U.S. military mission's biggest test is keeping logistical network functioning OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 09, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Storming the beaches of Somalia was the easy part for the U.S. military. The biggest test in the temporary takeover of a devastated nation is the logistical challenge yet to come.

As the trickle of U.S. combat forces into Mogadishu becomes a torrent in the weeks ahead, the military's global supply network will rush to keep pace without stumbling over obstacles wrought by years of war and famine.

Supplying U.S. forces in Somalia requires a complex choreography with grim choke points: A slowdown here translates into a delay there, and every moment lost means more Somalis die of starvation and disease.

"When you say, 'Take 28,000 troops and send them 7,500 miles away, and, by the way, there's no potable water there, and there are no gas stations, and there's only one or two C-141-capable airfields, and the port facilities only hold one or two ships,' that is very demanding," said Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

U.S. forces will have to carry in everything they need, from water to food to runway lights and the electricity to power them.

"Right now there are no instruments, there are no landing lights, there are no navigation aids at the Mogadishu airport," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said yesterday afternoon.

An early Air Force cargo flight to Somalia will carry such gear, and Navy Seabee construction workers have been ordered to rig the lights at the country's biggest airfield so planes can use it around the clock. Until that happens, aircraft will be allowed to land only during daylight -- cutting in half the number of U.S. troops who can be brought in each day.

That may not make much difference: Gear for those troops is scheduled to arrive by ship, and those vessels could also be delayed because of problems they may face in Mogadishu harbor.

Navy divers from the USS Tripoli have been feeling their way around the bottom of the harbor, which ranges from about 25 to 35 feet deep. The huge cargo vessels supplying U.S. forces draw 33 feet, and the divers are searching for paths the ships can follow from ocean to dock without running aground.

haven't had a ship in Mogadishu since 1987, and ships have been sunk there since then, so we're going to need a good survey of the bottom of the harbor," a Navy officer said. "It'd sure be embarrassing to run aground while the whole world is watching."

If the harbor is too congested for the big ships, smaller vessels could ferry supplies to shore, although that would double the normal three-day unloading time. Navy salvage crews might be ordered to destroy sunken hulls to make way for the big ships.

Any such delays would slow the arrival of Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif. "They want those provisions waiting for them in Mogadishu when they arrive," a Pentagon planner said. "They don't want to stand around the airport twiddling their thumbs."

Far from the Horn of Africa, the Pentagon has begun revving up the logistics network that has been idled since the Persian Gulf war. Nearly a dozen Navy and commercial vessels are heading to U.S. and European ports to load supplies bound for Somalia, and 24 KC-135 aerial tankers have been stationed in the Azores and DTC Spain to fuel aircraft flying between the United States and Africa.

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