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Midnight Run

A last-minute “call forward” message required the 1st Armored Division Support Command staff to develop a creative solution in order to meet the mission deadline.

It was a normal Monday morning at the 1st Armored Division Support Command (DISCOM) headquarters near Wiesbaden, Germany, and I had just settled down at my desk when my boss called me into his office. He informed me that the 2d Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, had just been given the long-awaited “call forward” message and that we had our work cut out for us. As the brigade movement control officer, I knew that I would be very busy because, at that very moment, the 2d Brigade was in the middle of a gunnery rotation at the Grafenwoehr Training Area (GTA). Before I knew it, the G–4, the division transportation officer (DTO), and I were neck deep in plans to pull a combat brigade out of a gunnery rotation in time to prepare them for immediate-staging-area operations and deployment. Our commanding general had made our mission clear: we were to use every resource available to us to bring the unit and all of its equipment back to the brigade’s base at Schweinfurt at the earliest possible date. So, with our marching orders in hand, we set about the task with feverish intensity.

The Challenge

Initially, trains had been scheduled through the Deutsche Bahn to transport most of the equipment by rail on 26, 27, and 28 August—a week after the date we had to have the equipment back to Schweinfurt. Unfortunately, we were unable to reschedule the movement by train, so we were forced to use both military and contracted civilian trucks to move an entire brigade’s worth of combat systems. While keeping the lines of communication open with the Deutsche Bahn, we began to make equipment lists and assign truck assets to various heavy equipment systems. The movement would be conducted by the 123d Main Support Battalion (MSB), which was stationed in Dexheim.

After a week of coordination, the principal parties (DTO, G–4, and the brigade S–4 unit movement officer) produced a basic transportation outline. The plan called for contracted civilian trucks to move most of the lighter track vehicles and other cumbersome pieces of equipment. Meanwhile, the heaviest combat systems (M1A1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley fighting vehicles) would be moved using military heavy equipment transporters (HETs).

Then a rather large problem presented itself. The Army had to obtain written consent from the German authorities to operate its mammoth-sized trucks on German roads. Normally, it can take up to 3 weeks to gain the necessary approval. Although we can usually “massage” the system to generate these “march credits” in a crisis situation, this was still a tall task for Movement Control Team Wiesbaden. The initial response was encouraging, and our fax machines were flowing with march credits for 19 and 20 August. Then we hit a roadblock: It is difficult to obtain permission to run such large vehicles on these roads at night during the week, but it is nearly impossible to receive permission to move them on the weekend. The fact that we were currently operating under the German annual summer road restrictions made this particular request especially difficult to get approved. However, our orders stood firm; failure was not an option. We needed those weekend march credits.

A Plan Materializes

It seemed as though all was lost. There we were—holed up in the DTO’s subterranean office late on Friday, 21 August, racking our brains to find a solution to the seemingly hopeless situation. In order to secure the necessary road clearances, the DTO finally devised an intricate plan that involved using German polizei escorts, civilian escorts, and military police to accompany the convoys carrying the equipment. After quickly preparing this plan, we briefed the G–4 on our proposal. The G–4 provided our team with guidance and then pitched the plan to the 1st Armored Division Chief of Staff. By 1900 that evening, we had the go-ahead from the commanding general.

The approved plan called for us to move from GTA to Schweinfurt after 1900 hours on Saturday night and back to GTA after 2400 hours on Sunday. This would allow the HETs to get back to GTA in time to carry one more load of tracked vehicles to Schweinfurt later on Monday night, thus completing the mission on schedule.

Avoiding Showstoppers

This mission had many potential pitfalls that could cause the mission to be delayed or even to fail. We identified several possible “showstoppers” as we reviewed our plans for Saturday night and early Monday morning. For example, our timetable could be disrupted if the civilian escorts were late arriving; our entire movement could be canceled if the polizei did not meet us at the gate to lead our trucks onto the autobahn; or one or more of our HETs could break down during the mission.

