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Gulf War 20th: Logistics Marvels Made the “Left Hook” Work

When the first paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division hit the ground in Saudi Arabia, the first thing they noticed was the heat, the unrelenting 120-degree heat. There was little or no shelter from the scorching sun, and the humidity didn’t feel much better in the shade – that is, for those who found a tree, tent or roof to hide under.

Then there was the sand, the fine, granular sand that would, in a light wind, blow into their eyes, ears and mouth and, if left unattended over time, start clogging or damaging almost every vehicle, weapon or piece of machinery they relied upon. There was little or no running water, much less enough drinking water, and food was basically limited to bland Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs). Tents and cots were at a bare minimum.

Sleep didn’t come easy, because at least 360,000 heavily armed Iraqi soldiers were massing to the north, threatening to attack at any moment. Eight days before Iraqi invaders had stormed into Kuwait, quickly overrunning the oil-rich emirate and sending panic waves throughout Saudi Arabia, which was so vulnerable Saudi King Fahd soon accepted President George Bush’s offer to send U.S. troops to help protect the Islamic holy land.

Such were the conditions on August 10, 1990, when Army Maj. Gen. William “Gus” Pagonis landed at King Abdul Aziz Airbase in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. With four hand-picked logisticians (18 more would arrive August 15), Pagonis aimed to create some semblance of order among the 4,000 soldiers and tons of equipment that began pouring out of C-5 and C-141 cargo jets and onto the stove-like tarmac each day.

“There were mobs of people everywhere, looking for someone to take charge… and I took charge,” said Pagonis of the first chaotic days in theater. “If the Iraqis attacked us, we were going to go to Bahrain and blow the causeway.”

The improvising that became the trademark of Gulf War logistics began immediately, as a matter of survival. Sleeping and working out of the back of a Chevrolet Blazer the first couple weeks due to the lack of building space, Pagonis instructed a private to conduct the duties of a company commander to ensure everyone had enough water and desert uniforms, plus gas masks and chemical protection suits. He pinned the gold oak leaves of a major on a warrant officer so the soldier could get better responses securing facilities, goods and manpower from status-minded Saudis. And he began wheeling and dealing with local contractors to slowly but surely secure fresh food, housing, fuel, vehicles, forklifts – anything that would ease or speed the rapid deployment of the 82nd, the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), the First Marine Expeditionary Force and other early arrivals.

Pagonis had been hastily dispatched to Saudi to head an ad-hoc command, an outfit that by December was designated the 22nd Support Command. The 22nd not only shaped the massive U.S. buildup, it ultimately helped orchestrate the “left hook” that eventually expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait. During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (including the withdrawal), the 22nd SUPCOM and its predecessors would oversee movements of mammoth amounts of troops and materials, processing at least 350,000 soldiers and 7 million tons of supplies.

Except for the Marines, Air Force and Navy, who took care of most of their own logistics, almost everything arriving in (and departing from) the theater went through Pagonis and his logistical staff. They handled 170,000 vehicles, including 12,000 armored, and 12,575 aircraft, including 2,000 helicopters, with many of the tanks and armored vehicles having to be painted desert tan and outfitted with better equipment. At least 52 million meals were served, including up to two hot meals a day for the more fortunate soldiers, Marines and airmen. And at least 32,000 tons of mail was delivered, with 31,000 more tons sent back home. Because transportation was essential in the vast expanse of Saudi Arabia, which is roughly the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River, Pagonis and his command arranged to have 52 million miles driven and 1.3 billion gallons of fuel pumped. The logistical feats were, in the words of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of coalition forces, “an absolutely gigantic accomplishment.”

Operation Desert Shield

A crane lifts an M1A1 Abrams main battle tank from the Ready Reserve Force freighter ship Cape Mendocino at a pier in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Shield. DoD photo by Spec. Samuel Henry.

Logistics are what made the historic buildup and the westward flanking movement possible, and because doctrine then called for Cold War tactics of a European war against Soviet forces, much leeway was given in devising new tactics to suit the Persian Gulf conditions. For starters, Schwarzkopf appointed Pagonis as the single point of contact for logistics, so that the services would not compete for or hoard scarce resources or supplies. Second, and perhaps most importantly, Pagonis devised a series of log bases, or supply depots, that would be strategically placed near the front, instead of being placed far behind combat forces, as traditionally done.

