Under hazy early-May skies, elements of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC) hit the beach at the Adriatic Sea port of Durres, Albania. But this was no seaside picnic, rather it was the leading edge of complex joint logistics over-the-shore operations powering the major U.S.-led, NATO-backed multinational training exercise, DEFENDER-Europe 21 (DEF-21).
Maj. Gen. Christopher Mohan, 21st TSC commander, oversaw the offloading of enough bulk fuel and other supplies to keep 28,000 troops from 26 countries on the move as they prepared to execute simultaneous operations across more than 30 training areas spanning Europe, from the Baltics to Albania in the strategically important Balkan region.
Mahon said during an interview on Defense Visual Information Distribution Service conducted In Durres, Albania, on May 4, “The role of the 21st TSC is to set the conditions for the success of this exercise. We have Soldiers…teams deployed from Estonia all the way down to Greece. The central point of operation is here at Durres….”
While DEF-21 was designed as a rehearsal to practice international interoperability among allies facing a fictional foe, the real-world stakes touch the very core of what it takes to keep the “Free World” free. A successful sustainment operation underpins the difference between victory or defeat.
By most measures, a nation’s military power is calibrated by its ability to project combat forces at speed and capacity to austere locations. As NATO expanded eastward in the post-Cold War era, the challenges in projecting forces and sustaining them also expanded exponentially. Deploying forces and their supply chains needed to overcome red tape at international border crossings fraught with domestic customs regulations as well as unpredictable infrastructure constraints, yet somehow still cover vast distances in very short amounts of time.
To increase national military power and reliably project forces, the U.S., working with allied and partner nations, must maintain the ability to converge movement plans and data as forces roll through transit nations to their final destinations. Only by developing a common sustainment language that deconflicts and coordinates actions can militaries of all involved nations along with their commercial partners efficiently transit troops and supply chains to target destinations by maximizing utilization of all available local infrastructure and security resources.
Since the end of World War II, the concept of solidarity among NATO nations has been a foundation for spreading peace and prosperity across Europe. True solidarity is achieved when a group, acting upon shared interest, unites as a singular entity. Opportunistic enemies readily exploit real or perceived gaps in solidarity to weaken alliances and the force multipliers they provide.
It is that very solidarity of nations and the ability for nations to converge movement plans and data that was put on full display during DEF-21. The complexity of planning and executing deployment and integration of thousands of allied personnel and their equipment across widely dispersed European locations posed significant logistical and administrative challenges. Other previous mass-deployment exercises produced serious military-mobility lessons learned as U.S. and NATO shipments and convoys were stopped dead in their tracks at border crossings or national points of entry by mind-numbing customs paperwork or tedious road or railway access requirements.
Famously, a convoy of U.S. M109 Paladins en route from Poland to Germany as part of the 2018 multinational exercise ALLIED SPIRIT VIII was stalled just past the border when German authorities deemed the self-propelled howitzers too heavy and too wide for the trailers carrying them. The paperwork supporting the movement, conducted by a Polish contractor, was also declared wrong. Police said driving time violated regulations restricting convoys to use German roads only overnight between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. The stoppage delayed the equipment’s arrival and the training mission it supported.
To aid in avoiding future international incidents and improving international coordination, at the direction of the U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), the 21st TSC, employs NATO’s Logistics Functional Area Services (LOGFAS) suite of automated tools.
Although 21st TSC has used LOGFAS in the past, the DOD could not share detailed data with LOGFAS from the DOD tools used in planning and executing deployment and sustainment, forcing all data to be recreated and maintained manually. DEF-21 proved a turning point on an investment in data interoperability and automation started in 2017.
The ability of the U.S. to translate and share national data with LOGFAS immediately enabled NATO and other participating nations to achieve a full-sight picture of DEF-21 movements in its newly validated NATO Movement Coordination HUB (NMCH) in Ulm, Germany, in the beginning of March. The NMCH brought in 13 allied and partner nations alongside the NATO Allied Movement Control Center to focus on the best practices for projecting forces using communication and coordination with each nation’s National Movement Coordination Centers, which are the linchpin for resolving issues that lead to delays during military movements.
