A brief operational history of the last ESC in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom

By Lt. Col. Jason WehrmanJune 22, 2015

The view of a western Afghanistan village
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

The 3d ESC was alerted for deployment to OEF in August 2013 and deployed the ADVON in March 2014. This short notice mission allowed the ESC to be aligned with our higher headquarters, the XVIII Airborne Corps. This deployment-cycle alignment was programmed so that the ESC could begin providing the habitual relationship with its parent corps after redeployment. 3d ESC had just redeployed from OEF in January of 2013 and was in the midst of the ARFORGEN cycle and had to go through a dynamic process of receiving, training and preparing personnel for deployment in a very condensed timeline. We continued receiving personnel through the last few months of our deployment.

What made this mission unique was the requirement to serve as the Single Sustainment Mission Command for 1st Theater Sustainment Command's (1st TSC) Forward Command Post with the task to plan, coordinate, synchronize, monitor and control operational level sustainment operations for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, while concurrently providing the manning solution for 1st TSC's Operational Command Post (OCP) at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. The 1st TSC OCP mission was to provide sustainment mission command for the CENTCOM AOR. This manning solution required that approximately half of the command's staff deploy to Kuwait, while Brig. Gen. Flem B. "Donnie" Walker Jr. and Command Sgt. Maj. Edward Bell took the remainder of the staff into Afghanistan to command the largest retrograde operation from a landlocked country in recent military history.

Once the directed mission was received, the Brig. Gen. Walker immediately reprioritized the command in order to prepare for the deployment. The command was in the training phase of ARFORGEN and was focused on establishing its Early Entry Command Post (EECP) capability. The EECP is the rapidly deployable, modular sustainment command post for the XVIII Airborne Corps. At the time, this was a relatively new initiative and the command was establishing policies and procedures for other ESCs to follow. This training laid the basic foundation which the staff continued to build on during the train up phase for the directed mission.

Prior to receipt of this mission, the command had been actively engaged with mentorship of Sustainment Brigades across the corps and participated in many HQDA forums. This wide involvement with the Army sustainment community developed relationships that would later prove beneficial. Brig. Gen. Walker believed in the power of "team of teams". This concept was absolutely crucial to the success of the 3d ESC during the deployment. Five months before deployment the command team began plugging into several battle rhythm events in late December that required many early morning SVTCs. In addition, the PDSS gained valuable insight into the complexity of the mission.

The staff was completing individual Soldier deployment requirements, and HHC was building a collective training plan. However, the critical piece was the rapid development of our Culminating Training Event that would certify the ESC for deployment. Ops Group Sierra typically does not train an ESC for deployment to OEF.

However, everyone realized the significance of this mission and the unique requirements for the command to be able to reach across traditional command relationships and engage the entire sustainment enterprise across the joint force in order to effectively perform the monumental retrograde task. Ops Group Sierra, in conjunction with Lt. Col. Dave Waddell, G3 Plans OIC, developed and executed a demanding and realistic scenario that trained the staff and prepared the command for the complex sustainment requirements that they would perform through the 2014 deployment. The mission set was to oversee the responsible conclusion to OEF and transition to the sequel campaign. R4D became the new acronym that drove operations: Retrograde, Redeploy, Reset, Redistribute, and Divest. Operational drivers were based on 4 major efforts: 1) Base Closure 2) Force reduction (FML) 3) Unit-remissioning 4) "Thin the lines". The historical parallels were 1) WWII for complexity 2) Berlin airlift for mode 3) Desert Storm for lessons and 4) Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn for scale and lessons. It was clearly understood that 2014 was the most critical year of the entire effort in Afghanistan, with the opportunity to correctly posture the enduring force structure and reset the joint force.

