Moving equipment efficiently and economically during NATO's drawdown in Afghanistan poses serious challenges to the major players deployed there.
“Everyone fixated on rushing kit into theater. Getting it back is left to chance,” says one British logistics planner.
This might sound pessimistic, but a glance at NATO figures for the size of the logistical problem is informative: The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) must withdraw 125,000 containers and up to 80,000 vehicles from Afghanistan by the end of combat operations in 2014. This includes at least 10,000-12,000 containers of equipment and 2,500-3,000 vehicles for the U.K., more than 1,000 vehicles and 4,000 containers for Germany, and close to 90,000 containers and 50,000 vehicles for the U.S. Other ISAF nations make up much of the rest.
The biggest change for the drawdown is that the means of equipment movement from Afghanistan is likely to be different from the move in. The reason is simple: Cost.
Lt. Col. Bertrand de Robien, deputy director of the French military center for multimodal transport (CMT), says 90% of materiel arrived in Afghanistan by air; the remainder came by ship and was trucked overland through Pakistan. But sensitive equipment will be moved back by air, either to transhipment hubs in the Persian Gulf, or directly to France. Even non-urgent but nevertheless sensitive materiel such as munitions are flown from Kabul to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where France has a base, and will be stockpiled until there is enough to fill a ship to Marseilles.
For the U.K., although the main deployment phases in 2007-10 saw most equipment arriving by sea and via Pakistan, the closure of those ports and borders saw a dramatic change, with well over 90% also arriving by air, either from the U.K. or by a shipment point in the UAE. Although there will be efforts to limit the amount of air movement, the sensitive nature of much equipment means that it will have to be flown to the UAE, at the very least, for onward transportation.
The route for Germany also relies on air movement. A logistics hub is being established at the Turkish Black Sea port of Trabzon. Here, more than 15 flights a week from Afghanistan will land so that equipment can be sorted for shipment by sea to Germany.