As the United States begins to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, logisticians have the unique challenge of undoing more than two decades worth of buildup of equipment and personnel in Afghanistan. Approximately 763 C-17 loads of materiel and equipment have already left the landlocked country and more than 14,790 pieces of equipment have been turned over to Defense Logistics Agency to be destroyed or pushed for onward movement.
"Our Soldiers are deployed today during unprecedented times, the orderly retrograde of equipment from Afghanistan is the single most decisive operation this theater of war has witnessed in the past three decades,” said Col. Peter Gilbert, commander, 101st Division Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). “The power of the Joint Logistics Enterprise is being tested daily as our sustainment forces work meticulously around the clock receiving, staging, and onward moving thousands of pieces of cargo. Our logisticians remain resilient, committed, and focused as we make a difference every day."
The urgency of the withdrawal is a reflection of both the scope and time left to meet President Biden’s goal of a complete exit by Sept. 11, 2021. Critical to meeting the deadline is a network of Department of Defense and coalition partners working around the clock to make a rapid exit from Afghanistan.
“The relationships with our partners and the ability to flatten communication across the sustainment enterprise has directly contributed to the success we have seen at the strategic and operational levels,” said Brig. Gen. Justin Swanson, commander, 310th Expeditionary Sustainment Command.
Each agency has contributed unique capabilities to the complex operation. United States Transportation Command and US Central Command (USCENTCOM) are leading the movement out of Afghanistan, while 1st Theater Sustainment Command (1TSC) is coordinating logistics efforts across the USCENTOM area of responsibility.
“Sustainment is a team sport,” said Brig. Gen. Swanson. “Our partners and junior leaders are critical. Their flexibility and resilience are the keys to success when the unexpected happens constantly.”
Sustainers plan capacity and velocity; how much can move and at what speed. Velocity is directly tied to the speed at which equipment moves. But if movement is crucial, reception is just as important. There is a “pitch and catch” involved with cargo movement. The 101st Airborne DSB – “Lifeliners” are leading the effort to “catch” equipment as it moves out of Afghanistan into various locations within the USCENTCOM AOR.
“We closely track the flow of equipment,” explained Maj. John Forrister, material management branch chief, 101st Div. Sust. Bde. “We validate what is coming out of Afghanistan and the requirements associated with onward movement. This operation is heavily reliant on service integration and requires a close working relationship with the Air Force.”
Large military withdraws are complex. The 101st Div. Sust. Bde. and 419th Transportation Battalion established innovative methods to accomplish the mission by launching teams of high skilled experts at transportation nodes throughout Kuwait. The Lifeliners established small, flexible teams of movement control experts and equipment managers to ensure in-transit visibility, equipment accountability, and velocity throughout the process.
“While initially a hectic start, our Soldiers are providing transportation support by filling gaps and creating overlap between the various organizations,” said Capt. Joshua Puckett, commander, 566th Movement Control Team. “We coordinate across the joint transportation spectrum to ensure seamless movement and reception.”
The team highlights the importance partnerships in material management and movement. Equipment leaving theater is moved by land, air and sea – or a combination – to its final destination. USTRANSCOM and 1TSC established a channel flight with regular rotation of aircraft between Afghanistan and Kuwait.
“The integration of Army and Air Force has been critical to a positive force-flow plan and ensuring seamless onward movement of cargo,” said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Marc Calhoun, aerial port superintendent, 386th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron. “The Army’s ability to quickly adjust work schedules has also maximized the aerial port and airflow.”
Lifeliners then receive, sort and clean equipment as it arrives in Kuwait rather than Afghanistan. Equipment is then either shipped by vessel or transferred to joint or multinational partners.
Forrister sees these lessons as opportunities for future training. “Withdraw operations is a critical core competency for logisticians. This experience highlights the need to train on joint, multinational logistics operations. Understanding how to effectively withdraw across multiple DoD agencies is crucial for future logistics planners.”
As the Lifeliners shift towards facilitating the movement of personnel out of Afghanistan, Gilbert is cautiously optimistic. “There is absolutely no doubt that conditions are set for the successful redeployment of Soldiers, DoD Contractors, and our NATO allies. It takes teamwork, grit, and accountable leadership to work through complex problems, innovative thinking at the point of execution, and deliberate rehearsals to ensure we clearly identify risk."
Lieutenant Colonel Shannon H. Virgadamo is the Commander of the 419th Transportation Battalion (Movement Control) and stationed in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. She is a career Logistics Officer that has served in various tactical, operational, and strategic level assignments.