RL Magazine
Reverse Logistics in the Military Theater of War: Managing the Deficit
by Major Christopher Baker

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The military application of reverse logistics is a balancing act where efficiency, responsiveness, flexibility and risk are all key players that must be addressed when determining both how and when to apply reverse logistic operations. Additionally, theater level operations face a race against a growing deficit. Each additional item that enters the theater, without removal of something else, is one more in the theoretical pile that must be accounted for and dealt with at the conclusion of the effort. Today, the military finds itself in a position to learn from recent observation and begin shaping the future based on what has already changed, needed changes, and needed enablers to influence the change.

Reverse logistics in current Army doctrine is explained by the need for assessment of unit equipment, nominations for early retrograde, and recovery of non-expendable items from the battlefield. These tasks are primary charged to the tactical, or smallest level of command, for execution. Admittedly, planning is the pivotal gap that is preventing the process from functioning effectively. Units retrograde materials based on either opportunity or requirement. In this way, the process is reactive rather than proactive. As mentioned earlier, the responsibility for retrograde rests largely at the tactical level (Companies and Battalions) with operational level (Brigades and Corps) making final decisions. Theater/strategic level assets, often relying on commercial industry for surface or air transport, are then required for final transport of the equipment. Simply put, reverse logistics in the Army today is a bottom-driven, reactive process.

Under the current system above, it is important to examine today’s situation and the changes that have occurred to modern Army logistics. The historic approach to logistics in theater was to stockpile supplies in the rear area for movement to the front lines when needed. This method is referred to as the “iron mountain” approach. Increased communications technology and partnership with commercial industry has allowed the Army to transition to a requirement-based system where needs can now be ordered and shipped direct to the forward edge of the battlefield. This new approach can be called “just in time logistics.” Ordering and delivery processes have seen great improvements in the past decade with practical application from the US and Europe to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The expansion and use of Theater Provided Equipment (TPE) is another factor in the logistical innovation. Following the initial inflow of combat vehicles into Iraq, additional rotations of forces used equipment left in place by the outgoing units. Logisticians were able for focus on repair and rebuild operations rather than on the movement of bulk equipment in and out of theater. Changes in the methodology and execution of logistics in the theater of war have allowed the military to maximize forward movement of supplies and they position the logisticians to shift focus and examine the reverse process.

In order to facilitate reverse logistic operations, the military must change some of its current practices, increase communications to drive decisions, and empower decision makers at all levels of the process. Under current structure, the Army relies on the Modified Table of Organization and Equipment (MTOE) to outline the people, equipment, and capabilities that a certain type of unit should have on hand. The MTOE is an important foundation for standardization in Army structure. When the force commander in a theater of war requests a capability, the deploying unit may be augmented or modified from MTOE to meet that mission or Request for Forces (RFF) requirement. MTOE equipment deployed to theater that is determined to be unnecessary for the RFF mission is an immediate candidate for reverse logistics, but these items are seldom removed before the unit completes mission and may still be left in theater because the excess equipment is not properly identified. Communication is the initial breakdown in the process that should occur. Unit commanders manage their equipment with the aid of property book officers (PBO). These players only have the option to return the unneeded MTOE equipment to origin, where it will be used to reset the unit after the deployment, or they may go through a very deliberate process of transferring to an adjacent unit. This severely limits the reverse logistics process because there is no flexibility to redistribute or distribute the property in more efficient ways. Despite acting as a roadblock to reverse logistics, these policies are important for two reasons. First, the unit must be able to efficiently reset following the mission and return to the standardized structure for readiness as quickly as possible. Second, the RFF is a requirement made during planning or execution that is subject to change. A unit that narrows its equipment structure to the specific RFF requirement, rather than MTOE, may not have the flexibility to be remissioned in theater to something that would otherwise be met by their MTOE structure. Changes to increase reverse logistics options are needed but require risk assumption to possible changes of mission or extended reset timelines.

