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Integrating Coalition Logistics at the Tactical Level: The Combined Joint Distribution Cell in Afghanistan

Operation Mountain Thrust, the largest offensive operation in Afghanistan since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, began on 15 May 2006 with shaping operations by units of Combined/Joint Task Force-76 (CJTF–76) in Regional Command South (RC South). These shaping operations created an extraordinary strain on the coalition’s limited distribution assets. To coordinate the assets from multiple coalition forces, an organization was needed that could provide support at the tactical level similar to that provided at the strategic and operational levels by the U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM’s) Deployment and Distribution Operations Center. The answer was the Combined Joint Distribution Cell (CJDC). This prototype organization was developed to enable the efficient use of constrained coalition distribution assets and provide continuous synchronization and sustainment throughout the operation in a complex combined-joint environment.

Building the CJDC

Before the CJDC could be designed and built, planners had to identify the support it would be required to provide. The first challenge was to identify which commodities could be leveraged across the coalition.

Class I (subsistence) and water were obvious requirements, so a class I commodity manager was included in the CJDC. However, providing class III (petroleum, oils, and lubricants) posed a few problems. While United Kingdom forces use JP8—the standard American fuel for tactical vehicles—most other European militaries use diesel, and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) use both diesel and unleaded gasoline. These differences dictated that a fuel commodity manager would have to be added to the CJDC. Because the Afghans were still developing their munitions logistics capabilities, a class V (ammunition) commodity manager also was included to assist in managing and coordinating ANSF munitions. The last commodity manager added to the team was a class IX (repair parts) manager. This manager was needed because the harsh terrain and weather of Afghanistan and the anticipated battle losses in the inevitable fights to come would lead to a high demand for parts.

Identifying the personnel needed to distribute these commodities became the next focus in organizing the CJDC. Because planners lacked information on the routes and distances that coalition forces would need cover in Operation Mountain Thrust, aerial delivery would have to be the primary means of distribution. Accordingly, an Air Force logistics planner was placed on the CJDC staff to perform three roles—

  • Plan airdrops using the Containerized Delivery System.
  • Coordinate for fixed-wing aircraft to deliver sustainment to Kandahar for Operation Mountain Thrust.
  • Coordinate for rotary-wing aircraft to provide support for logistics operations.

The planners also included a host-nation trucking section in the CJDC to coordinate for host-nation support; this would streamline the process for supporting units by truck and maximize the use of finite trucking resources. The host-nation coordinator also served a second role: synchronizing and tracking all coalition logistics movements.

Overcoming Challenges

Once the CJDC was manned and deployed to support the maneuver operation, multiple challenges arose, both anticipated and unanticipated. Four primary challenges had to be overcome. These challenges stemmed from the fact that the CJDC was a new organization that executed logistics in a radically new way.

The first challenge was rooted in the fact that, in a coalition military environment, logistics support is, by doctrine, a national responsibility. This national orientation resulted in the creation of stovepipe national support structures, fostered redundant national logistics efforts, and blinded national logistics staffs to the capabilities and operations of other coalition forces. The second challenge also was typical of operations in a multinational environment: participating countries all placed “national caveats” on their forces, restricting what they could or could not do. Often, these caveats were polar opposites for the many countries working to solve logistics issues. The third challenge resulted from the need for the CJDC, as a new organization, to literally introduce itself, describe its capabilities, and sell its services to the units that it was going to support. Finally—and this would become an ongoing challenge
— the CJDC possessed no tasking authority over any assets; it could only facilitate and coordinate.

The CJDC’s unique mission required close coordination among the CJDC; the Afghan National Army (ANA); the Afghan National Police, the Combined/Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan; the Canadian, British, and Dutch Armies and Air Forces; U.S. and Australian Army aviation units; and the U.S. Air Force Air Expeditionary Group and Air Terminal Operations Center. While the U.S. National Support Element provided direct support to U.S. maneuver forces, the CJDC tied all the entities together to leverage coalition logistics capabilities, using economy of force, to meet all requirements in the most efficient manner.

In order to effectively support the warfighter, the CJDC focused on the five tactical logistics imperatives: integration, anticipation, improvisation, responsiveness, and continuity. These imperatives allowed the CJDC to coordinate support efficiently across the full spectrum of operations.

Integrating all distribution assets is critical to meeting the command and control challenges inherent in a multinational environment. Key personnel played a critical role in the effectiveness of the CJDC. These key personnel included the commander of the 330th Transportation Battalion (Movement Control) (Airborne)—who also served as the Joint Logistics Commander (Forward)—and S–3 staff, a U.S. Air Force logistics officer, key commodity managers from the Joint Logistics Command, the ANA Regional Command Assistance Group S–4, and British and Canadian Army noncommissioned officers.

Before the CJDC was established, each coalition force was responsible for its own logistics support. Few, if any, assets from one coalition force were being used to support another. So integrating logistics assets from one nation to support another broke new ground, and the CJDC initially faced many obstacles.

