Gunner’s Seat: Excellence in Sustainment

“Gentlemen, the officer who doesn’t know his communications and supply as well as his tactics is totally useless.” –GEN George S. Patton

The Soldiers of Eagle Troop, 2nd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, had been at war for 72 hours, moving across a featureless plain that was the Iraqi desert when they made contact on the afternoon of Feb. 26, 1991, with elements of the Tawakalna Division’s 18th Brigade. What followed was a remarkable feat of arms, a validation of the U.S. Army’s training and a tribute to the skill of the tank and Bradley crews that defeated an enemy more than twice their size in a prepared defense. Just as remarkable, however, is how they got to 73 Easting.

Only 100 ground combat hours were necessary for the Army to re-establish itself convincingly as a successful land-combat force. During that brief period, U.S. forces moved more combat power faster and farther than any similar force in history. They averaged 95 kilometers per day, more than twice as much as the Wehrmacht’s best blitzkrieg effort. Helicopter-borne forces conducted history’s greatest aerial envelopment by placing the combat elements of an entire division 160 miles deep behind enemy lines.

None of this would have been possible without an almost instinctive knowledge, at all levels, of our requirements for and ability to conduct logistic operations all the way down to the individual Soldier at the furthest reaches of our formations.

During Vietnam, GEN Donn Starry noted that a critical problem was the tendency of logistical units to stick to base camps; this was evident early in the war and continued to the end. Logistical units, particularly supply and maintenance elements, were unprepared psychologically and in practice to live in the field close to the units they supported. Although Army doctrine stressed that this support should be provided in forward areas, the practice was to centralize support facilities in built-up, well-developed, permanent base camps, similar to installations in the United States. In practice, they placed support facilities as close to the coast as possible, often more than 100 kilometers from the fighting units, and accessible only by means of tenuous supply and evacuation routes. While this placement was easier for the supply and maintenance units, it was a hardship for the combat units.

If you substitute airfield for port, this description certainly does not sound very different from how the Army has operated during the last 13 years. However, as the Army shifts to decisive-action training environments and focuses on an expeditionary mindset for our operations in the future, we must regain our ability to sustain formations that are moving 95 kilometers a day and ensure they are prepared to fight.

Illustrating the importance of understanding logistics at the lowest level is 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor’s movement to and assault on the key objective of the Al-Kaed Bridge spanning the Euphrates River in 2003. Military historian John B. Dwyer describes the situation well in an article in The Washington Times: “Four hundred meters long with concrete columns that could easily support a 70-ton Abrams tank, it had to be captured. … Because it was so vital, the Iraqis deployed the Medina Division’s 10th Brigade, an armored brigade, and a Special Republican Guard commando brigade to defend it. … [T]he general commanding all Republican Guard units in the area ordered the bridge demolished before American forces could cross it.”1

As Dwyer relates, “On April 1, nine days and 350 miles after [Task Force 3-69 Armor] had roared across the berm into Iraq, they were in position to assault the objective. A and C Companies, 3-69 Armor, along with B and C Companies, 3rd and 2nd Battalions, 7th Infantry, and Company A, 11th Engineer Battalion, supported by artillery and attack aviation, had battled past a 250-foot escarpment, taken the Al-Kifle Bridge and fought through an apocalyptic two-day sandstorm. Now they faced the dangerous Karbala Gap, where vehicles were channeled through an 1,800-meter-wide strip and where chemical weapons were expected to be used.”

The decisive battle was now at hand. With the scouts in the lead, 3-69 Armored moved toward the bridge.

“Three miles down the road, [the scouts] encountered Iraqi forces and came under mortar fire,” Dwyer wrote. “Maneuvering away from it, they called in artillery and air support as [Company A’s] tanks executed a flanking attack, three platoons abreast. An hour and 15 minutes later, they had routed the enemy, and the rest of the task force fell in behind them. … Nearing the bridge, A Company was firing at targets at distances ranging from 10 to 1,000 meters away, some of them truck-borne rocket-propelled-grenade teams. … When their missions were completed that day, A Company had been in combat for six straight hours.”

