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Doing More With Less:
Special Forces Logistics in Afghanistan

Operations in an unconventional warfare environment drive the need for a unique logistics platform. One example of a unique logistics approach is the employment of a forward logistics element (FLE) in a Special Forces group support battalion (GSB) in Afghanistan. A FLE is attached to a Special Forces battalion task force and directly supports the battalion’s operational detachment alpha (ODA). The FLE provides the 12-member ODA with the ability to conduct both kinetic (combat) and non-kinetic (civil affairs) operations under austere conditions in the most remote of locations. Without adequate sustainment, the ODA cannot maintain constant pressure on the enemy.

Organization

FLEs are strategically located throughout Afghanistan so that they can be task-organized and embedded within the supported unit. This dispersion of logistics forces allows for a decentralized approach to supporting counterinsurgency operations. A FLE consists of Soldiers from the GSB, which provides direct logistics support to a Special Forces battalion task force. The FLE includes riggers, mechanics, cooks, electronic maintenance technicians, fuel and water specialists, vehicle operators, and transportation movement coordinators. Some of these skill sets are not organic to the headquarters support company of a Special Forces battalion and, therefore, add more logistics capability to the unit’s design at the tactical level.

The FLE has a limited number of personnel. The average size of a Special Forces battalion task force FLE in Afghanistan ranges from 15 to 20 Soldiers. The total number of battalion task force support personnel exceeds 50 when a FLE is task-organized into a service detachment. However, even with over 50 support personnel in this combined effort, a ratio of 1 support Soldier to every 3 combat arms personnel still exists. The difficulties created by this ratio multiply when the force array of the Special Forces battalion task force spans a geographic area equal to that of an infantry division area of responsibility. The challenge is to task-organize and employ the FLE in key areas to have a significant impact on logistics operations in support of ODAs.

The FLE is commanded and controlled by a first lieutenant and a noncommissioned officer who are located with the Special Forces battalion task force headquarters. The remaining Soldiers are further task-organized into logistics support teams (LSTs) and assigned specific areas of responsibility within Afghanistan. An LST works directly with an operational detachment bravo (ODB)—the headquarters element of a Special Forces company—and provides critical logistics support to ODAs engaged in counterinsurgency operations. Merging the LST into the task organization of the ODB allows the Special Forces company commander to focus on operations, while the LST provides logistics support to the ODAs in the field. Using these resources at the lowest level extends the operational reach of the Special Forces battalion task force and enables them to put continuous pressure on the enemy without operational pauses caused by insufficient force sustainment.

Relationship With the GSB

Although a FLE is attached to a specific battalion, it is important for the FLE to maintain its relationship with the GSB so that it can employ available support assets based on mission requirements. In essence, the FLE serves as the eyes and ears of the GSB. With its forward presence, the FLE possesses the ability to project and forecast needs at the tactical level.

This attribute became evident during Operation Medusa, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation that was conducted in August and September of 2006. Members of the Task Force 31 FLE, stationed at Kandahar Airfield, deployed forward to support one ODB and four ODAs engaged in direct ground combat with enemy forces. Soldiers from the GSB at Bagram Air Base flew to Kandahar to provide personnel augmentation and offer additional logistics support to Task Force 31. The GSB assistance was necessary because Task Force 31 quickly became the main effort in the largest NATO combat operation in history.

The greatest challenge that the FLE had to overcome during Operation Medusa was supporting both conventional and special operations forces from the same firebase. The FLE responded to this challenge by establishing a one-stop shop for all classes of supply. A supported unit could drive into the firebase and refit its equipment within 6 hours. During the refit, small teams of multifunctional logisticians worked on several different pieces of equipment simultaneously. When one team was complete, it would quickly transition and assist another team. The ability to remain agile and multifunctional was key to the success of the FLE during the operation.

Flexibility

The FLE must remain flexible and be able to push forward on a moment’s notice to establish a logistics foothold. Although most firebases in Afghanistan were established over 3 years ago, new firebases are occasionally established to counter the insurgents’ ability to adapt to friendly force organizational structures and methods of operation. The ability to establish and sustain these new firebases is an important task of the FLE.

