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Five Key Areas of the 4th Sustainment Brigade’s Success

In a 4th Sustainment Brigade officer professional development session, Colonel Gustave Perna, the brigade commander, spoke to a group of captains new to his formation about what the unit had done in its previous Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) deployment. Not only had the brigade served in combat as a fully modular sustainment unit of action, accomplishing its mission of providing supplies for over 70,000 coalition Soldiers in the Baghdad area of operations; it had done so without losing a single Soldier.

Logging 3 1⁄2 million miles on 5,000 combat logistics patrols without losing a Soldier had never been done before. This accomplishment has a tendency to pique interest, and one captain asked Colonel Perna, “How did you do it?”

He answered, “I never take God out of the equation. I thank God everyday for bringing everyone home.” He went on to say, “Specifically, however, I believe our success is owed to five areas of leadership involvement: the AAR [after-action review] process, intelligence-driven operations, creating logistics flexibility, standards and discipline, and equipment maintenance.”

These areas, Colonel Perna explained, contributed to the unit becoming proactive versus reactive, which is a term used daily in the military, typically in a good versus bad or prepared versus taken-by-surprise context. For the 4th Sustainment Brigade, proactive verses reactive means success at implementing the five aspects of leadership involvement that catalyze a new system of logistics execution. When the brigade embraced and practiced these areas in Iraq, they transcended some old ways of thinking with unprecedented success.

Building the Foundation

The foundation of this new logistics system was built on organizational changes. In the months leading up to deployment, the battalions of the 4th Infantry Division Support Command were stripped away and the Army drafted a new modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE) for the remaining headquarters element to create the fully modular 4th Sustainment Brigade. The idea was to plug battalions from throughout the Active Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve into the 4th Sustainment Brigade once in theater. These units would work with the brigade to provide supplies, maintenance, and transportation support to coalition forces in the area of operations.

Although the brigade’s subordinate battalions would not be in place until deployment, the Fort Hood, Texas-based headquarters element began its internal transformation with guidance from the commander. Colonel Perna wanted three sections within his staff—future operations, current operations, and administration.

In a break from normal doctrine, the support operations officer’s (SPO’s) role would change from handling day-to-day operations to planning future operations—tracking repair orders, researching future missions, scanning fragmentary orders for future taskings, and looking for ways to improve storage capacity on forward operating bases (FOBs). The S–3’s role then would be moved to the forefront and greatly expanded to handling current operations—overseeing all missions once planning was completed, managing all transportation movement requests, interfacing with battalions, informing battalions of changing conditions, and modifying requirements.

The original breakout split responsibilities equally between the S–3 and SPO. This approach, while the simplest, gave both the S–3 and SPO unneeded personnel. Materiel management office Soldiers, for example, were not fully utilized in the current operations section; likewise, transportation personnel were underutilized in future operations. As planning continued, swap-outs were made to improve productivity and refine the new structure.

Other changes to the future operations section included moving all MTOE-assigned S–3 personnel to current operations, moving the effects section from S–3 to SPO, and moving the host nation personnel into the general supply office. Current operations also underwent further changes, such as moving the field service section to future operation’s general supply office, combining distribution with transportation, and transferring the property book office to the S–4 section over in administration’s group. The brigade continued to adjust the organization while in Iraq.

With the structure more firmly in place, the 4th Sustainment Brigade, once in Iraq, could shift its efforts to focus on the five leadership involvement areas that would make it effective.

The AAR Process

Learning from the past and gaining feedback from convoys as they accomplished their missions were integral to improving effectiveness at FOBs and adjusting to changing enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures. The brigade corresponded with commanders from up to two rotatio ns before OIF 05–07 to find out what they had learned. While not all that they learned was relevant for the 4th Sustainment Brigade’s time in Iraq, the practice of being open to feedback and flexible to change was the attitude Colonel Perna wanted to cultivate. The brigade used the AAR comments from the previous rotations as a starting point and built from there.

The relief-in-place/transfer-of-authority element was also very important to the AAR process—not only for the brigade’s headquarters element, but also for the battalions as they entered and left the theater during the year. If outgoing and incoming battalion commanders took the proper amount of time to share how to conduct elements of operation, the incoming battalion would have a far easier time adapting to the 4th Sustainment Brigade operating tempo.

To help integrate battalions into the larger brigade picture, Colonel Perna had each of his battalion commanders give him an update briefing as a part of his daily update brief for brigade operations. The commander’s update allowed battalion commanders to respond with questions or concerns to the guidance put out by the brigade staff. It also gave them a chance to share information related to their mission effectiveness and allowed Colonel Perna to monitor the progress of correcting or improving situations for his battalions. The AAR process continued throughout the year.

