Of all the places to fight a war, Afghanistan would be almost last on anyone’s list. There are all the well-documented problems: awful terrain, primitive infrastructure, fragmented social and political structures, the ravages of thirty years of conflict and predatory neighbors. Afghanistan is also as far from U.S. logistics and support centers as it is possible to get. Moreover, access to the country is extremely difficult. There are few routes into the country and most of these go through politically and physically problematic terrain. So how does the United States support some 100,000 U.S. troops and some 50,000 Coalition soldiers?
The U.S. military has a history of doing the impossible when it comes to supplying its forces overseas and allies. The U.S. Air Force basically invented aerial delivery of supply. In World War Two, the Army Air Corps moved thousands of tons of supplies over the Himalayas into China (the Hump). The Air Force supplied the entire city of Berlin for more than two years. Less well known was the Ledo Road, a 1,300 mile road built by the U.S. Army between Burma and China over terrain as bad as that seen in Afghanistan.
Once again, the U.S. military has risen to the challenge of supplying distant forces over inhospitable terrain. The traditional supply routes into Afghanistan through Pakistan were constrained by the limited road network, weather, lack of security and the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations. Beginning in 2008, the U.S. military began to plan for new supply routes to Afghanistan. Rather than trying to get to Afghanistan from the south, the U.S. military decided to try and supply Afghanistan from the north. This route is called the Northern Distribution Network (NDN); a new Silk Road across Central Asia. This new supply route moves from the United States, across Europe to Estonia and Georgia and from there through Russia and/or several former Soviet republics before entering Afghanistan.
Not only is the route new, but it is being operated in a revolutionary manner. The strategy, according to the commander of U.S. Transportation Command, Air Force General Duncan McNabb is to “use existing commercial resources, infrastructure and processes to move DoD non-hazardous, non-lethal cargo through Central Asia into Afghanistan.” The actual movement of supplies is handled by three commercial carriers; Maersk Line, Hapag-Lloyd and APL. These companies not only ship the supplies across the oceans but manage the flow of supplies across Eurasia, contracting with trucking firms and railroads, dealing with customs and border security in half a dozen countries, and ensuring timely and accurate delivery to bases in Afghanistan. Refrigerator truckers, called reefers, starting in Latvia are moving foodstuffs through the Salang Pass on a daily basis. The goal is to be able to use the new Silk Road to move 1,400 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, a month.
The NDN provides important lessons for the future as the U.S. military contemplates responding to crises in other parts of the world. The most important lesson is to leverage commercial carriers. Private logistics providers were already handling the delivery of supplies from the South. But their experience in managing multi-mode transportation systems and experience in the countries of interest allowed Maersk Line, APL and Hapag-Lloyd to rapidly create a new logistics system. The entire U.S. government could not replicate the accomplishments of these three companies. Leveraging commercial carriers also serves to reduce the U.S. military footprint. Another lesson is to multiply supply routes in order to reduce vulnerabilities and stresses on available infrastructure. A third lesson is wherever possible to employ local citizens in the supply chain effort.
The U.S. military is conducting what for it is a revolutionary type of campaign in Afghanistan. The success of this effort will depend, in part, on the success of an equally revolutionary approach to supplying U.S. and Coalition forces in that country.
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