June 19, 2014
special report | Defense

The big retrograde

The big retrograde

The Pentagon is in the midst of the largest reverse logistics operation in history—the return of enormous amounts of military equipment and goods from Afghanistan.

By Steve Geary

At the start of the Cold War in 1948, the Soviet Union blocked access to rail, road, and canal traffic to the sectors of Berlin controlled by the Allies. In response, the air forces of the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa began delivering supplies to the city by air. After nearly a year and 200,000 flights, the Soviets gave up. The Berlin airlift had worked. It remains one of the most notable achievements of U.S. policy in that period—a triumph made possible by an enormous and well-coordinated logistics operation.

Now, at the end of a very different war, the U.S. and its allies are undertaking an even greater logistics effort. After more than a decade of moving goods and people into Afghanistan, the military has only a few months to move things out to meet a year-end deadline set by the president. When the operation is complete, it will have been the single largest logistics effort, military or otherwise, in history. According to Alan Estevez, the most senior logistics official at the Pentagon, "Afghanistan is a logistician's nightmare." But in an interview with Bloomberg, he also expressed excitement about the challenge, calling it a dream.

As for the scope of the endeavor, last April, The Economist estimated the military had to move out "as many as 28,000 vehicles and 40,000 shipping containers of equipment. In military jargon, the whole action is 'the retrograde.' Shifting that much kit, with an estimated value of $30 billion, is daunting enough. The retrograde itself will cost as much as $6 billion and involve about 29,000 personnel, for the American part alone ..."

Accomplishing a project of that scale requires more than a little innovation. To pull it off, the military has assembled the most complex logistics network the world has ever seen. And as formidable as its lift capability may be, the days when the U.S. military had enough equipment to make it happen by itself are long gone. The plan is to make heavy use of commercial carriers.

Unfortunately, the effort does have one thing in common with the situation in Berlin—there are no good surface movement alternatives. Military logisticians have to launch the retrograde from a starting point within a landlocked country bordered by Iran on one side, Pakistan on another, and the Central Asian Republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) on a third.

Relations with Pakistan have settled down enough to allow surface movement to Karachi. Still, the government of Pakistan can shut down that route at any time, as it has in the past, so there is risk.

Even if the government of Pakistan doesn't interfere on this leg, the Taliban often does.

To create a safety net, another route has been developed. A newly built 50-mile-long railroad spur drops down into the country from Uzbekistan in the north, increasing the capacity of what used to be just a truck route. But much of the freight moving north through the Central Asian Republics ends up crossing Russia en route to the Latvian port of Riga.

Lately, things have been a little tense with Russia.

So, air freight figures heavily into the exit. Bagram Airfield has been improved and improved again, and it is now the busiest flight line operated by the Department of Defense anywhere in the world. One of the Bagram runways is over two miles long, able to land any aircraft in existence.

The runway is the anchor for an extraordinary multimodal program, operating under the understated handle of the "Multimodal Contract." The military couldn't rely on the surface lanes to get everything out and it couldn't afford to fly everything all the way home, so it has put together a hybrid multimodal program that includes air, sea, rail, and truck.

In all, five teams are participating in the program. Among them is a team led by Liberty Global Logistics, a U.S.-based multimodal transportation and logistics company that specializes in heavy equipment and rolling stock, with its partner, UPS's global government operations group, which provides logistics and technology services to government customers.

The multimodal program includes a surface leg to get goods to an aerial hub in Afghanistan, most often Bagram, then an air leg to get them out of Afghanistan to a trans-shipment point, usually Dubai. From there, the move includes a journey by sea back to the United States, where the cargo may move by rail, but more often truck, and sometimes both, to the final destination. The only mode missing is a pipeline.

Army Colonel Glenn Baca, chief of operations for military surface deployment and distribution command, says the multimodal program "allows us to meet the president's timetable." He adds that considering that we're "in the middle of a conflict in a landlocked country on the other side of the world, it's been a big success."

The thousand-mile hop to Dubai enables the military to bypass the risks associated with surface movement out of Afghanistan. The port in Karachi wasn't designed for the volume and type of cargo it has been handling for more than a decade, and therefore, is extremely inefficient. The flight also dodges the border crossings, where hundreds of trucks can be backed up in either direction. It avoids the risk of ambush or attack. And, of course, the uncertainty of Russia is not a factor when you are airborne and headed southeast.

As for how much cargo is being flown out, Lloyd Knight, director of UPS's global government operations group, reports that the volumes in the program change frequently. "At times, we'll handle several dozen aircraft in a two-week period, and other times, we'll manage just one or two flights per month." These are not small aircraft. They're often 747s, or IL-76 and AN-124 aircraft that can handle oversized loads that won't fit in a 747.

"Since the beginning of the program, we have moved more than 150 million pounds," Knight continues. "If it fits on an aircraft, it's moved in the program." Since the multimodal contract was awarded in 2012, Liberty and UPS, just one of five teams transporting freight, have moved thousands of pieces of equipment out of Afghanistan.

Knight offers some advice to those considering doing business in unusual locations. "Find the right partners. We found partners who are reputable, safe, and reliable." Liberty Global Logistics echoes this advice. Bob Wellner, Liberty's executive vice president, and Mike Chapell, its director of operations, emphasize the strength of their partnership with UPS. "Our standards for business are very similar to theirs; both parties set the bar for performance and compliance very high. There is a substantial level of trust."

Wellner and Chapell also salute the partnership with the Department of Defense. "What the United States government has been able to accomplish in conjunction with private partners is incredible."

About the Author

Steve Geary
Editor at Large
Steve Geary is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Tennessee's College of Business Administration, and is on the faculty at The Gordon Institute at Tufts University, where he teaches supply chain management. He is the President of the Supply Chain Visions family of companies, and Chief Operating Officer at ROSE Solutions, consultancies that work across the government sector. Steve is a contributing editor at DC Velocity, and editor-at-large for CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. He is listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in Science and Engineering, and Who's Who in Executives and Professionals. In November of 2007, Steve was recognized for "Selfless Service to Our Nation and the People of Iraq" by the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

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