The Delicate Choreography of Supplying America's Troops

Times Staff Writer

Whatever happens now, Warrant Officer Dexter Sells will have played an important, if unsung, role. The ruddy-faced Army reservist with the Tennessee drawl may be eight time zones from Iraq, but no one, it seems, can maneuver a 70-ton armored vehicle any better.

This Atlantic Ocean port has become a major transit hub for military equipment bound for the U.S. troops poised to invade Saddam Hussein's country, with hundreds of armored vehicles, trucks, bulldozers, Humvees and other olive-drab and buff combat machines lined up to be loaded into ships. But when the unwieldy, self-propelled bridges arrived from Ft. Campbell, Ky., flummoxed Army stevedores called on Sells.

"They brought 12 of these monsters down here, and nobody knew how to operate them. So they flew me down," the 44-year-old from Kingsport, Tenn., said last week. Slowly, Sells drove one of the 20-foot-long Armored Vehicle Launched Bridges up a rain-slicked ramp, then pirouetted on the treads to shoehorn it into an assigned space aboard the Navy transport ship Gilliland. Thanks to an expert valet parking job, the bridge was ready to proceed to its next stop: Iraq or environs. "You go where you're needed," Sells said.

In the military onslaught that may now be only hours away, they also serve who move the tools of war. They include those choreographing the enormous, ongoing sealift and airlift of U.S. personnel and equipment, working on the railroads and docks and crewing the Navy ships and Air Force transports that ferry materiel to American forces.

"It feels like I've deployed a Humvee for every single soldier," joked Lt. Col. Paul E. Giovino, the Army's port manager at Jacksonville, who has worked for two months straight to coordinate the arrival of cargo by truck and rail from a dozen far-flung installations and its prompt, orderly loading on vessels bound for the Persian Gulf.

Logistically, the operation is already a success, according to the U.S. Transportation Command, the military's umbrella agency for shipping people, weapons, ammunition, food and other supplies. The buildup ordered by President Bush has taken a third less time than the six months spent moving forces and gear to prepare for the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said Air Force Gen. John W. Handy, head of the Transportation Command.

The large-scale delivery operation hasn't been without bottlenecks and other problems. But military logisticians say it is functioning faster and more efficiently because of lessons learned in Operation Desert Storm, as well as improved computer and satellite technology and the $6 billion spent on a new generation of Navy transport ships that can hold 3,200 mid-sized sport utility vehicles each.

"The report card is, they've done extremely well," said retired Army Lt. Gen. William "Gus" Pagonis, chief logistician for the Gulf War. "And I think that will be proven when the bullets start flying."

To the public, front-line troops may appear more glamorous and get the most attention. "But wars are lost or won because of logistical support," said Pagonis, now an executive vice president with Sears, Roebuck and Co. "Napoleon could have defeated Russia if his soldiers had had the blankets, ammunition and food."

According to U.S. military officials, more than 380,000 tons of military cargo have been shipped to the Persian Gulf area by sea, requiring deck space equivalent to 230 Wal-Marts.

Air operations are still included as part of America's global campaign against terrorism. It has become the third-largest airlift in history, said Navy Capt. Stephen Honda, spokesman at U.S. Transportation Command headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Logistics specialists, many of them reservists, were among the first troops assigned to Kuwait to lay the supply lines for a possible war. The importance of having supplies keep pace with combat operations also has been emphasized so often to commanders of U.S. units that "it's become part of their thought process," Pagonis said.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, a fixed if mighty adversary, the American military has also placed a far greater premium on its ability to project power swiftly to distant and unexpected hot spots.

"Going back to Desert Storm, we're easily twice as fast," said Army Lt. Col. John Thompson, deputy chief of staff of the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), one of the units involved in the buildup against Iraq.

To go on the move, the 4th Division, one of the Army's most heavily equipped, had to marshal 2,000 rail cars and 1,000 trucks to carry 14,000 pieces of heavy equipment, from 70-ton M1A1 Abrams battle tanks to small trailers that supply water for soldiers' canteens.

At Ft. Campbell, home of the "Screaming Eagles" of the 101st Airborne, rail facilities have been improved since Desert Storm as part of an Army program to make key units more easily deployable.

Workers used to be able to load 56 rail cars simultaneously; now they can load 200, said Jim Haley, civilian director of readiness at the Kentucky installation.

It took nine days to get the division's gear off the post, compared with six for just one of the 101st's five brigades deployed for Desert Storm. In the earlier mobilization, transport was so scarce that Mike Bowers, the fort's chief of transportation, went to a truck stop and got on a CB radio to recruit truckers. He didn't need to this time.

When the air assault division moves, it packs helicopters, generators, mobile dining-facility trailers, vans, cargo containers, camouflage nets, cots, tents, radios "and everything it takes to make the division do what it needs to," Haley said.

It took a month just for fort seamstresses, laundry employees and civilian subcontractors to sew unit and name patches on 80,000 new desert uniforms.

Before 16,000 soldiers of the 101st left Ft. Campbell for the Persian Gulf on chartered airliners, Haley even purchased enough toilet paper so each man and woman had at least one roll.

To carry the machinery of war overseas faster and in force, the Navy now relies heavily on a hybrid class of gray-hulled vessels that it owns, but that are crewed by civilians and kept in port until required.

In the mid-1990s, in a program that was a direct offshoot of Desert Storm, the service added 19 super-sized transports like the Gilliland.

At 956 feet, the ship -- named for an Army Medal of Honor recipient in Korea -- is as long as an aircraft carrier. On each of these ships, "we can carry 300,000 square feet of the heaviest thing you can thing of," said B.J. Talley, spokesman for the Navy's Military Sealift Command.

Evidently, the logistical effort has been too big and rapid for some links in the supply chain. Giovino, the Army port manager in Jacksonville, said that "because we are moving so quickly, the rail system doesn't have enough cars to support us." Other rail cars have been sidelined until they can be unloaded, and vandals here broke into one, lighted a fire, slashed tires of military vehicles and stole uniforms.

In one important way, Pagonis said, today's logistical ballet is very different from the long build-up to Desert Storm, when he had the task of supplying 520,000 troops for an unknown time. That meant stockpiling 400,000 tons of ammunition, 320,000 tons of which had to be brought home after the expulsion of the Iraqis from Kuwait.

"This time, you're going on the offensive right from the start," Pagonis said.

Pagonis recalled that his former boss, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of operations for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, once paid a backhanded compliment of his own to the relationship between effective logistics and military success.

"He told me I would be fired if I goofed, while field commanders would be given a second chance," Pagonis said.

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