Archives/Subscribe | October 10, 2011

The upsides and downsides of logistics By Alice Fordham

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An army marches on its stomach, none more so than the American army in its last two wars, as anyone knows who has eaten a lobster followed by Baskin-Robbins ice cream on a base in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

Over a decade of fighting, these bases grew to the size of towns, and as tactics changed, new vehicles, weapons and personal equipment were needed. All of this -– from food and fuel to weapons and water bottles – has been conveyed to far-off troops in one of the world’s biggest logistical operations, via land, sea and air. 

In a new book, "From A to B," war correspondent David Axe explores the vast logistical underpinning of the military and the way it has come to define the way its wars are fought. 

It is America’s greatest military strength, he said in an interview. "Because the U.S. possesses all these ships, planes, trucks and hundreds of thousands and drivers and crew, because the Pentagon has all this expertise and capability, the U.S. military is able to fight anywhere in the world, more or less at any time." 

This unprecedented power is also dangerous, Axe says. "When you can do something," he says, "you end up doing it even if you shouldn’t. The U.S. has become mired in conflicts we can’t find a way out of, and one of the reasons these conflicts are so bloody and expensive is because they are logistically incredibly demanding." 

It would be hard to find somewhere as difficult to fight in as Afghanistan, he says. Landlocked, mountainous, surrounded by Iran, Pakistan and China, with terrible airports and worse roads, there are no easy ways of importing the means to fight an increasingly resource-intensive war. "In a sense, we’d almost be better off if we couldn’t supply them, because then we wouldn’t fight these wars in the first place," says Axe.
It was partly an awareness of the resources necessary to transport food in vulnerable convoys that moved Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, to ban fast food outlets from bases in Afghanistan. "His argument was that we’re not going to risk American lives shipping frozen pizzas into Afghanistan through Pakistan," says Axe. "And the financial cost has caused panic, so you see a push to reduce some of the luxury on the bases."

But where the military encounters logistical problems, it also finds solutions, and "From A to B" examines the cross-pollination between the military and civilian world in the development of new technology. Axe embedded with a convoy driving from Kuwait into central Iraq in 2005, and the book’s description of the low-ranking soldiers vulnerable to attack is powerful. "The supply units ‘did the biggest part’ in the war and ‘got no props for it,’ says Jeremiah Cumbee, a 23-year-old specialist. ‘We are all expendable,’ reads one sad scribble in [one unit’s] latrine."

The heavy toll on the soldiers and contractors driving vast convoys across Iraq led to a push in the military for improved robotic technology - self-driving vehicles, operating on a kind of souped-up cruise control. They were never deployed in Iraq, but the technology was taken up by American motor companies and is being developed for civilian vehicles. 

Axe is a child of Detroit, whose family worked with cars and who remembers being taken to a factory by night by his engineer father and being "awestruck, it was beautiful and powerful." His hope is that these borrowed technological advances will invigorate the motor industry. Whatever the disadvantages of the huge scale of the logistical operations, he says that ultimately, "The U.S. benefits tremendously from having a globally deploying military. The civilian economy benefits."


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