The AAR process transcended boundaries through the common operating picture that the brigade had with the Command Post of the Future and its relationship with the 4th Infantry Division. Hearing what people had experienced and turning those lessons into training and execution helped the brigade adapt to the changing enemy.

To keep the preponderance of good ideas from overwhelming the company commanders, Colonel Perna acted as the filter for good ideas. He wanted to ensure that Soldiers were focused on doing the basics well and benefitting from the core lessons learned.

Intelligence-Driven Operations

One of the main differences between the 4th Sustainment Brigade and logistics units of the past was the fact that it behaved far more like a maneuver unit, with its integration of intelligence into all aspects of operations. Logisticians of the past were located in the rear with little danger; that is not the case with OIF.

Logistics units in the past were only concerned with moving things from one supply yard to another, usually both in the rear where there were no direct-fire threats. The modern, more asymmetrical style of warfare now experienced by the U.S. military is forcing a change in the way even logistics units operate. They now travel the same roads as the maneuver units, requiring them to be more alert to enemy threats.

The old MTOE gave the S–2 just enough personnel to perform basic administrative duties, such as updating security clearances and managing the safe. However, the new MTOE expanded the section to allow for a more thorough analysis of operations and dissemination of intelligence products to the subordinate battalions. The S–2 shop in OIF had to stay on top of the situation—maintaining the status of every route at all times—and keep leaders informed of all potential or expected changes.

Another challenge for the brigade and battalion S–2 shops was having to start from scratch. No units, not even maneuver units, had been tracking the specific threats that would affect brigade combat logistics patrols (CLPs). The S–2 shop had to start using pattern analysis to determine the best courses of action. Although pattern analysis was conducted by others, the information that they considered was different from that needed by the sustainment brigade. Brigade support battalions, for example, would look at five or six roads since they only ran from FOB to nearby FOB. The sustainment brigade, however, had to look at the entire Multi-National Division-Baghdad area of operations, as well as camps and FOBs far outside of that area of operations for frequent external missions. So, the S–2 shop had to start from scratch developing a database to use for the analysis.

Battalions, however, needed more-detailed views of specific intersections and strips of roads. While the brigade S–2 focused on tracking emerging patterns for types of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and for the frequency and times of attacks, the battalions began to glean from the larger picture specific areas of interest that would affect their CLPs, normally relegated to known routes.

Keeping Soldiers on routes they were familiar with was a way to make further benefit of the intelligence gathering. The brigade shortened lines of communication so that Soldiers would not have to travel as far and could become more familiar with their routes and be more aware of changes that could portend potential hazards. By narrowing their focus to frequently traveled routes, battalions could follow the enemy’s patterns and tactics, techniques, and procedures, as put out by the brigade S–2, and customize their own intelligence products so that their CLPs could be equipped with the proper equipment to counter known local threats.

The S–2’s patterns were derived from more than just brigade operations. They also incorporated corps and division assets into their observations in a way that helped them pattern U.S. forces as well. By looking at as many missions and assets on the roads as possible, a clearer and more complete picture of when and where the enemy was planting roadside bombs came into focus. All of it was used to plan missions along the safest routes at the safest times possible.

Creating Logistics Flexibility

In the fluid and changing Iraq war environment, maintaining a level of flexibility was necessary to adapting and overcoming challenges. Logistics was no exception, and brigade and battalion staffs made great strides at reaching this goal. Of course, these strides were intended not to avoid risk but to mitigate it.

Throughout the year, the 4th Sustainment Brigade spearheaded several initiatives to change the environment and protect brigade assets from the enemy. Although each notable change could be attributed to common sense, when taken as a whole, their effect on how the formation conducted operations was significant. Each of the areas of success helped lead to the brigade creating logistics flexibility.

Because the brigade was conducting operations day and night, the effect on CLPs of changes to road conditions or other significant events could quickly be ascertained, and appropriate changes to missions were quickly relayed to the subsequently departing battalions.

Establishing central receiving and shipping points (CRSPs) at Camp Taji and Camp Victory added a tremendous amount of flexibility to the brigade. Acting as staging areas for all classes of supply, CRSP yards shortened lines of travel and added regular runs, allowing planners to foresee when and where supplies would arrive.

To reduce the number of trucks on the road and thus reduce the number of Soldiers in danger on the road, CLPs were not allowed to leave empty after delivering a load. That meant CLPs sometimes would delay departure for a day, waiting for a scheduled piece of cargo to arrive for them to take to the next stop. However, although rest over nights did occur, the short, regular runs from FOB to CRSP, CRSP to CRSP, and CRSP to FOB meant that a flow of supplies was always available for transport. Some units looked at rest over nights as a bad thing—as an ineffective use of brigade assets. However, in the larger picture, an occasional rest over night allowed the brigade to minimize the number of trucks on the road and, most importantly, to change patterns of operation.

