Bob Curran's e-mail signature says it all. Above the usual contact info—name, title, address, cell phone number—the nickname of the unit under his command is spelled out in bold capital letters: "ROAD WARRIORS!"
For U.S. Army Major Robert Curran, that's no figure of speech. He's not just another peripatetic business exec shuttling between the Pasadena and Cleveland branch offices; for him, "road" means the dusty supply routes criss-crossing Iraq, and the "warriors" are 510 soldiers whose job it is to move food, water, ammunition, medicine, clothing and the like out to soldiers in the foxholes.
Curran currently serves as the Executive Officer of the 181st Transportation Battalion in Mannheim, Germany, a tactical truck force that hauls supplies out to the Army's V Corps combat troops. From June 2003 to February 2004, he served as Operations Officer of the same battalion, overseeing the activities of nine subordinate truck companies, 1,100 soldiers and 300 Iraqi contracted drivers, who moved 12 to 15 convoys' worth of equipment parts, ammunition, bulk fuel and rations to soldiers in Kuwait and Iraq each day. Major Curran recently checked in with DC VELOCITY Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald, first from Germany and then from Iraq, to share his insights into military and wartime logistics and the surprising similarities between defense logistics and private commercial operations.
Q: Tell us about your background. Have you always been interested in logistics?
A: Yes, my career has always centered on distribution and logistics. From my teen years unloading fishing boats on the docks of Gloucester, Mass., to college summer jobs—delivering packages for UPS, pushing beer kegs for Anheuser Busch and working with my brother Barry's airfreight forwarding company (Hub Air International)—all my previous jobs were tied to distribution.
After I finished school (Boston College on an Army ROTC scholarship), the Army made me a transportation officer, which kept me on the logistics career path in locations around the world. In 1991 I served with the 24th Infantry Division pushing tank ammunition across the Iraqi Desert during the 100-hour ground war. Later at Korea's Port of Pusan, I prepared and trained the units to provide reception, staging, onward movement and integration of troops and equipment through the port. In Haiti in 1995, I was the officer in charge of all air and sea movement of supplies to and from the island during Operation Uphold Democracy.
In 2001, however, I found myself working in distribution/logistics in an entirely different capacity. I had the honor of serving as the assistant professor of military science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Lieutenant Colonel Brian Baker, the professor of military science. That was a great opportunity to give back to the cadets some of the insights and experiences I've had throughout my career. Many of my cadets have graduated and are now serving proudly in the War on Terror as commissioned officers.
Q: What was your role in Operation Iraqi Freedom?
A: I served as the Operations Officer in the 181st Transportation Battalion during Operation Iraqi Freedom I from June 2003 to February 2004. As the primary ground transportation unit for the Army's V Corps, we managed the transport of everything from food and water to critical equipment parts and ammunition.
My specific mission was to manage the movement of supplies from our Theater Distribution Center (TDC) located in Kuwait to our Corps Distribution Center (CDC) in Balad (Iraq), and from there out to 120,000 V Corps soldiers. That meant overseeing the movement of up to 300 trucks and 500 soldiers and contracted Iraqi nationals pushing supplies in 12 to 15 convoys daily, and doing it on a tight deadline. Once the supplies arrived in Balad, the cargo was unloaded and separated into customer lanes for the next day's push to the various front-line distribution centers that served the area units. CDC personnel then worked through the night re-loading trucks. Colonel John Gardner, my brigade commander and a leading logistician in the V Corps, set our throughput goal at 24 hours for follow-on movement of supplies from the CDC. That meant I and my supply manager counterpart in the CDC, Major Bob King, had to carefully consider how to deploy both my transport assets and his CDC personnel to minimize time and maximize tonnage transported. It was certainly the most challenging, yet rewarding, job I've had so far.
Q: What skills did you draw on most in Iraq?
A: The skills I drew upon would be familiar to any logistics or supply chain manager. Distribution on the battlefield is similar in many ways to distribution in the corporate world—you have to weigh variables like throughput volume, velocity, accuracy and lift capacity—to come up with the right balance to keep your customer happy. Our mission at the Corps Distribution Center in Iraq was very similar to the mission of Wal-Mart's distribution centers in the states. We had to get the required supplies to the appropriate front-line unit on time and in good condition. We had to choreograph the movements of everyone from the forklift and truck drivers to managing officers and contracted civilians to load, move and off-load 7,500 tons of supplies on 300 trucks driving on average 25,000 miles a day. We had to make sure all the people in our distribution network team were aware of the system in place and knew who to call in each location to solve any problems that might arise. My challenge was to clearly communicate to all the players and weigh all the distribution variables to strike the right balance.
