By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
April 2, 2010 - With 60 percent of the surge force, along with their equipment and supplies, yet to be delivered to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama's August deadline, the commander charged with making it happen said he has assured commanders that everything is on track. Air Force Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, credited the close cooperation between the transportation and logistics communities as among the contributing factors why Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, will get the forces he needs, on time, and with the distribution network required to sustain them.
"I never want them to worry that we won't get the stuff through," said McNabb, referring to McChrystal and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command. "My job is to come up with options that allow us to make sure that no matter what the situation, or no matter what happens, ... we have other options so they never have to worry. And they never do worry."
To ensure mission success, McNabb is banking on a three-pronged strategy based on ground supply routes from both the north and south and delivery of troops and high-value military equipment by air.
And in a pinch, McNabb said any one of those means could handle it all.
"What I am hoping to do is have enough capacity in the south, through Pakistan, to be able to handle it all, and enough capacity from the Northern Distribution Network to handle it all," McNabb said today during a joint interview with The Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service. "And if I had to do it all by air, I could do that. So that is what I push for all the time."
Ideally, McNabb hopes to limit air deliveries, which cost about 10 times more than ground deliveries, to about 20 percent of the total. But should security or weather conditions interfere with overland deliveries, he called air his "ace in the hole" to keep the troop and supply chains flowing.
Despite huge logistical challenges – mountainous terrain, limited infrastructure and the risk of attack – McNabb called surface movement a big success in supplying operations in Afghanistan.
About 80 percent of supplies bound for Afghanistan previously flowed through the Port of Karachi and up through Pakistan. That's down to about 50 percent, McNabb said, since the United States opened the Northern Distribution Network last year.
That network flows from Baltic and Caspian ports through Latvia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan into Afghanistan.
As he and Petraeus approached these countries about opening the route, McNabb said he was impressed to find broad support and an understanding of the importance of the Afghan mission in promoting regional stability. "Every one of those countries said they were glad to help," he said.
The Northern Distribution Network delivered its 10,000th container to Afghanistan yesterday, McNabb said, noting the network now handles about 30 percent of all ground supplies. Typically, the shipments consist of fuel, lumber, construction supplies and other non-military materials.
"What that has allowed us to do is move that type of equipment through the north to make room for the movement of additional forces and military equipment to Afghanistan through Pakistan," he said. "It really has paid big dividends."
McNabb downplayed news reports about the security risks of ground deliveries. Less than 1 percent of containers have been subjected to attacks or pilferage, he said. McNabb attributed such supply effectiveness to the fact that host-nation trucks and drivers are used whenever possible to make the deliveries, and that the nations involved support the mission.
"Everyone is working very hard because they understand how important those supply lines are," he said.
But to reduce convoys and helicopter deliveries, particularly to supply forward operating bases, operators on the ground are increasingly relying on airdrops, McNabb said. In 2005, 2 million pounds of equipment and supplies were airdropped in Afghanistan. In 2009, that was up to 29 million pounds. By the end of this year, it's projected to rise to 60 million pounds.
"That changes the dynamics," McNabb said, noting airdrop delivery of supplies reduces the need for convoys and frees up helicopters for other missions. "It's a huge capability for General McChrystal."
Ultimately, McNabb said the success of the transportation and logistics pipeline boils down to cooperation, teamwork and attention to detail in ensuring all the moving parts move in synch.
"Like NASCAR, you win the race in the pits," he said. "And in many cases, that's making the whole system go faster."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recognized this teamwork yesterday as he traveled to Scott Air Force Base, Ill., Transcom's home base, to personally present Transcom the Joint Meritorious Unit Award.
With Petraeus at his side, Gates praised Transcom for its support for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for its humanitarian support mission following the Haiti earthquake.