"THE HISTORY OF WAR proves that nine out of ten times an army has been destroyed because its supply lines have been cut off." General Douglas MacArthur said this in 1950 before his landing at Inchon during the Korean War. It's a thought that is definitely on the minds of Tommy Franks, Richard Myers, and Donald Rumsfeld as coalition forces are now stretched out from northern Kuwait to the outskirts of Baghdad, a distance of some 300 miles. The question is, are we stretched too thin?
As retired General John Coburn, former head of Army Materiel Command, told the New York Times, "You have your lines of communication extended, in some cases for hundreds of miles, and that makes this problem very, very difficult to manage. My guess is you've got shortages of parts, people repairing equipment right on the battlefield and constantly being forced to adapt to the combat commander's maneuver plan." Indeed, there are reports of fuel shortages within the Army's 3rd Infantry Division as it spearheads towards the Iraqi capital--ultimately to face the Republican Guard's Medina Division.
Meanwhile, according to Robert Hutchinson, spokesman for Jane's Defence Weekly, "The supply line to Baghdad is still highly vulnerable to attack from paramilitary units like the Fedayeen Saddam. The Iraqi strategy is similar to that employed by the Taliban and even somewhat similar to what the United States dealt with in Somalia." He adds, "There are all sorts of problems along the way. Many reinforcements and supplies are stuck on Highway 8 and elsewhere. Airlift is also limited because there's only so much you can deliver on a plane as opposed to on the ground." (And this despite an airlift that is the third largest in history, behind only the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49 and the first Gulf War.)
In a recent press conference, Secretary Rumsfeld dismissed the fears that the supply chain for the 3rd Infantry was in danger. He said the coalition didn't just have air superiority, it had "dominance. They have not put a plane up." Rumsfeld referred to the Fedayeen Saddam skirmishes not as a large enemy contingent but as "ones and twos . . . that you're going to live with, like we lived with in Afghanistan. We live with [it] in some major cities in the United States." Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers added that "there has been and there is a plan to provide security for the lines of communication."
This plan undoubtedly included the recent securing of key bridges at Nasiriyah by Task Force Tarawa, a much-needed reinforcement of 5,000 Marines that will hopefully reduce the threat of capture by the enemy or worse--five of the seven American POWs currently in the hands of the Iraqis were from the 507th Maintenance Company. "Over time," says retired General Walter Kross, "they will continue to robust the key points--making dashes between nodes [secure points of transportation such as bridges and blind spots before a dip in the terrain], and they will continue to bring people in to make these points safe and then make dashes between the points and have helicopter support as well." Kross is a former commander-in-chief of the United States Transportation Command who served as the Command's chief operating officer during the first Gulf War. "It is clear that the enemy's intention is to stress those supply lines through skirmish and hit and run tactics," he says. "When you are re-supplying with totally loaded fuel trucks in the pitch dark using night vision glasses--mind you this isn't a highway--there will be attrition."
Retired Lieutenant General Samuel Wakefield, a former commander of the U.S. Combined Arms Support Command, says that "Whether it's for the troops to have food to eat or guns to have ammunition, it all has to be there when you need it. The whole purpose of the supply line is to maintain lines of communication." If that line breaks down, certain demands will go unanswered--namely, 15 million gallons of fuel needed by coalition forces on a daily basis and large amounts of food and water required by the troops. The Marines in the First Division consumed 250,000 gallons of diesel alone in its drive towards Baghdad.
"In this campaign," says General Kross, "there is no doubt that [coalition forces] must keep the lines of communication protected and keep them vibrant. They must also be fluid. There's a high expenditure rate and it's very difficult to travel with a lot of stocks." General Wakefield points to how the problems of the first Gulf War must be avoided this time around: "After Desert Storm, I did a distribution analysis and out of 40,000 containers shipped to the Middle East, we had to open 25,000 of them to see what was in them." Opening and verifying cargo is less of a problem now thanks to "precision-guided logistics" developed by a company called Savi Technology. And the less time it takes to move from sea to land, the less time it will take to reach troops in places like Karbala.
Having secure lines of communication and supply is something every general has been aware of since the dawn of civilization. In fact, the Spartan mercenary general Clearchus is quoted as saying in 401 B.C. that "without supplies, neither a general nor a soldier is good for anything." Much later, in 1915, 11,000 British soldiers marched their way to the outskirts of Baghdad in the hopes of liberating the city from the Turks. But their supply lines were stretched too thin and they suffered--with casualty rates of 40 percent; Baghdad wouldn't be liberated until March 1917. Then there is the example in the Vietnam war of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a nearly impenetrable supply line aided by canopies in a deep jungle terrain that made it difficult for the United States to target from the air. "We just couldn't stop it," says General Kross.
The best example of the importance of supply lines in recent times remains North Africa 1942. After the Italian army suffered setbacks in Libya, culminating in the British seizure of Tobruk, Hitler dispatched his Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel, to rout the Allies and push toward the Suez. It took the field marshal roughly five months to advance 500 miles (from his forward position at Agedabia), getting to within 150 miles west of Cairo and eventually stopping at El Alamein station. It was here, in October and November of 1942, that the British, under Bernard Montgomery, held the line against the Axis and, in Operation Supercharge, finally broke out. Rommel's supply lines were stretched too thin and on November 4, the Panzerarmee Afrika pulled back. (Luckily, Rommel had missed secret British supply depots along the way.) Then the Americans landed in Morocco on November 8--suffering over one thousand casualties at the hands of the Vichy French.
But even in retreat, Rommel was a masterful tactician. As John Bierman and Colin Smith write in their excellent history, "The Battle of Alamein," "The longer he retreated--and he retreated for almost 2,000 miles--the more the chances of his army being outflanked diminished. Montgomery, like all victorious desert commanders, was now at the end of a long main supply-route and finding it hard to fuel his pursuit."
The most interesting aspect of the battle of Alamein is that the British 7th Armoured Division, known as the "desert rats," played a pivotal role in turning the tide against the Germans. Sixty years later, the 7th Armoured Division finds itself once again in a pivotal role--this time on the verge of liberating Basra and securing a supply route for the American 3rd Infantry Division. They will then join them on the road to Baghdad.
Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.