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White papers: same pod, same unit, different process: the changing role of the Deployment and Distribution Support Battalion.

The 1181st Deployment and Distribution Support Battalion (DDSB) is again deployed to the Port of Ash Shuayba, Kuwait. The unit is on its second mobilization in support of Operations Iraq Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Through vignettes from multiple tours, battalion commander Lt. Col. Stephen Rutner explores the role of DDSBs and the effects of SDDC's changing business processes on port operations.

Though the unit's core mission has not changed since the 1181st DDSB last operated at Ash Shuayba, Kuwait, the business model of SDDC has changed.


U.S. Transportation Command (US-TRANSCOM) and SDDC have modified the business practices to prioritize the use of commercial carriers in lieu of activating Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships. This provides cost savings to the government and increases flexibility in meeting customer units' requirements. It also changes the way a port operator or terminal battalion operates.

In short, the USAR Transportation Terminal Battalion (TTB) model has changed, and the new organization, DDSB, may help this process. The DDSB is not strictly in the business of loading and unloading ships. The unit has evolved into more of an oversight role. This creates massive changes and benefits to the units that will operate under this model. It means learning new skills and re-prioritizing efforts across the port.

As the TTB model is replaced by the DDSB model, there are significant changes in the way units will operate when they reach the port. The DDSBs must understand some of the new challenges and responsibilities they will face in the future at commercial ports across the world.

Data is king

At Ash Shuayba, the most immediate change under the new model is the critical role of data accuracy. Under the old model, we could throw 1,600 pieces on a Large Medium Speed Roll On Roll Off (LMSR) vessel and have 1,590 correct in Worldwide Port System (WPS). Then, once the manifest was done, everyone would work to produce a corrected final manifest to identify all 1,600 pieces. The measuring stick was if there wasn't any cargo left on the port, then it was all shipped and "all good!"

In working with the commercial carriers, this method doesn't work. The carriers require 100 percent accuracy every time. Commercial carriers bill on the size and weight of the cargo. Therefore, dimensional data is directly related to government dollars.

During a recent load out, one container had to be stripped and re-stuffed into a seaworthy container and was therefore not on the pier. The carrier needed to know where that one piece was before the vessel arrived, since their numbers were off by one.

On another occasion, the measurements on the helicopters were in the wrong configuration when provided by the Deployment Support Brigade to the Ocean Cargo Clearance Authority (OCCA), and the commercial carrier accepted the cargo at that size. When the sizes were corrected, it created a situation where the carrier could not physically load the cargo and the entire Combat Aviation Brigade had to be unallocated from that commercial company and put back out to bid. Needless to say, the commercial carrier was unhappy that the data error potentially cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. Fortunately, there was other cargo allocated to the carrier; resulting in no lost revenue.

This increased emphasis on data accuracy may be the most important aspect of operations under the new business model.

Maintaining core skills

The second major change or challenge is the loading process. While TTBs were tasked to load vessels, the DDSB is primarily responsible to provide command and control of an operation.

Proficiency in ship loading remains a core competency, however there are fewer opportunities to hone that skill operationally.

For the first five years at Ash Shuayba, there was almost constantly a LMSR or other MSC vessel on berth. Therefore, USAR battalions had more than enough practice to maintain their loading skills. Today, the port is averaging less than one MSC vessel a month.

The alternative is to work with the commercial carrier to practice loading their vessels. This works well for templating the load, scanning the cargo and other tasks. However, commercial carriers do not use all the same processes that SDDC uses in terms of lashing, spacing, etc.

While not a perfect system, it provides some practice for when the occasional MSC vessel arrives. Also, many of the commercial operations are booked as liner in-free out, which means the carrier conducts the loading, but the Army is responsible to discharge. In those situations, the DDSB is able to maintain skills as it helps oversee the actual loading on the vessel to ensure that it can be unloaded by Army personnel at the discharge port.

Smaller loads, more vessels

Another key change is that the number of vessel operations is increasing. When LMSRs were the main assets, there were few, with very large loads. In the commercial world, the vessels are smaller and often the Army is just one customer of many on a ship.

One recent load consisted of seven flat racks on a container ship. In that case, we were a very small customer to the carrier. So, we have to readjust our expectations on how flexible the carrier will be to meet our needs. If our cargo is not prepared to standard and ready when it is time to load, the carrier will not wait. The preparation of both data and equipment is critical to success.

Even with Roll-On/Roll-Off operations, there are more ships and smaller loads. This adds to the difficulty of running the port: it is not uncommon to have three consecutive ships in a forty-eight hour period. Each is going to a different location with different cargo sets, but all load or discharge in the same berth and on the same pier. The management of the cargo to the pier and the staging becomes critical.

Terminal Section

The increasing number of vessels and the smaller loads also means that there is a premium on terminal management. While the Terminal Section has always been an important part of any port operation, its value is growing. The cargo spends less time at the port and must be sequenced more carefully to meet the requirements of multiple commercial carriers.



It is critical that Terminal Section personnel be experts not only in terminal operations, but they must also be knowledgeable in HAZMAT, Customs, WPS and other related areas. The Terminal Section has become the "traffic cop" of the cargo to ensure that it meets all requirements for the commercial carrier before it can leave the yards to be pushed down to the commercial pier areas.

Under the old model, a battalion could fix issues on the pier or even on the ship, if it was a MSC vessel. With commercial carriers, it has to be right before it gets to the pier or the stevedore company will not receive it.

For example, a recent intratheater load needed specialized Kuwaiti customs paperwork. The stevedore company would not allow the cargo onto the pier until it was 100 percent correct. This is another subtle change from pure military RO-RO operations due to the commercial nature of the process.

New relationships at the port

Another significant change is the relationship between the SDDC port operator and the vessels. In the past, there was a standing relationship between the MSC representative and the port. However, now there are multiple new players. Each carrier has its own agents and owner representatives, with differing priorities and goals. While all want to support the customer, as noted earlier, the Army may not be the primary customer of the vessel.

Each commercial carrier is critically aware of costs, and will make business decisions that may not necessarily be aligned with the Army's needs.

Safety and Soldiers

Under the evolving business process, the DDSB does less loading of big metal machines in little metal holds. The result is decreased risk of accidents and injuries. At the same time, there is an increased use of commercial carrier berths which are not under Army control: this is an environment of "time is money," often run by third-country nationals. The result can be very dangerous surroundings in which the DDSB has to work hard with its commercial carriers to ensure safety is not overlooked.

There are significant benefits to the changing role in commercial-driven operations. The reduced number of MSC vessels requires fewer Soldiers to oversee the actual loading and unloading of vessels. Therefore, a smaller footprint is able to accomplish more at the port. Also, the physical demands placed on Soldiers working in the heat on the vessel, for hours on their feet, is somewhat reduced. Finally, the new skills learned from working with the commercial sector will develop the USAR battalions into more experienced and versatile transporters.

As with any change, there are challenges inherent in the new process for which the DDSB leadership must prepare. The same unit at the same port will need new skills that will provide better service to the SDDC customer at a better value to the taxpayer.

By Lt. Col. Stephen M. Rutner, PhD
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Author:Rutner, Stephen M.
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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