND study showed significant increases in readiness levels and repair times because order accuracy and fulfillment increased, allowing parts to arrive in half the time it had taken using the Army’s antiquated distribution mechanisms.9 The increase in performance, efficiency, quality, and reduced costs warranted application of velocity management principles Army-wide. Before the end of the 1990s, the business terminology and techniques associated with velocity management had permeated the service and “brought a new way of doing business to the Army.”10

Could this business model endure the challenges of combat operations? At first, it appeared so, as operations in Kosovo benefited from streamlined, responsive logistics.11 However, the conditions in the Balkans, such as the presence of adequate airfields and infrastructure and short lines of communication (LOCs), more readily facilitated the application of just-in-time logistics than would be possible in less developed theaters.12 The true challenge for velocity management came in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Afghanistan presented the worst conditions for logisticians and velocity management. The limited infrastructure and poor LOCs of Afghanistan could strain even the best logistics system, but surprisingly, they did not. It appeared velocity management had endured combat conditions.

Iraq: Velocity Management Fails

Why, then, did the principles of velocity management fail so miserably just 1 year later in OIF? Did the size and scope of the conflict and the forces on the ground in Iraq, compared to the limited specialized forces deployed to Afghanistan, make that much of a difference? Undeniably yes, but the technologies the Army developed over the last decade should have eliminated the mass quantities of supplies and containers that paralyzed logistics in ODS. Despite the successes of the previous decade, the Iraqi theater almost immediately experienced “a backlog of hundreds of pallets and containers of materiel at various distribution points due to transportation constraints and inadequate asset visibility.”13

Even more disturbing, the same force-sequencing issues that plagued Schwarzkopf in ODS immediately overwhelmed logistics under General Tommy Franks in OIF. The studies and doctrine developed in the wake of ODS addressed the importance of having logistics organizations and architecture on the ground at key ports and nodes early on, but they were widely ignored at the beginning of OIF and the technologies we had developed were used ineffectively. Again, our credibility as professionals came under scrutiny as Congress lost confidence in the military’s ability to provide logistics on the modern battlefield. These failures were so obvious that immediate measures were necessary to correct the problem. However, the proposed solutions likely will not resolve the problems encountered in OIF (which, remarkably, were identical to those encountered in ODS).

On 18 December 2003, GAO concluded that the “failure to effectively apply lessons learned from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and other military operations may have contributed to the logistics support problems encountered during OIF.”14 The report cited inadequate communications, data system incompatibility, and a lack of training for military personnel as the major contributors to poor asset visibility. The report also cited insufficient transportation and cargo-handling assets to move materials from ports and distribution centers and additional delays resulting from separating and repacking containers and pallets several times for delivery to multiple units in theater.15 The most startling finding of the report was the cold fact that “logistics personnel and equipment did not deploy to the theater until after combat troops arrived, and, in fact, most Army [logistics] personnel did not arrive until after major combat operations were underway.”16 Sadly, these were almost identical to the major logistics failures in ODS.

Another Solution: Expanding TRANSCOM’s Role


GAO indicated that the Department of Defense (DOD) concurred with its findings and was “already taking a number of actions that address some of them.”17 Of particular interest is the role of the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) in resolving the problems in distribution management. “The Secretary of Defense designated the U.S. Transportation Command as a single distribution process owner [DPO] to address problems with the distribution process that hampered DOD’s ability to optimally support deployed forces.”18

Is TRANSCOM the right agency to resolve the logistics issues that plagued the U.S. military in OIF? At first, it would appear so given TRANSCOM’s lead over the agencies responsible for moving defense materials across the globe. TRANSCOM’s arsenal of services to facilitate distribution includes the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, and the Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command. On 17 August 2007, TRANSCOM also added the commercial carrier services of Menlo Worldwide Government Services, LLC, in a lucrative long-term contract “to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of DOD freight movements in the continental United States.”19

