COIN Logistics: Let’s Do Camels
After reading Capt. Jason Topshe’s article “Evolving the Marine Corps for Irregular Warfare,” I was struck by his unashamed call for the return to pack animals. It piqued my interest - I’m a Logistics Officer by trade. It wasn’t until the day after Topshe’s article was published - when I read David Kilcullen’s Counterinsurgency - that it all came together and I realized how right Topshe was.[i]
Dr. Kilcullen has six maxims to manage company-level counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, and for me the most interesting one of the six is “travel light, and harden your combat service support.” It blew my mind when I interpreted his proscription - I don’t think he meant “slap armor onto hundreds of Palletized Loading Systems and ride over the roads looking for IEDs with a week’s worth of food and ammunition on the back;” I felt he meant train your CSS (Combat Service Support) soldiers to be fighters and make it easy to integrate these CSS soldiers into the overall COIN fight. Mass of CSS isn’t important; it’s the quality of your CSS soldiers that will make the difference.
They beat it into our heads in Transportation Officer Basic Course (TOBC): “Never get out of the truck.” I got “killed” in training every time I dismounted in TOBC, despite what I thought was our duty and obligation in the Soldier’s Creed to engage and destroy the enemy. Despite our history class recounting that two of our fellow members of the Transportation Corps - Sergeant William W. Seay and Specialist Larry G. Dahl - earned the Medal of Honor for engaging our enemies in close combat, the training I got from TOBC was a 180-degree pivot from Basic Training and Officer Candidate School, I just accepted it as part of the job.
Until, that is, I read Capt. Topshe’s article and Dr. Kilcullen’s book. When I combined the principles of Vietnam-era warrior spirit among transportation soldiers with Capt. Topshe’s suggestion that pack animals become part of COIN and Dr. Kilcullen’s prescription of CSS hardening, I realized that camels are the CSS response to COIN campaigns. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how (in the forward operating base (FOB) COIN concept) the use of camels in ground distribution[ii] in Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) would not only improve distribution support in these theaters, but would fit into the larger goals of intelligence, deterrent patrolling, and legitimacy that our current CSS strategy is lacking.
Camel Distribution Is Cheaper Than Truck Distribution
The mainstay of the forward support company’s transportation platoon is the OshKosh M1075 Palletized Loading System (PLS). Developed for quick resupply and cargo transfer from Brigade Support Battalion (BSB) convoys coming from the Brigade Support Area (BSA), PLS are the workhorse of tactical distribution. Their payload is 33,000 pounds, and they can carry that weight over a 300 mile range at a speed of 62 miles per hour.
By comparison, dromedary camels weigh about 1200 pounds. Their payload is between 375 and 600 pounds, and they can deliver the payload over approximately 29 miles in a day at an average speed of 2.5 miles per hour. Clearly, it appears that the numbers don’t lie - camels are merely a footnote to tactical distribution, a scheme that works on paper but wouldn’t cut the mustard in real life.
That said, we should look at the drawbacks of both systems before judgment is passed. The mighty PLS has a 100 gallon fuel tank and a 300 mile range on a single tank of JP-8 (because it doesn’t make sense to manage multiple kinds of fuel on the battlefield with multiple supply chains, PLS run on what is basically jet fuel). Some quick math renders a very interesting value: a fully-loaded PLS gets three miles to the gallon. When one factors in the value of JP-8 at around $400 per gallon in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom we realize that every time we fill the tank on a PLS in Afghanistan the taxpayer spends $40,000 and it costs $1200 to move supply one mile down the road.
A camel, on the other hand, doesn’t need fuel. They run on water and food. And while a camel can drink up to 25 gallons of water in a single ten-minute session they can travel for 100 or more miles without drinking again. There’s no need to ship in huge tanks of fresh water for the camels, either - thousands of years of drinking from brackish oases have given the camels the genetic ability to drink water that would make people ill. Food is also a give-me - camels don’t need specialized food, they can eat thorns, dry leaves and saltbush to survive. Granted, the better the feed the sturdier the camel, but one would be hard-pressed to find camel chow that would cost $40,000 per meal.