As described above there are limitations to reverse logistic operations for MTOE equipment, but the vast majority of US owned equipment in Iraq as the drawndown began were theater provided equipment (TPE) or non-standard equipment (NSE). TPE included those military items that units were provided upon arrival in theater for mission that were passed to the incoming unit on redeployment. NSE included any host of equipment that is not standard to the Army. This included anything from civilian style utility vehicles and fire trucks to gas generators and television screens. Unlike the MTOE items, this property required a final disposition to leave the theater. The Army required enablers that would allow the military to maximize the process through management and communication. Two organizations that are relatively new to the Army, but made a great impact on the Responsible Drawdown mission in Iraq are the Army Field Support Brigade (AFSB) and their Retrograde Property Assistance Teams (RPAT). The RPATs provide a direct communication link between the unit on the ground and the materiel managers both in theater and in the US. Deployed and managed by the AFSBs, the RPATs facilitate the process by aiding the units in identifying the equipment for retrograde and communicating specifics of the equipment for determining future disposition. The Army Service Component Command, Army Materiel Command, and the Army Staff decide the future disposition of the equipment in a coordinated effort. RPATs on the battlefield made a great impact on the Army’s ability to conduct reverse logistics.

The high levels of command that are enabled to review the items for retrograde and decide the future disposition have a wide array of options at their disposal. Each item accounted for in Iraq for example had the potential for eight major choices:

  1. The item could be redistributed within theater. This includes transfer to another unit in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kuwait.
  2. The item can be shipped back to the US for use by a specific Army unit.
  3. The item can be shipped back to the US for use as training equipment.
  4. The item can be placed in Army Prepositioned Stocks (APS) as part of those groups of equipment that are strategically placed global to decrease response time.
  5. The item can be transferred or sold to a host nation such as Iraq or Afghanistan for their government or military use.
  6. The item can become part of the Foreign Military Sales Program (FMS) where it is sold to a partnered nation.
  7. The item can be returned to the US under a program such as the National Association of State Agencies for Surplus (NASAP) for state government or National Guard use.
  8. Lastly, the item can be demilitarized and disposed of or recycled if the other options are deemed unsuitable.

Each item in Iraq had to be screened against these disposition options as the final units left Iraq. When the Obama administration gave the order to begin the withdrawal from the country in 2009, about 3.2 million items of equipment in Iraq needed to be redistributed. This was a monumental undertaking that requires clear communication at all levels and showcased the abilities of the AMC enablers on ground in the theater. Once the task of determining disposition is completed for each item, the logisticians are able to leverage the full transportation power of the materiel enterprise that includes military surface and air, as well as relying heavily on commercial partners and local contracts, to complete the movement. Whenever possible, the military made use of returning assets and backhauls from other deliveries to add efficiency to the process. The problem that arises with reverse logistics at this phase is the disparity of items that need to go in one direction far outweighing the need for opposite transportation.

The disparity or difference in directional shipment needs should be the focus of military logisticians in the future as they attempt to make better use of reverse logistics. During the initial deployment to the theater, large shipments are pushed in while very little is removed. The military then goes into a steady state of operations where sustainment supplies are shipped in and the theater stocks and non-standard property on hand expands. This phase of the operation holds the key to reducing the deficit that builds during the overall operation leaving the military with a mass of equipment needing disposition and transportation out of the theater in the end. The growing deficit also challenges timetables and reduces the viable options available to decision makers when determining disposition. As outlined in this article, the modern military has made changes to its logistics operations, methods, and organizations that facilitate reduction and prevention of a growing stockpile in theater. The military is now faced with communicating throughout the process and prioritizing reverse logistics during sustainment planning. The final factor that remains to commanders is operational risk. Redistributing items or transferring them out of theater can decrease capabilities and flexibility of units on the battlefield. As the logisticians continue to advance, they must be constant dialogue with combatant commanders to weigh flexibility risk against drawdown deficit risk. Future reverse logistics in the military will require full team effort.

In conclusion, the today’s military has undergone transformations in logistics and created enablers to influence the needed changes for maximizing reverse logistics. It has recent lessons learned that can be applied to the future to increase efficiency and minimize the equipment deficit that builds in theater from delivering more than removing. Future success will come from identifying retrograde items, weighing operational risk, understanding disposition options, and making informed decisions though planning and communication.

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