Logistics Director Lauds Workforce, Notes Challenges
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 27, 2012 The military’s logistics enterprise has done “miraculous things” in supplying two wars over the last decade, and in tackling the challenge of reversing the flow of equipment into Afghanistan, a senior leader said today.
Navy Vice Adm. Mark D. Harnitchek, Defense Logistics Agency director, told the Defense Writers Group here his workforce confronts two central challenges: carrying on the enormous task of recovering equipment from Afghanistan as U.S. troops finish their combat role there by the end of 2014, while also cutting costs and adding efficiency to meet a tighter defense budget.
According to NATO International Security Assistance Force officials, 90,000 U.S troops remained in Afghanistan as of May 15. By the end of September, 23,000 of those service members will withdraw. While it’s not yet clear what size the U.S. force will be during the ongoing security transition to Afghan forces, or how many will remain beyond 2014, it’s clear U.S. troop strength will shrink significantly.
Harnitchek noted his agency isn’t responsible for managing returning unit equipment or items that will be transferred to Afghan forces. The services will take care of those stocks, but DLA is tasked with disposing of worn-out property -- from vehicles to computers -- and moving inventory stocks out of Afghanistan.
The agency has shredders as big as houses, and machines that can cut a mine-resistant vehicle into 18-inch squares, he said.
“We’re doing that in probably three to four places,” he said. “We can cut several hundred vehicles up a month.” The agency then sells the scrap, Harnitchek added.
Recovering military equipment is a bigger challenge in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq, he noted. “Afghanistan is a much tougher logistical nut to crack,” the admiral said.
With ground routes through Pakistan still closed to NATO forces, airlift and the ground-based northern distribution network are the only options for getting supplies in or out of Afghanistan, Harnitchek said. U.S. Transportation Command has the lead in managing that network, but DLA relies on it, he added.
“Frankly, I think commanders on the ground would tell you we haven’t missed a beat,” since Pakistan closed its routes in November, he said. “And on the logistics side, and the big commodities I manage, I’ve never had more fuel or more food in Afghanistan than I have right now.”
The network is made up of ports, rail and road routes winding like “a spider web,” Harnitchek said, through countries including Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Responding to a question about the network’s possible vulnerabilities -- Russian political differences with the United States, for example -- Harnitchek said all partner nations have been “remarkably cooperative.”
Because the network is designed to provide an array of transport options, the admiral said, no one route is essential.
“When you think about supporting operations in a place like Afghanistan – that’s landlocked – what you want to do is build a network that is so robust that everybody is an integral part of it, but nobody is absolutely vital,” he said. “You don’t want [to be] leveraged by your network partners.”
The routes are long, arduous and expensive, he acknowledged, but said he’s confident the network and the military’s airlift capabilities will manage the return of U.S. equipment from Afghanistan if Pakistan’s roads remain closed.
Turning to his agency’s budget goals, Harnitchek said he has challenged his workforce to cut their own operating costs, independent of demand, by 10 percent over the next five years. His strategy to achieve that goal requires better needs forecasting and keeping inventories smaller, he said.
“We need to do a much better job buying inventory,” the director said. “We buy way too much inventory that we don’t use, and then we keep it too long.”
DLA contracts to buy and deliver nearly all of the U.S. military’s consumable items: food, fuel, uniforms, medical supplies, and construction and barrier equipment. The agency also supplies more than 84 percent of the military’s spare parts. The agency already uses commercial supply lines for products such as food and pharmaceuticals, he said.
“We’re out of that business now,” Harnitchek noted. “We rely on commercial industry and their … supply chains to do that for us,” which means DLA saves storage and warehouse costs, he said. He’s pursuing similar goals with supplies such as light bulbs, nuts, bolts and lumber.
“Why would I want to spend $11 managing a bag of nuts that costs 75 cents? I don’t want to do that,” the admiral said.
His staff is also working with private industries that are big fuel consumers to gain a better understanding of market knowledge and when prices are likely to be best, he said. The Defense Department uses 130 million barrels of fuel a year, he said, and price fluctuations drive “a big budget problem.”
Unlike industries such as aviation, “We have a lot of storage infrastructure,” he noted. “We could buy and store fuel when the price is right. … That’s something we’re taking a very hard look at.”