Another key factor that places camels over PLS as the superior distribution platform has little or no comparison between the two - the need for expensive repair parts. A tow hitch for a PLS costs around $500, a new tire costs about $800 and a blown hydraulic system around $8000. Costs aside, these parts require a supply chain stretching from the National Industrial Base to supply depots to airfields to Sustainment Brigades to BSB and finally to the FSC Maintenance Platoon. Procurement, as well as storage and fuel costs when examined holistically can make a $500 tow hitch cost exponentially more. A camel, on the other hand, needs a veterinarian to give a periodic checkup and a transportation soldier to perform a daily Preventive Maintenance Checks and Services.
Simply put, cost makes the camel a superior financial investment into tactical distribution over the PLS. In FY2015, OshKosh sold its Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT) A4 model—which is the base platform—for between $350,000 and $600,000. A camel costs less than a thousand dollars. When combined with their fuel costs, repair cost, and maintenance cost, the camel doesn’t have a peer in tactical distribution. And as an answer to those who are more interested in payload than cost, it only takes about sixty-six camels (give or take a camel) to move the same payload as a PLS, which could easily be done with 20 trained transporters.
Camel Distribution is Safer than Truck Distribution
Detractors of camel distribution have an easy counter to arguments about cost - “you can’t put a price on the life of one of America’s sons and daughters. I’d rather pay a million dollars for an up-armored truck that can survive an IED than use a cheap camel that would risk our soldier’s lives.” I appreciate the danger that transportation soldiers face on distribution convoys, having been on many convoys in both Iraq and Afghanistan gave me a healthy respect for both the armor and the truck and the enemy’s skill with improvised explosive devices. But what if we didn’t have to use the road? PLS carry a large amount of cargo very quickly because of developed and undeveloped roads - whether blacktop, concrete, bituminous concrete, gravel, or packed dirt, the PLS can move with speed - but that binds us to what my Combat Arms brethren would call “the most likely avenue of approach” and makes us a predictable target for IEDs.
Camels remove our dependence on road networks in tactical distribution operations and removes IEDs as an effective tactic against distribution. Camels’ feet are designed to move over hot, sandy terrain and their wide stance and gait (camels move both of their legs on one side when they walk; this is called “pacing”) make them very sure-footed on uneven terrain. When the mission is to move 12 miles to the next combat outpost to conduct resupply camel distribution wouldn’t need to use the road and would reduce risk of civilian casualties to almost zero. More importantly, the camel convoy commander would be given his route carefully and with regard to metrics such as intelligence (more on this later), making sure to never use the same route twice and confounding attempts to use IEDs to defeat distribution resupply. Moreover, using pressure-plate IEDs or mines to create obstacles in the route between our FOBs and patrol bases forces the insurgent to run the risk of harming the very civilian population he is trying to woo. Additionally, the requirement for hub-to-spoke route clearance from FOB to base would become far less, freeing up Engineer assets for other tasks.
Leading camels off road, away from roads and near cover and concealment that benefits the enemy, might lead to small-arms ambushes becoming the preferred tactic for insurgents wishing to interdict resupply missions, but even in this scenario the advantage is to the camel convoy. In this scenario camels make up their lack of armor with organic cover and flexible mobility under fire. Camels are, on the average, twelve feet tall at the shoulder and when kneeling, present cover at about four feet high. They can also be trained, as reported by Outlook Magazine, “to lope along nonchalantly, while the [soldiers] riding them shield themselves by clinging to their side.” They can be acclimated to gunfire - both outgoing and incoming - and maintain an easy temperament in battle, and their long history as a military animal cannot be denied. Of course, it goes without saying that the transportation soldiers charged with handling camels would also have to be versed in squad tactics as well being excellent riflemen, but as mentioned in the introduction, transportation soldiers have repeatedly availed themselves audaciously and tenaciously throughout the history of the Transportation Corps—in the days of Eve of Destruction and Canned Heat, transporters slugged it out instead of fleeing.
Of the four modes of US Army transportation (sea, air, rail, and wheeled), trucks are supposed to be the most versatile form of ground transportation because they don’t need track to carry cargo, but as long as our trucks are wedded to roads, trucks are not much better than more maneuverable, heavily armored trains. Camels reduce route predictability, enhance route creativity and allow CSS soldiers to display a willingness to fight on the ground present themselves as a harder target.
Camel Distribution is More Intelligent than Truck Distribution
One of the secondary foci of army transportation is intelligence is that 88s ride the roads every day through the entire area of operation. They get to know the seams between battlespaces and can often tell, with uncanny prescience and with little more than a regurgitated S-2 brief, that something isn’t right in an area. I have heard several ideas in the last five years about new and better intelligence equipment we can put on trucks to turn them into mobile intelligence platforms - relays, scanners, sniffers, and sensors that run off alternator power. In my humble opinion, the solution to intelligence gathering is not more stuff on more trucks; it’s soldiers on the ground. Camel distribution would be nearer to the population, closer to the ground and slow enough that the properly trained Transportation soldier could be a good source of passive intelligence collection.
Picture the scene - a village between FOB A and COP B is a little suspect. HUMINT suggests that there’s an insurgent presence there periodically, but the bad guys take off as soon as the good guys come up the road. The platoon can’t be everywhere at once; if only they had another squad that could check on the village twice a week or so - or at least pass by - they might give the insurgents reason to find another place to do their thing. Or perhaps there’s a gunfight between the platoon and some bad guys and the bad guys break contact in the other direction, and run directly into forty transporters with radios on the battalion tactical net. Or maybe the camel convoy sees military age males suspiciously putting a burlap bag of something into a well. The point is, rather than being confined to a road, camel convoys would not only be three dozen extra pairs of eyes in the battlespace, but the transporters would have a genuine stake in the fight.
They certainly don’t have much of a stake in the fight while fourteen feet off the ground and staring out a PLS side window that’s eight inches by eight inches while occupied with their primary mission. The average truck commander in a distribution convoy monitors two radio nets, a Blue Force Tracker, the sides of the road for signs of IEDs, intersections for erratic traffic (or pedestrians that just plain step into traffic), the truck in front of his, the road in front of the truck, and the driver to his left to make sure he or she isn’t asleep. The idea that a transporter has the time to smell, hear and see the battlespace from the confines of a PLS cab sounds great in practice, but the truth is it’s often too much to keep track - the TC does a poor job of everything but keeping the truck safe. A camel convoy would have no such problem - on foot, moving at walking speed, and able to see, hear, and smell everything around (granted, some of the smell would be camel). The transporter could truly become a battlefield sensor, collecting intelligence and returning it to the analysts to provide a clearer picture of the battlespace.
The increased likelihood of enemy contact also benefits intelligence efforts. A soldier in a truck who takes fire often relies on the other trucks in the convoy to gauge distance and direction of the enemy contact. The experienced man in the fourth truck can’t see the IED signs up ahead, because the only thing he sees the truck and cargo (often stacked twenty feet high) in front of him. A soldier on a camel convoy can immediately gauge these things since his view is unimpeded, and can call the battalion with a short SALUTE report to bring the trigger-pullers to bear on the target. Another benefit would be the camel convoy’s ability to fix the enemy in a close engagement so the combat arms can finish the engagement. I’m not suggesting the camel convoy maneuver on an objective - that’s not their role - but with proper training in basic intelligence and basic soldiering skills, twenty muskets on line could definitely be an asset.
When given the choice between collecting intelligence through a murky, dusty 64-square-inch window and the full range of human vision, the choice is clear. Camel distribution would do a better job of fulfilling the secondary role of transporters in the Army and, properly integrated, could be an asset in a defensive situation.
Camel Distribution is More Legitimate than Truck Distribution.
