The addition of three Rapid Port Opening Elements to the Army's Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command brings an expeditionary answer to the challenge of logistics support in contingency response operations for the Department of Defense.

As the surface piece of U.S. Transportation Command's Joint Task Force - Port Opening, the RPOEs deploy as part of a joint expeditionary logistics force to establish a port of debarkation and forward distribution node. The RPOEs provide in-transit visibility and conduct clearance and distribution operations. They also receive and transload cargo as an initial-entry port opening force until relieved by - or are integrated into - follow-on sustainment forces. Initially conceived to support aerial port of debarkation operations, the capabilities of the RPOEs are expanding to include sea port of debarkation operations.

The 688th RPOE completed JTF-PO Air Port of Debarkation and Sea Port of Debarkation verification in May. They currently serve as the RPOE on alert for JTF-PO missions globally. The newest unit, the 690th RPOE, was officially activated in a ceremony Oct. 16.

For the 689th RPOE, the move of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division to Afghanistan (see page 29), represented the unit's first operational deployment with the JTF-PO. In training for SPOD missions, the 689th teamed with the 833rd Transportation Battalion for a training exercise that coincided with a real-world mission at the Port of Tacoma, Wash.

Strykers and equipment belonging primarily to 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division were redeployed from Operation Iraqi Freedom for reset work at Fort Lewis, Wash. The move provided an opportunity for the RPOE to hone their SPOD operations and build the relationships that will be crucial to their success in a real-world contingency operation.

Brian Ford, who works with JTF-PO on training and exercises for USTRANSCOM, was at Port of Tacoma for the exercise. Getting the RPOE hands-on familiarity with port operations is vital to their quick-response capability, said Ford.

"A theater sustainment command takes about a month to get on the ground," he said. "The JTF-PO is a non-standing task force that comes together in a time of need. The reason we do these exercises is so we're not playing a pick-up game."

The teams that deploy to support a mission are tailored to the mission. An advance party, the Joint Assessment Team, is sent to initially determine the needs of the mission. For air port operations, Air Mobility Command and the RPOE on alert send a team within 12 hours, with the full team ready to fly in 36 hours. For sea port operations, Military Sealift Command and RPOE personnel hit the ground within 36 hours, with the team ready to fly in 60 hours.

Once an assessment is complete, the report is sent to the JTF-PO commander, who determines whether the location suits the mission. If the location is suitable, the commander determines the size of the element, categorized as heavy, medium or light, to be sent on the mission. A heavy package can include more than 50 Soldiers and 136 pieces of equipment. For some missions, the element can be as small as a few people and vehicles.

"For the recent move of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team through Diego Garcia, it was a specially tailored package of 15 people," Maj. William Costice, commander, 689th RPOE said. "Our main purpose was to provide command and control and in-transit visibility."

For an SPOD mission, the 689th faces several challenges. Their mission was to maintain in-transit visibility of 95 Strykers through discharge from the cargo ship Green Point, staging, onward movement and reception at the forward node at Fort Lewis. To accomplish this, however, would take coordination and collaboration.

"In many ways, the JTF-PO serves as the maestro of an orchestra. As with any port operation, there are many different players in a mission like this," said Lt. Col. Robert J. Lehman, commander, 833rd Transportation Battalion and JTF-PO commander for the exercise at Tacoma. "Our goal is to get every player trained and synchronized with their piece of the operation so that when called upon, we all know what to expect and the mission is well executed."

In Tacoma, the players included the 689th RPOE, the 833rd Deployment and Distribution Support Team (DDST), and the contracted stevedores and trucking company moving the equipment. The current operational tempo prevents capable Navy assets from remaining on-call for contingency response, so for SPOD missions, the JTF-PO relies on civilian stevedores for heavy lifting, said Ford.

The Coast Guard provided water-side security, while Port of Tacoma Patrol and the Tacoma Police Department coordinated with the 833rd for security ashore. The mission also included PM Stryker personnel working the reset of the equipment, and the Fort Lewis Operations Center for coordination.

The 833rd DDST served two roles. In a JTF-PO SPOD mission, the RPOE is complemented by the local transportation battalion. In addition, the 833rd was carrying out its real-world mission in support of the redeploying Stryker brigade.

The establishment of a rapid response port element addressed the need for better intra-theater in-transit visibility, according to Ford.

"We've always had good visibility of strategic airlift, but in theater, once the equipment was off-loaded, we'd lose visibility," he said. "Once the enablers are in place, including the people and systems a unit like a sustainment brigade would bring, you can track what's moving. But they're not on notice to hit the ground in the event of a contingency."

With the JTF-PO in place, the standard throughput of the port of debarkation is 560 short tons per day with round-the-clock operations. This includes clearing the airfield of cargo and maintaining visibility for commanders on the ground. At a forward node, the RPOE tracks and organizes the equipment.

"In the past, some units lost visibility of their equipment," said Maj. William Costice, commander, 689th RPOE. "During Desert Storm, many containers and equipment were shipped to Kuwait without an efficient way to track them once in theater. As a result, a lot of equipment wasn't claimed by the owning unit. Our job is to arrive on sight before the deploying unit or commodities. Once our area of operation is established, we would track all equipment as it arrives to our location. This information is fed to a national server that allows every commander track their equipment as they would track a FedEx package."

Another benefit of the JTF-PO is the streamlining of coordination to establish or augment a deployment and distribution network. The capabilities required to open and operate these networks are dispersed among a number of services in both the active and reserve components. What previously required coordination with the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff can now be initiated with a phone call to USTRANSCOM. When the USTRANSCOM commander authorizes the JTF-PO for a mission, the RPOE Soldiers are standing by.

"They've got to be ready at all times. They have to have bags packed, bills paid, cars ready to store, and Powers of Attorney in place," Costice said. "They have to be ready to roll."

Costice recounts a recent call in which he received notification that the 689th might be called to return to Diego Garcia: "I immediately called the unit. Within an hour, the unit was ready."