March 11, 2011, dawned cold and bleak while the people of northern Japan looked forward to the warmth of spring. That same day their world was shattered by a magnitude nine earthquake that shook their cities and their people. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come as seismic energy from the earthquake epicenter raced through the cold waters of the Pacific, generating a tsunami that devastated the already reeling coastal areas with a giant wall of water. Entire communities were washed away with more than 26,000 people dead or missing, and hundreds of thousands left homeless.

Communications began to fail as critical infrastructure was damaged or destroyed, and coastal roads connecting communities were washed away. As the Japanese people and their government began to assess the magnitude of the damage from the earthquake and tsunami, a new threat emerged. The heavily damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant posed the potential for a nuclear disaster worse than the Three Mile Island incident.

The environment that U.S. military logisticians face while providing wartime sustainment in Iraq and Afghanistan is relatable to the austere and dangerous conditions relief workers in Japan are now battling. Indeed, U.S. military forces have often been there, side-by-side with their civilian counterparts during these crises as witnessed during relief efforts for the Asian Tsunami of 2004, as well as the recent support in Japan with twenty US Navy ships and thousands of American service members currently aiding the Japanese.

The 103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC) provides operational level sustainment for the 50,000 troops and 65,000 contractors of U.S. Forces Iraq (USF-I). Iraq is now a sovereign and democratic country and the security situation has improved tremendously over the last few years. However, violent extremist groups continue attack efforts with improvised explosive devices, indirect fire and small arms fire. Thus, the ESC sustains a force spread over long distances (Iraq is about the size of California), in a third world environment while facing significant security challenges. The lessons learned in this environment may be of value to civilian logistics professionals providing support during an emergency such as the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami where humanitarian rather than monetary considerations are paramount.

The U.S. military identifies a working hierarchy of strategic, operational and tactical levels that constitute the operational environment through a hub-and-spoke model. The ESC in Iraq links strategic sustainers that provide commodities and services from outside Iraq, to the tactical sustainers that support U.S. forces that advise and assist the Iraqi Security Forces. Strategic support to the Iraqi Joint Operations Area or IJOA flows via air lines of communication and through two ground lines of communication from southern and northern points of entry.

The ESC, among its many duties, tracks and forecasts consumption; orders and stockpiles supplies; and operates a distribution network that provides wholesale supply to tactical level brigade support battalions. Those battalions provide retail level support on an area basis. Much of the southern part of Japan suffered minimal impact from the earthquake and tsunami which, fortunately, provided the country with a built-in strategic, sustainment base to support rescue and recovery operations.

Additional strategic level support arrived via air and sea for commercial and humanitarian international assistance. U.S. forces in Japan, along with the Japanese Self Defense Forces, played a key role in the operational level sustainment effort with intra-island airlift and sealift of critical humanitarian aid.

Tactical or retail sustainment proved to be a real challenge early in the crisis given the damage to roads and other infrastructure and the number of communities cut off from aid. Based on open source reporting, the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier battle group happened to be transiting the area enroute to an exercise when they received a call to assist. The Reagan and her escorts provided critical food, drinking water, blankets and other humanitarian aid using their fleet of helicopters.

As rescue and relief operations transition to recovery and rebuilding operations, the Japanese civil government will take over operational and tactical level sustainment. Civilian logistics professionals and their companies will have an important role to play in these efforts. The key to this combined effort will be understanding the requirements in terms of who needs what, where those needs are, when they need it, and how badly they need it (priority). Again, the 103rd ESC’s experience in Iraq may provide some insight.

Tap Into a Military Action Plan

The U.S. Army teaches that the fundamental logistics equation is “Requirements – Capabilities = Shortfalls or Overages.” This elegantly simple equation is complex in practice but provides an excellent conceptual base when developing the logistics components of a crisis action plan. Typically whoever is in charge determines who needs what, thus delineating the requirement. Logisticians then determine capabilities in terms of materials, transportation, and enabling resources such as material handling equipment and logistics facility infrastructure.

A crisis situation may create additional requirements such as the need for security escorts, or all-terrain vehicles. The U.S. Army provides capabilities by deploying sustainment units (to include a sizeable use of contracted capability) that fall into the four broad categories of: Quartermaster (supply and services), Transportation, Ordnance (ammunition, explosive ordnance disposal, and maintenance), and Soldier Support (human resources, finance, postal, etc). Each of these capabilities would warrant a feature article of its own but the focus here will be on transportation.

In the U.S. Army structure, transportation has three components: terminal operations, mode operations and movement control. Terminal operations in Iraq consist of airport and seaport operations, central receiving and shipping yards, and supply support activities (warehousing). Mode operations in Iraq include military and contracted trucks (including flatbed, heavy equipment transporters, and tankers), and aircraft (helicopters and transport planes).

