By C. Todd Lopez
AFGHANISTAN (April 08, 2015) -- At its peak, in early 2011, there were nearly 100,000 U.S. Service members in Afghanistan, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, or OEF. Working alongside those Service members, were as many as 90,000 contractors working for the U.S. Department of Defense.
In June of that year, President Barack Obama announced the drawdown plans for Afghanistan - it would be slow at first, but it would ultimately result in a cessation of combat operations by the end of 2014.
As a result of that drawdown only about 9,800 U.S. Service members remain in country as part of Operation Resolute Support, or ORS. The follow-on mission to OEF is aimed at training, advising and assisting Afghan forces, but leaving security to the Afghans.
Bringing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan down from a peak of 100,000 troops to just 9,800 was a monumental task that required more than just sending Service members home.
As part of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, all the gear deployed to Afghanistan during the past 13 years had to go: combat vehicles and weapons systems, office equipment, and mission-support equipment.
Additionally, the military bases that had been in use since 2001, some 200-300 of them, needed to be returned to their natural state - desert in some cases. Other facilities had to be deconstructed to satisfy the requirements of those, who the facilities would eventually be turned over to: the Afghan government or the Afghan National Army, for instance.
A "team of teams" was required to tackle this monumental mission; no one command or agency could do it alone. The leader of the "team of teams" in Afghanistan was the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, or USFOR-A. They were the leaders and planners that gave the directive and provided the guidance for the equipment reduction process.
Orchestrating the execution and assisting USFOR-A with the planning of this enormous mission on the ground in Afghanistan was U.S. Army Central Command's 1st Sustainment Command (Theater), or 1st TSC. The "team of teams" in Afghanistan included support from a joint force, which Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Department of Defense civilians and contractors, who operated under the mission command of the 1st TSC.
To accomplish the mission, 1st TSC and USFOR-A depended heavily upon the strategic partnership with Army Materiel Command; Defense Logistics Agency; U.S. Transportation Command; the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command; U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, J-4; the CENTCOM Deployment Distribution Operations Center; Army G-4; and the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, and others.
"Our relationship with these strategic partners was the real key to success," said Maj. Gen. Darrell K. Williams, commander, 1st TSC. "This is the ultimate team sport."
Since June 2013, the 1st TSC, and its strategic partners had been executing their part of the larger Operation Drumbeat - run by U.S. Forces-Afghanistan - to close out the United States' 13 years of combat operations in Afghanistan. The 1st TSC portion of that mission was called Operation Reliable Tempo, or ORT.
"The team was already doing an excellent job of executing Reliable Tempo when I assumed command in January of 2014," Williams said. "Operation Reliable Tempo was our plan to execute Operation Drumbeat [ODB]."
Consumable supplies and materiel such as repair parts, barrier material and medical supplies processed through retrosort yards, where they were re-introduced into Army or service inventories in support of operations in Afghanistan or redistributed in support of other operations.
But not all equipment and supplies left Afghanistan, Williams said. Some equipment, based on estimates, regarding the cost of shipping gear home, stayed in country to be sold or disposed of. That was a task that, Williams said, the Defense Logistics Agency proved indispensable in achieving.
Equipment and supplies, deemed obsolete or not required for future Army readiness, were transferred to the Afghan National Security Forces to increase their readiness, or were disposed of in Afghanistan to avoid transportation expenses.
Equipment is returned to the United States and into the Army inventory for future contingencies and training missions. Army Materiel Command will reset and redistribute the equipment to units based on priorities established by Headquarters Department of the Army, Williams said. "Operation Reliable Tempo was a critical link in the process of moving equipment from Afghanistan and ultimately back into the hands of our Soldiers."
"We've always kept in mind that this retrograde, this drawdown of materials in theater was not a mission unto itself," Williams said. "It is a mission with an end. And the end is to build Army readiness."
Williams said that in their execution of the ORT retrograde mission, the 1st TSC mission planners and those who are responsible for executing the mission, kept in mind that all gear and materials brought into theater by U.S. forces had been paid for by the American taxpayer.
The 1st TSC had a responsibility to ensure that gear was brought home or that the value is returned to the Army. That is called "responsible retrograde." Also, part of the 1st TSC's responsibility was the tear-down of military bases in Afghanistan to return them to the Afghan people.