“The biggest problem was getting limited resources to everyone on an equal basis,” said Pagonis. “Doctrine will not work [alone]. Tailoring logistics as a concept is really the way to go.”

After the first few chaotic weeks, in which commanders had to focus on basics such as security, food, water, shelter, showers and latrines, Pagonis and his ever-growing staff could finally start enacting the plans they drew up while riding on the C-141 Starlifter from the United Sates. The deployment, they concluded, would be divided into five logistical phases:

•           Phase Alpha, which focused on preparation and prepositioning, basically providing sustenance and defense of early arrivals, and ensuring they could shift into offensive mode if necessary.

•           Phase Bravo, which concentrated on the movement of the two U.S. Army corps and helping them assume a defensive posture.

•           Phase Charlie, which aimed to sustain a massive ground offensive, a scenario that would likely have unpredictable shifts in the lines and called for extreme flexibility in logistics.

•           Phase Delta, which demanded all logistical needs for the defense of war-torn Kuwait after Iraqi forces had been expelled.

•           Phase Echo, which called for the redeployment of all U.S. troops, equipment and supplies in a timely manner, a daunting task that sought to ensure no ammunition or other materials were left behind.

A key part of all phases of the overall logistical plan was to allow for maximum flexibility. Procedures and policies were in some cases, particularly in the early days of the deployment, made up on the spot. Pagonis and his staff organized the flow of equipment from 65 ports worldwide to two Saudi ports, then transported the VII Corps up to 330 miles and the XVIII Airborne Corps up to 550 miles to the front. They timed it so ships delivered their loads and left without lingering vulnerably in the ports. If there were any backups, Pagonis’ staff would order ships at sea to slow down. By November, when the VII Corps began arriving in Saudi, unloading had become a speedy process: “We off-loaded ammo ships in two days,” Pagonis said in 1992, adding that other ships were emptied in 24 hours.

Airlift, while overtaxed, went relatively smoothly, mainly due to the great capacity of the Air Force. By late August, 94 percent of the service’s C-5s (118 of 126) and 73 percent of its C-141s (195 of 265) were supporting the deployment, with 81 percent of its KC-10s, 44 percent of its KC-135s and commercial jetliners also playing a vital role in delivering troops and supplies. By the start of the air war on January 17, 1991, commercial and military aircraft had conducted over 10,500 flights to deliver more than 355,000 short tons of supplies from around the globe.

KC-10 and KC-135 tankers also played a vital role in refueling attack, reconnaissance, cargo and other aircraft. During the six months of Operation Desert Shield the Air Force flew 262 KC-10s and 46 KC-135s more than 17,000 times, 11,500 of those being refueling sorties that filled up more than 33,000 aircraft, including 5,500 Navy and Marine jets. During the six weeks of Operation Desert Storm, the tankers flew 17,000 sorties, more than 15,000 of them refueling missions, supplying at least 52,000 coalition aircraft with more than 125 million gallons of fuel (mostly JP-8, although JP-5 was also used, particularly for naval aircraft). Air Force C-12s and C-130s and Marine and Army cargo helicopters such as the UH-1, UH-60s, CH-46s, CH-47s and CH-53s were also heavily relied upon to move troops and equipment around the theater, particularly aiding the westward flanking movement.


Fuel was the lifeblood of the war, and tankers such as the Air Force’s KC-135s were worked hard. DoD photo.

For sealift, dozens of different types of ships were used to deliver hardware to Saudi, including many that had never before carried military supplies. The six pre-positioning ships from Diego Garcia and eight fast sealift ships (FSS) from the states were pushed to their maximum, causing one FSS to break down, pulling into Rota, Spain, for repairs. The sealift ultimately proved adequate, although it exposed weaknesses that the Pentagon is still trying to address.

On the ground, the 7th Transportation Group had been the first logistical outfit to deploy to Saudi, on August 9, and its first 300 soldiers were specifically geared to run the eastern seaports of Ad-Dammam and Al-Jubayl. They started unloading the pre-positioning ships that held tanks and equipment for the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), whose heavy units would be desperately needed if the Iraqis attacked. Problem was, the 7th only had four forklifts to start with. The prepo ship with forklifts and other port equipment was not unloaded first, and even then it only supplied a bare minimum.

