You may not have given much thought to how military supplies get to remote corners of Afghanistan, but it's an all-consuming subject for Brig. Gen. Kristin French. As commanding general of the 3rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), which recently deployed to Afghanistan, she and her organization are responsible for seeing that any goods for U.S. and allied forces moving through that troubled country get to where they're needed on time and intact.
A 26-year Army veteran, French received her commission in 1986 after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She served in command positions at the company, battalion, and brigade levels prior to taking command of the 3rd ESC. She deployed to Croatia, Kuwait, and Iraq before this tour in Afghanistan.
Most recently, she served as the executive officer to the director, Defense Logistics Agency, and military adviser to the assistant secretary of defense for logistics and material readiness at the Department of Defense (DOD). She spoke to DC Velocity Editor at Large Steve Geary in June at her office on Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan.
Q: The 3rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) provides "theater logistics command and control for the theater commander." What does that mean in layman's terms?
A: The 3rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) is a headquarters organization with several sustainment brigades assigned to it. It coordinates sustainment operations throughout the country. Once a truck or convoy delivering fuel, water, or other supplies crosses any border into Afghanistan, it becomes our responsibility to manage it and to get it to the warfighter. We provide all the food, ammo, and other supplies as well as the maintenance, transportation, and other requirements to sustain our forces.
Q: How many people are in your command?
A: We have multiple supporting organizations that have both military and civilian personnel assigned to them—government civilians and also civilian contractors. We have up to 5,000 military soldiers working under the command, as well as thousands of civilians and contractors—up to 20,000 is a good round number for the civilians who fall under our control. So, about 25,000 people is a reasonable estimate for the 3rd ESC's logistics operation here in Afghanistan.
Q: How much freight are you moving on any given day?
A: The day-to-day numbers vary due to the weather and the requirements, but what I can do is paint a picture. Right now, we have 91,000 service members serving in Afghanistan. Take that number and add on the contract support and the civilians who are here from the government plus the DOD civilians, and it's a big number.
If you do the math, it's about 200,000 personnel that we feed on a daily basis, three meals a day. That is a lot of food. We also provide them with all the fuel they need, all the ammunition they need, and again all the other supplies. Generally, in a day, we'll move over 2,000 personnel across the battlespace.
Q: So it's like a big city in difficult and challenging terrain?
A: Absolutely. We like to say that we support a city about the size of Fayetteville, North Carolina, or Richmond, Virginia.
Q: You have been deployed since April. What has surprised you?
A: Well, I had the opportunity to come into Afghanistan on several visits before I deployed my units here. I got to see a lot of the terrain with some senior DOD leaders, so I knew what to expect. I will tell you that I really wasn't surprised at the Afghanistan environment, but I am humbled at the challenges we have due to the terrain here.
We have the Hindu Kush mountains in the north. We have a lot of snow forming on the tops of the mountains even today in the middle of June. Then, you go down south and you have the prevailing winds that cause dust storms in the low terrain. You have high humidity up in the northern part of Afghanistan. On the border with Iran, you again have high humidity.
The terrain and the conditions are very difficult, very unaccommodating, but we still have to do our job.
Q: As we've previously noted in this magazine, there are only three basic ways in and out of Afghanistan on the ground. Last November, Pakistan abruptly closed its two border crossings. Yet the U.S. military, together with its commercial partners, hasn't missed a beat. How are you managing to support both sustainment and retrograde in the face of such a disruptive event?
A: Several years ago, our strategic planners looked at ways to get supplies in and out of Afghanistan. They found multiple options and multiple courses of action if one of our sustainment routes was disrupted. They had the foresight to look at the northern distribution network and create an alternate way to get equipment and supplies into Afghanistan.
Lo and behold, as you mentioned, last November, Pakistan closed our two major borders into Afghanistan. The Torkham gate and the Chaman gate closed, where we were bringing through a good amount of our supplies for Afghanistan. We had to rely on alternate means. We ended up using the northern distribution network. [Editor's note: In July 2012, Pakistan reopened the Torkham and Chaman gates.]
Q: There has to be a lesson in there for private-sector logisticians. What can we learn from the military's readiness for an unanticipated event?
A: Remain agile and flexible. The big thing is to pivot, to shift and change your current operations based on the constraint you are facing. The military is able to, even though we are a pretty big organization. We can't change overnight, but we can and do take a look at different courses of action and do our best to have multiple approaches to get at the same problem.
Q: What I heard you describe, though, is not just being flexible and agile, it is also finding the time and the resources to be looking over the horizon and try to see what might be coming and being prepared to respond. Is that fair?
A: Yes. It is very important that we are all talking and that we understand what is coming up. Planning is not just the next day or the next week but the next month, the next three months, and possibly the next year. We have to look out. We can't just react to what happens today or tomorrow, or we will never succeed. With the closure of the Pakistan border, people thought it would devastate the military, but as you have seen, it didn't. You have to be prepared to shift and be flexible as different challenges come up.
Q: You've had the opportunity to serve directly under two respected senior leaders in the DOD (and previous DCV Thought Leaders), Vice Adm. Alan Thompson and Alan Estevez, when he was the assistant secretary of defense (logistics and materiel readiness). Are there any particular lessons you learned?
A: I saw that you really can trust your instincts. They both had many years of experience and had been in different situations; that allowed them to think on their feet, and they drew on that every day.
You need to trust your instincts. If you see something that you know isn't going the right way or notice a good practice that you want to pick up for the rest of your command, you should grab it. Trust that your instincts will carry you through and help you succeed.
Another thing they both do very well is acquaint themselves with the capabilities of subordinate commands and units. They took the time to get out and learn about their subordinate organizations and their subordinate units' capabilities.
They also spent a lot of time listening to their subject matter experts. They both were willing to bring in the specialists and hear them out and have them help formulate ideas as part of the decision-making process. You can't know everything, no matter how much you have experienced in your career. You really need to use those specialists to help you make better decisions.
Q: Are there any additional thoughts you'd like to share with us?
A: It is a great time to be a logistician in the Army. We train hard back in the United States and across the different military installations to tone our specialties, our crafts. When we get the call to deploy and help fight for another country's freedom and to show them how the military and the United States of America are able to assist them in gaining their goals—it is just an amazing opportunity. I couldn't have asked for a better way to serve my country, and to be the commander of the 3rd ESC here in Afghanistan has been an absolute honor for me.