By Capt. Daniel Mitchell and Staff Sgt. Ryan EnsleyMarch 14, 2019
Water is a nonnegotiable component of all military operations. Water shortages will completely stall an operation and degrade combat effectiveness. Throughout history, access to water has been paramount to logistics planners. The location of rivers, lakes, and springs dictated armies' routes, and any force without means of hydration faced a countdown of mere hours before they were combat ineffective.
The undoing of Alexander the Great's army came not on the battlefield where it was unparalleled, but in the Gedrosian Desert of what is now Pakistan after faulty logistics killed nearly three-quarters of his forces through dehydration. In modern maneuver warfare, ammunition and bulk fuel are unquestioningly the highest priority supplies, but a fully loaded Soldier under exertion in a combat environment will last roughly as long without water as an idling M1A2 Abrams battle tank without fuel. Despite the catastrophic implications of a water shortage on the battlefield, bulk water operations are frequently neglected in training exercises throughout the Army.
Ostensibly, an active duty brigade combat team (BCT), supported by the water platoon of a composite supply company (CSC) in its division-level combat sustainment support battalion (CSSB), should be able to purify and distribute sufficient water on the battlefield to hydrate itself and conduct operations unimpeded. But this optimistic assessment of the Army's bulk water purification and distribution systems is inaccurate.
Throughout the Army, water units are trained using neglected equipment suffering chronic maintenance issues. Even assuming a perfect operational readiness (OR) rate and trained, experienced personnel, current equipment allocations to active duty CSSBs and BCTs do not facilitate unit hydration. The reliance on bottled water contracts throughout Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom has lulled Army leaders into a complacent view of water supply which potentially sets the stage for disaster in future decisive action conflicts. Army doctrine must evolve to reemphasize the importance of bulk water purification and distribution.
INEFFICIENT EQUIPMENT ALLOCATION
In a decisive action conflict, an armored BCT (ABCT) can expect to fight with little outside support. Theoretically, the ABCT and supporting CSC can produce and distribute adequate bulk water down to the Soldier level indefinitely. Practically speaking, this is infeasible. Equipment is improperly allocated between logistics support units, so water distribution will be inconsistent and uneven.
According to doctrinal planning factors, a fully manned ABCT can expect to consume between 19,000 and 20,000 gallons of potable water in a 24-hour period. At full strength, a CSC supporting an ABCT maintains four tactical water purification systems (TWPSs) and four lightweight water purifiers (LWPs), which in optimal circumstances can purify a 130,000 gallons of fresh water every 24 hours. A CSC then can theoretically support an entire division.
However, all water purification capability and the bulk of the unit's distribution capability are concentrated at the logistics support area with the CSC, far to the rear of the forward line of troops. The CSC's bulk water distribution capability in perfect circumstances consists of 30 2,000-gallon load handling system compatible water tank racks (hippos). This means that a CSC can distribute only 60,000 gallons of water at a time, or less than half its total purification capacity.
To complicate matters further, the only unit within the ABCT with bulk water distribution capability, the brigade support battalion (BSB), maintains only 10 hippos. At most, the BSB can distribute only 20,000 gallons of water at a time to its forward support companies. This is a slim margin of error in water distribution.
The forward support companies have no water distribution capability and depend on the BSB. This equipment imbalance will potentially create a buildup of potable water in the logistics support area with no method of distribution to the dehydrated Soldiers at the forward line of troops. A competent commander with an inventive staff can shift resources and otherwise plan methods to initially mitigate any shortfalls; however, in a decisive action conflict, maintenance issues and destroyed equipment will place a strain on water distribution within hours.
It is important to note that this article assumes Soldiers will only be using potable water that is absolutely necessary; it does not factor in water for showers or laundry nor does it factor in water required for chemical, biological, radioactive, and nuclear decontamination. If a unit's water capabilities are strained in even a bare-bones situation, it will be impossible to fulfill additional requirements.
Throughout the Army, water purification equipment suffers chronic maintenance issues. OR rates are low, and units lack qualified maintainers. While units have numerous vehicle mechanics, water equipment mechanics are primarily trained on other equipment or perform unrelated duties. Despite its importance to sustainment, maintenance on water purification and distribution equipment is relegated to specialty mechanics who in many cases lack expert knowledge due to infrequent use of their skills.
The Army-wide readiness rate of the TWPS is 82 percent. Individual units have reported rates as low as 0 percent. In a practical situation, planners can assume a CSC will operate with only three of four TWPSs and LWPs at the start of an operation. Throughout an operation, more equipment will become non-mission capable and purification capability will decrease. The Joint Water Resource Management Action Group (JWRMAG) reports that this readiness rate is due not to inherent equipment flaws, but to units improperly or infrequently conducting preventive maintenance checks and services (PMCS) and equipment training. Undertrained and underutilized mechanics will be unable to properly maintain their equipment during constant use during a conflict, and the strenuous maintenance situation will be exacerbated by poor preparation.
Finally, Army leaders and water experts interviewed for this article reported difficulties in obtaining the chemicals required for water purification. Without the requisite chemicals, a piece of purification equipment may function, but it is still effectively useless.
LOW TRAINING PRIORITY
Despite using water purification equipment in several recent real-world missions, units train on this equipment only intermittently. Setting up and properly using this equipment is an arduous task in a field environment with on-post water points. While fuel handlers, cooks, drivers, mechanics, and many more Soldiers can expect to perform their military occupational specialty (MOS) tasks by virtue of necessity in training, water purification is frequently overlooked. When units are conscientious enough to conduct training, it is often done in a vacuum; Soldiers set up their equipment, purify a certain number of gallons, and bring the equipment back to the motor pool. Purification is rarely integrated into large-scale exercises where Soldiers depend on purified water for hydration. In this way, leaders in these units lack practical experience in deploying this equipment in a real-world situation to hydrate a BCT or potentially an entire division.
