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Moving Mountains From Iraq

As an embedded reporter with the 3rd Infantry Division in spring 2003, I recall soldiers began packing up their vehicles and equipment to ship it all home within days of the fall of Baghdad, convinced they would never return.

Of course we’re all familiar with what followed: Iraq in chaos, insurgency and a change in orders. The anticipated speedy withdrawal turned into a long term occupation. As more and more troops arrived in Iraq over the years and hundreds of U.S. bases popped up around the country, the mountain of equipment there has grown.

Now, much of that gear has to be sent somewhere, most of it to Afghanistan or back to the U.S. And some will stay in Iraq. After all, to comply with the Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement, the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, or 37 brigade equivalents, must be out by December 2011. Some of the vehicles and equipment shipped there during the past few years is probably so badly battered that it makes more sense to just leave it for the Iraqis to use or to become landfill. The Army and DoD plan to ship back to the U.S. only equipment that has value for future military operations.

Some quantity of the thousands of armored Humvees shipped to Iraq, replaced on the roads by MRAPs, will be sold to Iraq and other countries. Non-standard issue equipment such as computers, telephones, gym equipment and some 30,000 vehicles operated by contractors, will also be sold to the Iraqi government, according to an October 7 Congressional Budget Office analysis.

The reduced list of vitals still includes roughly 37,000 military vehicles, some 400 helicopters, communications gear, small arms, medical equipment and thousands of tons of ammunition; all in all around 80 shiploads of material. Sealift isn’t a problem; the U.S. strategic sealift fleet has more than enough capacity.

One of the problems faced with moving all this materiel is that it must first make its way to ports in Kuwait. There is one major highway from Iraq to Kuwait and a single border crossing; an arrangement that made securing convoys on the run to Baghdad easier, but it creates a chokepoint when trying to rapidly flow forces out. CBO cites an Army estimate that says those constraints mean only three brigades can exit Iraq per month.

A second impediment to a rapid exit is the limited capacity of the vehicle wash racks in the Kuwait staging areas to clean vehicles prior to loading. All equipment is washed and sterilized so that no pathogens or other hitchhikers are transported out of the country, CBO says. The Army estimates the wash racks can handle at most four brigade equivalents per month.

CBO says the flow of equipment can be accelerated by driving trucks, tanks and other tracked vehicles out, rather than loading them onto transports. The study notes that the first major rotation of forces in Iraq occurred over six months from December 2003 through May 2004 when 37 brigade equivalents left the theater; an exit rate of six brigades a month.

As for the wash racks in Kuwait, CBO points to the rapid exit of U.S. troops from Kuwait in the days following 1991’s Desert Storm. There were no U.S. bases in Kuwait at the time and the Saudis wanted the U.S. out after the war, so there was really no choice but for an expedited withdrawal. Wash rack capacity near the Kuwaiti ports was expanded to 2,000 vehicles per day! Nearly 130,000 vehicles were cleaned and shipped in four months; a removal rate of 33 brigade equivalents per month.

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