Movement control is provided by a movement control battalion at the ESC headquarters. It oversees multiple movement control teams (both air and surface) at each base. Movement control is the key to getting the right material, to the right place, at the right time via the most expeditious and appropriate mode.

In Iraq, this effort must be protected by heavily armed and armored convoy escort teams. The Japanese disaster poses many challenges for operational level and especially tactical level sustainment of relief efforts. The road systems both within cities and between cities, in many cases, has been washed away or heavily damaged; the loss of electrical power has shut down much of an already damaged civil communications structure; and a highly mechanized society has been starved for fuel due to normal commercial distribution being disrupted.

While the use of air and sea modes of delivery provide some relief, real progress in alleviating the suffering of the survivors will not occur until ground lines of communication are reestablished, and a significant flow of aid and material can begin. Military sea and air assets will play a critical role during the early phase of disaster recovery in Japan.

Transportation is a key component for distribution operations. As anyone in business knows, distribution is the process of procuring the right material, in the right quantity and getting it to the right people at the right time. Iraq has an array of large and small U.S military bases spread throughout Iraq.

There are several possible distribution approaches to sustaining this force including pinpoint, ring route, and huband- spoke distribution:

Pinpoint distribution involves a central sustainment node that sends out logistics elements to discrete locations on an out-and-back basis. Pinpoint distribution was useful in the early stages of the Japanese disaster where helicopters and boats could deliver small-scale aide to isolated communities, however the amount of aid was defined by the number of helicopters and boats and their limited range and capacity. Ringroute distribution involves a logistics node dispatching a transport element to predetermined points along a predetermined route in a somewhat circular pattern returning to the original node. This can be a useful method for larger conveyances such as cargo planes when airfields are available and when each location has limited requirements. In Iraq, the ESC found this method useful for only very high priority, low mass commodities such as critical repair parts.

The ESC uses a hub-and-spoke method in Iraq, where strategic partners supply material to the major hubs via southern and northern points of entry. The ESC maintains reserve stocks at these hubs and distributes supplies to the smaller spokes. The brigades support battalions of the maneuver units then support all the smaller bases in their area via pinpoint distribution. The hub and spoke method works extremely well to facilitate the efficient distribution of support while also allowing the ESC to retain significant reserve stocks to deal with unforeseen events (which are common and very challenging in this part of the world).

The challenge in a disaster situation, such as Japan’s, is to quickly re-establish the airports, roads, and other transportation infrastructure in order to establish major logistics nodes (general support hubs in U.S. parlance), minor logistics nodes (direct support), and the smallest retail nodes to support communities and their surrounding areas. Logistics hubs and spokes take a lot of effort to establish but for a massive, long-term effort, they ultimately provide a flexible and unparalleled sustainment capability.

Marching in Unison

Synchronizing the efforts of many well meaning, but uncoordinated, agencies with the diverse capabilities from the government, military, humanitarian and commercial sectors presents a real challenge in a disaster. These challenges are compounded in an international environment by the language barrier and cultural differences.

Command and control plays a key role in ensuring efficient execution and sustainment of relief and recovery operations. The U.S. military has a well developed command and control structure with systems that provide both communications capabilities and a “common operating picture.” The ESC has dedicated sustainment management systems that facilitate flexible and effective sustainment operations.

Civilian logisticians engaged in crisis response face many hurdles in terms of understanding requirements, organizing the efforts of many different players, establishing a logistics infrastructure, developing a logistics support plan, and successfully executing that plan. An existing command and control structure, the Incident Command System , is used extensively across all levels of government in the U.S. as part of the National Incident Management System. This proven system could provide a turn-key option compatible with governmental efforts for all elements working together in a crisis.

Logisticians might then come together to determine their requirements, determine their collective capabilities, and identify their shortfalls or overages. They can then develop a plan that covers all sustainment functions (including security if necessary) and establish their terminal, mode, and movement control capabilities for their distribution system. Depending on the situation, the hub-and-spoke system may be the most effective approach for a large scale crisis covering a large area, or a pinpoint or ring route approach may be more appropriate for a smaller crisis.

Whatever the case, professional logisticians make a key contribution to sustaining a response and recovery effort, ensuring its ultimate success. We hope the sustainment lessons learned by the 103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command in Iraq will help anyone dealing with the kind of logistics challenges Japan is now facing.


Brigadier General Mark Corson, Ph.D. is a U.S. Army Reserve officer with more than 28 years of military experience. In his civilian career he is an associate professor of geography at Northwest Missouri State University, where he also teaches in the Comprehensive Crisis Response Program specializing in logistical support for humanitarian aid operations.