Painstaking work is underway to ensure the success of the logistics redeployment from Afghanistan, says Liza Helps, following criticism of the MoD’s supply chain set-up in 2011.
There hasn’t been a reverse logistics operation quite like it for the British Military since the Second World War and for many in Government, the armed forces and indeed even the general public, how well this is done will be the basis upon which the whole 12 year conflict in Afghanistan will be judged.
Aside from the physical removal of troops and equipment from a land locked country some 3,500 miles away, all this must be done with regard to value for money for the British Taxpayer.
Not a tall order then.
With near overwhelming political pressure to slash budgets in order to reduce Government spending, the pressure to seek out value for money for the British taxpayer has never been higher and it is against this background that the MoD has to have a successful redeployment from Afghanistan.
“The elegance with which we leave Afghanistan will be a measure of how good this operation has been,” says Brigadier Duncan Capps, who has just returned from Afghanistan where he was Commander Joint Force Support in charge of the redeployment operation from 1 October 2012 to 31 May 2013.
It is not just the information systems complications and the need for tight fiscal control that makes this task so difficult, but the sheer scale and geographic complexities make this reverse logistics operations a far cry from your average in the UK.
After 12 years in the region there is an awful lot of equipment to be brought home. It is estimated that 7,000 TEUs will be brought back to the UK while a further 6,000 TEUs will be disposed of in Afghanistan. The cost of redeployment has been set at roughly £300 million.
The reason for the eye-wateringly high expense is that unlike the withdrawal from Iraq, where Kuwait was used as a relatively benign staging post to load equipment onto ships, Afghanistan is land-locked with poor surface infrastructure.
Getting to and from the country has been fraught with complications. At the beginning of the conflict goods were sent via air, ship, rail and road. Much equipment was shipped to the port of Karachi then transported via rail and road using two routes through Pakistan and would take roughly 77 – 87 days.
However, increasingly in later years, it took closer to 120 days due to problems with customs officers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, strikes and political stand-offs such as the one in 2011 when Pakistan banned trucks from carrying NATO-force supplies into Afghanistan for seven months in protest against a cross-border NATO air strike that inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. It was reported at the time that it cost the United States alone an extra $100 million a month to use routes through Russia and Central Asia.
At one stage land routes for warlike equipment to Afghanistan were restricted to just Pakistan or via air from the Middle East. However NATO has secured reverse surface-only transit agreements with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as well as with Russia on the use of the Ulyanovsk airbase greatly increasing the resilience for redeployment.
Internal routes in Afghanistan also have much to be desired while there are some tarmac roads much of the road network is unpaved so moving equipment from place to place takes a long time with the added bonus that the transport of goods could be further held up due to improvised exploding devices being planted at the roadside or even attack from insurgents.
It is hard to comprehend that at the height of the conflict when there were 137 British bases that these had to be continually supplied under such conditions. Not surprisingly the convoys were heavily armed and would be out for weeks at a time. Some convoys contained up to 100 vehicles and were totally self-supporting with all food and fuel – there are no convenient service stations in Helmand Province.
Redeployment officially started on the first of October 2012 with the closure of 119 bases and the redeployment of all equipment back to Camp Bastion where it is undergoing an industrial scale sortation.
The redeployment has been a long time in the planning. Even as Camp Bastion, the main British military base in Afghanistan and its logistical hub for operations in Helmand province, was being built in 2002 it was also being designed for eventual redeployment.
Some £11 million has been sunk into infrastructure specifically for redeployment such as the bio-washing facilities that all vehicles have to go through to reach the exacting standards demanded by Department of Environment Food & Rural Affairs before being allowed to return to the UK, to the Transportable Ammunition Destruction System that can dispose of 45,000 rounds an hour.
Capps says: “The [redeployment] process is a painstakingly thorough one – we are aiming to make sure that when materiel leaves Afghanistan it is ready and configured to go back on the shelves in the UK for reissue.”
All inventory is being assessed on a value for money basis as to whether it is being returned to the UK or being disposed of in Afghanistan via gifting, sale or being scrapped. Everything that does have value is being salvaged and shipped back to the UK this includes some 400 tonnes of brass ammo casing which has been sorted by hand along with 100 pallets of ammo boxes valued at £250,000.
Not all equipment can be transported back via surface land routes quite simply because it is ACTO – attractive to criminal and terrorist organisations.
Equipment or materiel of a sensitive security or high value nature including Protected Mobility Vehicles such as the Jackal costing £355,000 and the Ridgeback costing £1.4 million as well as weapons and ammunition must be flown out of the country and in some cases cross-loaded to shipping in the Middle East.
Says Capps: “With 99 per cent of vehicles earmarked for return to the UK, it’s a massive, but not overwhelming, task. During the period from the first of October last year to the first of June 2013, 625 vehicles have been returned to the UK, with another 300 ready to make the trip, which will be by air as far as the Al Minhad Air Base in Dubai, and then by sea. By the end of the process 2,720 vehicles will have been sent back to the UK.”
The rate of redeployment is increasing. At the beginning of this year some £500,000 worth of inventory was passing through the six tented warehouses at Camp Bastion but they are now handling 60 times as much at about £30 million each month.
“What we are doing is probably world-beating – we have never really achieved these kinds of standards before.”
While stage one redeployment, dealing with equipment in-country, could be seen now as the biggest physical task in Helmand, current operations were very much still the main effort, and will remain so until December 2014.