We had secured the road clearances in a rather unorthodox way, and we were in danger of upsetting our host-nation authorities if our plans did not go smoothly. Leaders at every level would want to know where the HETs were at all times—from mission start point to mission release point, and they would want frequent updates on their status as they were moving. We needed a reliable way of tracking these two critical missions in real time so that information could be provided to everyone involved quickly and efficiently. The solution was to use the Defense Transportation Reporting and Control System (DTRACS), the Battle Command Sustainment Support System (BCS3), and cell phone text messages.

DTRACS is a Department of Defense-funded system that allows the U.S. military to have command and control of its logistics assets anywhere in the world. It is used primarily as a messaging system to enable convoy commanders to stay in contact with their headquarters when convoys are too far away for radio transmission. Both the 1st Armored Division’s DISCOM and the 123d MSB used this system extensively to monitor combat logistics patrols (resupply convoys) while deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. DTRACS consists of a large white globe (affixed to the roof of each vehicle), a messaging keyboard, and various connecting cables. Because DTRACS is satellite-based, the DISCOM was able to use BCS3 to track each DTRACS-equipped vehicle. In fact, this system actually allowed the DISCOM to see vehicles move across the computer screen as they traveled along the route. BCS3 is a software program—complete with high-resolution maps and satellite imagery—that can be loaded onto any Department of Defense laptop computer. The 1st Armored Division has been using this system to track vehicle movements for quite a while.

I went home Friday night knowing that I would be in the office all weekend ensuring that every possible measure was taken to guarantee mission success. On Saturday afternoon, I created a mission sheet for the DISCOM Emergency Action Center (our 24-hour operations center) so that they would be aware of every detail of the mission. The mission sheet contained the timetable for that night’s convoy, the route it would take, and all pertinent cell phone numbers and contact information. I briefed the Soldier on duty that he was to call me when the mission began, if any accidents occurred, and when the mission ended in Schweinfurt later that night. The stage was set, and, as the hours ticked away, we grew closer and closer to the start point.

Implementing the Plan

At 1700, the civilian escorts arrived on time, which allowed everyone to breathe a little easier. At 1830, the convoy commander positioned his vehicles just outside of the gate in preparation for departure, and they departed at 1900. The DISCOM Emergency Action Center noncommissioned officer (NCO) called me as soon as he received confirmation over the phone of what was being displayed on the BCS3 screen. After receiving further confirmation from the 123d MSB Support Operations Transportation Officer, I informed my commander of the convoy’s departure.

We on the DISCOM staff consider ourselves to be well versed in all modern forms of communication. The cell phone age is in full swing here at the upper echelons of the brigade staff. Consequently, I was compelled to use this “marvel of modern ingenuity” to keep my senior commander abreast of all the convoy developments. From my apartment 300 kilometers away, in Wiesbaden, I was able to send him cell phone text messages with updates on the whereabouts of our HETs as events unfolded.

The use of phone calls, text messages, BCS3, and DTRACS made the entire process resemble an elaborate communications network. It was truly a process to behold. Not only did we circulate information quickly and efficiently, but we also recorded it at the brigade and division levels. The DISCOM Emergency Action Center made regular status reports to both the Division Operations Center and entries to the DISCOM’s automated journal throughout the night. We were able to capture and disseminate information in “real time” so that leaders could make informed decisions and senior leaders could be informed of significant actions as they happened.

The HET mission that Saturday night was a complete success. The German polizei escorts arrived on time and escorted the convoy on and off the autobahns according to the mission timetable. The DISCOM Emergency Action Center staff duty NCO tracked the movement on BCS3 and phoned the convoy commander to confirm that each critical phase had been completed. Senior leaders from brigade to company level were kept in the information loop throughout the night until the mission was complete. We had similar success in the early hours of Monday morning when the HETs returned to GTA.

The weekend provided us with an excellent opportunity to showcase the capabilities of our BCS3 systems. We were able to track convoy movements effectively from the comfort of our own living areas and workspaces, 300 kilometers away from where the action was taking place. Although we encountered hurdles along the way, we learned a valuable lesson: The services provided by systems like BCS3 and DTRACS are truly invaluable.

Captain Michael J. Rainis is the Movement Control Officer for the 1st Armored Division Support Command in Wiesbaden, Germany. He holds a bachelor’s degree in European history from the U.S. Military Academy and is a graduate of the Transportation Officer Basic Course.