The US military has over 24 war-years of conflict in desert countries where camels are used for everything from meat and milk to transportation to display of wealth. Parts of the Middle East hold camel beauty pageants, and prized stud bull camels sell for thousands of dollars to breeders wishing to create champion camel bloodlines. On top of all the benefits to distribution and intelligence that camels bring to the fight in counterinsurgency, the legitimacy US camel convoys would foster among the population would be invaluable.
Throughout the Middle East and the desert parts of Afghanistan, camels mean prosperity. They’re expensive by local standards, they’re a mark of wealth, and they represent prosperity for the next fifty years to whomever they belong to. The average local who saw a camel convoy would at least notice that US soldiers were leading a convoy of camels, and some just might be impressed by a sizeable herd, skillfully managed by trained transporters.
Camel convoy soldiers might find an inroad with locals through conversation and mutual interest, much like two Americans would have a conversation about their dogs. Travelling past a village with a string of camels would certainly be a topic of conversation between the commander at the next shura, and it might give the commander an “in” to talk about something of interest to the locals. Even better, if a camel is injured or old, giving the camel as a gift to the elder or the village would be a thoughtful and well-understood gift. Rather than giving the locals something we think they could use to win their trust and confidence, the commander who gave a gift of a pair of camels might influence those locals; were a unit to redeploy without a relief-in-place, the entire fleet of camels could go to the locals as a gesture of good faith.
Camels are part of desert culture. They’re ubiquitous in those locations and have a close ancestral tie with people in the region. Employing them while engaged in counterinsurgency in a desert makes a lot of sense, if only to display to the population that we, too, appreciate the camel.
A Sea Change for the Ship of the Desert
I am well aware that this essay won’t cause anyone with any decision-making authority to sell the Army’s ground transportation assets tomorrow and invest our money in camel herds. While the reasons why our Army should use camels for company-and-below level tactical distribution in counterinsurgency operations are crystal-clear to me, a lot of things about the way to manage distribution in counterinsurgency must change.
We have to start saving money on distribution in counterinsurgency. Whenever I read the phrase “blood and treasure,” in the back of my mind I instantly realize that the “treasure” part is distribution. Whether fuel, repair parts, building materials or new and better armored trucks, we are spending money we don’t have on things we don’t necessarily need to fight an agile insurgency. If agility is what we are after, camels could be the limiter on the massive amount of materiel we bring to the fight.
We have to quit bringing all this stuff with us to fight a counterinsurgency - if you can’t carry it, you don’t need it. Sprawling tactical operations centers, piles of generators, thousands of tons worth of t-walls mean only one thing - more distribution. Continuous requirements for fuel, water, parts, building materials and the stacks and stacks of containers don’t make our ground forces more agile - they make us more reliant on distribution to prosecute counterinsurgency rather than less reliant. The quote from an Afghan commando is succinct: “if you go fox hunting, don’t bring an elephant to chase the fox.” Camel distribution could work at lower echelons, but only if we take the risk to travel as light as the insurgents do.
We have to take a risk to get benefits. The increased distribution mobility, increased intelligence collection and increased legitimacy with the population we would get by moving from huge, expensive trucks to camels can only be gained by being willing to allow transporters to put their lives in their own hands and move supply with camel distribution. The only thing worse than rejecting the idea of camel distribution out of hand would be to reject the idea out of fear that our properly-trained soldiers can’t take care of themselves in a fight.
We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. Although our soldiers are professional and do their jobs as well as they can within the paradigm we’ve given them, we somehow are losing the peace. It isn’t my contention that camel distribution will singlehandedly and decisively swing the balance of initiative firmly toward counterinsurgency, I am contending that it’s worth a shot to give it a try - if nothing else, we would save money. The Army’s Operating Concept is “win in a complex world” - does the answer to our distribution have to be equally complicated?
[i] Kilcullen, David. Counterinsurgency (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
[ii] Throughout this article, I use the term “distribution” when I discuss supply moved by transportation; the operational term “logistics” refers to supply, transportation, and maintenance.