View Full Version : Fuel is Limiting Factor in Rush Toward Baghdad

03-23-03, 09:29 AM
Fuel is Limiting Factor in Rush Toward Baghdad

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2003; 9:00 AM

SOUTHERN IRAQ, March 23 -- As the Marines prepare to sprint toward Baghdad, the biggest speedbump along the way could be their own ability to keep their men fed, their ammunition stocked, and their vehicles full of fuel.

Marine commanders knew that the ambitious plan for a rapid-fire ground invasion of Iraq would require them to move men and machines an unprecedented distance overland, testing their logistical capabilities as never before. Now, with the Army's 3rd infantry division more than halfway to the Iraqi capital, the Marines are hustling to make up ground as quickly as possible.

"The operations guys would go the Baghdad today if we could," said Capt. John Wiener, 35, of Cherry Hill, N.J., the logistics officer for the 1st battalion, 7th Marine regiment. "Tactically, it makes sense for us to be up by where the Army is. Right now, our limiting factor isn't enemy forces, it's fuel."

During the early portion of the ground war, the Marines clashed with several Iraqi army units and seized a host of objectives in southern Iraq, from border towns to the Rumaila oilfield. But the army, operating on the Marines' western flank, was able to sweep hundreds of miles inland without having to maneuever as much to fight. As a result, they were able to move farther, faster.

Marine logistics specialists have been working around the clock to allow their units to continue moving forward. Today, at a makeshift resupply station in Iraq's southern desert, the battalion's Amtrak Amphibious Assault Vehicles and Humvees lined up to be topped off by fuel tanks hurried to the frontlines from the rear logistics train. Logisticians stocked personnel carriers with food and water for the push north, and repaired overworked engines and communications equipment.

"It's like a drive through Wal-Mart for all the essentials we need to fight," said 1st Lt. Andrew Schoenmaker, the executive officer for Baker company, in the 1st battalion, 7th Marine regiment. So far things have worked incredibly well. We've had everyting there when we need it."

Logistics have always been a key to any successful military operation. During World War II, German Gen. Irwin Rommel struggled to keep his vehicles fueled in the Northern African campaign. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Marines reached Kuwait so much faster than expected that they outraced their supply lines, a situation that could have proved dangerous had the Iraqi army provided more resistance. This time, said Lt. Mike Mullins, who helps coordinate the battalion's 33-vehicle logistics train, the Marines have farther to travel and brought with them proportionately fewer logisticians, meaning they are being asked to do more, with less.

"Moving this far, this fast, we've eaten up more fuel than anyone foresaw, so we have to keep going back to get more," said Mullins, of Fresno, Calif. "In addition to the fuel, and of course the beans, bullets, and bandages they'll need on the way north, vehicles will break down. Things that are easy to provide when we're back in the garrison, like alternators, batteries, and even tires, are like gold out here."

In the middle of the desert, even the smallest logistical tasks can prove challenging. The radios that logisticians use to communicate with the front only work within a 15-mile radius, So predetermined grid coordinates for meeting points are distributed to help the two groups to meet up. Saturday night, however, the two groups had trouble finding each other.

"It was like two ships trying to meet up in the ocean at night," said Sgt. John Falconer, a 25-year-old transportation specialist from Missoula, Mont. "It was a bit nervous for a moment, but it worked."

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin said the trip to Baghdad would be the longest inland invasion in the history of the Marine Corps, but they will have to travel in fits and starts, according to Wiener, who travels with the battalion's combat element. The logistics train, which moves back and forth between the frontlines and resupply posts in the rear, can carry 3,600 gallons of fuel, or less than half the total required to refill all of the 32-ton Amtraks troops travel in.

Allowing the vehicles' tanks to fall below the "half-full" point could be dangerous, Wiener, said, given that they may have to maneuever if engaged in a firefight. The Marines will have to stop every 50 to 100 kilometers, he said, to avoid outrunning their supply lines and running out of fuel. At that rate, he added, the trip to Baghdad could require anywhere from four to eight more pit stops, and that is assuming they will be able to drive straight, without having to maneuver to fight along the way.

Resupply efforts are complicated by the fact that the logistics train must remain far enough behind the frontlines to be out of artillery range. One idea Marine warplanners had tossed around, to avoid the relying exclusive on the logistics train, was seizing airfields ahead of the main combat elements and flying in supplies on C-130 aircraft. The plan looked good on paper, said Wiener, but it was eventually deemed too risky to execute.

Logistics, more than strategy or tactics, commanders say, will be the factor that determines the speed and success of the Marines' push north. The desire to keep up with the Army is one factor spurring the Marines on, but some here say they are also hoping that the operation will help cement the Corps' claim as a model 21st century military force, capable of engaging an enemy anywhere, at any time.

"Our doctrinal mission is to seize naval bases," said Wiener. "But accomplishing this will show that the Marines are capable of anything. It not just about this mission."

2003 The Washington Post Company