3d ESC was the first ESC to execute the doctrinal ESC mission in OEF. Mission command evolution in the Combined Joint Operations Area-Afghanistan (CJOA-A) spanned several years. In February 2009, the 143d ESC was the first ESC deployed to OEF and formed the Joint Sustainment Command-Afghanistan (JSC-A) at Kandahar Airfield. JSC-A consisted of two Sustainment Brigades, an Army Field Sustainment Brigade, and a Movement Control Battalion. The FML was approximately 101,000. In 2010 POTUS directed a FML reduction and the CENTCOM Materiel Recovery Element (CMRE) was established in April 2012. Late in 2012 the 1st TSC FWD CP was established which created two 1--star headquarters elements and was overly complicated. This element was stationed at New Kabul Compound in the heart of Kabul. 1st TSC FWD CP oversaw sustainment and R2MR, and the FML had reduced to approximately 68,000 troops. In September 2013 Single Sustainment Mission Command (SSMC) was established under the command of a single 1-star headquarters. The FML had shrunk to 34,000 troops and had downsized to a single sustainment brigade and the CMRE. The 3d ESC was the only ESC that deployed its command and staff structure to perform a doctrinal ESC mission. The 3d ESC was also responsible for closing out OEF and transitioning mission command to the 4th Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade.

3d ESC's main Body 1 arrived at New Kabul Compound (NKC) in early April 2014. The command was spread throughout the massive building. This footprint was not ideal for effective mission command of such a massive effort. However, as part of the future force structure and posture for the transition of OEF to Operation Resolute Support (the planning name for what is now termed Operation Freedom's Sentinel), a new facility was being built on Bagram Airfield that would house the enduring command structure. As soon as we arrived at NKC we knew that we had to also start planning to jump the command to the Resolute Support Facility (RSF) within the next two months.

Brig. Gen. Duane Gamble, deputy commander for the 1st TSC, had warned the Brig. Gen. Walker that operating in Afghanistan is "death by a thousand cuts". What he meant was that all those injects at the CTE that seemed implausible and highly unlikely were bound to happen. The next unexpected event was always around the corner. While taken in a singular instance, each event would not seem overly dramatic. However, when compounded with the operational environment these events could threaten not only the massive retrograde operation, but the sustainment of the force as well. Almost immediately after we arrived a 100-year flood washed out the Tangi Gorge pass in northern Afghanistan. This cut off the primary ground route that supplied a very high percentage of the required bulk fuel. This caused a OPT to be stood up that worked across the enterprise to develop and implement mitigation strategies for alternate fuel delivery modes and methods. In May as the fighting season began insurgent elements in Sayeed Aba, district south of Kabul, began significant attacks on fuel convoys moving between Kabul and Kandahar. These attacks threatened to cut off fuel movement to the entire southern region. Col. Kevin Powers, the 3d ESC G3, personally worked with the 10th Mountain Division G3 to apply combat power to reduce this threat. His influence with this effort eventually led to ISR, Special Operations, and Afghan forces being applied along the route which led to the reduction of the threat. These are just two examples of the diversity of challenges the command faced. However, through our established relationships the staff was able to reach out across the sustainment and operational community to effectively influence each incident. BG Walker always reminded the staff that "you don't have to own it to influence it".

About the same time as we were dealing with these threats, the Minister of Interior announced the dissolution of the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF). The APPF was the agency tasked with providing full spectrum security to all NATO contracts. Of significance to us was that they provided convoy security to fuel movements, and contractors would not move without them. We experienced a three-week blackout period with a lot of uncertainty while the APPF transitioned to a Convoy Security Brigade as part of the Afghan Uniform Police. There were several attacks at FOBs across RC-East that targeted fuel. The enemy clearly understood that fuel was critical to our operations and that they could cause considerable impact to us as they interdicted our fuel supply operations. The Afghan election spanned from April to September. This was a historical moment for the country of Afghanistan as the first democratically elected leader was chosen by the people and validated as a legitimate leader. However, this process created considerable uncertainty across the NATO force operating in the CJOA-A. The delay in installing the new president postponed the Bi-Lateral Security Agreement that was required for US forces to remain in CJOA-A, and drove a planning effort for an accelerated drawdown.

The 3d ESC successfully accomplished its directed mission and closed out the final chapter of OEF and transitioned mission command to the Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade.