Intermodal Operations in Support of the Ukrainian Fight

By Maj. Gen. Gavin A. LawrenceApril 23, 2024

The 21st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC) supports the first U.S. and Portuguese mission at the Port of Setubal, Portugal, on Dec. 7, 2023, a collaboration between the 21st TSC, 598th Transportation Brigade, the...
The 21st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC) supports the first U.S. and Portuguese mission at the Port of Setubal, Portugal, on Dec. 7, 2023, a collaboration between the 21st TSC, 598th Transportation Brigade, the
Portuguese military and port authority, and the U.S. Mission to Portugal. (Photo by Sgt. Andrew Jo) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Force projection is the ability to deliver the military instrument of national power where and when it’s needed in response to national security requirements. The capacity to project Army forces and associated combat power globally is an essential element of conventional deterrence and one of the strategic advantages the Army has as a fighting force. In the weeks leading up to and following Feb. 24, 2022, U.S. capability to project combat power was once again tested as Russia massed troops on the Ukrainian border and subsequently invaded. This time, the U.S. military was required to not only position forces forward to assure NATO allies but also coordinate the delivery of defense articles to Ukraine rapidly through Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA). To accomplish this, the Army, in partnership with U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and its Army service component command (ASCC), the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), executed intermodal operations from continental U.S. (CONUS) to the joint area of operations in Europe. These intermodal operations contributed significantly to the projection of combat forces to Europe and to the provision of critical combat capability to Ukraine. They serve to not only set conditions for future force projection operations in Europe but also for the conduct of intermodal operations across the globe in support of future contingencies.

Per Army Doctrine Publication 4-0, Sustainment, intermodal operations are the using of modes of transportation to move troops, supplies, and equipment through a network of nodes to deliver combat power into an area of operations. According to Army Techniques Publication 4-13, Army Expeditionary Intermodal Operations, intermodal operations ultimately provide flexibility for the combatant commander to deploy, employ, and sustain land forces to extend operational reach, ensure freedom of action, and prolong endurance during combat operations.

These operations take into consideration theater infrastructure and the availability of multimodal capabilities. Multimodal is the movement of cargo and personnel using two or more transportation methods from point of origin to destination. Both air and surface (truck, rail, and maritime vessel) modes of transportation are integral to intermodal operations. Use of multimodal capabilities reduces backlog, enabling the speedy delivery of combat power to the point of need. This was certainly necessary at the outset of the Ukrainian crisis as the deployment enterprise was challenged with simultaneously projecting immediate response forces (IRFs) and large quantities of ammunition from CONUS into Europe to support Ukrainian requirements.

USTRANSCOM coordinated with Headquarters, Department of the Army, Army Forces Command, and U.S. Army Europe and Africa (USAREUR-AF)—U.S. European Command’s ASCC—to facilitate the rapid movement of IRF troops via strategic airlift from CONUS air terminals to outside continental U.S. (OCONUS) aerial ports of disembarkation (APODs) in Poland, Germany, and Romania. Per Joint Publication 3-36, Joint Air Mobility and Sealift Operations, an aerial port is an airfield that has been designated for the sustained air movement of personnel and materiel and is an authorized port for entrance into or departure from the country where it’s located. Aerial ports provide the most expeditious method for rapid force deployment and normally serve as a link to land transportation systems in theater.

SDDC leveraged its portfolio of commercial arms, ammunition, and explosives (AA&E) truck carriers to move requested munitions from Joint Munitions Command’s (JMC’s) CONUS depots and plants to air terminals for onward movement into theater. Due to the large quantities of ammunition that needed to be moved over a relatively short period of time, SDDC coordinated with the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to garner permission to extend AA&E driving hours. This proved critical to ensuring there was sufficient AA&E truck carrier capacity to meet initial surge munition requirements. Once munitions were transported via AA&E truck carriers to designated aerial terminals, JMC, in coordination with SDDC, utilized special assignment airlift mission (SAAM) requests to move stocks to OCONUS APODs designated by USAEUR-AF and the 21st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC) for onward movement. SAAMs are funded missions that utilize a combination of Air Force and commercial contracted strategic airlift assets to transport high-priority cargo. Utilization of SAAM flights provides the operational flexibility to pick up and deliver cargo to locations outside recurring channel flights. This proved critical as movement planners attempted to reduce the time it took to move critical munitions from JMC depots to APODs.

