Logistics Islands: The Global Supply Archipelago and the Topologies of Defense

By Bélanger, Pierre; Arroyo, Alexander Scott | Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Logistics Islands: The Global Supply Archipelago and the Topologies of Defense


Bélanger, Pierre, Arroyo, Alexander Scott, Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations


For the Department of Defense (DOD), the most important difference between Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan is neither cultural nor political, but logistical. Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summed up the difference with terse precision: "We don't have a Kuwait."2 Lacking a secure staging ground adjacent to the theater of operations exponentially complicates getting materiel3 to and from forward operating bases (FOBs) and combat outposts (COPs), in turn requiring a longer and more complex logistical supply chain. Landlocked among nonInternational Security Assistance Force (ISAF) states, unstable allies (Pakistan and China to the east, Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan to the north), and regional "rogue states" (Iran), Afghanistan is, for logistical operations, a desert island.

Afghanistan's Atoll

The key logistical hubs of Kandahar and Bagram are laboriously accessible via three costly, infrastructurally underdeveloped, dangerous, and inefficient routes: from the Arabian Sea via the port of Karachi, Pakistan; from the Baltic and Caspian regions via the transnational, heterostructural Northern Distribution Network; and by airlift via support facilities in the Indian and Pacific oceans or bases as far afield as Fort Blair, Washington. The infrastructural network undergirding OEF logistical operations via sea, land, and air demarcates an adaptive manifold that migrates its geometries in real time with geopolitical forces. To track those logistical networks, then, is to diagram the skeletal forms onto which urban generative processes may be grafted; the lasting legacy of ISAF in Afghanistan must therefore be equally read as a project of construction - in the form of infrastructural development and urbanization - in addition to any human, infrastructural, and environmental destruction caused directly or indirectly by combat operations. Indeed, the ubiquitous invocation of a "New Silk Road" as overcode for regional infrastructural strategy - ranging from General David Petraeus and his chief liaison between U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) to spokespersons for the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Asian Development Bank - shows the logistical operations and networks deployed through OEF to be endemic to those processes of infrastructural development that would reconnect the old Silk Road from China to the European Union - this time, however, with iron links.

While logistical acquisitions are managed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), logistical operations in the field are predominantly coordinated by USTRANSCOM. On average, the command oversees almost 2,000 air missions and 10,000 ground shipments per week, with 25 container ships providing active logistical support. From October 2009 through September 2010 alone, USTRANSCOM flew 37,304 airlift missions carrying over 2 million passengers and 852,141 tons of cargo; aerially refueled 13,504 aircraft with 338,856,200 pounds of fuel on 11,859 distinct sorties; and moved nearly 25 million tons of cargo in coordinated sea-land operations. DIA and USTRANSCOM and their civilian partners are responsible for the largest, most widespread, and most diverse sustained logistics operation in history.4

USTRANSCOM is divided into three operating groups or "component commands" corresponding to the three infrastructural strata exploited for logistics operations: Military Sealift Command (MSC), managed by the Navy; Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), managed by the Army; and Air Mobility Command (AMC), managed by the Air Force. While much attention is paid to the familiar iconography of the parachuting crate or the airdrop or the long tail of the fuel-truck convoy, the vast majority of materiel is transported beyond public purview via both chartered and military container ships under the aegis of MSC. According to the USTRANSCOM 2011 Strategic Plan:

More than 90 percent of all equipment and supplies needed to sustain US military forces is carried by sea. …

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