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'Theater-opening' brigades: Army ponders formation of expert logistics units.

As the U.S. Army reorganizes from a division- to a brigade-based combat force, it also intends to change the way it delivers supplies and logistics support to the front lines.

In particular, the Army plans to create specialized brigades that will be staffed by transportation and logistics experts, whose sole function will be to ensure that combat troops have the necessary equipment. Although the Army today has a substantial combat-support force, it is not set up to respond quickly, nor is it trained to expedite the staging and movement of fighting troops into austere battlefields, officials said.

These specialized units essentially would be taking over functions that traditionally have been assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps. They would be called upon, on short notice, to fly or sail into a potential combat zone, prepare ports and airfields to receive troops and cargo, and facilitate their movement from ships or aircraft to a commander's designated fighting area.

Typically, it is the Marines who open theaters, because they can quickly move troops, vehicles and aircraft ashore from their amphibious ships. Once they secure an area, it is the Army that takes over if the operation requires a long-term presence.

The conventions of the past, however, do not apply in Iraq, where both soldiers and Marines are fighting an extended counterinsurgency, serving anywhere from seven- to 15-month tours.

The idea that the Army needs "theater-opening" brigades has been advocated by the service's deputy chief of staff for logistics, Lt. Gen. Claude V. Christianson. The current structure, he says, was designed for the Cold War, not for today's fast-moving operations.

Improvements have occurred since Desert Storm in 1991, when it took the Army at least six months to prepare to fight. "It took us much less time in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but it still took us too long," Christianson told reporters. "The kind of enemy we face ... will require us to go very quickly into the darkest corners of the world, get there fast, open up the theater, and put combat forces in very quickly." The solution, he added, is to "put together packages of units that are designed, tailored, equipped and focused on opening theaters."

The Army has a variety of transportation-oriented units that transfer cargo or drive trucks, but none is trained specifically for the "theater-opening" mission, said Maj. Gen. Mitchell Stevenson, deputy chief of staff for logistics and readiness at the Army Materiel Command.

The skills required to open a theater are more than just moving people and cargo, he explained. These units will need to work closely with the maneuver commander to ensure that the conditions are in place for troops to engage in combat.

During the past year, a logistics task force at Fort Lee, Va., has been drawing up concepts for a notional theater-opening brigade, said Lt. Col. James Rentz, chief of staff of the task force.

He described theater opening as "the ability to open ports and airfields, as well as execute the reception, staging and movement of forces into the tactical assembly area."

Unlike the current logistics force, which has to be assembled with soldiers from disparate units, the theater-opening brigades would be permanent organizations. That makes a "big difference," said Rentz. "For theater opening today, you have to pull units and build an ad-hoc organization ... We don't have a theater-opening capability that can process a unit through a port or airfield and then move it all the way forward in the battlefield to the tactical assembly area, provide support, food, water, transportation."

Ultimately, a brigade specialized in opening a theater would be "more responsive to the deploying force," Rentz said. It would free up the maneuver commander to focus on combat operations. "Responsiveness plays a big part, but also training and proficiency."

Many details of how these brigades will be structured still remain unclear, however. The Army has no specific timeline to deploy theater-opening brigades, according to Rentz, nor has the service settled on the name, quantity or makeup of the brigades.

"The senior leadership of the Army is reviewing and running the models to help us identify how many of these organizations are needed and what capability they need to have," he said.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said he wants eventually to reorganize the service's 10 active-duty divisions into 43 to 48 combat brigades. The theater-opening brigades would be additional supporting units.

"We'll decide the force structure based on the number of major combat operations we think we'll engage in, in addition to stability and support operations," said Rentz.

The theater-opening brigades also will need new equipment. Some of the desired technologies already are being introduced, such as satellite communications terminals for logisticians, tracking systems that help monitor the location of trucks and cargo, and handheld computers that display a real-time picture of the position of units on the battlefield. The Army is adding more than two billion dollars to its five-year budget to modernize trucks and trailers.

Besides the theater-opening function, the Army is responsible for the follow-on phases: the distribution of supplies and "sustainment" of combat troops over an extended period of time.

The Army, along with the U.S. Transportation Command and the Defense Logistics Agency, already has modified distribution practices in response to complaints from commanders in Iraq about the delays in getting needed equipment. The lulls in moving supplies mostly are attributed to the lack of "visibility" of what's coming, Rentz explained. "The problem today is that we may have the assets near by, but we can't see them."

The expansion in communications systems should help keep operational commanders connected to their logistics support units, enhancing the confidence that the logistics system will be responsive, said Rentz. "If the commander can see where supplies are, he can make decisions based on whether it will take hours or days to get the supplies."

It still remains to be seen whether the Army will come up with the funds that it will cost to upgrade logistics brigades. Army insiders point out that Army Gen. Richard A. Cody, the vice chief of staff, said he intends to back Christianson's efforts. "Christianson is very happy with Cody's support for logistics," said an industry source.
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Author:Erwin, Sandra I.
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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