Another aspect of creating flexibility lay with the level of autonomy given to the battalions. Battalion commanders could cancel CLPs if they felt it was necessary for safety. Afterward, decisions could be scrutinized and corrected if the commander’s intent was not fully realized.

The brigade worked to create Iraqi transportation companies on certain FOBs, employing Iraqi civilian trucks and truck drivers to move various loads. This allowed the battalions to push more supplies to more locations while employing local Iraqis.

Enhancing the safety of high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles was a large issue tackled by the brigade. Installing gunner harnesses, improved locks, and various armor upgrades became a significant priority for the shops within the formation since each enhancement would save Soldiers’ lives. However, instead of requiring customers to arrive at specific shop locations, the brigade created fly-away teams that went out to FOBs across the area of operations. This minimized
the negative operational impact on maneuver units and maximized the number of total enhancements installed by the brigade. This ensured that the warfighters lost fewer hours to maintenance and kept more brigade personnel fully employed to meet the high demand for these life-saving enhancements.

During the first few months of OIF 05–07, the 4th Sustainment Brigade started communicating with the 4th Infantry Division’s Aviation Brigade to explore the possibility of using air mobility assets to transport certain classes of supply and mail. The intent was to minimize ground-based convoys as much as possible, using the less-vulnerable and faster air assets to keep trucks off the road. The structure of the brigade allowed the current operations section to focus on missions at hand while future operations could dedicate significant effort to working through the details of the new arrangement. At the close of the deployment, aviation brigade CH–47 Chinook helicopters had delivered 8,700 pallets of supplies and mail and Air Force fixed-wing assets had moved 2,300 pallets, keeping 2,900 trucks off the road.

Standards and Discipline

“ All the training in the world doesn’t amount to anything if the Soldier on the ground isn’t doing what he should be doing,” Colonel Perna said.

Relying on leaders at all levels, the brigade commander constantly emphasized the need for high standards and discipline within the formation. In the opening weeks of the deployment, Colonel Perna traveled on convoys from the various battalions to ascertain where further guidance and attention were needed. After his initial assessment, he directed his commanders to continue enforcing standards and guidance.

The standards that needed to be maintained included lowering convoy speeds, which is needed to effectively spot hidden IEDs; minimizing collateral damage through the use of warning shots; positively identifying hostile enemies to reduce the chance of civilian deaths; and aggressively moving on FOBs, maximizing effectiveness by quick downloads and uploads.

Equipment Maintenance

The brigade conducted safety stand-downs monthly. For a couple of days each month, the brigade required its battalions to cease missions in order to conduct extensive maintenance on their equipment. The brigade allowed the battalions to choose the exact days (although no two battalions on the same day) to facilitate their specific operational needs; but the stand-downs were mandatory.

With an endless number of pallets and containers to move, 70,000 Soldiers to supply, and a war going on, the first reaction to the region’s only logistics unit stopping
operations each month for “safety stand-downs” might be skeptical. However, these periods of focused maintenance, when coupled with the logistics flexibility already in place, actually allowed the brigade to deliver more supplies because their trucks and equipment stayed operational.

The regularity provided by the CRSP yards and effective operations allowed the brigade’s future operations section to foresee mission requirements and the current operations section to dole out taskings for the battalions, giving the subordinate units time to conduct this maintenance. Although the stand-downs provided some challenges, the brigade eventually adapted to the rhythm.

Moreover, having all of a battalion’s trucks and equipment at camps allowed the units’ mechanics and chief warrant officers to conduct extensive repairs. Planning these periods of maintenance also gave battalions a chance to coordinate the arrival of repair parts with the scheduling of more involved repairs.

In addition to the stand-downs, the brigade involved the battalion commanders in extensive pre- and post-CLP checks. As a part of their daily reports to Colonel Perna, battalion commanders gave status reports on the previous day’s missions and any outstanding maintenance issues that might affect mission readiness. The stream of daily information allowed the brigade commander to see any new issues, issues that were being resolved, and any areas that might need his guidance.

Of the five areas of leadership involvement—the AAR process, intelligence-driven operations, creating logistics flexibility, standards and discipline, and equipment maintenance—none can be minimized or understated. Each aspect of operations led to the other.

The brigade put great effort into conducting effective operations, maximizing effect while minimizing waste—all to save Soldier’s lives. Through staff realignment, careful planning, attention to trends and lessons learned, foresight, and enforcing high standards, the leaders and Soldiers of the 4th Sustainment Brigade fulfilled their mission to the uttermost. They employed a new system of logistics to adapt to the ever-changing battlefield and left a legacy of exemplary execution for other logistics units to imitate and adopt for future deployments.

Staff Sergeant Joshua Salmons is a journalism instructor at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Cedarville University and is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration from Baker Business College in Michigan.