Afghan Ops and the Logistics Bite of the DoD Apple President Obama has committed to a major new phase of the Afghan campaign. With the substantial mission expansion comes a significant demand for new resources to deal with the most ignored part of operations to the outsider, logistics and sustainment costs.
Afghanistan is not Iraq, to quote General Petraeus. This is true in multiple ways, but no more so than in terms of operations and logistics. The geography and terrain in Afghanistan require what the Marines call “distributed operations,” and with what the Corps calls “expeditionary logistics.” And such logistics require air assets to connect deployed forces, and with those air assets come significant energy and basing costs. For example, two million pounds of cargo were air dropped in theater. For September of 2009, the Air Force air-dropped nearly four million pounds with an estimated 20 million pounds to be air dropped for the calendar year.
The cost per deployed soldier in Afghanistan will be multiples higher than for the deployed soldier in Iraq. Dependent on which analyst is doing the assessment, the number ranges from two to four times higher.
Not only are direct costs significant, but security considerations are as well. There are few major airfields out of which to operate; these airfields provide targets for the use of bio or chemical weapons to disable those airfields.
And the surge carries with it a withdrawal imperative. This means that ramping up forces in country entails the very significant logistics costs of withdrawal as well. If we know anything from the experience of the current withdrawal from Iraq, logistics, even in the best of circumstances, costs tens of billions of dollars to execute a withdrawal.
And of course, the surge is not just American. Allied engagement is inextricably intertwined with the Obama administration's allied policy. Logistics sustainment and supply in extreme environments and over significant distances will have to be performed for coalition forces, as well as for U.S. troops. And these efforts will operate from the same staging areas, whether air or ground basing. There are a limited number of airfields from which lift will be performed in Afghanistan. There are a smaller number of depots in Afghanistan than in Iraq from which to mount supplies for ground forces. So another cost associated with logistics will be the significant buildup of infrastructure in Afghanistan to support troops and operations.
Another cost to consider will be increased pressure to recapitalize the air infrastructure, which provides for the warfighter. The costs for modernizing C5s, adding C130s and C17s, the acceleration of the A400M, the rebuilding of the US tanker fleet, the entry of the new A330 allied tankers (UK and Australian tankers will arrive significantly before any new U.S. tankers which are yet to be contracted, let alone procured) must be considered. The significant increase in air dropping required for Afghan operational support will require modernization of the fleet doing the air dropping.
There will be significant geopolitical costs to logistics supply as well. The US and its allies will use land routes over Russian territory and are discussing the same with the Chinese. Some Americans have protested the proposed French sale of the Mistral ship to the Russians, but such activities might become more normal as costs are extracted by the Russians for support for the Afghan engagement. What we know about Russians is that their support is never free.
There has been a virtual war on contractors inside the Beltway, but they have provided crucial logistics support. Contracting support for the war will go up not down. This war will have to be ended and peace declared.
The variability of energy prices and currency fluctuations, generally, will be significant factors shaping the cost of operations as well. The general global economic dynamic will have a direct impact on the cost of the commodities used in the operation.
Rotorcraft investments are crucial to engage in this operation. The efforts to provide for enhanced improvements by NATO through collaborative maintenance of helos operating in Afghanistan is significant. (http://www.sldinfo.com/?p=41). Yet the acquisition of new birds will be necessary to support the effort and with these aircraft defense measures might well need to be funded as well.
It is clear that simply to list the logistics imperatives underscores the high costs for the engagement. And if these costs are not paid for through significant defense supplementals, there will be a rapid contraction of the defense investment accounts. And these contractions will come at the expense of the global power projection capabilities already at risk in the department’s funding. The US could see a further shift from global presence to land-locked engagement.
And these costs will be joined with the very significant costs of the withdrawal from Iraq. (http://www.sldinfo.com/?p=2644). This withdrawal will take at least two years.
So the challenge will be to provide logistics support for Iraq withdrawal at the same time that the US and its allies are doing a significant ramp up. If the surge is successful, it will be followed by a ramp down in Afghanistan. So if you want to follow the money in the US defense budget, you better look at logistics and its consequences for Afghanistan and Iraq. We are likely to see the Acquisition, Technology and Logistics department of the Pentagon become the Logistics, Acquisition and Technology department and, if they are not careful, the name will become LATE.
Dr. Robbin Laird is an international defense consultant and co-founder of Second Line of Defense, a website which focuses on logistics, sustainment and concepts of operations.