Retrograde Lessons: Learning from Afghanistan’s Logistical Nightmare

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Civilian contractors work to drain a large puddle following a winter rain at Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan, Jan. 31, 2013. The yard holds armored combat vehicles that have been inspected and processed in preparation for shipment to the United States.

In dismantling and repatriating the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, guidelines for the next war – or humanitarian catastrophe

In a scene from the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Prof. Severus Snape describes potion-making as a “subtle science and exact art.” Those words could well describe military logistics.

Much has, of course, been written about the exact art and subtle science of moving troops great distances; of feeding them and housing them; of equipping, arming, and resupplying them while the fight rages; and of bringing them—and their material support—back home once hostilities draw to a close. Mention the topic to logisticians in uniform, and you’ll probably hear some version of the line, “Amateurs talk tactics, but professionals talk logistics,” a quote often attributed to General Robert H. Barrow, the 27th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

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For the past 11 years, logisticians have had their hands full in Afghanistan. For one, the country is land locked and far from a seaport. The terrain, especially in the strategically important east, is covered with mountains; and the country’s road network is much less advanced than the one in Iraq. Over the years, the Air Force and Army airdropped supplies on remote bases, from large parts for military vehicles parachuted out of airplanes to “Speedballs,” body bags filled with water and ammunition, that could be tossed out of a helicopter to resupply troops under fire.

For most of the past decade, the logistical focus has been on getting equipment out to troops fighting in remote areas. “Doctrine states when you’re starting an operation, it’s always a push,” says Major Rosendo Pagan, executive officer of the 18th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. But with less than 23 months before the vast majority of U.S. troops are out of Afghanistan, logisticians have focused much of their efforts on what Pagan calls “the pull phase”: bringing equipment back from far-flung outposts.

In addition to combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Pagan has served as a logistics advisor in U.S. Southern Command, working with militaries in Central and South America. He served as a logistician during the Haiti earthquake relief. Any humanitarian mission, he points out, is a giant logistics operation, and after relief supplies have been distributed, retrograde of military property must play an earlier role.

Pagan is part of the CENTCOM Material Retrograde Element (CMRE), a group of logisticians and engineers designed to help combat units “retrograde”—military parlance for disassembling and repatriating–their equipment before they rotate home. They have base closure teams, which help units tear down outposts, and Forward Retrograde Elements who travel far out into the battlefield to help sort through what must be shipped home, destroyed or given to local Afghans. Still, much of the equipment from the field makes its way back to Bagram Airfield, where in a large open yard, Pagan’s troops oversee a small army of civilian contractors sorting and preparing gear for shipment.

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One of the first considerations is cost: is it worth the trouble and expense to ship a given item home? A quick trip around the yard reveals hundreds of white four foot by four-foot cardboard containers called “kicker boxes,” each of which costs $1,200 to ship back to the United States or other military depots around the world. As Pagan rummaged through a random box, he pulled out several small pieces of gear worth about $20,000 each. Many of the boxes, he explained, can contain as much as $200,000 worth of equipment.

As retrograde has become a larger focus, these sorting operations have increased dramatically. When Pagan arrived in Afghanistan eight months ago, they were processing the equivalent of 250 twenty-foot containers of equipment each month; now they are averaging 278 per week, with shifts working 24-hours a day.

Similar operations are taking place on the other side of Bagram, where the 401st Army Field Sustainment Brigade handles Theater-Provided Equipment, known to the troops as TPE. For years in both Iraq and Afghanistan much of this class of equipment, especially armored vehicles, stayed behind and was handed off from unit to unit. Now, the TPE is finally going back.

After units close their bases in the Afghan countryside, many drive their vehicles to Bagram (for others who are farther out, the vehicles are hauled in by contracted truck drivers). Coming off the battlefield, most of the vehicles are filthy and stuffed with ammunition. Troops from the 401st clean the vehicles and check for ammunition four times, combing through the cracks and crevices with long metal tools and lipstick cameras, because if live ammunition is found later, it could shut down an entire port. At the end of January, the 401st estimated that it has shipped more than 400,000 pieces of equipment from the country: 1.3 million pieces worth $13.5 Billion were in use throughout the country, down from 1.7 million pieces worth $18 billion a few months ago.

(MORE: Afghanistan’s Big Sort: Separating Trash from Treasure in a Container City)

The urgency of the retrograde is a reflection of both the scope and the time left on the clock. Logisticians talk about capacity and velocity–how much they can move at what speed. The CMRE is designed to increase velocity; with combat operations ongoing, planes and helicopters are still needed to sustain units advising Afghan troops, and the retrograde mission is not yet humming at full capacity. But the earliest piece of the puzzle is accountability. Property managers from the 401st estimate that 20% of their inventory is unaccounted for, that is, no field commander has signed for it. But as units pull out of bases, more and more of that equipment is resurfacing. In 2012, troops closing down bases found nearly 24,000 pieces of equipment valued at over $300 million previously unaccounted for. Some of that is being redistributed to other units, but most of it is being shipped home.

So how does the military do better next time? After every operation, both training and combat, units conduct an After Action Review and publish lessons learned from the campaign. Logisticians at all levels of the retrograde in eastern Afghanistan are beginning to synthesize what they’ve learned so far. For the 401st, which collected equipment from the 30,000 surge troops that left the country this year, moving from a 100 ft. by 100 ft. concrete pad to three 60,000 square ft. warehouses allowed them to process the material from those units in just a few weeks. The young enlisted soldiers tasked with tearing through the vehicles looking for errant ammunition redesigned some of their tools to better poke into cracks and crevices to find loose rounds.

For the CMRE, which handles greater numbers of smaller equipment, retrograding from Afghanistan provides obvious lessons for future campaigns. “Retrograde is nothing new,” says Col. Douglas McBride, commander of the CMRE. But starting to reduce equipment stockpiles earlier is “a culture shift,” he says. “If we’re knee-deep in combat operations, the natural tendency is to hold on to materiel for contingency operations, just in case.”

Pagan sees those lessons being written into future doctrine for logisticians. “I think we’ve learned a lot from this operation,” he says. “From now on, we’re going to integrate, very early in the stages of any operation, retrograde operations.”

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