06/28/2010 02:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Keep on Trucking

Holy freaking Yahweh! I go away for just one week and, of course, all sorts of contractor related items happen. Well, let's start with the issue of logistics. As R. Crumb famously said back in the '60s, keep on trucking.

If one wants to learn how critical private military contractors (PMC) are to U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan one could do a lot worse than reading this recent and relatively unnoticed GAO report, "Preliminary Observations on DOD's Progress and Challenges in Distributing Supplies and Equipment to Afghanistan." .

Let me quote a few relevant sections, which illustrate the pros and cons of using PMCs:

Within Afghanistan, cargo is moved to forward operating bases primarily by means of contractor-operated trucks, though military trucking assets are used in some instances.

Because no U.S. military transportation units operate in Pakistan, DOD must rely solely on private contractors to transport supplies and equipment along ground routes through the country and to provide security of the cargo while in transit. Privately contracted trucks can transport cargo through Pakistan via two routes: the northern, which crosses into Afghanistan at the border town of Torkham, and the southern, which crosses at the border town of Chaman.

Limitations on what items can be transported through Pakistan and the amount of damage sustained by cargo transiting through Pakistan also can delay the delivery of necessary supplies and equipment to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Private trucking contractors do not transport sensitive equipment on the Pakistani ground routes. Instead, such equipment must be flown into Afghanistan and then be installed onto the vehicles in Regional Command-East. Additionally, according to Army Central Command, approximately 80 percent of cargo transiting through Pakistan arrives in Afghanistan with some level of damage, which, officials noted, can occur because of a number of factors, including poor roads, rough terrain, extreme weather, or insurgent and other individual attacks. For example, U.S. military vehicles may arrive with missing or damaged engines, slashed fuel lines and empty fuel tanks, broken mirrors or windows, and deflated tires, according to Army officials. The additional time needed to repair equipment arriving in Afghanistan further delays delivery to U.S. forces.

A small percentage of cargo transported along the Pakistani ground routes is pilfered by insurgents and other individuals, but the exact amount of pilferage is difficult to determine because of limitations in the way it is reported. According to DOD officials, approximately 1 percent of cargo transported on the Pakistani ground routes is pilfered. While the percentage may be relatively small, officials stated that it represents a significant loss of money to DOD and a potential risk to the warfighter until replacements for the pilfered items can be requisitioned and delivered. Because of the lack of U.S. military transportation units operating in Pakistan, DOD cannot immediately address pilferage when and where it occurs in Pakistan. In cases where active RFID tags are damaged or removed when the cargo is pilfered, officials stated that DOD can attempt to determine the approximate area where the pilferage took place based on the last RFID tag signal obtained by an interrogator inside Pakistan. Additionally, some RFID tags have intrusion-detection capabilities that provide information on when and where the cargo has been broken into. With this information, DOD can negotiate with the private trucking contractors to avoid transporting cargo through locations inside Pakistan where equipment may be more susceptible to pilfering.

Private trucking contractors operating under the Afghan Host Nation Trucking Contract carry the majority of U.S. supplies and equipment within Afghanistan, but officials told us that limitations on the available number of contractors and reliable trucks may impede DOD's ability to support the ongoing troop increase. Officials stated that approximately 90 percent of cargo is transported within Afghanistan by private contractors, and the remaining 10 percent by U.S. military trucks. In addition to affecting the time it takes to transport cargo to the warfighter, officials believe that limited contractor availability affects the quality of service. Contractors in Afghanistan may have little incentive to offer superior performance when they can expect to continue receiving contracts because of the high demand and limited supply of host nation trucking contractors. Additionally, officials told us that some privately contracted trucks may be unable to safely transport cargo because they are either in too poor a condition to operate or do not have the capability to transport the type or size of cargo. In cases where the contracted trucks are unable to provide adequate transportation, DOD must find an alternative method to deliver the cargo to its destination--for example, by using a different private contractor or by transporting the cargo on a U.S. military truck. Identifying an alternate mode of transportation could delay the delivery of needed supplies and equipment to U.S. forces. According to Army logistics officials in Afghanistan, DOD is in the process of increasing the number of contractors performing under the Afghan Host Nation Trucking Contract operating in southern and western Afghanistan.

There is no U.S. military-provided security for the transport of the cargo; shipping contractors provide their own security. Trucks moving along the ground routes through Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as those stopped at terminals and border crossings, can be targets for attack. For example, for 2 consecutive days in March 2009, militants attacked two truck terminals in Peshawar, Pakistan, damaging or destroying 31 vehicles and trailers. Our previous work found that DOD reported that in June 2008 alone, 44 trucks and 220,000 gallons of fuel were lost because of attacks or other events.

DOD's reliance on contractors to support its operations in Afghanistan creates additional challenges with regard to the distribution of supplies and equipment, as well as movement of contractor personnel. Contractors have become an indispensable part of the force, performing a variety of functions in Afghanistan, such as communication services, provision of interpreters who accompany military patrols, base operations support (e.g., food and housing), weapons systems maintenance, and intelligence analysis. DOD estimated that about 104,000 contractor personnel were supporting operations in Afghanistan as of September 2009. Further, DOD anticipates that this number will grow as it increases troop presence in Afghanistan.

These contractors in Afghanistan rely on the same distribution routes and methods as do the military forces to deliver the supplies and equipment they need to perform their mission and sustain their operations. However, DOD's ability to manage the flow of materiel for contractors and military personnel into logistics hubs and forward operating bases, and balance the use of limited transportation assets and storage capacity between contractors and military personnel, may be hampered by its lack of good information on the number of current contractors and lack of good planning for the coming increase in both contractors and their requirements. These requirements include contractor access to materiel-handling equipment and storage space for the supplies and equipment contractors need to perform their mission as well as for life support, such as housing and food. Since 2003, we have reported that DOD lacked reliable data on the number of contractor personnel providing services in environments such as Afghanistan, and our work has found that DOD's current system for collecting data on contractor personnel in Afghanistan does not provide accurate data. Further, during our December 2009 trip to Afghanistan, we found that there was only limited planning being done with regard to contracts or contractors. Specifically, we found that with the exception of planning for the increased use of the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan had not begun to consider the full range of contractor services that might be needed to support the planned increase of U.S. forces. More importantly, the command appeared to be unaware of its responsibility to determine contracted support requirements or develop the contract management and support plans required by guidance. However, we did find some being done by U.S. military officials at Regional Command-East. According to planners from Regional Command-East, the command had identified the types of units that were deploying to its operation Afghanistan and was coordinating with similar units already in Afghanistan to determine what types of contract support the units relied on. Nonetheless, without a complete picture of the number of contractors in Afghanistan and their materiel requirements, DOD may not be in a position to effectively manage the flow of military and contractor cargo to ensure that all materiel is delivered to the right locations at the right time to enable both military units and contractors to perform their missions.

Of course, things could be much, much better. The report notes

Several challenges hinder DOD's ability to distribute needed supplies and equipment to U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan. These challenges include


• uncertain requirements and low transportation priority for contractors

For a more dismaying, not to mention scathing, view of the outsourcing of the supply chain see the recently released report Warlord Inc.: Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan, released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs Oversight.