Every pilot, military or commercial, practices for hours on flight simulators before being entrusted with human lives.
Likewise, military forces drill before deploying to combat zones.
For the Defense Logistics Agency, the stakes are similarly high as the agency provides disaster relief, humanitarian assistance and support to our deployed men and women in uniform.
So DLA joined the Army and the Air Force in training scenarios that test their ability to rapidly transport equipment, obtain supplies in country and set up buildings, airports and seaports — with as little as 12 hours’ notice.
Seaport Opening — April 2016
The clock was ticking. Hundreds of shipping containers sat in Jacksonville, Florida, waiting to be sent across the Gulf of Mexico to Port Arthur, Texas — known in this scenario as the Republic of Atropia — where an Army transportation battalion would take the cargo to Fort Polk, Kentucky.
This weeklong exercise wasn’t just about setting up a port. “This is the first time USTRANSCOM has taken three exercises and collapsed them into one,” said Army Col. Michael Arnold, DLA’s national account manager for the Army. Arnold leads one of the two DLA teams that participate in the exercises. Navy Capt. Paul Halsam, chief of staff for DLA Acquisition, leads the other team.
“They sailed around Florida, into the Gulf, through the Sabine Pass to Port Arthur,” Arnold explained. “We had real cargo that was being offloaded at Port Arthur and going to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk [Louisiana].”
DLA joined the Army 833rd Transportation Battalion to open a seaport; then worked with the Military Sealift Command’s “Turbo Activation” of its cargo ship; and finally, played the key role in providing food and fuels in support of the port opening.
Structure and Process
Every year, there are three aerial port openings and one seaport opening exercise at different locations. Some locations are used to simulate humanitarian assistance or disaster response; others have been used as settings for a response to political instability. Each DLA team participates in two exercises per year.
Once the Joint Task Force Port Opening commander is on site with a small advance unit, the team sets up operations for receiving cargo via plane or ship. A few days later, the remainder of the DLA team and the Army Rapid Port Opening Element arrive and begin pushing cargo to the forward node.
DLA’s RDI program consists of two DLA support teams, a Gold Team and a Black Team. The program resides in DLA Logistics Operations but includes members from across DLA. Each 13-member group has a commander, a deputy commander, an operations officer, a universal customer account specialist and specialists to cover all nine classes of supply. The teams alternate being on a 60-day standby, so that at any time, DLA has a team ready to deploy.
“As soon as the call is given by the president to actually have the military response somewhere in the world, we’re part of that team,” Haslam said. “And four of our team members have a seat on the first C-17 that goes in.”
When that happens, four DLA DST team members known as the DLA Assessment Team travel with the initial “first responders,” the Joint Assessment Team. The other nine DST members travel a few days later.
Honing Skills, Building Trust
Being a regular part of the teams that participate in these training exercises helps the DLA teams in many ways, said Haslam. “It’s an exercise format, which allows you to make mistakes and get to know people and work with them. But you get to work through all the issues you would have in a real-world environment.” Just as important, he said, “You build trust with our counterparts … . And at the same time, you get to see what the future could look like” in a real-world event, he said.
“Let’s say we have another Haiti, or there’s an Ebola crisis, an earthquake” Haslam continued. “We’ve worked with the people [on the team]. We’ve lived with them in tents and eaten Meals Ready to Eat with them and worked through scenarios with them for a whole week. … By the time we have a real-world event, there’s really nothing we can’t do.”
In addition, the DLA team is trying to reduce the amount of equipment it has to bring and pre-position what they do bring. “We as a team need to be self-sustaining,” said Jeff Crosson, a logistics operations specialist in DLA’s Joint Logistics Operations Center. [See “Synchronizing the Effort,” on page 24 of this issue.]
One challenge for the team is to make sure its personnel have all the required screenings and online training ahead of time, as well as a broad knowledge of their wider area, Crosson said. “The better we can train people ahead of time for what they might run into, the more successful we’ll be on the ground,” she said.
This also applies to the skills each team member brings. “My job may be one specific part of the supply chain. But as part of the RDI team, you need to be able to talk intelligently about the entire thing. You might be called on to help set up warehouses, write contracts or lease vehicles,” Crosson noted.
