Getting the Beans and Bullets `Over There'

PRESIDENT BUSH'S decision to send an additional 200,000 troops to the Persian Gulf is sending shudders throughout the Pentagon. It is there that the less glamorous but, in the case of a shooting war, arguably the most important work gets done, the work of keeping the American military machine fed, clothed, and equipped. The grunts on the front lines have a keen awareness of what ``logistics'' means to the success or failure of their mission. That awareness has now seeped up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. Alfred M. Gray, the Marine Corps commandant, who recently returned from an inspection tour of the Gulf, was sharply critical of the logistics system he found in place there.

Little wonder. The United States is engaged in one of the largest military deployments since World War II. When the president's additional deployment is fully implemented, Operation Desert Shield will engage a third of the army's total forces. In all, troop strength will nearly equal that dispatched to Vietnam at the height of the war.

Supplying a force that size - far from home and in a hostile desert environment - is a monumental task. For example, each soldier must be supplied with between six and eight gallons of fresh water daily, over 3 million gallons a day for the full force. In addition, supplies must be stockpiled for 60 days in anticipation of combat.

Stockpiling supplies for use in wartime has always been the poor relation for the military. There's nothing sexy or exciting about being responsible for stock rotation in the warehouses that contain the ammunition that would be consumed in war. There are far better and faster ways to get promoted. And squeezing funding for stockpiled supplies out of the budget process in Washington is all but impossible when money for logistics competes with exotic hardware like the B-2 Stealth bomber or political pork like obsolete bases and unnecessary projects that members of Congress know mean jobs back in the district.

Neither are sealift and airlift - the capacity to deliver supplies to the front lines - likely to win a military officer promotion or a congressman reelection. Almost routinely, funding for military sealift ships is shifted to procure combat vessels.

Some of these chickens are coming home to roost. For Operation Just Cause in Panama, a minuscule operation compared to what is taking place in the Gulf, the Military Airlift Command (MAC) used half its available capacity. With 55 C-130 sorties, 254 sorties by C-141s, and 99 sorties by C-5s, MAC hauled 19,500 troops and 11,700 tons of cargo in six-hour flights from Florida.

The Gulf operation has already overloaded much of our logistics network. MAC aircraft have flown more than 4,600 missions delivering more than 170,000 passengers and 159,000 tons of equipment to the Saudi peninsula. Cargo priorities and the challenge of maintaining the MAC fleet have already forced most supplies to take the far slower sea route. (Our largest air transport, the C-5, eats up 180,000 pounds of fuel on the 15-hour journey and can hold only one 60-ton M-1 battle tank.

Sealift is no panacea in war. Our fastest sealift ships, used to transport the 24th Armored Division from the US to the Persian Gulf, took 17 days. Conventional ships take 30 days or more for the passage. Even when the materiel arrives in Saudi Arabia, it is estimated that an additional 10,000 trucks are required to bring the supplies to the front where it would be needed.

Today, as in Vietnam, US officials are counting on weapons and training superiority to carry the day. But no amount of high-tech gadgetry, personal motivation, and courage can overcome a logistics breakdown. If war comes, American casualties will undoubtedly be higher and victory take longer because we have neglected this bread-and-butter of military preparedness. If we manage to avoid war, we must ensure that logistics is given the priority that every man and woman on the front line knows it demands.

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