The Saudis eased the brunt of logistics snafus, helping supply the forklifts, winches, cranes and other equipment for Americans to use, plus laborers, which were in dire need. The hosts were also relied greatly upon to provide transport – trucks, buses and cars – via commercial contractors. Ultimately Germany and Japan donated up to 3,000 four-wheel vehicles. According to Army historian John McGrath, by September 8, Pagonis’ crew had spent $1.83 billion to secure a wide variety of support from the Saudis: 51 business and housing complexes, the use of 1,900 trucks, 8,416 tents and 738 laborers a day. The Saudis also provided two meals a day for 116,000 troops, and supplied all the basics – water and ice, fuel, refrigeration, electricity, sewage, telephones, etc. – that the U.S. forces required.

At the ports, many snags were encountered in determining which ship containers went where. The new bar-coding system in use – scanners similar to those at grocery stores – did not work all the time, so 40- and 20-foot containers typically had to be opened to determine what was in them. This created time-consuming delays.

Another problem early on was food. MREs and T-Rations, semi-perishable food packets that needed only boiling water to feed 36 soldiers, were in good supply (one prepo ship was stored with 1.5 million MREs), but had a demoralizing affect on troops when they were all there was to be consumed. The food director of the 7th had resorted to buying Hardee’s hamburgers for troops to eat, but it was difficult to deliver them warm, much less hot. Pagonis established contact with Zahir Masri, a wealthy Saudi businessman, who with Chief Warrant Officer 4 Wesley Wolfe, Pagonis’ food czar, arranged to supply troops with hot meals (lasagna, hot dogs, pizza, etc.) and fresh pita bread, fruit and vegetables, even to soldiers at the front lines, a remarkable morale-booster. By December up to 300,000 U.S. troops were eating these so-called “A-rations” each day, plus “Wolfburgers” – hot hamburgers supplied by several mobile vans Wolfe sent to desert posts.

Another major task the 22nd SUPCOM faced was the need to replace or modernize tanks and other equipment streaming into Saudi. The 24th, 1st Cavalry Division and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had all its M-1 tanks upgraded to M1A1s. U.S. Army Europe contributed nearly 800 M1A1s with the much more powerful 120mm gun, and Army Materiel Command upgraded these M1A1s with several modifications and issued them to units in the theater. By the start of the ground war 948 tanks had been modernized, including all those with the XVIII Airborne Corps and all but two battalions of the VII Corps 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), according to McGrath. Up to 836 of the latest versions of the M2A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles arrived, and the VII Corps’ 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment used them to replace its older Bradleys.

Because VII Corps’ tracked vehicles from Germany were painted forest green, most of them needed to be painted desert tan, a chore accomplished by the 593rd Area Support Group, first at the ports of Damman and Jubayl and later at two other desert outposts. In all, more than 10,000 vehicles were painted, including some 8,600 of the VII Corps, using more than 30,000 gallons of paint, which had to be purchased commercially.

Operation Desert Storm

XVIII Airborne Corps troops wait to board an aircraft for home. DoD photo.

Ground transportation proved to be the biggest logistical headache. Large trucks were going to be needed to transport tanks and other heavy armor to the battlefield, for some would have to traverse several hundred miles to get into position. The only answer was heavy equipment transporters (HETs), which are large, flatbed trucks that can handle heavy loads such as the 70-ton M1A1 Abrams tanks. But again, because Cold War doctrine dictated that trains would transport tanks to the front of a European war, the Army had a shortage of trucks – only 112 HETs were in theater. The 22nd managed to secure use of another 2,200 flatbed trucks and 450 lowboys, all of which could lug heavy loads.

In addition, the Saudis and other coalition partners, particularly Egypt, Germany and Czechoslovakia, supplied another 1,300 HETs, mostly tractor-trailer trucks that came with experienced Third-World drivers. Egypt alone offered a HET battalion complete with drivers, mechanics and spare parts.

