Beans, Bullets, and Boxcars: DOD and the Private Sector

U.S. combat readiness, and the nation’s ability to respond to contingencies throughout the globe, depends in large measure upon the ability of the U.S. commercial transportation industries to rapidly and efficiently prioritize, ship, track, and deliver massive amounts of equipment, rolling stock, supplies, fuel, food, ammunition, and other consumables to U.S. naval and military forces wherever they are stationed anywhere in the world.

The connection between commercial transportation assets and military readiness is easy to overlook, particularly by those who are not military professionals. It is not necessarily obvious, nor is it common knowledge for those who are not involved in the industry. But there is one fact that is irrefutable: The availability of commercial transportation is critical to the defense of the United States itself – and, in recent years, to U.S. homeland security as well.

On any given day, the nation’s private-sector transportation assets are used to move about eight million truckloads of freight across four million miles of highway. In addition: 1.5 million railcars roll their way over 170,000 miles of track; 2,400 flights pass through about 400 airports; and roughly 325 seaports transfer more than 25,000 containers. All of this in one day, it is worth repeating. This is why ships, trucks, planes, barges, and railcars are all “mission-critical” assets for military logistics.

A Symbiotic and Mutually Beneficial Link

Although the Department of Defense (DOD) does maintain some organic lift capability, state emergency managers should be aware that the Department chooses to rely heavily on private-sector assets to augment and support naval/military readiness for the transport of food, fuel, ammunition, weapon systems, repair parts, building materials, and a seemingly endless list of other supplies and consumables. Literally millions of tons of military supplies and equipment are moved each year by commercial transportation. For this reason alone, the availability – or lack thereof – of DOD commercial transportation assets should be carefully considered in state and local response planning for incidents of national significance.

To ensure that the commercial transportation assets will continue to be available, in ample quantity and on short or no notice, the Department of Defense has established programs such as CRAF (the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which makes civilian transport aircraft available in large numbers at the outbreak of a conflict involving the use of U.S. forces), VISA (which provides similar access to cargo ships enrolled under the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement), and STRACNET (which makes railcars in the Strategic Rail Corridor Network also available for DOD use).

Collectively, these programs give defense contingency planners assured access to the commercial transportation capacity required to move sustainment cargo during time of war or other national emergency. In exchange, the private sector receives guaranteed government business.

The essential role played by the nation’s private-sector transportation assets in time of war is perhaps best illustrated by a few statistics: For many years, 95 percent of all of the cargo required by U.S. combat forces overseas has been carried by merchant ships. In addition, 90 percent of all of the ammunition fired by U.S. forces in Iraq during the current conflict has been moved –at one time or another during the factory-to-firing-line supply chain – by U.S. railcars; and more than 90 percent of the troops deployed to the Iraq theater have traveled at least part of the way on CRAF aircraft.  

The same transportation assets can, of course, be used effectively when the military is called out to help in coping with natural disasters affecting the U.S. homeland. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers assisted in covering 180,000 roofs – most if not quite all of the tarps used were delivered to the region by commercial trucking. Additionally, the U.S. Transportation Command, with the support of the private sector, stepped up to the plate to respond to a FEMA order for over 20 million MREs (meals ready to eat) – enough to feed the entire population of Washington, D.C., for over a week!

There is an interesting irony here. Even though the Department of Defense relies heavily on the private sector for transportation support, military business is a relatively small component of the total freight handled by the transportation industry.

The Department of Defense will undoubtedly continue to rely heavily on the private sector to support rapid, secure, and efficient mobilization. Without commercial transportation assets, the government would not be able to mobilize large quantities of forces for contingency operations overseas, support the scheduled and time-sensitive delivery of military supplies, and provide reliable replenishment for combat troops and relief forces.

The bottom line: When the U.S. military has to get the right assets to the right place, and at the right time, it turns to the nation’s commercial transportation industries to get the job done.

Related link:
United States Department of Defense – Military Support in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

United States Transportation Command 

Luke Ritter

Mr. Ritter is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and holds an M.B.A from Old Dominion University, with a concentration in maritime and logistics management. He is board certified by the American Society of Transportation and Logistics (AST&L), and recently completed his tenure as the Vice Chairman of the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS)Transportation Security Council. Ritter serves on the Advisory Boards of iJET International, Inc., Decision Sciences International Corporation, and the International Maritime Security Corporation. He is also a contributing scholar at the Heritage Foundation.



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