JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. -- In the early morning hours on Jan. 12, the sound of whirling turbine blades could be heard warming up engines prior to the start of a current military mission.
Turbine sounds aren't necessarily unusual on Joint Base Charleston since it is home to the U.S. Air Force 628th Air Base Wing, but the actual source of the noise does set it apart.
The screaming turbines belong to the U.S. Army's premier main battle tank -- The M1 Abrams.
The Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command's 841st Transportation Battalion was tasked with loading nearly 3,000 pieces of heavy armor onto contracted commercial ships as quickly and safely as possible - a feat with many moving parts and requiring a lot of coordination to make it a success.
Navy Lieutenant Brenton Breed, Operations Officer for the 841st Transportation Battalion, 597th Transportation Brigade, SDDC described his job as being similar to that of a conductor of an orchestra.
"Major moves of vehicles and cargo require a lot of planning and coordination to get from point A to point B. The unit being moved has to clean, prepare and weigh their vehicles prior to transport. Trains must be scheduled and loaded. Once here at Joint Base Charleston, the vehicles must be unloaded and staged in precise order so that the loading process can be as efficient as possible," Breed said. "841st load planners, then prepare plans and diagrams of exactly where each piece of equipment will be stored aboard ship for proper balancing while at sea. Lastly, stevedores -- the people who load and unload ships -- must then drive the vehicles onto the ship and into position with only a few inches margin of error."
To accomplish all this, Breed relies on a joint team of experts acting cooperatively to get the vehicles and cargo from their home base to their final destination.
"All transport missions are a challenge," said Breed. "But what makes this one a little more challenging is that we are dealing with armored vehicles. These require drivers who are knowledgeable in the operations of heavy armor and stevedores who understand how to safely secure them onboard."
To get the vehicles off the train and onto the ship, Breed requires the assistance of the unit being transported. In this case, it's the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kansas.
Army Capt. Ryan Crayne is the Operations Officer for 1-1 ID and the officer in charge of the Soldiers tasked with getting the vehicles from the rail yard, to the staging areas then then finally onto the ship.
"I've brought roughly 150 Soldiers with me for this move. Their skillset is all encompassing and ranges from mechanics and drivers to cooks and refuelers," Crayne said. "This move is actually more difficult than my two previous deployments to Afghanistan. We have a lot more vehicles -- nearly 3,000 -- which is about five to eight times more than a light combat brigade might typically deploy with."
1-1 ID also had a contingency plan in place to deal with unforeseen mechanical issues.
"Our M-1 Abrams tanks and M-3 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles are complex weapons systems and anything that is complex and mechanical can and will break. That is the nature of the game," Crayne said. "Prior to arrival we coordinated with maintenance facilities at Fort Stewart, Georgia, which is only three hours away, to get immediate repair parts so that our equipment can be up, running and mission capable prior to hitting the ground in Europe."
Crayne says that his teams will continue to conduct maintenance routines while the ship is under weigh as he has three Soldiers who will accompany the cargo on each of the four ships being used for this move.
"Being able to swap out tank engines and other parts to repair vehicles and improve readiness while in route is a big deal," said Crayne. "I expect this model will set precedence and become a template for the future moves of other Armored Brigades."
While the 841st Trans. Bn. is ultimate responsible for the success of the movement, the unit does not work autonomously.
"Our brigade is actually very small in number of personnel. We have seven full-time military and 24 civilian staff who do the vast majority of the planning," said Breed. "When it comes to making things happen on the ground, we are augmented with outside resources to meet mission requirements. Once again, this requires prior planning and coordination to work effectively."
For this particular mission, the 841st Trans. Bn. has 16 Army reservists who volunteer for yearlong tours of duties and 60 stevedores on call to support the move.
As the nearly 3,000 pieces of equipment travel from their home base to locations throughout the world, it is important to know the precise location of each piece of equipment at all times. This is where vehicle tracking and in route visibility is critical.
Army Capt. Blake Jones, Operations Officer for the 688th Rapid Port Opening Element, 832nd Trans. Bn., 597th Trans. Bde., Fort Eustis, Virginia and Army Cpt. Tyler Cline, Commander of the 368th Seaport Operations Company, 11th Trans. Bn. from Fort Story, Virginia are there to assist in that task.
"Our Battalion's RPOEs are small expeditionary units that are on call to deploy anywhere in a moment's notice to setup air or sea ports of operations in austere environments," Jones said. "Our Soldiers participating in operations such as this have two-fold benefits. One, it provides the 841st with additional manpower and capabilities when needed, and two, it provides real-world opportunities for our Soldiers to hone their go-to-war skills."
"It is a fact that even the best laid plans will change. It is only through real world training such as this that our soldiers can experience the unexpected and gain expertise by working through problem solving processes related to the field of Army transportation, said Jones." "We pride ourselves on our ability to problem solve and expect the unexpected, believing there is a working solution to everything if you try hard enough."
"When told that we would be supporting the 1st ID move to Europe, we realized that we did not have enough time to apply for the highway convoy clearances required to drive our vehicles from Virginia to South Carolina," Cline said. "We contacted our sister unit, the 2098th Transportation Detachment who happen to have LCM's (Landing Craft Mechanized) [similar to those used during the Normandy invasion in World War II France]. We loaded it up, the LCM traveled down the intercostal waterway and dropped our equipment here on the shore in Charleston. Where there's a will, there's a way."
"There is no routine move that we conduct. Each takes a lot of coordination and people behind the scenes in order to make these things happen," Breed said. "In other words, it literally takes an Army, to move an Army."