March 2016 — Sierra Army Depot
Earlier this year, DLA RDI members found themselves in the arid African nation of Sangala — otherwise known as Sierra Army Depot, a tiny outpost in a forlorn corner of rural Northeastern California, northwest of Reno, Nevada. Craig Hill, an expeditionary contracting officer in the Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office, reflected on the experience.
For Hill and his fellow contracting officers, their primary task was figuring out where to get supplies. “What’s the condition of the roads? Are we going to need gravel for the taxiways? … If I see a problem, I’m noting that to the team,” Hill said
To know what supplies would be available, he and his team also needed to do research in advance of arriving at Sierra Army Depot, Hill noted. The teams are given limited information on the fictitious country, so he used the real locations.
“About a half hour drive away is Susanville, and an hour away is Reno. … So I researched what vendors are available in each location. … This way, I had an idea of what was available and where to go if my commander had a requirement for me to purchase.”
A Nail is a Nail — Except When It’s Not
Such information is critical in the real world, Hill said. He recalled buying nails while deployed to Liberia and Senegal for Operation United Assistance, in which DLA helped fight Ebola. DLA engineers discovered on a Saturday night that they were out of locally sourced nails. So they started to use their American nails. “The lumber we bought over there was all hardwood, and our engineers were used to pine. So they’re hammering into hardwood, and the [U.S.-sourced] nails are bending.” Drilling pilot holes didn’t work. Yet the hardware stores were closed until Monday.
But because he had built relationships with the managers of the local hardware stores, Hill on a Saturday night was able to call a local store manager on his cell phone and get him to sell and deliver the DLA team 20 pounds of nails that very evening.
At the same time, the contracting officer has to make sure the agency is treating its vendors fairly and considering even their safety, Hill noted. The customer originally asked if the nails could be delivered that very evening to Buchanan, Liberia — meaning a dangerous two-hour night drive each way for the vendor.
“I pointed out that it’s dangerous to be on these roads at night — we’re actually forbidden from driving them at night ourselves — and the customer didn’t actually need the nails till the next morning.” So Hill found a team member who had already planned that drive for the next morning, who picked up the nails and got them to the engineers the next day.
Lessons and Benefits
Arnold noted several benefits from participating in the recent seaport exercise. “It’s an avenue for us to give DLA subject-matter experts an opportunity to hitch a ride through USTRANSCOM,” Arnold said, referring to benefits DLA gains in working with and through USTRANSCOM to deploy to a given area.
In addition, the agency tested and honed skills in a way that otherwise would not have been possible, he said. “Because you have 350-plus soldiers and sailors at Port Arthur, there was Class III support that was acquired through DLA to make sure all the vehicles and generators were fueled,” to enable the shipment to Fort Polk during the April 2016 exercise.
“And the Class I folks — we had [food and subsistence rations] and prime vendor contracts that were used to feed the soldiers and the sailors. We lived right there in the warehouse … . It was a really great opportunity for the Army and the Navy to exercise the whole piece of how they would deploy and do their emergency readiness deployment exercises.” Arnold said.
Hill cited one particular lesson learned from the Sierra Army Depot exercise: Make sure someone has a Government Purchase Card. “As a contracting officer, we need to be able to make purchases.” In an emergency, the card can be funded like a debit card, and the user can make purchases immediately as ordered by the commander. This is particularly important because DLA does not have paying agents, and without a GPC, the contracting officer is prevented by regulation from making purchases.
The DLA DST plans to continue its participation in Turbo Distribution exercises, according to several officials in the Logistics Operations Directorate — and that means it needs people.
Those interested should contact their force provider, Crosson said, and then follow up with him.
Experienced volunteers are needed, he said — particularly bulk-fuel specialists and universal customer account specialists. But logisticians of any stripe are welcome to apply.
This kind of exercise “requires you to think theater-wide,” said Crosson. For someone used to a very segmented area, being part of the RDI will help them gain a broader understanding, he said. “Not just, ‘How do I get this part to this person?’ But also, ‘Where is this part coming from? What’s the best source? Do I need to talk to my contracting person to see if we can get it locally procured?’ So I think it’s opening DLA employees’ eyes to the bigger theater-wide picture.”
The opportunity is “career expanding,” Crosson noted. “It’s really stretching folks to go outside their comfort zone and really learn.”
In recent years, DLA has been called on more and more to provide logistics on location during crises and conflicts.
These exercises help DLA logisticians hone their skills and give them real-world experience for the next contingency — no matter the continent, climate or crisis.