For LOGFAS to be useful, it requires detailed information on force requirements, units, transportation assets, infrastructure, deployment plans, routes, consumption rates, shipping manifests, and timelines for each operation. In the DEF-21 deployment phase alone, LOGFAS tracked 836 inter- and intra-theater movements of 96 U.S. and embedded United Kingdom units, supporting coordination for port operations, convoy security, crew rest, and border crossings—all of which would have been accomplished previously with emails, phone calls, liaisons, and spreadsheets.
The DOD’s global nature means personnel rotate assignments every few years, producing “institutional memory” deficits. This fact of military life, combined with weeks of training required to competently operate LOGFAS, led to the U.S. decision to limit utilization of LOGFAS to staff that directly coordinate with NATO and partner nations, and continue planning and executing logistics operations for DOD units within DOD systems.
The key to this approach is enabling smooth data interoperability between DOD and LOGFAS. U.S. Army Europe, 21st TSC, and USEUCOM utilize the Joint Enterprise Data Interoperability (JEDI-X) application as a bridging platform to map, augment, and translate required data from DOD systems to LOGFAS at prescribed intervals during planning and execution. JEDI-X was developed by a U.S. veteran-owned small business for data interoperability and was initially validated by translating U.S. deployment data from the Joint Operational Planning and Execution System for re-use in LOGFAS during NATO exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2018.
This LOGFAS initiative must meet several tenets to be successful: It supports the integration of assigned (theater) and allocated (U.S. Army Forces Command provided) Army units and equipment, including Army pre-positioned stock.
- It supports the integration of U.S. Army units with joint and multinational partners.
- It supports the rapid execution of operational plans and contingency plans.
- It supports all phases of operations.
- It maximizes re-use of common data:
- Data sourced from Army or joint (preferred) systems of record
- Data consistent for many administrative, transactional, and planning efforts, and documents
- Data kept current during planning and execution
- Data sharing compliant with U.S. laws and regulations for classified data and foreign disclosure
- It supports the U.S. and NATO planning processes and is compliant with NATO Agreements (STANAGs).
- It is useable globally by other geographic combatant commands and with non-NATO partners.
Even the hemisphere-spanning scope of DEF-21 pales in complexity to potential real-world NATO Article V scenarios, which is why U.S. successes in 2021 in collaborative planning and execution with allies are not the finish line. To respond to a contingency, the 18-month exercise-planning cycle will have to collapse to weeks. Multidomain operations, contested logistics, and Great Powers-conflict scenarios further complicate planning and exacerbate the need for convergence on tools and processes for collaborative operational planning and execution with America’s allies.
NATO has recently announced its Enablement Support System (ESS) will augment LOGFAS with military engineering and medical collaboration modules in 2022 and eventually replace LOGFAS entirely. U.S. military sustainers must embrace this opportunity to influence the future of allied logistics collaboration by helping shape ESS to enable shared future needs. We must also continue to increase the automation and alignment of our processes and systems to rapidly converge with NATO and our allies globally.
DEF-21 provided a realistic proving ground for using LOGFAS to overcome the challenges of deploying and integrating a large-scale multinational force. Data interoperability and automation using JEDI-X enabled most U.S. personnel to continue working in familiar DOD tools while re-using common data for timely coordination with allies. The data boundaries between national systems used for planning and execution have been breached, and common tools are now used for coordination with positive effects.
Quantifying these effects is an ongoing effort, but a qualitative initial assessment is that the use of LOGFAS by the U.S. and allied nations led to reduced competition and congestion between elements of the multinational force and commercial traffic on critical infrastructure, streamlined administration of host and transit-nation compliance, and enhanced a general sense of international partnership to accomplish a shared mission.
For proof of progress, look no further than the 21st TSC’s successful operations during that first hazy May day on the beach at Durres.
Lt. Col. Scott Gum serves as the chief of transportation plans and operations and the Theater Movements Center- Europe for 21st TSC. He served two years as the operational logistics planner for USEUCOM J4. He has a Master of Science Degree in Homeland Security from Colorado Technical University.
This article was published in the Oct-Dec 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.