The Iron Horse Express

by Lieutenant Colonel David G. Cotter

Extraordinary means were required to move an extraordinary quantity of equipment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Preparing equipment for a HETs-only convoy.


In late January 2003, Task Force Iron Horse prepared to deploy to Turkey during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The task force was charged with opening a northern front through Turkey for operations by the U.S.-led multinational coalition"in its efforts to disarm Iraq.

Task Force Iron Horse was built around elements of the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Fort Hood, Texas. Because it would be a stand-alone force, the task force enlisted help from an enhanced logistics package anchored by the 64th Corps Support Group (CSG), which is part of the 13th Corps Support Command, also at Fort Hood. Included in the 64th CSG are the 180th Transportation Battalion, the 544th Maintenance Battalion, and the 553d Corps Support Battalion. All three battalions enjoy habitual relationships with the 4th Infantry Division (4ID).


Change in Plans

Establishing a northern front through Turkey quickly became a politically unworkable option, so, in late March, the Secretary of Defense diverted Task Force Iron Horse to Kuwait. The 4ID and its attached units quickly shifted their attention south and deployed to Kuwait, while ships loaded with the task force’s equipment moved from the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, around the Arabian Peninsula, and up the Persian Gulf to Kuwait. On arrival in Kuwait, the task force was directed by the V Corps commander to get into the fight immediately. However, task force leaders faced an operational dilemma: They needed to figure out a way to move more than 20,000 soldiers and all of their attendant combat equipment quickly into the battlespace. Time was of the essence because the battle for Baghdad was underway, and the corps commander needed Task Force Iron Horse’s considerable combat power without delay.

From 31 March through 16 April, soldiers arrived by air at Kuwait City International Airport, while their equipment arrived by sea at the port at Ash Shu’aybah in Kuwait. Both ports of debarkation were over 450 miles from the task force’s tactical assembly area (TAA), which was immediately south of Baghdad.

The usual way to move heavy combat gear is by rail, but the rail infrastructure in Iraq was essentially nonexistent and the rail lines that did exist were inadequate to the task. However, two good, usable highways ran the length of the corridor to the TAA and could be used as main supply routes. With good security, these roads could serve as avenues to the front line. On 13 April, the Assistant Division Commander for Support asked the commander of the 64th Support Group if the 180th Transportation Battalion could move the task force into the fight quickly. After checking on the availability of heavy equipment transporters (HETs), the support group commander gave the 180th Transportation Battalion a warning order to be prepared to move the task force from its marshaling areas to the TAA on HETs.


Extraordinary Measures for Extraordinary Times

A HET move of this magnitude had not been carried out before, but the urgency of the situation demanded unorthodox measures. Approximately 1,500 tracked combat equipment vehicles and other outsized engineer equipment in the task force had to be moved. As soon as the warning order was received, the 180th began to prepare to receive every HET unit in V Corps. The battalion S–3 took the lead, not just in planning the operational aspects but also in resourcing and coordinating everything from living space and life support for more than 1,000 soldiers in the battalion to providing fuel at critical points along the route. The battalion staff had only 2 days to come up with a plan for assuming attachment or operational control of eight HET units.

The 2d, 11th, 287th, and 377th Transportation Companies (HET) were attached to the 180th for the HET move. The 96th and 233d Transportation Companies (HET) were placed under the operational control of the battalion. The 217th and 253d Transportation Companies and a platoon of Army HETs, operated by civilian contractors, augmented the battalion throughout the operation. These units were spread out across the corps area, and it took up to 48 hours for some of them to rally at the marshaling areas at Camp New York, Kuwait.

More than 375 HETs were assigned to the 180th for the mission. Organizing a battalion of this size so it could come together at Camp New York in a very short time and begin operating immediately in a contingency environment required strict, centralize control. Each arriving unit was given a specific area to occupy, but every other aspect of the operation was executed at battalion level. As individual HETs became ready to move, they were put into the flow with little regard for unit integrity—the 4ID was needed desperately in the fight for Baghdad.

A view of a HETs-only convoy


Maintenance “Pit Stop”

As the units flowed into Camp New York, initially and after each mission, they passed through a consolidated maintenance “pit stop” that accounted for the vehicles and provided fuel and quick-fix maintenance so they could join or return to the fight quickly. The battalion executive officer was the maintenance linchpin for the HET move. He often made all-night runs to the rear for parts and tires. Trailer tires were the biggest challenge—each HET trailer has 40 tires. More than 100 new tires were needed each day to replace those that succumbed to the heavy loads and hot weather. Compounding the maintenance difficulties was the immaturity of the theater and the 4 to 6 weeks it took for repair parts to begin flowing into the theater for the arriving units.

Vehicles that passed the maintenance quality check at the pit stop moved back into their unit lines. Vehicles that failed the maintenance inspection were fixed by the maintenance team or moved onto deadline row, and the vehicle crews moved on to the ready line for their next missions.

The trip to the marshaling areas at Camp New York from the seaport of debarkation at Ash Shu’aybah was about 100 miles, and the distance to Baghdad from the marshaling areas in Kuwait was another 368 miles. Seventeen of the 368 miles were on “Iron Horse Trail,” a rutted, dusty tank trail that led from the marshaling areas out to Kuwait Route 80. Once on Route 80, the roads were all multilane, paved roads except for a 4-mile stretch across the Kuwait-Iraq border, which was a single paved lane through the outskirts of Safwan, Iraq.

The 4ID concept for the operation was a unique combination of organization and security. The mission was to be treated not as a transportation mission but as a unit move—of a very big unit. The convoys would be built in unit serials with the uploaded HETs interspersed among other wheeled vehicles. To mitigate the risk to the drivers of the HETs, the Assistant Division Commander for Support and the Division Transportation Officer developed a plan to put an extra soldier in the cab of each HET. The purpose of the third soldier was to provide an alert assistant to the driver while the relief driver slept in one of the two bunks in the HET cab.

In a radical shift from normal peacetime procedure, the combat vehicle crews would stay aboard their vehicles after they were loaded onto the HETs to man the crew-served weapons on the vehicles, thus providing an elevated level of force protection for the convoys. That deterrent plan worked very well; for the first time, the HET convoys were not subjected to the intermittent harassing fire that had been commonplace in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. An M1 Abrams tank with a system enhancement package (M1 SEP), even a trailer-mounted one, makes a powerful statement. Using these techniques, most of the 1st Brigade, 4ID Headquarters, and the 3d Brigade flowed into the TAA over the next 9 days.


Driver Safety

The turn-around time for each cycle, or “flip,” of the convoy was approximately 48 hours. The HET operation achieved a deliberate battle rhythm, and the division’s equipment was delivered with some predictability. At the 180th Transportation Battalion, the main concern was for the drivers. No truck driver is capable of indefinite nonstop operations. Exacerbating the situation was the fact that many of the participating units had been moving at a breakneck pace since January. For the first few flips, the nonstop operations worked well. As the flips accumulated, however, the drivers began to show signs of dangerous levels of exhaustion, and it became apparent that a plan was needed that could speed the division to the TAA and still provide some rest for the drivers.

Two mitigating measures emerged as potential solutions. The first was to add a 6-hour break at the end of each flip to give the drivers time to sleep. The second was to convince the 4ID to run only HETs in order to lessen the flip time. Fully loaded HETs could travel safely at 40 to 45 miles per hour on Iraqi roads instead of the 20 to 25 miles per hour that was typical for other tactical vehicles. Shorter flips would give the drivers more time to rest.

However, before a decision could be made on the convoys, the 4ID mission was abruptly halted because the V Corps commander wanted to move the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) into western Iraq to face an emerging threat. The HETs would have to stop moving the 4ID and start moving the 3d ACR.


3d ACR Move

The 3d ACR arrived in the middle of the 4ID move and, after observing how well the HETs-only convoys were working, the 3d ACR commander decided he wanted his regiment moved the same way. The 180th began moving the 3d ACR on 25 April and moved approximately 544 pieces of combat equipment in the next 5 days. With HETs-only convoys, there was a 30-percent drop in flip times.

The regiment moved west on 1 May to accomplish its mission, and the 180th turned its attention back to the 4ID mission. The 2d Brigade, the rest of the division troops, and an entire engineer brigade still had to be moved. The Division Transportation Officer had watched the regiment’s move and, because it went so well, suggested moving the remaining units by HETs-only convoys also.

By 6 May, all of Task Force Iron Horse had been moved to the TAA. The 180th Transportation Battalion had moved two large combat formations—Task Force Iron Horse and the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment—and over 1,750 pieces of combat equipment in only 21 days. Truly, as every transporter knows, “nothing happens until something [or in this case, everything] moves!” ALOG


Lieutenant Colonel David G. Cotter is the Commander of the 180th Transportation Battalion, 64th Corps Support Group, 13th Corps Support Command. He has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University in Rhode Island, a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, and is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College. Previously, he was assigned in the office of the J–5, U.S. European Command.