During Operation Al-Hasn in November 2006, the use of the Task Force 33 FLE proved to be vital to the success of the 3d Battalion, 3d Special Forces Group (Airborne). Using split-based operations, the FLE was able to infuse skill sets into the service detachment that are not normally found in the detachment’s task organization. FLE 33 employed Soldiers who possessed skill sets suited for rough-terrain driving and heavy equipment operation.

Once the security element and supplies were transported by ground, the engineers could begin constructing the new firebase. Subsequent sustainment operations called for establishing forward refueling points along main supply routes and the use of logistics convoys. With no true road network in the Tagab Valley and limited fuel distribution capability in the region, the FLE resorted to refuel-on-the-move, using support vehicles to assist the ODAs.

Distribution

One of the methods of distribution that FLEs use to sustain ODAs is fixed-wing aerial delivery. Using container delivery systems (CDSs), FLEs provide aerial resupply to several firebases whose ground lines of communication are restricted. CDS operations have been successful because of the relationship between the Special Forces battalion task force and the coalition partners of NATO and ISAF. CDS missions are often accomplished using coalition fixed-wing assets when U.S. assets are unavailable. Few airfields in Afghanistan can support aircraft larger than a C–130, limiting the number of high-value items that U.S. Army units can transport by air. So, having working relationships with NATO and ISAF partners is vital to the fixed-wing resupply of ODAs in the field.

ODAs also receive supplies in the field by rotary-wing aircraft. Often, rotary-wing support is used to supply classes V (ammunition), VII (major end items) and VIII (medical materiel) that cannot be moved by ground transportation because of route security concerns and poor ground lines of communication. The availability of rotary-wing assets in southern Afghanistan has significantly decreased over the past 2 years. This fact places even more demand on the FLEs to move supplies forward to the LSTs using other resources.

Classes I (subsistence), III (petroleum, oils, and lubricants), and IV (construction and barrier materials) are often moved by ground transportation. This reduces the reliance on rotary- and fixed-wing assets and increases the available lift capacity for high-value items, such as classes V, VII and VIII.

Collaboration

FLEs often support ODAs by collaborating with non-U.S. personnel. One such resource is host nation workers. By assisting the coalition forces, host nation personnel have a sense of ownership in bringing security and stability to their country. Because of the limited number of FLE personnel, host nation workers also serve a vital role in support operations. In many instances, the ratio of host nation workers to Soldiers is 30 to 1.

Host nation trucks are assets that are used extensively in southern and western Afghanistan. Security problems in southern Afghanistan have forced many of the host nation trucking companies to refuse to travel to certain locations without security escorts. Enemy forces target host nation trucks and pilfer the goods that they carry. Unlike conventional FLEs, the Special Forces FLEs lack dedicated force protection assets for convoy security, so ODAs have to assume a force protection role for convoys instead of conducting counterinsurgency operations. This problem can be mitigated by establishing checkpoints between firebases to increase route security and enable host nation trucks to deliver supplies without interference from the enemy.

FLEs also support ODAs during non-kinetic operations and integrate host nation assets into the plans. The procurement and distribution of humanitarian assistance items can have an effect on mission accomplishment that is as significant as the support of kinetic operations. During a non-kinetic event, such as a medical civil action project, the FLE can prepare supplies and strategic loads to be pushed forward to villages using host nation trucks or Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicles. Integrating the ANA into the support concept of a tactical operation provides the ANA with the experience needed to develop their own force sustainment capabilities. Although the ANA does not possess a FLE in its task organization, it does operate in close proximity to the ODAs. Therefore, members of the ANA can personally experience how the FLE resupplies the ODA while executing both kinetic and non-kinetic operations.

FLEs also conduct logistics patrols with NATO and ISAF partners in support of coalition operations. During Operation Baaz Tsuka in December 2006, members of FLE 31 from the 1st Battalion, 3d Special Forces Group (Airborne), successfully completed over 15 joint resupply missions in support of 1 ODB, 3 ODAs, a Canadian artillery battery, and a Canadian light-armored vehicle (LAV) company. FLE 31 was able to “piggyback” on a Canadian combat logistics patrol’s convoy security assets and deliver essential supplies for both kinetic and non-kinetic operations. Once an adequate amount of supplies was positioned at the firebase, the LAV company, in conjunction with the ODAs, established security and stability in what was an enemy safe haven.

