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Building a War: As Some Argue, Supply Lines Fill Up

November 10, 2002|William M. Arkin | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-Mail:

WASHINGTON — In all the to-and-fro of debate over whether the United States should or will wage war against Iraq, almost no one was paying attention to Maj. Gen. Kenneth Privratsky. Outside the tight little world of the Military Traffic Management Command, almost no one had even heard of him. Yet Privratsky's former assignment may tell us more about the true intent and direction of the Bush administration than all the diplomatic pronouncements, political maneuvers and United Nations debates put together.

Privratsky was busy shipping thousands of tons of military equipment and supplies to the network of new U.S. bases that have sprung up like dragon's teeth across Central Asia and the Middle East. Among the resources he was using was the Russian railway system.

"I never imagined that I would be involved in shipping cargo through Russia," the former Traffic Command chief says, seeming a little awed to have found himself running Army supply trains through the heartland of his former Cold War enemy.

An army marches on its stomach, Napoleon famously observed. There is no more voracious military stomach than the U.S. armed forces. And since the war on terrorism began with Americans fighting in Afghanistan, the Defense Department has moved with notable agility to extend its globe-girdling capacity to march. It is this massive buildup of military capabilities -- and the way it ropes in reluctant partners, sometimes publicly and sometimes privately -- that shows where senior officials in the Bush administration are headed.

Some analysts have suggested that U.N. weapons inspections may reduce the likelihood of war. That is not how senior White House and Pentagon officials see it. None believes Saddam Hussein will permit effective inspections, but they see the U.N. effort as a win-win situation: The inspections process will improve the political climate for eventual action and buy time for the Pentagon to get ready. The war that Bush and his team think is necessary and inevitable will thus come with the approval of both Congress and the U.N. Meanwhile, one of the main practical obstacles to war with Iraq will have been dealt with: The enormous infrastructure needed to supply and sustain today's armed forces against Iraq is being constructed on the foundations of the system created for the war in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan war, initiated just 26 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, set in motion the third-biggest airlift effort in history, after the Berlin airlift of 1948-49 and the allied buildup following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But it was not enough. Sea-lift and surface shipments were needed too. Ships carried ammunition, military supplies and humanitarian aid to Persian Gulf and Pakistani ports for American and coalition forces to the south and west. In the north, containers were unloaded at ports in the Netherlands and Germany, in the Russian Arctic, on the Black Sea, and in Vladivostok in the Russian far east.

These shipments made their way to U.S. forces operating for the first time in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and the jumble of other 'stans, using a complex system of rail lines that included those of the former Soviet Union and its old satellites. The Russian system was especially fragile, ground down by decades of communist mismanagement and neglect. But U.S. logistics specialists and U.S. materiel made it work. The new system could not only handle vastly larger quantities of material but do so at substantially lower cost. For example, flying the first 1.4 million humanitarian rations into Afghanistan cost more than $7 per meal; sending the next million rations via surface transportation cost just 15 cents per meal.

By the time Privratsky and his colleagues had the surface routes fully operational, they were handling 92% of all military cargo used in Afghanistan. Today, that system is being retooled for Iraq. Many bases in the Persian Gulf region can serve as well for war in Iraq as they have for Afghanistan. And the reduced scale of military operations in Afghanistan -- along with greater allied military involvement there -- is freeing up resources for the next conflict.

To understand the scale of the effort underway, one must look at the Pentagon's evolving war plans. Prior to Sept. 11, Central Command's blueprint for war with Iraq, OPLAN 1003-98, calculated that 10 airfields and six seaports would be needed to sustain air, ground and naval forces. As the plan has evolved, force levels have grown and the requirement for airfields and seaports has risen to 18 and 13 respectively. OPLAN 1003-98 calls for more than 60,000 short tons in supplies a day, the equivalent of some 3,500 tractor-trailers driving the distance from Tampa, Fla., to Savannah, Ga., every day -- or 5,000 flights by C-130 Hercules cargo planes.

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