Inherent Resourcefulness: Supporting the fight in Iraq and Syria

By John R. Bell

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[Note: For security, sources are identified only by first names.]

Like other defense agencies, the Defense Logistics Agency is supporting the fight against the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

DLA personnel are deployed to several nations to support U.S. military forces as they supply and train forces ranging from the Iraqi Army to the Kurdish peshmerga to local forces in Syria.

Ryan is a civilian DLA liaison officer to Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, embedded with a sustainment element at a base in a country near Iraq. His unit provides materiel from all classes of supply, coordinates movements, contracts for services and performs other sustainment tasks.

That can mean supplying unusual items on short notice, Ryan noted. He recalled earlier this year, when CJTF-OIR warfighters needed inflatable boats to cross a particular river.

This type of boat “isn’t a stock item for U.S. military,” Ryan said. “It certainly wasn’t one for the Iraqi military either.”

Making the task even harder, Ryan had a two-week lead time to make this purchase.

“The military turned to DLA as a sourcing solution, because we’ve got an outstanding reputation for flexibility, resourcefulness and speed,” he said.

“In 48 hours, DLA had accepted the requirement, coordinated with prime-vendor partners who had found a new manufacturer for this materiel,” he said. Within the two weeks, “we were able to get the manufacturer engaged and up and running, manufacturing brand-new boats and delivering them into the theater.”

The customer considered this achievement “miraculous,” Ryan said.

 “At one point, I was in Kuwait on a cellphone with the contracting officer in Philadelphia, who was on his desk phone with the manufacturers in California. Meanwhile, I was having a face-to-face conversation with my colonel, who was on his own cell phone, talking to a colonel with the sustainment elements, who was on his desktop with the customer. And this was all happening at 10 p.m. local time.” 

It was a coordination feat that included many late nights.

Another short order requirement for Ryan and his team was for a large shipment of fog oil, also known as “battlefield obscurant,” used in every major U.S.-involved conflict since World War I.

Like the requirement for the inflatable boats, this was another demand with a short lead time of only two weeks, Ryan said. Again,  it took personnel working together from around the world.

“I was coordinating with DLA points of contact on four different continents to make this happen,” he said. “We had supplied it in Korea. We had the vendor in the United States. We were coordinating with transportation folks in Europe and we were receiving it here in the Middle East. It was literally an around-the-world effort to fulfill this requirement.”

Ryan’s unit leveraged its relationship with the vendor to get an expedited shipment of the fog oil, and worked with partners with U.S. Central Command to transport the materiel in the region.

In addition to the Iraqi army, the U.S. military also relies on DLA for supplies it provides to the Kurdish peshmerga forces. And this comes with its own set of challenges, said Bill, another DLA liaison officer in the region.

This was particularly true during Ramadan this year, because it came in the summer.

“[Muslims] don’t eat or drink from sunup to sundown during Ramadan,” Bill explained. “So when you have 14 or 16 hours of daylight, and it’s 120-130 degrees out, you won’t have nearly the productivity that you would in the middle of winter, when daylight is shorter and it’s 20-30 degrees, [and people aren’t going as long without food].”

The long days without eating mean people in the region have less energy after the noon hour, he said.

“So you have to do things a lot earlier in the morning due to the afternoon heat,” Bill noted. “Most of the tasks are done in the early morning hours.”

Although many aspects of OIR in Syria are similar to operations in Iraq, they differ, said Adam, an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve working for DLA Distribution.

As DLA’s liaison officer at a training base in the region, his job is to make sure the special operations forces have what they need so they can continue training, securing and supplying the local forces fighting ISIL.

Unlike Iraq, however, the local forces in Syria are not a single, organized national army. Instead, multiple, fluid, unofficial militias — not unlike the men who first joined Gen. George Washington in the American Revolution — fight ISIL terrorists with whatever they can get their hands on.

And thanks to DLA, through its support to deployed U.S. military forces, they get their hands on nearly everything they need.

“When you’re in a forward-deployed environment, you have more operators than you do logistical support staff,” Adam explained.

In addition, the logistical specialists on site often have other duties that compete for their time. Adam explained his job at DLA is a lot more involved than it would usually be.

He said he routinely tells customers what they need to order, provides the national stock number and almost places the order for them. But there’s only so much he can do on their behalf.

“A lot of times, I’ll hear ‘Show me the requisition’ from DLA, and that’s right, because DLA can’t do anything without it. But as a forward-deployed liaison officer, my job is to get these operators or the few logistical support personnel to move.”

Adam’s unit, given its mission and location, continually supplies items to the CJTF-OIR conventional and special operations forces who work with local militias fighting ISIL.

“There have been certain locations in need of critical materiel or supplies, and DLA has been able to provide it to our special operations forces, which has furthered the objectives of OIR,” Adam said.

One example was an item needed for a major repair project. Getting the item required coordination with Army Central, Air Force Central and multinational personnel.

“DLA shipped the item quickly from Europe … and it was very important to continue the SOF unit’s operations,” he noted. “And the least of our worries was the product coming from Europe, from DLA.”

The supply of food and fuels to the front lines generally “runs like clockwork,” Adam said. But a supply class requiring more coordination is class IV. Construction material “has been huge lately,” he said.

“DLA Troop Support provides outstanding assistance and, more importantly, makes the process easy for the engineers. The [Maintenance, Repair and Operations] program is very well received,” Adam said of his site.

Some might find it surprising that concrete and steel would make up so much of DLA’s supply to OIR, but in Syria, they’re crucial to protecting camps used by Syrian forces fighting ISIL, Adam said.

“We need to make sure that camp is defensible — which takes a lot of class IV,” he said. “The SOF guys are the ones out there training them how to defend. But then if something happens — say a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device damages their base — they have to repair it.”

That means material, equipment and manpower, Adam noted.

Additionally, DLA provides aviation fuel for unmanned aerial vehicles. Getting the fuel to them has been challenging, requiring short notices and in austere locations. Because of the road conditions and extreme heat, tires have been torn up some tires getting out there to the units, Adam said.

Supporting the fight in Syria, like the fight in Iraq, comes with its own set of bureaucratic challenges, Adam said. For one, the site where he works is not a U.S.-owned facility, in contrast to most of the bases the coalition forces operated from in earlier Middle East operations. And even close U.S. allies have their own systems of regulations, much like the United States.

This means tasks can take longer than they did during the recent U.S. operations in Iraq, he said.

“If you give a project 10 days, and the first three of those are waiting for permission from the host nation, then obviously you have only seven days to follow through. The acquisition and transportation time did not get adjusted for those three days.”

An example is minor electrical repairs. 

“It’s not like we can just go out and fix [the quarters] ourselves really quickly. The ‘landlord’ is supposed to fix that. And if they’re dragging, we don’t have too much leverage.  There have been numerous times when the landlord has not gotten around to it, says he can’t do it, or we don’t like the way he’s going to do it,” Adam said.

However, he said, his team is fortunate in that some of the Reservists stationed there work as licensed tradesmen, such as electricians, in their civilian lives.

“With that skillset, they’ve been able to take care of some of these repairs.”

Another example of how OIR is different from prior engagements is the process for scheduling vehicles, Adam said. The base where he works has no U.S. military sustainment brigades using flatbed trucks to transport cargo.

“So we have to schedule them in advance, because there are no warehouses where we are. It’s a big, open field — a container yard.”

This means the facility must use a contractor, via a line-haul contract, to transport the materiel. For Syria in particular, this is a tough challenge, he noted.

“To get one truck out there, the driver has to be vetted to get past the [Syrian] border guards,” Adam explained. “If the contractor is held up at the border, we have to jump in and help expedite this, to get them whatever information the border guards need to allow the delivery to the forward-deployed soldiers.”

Several times, food trucks have been held up for two to three days, he said. That’s where the management comes into play, in keeping a large enough food reserve on hand.

Adam said that providing the outstanding support is a DLA-wide effort.

“I’m able to work with many great people in each of the primary-level field activities that answer all of the customers’ questions. Many I visit with are the face of their respective PLFA,” he said.

“But what enables the soldiers to receive the products in a timely manner is the success of the back-office personnel — those who make the agreements with the vendors and write contracts for who knows what.”

Warfighter feedback on DLA’s support has been largely positive, he noted. But often, their focus on the daily fight means sometimes no news is good news.

On food and fuel, “I don’t hear much feedback at all,” Adam said. “The only time I hear anything is when a truck is delayed. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I hear nothing, which is great!”

Ryan acknowledged it’s hard to predict how such a complex, yet crucial, operation will evolve.

When OIR began, “the sustainment element didn’t think of DLA first when it came to sourcing. But we’ve had the opportunity to be successful and prove ourselves,” he said, and CJTF “is becoming more and more aware” of what DLA can accomplish.

“Even if the campaign stays in a relative steady state, I see DLA’s involvement only growing, because we’re really proving ourselves in our capabilities, our responsiveness and our flexibility,” Ryan said.

He explained that the general logistics expertise of DLA personnel can be useful to customers even when not expected.

“One of the unwritten ways we add value is that DLA being a strictly logistics entity, we have subject matter expertise. So even if conversation is about a part that DLA didn’t supply or is about the customer’s internal storage and distribution systems, we bring expertise to the conversation.”

For example, he said, DLA puts a radio frequency identification tag on everything it ships.

“It gives us in-transit visibility from factory to foxhole,” Ryan said. “We were successfully getting material into theater. We could see the part moving from continent to continent and into the country.”

‘We’re in talks with our customers about improving their own in-transit visibility by using similar technology,” Ryan explained.  “Being able to see exactly where your materiel is as it travels … It’s all the more valuable that they be able to have that same visibility.”

“And the feedback from the customer has been really positive,” he added.

DLA’s support to OIR is as diverse as the fight itself, uniting civilians and military service members in support of DoD’s mission as DLA personnel ensure that the right supplies and materiel are delivered to its customers on time, every time.