The JWRMAG further reports, "Water Sustainment Training has become a rare occurrence across the Army. Facts bearing on the problem consist of environmental restrictions, command emphasis, under-utilization of systems and personnel, and atrophy in technical proficiency."
Reports from MOS 92W (water treatment specialist) leaders from throughout the Army indicate that Soldiers train on this equipment annually or semiannually, if at all. Most Soldiers can expect to train on their MOS-specific tasks on a quarterly basis at least.
The JWRMAG chose to highlight the 543rd CSC, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade, as the Army standard for water sustainment training for its quarterly Water Works exercise, which trains and revalidates 92Ws. Even the 543rd CSC trains in a vacuum. Units do not integrate water purification training with more large-scale training events. Neither the authors nor any of their interviewees had ever participated in or heard of a training exercise wherein all Soldiers solely drank water that the unit itself had purified.
While a decisive action conflict would necessitate practical water purification, units in training insist on using water points to fill their bulk water distribution equipment. It is telling that at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, there is no expectation for units to purify their own water and no mechanism for units to do so even if they desire to. When assessing their unit's combat readiness, brigade and division commanders should ask themselves, "Could our unit purify water well enough to sustain itself during a training event right now?"
BOTTLED WATER RELIANCE
Many of these readiness issues center on the Army's reliance on bottled water for the past 15 years. In the arid, stationary environment of Iraq and Afghanistan, delivering bottled water to Soldiers was more convenient and reliable than purification and distribution. The Army increased expenses but saved resources by not purifying water from the few sources available and distributing it to many dispersed units.
This expedient approach for an unconventional war in an arid environment has bled into Army institutional thinking. The simulation program used in warfighter exercises, for example, does not even have a function that allows units to simulate bulk water purification; water exists only in bottled form. In multiple warfighter exercises in fiscal year 2018, training guidance focused very little on water purification and did not encourage unit planners to emphasize that aspect of sustainment.
Bottled water is far more expensive than purifying water and takes up valuable pallet space on distribution assets. In a decisive action fight, logistics planners must allocate all available space in distribution assets to fuel and ammunition. A palletized load system truck can carry slightly more gallons in bottled water than it can in a hippo, but the supply chain for a pallet of bottled water must begin directly where it is bottled, rather than where the water is purified.
In a decisive environment, bottled water distribution will become far more expensive in terms of time, distribution resources, and money. Fast-moving maneuver units will strain distribution systems to their limit and bottled water delivery will not be as convenient and automatic as it has been.
LOOKING TO THE PAST
Forward support battalions, obsolete units replaced by BSBs, once owned water purification assets. Doctrinal changes concentrated all water purification equipment at the CSC. Reallocating a single TWPS and LWP from the CSC to each BSB, as in the days of the forward support battalion, would improve the Army's bulk water purification and distribution capability.
In the 1st Infantry Division, for example, the two ABCTs would each maintain one TWPS and one LWP, for a total purification capacity of 32,500 gallons of fresh water in a 24-hour period. The CSC would retain control of two of each piece of equipment for a purification capacity of 60,000 gallons in a 24-hour period, perfectly in line with its distribution capability. The BSB could produce enough water to support itself and distribute water to its supported units and further place the LWP with whichever battalion had the most difficulty with distribution.
Meanwhile the CSC would purify water for itself and division-level assets plus use its capability to "fill in the gaps" and support the inevitable shortfalls that would result from combat. Purifying water as far forward as possible would also save valuable space in distribution assets for the aforementioned fuel and ammunition. This simple reallocation of equipment and personnel would vastly improve a division's logistics flexibility. In lieu of a doctrine change, enterprising division and brigade command teams can look at their resources, ask their staffs what is needed to sustain the unit's water needs, and reallocate resources as necessary.
In addition to modifying equipment allocations, Army leaders must realize the importance of bulk water purification in a decisive action fight and emphasize its training and maintenance. The earlier leaders at all levels of the Army accept that they cannot rely on bottled water in future conflicts, the earlier they will begin to understand how to properly use bulk water purification and distribution equipment at the brigade and division levels.
If every water section or platoon in the Army simply performed a monthly PMCS and quarterly training on their equipment, our preparation level for hydration in a decisive action conflict would increase substantially. The next step is to integrate bulk purification and distribution into unit-level training at the various combat training centers and the associated exercises leading up to those rotations. Leaders at all levels would begin to appreciate the importance of these capabilities if they suddenly had to depend on them in a field environment.
With their bulk water purification and distribution equipment, Army units hold the potential to be self-sufficient on the battlefield. Self-sufficiency increases a commander's flexibility and operational reach. After long wars in static, arid environments, Army leaders have neglected this potential and instead have relied on bottled water to meet their needs. To fully attain water self-sufficiency, high-level Army leaders must reallocate water purification equipment to enhance unit freedom in purification and distribution and, at the field-grade level, must emphasize the importance of training and maintenance on this equipment.
Capt. Daniel Mitchell is support operations mobility officer for the 1st Infantry Division Sustainment at Fort Riley, Kansas. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from the United States Military Academy and is a graduate of the Logistics Captains Career Course.
Staff Sgt. Ryan Ensley works in the bulk fuel and water section in the 1st Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade's support operations section. As a water treatment specialist, Ensley operated reverse osmosis water purification units in four different countries supporting various allied forces.
This article is an Army Sustainment product.