Down the Line, Snafus by the Truckload

Supply problems dogged the 3rd Infantry Division as it rolled closer to Baghdad. Who's to blame, the Fedayeen or Central Command?

By Frederik Balfour

Major William Gillespie squinted at the desert sky as he watched the Chinook CH-47 cargo helicopters land near our temporary encampment some 120 miles from Baghdad. "This is a score, this is awesome," exclaimed Gillespie, who coordinates supplies for the Division Rear of the 3rd Infantry Division (3ID). "This is a minor miracle."

Miracle? It's Day 15 of the war, and the cause for Gillespie's delight is the arrival of spare engines, transmissions, and lubricants, which he has been awaiting since hostilities began. With these supplies, the army can finally go to work on maintaining tanks, trucks, and Humvees subjected to the rigors of the desert campaign.

That Gillespie should rejoice in what should have been a routine delivery speaks volumes about the logistical problems that have plagued the army. "The system just hasn't worked the way it was supposed to," he says. From what I can tell, there frankly doesn't seem to be much of a system at all. In times of scarcity, what passes for a system just breaks down. "Everyone's screaming 'Me, me, me!'" says Gillespie. "It's very sectarian."


  Negligence is also to blame. Consider the recent water fiasco at the 3ID. Whoever loaded trucks in Kuwait neglected to cover the cargo with a tarpaulin. Somewhere during the 300 miles to our temporary supply point in Iraq, it rained, causing cardboard boxes to disintegrate. When the trucks arrived, all soldiers could do was push the soggy cargo off the back. Observing the damage, Major John Chadbourne, second in command of the 703rd Battalion of the 3ID and the man who coordinates logistics, shakes his head in despair. "A little extra time to put tarps over those boxes would have prevented that catastrophic pile of crap we have there now," he says.

Another day in the life of soldiers responsible for keeping the 20,000 troops of the 3ID stocked with food, water, fuel, ammunition, and other supplies. Because the packaging of the water shipment broke apart, it's now impossible for Chadbourne and his team to truck some 130,000 water bottles -- about 60% of the load -- to the front lines. Instead, units have been told to come to our supply point and pick up whatever they can by hand -- an ad hoc arrangement that flies in the face of logistical doctrine.


  As a reporter embedded with the division's D-Rear logistical unit, I've seen many such supply snafus in the first two weeks of the war. The military brass in Washington and Central Command in Qatar blame bad weather and greater-than-expected resistance from Iraqi Fedayeen irregular troops for stretching the coalition's supply lines thin. From my vantage point on the ground, I keep thinking an outfit like this in the private sector wouldn't stand a chance against the likes of DHL or FedEx.

Just ask Major Nick Snelson, executive officer of the 3-7 Cavalry Squadron, about the headaches of trying to recover damaged equipment from the battlefield. He tried vainly for three days to get the folks at Udairi airfield back in Kuwait, to fly in a Chinook helicopter to airlift a Kiowa chopper damaged in the fight. In the end, the Kiowa bird was just left behind. "This tracking system just isn't working," exclaims a visibly frustrated officer. "The army could hire a smart Masters graduate who could fix this mess in a day."

A big part of the problem is lack of communications equipment. In the lead up to the war, the 3ID used most of its budget to equip fighting vehicles with digital communications to give commanders "situational awareness" on the battlefield. But the logistics guys for the most part got left out. For example, the 703rd battalion -- the unit I'm traveling with -- has just 143 radios between 800 vehicles, most of which are limited range FM radios.


  Bad planning was also to blame. That became painfully apparent the first day our convoy left Kuwait on Mar. 21. In no time, dozens of trucks were mired in the desert sand. Some had even tipped over. I discovered later the cause of the mishaps: Drivers trained on automatic-transmission vehicles back in the U.S. had only had a few hours to learn how to drive with a clutch before we left Kuwait.

The army is now taking steps to make things run more smoothly. The 3ID has stopped trying to ship bottled water, and will rely on sources pumped out of the ground and purified using a reverse-osmosis method similar to those found in kitchens all over the U.S. What was nearly a week's pause enabled supply lines to catch up with the front, allowing units to replenish depleted stocks of food, fuel, and ammo. That's welcome news, as U.S. forces continue to close in on Baghdad.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The logistics of the 3ID may soon improve. In a lightning advance, the leading elements entered Baghdad on Apr. 3 and captured Saddam Airport.

Balfour, who is usually based in Hong Kong, is an embedded correspondent covering the war for BusinessWeek.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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