Capps says: “As JFS [Joint Force Supply], we provide all the logistics that are required in theatre, whether that be medical supplies, canteen and postal services, equipment maintenance and all the things you need to operate in theatre, but also we are there to support new equipment that is coming in, and keep the operation going.”
Sun Tzu, author of the legendary Chinese tome “The Art Of War” wrote: “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics…” and that was some 2,500 year ago. One would expect the modern military machine to have learned a lot about the supply chain in the intervening years.
But two years ago, in 2011, both the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office criticised the MoD’s supply chain set up. The NAO qualified the MoD accounts for six years running. In 2011 the qualification concerned the failure to account for £5.3bn of equipment because it did not collect the basic data about supplies, while the latest qualification is for failing to provide enough evidence to support its valuation of £10bn of military equipment.
Launching the report on the Defence Logistics Supply Chain in 2011, Margaret Hodge, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee said: “For 25 years, the Department [MoD] has promised this Committee that it would resolve the long-standing problems associated with its supply chain.”
The NAO first identified the need for the MoD to improve its management of inventory as long ago as 1991. It did make some headway to re-gear.
In 2000 the individual services’ supply chains were brought together with the creation of the Defence Logistics Organisation whereby day-to-day management is carried out by several organisations that sit in the Joint Support Chain organisation.
Before that, The Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force all had independent supply chains designed during the Cold War era, intended to support combat operations in Europe with short supply lines from warehouses in the UK and West Germany. Potential conflicts were expected to be short so it was felt that stores would not need continual replenishment.
However, the type of conflict the military has been engaged in over the last two decades or so, starting with the Gulf War in 1990 up until the present day in Afghanistan, has been more expeditionary, at long distances from the UK and for longer periods of time.
One result of the amalgamation of the services’ supply chain is that there more than 200 software applications used to manage logistics data, some more than 30 years old, which needed to be co-ordinated and brought up to date.
There were attempts to co-ordinate and update the systems including the introduction of Active RFID in 2006 to Afghanistan as well as pushing forward with the Movement of Material in Transit in 2008, but the problems persisted.
The MoD sought to create a fully integrated end-to-end supply chain and in November 2010 struck an £803 million eleven-year contract with Boeing to do just that alongside the MoD’s Logistic Network Enabled Capability branch. Its first task was to ensure that inventory deployed in Afghanistan was correctly tracked. This was secured through the Joint Deployed Inventory system at a cost of £183 million.
However because the MoD supply chain project is so complicated it will take up to 2015 to complete and the redeployment from Afghanistan will essentially be done on a separate system to ensure full accountability.
What Military logistics really means…
If there is one sentence that sums up what logistics really means in the military then it is this from a National Audit Office Report: “Unlike the private sector, financial profit cannot be used as an indicator of success and if the military supply chain fails the impact is not reduced profits, but increased risks to personnel and military tasks.”
Redeployment in numbers
For the period 1 October 2012 – 31 May 2013:
– 625 – the number of vehicles returned to the UK: including 53 Jackals and 21 Ridgebacks with total value of £48.215 million.
– £21 million worth of vehicle and technical spares returned to the UK.
– £98.4 million saved by repairing battle winning equipment in Afghanistan.
– 1,080 TEUs redeployed with 735 TEUs disposed.
– 400 tonnes of brass ammo casing currently worth £2,000 a tonne and 100 pallets of ammo boxes valued at £231,000 salvaged.
– 600 tonnes of armoured glass have been disposed.
– 300 tonnes of Lithium batteries returned for safe disposal in the UK.
– £20,000 the cost of a fully laden aircraft.
– £3,000 the cost to bring back one container.
– £300 million the total cost of redeployment.
– 137 bases reduced to 13 plus Camp Bastion.
– 5,000 troops redeployed by the end of the 2013.
The stuff they left behind
Not all the equipment taken out by the British Military is worth bringing back. The MoD will not redeploy material if it is beyond economic repair or does not represent good value for money to return it to the UK.
It is estimated that 6,000 TEUs of equipment will be left behind but the MoD is determined to squeeze every bit of value out of that as well. It has given Agility Defence & Government Services a 27-month contract to collect, track, store and dispose of non-military items and equipment used by UK forces in Afghanistan which were surplus to requirements.
Agility was awarded the contract in September 2012, was authorised to deploy in October and within three weeks had held its first tender.
The company will dispose of non-military goods through direct sales, online and live auctions, and recycling. The material includes office equipment, furniture, generators and containers as well as stuff you would not expect such as washing machines, two ML Douglas manufactured aircraft de/anti-icing trucks, a variety of temporary deployable accommodation capable of housing up to 600 men including room for ablutions, kitchens, dining rooms etc. in addition to two medical incinerators.
The Agility Team is headed up by Chris Murray who was the former Director of the UK’s Royal Logistic Corps and the last Commander British Forces Bosnia charged with redeployment.
As well as selling and scrapping material some will be gifted to the Afghan National Security Forces. The two Forward Patrol Bases, three Patrol Bases and 20 check points adopted by the ANSF were handed over with all the basic things to keep a base running such as beds and bedding, included in the transfer.
Capps notes: “We have committed to only leaving equipment that has a full training package that can be maintained by the Afghans for a two-year period such as the more simple kit that makes a huge difference and which will give the ANSF an edge over the insurgents, such as night-sights and Vallon mine detectors.