As the agency that provides “air, land and sea transportation for the Department of Defense, both in time of peace and time of war,”20 it makes sense for TRANSCOM to manage the distribution networks that support combatant commanders throughout the world. However, as the DPO, TRANSCOM has become DOD’s supply chain manager and thus responsible “for the entire distribution process,” not just their old “fort to port” portion. TRANSCOM is “expanding supply chain visibility and . . . crafting a true sense-and-respond logistics reach all the way back to suppliers and forward to the point of the spear in combat.”21 The idea that TRANSCOM serves as the supply chain manager fails to address the actual problem with end-to-end distribution. Aside from generating a new buzzword, “sense-and-respond logistics,” its newly touted “factory to foxhole” service does not resolve the distribution issue faced in OIF, of “hundreds of pallets, containers, and boxes of excess supplies and equipment” stuck at the ports and distribution centers in Kuwait and Iraq.22

Identifying the Problem: Theater Distribution

To achieve a real solution to the Army’s battlefield distribution woes, we must look at the real issues that created them. Of all the inquiries, reports, studies, and conclusions drawn from logistics operations in OIF, not one identified strategic distribution as the problem in getting
the warfighter his critical needs. Yet TRANSCOM, a strategic-level DOD agency, became responsible for fixing the OIF logistics problem. Based on the observations of leaders in theater and on GAO’s assessment described above, the key logistics deficiencies requiring a solution were—

  • Poor asset visibility.
  • Insufficient and ineffective theater distribution capability.
  • Failure to apply “lessons learned” from prior operations.
  • Other logistics issues (outside the scope of this paper).

Of all of these issues, the one TRANSCOM could influence most is poor asset visibility, but only from a systems standardization and integration perspective. As seen in the many references to a disconnect in the “seams” between the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of logistics, TRANSCOM management of the Global Transportation Network and integration of data from existing Standard Army Management Information Systems could provide effective locality information on supplies and equipment (and personnel) moving through the theater. TRANSCOM’s value in systems integration has proven valid.

However, the real asset visibility issue experienced in OIF was the inability of Soldiers to use available systems effectively. Basic operator training at the critical user level was limited at best, or even nonexistent for most Reserve component Soldiers (who constitute much of our sustainment force structure). This lack of training directly affected data input at the basic (tactical) level, which prevented logisticians at the operational level from obtaining an accurate picture of items in or moving through the theater. A strategic-level agency cannot possibly resolve basic training skills for Soldiers at the tactical level. DOD has unfortunately fixated on the asset visibility problem. More and better technology will not resolve the actual asset visibility issue.

Surprisingly, “insufficient and ineffective theater distribution capability” is the problem TRANSCOM is least likely to resolve. The presence of theater distribution problems following an operation was not new for the Army. Immediately following ODS, reports quickly pointed to a lack of transportation assets to move supplies and equipment on the battlefield. Despite the Army’s overwhelming improvements in velocity
management in the 1990s, it had still failed to address the problem of not having enough trucks in the force structure to move equipment and supplies on the battlefield. “Lack of transportation was one of the major reasons that distribution was such a challenge in OIF.”23 GAO concurred with this view when it concluded that “adequate transportation assets, such as cargo trucks and materiel handling equipment, were not available within the theater of operations.”24 The commercial business practices the Army adopted with RAND by its side proved prudent in garrison, but they did little to fix this continuing problem in combat operations.

As if it were not obvious enough, the Army failed as an organization to fix what it knew had been amiss since ODS. GAO concluded that many of the issues observed following ODS appeared to recur in OIF. Combat forces, supplies, and equipment arrived in theater before adequate logistics forces and infrastructure were in place; forces lacked sufficient transportation assets to move materials; and despite great improvements (and expense), the military ineffectively used automation to orchestrate the movement of materials in theater.

