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Transforming Strategic Mobillity

Unorthodox Thoughts About Asymmetric Warfare

The Quartermaster Corps - Embracing Logistics Transformation

The Objective Force: A Holistic Approach To Army Transformation

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Lt. Col. Kenneth E. Hickins
Army Logistician
May-June 2003

Military Sealift Command crane ship SS Gopher State offloads equipment onto the pier during Exercise Cobra Gold 2003

Air Force loadmasters on a C-17 Globemaster III double-check the cargo nets securing medical supplies being delivered to Uzbekistan in support of Operation Provide Hope
Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth E. Hickins is a plans officer in the Office of the J-4, U.S. European Command, in Stuttgart, Germany. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska at Kearney and a master's degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College's College of Naval Command and Staff. He is a graduate of the Armor Officer Basic Course and the Quartermaster Officer Advanced Course.

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Transforming Strategic Mobility

Over the past two decades, the security environment of the world has changed immeasurably. The United States has become the undisputed world leader militarily, diplomatically, and economically. As the United States moves into the 21st century, it finds itself not only fighting a war on terror but also losing political credibility because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its policy toward Iraq, and a floundering world economy. The Bush administration faces an unstable and unpredictable world in which the United States is a country others want to either emulate or target.

Stung several times over the past decade by its inability to project forces swiftly to scenes of conflict, the Army now is engaged in one of the most remarkable and critical transformations it has ever undertaken. The heart of the transformation is to increase the speed at which the Army can project the combat power of brigades and divisions to any point of conflict around the globe.

Since the United States reduced its forward presence overseas at the end of the Cold War, the centerpiece of U.S. defense strategy has been power projection-the ability to rapidly and effectively deploy and sustain military forces in dispersed locations. Complementing overseas presence, power projection strives for unconstrained global reach. Global power projection provides our national leaders with the options they need to respond to potential crises.

Except for the Army, the U.S. joint team—the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Forces—needs little adaptation to be able to deploy in a short time. Together, the Navy and Marines make up an expeditionary force capable of projecting fighting power onto land from a base of operations at sea that is free of the operational constraints imposed by the need for air and sea ports of debarkation. Moreover, they are configured, organized, trained, and employed as a combined-arms force—a small joint force in itself—capable of independent operations for a limited period. With forward positioning at sea near potential conflicts, they provide combatant commanders a means of applying military power to influence a crisis from its inception.

The Air Force also has adapted itself into a versatile force designed for expeditionary operations and the application of air power in virtually any set of conditions around the globe. The Air Force, while dependent on the U.S. Transportation Command, has adapted to meet the demands of rapid force projection required to meet a combatant commander's expectations despite constraints caused by limited availability of bases and basing rights within various regions. Special Operations Forces have been configured and designed for rapid force projection from the outset.

The Army is completely dependent on the Navy and Air Force (including the Civil Reserve Air Fleet) to project its forces into the fray. Moreover, the Army's speed of deployment is a function of several factors—

  • The current size and weight of Army units and warfighting equipment.
  • The availability of large transport aircraft.
  • The availability of large cargo ships.
  • The availability of secure air and sea ports of debarkation.
  • The availability of secure air and sea lines of communication inside and outside the joint operational area.

These factors, individually or combined, have limited the joint team's ability to get land power into the fight at a speed that allows a combatant commander to influence the crisis before the actual conflict and post-conflict stages.

The Army offers little to a combatant commander in his efforts to forestall, deter, de-escalate, or contain a crisis. Yet, inevitably, the Army must be deployed to achieve any decisive outcome on land. Although the growing number of stability operations around the globe amply demonstrates this, the Army's full coercive and persuasive value remains unrealized. The discouraging fact is that a combatant commander cannot put all of the joint team on the field. This condition limits his options and denies him the ability to employ the full combat potential of the joint team.

Strategic mobility has many diverse problems across the strategic mobility triad, which comprises airlift, sealift, and pre-positioned equipment. Each leg of the triad depends on the others, and each has inherent weaknesses. Strategic airlift is composed of military airlift and commercial aircraft. The 2001 Annual Report to the President and the Congress projected that, by the end of fiscal year 2001, the military airlift fleet would comprise approximately 90 C-17s, 88 C-141s, 104 C-5s, and 418 C-130s. The C-17 is replacing the C-141. Currently, 120 C-17s are funded and 180 C-17s are authorized, with a goal of acquiring 222. The General Accounting Office and the Air Force agree that the military is 17 to 30 percent short of its required airlift. All of the combatant commanders list strategic airlift in their top five priorities.

Other factors, such as maintenance posture, airfield throughput capability, and level of airfield modernization, exacerbate the strategic airlift problem. While it is true that the C-17 can land on airfields that are well below optimal standards, the unloading capabilities of these airfields must be closely scrutinized.

For example, the Army conducted an internal study to determine the time it would take to deploy the new Stryker brigade combat team (SBCT) from McChord Air Force Base, Washington, to Pristina Airfield in Kosovo. The study determined that it would take 12.7 days to deploy an SBCT. With perfect weather, increased maximum-on-ground at intermediate airfields, and a 24-hour all-weather capability at Pristina, the best-case scenario was 7.5 days for the unit to close on its objective. More importantly, to accomplish this mobilization, all available military airlift would be in use. During a crisis, competition for available airlift is intense, thereby limiting the Army's ability to build land power within a theater.

It is clear that the U.S. military will fight as a joint force in any future operations. The Air Force has its own requirements that must be considered along with the Army's. The Air Force has stated a desire to move five aerospace expeditionary forces in 15 days, which will impose an even greater constraint on the Army's ability to deploy solely by air. Availability and competition for airlift assets will further limit the combatant commander's ability to deter, contain, or quickly and decisively resolve a regional conflict.

The second leg of the triad, sealift, has proven that it can move tremendous amounts of materiel; but it moves it slowly, and modern ports are needed to discharge cargo.

The final leg of the mobility triad, pre-positioning, is composed of the afloat pre-positioning force (APF) and land-based pre-positioned equipment. The advantage provided by the size of the ships in the APF is also a disadvantage because it limits the choice of ports. In addition, the amount of equipment these ships carry must be taken into account; the space needed for reception, staging, onward movement, and integration is immense. Land-based pre-positioning programs are maintained in Europe, Southwest Asia, Korea, and the Pacific. The problem with land-based pre-positioned stocks is that they are difficult to move to other geographic locations.

To make the Army more responsive, each leg of the triad must be analyzed. Moving forces, repositioning equipment, and increasing airlift with the use of the C-17 are components of the solution to the strategic mobility problem. High-speed lift is the key component that allows the Army to become more responsive and bridges the strategic mobility gap.

Each leg of the triad has its own proponents who believe that, given enough money, they can fix the strategic mobility problem. The proponents of airlift propose buying as many as 222 C-17s to fix the problem. Proponents of sealift want more fast-ship sealift and more high-speed sealift. Proponents of pre-positioning want more land-based and afloat pre-positioned stocks. However, an analysis of the problem that extracts the correct criteria from the combatant commanders and the services' requirements quickly reveals that no one leg of the triad can solve the dilemma.

The criteria developed from this analysis are speed into theater, readiness of forces on arrival in theater, force mix into theater, and logistics footprint of the forces. To meet these criteria, a combination of means and assets from all three legs of the triad is required to deploy all of the joint forces to a theater of operations and build combat power effectively and quickly.

The Army is the military service that is hurt most by the current state of the mobility triad. The Army is composed of 10 divisions—6 heavy, 3 light, and 1 air assault. It currently is transforming a portion of its forces into seven medium-weight brigades to be located as follows: two at Fort Lewis, Washington; one in Hawaii; one in Alaska; one in Pennsylvania (National Guard); one in Europe; and one medium cavalry regiment at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The Army is designed around power projection that relies heavily on pre-positioned equipment. Currently, the Army's afloat pre-positioning is designed to provide equipment to establish a land logistics base and support heavy ground forces that can operate ashore along extended lines of communication. Equipment for two mechanized infantry battalions and two armor battalions is loaded on large, medium-speed, roll-on-roll-off vessels (LMSRs). Pre-positioned stocks also include port-opening watercraft and containerships loaded with all classes of supplies. The Combat Pre-positioning Force is located primarily at Diego Garcia, with some assets in Guam aboard LMSRs. The Army's goal is to have eight brigade sets pre-positioned afloat.

A look at each area of responsibility reveals that the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has, in addition to the afloat pre-positioned equipment, a brigade set in Kuwait and one more with equipment in Qatar. The U.S. European Command (EUCOM) has three heavy brigades' worth of equipment; two are located in central Europe and one in Italy. The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) has a heavy brigade set in Korea.

To become a viable and relevant option for the combatant commanders, the Army must continue to restructure itself to be more responsive. To do this, the Army must not only become lighter but it also must take another look at the placement of its pre-positioned equipment and its forward-deployed forces.

One possible way to become more responsive would be to deactivate the two forward brigades in Central Europe, move the equipment to LMSRs, and station them in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy with the brigade that is already there. The pre-positioned brigade set in Italy also would be uploaded onto LMSRs. The brigade sets that are already in Europe would remain there to provide assurance to the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that the United States is not moving out of the region. The medium brigade proposed for Europe should be located in Italy. This would provide the EUCOM combatant commander a division's worth of heavy equipment afloat capable of moving anywhere in his area of responsibility quickly and provide quick access to this equipment to CENTCOM should the need arise. In addition to the afloat equipment, there are still the two heavy brigades of pre-positioned equipment in Central Europe and a medium brigade in Italy that can react anywhere in the EUCOM area of responsibility within hours.

The PACOM commander will benefit greatly from the Army's transition to medium brigades since two will be at Fort Lewis, one will be in Alaska, and one will be in Hawaii. To provide the PACOM combatant commander even greater flexibility, two brigade sets should be loaded onto theater support vessels (TSVs) off the west coast of Australia and another brigade set should be loaded on TSVs off the coast of Japan. Diego Garcia should retain the brigade set it already has on LMSRs, and an additional set uploaded onto TSVs should join it.