"As you looked around those base camps, you were essentially in a small city," Williams said. "In some cases, we literally had to turn it into the desert as it was when we first found it."
When the transfer of U.S. infrastructure created by the Americans could help strengthen the Afghan forces, bases were transferred to the government of Afghanistan.
In larger places, like Kandahar Air Base and Bagram Air Base, "it was a combination of reducing portions of the large bases to its original state, and returning portions to our Afghan partners. It was and continues to be an enormous effort," Williams said.
At the same time they retrograded equipment from Afghanistan, and assisted in shutting down base camps, the 1st TSC continued to provide logistical and sustainment support to the train, advise and assist mission, and to the other units conducting retrograde operations.
The 1st TSC had to conduct retrograde operations during an ongoing war at the same time they retrograde their organizational units - in effect, they painted themselves out of the room.
"On the one hand we were supporting the ODB plan," Williams said. "And then on the other, we were retrograding ourselves - personnel and equipment. That's was a daunting task."
Like ODB, of which it is a part, ORT was divided into four phases.
Back in June 2013, when ODB kicked off, the 1st TSC had not yet developed their own operations order that would allow them to effectively carry out their portion of the plan. That lack of direction for executing ODB was quickly remedied, said Maj. Gen. Duane A. Gamble, who served as the deputy commanding general of the 1st TSC, from July 2013 until July 2014.
"When I showed up in early July, USFOR-A's ODB order had already been issued," Gamble said. "And the first thing I asked was, 'where is the 1st TSC's operations order?' We didn't have one. The TSC spent much of Phase 1 writing our own order to support ODB with a synchronized effort not only from the TSC, but from all our strategic partners. That order is still in place today, and it complements and supports the ODB phasing."
The ORT operations order, Gamble said, identified supported and supporting commands, identified the main efforts the 1st TSC should focus on, and received the 1st TSC, 15th Sustainment Brigade, 101st Sustainment Brigade, 43rd CENTCOM Material Recovery Element, 39th Movement Control Battalion, 401st Army Field Support Brigade, and others focused on the mission.
"That really brought a unity of effort that was missing before the TSC writing its own operations order," Gamble said.
Most of Phase 1 of ODB was focused on "getting everybody's attention," Gamble said. "It was about making sure that all commanders and supporting agencies in Afghanistan understood that the USFOR-A mission was changing; that we had to posture the force for Dec. 31, 2014, while still executing the mission," he said. "We were still about 18 months out from the end of OEF."
Operation Reliable Tempo was the 1st TSC's formal effort to ensure the logistics enterprise, "team of teams," understood not only the new USFOR-A mission, but how the 1st TSC commander saw the orchestration of all support agencies in support of USFOR-A.
Because one key task in posturing the force was to reduce troop strength, one of the first steps the 1st TSC took in Phase 1 of ORT was to eliminate the 311th Expeditionary Sustainment Command headquarters, which included about 270 people. Gamble said that the 1st TSC could no longer afford to have multiple general officer-level logistics commands in Afghanistan.
"By Labor Day weekend 2013, we had taken our first giant step towards setting the 1st TSC up for 2014 - by eliminating one of the headquarters. That was one of the first steps towards the reduction of the footprint in Afghanistan," he said.
Outside the headquarters of the 1st TSC, on the ground, the 101st Sustainment Brigade, out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was busy executing its portion of the retrograde operation. Col. Charles Hamilton commanded the 101st Sustainment Brigade from June 2013 to February 2014 in Afghanistan.
Hamilton said its role was sustainment of forces - providing sustenance and supplies to more than 100,000 personnel in theater when his unit arrived. The 101st also heavily supported the tactical retrograde mission, in support of ORT. The brigade also conducted security for the convoys that brought gear from outlying bases back to Bagram Air Base, where it could be accounted for in the redistribution property assistance team, or RPAT, yards and also assisted in closing installations.
"There was no way I would have thought that we would have that many trucks on the road," he said. "I knew retrograde was going to be a huge part, but at that point, the ORT part had not developed. So the numbers were not there. I was prepared for retrograde - but not nearly the volume we got to."
To safely move cargo in convoys from outlying forward operating bases to bases like Bagram Air Base and Kandahar Air Base, Hamilton said the 101st ran convoy escort teams.