In August 2005, GAO completed another report on DOD logistics. It listed logistics problems encountered in ODS and OIF side by side for comparison. The deficiencies were almost identical. GAO concluded—


Long-standing problems in DOD’s distribution system have continued to impede its ability to provide effective and timely logistics support to the warfighter during recent operations. Such problems occurred during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1991, and DOD after action reports, as well as studies by our office and other organizations, have documented similar supply distribution problems during Operation Iraqi Freedom.25


The Army’s “lessons learned from logistics were noted and never corrected.”26

Real Solutions: Bridging the Last Tactical Mile

The Army temporarily resolved many of the logistics issues experienced during the initial stages of OIF, but only because the theater settled into a relatively stable environment with established distribution nodes and ample contractors to resolve organizational deficiencies. However, the Army and DOD must face the reality of problems they encountered and invoke real solutions before the next major military operation. The following recommendations are not all-inclusive, but they do address the major logistics issues described above and offer a logical opportunity for correction at the appropriate organizational level.

Issues with asset visibility will not go away with more systems or radio frequency identification tags on the battlefield. Existing technologies are appropriate for their intended use. DOD should allow technology to evolve naturally and not force the continual integration of the latest invention before operators fully understand the capabilities of the last. Doing so creates inconsistencies and incompatibilities in equipment; it also creates differences in experience using available systems between forces rotating in and out of theater and between Active and Reserve Component units.

In its role as the DPO, TRANSCOM should establish one asset visibility standard for all of the armed services to adopt, including systems, use of technology, marking, processing, and handling of items moving through the logistics pipeline. The current pure-pallet procedures used at Defense Depot Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, are well suited for accurate asset visibility and should continue to be used for all Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) services. In their Title 10 role as force trainers, the armed services should educate their personnel and leaders across all components on this TRANSCOM-designated single asset visibility system, including marking, processing, and handling of items.

Resolving issues with insufficient and ineffective theater distribution capability requires two separate actions. The first action is providing more trucks. In OIF, “there simply were not enough cargo trucks to meet all of the demands.”27 More contractors on the battlefield are only a temporary solution, and in many cases they are unreliable.28 Current Army modularity initiatives will not resolve the shortage of trucks, nor will moving forces on and off existing transportation platforms. Although it is an effective piece of equipment, the palletized load system, with its flat-rack distribution capability, does not add more trucks to the inventory. The theater sustainment commands must have additional trucks and truck companies to facilitate the movement of commodities through the theater, and they must have them on the ground much earlier. Combatant commanders should arrange the TPFDD so distribution assets arrive in theater before major combat forces and their accouterments. All evidence from OIF indicates that combat forces would have been more effective earlier if their supplies and equipment had been received and distributed in theater more effectively.

The second action requires the Army to change its distribution force structure at the lowest level possible. Current DLA initiatives to establish theater distribution centers facilitate movement from the strategic and operational levels to the tactical, but they fall short once commodities enter the tactical distribution channels, at the “seam” between entities commonly called “the last tactical mile.” Movement control teams (MCTs) do not actually “control” the movement of forces along LOCs. Another oddity in distribution force structure is that the Army does not have a table of organization and equipment (TOE) for convoy support centers (CSCs), yet it builds such centers in every conflict to facilitate movement along long LOCs.

CSCs should become doctrinal organizations; they should be established at points along LOCs and include MCTs that maintain electronic visibility of commodities moving through the CSCs, thereby creating battlefield distribution centers.29 “We might term the core set of battlefield distribution tasks ‘physical distribution management.’ It is about running the DC [distribution center] rather than planning what is in it and where it is, more tactical and operational than strategic.”30 Satellite systems track convoys through the Movement Tracking System (MTS) but do not facilitate the movement of commodities through the logistics pipeline. Active management of convoys at CSCs with MCTs would.