For instance, national caveats prevented the British from escorting host-nation trucks and British rotary-wing aircraft from flying to non-British forward operating bases (FOBs). (An FOB is a semipermanent camp that forces can establish rapidly; it enables warfighters to extend their operational area while providing a defensible perimeter and some minimal level of comfort.) The Canadians had no rotary-wing aircraft, and their nearest fixed-wing aircraft were based outside of the Combined/Joint Operations Area (CJOA). Still another example of the logistics difficulties facing the CJDC was using U.S. fixed-wing aircraft to support a U.S. FOB that was 15 kilometers away from a British FOB that was supported by British rotary-wing assets.

Preparing the Battlefield

The CJDC began planning to synchronize all coalition distribution assets by identifying what was available. The CJDC then began coordinating distribution operations using all of the coalition forces’ logistics assets.

The process began to work immediately. All of the coalition forces’ national support elements began coordinating directly with the CJDC for logistics- distribution and combined-logistics operations. British C–130s and helicopters began sustaining the U.S. 2–87 Infantry Battalion in the Baghran Valley. U.S. fixed-wing aircraft began moving British commodities to Camp Bastion, while Dutch C–130s began moving sustainment stocks to U.S. Forces at Tarin Kowt. A Canadian C–130, based at Kandahar, conducted several aerial resupply missions in support of U.S. Forces; these Containerized Delivery System missions were the first aerial resupply missions conducted by Canadian Forces since the Korean War.

For overland sustainment, the CJDC’s host-nation truck section coordinated truck support for all nations, becoming the single point of contact for procuring trucks to move rations, water, fuel, barrier materials, and major items.

A realistic and executable concept of support was paramount in this environment. While developing the concept of support for Operation Mountain Thrust, the CJDC anticipated that an intermediate staging base (ISB) would be required to support combat logistics patrols along the ground lines of communication (GLOC). Forward arming and refueling points were established along these routes to support distribution efforts. An agreement between the U.S. and British Forces allowed for each nation to be responsible for operating one forward arming and refueling point while being allowed to share use of the other.

Some distribution challenges were not to be easily overcome. To illustrate some of the challenges facing the CJDC, consider the following statistics—

  • Afghanistan is larger than Iraq—by 130,759 square miles—yet it has 22,126 fewer miles of paved roads.
  • Afghanistan has one-third as many intratheater C­130 or equivalent fixed-wing airlift as are found in Iraq.
  • Afghanistan is completely landlocked, while Iraq has three water ports.
  • Afghanistan has one aviation brigade (including coalition assets), while Iraq has two U.S. Army aviation brigades and six additional U.S. Army aviation battalions.

These statistics illustrate the distribution limitations and challenges that had to be overcome both by air and on the ground. Combat logistics patrols had not been used to a large extent before Operation Mountain Thrust. Use of rotary-wing assets was limited by the need to meet already existing sustainment requirements, and fixed-wing assets could not be used to their fullest extent because of a lack of forward landing strips and an Afghan infrastructure that was inadequate at best and nonexistent more often than not.

Executing Mountain Thrust

When the ground assault convoys of Operation Mountain Thrust began to move, they had limited firm engineer data and intelligence information on the routes to be traversed. The only information available came from satellite imagery, standard 1:50,000-scale maps, and aerial reconnaissance. The harshness of the terrain faced by the operation cannot be overemphasized.

U.S. forces began moving from Bagram, Konar, and Orgun-E, traveling between 300 and 700 kilometers to the provinces of Oruzgan, Kandahar, and Helmand in southern Afghanistan. Some units moved into areas that had not been occupied by coalition forces during any previous part of Operation Enduring Freedom. To ensure that the units had ample supplies on hand for the initial occupation of their forward positions, the CJDC coordinated to integrate host-nation trucks within the task force’s movements. The host-nation trucks moved rations, water, fuel, engineer equipment and light sets, which enabled the task force’s organic vehicles and forward support companies to move two ammunition basic loads and other sensitive items.

As maneuver operations continued, it became clear that the GLOC could not be secured on a consistent basis. The enemy situation along the GLOCs prompted the implementation of an improvised, multimodal hub-and-spoke distribution plan. Supply commodities flowed via fixed-wing aircraft into an ISB. Rotary-wing assets then were used for onward movement of those supplies to their final destination. U.S., British, and Canadian C–130s pushed assets to the ISB, and British and U.S. helicopters completed the onward movement from the ISB. Much of the cargo also was airdropped.

During decisive maneuver operations, the inevitable challenges arose and the CJDC responded quickly with the required capabilities. An example of these challenges was the recovery of a destroyed Canadian light armored vehicle. The harsh terrain prevented any Canadian assets from recovering the vehicle. U.S. and Canadian forces executed a joint patrol, but successful recovery of the vehicle eventually required a U.S. recovery vehicle.

The synchronization of all distribution assets served as a combat multiplier. A prime example involved Task Force Knighthawk, a multinational, mixed-asset aviation battalion to which two Australian CH–47 cargo helicopters were attached. This allowed for a seamless tasking chain that, in turn, maximized lift assets across the CJOA. The CJDC’s systems and processes provided more responsive support while reducing the overall aircraft operating tempo, risks to soldiers, and the logistics footprint.