Q: That does sound similar to a civilian operation.
A: It is similar, but there's one crucial difference: In Iraq, it's not just logistics, it's a war and the bad guys are trying to kill you. That meant other factors were brought to bear on the operational decisions. Force protection weighed heavily in our decision-making process, and we had to find a balance between timely, accurate service and protecting our soldiers.
Q: How did you protect yourselves while still executing the distribution mission?
A: It wasn't easy. The enemy saw the supply convoys as the best target for attack and as a result, much of the fighting in this war has been waged along Iraq's supply routes. In fact, we lost two Iraqi contractors and had 18 soldiers wounded while traveling along the ground transport distribution network. Each day, we had to weigh the risks of force protection, route selection and timely mission accomplishment while keeping the throughput volume and velocity of tonnage the same to meet requirements.
Of course, security tended to take precedence over other considerations because our ability to execute the distribution mission was in direct correlation to how well we protected ourselves and our equipment. My unit's nickname was the "Road Warriors," and we lived up to our name by maintaining an aggressive focus on security, both in the way we conducted ourselves on the road and in the way we adapted our equipment. My commander, Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Maskell, gave us free rein to use our ingenuity in producing shields made of steel, wood and sandbags to protect gunners from enemy fire as well as improvised explosive devices. One soldier suggested we construct gun mounts to increase our convoy firepower, so we fabricated 50 gun mounts produced from a design by Chief Warrant Officer Wayne Glass. This effort, combined with protective 1 ?-inch steel shields made by the soldiers in the 181st fabrication shop, called "Skunk Werks," produced a very formidable truck fleet.
Q: What strategies did you use to defend a convoy traveling through a war zone?
A: To begin with, we had to be quick. In peacetime distribution, our convoys will travel 35 to 40 mph. In this environment, however, we had the "need for speed" to avoid becoming a target. We aimed for a faster, yet still safe, speed of 50 to 55 mph on the open highways to protect against improvised explosive devices. We found that a convoy with vehicles 50 meters apart going 50 mph was very difficult to hit. In one attack, the enemy became so desperate that they abandoned their usual roadside bombing tactics and instead sent a speeding car ahead of the convoy to drop a fused bomb on the road, hoping to time the explosion to the moment our trucks passed through. That bomb blew up between two trucks and shattered a windshield, yet the soldiers were unharmed and were able to complete their mission.
Besides speed, we also used what we called "Tiger Teams" of soldiers in armored Hummers, which we sent to secure high-threat areas like bridges and intersections with .50 caliber mounted machine guns and grenade launchers. They stayed close to a convoy so they could deflect the enemy attacks and allow the convoy to keep moving. On more than one occasion, the arrival of the Tiger Team and the fire power it brought to bear proved devastating to the enemy.
That's not to say that the convoy itself was left unprotected. Each convoy had at least three "Mad Max" gun trucks—trucks with the protective steel shields and heavy weapon gun mounts. Each vehicle also had a rifleman riding shotgun in the cab passenger seat. We felt that the alert posture of our soldiers, combined with the aggressive look of the armored vehicles and weaponry, caused many insurgents to let us pass on by.
Q: Tell us about the Iraqi contractors who supported your distribution operation.
A: Although we used an internal Army fleet of trucks in our distribution system, we also integrated Iraqi contracted trucks into the network. The contract we drew up with a large local Iraqi transport company was a resounding success, but as with any subcontracting arrangement, there were a few hitches. For example, because of our unique circumstances, each Iraqi truck and driver had to be searched, managed, commanded, controlled, staged and escorted by soldiers to ensure security and mission accomplishment.
Q: With host nation Iraqis working directly for you, were there any concerns about being infiltrated by the enemy?
A: The unfortunate fact was that in this environment you just couldn't trust anyone. We would assume the worst and made sure we had stringent security measures in place. As it turned out, our security was tight and the southern Iraqi tribal group that made up the company was very close knit, and we never had an incident with a driver.
Unfortunately, however, our Iraqi contractors did become targets of the enemy. The Iraqi transport company's owner, Eunice, was killed, shot twice in the chest at close range on his way home from work. I had come to know Eunice well through contract negotiations, meetings and day-to-day business interactions and found him to be an honorable and intelligent businessman willing to risk his life to defend his own and his countrymen's freedom. After his death, his brother, Abbas, stepped in and continued his work.
