After six years of service in Iraq, seven 72-tonne Challenger Two main battle tanks started their three-week sea voyage back to the UK this week.
The Challenger tanks, 51 armoured vehicles and 162 containers full of other British military equipment that has been used in Iraq left Kuwait’s Shuaiba Port onboard the container cargo ship MV Hurst Point on Wednesday 3 June 2009.
Since the end of UK combat operations in Iraq, a specialist logistics headquarters, the Joint Force Logistic Component or JFLogC, has been in Kuwait and Iraq co-ordinating the massive effort to inspect, pack and return six-years-worth of military hardware to the UK.
The number of military shipping containers that need to be shipped home is so great in fact that if everyone sent out of Iraq was stacked in a Jenga tower it would rise over two-and-a-half miles (4km) above the desert.
Good order and value for money are the watchwords for the JFLogC which has instigated a number of innovations to make sure equipment from simple stationery to the 72-tonne tanks leaving this week can be reused as quickly as possible on return to the UK.
JFLogC’s Commander in Iraq, Brigadier Paul Stearns Royal Marines, said:
“Withdrawing equipment after operations is not something we’ve always given our fullest attention to. Today’s military equipment is at a premium, it is high spec, high quality and high value. It’s vital we get it to its next home fully refurbished or put on the shelf ready for use again as quickly as possible.
“The taxpayer has invested a lot of money in our equipment and my team are acutely aware of this. It is my job to protect that investment.”
The headquarters has been working in close co-operation with the National Audit Office Defence Value for Money Team to ensure external independent scrutiny at every level of planning.
Brigadier Stearns’ headquarters of 25 staff has been planning this operation since summer 2008. Just like any military operation, the detail is the crucial element. His team has developed innovative procedures to ensure the job is done as efficiently as possible.
Lieutenant Colonel Lloyd Watkins, Brigadier Stearns’ Chief of Staff, does not hide the fact that much of the equipment is going directly to Afghanistan:
“Some of this equipment will see service in Helmand in the very near future,” he explained. “The last thing a soldier in Afghanistan needs to find when he opens the container is that there is an aerial missing from his radio. This headquarters is focused on attempting to prevent that.”
To stop such mistakes happening, the headquarters is enlisting some of the most advanced and innovative logistic techniques ever employed by the military:
— The creation of a complete compendium listing more than 20,000 stores items, holding details of where they need to be sent and in what condition, decided by owners, maintainers and future users.
— A co-ordinated inspection process to ensure equipment only leaves Iraq once it is in the state specified by the compendium.
— A repair schedule to ensure all equipment leaves in the correct state, recording any deficiencies so that the main repair depots in the UK can order parts before the kit arrives home.
— An advance team of civilian stores experts who work for the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency has been deployed to Iraq to make sure containers are packed properly, saving the equivalent of months of work back in the UK.
— Random inspections by Royal Military Police to make sure no unauthorised items find their way into containers.
— Extensive use of the latest electronic tracking devices to give all agencies complete visibility of where equipment is.
— Pre-deployment modelling using computer-based logistic planning tools.
These measures tie in with the efforts of more than 1,000 troops stationed in Iraq and Kuwait packing, loading and moving kit in convoys from Basra to Kuwaiti ports.
Major Darren Osborne, the headquarters movements officer, was at the waterfront at Shuaiba, overlooking the ship’s loading this week:
“This is by far the best planned operation I’ve been involved in,” he commented as the tanks were driven on board. “By the time the equipment gets to us, it’s already been inspected and it’s in the best possible condition.”
Soldiers from the Royal Logistic Corps’ 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, based at Marchwood military port, Southampton, have been in Kuwait for nearly a month loading cargo ships including the MV Hurst Point.
With a displacement of more than 22,000 tonnes, this ship is part of a fleet of four civilian container cargo ships permanently leased by the Ministry of Defence to transport heavy equipment around the world.
This is the seventh visit by a container ship since the start of the drawdown operation in May. By the end of July the logistics score card will look like this:
— More vehicles than in the bus fleets serving Bristol and Bath.
— Around 5,000 containers – enough to build a Jenga tower two-and-a-half miles (4km) high.
— 102 convoys were needed to bring the equipment out of Basra to the port, driving a total distance equivalent to five-and-a-half times around the world.
MV Hurst Point will reach Marchwood next month where the same soldiers who loaded her will remove the tanks and other vehicles to the main MOD vehicle storage facility at Ashchurch in Gloucestershire.