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Sustainment Essentials of the Persian Gulf War

Discussions of the logistics of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm often concentrate on the problems that logisticians faced when deploying a large amount of material to Saudi Arabia. The author writes that despite these problems, a deployment of this magnitude in such a limited time was an amazing feat.

February 2011 marked the 20th anniversary of the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Four essential factors led to the logistics success achieved during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. First, force projection through strategic lift capacity was tremendous. Second, dedicated logistics command and control structures ensured that effective and efficient leadership existed. Third, joint reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (JRSOI) functions put the right capabilities in the right place at the right time. Finally, adequate sustainment of the Soldiers and their associated systems ensured operational reach and reduced the risk of early culmination for the force.

Strategic Lift
The magnitude of this deployment exceeded any previous deployment in U.S. history. In the span of just 4 months, the United States moved approximately 1,000 aircraft, 60 Navy ships, 250,000 tons of supplies and equipment, and 240,000 military personnel over an aerial distance of 7,000 miles and a nautical distance of more than 8,700 miles.

Pre-positioned ships contained the equipment of 2 Marine expeditionary brigades and 30 days of supplies for the 33,000 Marines who would fly in from the continental United States to provide an initial ground force within 10 days of notice.

The U.S. Cold War strategy built an enormous strategic airlift capacity with Active and Reserve military fleets and the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). In activating the Reserve component fleets and CRAF, the United States had used only 39 percent of its full airlift capacity. By 10 March 1991, situation reports from the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) reported that 16,203 strategic airlift missions had carried 500,720 passengers and 543,548 tons of cargo for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. TRANSCOM sealift assets had carried 3,048,532 tons of dry cargo and 6,103,015 tons of petroleum.

These were astounding accomplishments by a force of persevering movement managers, considering that transportation management systems were not yet fully automated, early plans did not include exact destinations, and a lack of synchronization created inefficiencies in setting priorities.

In 1993, a RAND study, "Army Experiences with Deployment Planning in Operation Desert Shield," concluded that "support systems hindered operations." The Joint Operation Planning and Execution System at that time focused on deployment and planning and did not fully support mobilization, employment, and resupply activities.

However, at the end of the war, President George H. W. Bush publicly commended the deployment by saying, "No other nation could have even contemplated an airlift of this scale." Power-projection capability was a critical enabler that quickly gave the combatant commander options for arranging missions in anticipation of major combat operations.

Logistics Command and Control
As the number of deploying forces increased, so did sustainment requirements, overall complexity, and lines of communication connecting the combat units with their organic support structures. Because the XVIII Airborne Corps initially deployed its combat forces without its corps support command (COSCOM), the 1st COSCOM (which arrived months later), U.S. Army Central (ARCENT) established a provisional, general officer-level support command. Lieutenant General William G. Pagonis commanded the provisional 22d Support Command, which later became the 22d Theater Army Area Command after the VII Corps arrived along with its 2d COSCOM. Effective logistics command and control was essential for executing the JRSOI tasks.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia granted the United States, along with its western allies, essential access to seaports and airports, which allowed them to establish the intermediate staging bases critical to accomplishing JRSOI. Using existing infrastructure proved significant to staging forces after reception. According to a 1991 report by the General Accounting Office, "the Marine Corps used a new [Saudi Arabian] port at Al Jubail as its primary debarkation point and theater supply depot." The Air Force occupied existing Saudi Arabian "air bases that had airfields with hangers, living facilities, and mess facilities."

The U.S. Central Command established six logistics bases along two of the main supply routes (MSRs) within Saudi Arabia. Three logistics bases were set along the Tapline Road that ran generally east to west along the Kuwait-Iraq border, and three more logistics bases were set along MSR Dodge, which arced up through the middle of Saudi Arabia. Both MSRs offered excellent interior lines for the onward movement of forces. Each logistics base offered food, fuel, and ammunition to the onward-moving armored forces.

Integrating the ground forces from the assembly areas into the attack position required over 1,300 heavy equipment transporter trucks, of which only 112 (9 percent) were U.S. Army assets; most of the rest were provided by allied or host-nation partners. Before the start of the ground offensive, the VII Corps moved more than 330 miles and the XVIII Airborne Corps moved more than 500 miles. Moving two corps consisting of a combined eight divisions and two armored cavalry regiments was a monumental feat. Sustaining them was an even bigger one.

Adequate Sustainment
During the 6-month buildup of Operation Desert Shield, the VII Corps conducted maintenance on its vehicles. As a result, on the day that the Operation Desert Storm ground offensive began, operational readiness (OR) rates were 92 percent for M1A1 Abrams tanks, 92 percent for M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, and 95 percent for AH–64 Apache attack helicopters. However, it was not enough simply to build combat power. Logisticians also replaced lost combat potential. By the fourth day of the ground attack, OR rates remained high at 91 percent, 90 percent, and 94 percent respectively.

The XVIII Airborne Corps also maintained high OR rates on the first day of the ground offensive operation: 97 percent for Abrams tanks, 98 percent for Bradley fighting vehicles, and 90 percent for Apache helicopters. By day four, only the Apache helicopter OR rate had declined, down to 88 percent.

Army divisional units deployed with a 30-day supply of repair parts on hand through authorized stockage lists at direct support units and prescribed load lists at end units. The Air Force also benefited from the extensive buildup. Its aircraft OR rates averaged 93 percent despite the number of flight hours being two to five times higher than for normal stateside use. Air Force personnel boasted that they never missed a mission because of a lack of repair parts.

During the 6-months of Operation Desert Shield, each Army division daily consumed 345,000 gallons of diesel fuel, 50,000 gallons of aviation fuel, 213,000 gallons of water, and 208 40-foot trailers of other supplies ranging from barrier materials to ammunition. Saudi Arabia provided supplemental frozen or fresh food, including fruit, juices, and water, to augment the A-rations, T-rations, and meals ready-to-eat from the U.S. military supply systems.

General Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commented, "Deterrence is only credible if we possess a robust means of power projection and the mobility to deploy and sustain our forces." Adequate force projection, dedicated logistics command and control, viable JRSOI, and vigorous sustainment were essential factors for the overwhelming logistics success achieved during the Persian Gulf War. These four essential factors highlight just a few aspects of the artful balancing of resources during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, in which logisticians planned, coordinated, synchronized, monitored, and controlled logistics excellence.

Today's logisticians, who have been working in a mature theater for several years, can learn from the successes and failures of the logisticians who were responsible for rapidly opening a theater 20 years ago.

Lieutenant Colonel Joseph R. Kurz is the deputy director of J–5 Future Plans for the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command–Afghanistan. He holds a bachelor's degree in public administration from the University of Central Florida, a master's degree in logistics management from Florida Institute of Technology, and a master of military art and science degree from the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a graduate of the Armor Officer Basic Course, the Combined Logistics Officers Advanced Course, the Logistics Executive Development Course, and the Army Command and General Staff College.

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