Running Low in Afghanistan
Battlegroup Combat Service Support Insight
By: Colonel (ret’d) John Conrad
The Edges You Need
You could feel it in your bones that long ago summer. There was nothing the ageless Arghandab River could to do about it; nothing to be had from Task Force Knight Hawk, the Division helicopter fleet. It weighed heavily on the lips of battlegroup soldiers and was discussed in the corners of our furthest flung operating bases. I could sense it ahead of the dry winds that drove violent sand storms and spun the dust devils about southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2006. We are running low.
We are running out.
Fighting across the expansive area of Canadian responsibility was difficult for our combat arms in the Taliban Summer but underpinning a white-hot battlegroup with rudimentary combat supplies proved also to be a herculean task. There are numerous lessons to glean from battlegroup combat service support operations (CSS) in 2006. I still have at my fingertips pages of 1 PPCLI consumption data and equipment specifications for the Task Force Orion Battlegroup. Flipping through the material today, a jumble of fuel ratios, ammunition usage and repair patterns, I recall the value of these seemingly meaningless numbers. Wartime data. There is a powerful message for Canada’s next generation of warfighters among the mathematics, a sterling reminder that uniformed logistics soldiers and organic equipment provide the edges you must have to win in the contemporary battlespace. There is nothing in war like having your own supplies.
Afghanistan today remains a country with limited highway infrastructure – approximately 12,000 km of paved road. Highway 1, the main ring road that skirts the mountains and central highlands, was only some 2800 km in 2006. Our battlegroup operated predominantly, but certainly not exclusively, in Kandahar Province some 225,000 square km of battlespace in Regional Command South (RC South). Combat operations frequently followed dried-out river beds and punishing overland terrain. Excessive wear on differentials, axles, bent frames were common fleet ailments. In truth, the Bison with its LAV II chassis was the most compatible CSS vehicle we had in terms of matching the mobility of Task Force Orion. The distances were punishing. Supply lines for the Canadians would vary in length, but frequently surpassed the 200 km mark and could stretch as far as 300. Compare this to First Canadian Army in 1944 inside Field Marshall Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. A line of communication of 150 km on the linear battlefield of North West Europe was at the very edge of tolerable in 1944.
Few nations in RC South used military pattern petroleum vehicles in 2006. There existed five or six main contractors to run bulk fuel. These vendors were of uneven quality with nuanced backgrounds; linkages to Afghan warlords. The vehicles they used were unforgettable – the ‘jingle trucks.’ These jingle trucks were named for their bright, whimsical paint jobs and the numerous decorative chains that adorned their bumpers. They became the preferred method of bulk fuel supply for our allies. Not for us. Canada did have limited arrangements for fuel delivery to smaller detachments in Kabul and the Zahri District Centre but most tactical replenishment was effected by the Army’s Cold War behemoth known as the Heavy Logistic Vehicle Wheeled (HLVW).
One should never underestimate a heavy truck’s value to an army. Amateurs roll their eyes at the suggestion of value in an army truck. It’s easily forgotten that one of Canada’s greatest contributions in the Second World War was the manufacture of some 800,000 vehicles (over half SMP trucks) for Allied use. Ironically, the HLVW went to war in Afghanistan near the end of its life. The army procured 1200 HLVWs in 1989. An Austrian design manufactured for the Canadian military by the Urban Transit Development Company (UTDC) in Kingston Ontario, it was configured in both a 10 and 16 ton capacity depending on variant. They were projected to last the army for seventeen years, but in 2004 the HLVW fleet began a major life extension program. The first ‘extended’ HLVWs were given an up-armour package and sent to Afghanistan. In Kandahar in 2006 the HLVW was starting to show its age and vulnerability on the non-linear battlefield. Nevertheless, the aged truck was the backbone of the tactical supply chain – a major contributor to the projection of CSS. Key task vehicles in the Kandahar fleet were the HLVW tractor, HVLW Palletized Loading System (PLS), the wrecker and the 10,000 litre fuel truck. All variants struggled to maintain pace with the battle group over Afghanistan’s rugged terrain, but owning three HLVW refuelers designed to move diesel—anywhere, anytime turned out to be priceless.
In late summer 2006, our allies were desperate for diesel. The ‘jingle trucks’ were proving unreliable with the build up to Operation Medusa and ever-increasing insurgent activity. As mentioned, there was a complex relationship between the jingle truck vendors and various Afghan quarters. These relationships could be both strength and weakness – a sword that proved to cut both ways. Some nations experienced the contracted trucks arriving with partial loads. Worse still, were the trucks that showed up with contaminated product—where some of the fuel had been removed and topped up with water. The overall impact was crippling to our allies and their ability to operate. Canadian forces that summer, with our aged-out HLVW refuelers, could project diesel anywhere desired. That realization cut a deep groove in my mind. With its clumsy, high profile and aging bones, the HLVW provided Canada a significant edge. I was proud of our machines and the gutsy soldiers that operated them.
So you see now, as I then saw. The edges you need are all around you. Derive value in what you have. Leverage the upside. A deep understanding of capacity and capability will serve you well when you need it the most.
Never forget the power of having your own assets in a fist fight.
We would like to thank the Canadian Army Professional Military Education website – Line of Sight – for use of this article. Please visit Line of Sight at: