By Stephenie Tatum, 1st TSC Public AffairsDecember 12, 2013
KABUL, Afghanistan - Maj. Gen. Kurt Stein, commanding general, 1st Theater Sustainment Command, emerges from a morning brief with his staff confident they are on track and set for a successful transition next year.
He has just received an update on the progress of the retrograde in Afghanistan and the status of operations for his command, which is also located in Kuwait and Fort Bragg, N.C.
"Iraq was hard, but Afghanistan is really hard. Nothing like this has ever been done. We're making history with what we are doing here," said Stein about the complexity of the 1st TSC's mission in Afghanistan.
The 1st TSC's mission is to synchronize the movement and responsible drawdown of all equipment and personnel out of Afghanistan along ground lines of communication through Pakistan along the Southern Distribution Network, or the central Asian states along the Northern Distribution Network. In addition, the 1st TSC provides command and control for logistics units in theater, provides sustainment support to forces operating in theater, and assists with base closure and transfer.
The U.S. currently has about $33 billion (down from $48 billion) worth of equipment in Afghanistan.
Made up of more than 20,000 military, civilian, and contractor personnel, the 1st TSC and its subordinate units ensure the warfighters have the supplies and transportation assets necessary to accomplish their missions. As a global sustainment provider, the 1st TSC supplies food, fuel, water, transportation, ammunition, building materials and repair parts. Additionally, the 1st TSC manages the ports, flights, and customs points needed to keep people and equipment moving 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The 1st TSC also provides adjunct support in the areas of financial management, human resources, humanitarian aid distribution, host-nation engagements, and medical care for troops and civilians within the command. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, civilians and contractors with the 1st TSC are in the fight every day, moving what is needed throughout the 20 countries in U.S. Army Central Command's area of operations, which is equal to 6 million square miles.
"The purpose of the retrograde is to reset and refit our Army. By getting this equipment back to our forces, we are protecting the American taxpayers' investment in its military, and ensuring our readiness for future operations," said Stein.
Stein leads a diverse team of logistics Soldiers, government civilians, and contractors, comprised of organic 1st TSC members and others from subordinate units who report directly to him - all of whom dedicate themselves each day to ensuring Soldiers receive the sustainment support they need. In addition, they work knowing the clock that is ticking down to the directive by President Barack Obama that states U.S. troops will draw down to 34,000 by February 2014. They must also set the conditions for the post-2014 mission in Afghanistan, known as the Resolute Support Mission.
"We have the right people, resources and authorities in place to overcome the challenges and complete our mission," said Stein.
The type of equipment being retrograded and redeployed include Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, trailers, military generators, radios, navigation systems, weapons, and ammunition; to name a few.
The 1st TSC was responsible for the retrograde in Iraq. The size and scope of the missions are similar. There were 60,000 vehicles and 90,000 containers in Iraq that had to be retrograded. In Afghanistan the U.S. started with approximately 50,000 vehicles and 108,000 containers. But anyone involved in both retrograde missions will quickly point out that the challenges in Afghanistan are far greater.
"Many lessons learned from Iraq have been applied with great success in Afghanistan; but comparing the retrograde of equipment from Iraq to the retrograde from Afghanistan is like comparing apples and oranges," said Brig. Gen. Duane Gamble, 1st TSC deputy commanding general.
In addition to geography and weather, Afghanistan's transportation infrastructure poses a greater challenge and limits freedom of movement, especially for logistical convoys. The U.S. must also rely on surrounding countries for movement of equipment in to and out of the region. Also, Afghanistan lacks a staging base like Iraq had in neighboring Kuwait. The forces in Afghanistan do not need the volume of equipment that was absorbed by the Iraq army, and the fact that our coalition forces are also drawing down with us are just a handful of the unique challenges the Army faces in Afghanistan. Lastly, Afghanistan is a land-locked country with no seaport to facilitate transportation of materiel.
"In Iraq we weren't fighting to the very end, providing the assistance like we are now," said Stein, highlighting another key difference between Afghanistan and Iraq.
One lesson learned applied from Iraq was the need for a U.S. Central Command Materiel Reduction Element. The CMRE was established to have a unit that can focus solely on retrograde. About half of their unit is made up of engineer assets that enable base closure, transfer, and descope. The other half is made up of logistics units which perform the retro-sort mission. The teams that run the retro-sort yards take in equipment from across the battlefield, sort it, bring it to record, and prepare it for disposition in accordance with instructions from Army Materiel Command. Those items that are uneconomical to ship home are divested through the Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services.
"The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is the CENTCOM Materiel Recovery Element. It is one of our key lessons learned from Iraq. The capabilities they bring to the table are decisive in our retrograde operations," said Stein.
"The CMRE allows our units performing the train, advise and assist mission with our Afghan partners to focus on that mission," said Gamble. "The TAA mission is the priority. The CMRE is a combat multiplier. In Iraq units had competing priorities; train their Iraqi partners and retrograde. In Afghanistan, the CMRE is able to focus solely on retrograde in order to allow that commander on the ground to focus on their mission."
Col. Todd Heussner, commander of the 43rd Sustainment Brigade, served as the CMRE until October. The unit made history. His unit was only the second unit to serve in this function. There is not any doctrine on how to serve in this role. Doctrine on retrograde in general is limited as well. Heussner and his team approached their mission from a business perspective.
"It's important we don't allow our assets to be idle," said Heussner. "We take a business approach, through our entrepreneurial leaders. If our assets are sitting idle, it costs the American taxpayer money. And we are here to save money. That's why we get our assets out to the customer."
The CMRE's forward retrograde elements consist of several teams to assist in the retrograde mission. Instead of having logistical hubs where everyone brings equipment to them, they go out to forward operating bases and perform their mission.
"Our Soldiers work hard, in austere conditions," said 2nd Lt. Daniel Krus, 227th Quartermaster Company, 68th Combat Sustainment, CMRE, and the officer-in-charge of the joint sort yard at Forward Operating Base Shank. "We take in all types of equipment strewn across the battlefield in our area of operations. From there we sort it, catalogue it, and prepare it for disposition. And our efforts have saved the American taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars."
"My Soldiers are doing a great job," said Staff Sgt. Elmar Tomas, 227th Quartermaster Co., 68th CSSB, CMRE, and the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the joint sort yard at FOB Shank. "Not only are we putting millions of dollars back into the Army's inventory, but we are also saving Soldiers lives by keeping them off the roads. By performing this mission forward and bringing our capabilities to the warfighter, we don't have to put anyone on the roads to move this equipment to a central location."
"Our mission is unique. We take materials as far forward as possible, so it keeps troops off the road," said Pfc. Dwight Mathews, a material retrograde team specialist with the 227th Quartermaster Co., 68th CSSB, CMRE. "We save lives and money. It's truly awesome."
The proof is in the numbers. Since June, retro-sort yards have put more than $100 million back into the Army's inventory, and more than $800 million since January 2012. Since August, the 1st TSC has reduced the total container count by more than 17,000 and retrograded more than 1,200 vehicles.
"We were successful in Iraq; but it was not perfect. The Army is a learning organization. We took those lessons learned from Iraq and we are applying them to Afghanistan," said Gamble.
Logistical planning for the redeployment and retrograde in Afghanistan is not just the work of the 1st TSC. This team effort is possible with the help of the U.S. Transportation Command, U.S. Central Command, International Security Assistance Force, U.S. Forces -- Afghanistan and U.S. Army Central. Though separated by multiple time zones, the 1st TSC and its team of teams work day and night to ensure the retrograde of personnel and equipment out of Afghanistan is a success during one of the most challenging times in our history.
The 1st TSC's progress remains on track and they are building relationships along the way. A new chapter is being written every day as the First Team reduces rolling and non rolling stock while still sustaining the warfighters and conserving equipment that can be used in the future. As December 2014 draws closer, the 1st TSC will continue to be a decisive enabler in setting the conditions for the Resolute Support Mission and our enduring commitment to the people of Afghanistan.
In the end, the goal is to close out a decade of war, in a way the Afghans can take full responsibility for the security of their nation. The 1st TSC is confident they can meet the deadlines regardless of the contingencies because they have the right people for the job.
"The Army is about people. Our Soldiers and civilians do tremendous work. I continue to be amazed by their dedication to duty and personal sacrifice every day. Our young leaders are stepping up every day, making things happen. I couldn't be more proud of their efforts," said Stein.
(Editor's note: This article was originally published in the November/December 2013 issue of Military Logistics Forum magazine.)