Commodity and equipment use proved to be another hurdle to overcome. Two prime examples included fuel sustainment and the use of electronic countermeasure (ECM) devices. Fuel sustainment was a challenge for all coalition partners. The vast majority of fuel deliveries were conducted by host-nation contracted carriers, but these deliveries unfortunately were subject to considerable pilferage. At one point, almost half of all fuel being pushed to the British was being stolen. Of the fuel that reached its destination, only 80 to 90 percent could be downloaded because so many fuel delivery vehicles were in a state of disrepair. Coalition forces were unable to solve the problem by internal means (such as stamping forms and verifying signatures). The problem finally was solved with the issuance of a coalition-wide standing operating procedure that produced reliable upload and download data. These data enabled the contracting cell to charge for all missing fuel and deny payment for the mission to a carrier missing fuel. A positive side-effect was that the carriers began to enforce higher standards of conduct on their drivers in order to protect their profit margins.

The use of ECMs also required attention. Because of the enemy’s increasing reliance on improvised explosive devices, CJTF–76 directed that all elements operating outside of a base camp or FOB use ECMs. For those coalition forces that had been using ECMs for many years—primarily the U.S. and British forces—this requirement was easy to implement. The other coalition forces required assistance, which the CJDC swiftly coordinated to provide. The Dutch, Canadians, and Romanians did not have any ECM devices. To remedy this dilemma, the U.S. loaned out ECM systems to each national element (in accordance with the Acquisition Cross Servicing Agreement [ACSA]) until their national sustainment lines could provide organic systems. This solution had the added benefit of making the ECMs of those three partners (whose areas of operations bordered one another) completely compatible for joint and combined operations.

Upon the successful conclusion of Operation Mountain Thrust, the redeployment of assets also proved to be a challenge. To mitigate the existing transportation shortfalls, the CJDC coordinated assets to ensure synchronized support throughout the battlefield. One instance involved coordination with the Dutch Task Force for use of their lift assets to backhaul containers, with the U.S. Task Force providing container-handling support to the Dutch. Other agreements included transfer of multiple 50,000-gallon fuel bags with hoses and couplings to the Dutch at an outlying FOB, thus ensuring that bulk petroleum operations would continue. These reciprocal agreements were coordinated by the CJDC but documented through the use of the ACSA.

Lessons Observed

The ACSA proved to be a great combat multiplier because it allowed coalition and joint forces to use three different means of compensation: monetary, reciprocal service or supply, and reciprocal monetary-equivalent service or supply. This allowed for services and goods to be provided to all coalition members while streamlining the remuneration process. The built-in flexibility of being able to provide compensation through different means made cross-coalition support appealing as well as cost and time effective.

In order to set the stage for the eventual transition of the entire CJOA to the ANA, the CJDC conducted numerous coordination and cooperation events. The two primary events involved ANA riggers and senior officers from the ANA Central Movement Agency (CMA). The ANA riggers worked side by side with U.S. riggers to construct over 40 humanitarian assistance bundles. These trained ANA soldiers provided a skill set that was in short supply during the conduct of decisive operations. The event with the CMA provided the ANA an opportunity to observe and adopt the systems, processes, and procedures of the CJDC. These two events had an impact across the spectrum of operations. Strategically, the ANA was allowed to take a step closer to assuming the full duties of the war; operationally, the riggers prepared multiple bundles to be delivered by Container Delivery System; and tactically, the CMA soldiers were employed to directly support ANA units in the field. Once the transition of authority from coalition nations to the ANA begins in the near future, these skill sets will ensure that the process is smooth and efficient.

The CJTF–76 Combined Joint Distribution Cell integrated multiple coalition partners to sustain maneuver forces in Operation Mountain Thrust, which gave the task forces operational flexibility and the ability to maintain momentum throughout their successful attacks. The CJDC used economies of scale by integrating all coalition logistics assets at their disposal while constantly anticipating requirements. The CJDC responded well to the challenges of supporting mobile maneuver forces in extremely austere locations with diverse resources while gaining invaluable experience for upcoming coalition logistics operations. Like CENTCOM’s Deployment and Distribution Operations Center at the strategic and operational levels, the CJDC provides an excellent model for future integration of coalition logistics at the tactical level.

Lieutenant Colonel Courtney Taylor is the Commander of the 330th Movement Control Battalion, 10th Sustainment Brigade, in Operation Enduring Freedom. He has served in troop leadership and staff positions as a logistics officer in three divisions and the 1st Corps Support Command. He holds an M.S. degree in logistics management from the Florida Institute of Technology.

Captain Leonard B. Della-Moretta III is the Assistant Operations Officer of the 330th Movement Control Battalion. A Transportation Corps Officer who was branch detailed to the Infantry, he holds a B.A. degree in political science and international relations from the University of Kansas.