CENTCOM would retain the flexibility it currently enjoys but also would benefit from the proposed changes in PACOM and EUCOM.

The last unified command to be affected would be the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). The Army's transition places a medium cavalry unit, the 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment, at Fort Polk. By placing seven TSVs in the Gulf of Mexico, the SOUTHCOM combatant commander would gain a heavy punch throughout Central and South America that would complement the light forces available from the continental United States. This heavy option could move anywhere within the Caribbean basin within 48 hours.

The results of the changes would leave land pre-positioned heavy brigade sets as follows: two in Central Europe, one in Korea, one in Kuwait, and one in Qatar. The afloat pre-positioning stocks would have one heavy brigade set on LMSRs and one on TSVs at Diego Garcia, three heavy brigade sets on LMSRs off the coast of Italy, two heavy brigade sets on TSVs off the west coast of Australia, and one off the coast of Japan. Additionally, the medium brigades located in Hawaii, Italy, and at Fort Polk and one medium brigade at Fort Lewis would have TSVs collocated to facilitate movement to any hot spots. This configuration results in five brigade sets on land, eight afloat brigade sets (compared to one currently), and four medium brigades equipped with TSVs. The military will need to procure 12 LMSRs and 56 TSVs to get these forces afloat.

As with any concept, this one has limitations. Secure sea lanes between sea ports of embarkation and debarkation would have to be a precondition for employment. Protection from air, surface, and subsurface threats would have to be provided, to include mine-clearing operations, particularly at strategic chokepoints, at port approaches, or in the vicinity of coastal landing sites. Rendezvous and refueling of TSVs at sea also may be required. Ports or landing sites would have to be secured and cleared before disembarking a brigade, much like the critical tasks associated with Marine amphibious operations.

Repositioning either actual forces or pre-positioned forces has diplomatic implications both at home and internationally. Moving the two heavy brigades out of Europe could send the wrong message to U.S. allies and enemies. The point must be made that NATO is strong enough to meet the military needs of Central Europe, but the United States still has two brigade sets that it quickly could fall in on. A strong message also should be sent reaffirming the United States' intentions to stay engaged in the region with the three brigade sets afloat off the coast of Italy and the medium brigade on the ground in Italy. These forces would show the world that the United States is involved and positioned to react quickly and decisively in Europe, Africa, the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, or the Middle East through the Suez Canal. The afloat pre-positioned forces in Diego Garcia would allow the combatant commanders the flexibility to react quickly at different locations and keep enemies off balance.

The changes proposed in and around the Pacific Rim would send three clear messages. First, the United States would remain engaged in its own backyard. Second, the changes would assure U.S. allies in that region that the Pacific Rim is a very important area and has the United States' utmost attention. Finally, it would deter and dissuade any regional power by overmatching any capability in the region. Keeping the afloat equipment near Japan and Australia would allow the PACOM combatant commander greater flexibility without provoking China.

The results of this force reconfiguration would allow the combatant commander to introduce a substantial amount of land power within 4 to 6 days of receiving a deployment order by decreasing the time required for reception, staging, onward movement, and integration and for transit. Not only special forces, rangers, or light infantry but also a hard-hitting mobile force of medium brigades could arrive ready to fight. As the medium brigades secured the air and sea ports of debarkation, the afloat brigades would arrive on the LMSRs and join the troops flown in, thereby achieving the Army Chief of Staff's vision—move a medium brigade anywhere in the world in 96 hours, deploy a division in 120 hours, and deploy five divisions in 30 days.

The biggest obstacle to achieving the Chief's vision is the services' self-interest. The Air Force is adamant about fielding 222 C-17s at a cost of $237.7 million each. The Air Force would argue that this is the key to fixing the strategic mobility dilemma. However, the war in Afghanistan has shown that relying solely on airlift has severe limitations.

With the entire airlift fleet in use in Operation Enduring Freedom, what will happen if another contingency arises? Sixty percent of the politically significant urban areas around the world are located within 25 miles of coastlines, and 75 percent are located within 150 miles of coastlines. The cost of procuring enough C-17s to provide adequate lift is prohibitive. However, a theater support vessel will cost between $65 million and $85 million and have 12 times the cargo capacity of the C-17. Procuring 42 more C-17s than the 180 currently authorized would cost roughly $9.9 billion. On the other hand, it would cost only $6.5 billion to procure 56 high-speed TSVs and 12 LMSRs. Thus, adopting this force structure would result in saving over $3 billion and create a much more flexible and robust force.

As reported by the National Defense Council Foundation, the top countries for conflict in 2002 were the embodiment of possible sudden regional wars. An examination of the list reveals that many of the countries border the world's oceans, have extensive coastlines, or are adjacent to strategic waterways. Unless the United States is granted assisted entry into these countries, which would seem unlikely in most cases, it would have to resort to unassisted or forced entry. The relevance of the Army and the influence of the entire United States military are at stake. Give the combatant commanders a wide range of options for tackling crises. Fill their toolboxes with tools they can use. Fix strategic mobility.

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