On April 7, 2004, the war in Iraq turned a corner. It was the day that the insurgency showed a more capable face than previously seen by launching a coordinated sabotage of the roads upon which U.S. supply lines depend. The attacks were so effective that they derailed U.S. logistics operations for a week. It also changed the way the Army's support command had to do business from that point on.
Brig. Gen. James Chambers, who until a recent promotion was the commanding officer of the 13th Corps Support Command in Iraq, described this obscure turning point in detail. The 13th COSCOM is one of only four throughout the active Army. The command's mission is to provide combat support and combat service support to units of III Corps in the areas of supply, maintenance, transportation, field services, medical engineering construction and decontamination.
The stress of operations in Iraq is changing the doctrine and equipment of the command in fundamental ways, said Chambers, who will become director of sustainment at the Pentagon. In his new job, he will draft policy and oversee equipping of these support units, which drive convoys through long stretches of Iraqi roads to deliver supplies.
Many of the components of Chambers' command linked up for the first time in Iraq. "We built the team in place, on the run," he said. But by the end of the one-year tour, the men had bonded and developed "more of a warrior kind of mindset." Attacks became a daily occurrence, he said.
To Chambers' eye, contrary to the comments of other observers, the frontline of the war against insurgents in Iraq is linear. The major road used for resupply ran south to north, with one major east-west branch at Baghdad. It can take a combat support unit nine full days to deliver supplies from Kuwait to a northern city, like Mosul. "When you look at the distances involved ... there's no way to secure those roads. The philosophy has to be, you have to protect the things moving on those roads."
In some places, houses push right against the road, providing cover for insurgents triggering improvised explosives or firing at passing or bomb-stricken convoys, he said.
Supplies flow along a system of fortified support centers spaced along the route. At the start of the insurgency, all commercial and military trucks were routed through a single hub, and from there moved to other destinations. Commercial trucks commingled with military transports, and safety meant driving at acceptable speeds.
"We used to tell our soldiers, 'Speed Mils, speed kills, speed kills,'" Chambers said. "In Iraq, speed saved lives ... We had to train the soldiers how to drive fast after teaching them how to drive slowly."
As attacks continued, the insurgents developed ingenuity in targeting the convoys. Munitions are easy to find in Iraq, and these were being adapted into improved explosives that tore into trucks. "They're not aiming at Humvees; they are trying to hit fuel tankers," Chambers said.
Iraq's roads are critical ground. The country's network of railroad lines are not functional, mainly because of old infrastructure and a successful intimidation campaign against the families of the Iraqi civilians who run the trains, according to Chambers. "Reinvestment would not be worth it at this time," he added, "but it's something we may do in the future." That left the roads, and weeklong convoy missions, as the way U.S. and coalition forces were kept in operation.
The route from south to north runs through the "Sunni triangle," where insurgent attacks on truck convoys are daily, dangerous occurrences. Insurgents were clearly targeting the coalition supply line, but U.S. military officials did not believe their enemy had the acumen or organization to sever it. They were proven wrong in early April 2004.
The tactic described by Chambers was simple: "They went after our bridges."