NYT: Army Study of Iraq War Details a “Morass” of Supply Shortages

The first official Army history of the Iraq war reveals that American forces were plagued by a “morass” of supply shortages, radios that could not reach far-flung troops, disappointing psychological operations and virtually no reliable intelligence on how Saddam Hussein would defend Baghdad.

Logistics problems, which senior Army officials played down at the time, were much worse than have previously been reported. While the study serves mainly as a technical examination of how the Army performed and the problems it faced, it could also serve as a political document that could advance the Army’s interests within the Pentagon.

Tank engines sat on warehouse shelves in Kuwait with no truck drivers to take them north. Broken-down trucks were scavenged for usable parts. Artillery units cannibalized parts from captured Iraqi guns to keep their howitzers operating. Army medics foraged medical supplies from combat hospitals.

In most cases, soldiers improvised solutions to keep the offensive rolling. But the study found that the Third Infantry Division, the Army’s lead combat force, was within two weeks of being halted by a lack of spare parts, and Army logisticians had no effective distribution system.

“The morass of problems that confounded delivering parts and supplies — running the gamut of paper clips to tank engines — stems from the lack of a means to assign responsibility clearly,” the study said.

It also found that the Pentagon’s decision to send mostly combat units in the weeks before the invasion had the “unintended consequence” of holding back support troops until much later, contributing greatly to the logistics problems.

The study does note, however, that the strategy of starting the war before all support troops were in place, in order to achieve an element of surprise, taxed the postwar resources of local commanders, who in many cases were shifting back and forth between combat operations and the task of restoring civil services.

“Local commanders were torn between their fights and providing resources — soldiers, time and logistics — to meet the civilian needs,” the report concluded. “Partially due to the scarce resources as a result of the running start, there simply was not enough to do both missions.”

The study’s authors saved their most biting critique for the logistics operations. When the combat forces raced ahead, the supply lines — “force flow” in military jargon — could not keep pace. “As the campaign progressed, the force flow never caught up with the operational requirements,” it found.

This is troubling but not particularly surprising. There is an old saying that, “Good generals study tactics. Great generals study logistics.” In modern war, it’s not uncommon for the combat forces to outrun the supply trains. Modern systems break down incessantly and it’s just not efficient for units to carry large quantities of huge spare parts with them–especially since the mechanics who fix major systems aren’t organic to at battalion level. Still, it’s rather clear that the problem was exacerbated by the nature of this war and decisions made at the outset. The buildup to Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was much longer than this one, at least in terms of troops on the ground. But even there, getting spare parts was a problem, at least for non-divisional units such as mine.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


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