“It became obvious that you don’t drive tanks to the battlefield. You must use wheeled vehicles to get them there,” says Pagonis, who was promoted to lieutenant general in February 1991. “Those Egyptian HETs saved our hides.” Ever the innovator, Pagonis created what he jokingly calls the “Pakistani Truck Battalion,” a makeshift crew of thousands of drivers from countries such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Earning their loyalty by giving them gas masks, tapes of American music and American design T-shirts, many of the drivers were on the road 18 hours a day, six days a week. The drivers, mostly Muslims, were allowed to take five breaks a day to pray. Absentee rates became a serious problem when the air war began, but once it became clear there was little chance of harm to the drivers, they dropped considerably. Still, the 22nd SUPCOM arranged to have 1,786 U.S. soldiers to use as drivers to augment, and in some cases replace, the hired drivers.

The movement of the two Army Corps and smaller British and French units into attack positions could not start until the air campaign began January 17, 1991, so that Iraqis would not be tipped off to the allies westward flanking movement. Pagonis had wanted to get an earlier start erecting the forward log bases, including Log Base Charlie, positioned in northwest Saudi near Rafha, but Schwarzkopf would not let him until coalition aircraft established control of the skies. Pagonis believes the massive buildup at King Khalid Military City (KKMC), just south of Hafr Al-Batin, near where the Saudi, Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders converge, helped throw off any spies the Iraqis may have had on the ground. “In the fog of war, the buildup at KKMC was a great cover for the ‘left hook’ flanking maneuver,” Pagonis notes. “The bombing was so massive it really made this deception possible.”

Still, moving the troops into attack positions on Saudi’s Spartan road proved dangerous. At least 46 soldiers were killed and 41 more injured in vehicle accidents, with 23 of the deaths occurring on Tapline Road, or Main Supply Route (MSR) Dodge, a poorly-constructed two-lane road that runs east-west in Saudi along the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders. In many areas MSR Dodge – which received its dubious name due to the cars and trucks that would dodge and weave in and out of traffic while trying to pass large convoys – did not have any shoulders. Instead it had dangerous two-foot drop-offs.

From January 20 to mid-February, when units were being moved into attack positions, the volume of traffic on roads such as MSR Dodge and MSR Texas, the north-south road between Riyad and KKMC, was incredible. On MSR Dodge alone 4,500 trucks rumbled up and down the narrow road each day, with 18 trucks passing a single spot at any given minute.

Transportation management was difficult, but most of the XVIII Airborne Corps ground convoys took a looping southern approach to the westward areas, lessening traffic for the VII Corps, which was positioning itself on the eastern areas of MSR Dodge. The 318th Movement Control Agency tried to control the flow by giving particular units blocks of times to travel the various MSRs. The 89th Military Police Brigade tackled the difficult task of keeping traffic moving safely as possible – a chore made all the more daunting by civilian traffic and Third World drivers not used to adhering to strict military convoy rules. The MPs established checkpoints and directed traffic at congested intersections, such as the one where MSR Dodge met MSR Texas, dubbed the “mother of all intersections,” and engineers built bypasses, although they became virtually unusable after winter rains turned them to mud. Pagonis and his staff also created seven “rest stops” along the various routes, enabling drivers to refuel, shower and eat a hot meal before hitting the road again.

By February 24, the day the ground offensive began, all five of the forward log bases were in place, ready to fuel and supply a rapid advance. “The troops set up those log bases in three weeks, they should have taken three months,” Pagonis said of the huge depots, which ranged in size from three miles by five miles to 30 miles by 30 miles. “Some were up and running in a week.”

Operation Desert Storm

Cleaning, preparing and shipping equipment home after the conflict was a major achievement. DoD photo by Lt. Gary W. Butterworth.

No one anticipated the “left hook” would work so well – or move so fast. The 24th made it to the Euphrates River, 200 miles north of KKMC, and started to outrun its supply lines. By February 28, the day President Bush declared a cease-fire, the 24th was 30 miles from Basra, poised to strike at the Iraqi Republican Guard.

