The "Red Ball Express" -- Army Logistics Solutions During WWII and in Afghanistan
April 12, 2012
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (March 20, 2012) -- The success of any military mission depends on many factors, among these are the innovation and ingenuity of Soldiers on the ground. Better ways to complete the mission are sometimes adapted from lessons learned in past missions. In Afghanistan today, Soldiers have borrowed a technique that harkens back to World War II and the Allied invasion of Normandy, France.
Soldiers of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) needed to reduce the time it took to get critical helicopter repair parts to its five widely dispersed locations throughout Afghanistan. Any delay meant less available combat aircraft to the theater. Rough terrain and treacherous re-supply routes compounded the challenge. To meet the need, the 82nd CAB devised a logistical resupply approach that mimicked the successes of yesterday's Army to ensure the success of today's Army.
It's the summer of 1944. The Allied invasion of Europe is well underway. In fact, operations are going significantly better than expected. The invasion, which began on June 6, had struggled with stiff resistance during the push inland.
The last week of July witnessed a dramatic development as the Americans finally broke through the German lines and rapidly surged 25 miles inland. Success followed success, and the advance progressed far more rapidly than planners could have predicted.
As the divisions moved ever forward, a serious challenge threatened to stall the advance. That challenge was not the enemy -- the new challenge was the depth of the advance itself.
Following the surge through enemy lines, the advance out-paced the supply chain's ability to provide the much-needed sustainment, chiefly ammunition and fuel. The French railroads were badly damaged by the pre-invasion bombardment. The portable pipeline system had not been able to keep pace with the advancing mechanized forces.
The Army's leadership faced the realization that the forces must be resupplied or the advance come to a standstill. A solution must be found. The proper solution would maximize the limited transportation assets available, overcome infrastructure damage, and minimize en route time.
The plan, hammered out in an intense 36-hour brainstorming session, involved dedicated roadways authorized for use only by the resupply convoys. The routes would be identified by a series of signs painted with a red circle, or "ball." The vehicles authorized to use these routes would likewise be identified by a similar logo. Thus was born the "Red Ball Express."
Although the system operated less than 90 days (Aug. 25 to Nov. 16, 1944), it transported more than 500,000 tons of supplies. More importantly, it kept the offensive moving forward.
Fast forward a half-century. The Army is engaged in combat operations in an area of operations with outposts spread over expansive distances, supported by a primitive infrastructure. The road networks in Europe during the 1940s were superhighways compared to the road networks currently in Afghanistan.
Roads in the Hindu Kush Mountains are treacherous. Keeping troops resupplied in this terrain cannot rely on convoys moving tons of supplies. Further, using combat air power for required resupply missions puts a strain on ongoing combat aviation missions. A suitable solution to move supplies, maximize limited transportation assets, overcome the limited and hazardous infrastructure, and minimize en route time was needed.
As they did more than 50 years ago, a group of innovative Soldiers developed a simple but highly effective solution.
The current system, implemented by the 82d Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB), uses a small, commuter-type fixed-wing aircraft to ferry supplies and passengers throughout the Regional Command-East area.
Initially implemented to speed helicopter repair part delivery among the CAB's five widely dispersed major locations, the airplane now moves a wide assortment of supplies, passengers, and even the mail. This fixed-wing aircraft is able to travel more than 450 miles each day delivering many mission-essential parts and supplies. Moving parts by fixed-wing aircraft reduced tactical helicopter repair part delivery time from more than 48 hours to 17 hours. This accomplishment alone directly equates to increased combat power.
The fixed-wing aircraft does more than transport parts, though. The fixed-wing aircraft carries a cargo eagerly anticipated by Soldiers in remote locations -- the mail.
The fixed-wing aircraft is also valuable for moving soldiers from outpost to outpost. In four months of operation, the fixed-wing aircraft transported more than 2,000 Soldiers and civilians and more than 200 tons of cargo across the battlefield.
The Soldiers of the 82nd CAB have named the fixed-wing aircraft "the Red Ball Express" in honored remembrance of the World War II transportation solution and the vital importance it made in the warfighter's lives.
The success of the modern day logistician depends on their abilities to logistically sustain expeditionary forces.
During times of constraints, capability gaps are filled with synchronization, technology and often a lesson in history. The Red Ball Express provided a capability to speed the end to World War II.
The concept lives on today bringing support and comfort to soldiers fighting for freedom in remote outposts.
Additional sources for this article include Spc. Jamie Ramsdell, 82nd CAB.