By DoD News
Spring is still a month away, but that’s not stopping what is likely to be the largest and longest-running spring-cleaning project ever undertaken to prepare for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by Dec. 31.
As the combat mission in Iraq officially ended in August and U.S. forces reduced their footprint to about 50,000 troops, President Barack Obama heralded “one of the largest logistical operations we’ve seen in decades” with the exodus of millions of pieces of military equipment, property and supplies.
Army Brig. Gen. Mark Corson, commander of the Army Reserve’s 103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command that has overseen that mission, equated it to moving the entire city of St. Joseph, Mo., with all its people, vehicles, equipment and property, to “the other side of the planet.” And despite the immensity of the effort, it was completed 10 days ahead of schedule, he said.
Now, with about two months left in their deployment, Corson’s troops are continuing the logistical drawdown while laying critical groundwork for its follow-on unit to reduce the U.S. footprint in Iraq to zero by the year’s end.
The drawdown operation under way now isn’t nearly as dramatic as the headline-dominating images of the 2nd Infantry Division’s 4th Stryker Brigade driving their convoy of armored vehicles into Kuwait in late August.
But since the launch of Operation New Dawn on Sept. 1, about 3,000 truckloads of equipment and gear have continued to roll out of Iraq, Lt. Col. Gerard “Gerry” Schwartz, the command’s deputy support operations officer, reported. And in the months ahead, he added, the volume will increase substantially.
Overseeing that effort isn’t simply a matter of moving everything from Point A to Point B, Schwartz explained. It requires identifying what’s no longer needed and can be shipped home now, what can be transferred to units in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and what’s simply too worn out or costly to transport. Under specifically regulated conditions, the United States can transfer some of its excess equipment to Iraqi security forces.
Three fixed and eight mobile material distribution teams are at work throughout Iraq, helping units to categorize their property items.
“They’re sorting through things that are excess, that might potentially be used for foreign [military] sales to get to the Iraqis,” or items that could be returned to the U.S. military inventory , Schwartz said.
As they do so, Schwartz said, they’re ever mindful of the need to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.
“We are certainly aware of how much has been spent in this country and how well we have been equipped, and we want to make sure everything we can possibly get back, that we can continue to use in the [U.S.] inventory, that we do that,” he said.
While conducting the logistical drawdown, the 103rd ESC faces another complicating factor: ensuring that troops on the ground have everything they need until the day they redeploy.
“It’s a very delicate balance,” said Col. Kathryn Luna, the command’s plans officer. “Our number one mission is to support and sustain the force. So therefore, that mission cannot fail with those fifty thousand troops that we have here.”
So the trick, Schwartz said, is to move forward with the logistical drawdown without interfering with the ongoing U.S. mission in Iraq.
The command does not want to cause any operational impacts for Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Forces Iraq], or anyone else, he said.
“So that is the challenge: making sure we are doing the primary mission, which is training Iraqi security forces, and that we don’t lean too far forward on getting things out,” Schwartz said.
This also requires the 103rd ESC to forecast exactly how much food, water, fuel and other commodities it will need to move into Iraq to sustain a downsizing force through Dec. 31, Luna said. The goal is to ship exactly what the force will need, and nothing that ends up being reshipped home.
“When it comes to sustainment, we know what we need to do based on the number of [military, civilian and contractor personnel] in theater,” Schwartz said. “But we certainly want to make sure that when it comes to fuel capacity or the amount of rations, that we don’t overdo it. We have to keep close tabs on that.”
And in light of huge and mounting transportation requirements, the sustainers are ensuring that every vehicle that arrives in Iraq with sustainment supplies leaves full of outgoing material.
“It takes trucks to bring supplies in, and it takes trucks to get equipment of out the theater,” Luna said. “So when those things are balanced, you are good to go. But it’s a very fine line, keeping that all balanced.”
Meanwhile, the 103rd ESC is doing the detailed planning its follow-on unit, the 310th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, will need when it takes over the sustainment and logistical drawdown mission this spring, Corson said.
Just as the 103rd ESC arrived in Iraq to carry out a massive drawdown at the end of U.S. combat operations, the 310th will oversee the final drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq.
“We go home in April, but our commitment is to set the conditions for success for the 310th Sustainment Command as they come here to replace us so that there will be a seamless transition, just as we had a seamless transition back in July to accomplish the mission,” Corson said. “And I think that is very important to U.S. Forces Iraq.”