The Iraqi contractors who rode in our convoys also became targets of numerous ambushes. We lost one Iraqi driver to shrapnel wounds to the head from an improvised explosive device, and four others suffered shrapnel and gunshot wounds while on convoy but survived. On several occasions the contractor's civilian office and motor pool were attacked by gunmen and management fended them off with weapons we had licensed to them.
Q: How did you manage and communicate with convoys scattered across Iraq?
A: We actually used satellite systems, but that's a fairly recent development for us. A decade ago, Army transportation units were dependent on FM communication devices that were unreliable over long distances. Then in 1996, I toured the facilities of Schneider National Trucking in Wisconsin, which was using what was then a cutting-edge system—a Qualcomm satellite system—to communicate with every truck in its fleet. Managers who once had to wait for drivers to call in from a truck-stop pay phone noticed right away that the satellite messaging and tracking device streamlined their operations, increased their command and control, and most of all, provided flexibility to react to changing missions. This device had brought ground transport distribution from the Dark Ages into the modern world and I was anxious for the Army to adopt it.
Fast forward to 2003, by which time I, too, found myself totally reliant on satellite systems to communicate with my convoys to track, inform and exchange any vital information. The ability to provide operational instructions of changes to missions via satellite greatly enhanced our operational effectiveness. Not only were we able to streamline operations and react to changes to mission quickly, but on several occasions we ordered medical evacuations of wounded personnel based on satellite messages, which saved lives. As the Army carries out its mission of outfitting every vehicle with a movement tracking and messaging system, our distribution networks will continue to improve.
Q: Did you face any DC challenges in the Iraq operation that you just weren't able to overcome?
A: I'd have to say the one challenge that dogged our operation was mis-shipments. In any distribution operation you strive for 100-percent accuracy in your delivery. At the Corps Distribution Center, we averaged about 95-percent accuracy with 5 percent mis-shipped. This was due in part to the balance dynamic of distribution variables. We were willing to accept this 5 percent to maintain the high velocity and volume variables of the CDC operation. The CDC was designed as a throughput center, not a break-bulk or packaging center; we relied on depots in Kuwait and in the states to do that for us so we could maintain velocity at the front. We continue to improve the accuracy variable with the onset of RF-tag technology, and I expect our efficiency in this area will improve greatly in the near term.
Q: What does the future hold for military distribution? What's the next big thing?
A: I truly believe that the Army is on the cusp of a revolution in military logistics. I feel the catalyst for thisrevolution will be the Future Tactical Truck System (FTTS)outfitted with a Movement Tracking System (MTS). TheFTTS, which is expected to be deployed in 2008, willreplace all medium and heavy wheeled cargo vehicles.
Q: What's a Future Tactical Truck System?
A: The FTTS vehicle, which is similar to the Army's contemporary Palletized Load System (built by Oshkosh Truck Corp.) but far more advanced, comes with MTS technology built in and features a hydraulic lift arm that elongates and lifts commodity cargo racks onto its bed. This eliminates the need to use material handling equipment to load and off-load trucks. Altogether, the Army projects that FTTS will replace three families of vehicles, five interface devices and two delivery platforms as well as reduce the use of eight different pieces of material handling equipment on the battlefield. The net result will be a seamless distribution system that relies on only one type of vehicle, with the inherent efficiencies in maintenance, parts inventories and training. Combined with a movement tracking system and radio-frequency tag technology to track cargo, this vehicle will have a significant, positive impact on the Army's distribution system in the future.
Q: What lessons do you think the Army can learn from the civilian world?
A: Although the Army may execute its mission to a high standard and even work miracles on the distribution battlefield, I believe there are still logistics lessons to be learned from top tier civilian operations. If I were to borrow distribution concepts and technologies from three corporations and apply them to the Army's distribution system, I would look at the performance of Schneider National Trucking and its effective use of MTS; the performance of Wal-Mart's distribution centers and their ability to track supplies and get the right amount to the right place at the right time; and the performance of Federal Express and its mastery of the hub-and-spoke distribution system. I am very optimistic that with the addition of MTS and RF-tag technology combined with the Army's Future Tactical Truck System, we can achieve the same kinds of efficiencies attained by our counterparts in the civilian world in the not-so-distant future.