"What the CETs [convoy escort teams] do is, we move convoys from place to place," he said. "In mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, we've got a gunner and four or five Soldiers providing security to the convoy as we move stuff."
To prepare his own logistics team and units that attached to the 101st in theater for the rigors of participating in a CET, Hamilton trained them up in something he called the "Convoy Escort Team Academy." The CET academy amounts to three weeks of escort training followed by a written test. The academy, he said, provided confidence Soldiers needed to operate for the first time in theater.
One key aspect of the CET academy, Hamilton said, was that Soldiers, who participated learned that their actions had an effect beyond the tactical level. Their actions, he said, could affect the strategic direction of operations in Afghanistan - and participation in the CET academy let Soldiers know of that heavy burden.
"This being a critical, strategic time with all the elections going on, you had a whole bunch of dynamics above our head that were driving this thing as well," Hamilton said. The academy helped him train Soldiers to avoid what he called "strategic misfires."
"That could happen when someone decides to get in front of one of my CETs that is on mission, and someone is injured," he said. "That's got a strategic impact all the way back to the White House, possibly. So our guys have to be disciplined enough to know when they were being baited, and to know when somebody was trying to create a strategic engagement."
Hamilton said his team was responsible for 400 convoy escort team missions throughout 70,000 miles of "the most dangerous roads in the world," supported the closure of over 130 bases and forward operating bases - and was responsible for the movement of about 5,300 TEUs, or twenty-foot equivalent units of equipment to be retrograded. A TEU is a measure of cargo roughly equivalent to a 20-foot shipping container, such as what might be moved on a cargo ship.
By September 2013, ORT had reached Phase 2.
Maj. Gen. James M. Richardson, who served as the commander of U.S. Forces - Afghanistan from June 2012 to March 2014, said Phase 2 was the busiest time for the operation, when the most equipment was moved and the most bases were shut down.
"Phase 2 began right after the summer," Richardson said. "So the fighting season was really drawing down. So Phase 2 was going to be a big push to get our equipment out. So there was a lot of coordination and synchronization with Army Materiel Command, with U.S. Transportation Command and with all our enablers - it was mind boggling."
Richardson said that they had been used to moving around 400-500 pieces of rolling stock, or combat vehicles, out of theater each month. In Phase 2, that throughput increased substantially.
"We were jumping up to 1,500 to 2,000 pieces a month," Richardson said. "There were challenges. With the great support of our enablers, we were able to overcome those challenges, and meet our objectives for the end of Phase 2."
One of those challenges, a persistent problem, had been how to get cargo out of Afghanistan, Richardson said. Equipment had been leaving Afghanistan by air, or by ground through the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication.
"The majority of ground equipment went through PAKGLOC," Richardson said. "Many times the borders were closed and it would back our equipment up. Those challenges meant we had to work with U.S. Transportation Command to take that equipment we thought would originally go by ground, move it back to Bagram or Kandahar, and then fly it out."
Another challenge dealt with metrics - measuring how the operation progressed. Gamble said that initially, the metrics used for tracking retrograde progress "probably weren't the best."
One metric, used in Phase 1, regarded the turn-in of theater-provided equipment into RPAT yards, but not its departure from the yards. He said planners at ISAF Joint Command-level, the authors of ODB, had been "looking at it through the eyes of the tactical unit."
In Phase 2, he said, that metric was split into two measurements: stuff coming into the RPAT yards, and stuff leaving the RPAT yards.
Also in Phase 2, planners with the 1st TSC concerned themselves with what the theater should look like at the end of ORT, in preparation for ORS.
It was expected that there would be somewhere between five and 15 U.S. military bases left in Afghanistan at the start of ORS. Additionally, the president had said there would be 9,800 "boots on the ground" to conduct that mission. "It's a very de-scoped U.S. presence," Gamble said.
At the time, the 1st TSC was thinking of the future, to the very end of OEF and the start of ORS. "'What kind of retrograde and base deconstruction forces will we need?' The challenge in September 2013 was planning for the uncertain future that was going to come in about 14 months," Gamble said. "We intuitively knew that we had to plan for reduced forces, and force management levels well ahead of any political decisions that would be made."