Fuel consumption was the only major logistical concern of the rapid advance, as by February 25 U.S. units averaged 25 days of rations and 66 days of ammunition in stock; fuel reserves, however, had dipped to only 5.6 days. Elements of the 3rd Armored Division ran into fuel shortages, but a fleet of 300 tankers was rushed northward to replenish their supplies. Pagonis and his planners had anticipated such fuel shortages, for both the tracked and wheeled vehicles were consuming gas at alarming rates. He notes that before the ground war began, most units only had 45 days of ammunition and 5.2 days of fuel in stock, so that logistical efforts actually increased supplies once the attack started. The increase in ammunition supplies resulted from the lack of heavy combat commanders expected, as each unit had been delivered additional ammo once the four-day ground invasion started.

Shortly after Kuwait was liberated, the U.S. was absolved of assuming all its logistical support for the war-torn country, turning the brunt of that task over to the Kuwaitis, Saudis and other Arab nations, effectively eliminating Phase Delta of the original logistical plans. But Phase Echo was about to commence, and this would be one massive clean up, a logistical nightmare, some would say. Making matters worse, President Bush ordered that all combat troops return home as soon as possible, and Congress was reluctant to leave reservists, who comprised almost 70 percent of the 22nd SUPCOM, behind for the redeployment. Still, 6,000 reservists – the backbone of the 22nd from December 1990 on – were organized into 69 units and tasked to process troops out of the theater and clean, pack and send their equipment home.

It was the speedy redeployment, Pagonis said, that was the most impressive logistical feat of his Persian Gulf tenure. Left in charge after Schwarzkopf and the other top leaders returned to the states to a hero’s welcome, the 22nd organized the cleaning and shipment of all U.S. supplies and equipment, plus repainted more than 1,200 tanks and wheeled vehicles. From March to June 1991, the main chore was to get the soldiers home, and during that time the 22nd funneled 5,000 soldiers a day onto homeward-bound aircraft during that time. “That was the hardest time,” Pagonis said in 1992. “Everyone else went home and we stayed there and cleaned up. We were going 100 miles per hour.”

The biggest challenge for remaining troops was extracting the fine sand from vehicles and helicopters, scrubbing up to 4,000 a day. The 22nd’s soldiers used huge portable water tanks to provide water for the cleaning, filtering the water so it could be used again, he said. “We built car washes bigger than some cities,” he declared upon his return in January 1992.

Working at a frantic pace, Pagonis and his army of reservists finished the withdrawal by January 1992, six months ahead of schedule. Tens of thousands of tons of ammunition – originally brought in case of a prolonged war – had to be loaded and shipped out. Pagonis said he focused on accountability, and he arranged to pay Bedouins, or desert nomads, to scour the desert for lost equipment. “We didn’t leave anything there,” he claimed, although he can never be sure.

The incredibly short 100-hour ground war didn’t force the U.S. military to test its true logistical capabilities, Pagonis concluded 10 years later. The bar coding for containers never worked as advertised, and unit commanders “never came close” to fulfilling his demand that 60 percent of each shipping container should be designated for one unit. Pagonis wanted units to put all their gear into 20-foot containers instead of having them mixed into 40-foot containers, but that also never materialized, causing numerous deployment delays. The Army and the Marines were also never forced to test the flow of repair parts, which would have been crucial in a protracted war, he observes.

In addition to dire shortages of HETS and high mobility equipment transporters, which can traverse difficult terrain with heavy loads, logisticians also overcame a vast array of hurdles. There were shortages of forklifts and rough terrain equipment and an extreme need for refrigerated vans and basic laborers such as cooks and drivers, most of which were supplied by the Saudis. In addition to benefiting greatly from the vast array of Saudi and coalition aide, U.S. forces were fortunate Saddam Hussein did not attack them while they were so vulnerable in the early stages of the deployment. “I don’t think we can count on being so lucky in the future,” Pagonis noted. “Most aggressors are more determined.”

This article was first published Desert Shield/Desert Storm: The 10th Anniversary of the Gulf War.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-51578">

    In writing my paper on the importance of logistics in warfare fro 1700 to the present, this article was most instructive. Bob

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-141550">
    Salvador Rodriguez

    I was a soldier “super cargo” on board this ship returning from the gulf war. I have lots of photos from my trip home. If anyone is interested in the stories surrounding the photos I have, I can post them. My email address is,

    I would like to hear from the others who accompanied me on this endeavor home.
    At the time I was a 2 LT, now I am a retired Major; Salvador Rodriguez.