WASHINGTON– U.S. Transportation Command officials are confident they can accomplish the mission of delivering 30,000 U.S. troops and their equipment to Afghanistan when they are needed.

Planners at the command based at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., are working with operations specialists at U.S. Joint Forces Command and U.S. Central Command to fulfill President Barack Obama’s decision to deploy the troops to Afghanistan in the first half of 2010. The command already is transporting about 1,000 Marines to the country as part of the mission.

“Both Centcom and U.S. Transportation Command are very well prepared for this surge of forces going in,” said Army Brig. Gen. Michael Lally, the command’s director of operations and plans. “We’ve been deploying and redeploying forces into and out of Afghanistan for years. We’ve been sustaining those forces there. So the processes, procedures and force structures are in place to move additional forces in and also sustain them.

“We feel very comfortable that we have the assets in the air and on the sea to make the move,” the general said.

The two commands have been working together closely. Centcom invited Transcom planners in at the beginning of the process to work on the flow and phasing for getting additional forces into Afghanistan, officials said.

Before the movement can really begin, commanders in Afghanistan must say where the troops will be based. “They are working through that right now, making sure as we deploy forces into theater, there are places for those forces to bed down, to make sure they have food, water and so on,” Lally said via a telephone interview.

Commanders in Afghanistan need to sequence the forces into theater to achieve their combat goals. “In the coming weeks, we’ll figure out how much needs to move in January, February, March to make sure we can meet the objectives of having all these forces in there by the summer,” Lally said. “Whether I have 20,000 people there in April and 30,000 there in September, or 26,000 there in April and 30,000 there in July, we don’t have that level of detail from the commander, [Army] Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal, on what his requirements are yet.”

For units deploying in April, May or June, Transcom has the option of using sealift to get the equipment in. “The units that have to be there in January obviously must fly, and we’ve already started working that,” he said.

Complicating the situation in the Centcom theater is the massive drawdown in Iraq. Roughly 120,000 U.S. servicemembers are in Iraq and by August 2010 there will be about 50,000, with all out by the end of 2011. Also, the Marine regiment going in to Afghanistan now will get equipment both from Iraq and the United States. Other units will be in the same situation as the deployment continues.

Transcom will use all modes of transportation — military and civilian — to get troops and their equipment to the theater.

“On passenger movements, 95 percent of the troops that go into Afghanistan go by commercial air,” Lally said. For air cargo, commercial shippers carry 45 percent and 55 percent via military planes. About 75 percent of routine sustainment cargo goes in via commercial air and 25 percent via military, he said.

Unit moves change the equation with the majority of equipment flown in via military air. “You expect that because a lot of our equipment is outsized and it doesn’t fit very well into a 747,” Lally said. “So we use C-17s and C-5s for the military equipment and the palletized cargo fits very well in the holds of our commercial partners.”

The commercial partners have “stepped up to the plate” for this movement and for flights into Centcom in general, Transcom officials said. There has been no need to call up the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to handle the flow to the region, and officials do not expect to use this option. “Our commercial partners have been outstanding,” an official said.

Also, Centcom officials are working with Joint Forces Command to identify the forces that will deploy. “We’re involved with that process, because that will determine when these forces are trained and available for transportation,” said Air Force Col. Gregory Schwartz, the Transcom operations planner responsible for Centcom.

The two commands are meeting to figure out “the detailed data on what needs to be moved, who needs to be moved, where it needs be moved from and where in theater it needs to go,” Schwartz said.

When Transcom, which is developing the plan to get forces into Afghanistan, moved troops into Iraq, they had the luxury of an intermediate staging base in Kuwait. Troops could marry up with their equipment in Kuwait — a country with excellent airports and seaports — and conduct training before moving into Iraq. There is no such intermediate staging base for Afghanistan.

“Our people have to be ready when they arrive in Afghanistan,” Lally said. “It is a tight timeline. We move equipment by surface. It arrives in Karachi, Pakistan, we off-load it and truck it up to whatever base, and fly the units in. Every day we have teleconferences to synchronize that the passengers and equipment arrive at the right time. There’s a lot more work and coordination involved to make sure this happens correctly.”

The command also ships goods via the Northern Distribution Route, which uses Russian and Central Asian railroads to get supplies to Afghanistan. State Department officials are working with the countries along the routes to allow different equipment and supplies. State Department officials also are working with Russia to expand the overflight permissions, Pentagon officials said.

Transcom has a strong track record for support to Centcom. In 2004, the command coordinated the changeover of American troops in Iraq. Three months later, the command transported 250,000 servicemembers, and equipment, into and out of Iraq. It was the largest troop movement in the U.S. military since World War II, command historians said.

But the deployment of 30,000 to Afghanistan will not affect the command’s ability worldwide, Lally said. “We may ask for a bit of flexibility from the other combatant commands, but they will receive what they need, when they need it,” he said.

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