While strategic airlift remains essential to the rapid positioning of combat power, it is not an efficient means for the transport of armored platforms or for large quantities of ammunition. Strategic sealift took on a more prominent role as U.S. national command authority made the decision to increase the number of armored brigade combat teams on rotation to Europe along with increasing quantities of heavy platforms and munitions donated to Ukraine.

Strategic sealift is linked to inland transportation (highway, rail, or waterways) through ports, providing for a smooth, seamless flow of equipment and materiel. Roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) vessels are the primary means of sealift for wheeled, track, and rotary wing equipment. Container ships are the ideal means of transport for sustainment and ammunition. There is a sizeable difference in the capacity of sealift versus airlift. A large, medium-speed RO/RO (LMSR) vessel, for example, can transport the equivalent of approximately 400 C-17s’ worth of equipment. Two LMSR vessels can deploy an entire armored brigade combat team. This is the reason strategic sealift is the preferred method of transportation for large equipment requirements.

As the DOD’s single port manager, SDDC utilized the CONUS 597th and 596th Transportation Brigades (TBs) to conduct marine terminal operations to facilitate reception, staging, and loading of unit equipment and PDA material at CONUS seaports of embarkation (SPOEs). As the SDDC CONUS units loaded and pitched strategic sealift carrying units and PDA materiel toward the European continent, the 598th TB, as USAEUR-AF’s strategic TB, facilitated reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI) of equipment and ammunition received at European seaports of disembarkation (SPODs).

Coordination of RSOI operations was made through 21st TSC’s theater movement center. The theater movement center and subordinate movement control teams coordinated movement of unit equipment and PDA materiel from SPODs to final destinations through a combination of host nation-contracted assets (rail, truck, and barge) and military common-user land transportation.

A by-product of the increased strategic sealift requirements caused by the situation in Ukraine has been the ability to expand port diversification efforts in Europe. OCONUS port diversification entails the deliberate selection of SPODs to meet combatant command’s overarching theater security objectives. SDDC coordinates directly with the 21st TSC’s theater movement cell and USAEUR-AF G-4 for SPOD selection. Extensive coordination is done with the host nation to coordinate provision of security, stevedoring, and related marine terminal services to ensure equipment can be received, accounted for, and moved onward. In support of Ukraine, USAEUR-AF planners have expanded utilization of ports from Germany to multiple locations in the Baltics, North Sea, and Mediterranean. Port diversification allows SDDC to garner increased intelligence on port capacity and capability within areas of operation. It also enables the TSC and its ASCC to validate intratheater movement corridors and host nation agreements. This ultimately results in accomplishment of the Three D’s:

  • Demonstrating commitment to allies through the ability to project combat power where and when needed in the theater of operations.
  • Detering adversaries through forward presence.
  • Dilemmas created for adversaries due to their inability to predict movements through use of multiple SPOD/SPOE and associated lines of communication.

The U.S. military is constantly on the move conducting dynamic force deployments around the globe in support of strategic interests. Intermodal operations remain key to enabling the projection of combat power and sustainment cargo in support of these deployments. Operations supporting Ukraine have provided invaluable reps and sets on the conduct of these mobility operations. The Army must continue expanding its global deployment networks, mobility capacity, and global command and control capability to execute intermodal operations in contested environments if it is to maintain the strategic advantage it currently enjoys in global force projection. USTRANSCOM and SDDC remain focused on mission execution, testing, and experimentation so the Army can maintain this advantage.


Maj. Gen. Gavin A. Lawrence currently serves as the commanding general of Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. He previously served as the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-4, U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Liberty, North Carolina. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Quartermaster Corps. He has a Master of Arts in national security and strategic studies from U.S. Naval War College, Rhode Island, and a Master of Arts in strategic studies from U.S. Army War College, Pennsylvania, where he successfully completed the Advanced Strategic Arts Program. He has also completed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Seminar XXI program and University of North Carolina’s Institute for Defense & Business LOGTECH Executive program.


This article was published in the Spring 2024 issue of Army Sustainment.


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