Training

To support the unconventional warfare environment in Afghanistan, support personnel must be well-trained and multifunctional. In addition to their primary duties, support Soldiers must be capable of providing additional firepower to ODAs during combat reconnaissance and presence patrols. Embedding support Soldiers within the ODA is a combat multiplier that increases operational reach and expands organic capabilities. To make support Soldiers capable of operating under these conditions, the training should focus on producing competent, disciplined, and multifunctional support assets.

The GSB’s predeployment training is called the Special Forces Basic Combat Course-Support (SFBCC–S). The course is 10 days long and is designed to enhance the basic warrior skills needed to survive combat in an unconventional warfare environment. Personnel assigned to a Special Forces FLE operate in high-risk environments. Therefore, extra emphasis is placed on advanced marksmanship techniques, convoy operations, and medical training. SFBCC–S is taught by the same Special Forces Soldiers that members of the FLE will be working alongside once deployed. This teaching technique is used so that the ODA’s tactics, techniques, and procedures will be passed on to the Soldiers who will provide their direct support.

Advanced marksmanship training can also be accomplished by sending Soldiers to civilian marksmanship courses, such as those conducted by Blackwater USA, Gryphon Group Security Solutions, and the Mid-South Institute. These schools have programs specifically designed for Special Forces support personnel. An additional benefit is the “train the trainer” concept, which means that, after attending any of these schools, a Soldier can return to the unit and assist in training his fellow support personnel. With no organic security element, the FLE must be creative in projecting force sustainment to Special Forces Soldiers, be able to fight alongside them as the mission dictates, and contribute to kinetic and non-kinetic effects across the battlefield.

Another key training event is driver’s training on both heavy- and medium-weight tactical wheeled vehicles. The training should be conducted in rugged, mountainous terrain and under varied weather conditions. If FLE Soldiers are properly trained and licensed on an assortment of vehicles before deployment, they can safely and effectively operate and maneuver many vehicles. This versatility and added expertise allows for critical supplies and ammunition to be delivered safely and without incident in the treacherous driving conditions found in Afghanistan.

For most support Soldiers, SFBCC–S is their first opportunity to work with Special Forces Soldiers and gain valuable knowledge before they deploy. However, embedding support personnel with ODAs during the premission training (PMT) is an excellent training opportunity. Because of the frequency of deployments, it is vital for PMT to be as realistic as possible. During the PMT of FLE 33 with the 3d Battalion, 3d Special Forces Group (Airborne), in Yakima, Washington, the FLE trained with the Special Forces battalion task force 2 months before deploying. The PMT gave the FLE the opportunity to train with ODBs and ODAs that it would be working with in Afghanistan.

Unlike the majority of personnel assigned to conventional FLEs, the Soldiers assigned to a Special Forces FLE need to be trained in a variety of military occupational specialties. The challenge to leaders is to make certain that all skill sets are fully trained. Emphasis must be placed on training all specialties associated with the FLE to ensure continuity among all members of the team. Sometimes referred to as the “Super 92” concept, all 92-series Soldiers should train to ensure that they can perform each others’ jobs. The goal is to have Soldiers who are competent, proficient, and capable of completing tasks outside their military occupational specialties and able to adjust and be flexible in learning new tasks. Multifunctionality is a concept that must be accepted as a means of combating the lack of support personnel and overcoming mission constraints when trying to support a Special Forces battalion task force.

The ability to support ODAs conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan is a key task of the Special Forces FLE. With limited personnel and pre-existing resource constraints, overcoming these obstacles makes the FLE a critical capability. The FLE must be agile in its capabilities and rapid in its response to the needs of an ODA or ODB. By decentralizing logistics operations and employing small teams of multifunctional logisticians placed at strategic locations, Special Forces operational detachments can extend their operational reach to defeat the enemy in support of the counterinsurgency battlefield of Afghanistan.
ALOG

First Lieutenant Christopher G. Manganaro is the Sustainment Platoon Leader for the Group Support Battalion of the 3d Special Forces Group (Airborne). During Operation Enduring Freedom, he served as the forward logistics element officer-in-charge for the 1st Battalion of the 3d Special Forces Group (Airborne). He is a distinguished military graduate of Hofstra University with a B.B.A degree in business management. He is a graduate of the Ordnance Officer Basic Course.