Moving Stryker gear not easy

The Pentagon’s announcement in February that a Fort Lewis Stryker brigade would deploy to Afghanistan – the first unit of its kind in South Asia – sparked a flurry of debate.

How would the 19-ton vehicles fare in the country’s forbidding terrain? After training for an Iraq deployment, how would the soldiers from the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division function in rural Afghanistan?

But logistics officials had a bit of a different question: How would the brigade and its equipment – including 330 Stryker vehicles – actually get to landlocked Afghanistan?

“When I first got the word – and I’ve been doing this for 20 years – my first thought was, ‘Oh, man, how am I gonna do this?’” Maj. Kirk Harvey, who oversaw the deployment’s logistics for the brigade, said in a recent interview. “It was a heck of a process.”

Thousands of pieces of equipment, from drone aircraft to artillery, needed to make the 7,000-mile journey. Harvey and other military officials had no blueprint to follow.

Army officials declined to discuss the shipment of the Strykers into Afghanistan for security reasons before and during the unit’s deployment. But with the brigade stationed across Kandahar and Zabul provinces in the country’s southeast, they are now opening up about what it took to move enough equipment to fight the Taliban and sustain the unit’s 3,900 soldiers.

Shipping equipment to Iraq is comparatively easy: Massive cargo ships move the equipment from a port in the United States to Kuwait, where it is unloaded and driven into Iraq.

Afghanistan, though, is landlocked. While its two southern neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, have ocean ports, they are not exactly close U.S. allies.

That meant much of the equipment would arrive by air.

First, though, brigade officials divided the equipment into three categories, depending on its importance to the mission.

“It’s a process of going through all of the equipment, determining what equipment would go on what line of transportation and why, and trying to minimize the amount of equipment that would be flown directly into country because of the expense and the limited amount of (military airlift) available,” said Harvey, now the brigade’s rear commander.

Most of the equipment was first loaded onto ships at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle in May.

Two ships arrived at Diego Garcia, a small British territory in the Indian Ocean due south of India, in June. From there, Air Force C-17 Globemaster III and chartered An-124 cargo jets airlifted the equipment into Kandahar Airfield.

Another three ships left the Port of Seattle for Karachi, Pakistan. Contractors loaded the cargo onto trains and trucks and drove them into Afghanistan.

And the brigade’s most critical equipment, including communications hardware, was loaded on C-17s at McChord Air Force Base and flown directly into Afghanistan.

The cost to move all the equipment ran about $59 million. The reliance on ships for most of the equipment saved $64 million over simply airlifting the equipment in, a transportation expert from U.S. Transportation Command said in a news release.

“This was probably one of the most significant moves on the brigade level that has been done to this point in time on the war on terror,” Harvey said.

Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758