Advance stretches Marines' support force

Drive to Baghdad taxes logistical planning for supplies, especially fuel

War in Iraq

March 24, 2003|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SOUTHERN IRAQ - As thousands of Marines sprint toward Baghdad, commanders are facing a decisive test of logistics.

When the first Marines reach Baghdad, it will represent the deepest inland penetration in the history of the service - a bold attempt to refashion the corps as a nimbler force capable of land-based operations.

But with each mile they surge into Iraq, the mounting demands for fuel, food and supplies are testing the limits of the Marines' logistical planning.

"Tactically, the best thing might be to get to Baghdad immediately," said Capt. John Wiener, the logistics officer for the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, a force of more than 1,000 among those leading the push into central Iraq. "But physically, we're not able to do it."

They have encountered a demanding combination of factors: a fast-moving front meeting enough enemy resistance to keep units occupied around the desert.

The art of logistics is a central tenet of military planning, the unglamorous factor that has spelled success or failure for generations. Trailing several miles behind the fighting units, the logistics train moves supplies of everything needed to keep the combatants armed and mobile.

So far, Marines have not been hampered by supply shortfalls. But as the operation entered its third day, Marine logistics forces were driving and working around the clock. And planners discovered that their greatest limiting factor is fuel.

The Marines' amphibious assault vehicles are - almost literally - fish out of water. The 32-ton armored vehicles that move infantry troops are designed to plunge off boats and ride onto land. They have treads similar to those of a tank.

The vehicles - or "amtracs," as they are known - hold 171 gallons of diesel fuel and travel at about a mile per gallon. At any one time, the battalion's field train holds 3,600 gallons of fuel. Fully refueling the amtracs would require 8,550 gallons.

Logisticians estimate that they will need to stop to refuel every 31 to 62 miles to bring the armored armada to Baghdad with enough fuel to be able to fight.

At a makeshift fuel depot in the desert west of Basra, a dozen amtracs sat idling in a line as a crew of refuelers scurried around. Many of the refueling crews have managed only an hour or two of sleep in the past few days.

"If the front lines were static, this might be a one- or two-hour operation," said Lt. Mike Mullins, an officer overseeing the makeshift gas station. "But now it's 24 hours a day."

Evan Osnos writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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