As we go to press with this issue, the whereabouts (and even survival) of Saddam Hussein remain in question. The fate of his regime, by contrast, is certain. Military forces from the United States and Great Britain have successfully—and with decisive velocity—defeated the much vaunted Republican Guard and other forces loyal to the deposed despot.
We've seen some genuinely innovative and even ground breaking reporting from the war zone, much of it based on technology that brings live battle coverage as close as a (satellite) phone call. Yet little has been said of the immense logistics operation that supported the drive to Baghdad and beyond.
Imagine the challenge of establishing and then maintaining a supply line that snakes through the desert for 500-plus miles—from Kuwait in the south to Turkey in the north. As is often the case in the private sector, the solid logistical foundation for that achievement received little notice despite the sheer mass of people, materials, provisions and equipment involved.
An old military adage comes to mind: "Good generals study tactics. Great generals study logistics." And it appears that the coalition forces have studied logistics well in the years since the first Gulf War. The logistics group's performance in 1991, previously regarded as one of the most successful modern day military logistics operations, wouldn't have cut it for this second goround in the Gulf. The preparation and shipment of heavy equipment—tanks, trucks, fighting vehicles, helicopters and parts—took more than three months to accomplish for the first Gulf War. This time it was completed in less than three weeks.
What made it happen? Considerable study and analysis of the 1991 Gulf War's logistics operations, for one thing, and a big jump forward in technological capabilities, for another. This time around, commanders relied heavily on wireless, digital communications and state-of-the-art systems that gave them intransit visibility of supply convoys. For example, in what became a very fluid battlefield with frequent route changes, convoy drivers could be notified of changes via wireless e-mail.
The overall objective was to synchronize the combat units' needs with the arrival of the supply convoys. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) To make this happen, main supply distribution centers were established initially in both Kuwait and Turkey. As the troops drew nearer to Baghdad, so did the distribution network. Interim DCs were established along the line as more and more territory was secured. It was a true logistics marvel.
Now, the supply line that was so instrumental in destroying Saddam Hussein's regime becomes the backbone of humanitarian relief and postwar reconstruction efforts.
Although the soldiers on the front line know better, logistics is generally not the stuff of guts and glory. As in the private sector, logistics operations don't get much notice unless something goes wrong. If, for instance, the 3rd Infantry Division had arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad only to wait for fuel and ammunition, we most certainly would have heard about it on the nightly news. But that didn't happen. And so, we heard nothing about the lines of supply.
There's a bit of irony here. Ask those who lead soldiers into battle, and they'll tell you right away: "Logistics wins wars." History supports their claim. Again and again, battles' outcomes have depended on getting fighters and weapons to the right place at the right time. It's been this way since before Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants to claim victory. Maybe someday, people will notice. But then again, maybe they won't. Perhaps that's how it should be. Perhaps remaining transparent to all but the closest observers is the true measure of logistics' success.