Knowing the bridge had been rigged for demolition, it became the dangerous mission of Company A, 11th Engineers, to locate and cut the connecting wires. To cover and help protect them, a smoke platoon moved forward. Their efforts were augmented by artillery smoke rounds. Meantime, map analysis revealed the most likely positions for Iraqi demolition trigger teams. A barrage from 1st Battalion, 41st Field Artillery, leveled that area, and yet the Iraqis were able to detonate several charges on the northern span, leaving three lanes open. The brave American engineers persevered and soon rendered the bridge safe for U.S. troops to cross.

Company C’s tanks and teams of 2-7 infantrymen charged across Al-Kaed Bridge at 4:30 p.m. April 2. “Muddy terrain forced C Company into a hasty arc-shaped defensive position for the expected enemy counterattack,” Dwyer wrote. The defensive arc was oriented northwest to east, with two tank platoons and a mechanized-infantry platoon deployed to cover likely approaches.

“At 11:30 [p.m.], the Iraqis started coming,” said Dwyer. “What became known as the Battle of Charlie 6, lasting until 2:30 a.m., had begun. It was the biggest tank-mechanized engagement of the war. With their 120mm main guns, thermal sights and combat-tested crews, the Abrams tanks, supported by artillery and attack aviation, proved to be deadly in the night.

“The rest of task force had since secured the near side and then crossed the Al-Kaed Bridge, engaging and defeating three enemy brigades,” Dwyer wrote. Task Force 3-69 destroyed more than 20 Iraqi armored vehicles, including Russian-made T-72 tanks, and killed more than 600 Iraqi troops.

Without an intimate knowledge of the fuel and ammunition requirements of their vehicles, and a dedicated plan to meet those requirements, none of Task Force 3-69’s accomplishments would have been possible.

Throughout the history of the U.S. Army Armored Corps, our success has been directly tied to our ability to effectively execute logistics. The execution of sustainment during combined-arms maneuver is a task that few leaders below battalion-command teams have experienced. For the past decade, the focus has been on the counterinsurgency fight, and units have not exercised the full spectrum of sustainment functions required in the decisive-action training environment.

For example, with Class III, many companies/troops are using the green/amber/red technique for reporting on-hand statuses. However, the support-planning officer forecasts and orders fuel by gallons at the brigade level. On an M1A2, there is the potential difference of 130 gallons of fuel in the “amber” range. (The M1A2 holds 446 gallons of fuel, and most unit standard operating procedures reflect amber status as between 60 percent to 89 percent of on-hand fuel.) This leads to a potential offset of 520 gallons of fuel for a platoon!

(Editor’s note: See “’Driver, How Much Fuel Do We Have?’ – An Update”by LTC William Kepley in ARMOR’s October-December 2014 edition, /Armor/eArmor/content/issues/2014/OCT_DEC/Kepley.html.)

The noncommissioned officer corps must re-establish itself as the expert on everything that involves vehicles, including sustainment. First sergeants are critical links in this process and should be the driving force in ensuring the success of the formations. At the company, the first sergeant is responsible for gathering all the information from the platoons and submitting a consolidated report to the battalion/squadron. At minimum, the first sergeant should report the combat slant, changes to expenditure rates and the Class I, III and V statuses of the company/troop. This must be done in a standardized manner that allows the squadron/battalion to effectively communicate with the brigade combat troop its on-hand quantities at the unit level to ensure timely delivery and forecasting.

Restoration of sustainment core competencies will require a holistic and repetitive training and leadership-development approach by both the institution and organizations, with just as much emphasis as on current direct-fire training programs, to be successful.

Command sergeant major
U.S. Army Armor School


1 John B. Dwyer, “Battle of Charlie 6,” The Washington Times, April 3, 2005, Dwyer is a Vietnam veteran, serving in 1st Battalion, 69th Armor, and in 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry, in 1968-69.