Another critical aspect of Phase 2 of ORT involved changing the way subordinate units conducted operations, and the way the bureaucracy that manages complex operations is conducted.
Tactically, Gamble said, the 1st TSC had to change the procedures and processes that served Afghanistan very well for the last six to eight years of operation there. The bureaucracy - the processes and business rules and standard operating procedures that had served the Army well during the surge in Afghanistan and after in 2008 to 2011 - would no longer be good enough.
Additionally, he said, the 401st Army Field Support Brigade - mostly a contracted capability - was not designed to conduct retrograde operations at the pace required by ODB. He likened adjusting the mission of the AFSB from primarily supporting and equipping counterinsurgency or counter-insurgency operations to primarily conducting retrograde operations at a pace never before achieved in Afghanistan, to turning around an aircraft carrier.
In September 2013, the entire 1st TSC team, with the help of Army Sustainment Command and Army Material Command, or AMC, began the hard work to make just that happen.
"When an aircraft carrier is cutting across the ocean going full bore - it's going so fast the flags on deck are cracking in the wind. It's an impressive display of American military power," he said. "But then you put it in a harbor, where it can't use its own engines. You have these worn out little tugboats bumping it in the hull to turn it around."
Small, individually ineffective efforts -- like that of a single tugboat -- is what Gamble said the 1st TSC had been trying to do to get the AFSB "turned around" and transitioned from supplying a war fight, to deconstructing a war fight.
"It took us from September to October to make that happen." Gamble said. A return to "full steam ahead" for the 401st AFSB, in terms of changing its mission, meant strengthening the transportation part of its contracted capabilities.
"It wasn't until late in Phase 2 that I came to the realization that it's really the contractor - the contractor that does the transportation processing," he said. "We needed to modify the contract and put more capacity in there."
He said it took all of Phase 2 - from September 2013 to January 2014 - to make that change happen, but the broader logistics enterprise rose to the task. AMC not only modified the contract, but also deployed military and civilian transportation experts to quickly get to the required retrograde velocity.
Finally, Gamble said, a critical aspect of adjusting operations in Afghanistan to facilitate retrograde operations involved what is now called "enhanced options for cargo retrograde," and involves shortening the time it takes to get equipment out of theater.
Gamble said the standard had been 60 days from equipment entering the RPAT yards to being put aboard an aircraft. But he said that time needed to be adjusted, and needed to be variable.
"We were operating in a system that assumes you have 60 days from the time you turn in until the time you can ship," Gamble said. "But one day, we're not going to have 60 days. So that day is probably Nov. 1, 2014. So what are we going to do Nov. 1, 2014, when we don't have 60 days? What about after that? We needed a different process."
Gamble said that the 1st TSC worked with U.S. Transportation Command and U.S. Central Command, letting them know there needed to be a change to the way "strategic transportation" happened out of theater.
"We set out to practice that in November and December 2013," he said. "We set out to pretend that Dec. 31, 2013, was Dec. 31, 2014, and that we had a hard, deadline stop. It took some time to develop the agreement that a new, accelerated process was necessary, but by the end of Phase 2 of ORT, he said, they conducted an "accelerated retrograde proof-of-principle," setting up a "channel flight" to Kuwait.
"The big coup, if you will, in Phase 2, the big phenomenal difference, not only the progress we made getting toward the end, but the procedural changes, the increase in the transportation capacity of the AFSB, is the changing of how we did strategic transportation," he said. "We set up Kuwait as what we call an 'equipment intermediate staging base,' so we could fly equipment out of Afghanistan, into Kuwait, and hand it off to the other AFSB that we have in Kuwait."
Today, Gamble said, as a result of changes made to strategic transportation at the end of Phase 2 of ORT, equipment can move quickly to the 402nd Army Field Support Brigade in Kuwait, and that brigade does further processing there - including equipment cleaning to meet customs requirements in the United States - in an environment that does not have the same time restrictions that Afghanistan has.
Phase 3 of ODB and ORT began in January, while Phase 4 of the operation began in July. Operations in both phases were spearheaded by Maj. Gen. Jeffry Colt, USFOR-A deputy commanding general for sustainment, and Brig. Gen. Flem B. Walker Jr., commanding general, 3rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and deputy commanding general for 1st TSC, Afghanistan.