Finally, the issue of failing to act on lessons learned is a difficult one to acknowledge, but it is the easiest to resolve. The studies of the critical logistics failures are recorded in history and available for review. Of particular interest is the August 2005 GAO report that lists ODS and OIF logistics shortfalls side by side for comparison. The initiatives taken in the decade following ODS and the failures in OIF demonstrated that commercial business models, while efficient in garrison, were not as effective on the battlefield. RAND, despite its direct involvement in the business initiatives of the 1990s that failed on the battlefield, provided a detailed analysis of shortfalls with viable solutions in their 2005 study, Sustainment of Army Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Army’s use of commercial business models improved logistics significantly over the “iron mountain” inefficiencies of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. However, these initiatives did not produce the force structure and assets needed to prevent recurrence of ODS-type problems in subsequent operations, as shown by the repeat of many of the same logistics failures in OIF. The limitations of end-to-end distribution, particularly in the “last tactical mile,” have been demonstrated. If the Army does not address the shortfalls identified in ODS and again in OIF and institute changes below the strategic level, its logistics forces may well face the distribution dilemma of the last tactical mile again.
ALOG

Major Kevin F. Daniels, USAR, is the future operations officer for the 75th Division in Houston, Texas. He is a graduate of the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course, Combined Logistics Captains Career Course, Support Operations Course, Combined Arms and Services School, Theater Logistics Studies Program, and the Army Command and General Staff College. He wrote this essay for the Theater Logistics Studies Program.

1 Robert Scales, Certain Victory: The US Army in the Gulf War (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, 1994), p. 58.

2 U.S. General Accounting Office Report Number NSIAD-92-20, Desert Storm Supply Distribution (Washington: U.S. General Accounting Office, 1991), p. 8.

3 Scales, p. 75.

4 Ibid., p. 81.

5 GAO Report, Desert Storm Supply Distribution, p. 4.

6 Paul W. Rodgers, Major, USA, “Battlefield Distribution: A Systems Thinking Perspective.” (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Army Command and General Staff College, May 2005), p. 13.

7 John Dumond et al., Velocity Management: The Business Paradigm That Has Transformed U.S. Army Logistics (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001), available on line at http://www.rand.org/pubs/
monograph_reports/MR1108/MR1108.sum.pdf
), p. ix.

8 Ibid., p. iii.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Rodgers, p. 14.

12 Ibid., p. 15.

13 U.S. General Accounting Office Report Number Report 04-305R, Defense Logistics ((Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Accounting Office, 2003), p. 2.

14 Ibid., p. 4.

15 Ibid., p. 3.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., p. 6.

18 Ibid.

19 U.S. Transportation Command News Service, “USTRANSCOM Announces Award of Defense Transportation Coordination Initiative Contract,” available at http://www.transcom.mil/pa/
body.cfm?relnumber=070817-1
.

20 U.S. Transportation Command Website, Mission, http://www.transcom.mil/organization.cfm, accessed 3 October 2007.

21 Ibid.

22 GAO Report, Defense Logistics, p. 2.

23 Rodgers, p. 36.

24 GAO Report, Defense Logistics, p. 3.

25 U.S. General Accounting Office Report Number 05-775, DOD Has Begun to Improve Supply Distribution Operations, but Further Actions Are Needed to Sustain These Efforts, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Accounting Office, August 2005), p. 6.

26 Eric P. Shirley, Major, USA, “Army Battlefield Distribution Through the Lens of OIF: Logistical Failures and the Way Ahead,” (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, January 2005), p. 59.

27 Eric Peltz, Marc Robbins, Kenneth Girardini, et al., Sustainment of Army Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005), p. xiii.

28 GAO Report, Defense Logistics, p. 5.

29 RAND concluded that the Army needed distribution center units and battlefield distribution centers to improve theater distribution. The recommended CSCs would meet the requirements of their finding at the lowest level possible. See RAND study, Sustainment of Army Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom, p. xvii and 10.

30 Eric Peltz, “Logistics: Supply Based or Distribution Based?” Army Logistician, March-April 2007, accessed on line at http://www.alu.army.mil/alog/issues/Mar-Apr07/supply_vs_dist.html