Logistics: The Great American Rail Fail


November 3, 2021: The U.S. Army has been preparing for a “near peer” (conventional enemy) war for over a decade now and one problem has gotten worse. For a near peer conflict the army needs rail lines from bases to ports as well as an adequate number of rail cars to carry heavy equipment. Currently about half the army rail lines from bases to the commercial mainlines are unusable because of delayed repairs. A five-year program to remedy this is behind schedule. There is also a shortage of army rail transportation troops, made worse by a 2015 reduction in railroad troops because the army believed they could rely on commercial railroad personnel in the U.S. and foreign nations to do the job. That proved to be too optimistic. When the availability of commercial railroad specialists was recently checked it was found that the needed personnel for wartime operations were not available in the numbers needed.

The last time there was a major movement of units to ports was in 2003, for the invasion of Iraq. During that period the army found that 67 percent of army vehicles and heavy equipment had to move by rail. The army could not repeat the 2003 performance now and a near-peer war would involve the initial movement of at least twice as many units as in 2003.

The situation is worse with the special rail cars. The army bought 6,000 of these in the late 1960s but these only had a useful life of fifty years. By 2015 the 1,300 owned by the Department of Defense had seen little use and are continuing to be retired because of old age. New rail cars cost over $150,000 each. Another 4,500 are owned by railroads and the Department of Defense paid to equip them with the special features that enable them to carry tanks. These were more heavily used to carry other cargo and are all going to soon be victims of old age.

In 2003 the army found that it required about 600 of these rail cars to move an armored brigade and nearly as many to move regular ground combat brigades that still contain a lot of armored vehicles and heavy trucks. In wartime the army would want to move about thirty brigades initially and nearly as many within six months. The army ran a simulation exercise in 2020 to see what they could move with current equipment and rail lines and found major problems.

The army has tried to improvise, if need be, by using standard commercial flatbed rail cars to carry tanks. It takes time to install additional features needed for this. Meanwhile, the army still has some tank transport capability with the special tractor trailers, at least the ones that are not in the shop because of heavy use since 2003.

The rail car deal in the 1960s was in support of a potential major conventional war with the Soviet Union. That threat is gone but there is still the possibility of tanks being needed in a hurry for some future war. Being ready for such a movement of tanks from army bases to ports is costly and may be too expensive in the face of budget cuts and the need for so many other items of equipment. Then again, the United States has deactivated most of the armored units it maintained during the Cold War. There are not nearly as many armored battalions to move to ports. The thousands of rail cars built to move tanks were built for a mobilization that is no longer possible.

The army is also running out of heavy trucks that can transport tanks and other armored vehicles long distances. Armored vehicles that run on tracks wear out quickly if they travel long distances. The tracks and the “running gear” (wheels and related mechanical components) are not durable because of the heavy weight of these vehicles and the vulnerability of these “track laying systems” that are used because they are the only effective way to enable heavy vehicles to move cross country. After moving about a thousand kilometers under its own power the heavier (over 20 tons) tracked vehicles must stop and replace worn out components. Because of this, armies use special flatbed railroad cars and tractor trailer trucks to move armored vehicles long distances. Both the rail cars and special trucks owned by the U.S. are wearing out and budget cuts are making it difficult to buy replacements.

In 2003 the army had about 2,000 Heavy Equipment Transporters. Each consisted of a heavy tractor that could haul 80-tons on a flatbed trailer. These M1000 HETs (Heavy Equipment Trailers) cost about $400,000 each. The trailers weigh 25 tons and are 16.1 meters (52 feet) long and can be used to carry any other heavy cargo, which they often do when not hauling M-1 tanks or other armored vehicles. The 20-ton M1070 tractor that usually pulls this trailer has a six-man cab, so the tank crew can be carried as well. After 2003 a decade of heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan has reduced the number of working trainers to about 1,500, and some of these are still in need of expensive refurbishment.

The army conducted this recent study of its heavy equipment movement capabilities to discover how much money they had to ask for to fix the problem. The cash needed turned out to be much larger than anticipated but at least it is known what remaining heavy transport is available, even if it isn’t much and how much it will cost to fix the problem. Logistics has never been an easy item to get money for, until a war starts and you find that without adequate logistics you can’t get to the combat zone in time to do anything useful with all those impressive new weapons.




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