I am no expert in military logistics, but I was struck by the extraordinary recent deterioration in the performance of the surface route to the Afghan theatre.
Right now, British troops are acutely dependent on our ability to send supplies by sea to Karachi, where they are unloaded and then taken by road through Pakistan. Ahead of this week’s Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office provided me with a briefing based on its detailed report into the Ministry of Defence’s logistics supply chain. This noted that only 15 per cent of consignments shipped by land through Pakistan between 10 December 2009 and 8 December 2010 arrived within the targeted time of 77-87 days, a fair way off the 75 per cent target.
I pursued this in the hearing with the top brass. Major General Ian Copeland, Director of the Joint Support Chain, assured me that the percentage of consignments to arrive within the targeted delivery time would improve, but only because the MoD had “amended [its] algorithms to reflect the reality of the situation, which is that the surface line of communication — that is, the sea line of communication out of Karachi and then the ground line of communication through Pakistan — is taking much nearer to 120 days, and on most occasions more than 120 days”.* In other words, the MoD has simply changed the target to 120 days from 77-87 days. That’s one way to get the right result!
Ursula Brennan, the permanent secretary at the MoD, acknowledged that the performance of the land route through Pakistan had “worsened since the report”, although I am not clear whether she was referring to its date of publication, 31 March 2011, or to the December 8 2010 cut-off for data gathering.
Ross Campbell, one of the NAO team, chipped in that the time required for consignments “has gone up 50 per cent over the last year”. This may be old hat to military buffs, but it was news to me, and it highlighted our exceptional dependence on Pakistani co-operation for the successful operation of our military supply chain to Afghanistan. At the moment, it is far from performing as the MoD wants.
Ideally, from a value for money perspective, the MoD believes the mix of supplies going by expensive air freight and those going by land should be 20/80. Currently, however, 70 per cent of individual deliveries to Afghanistan are sent by air, accounting for 31 per cent of the tonnage and at least 90 per cent of the Department’s total transport costs. In other words, the land route through Pakistan is performing so badly that the MoD has to fly routine supplies in at great cost to the taxpayer or else risk leaving troops ill-equipped for the job. Major General Copeland did not reassure that this would change. “Quite often it can take longer than that [120 days]. We have no levers to control what happens… sadly Pakistan continues to frustrate us in terms of the way in which we move equipment.”
If Pakistan tightens the screws, perhaps in response to pressure from those who feel the country’s sovereignty has been called into question by the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad and continued US Predator drone attacks, the supply chain for our troops could become even more “challenging”, as Major General Copeland described it. The MoD has sensibly been “trialling” an alternative land route to Afghanistan for the last year. A new “northern line of communication” involves sailing round to Riga and then moving stock by train through Russia and the “Stans” into northern Afghanistan. But, to my untrained eye, there would seem to be two problems.
First, it takes consignments 110 days to reach Bastion via this northern line of communication, which is not much better than the current performance of the surface route via Pakistan. Second, it is not really a substitute for the route via Pakistan as it is “limited at the moment to non-war like stores”, according to Major General Copeland.
The UK’s operational dependence on Pakistan is stark. As Air Vice Marshal Graham Howard, Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Logistic Operations), told the Committee:
If we lost the surface route through Pakistan, then the operational commanders would have to seriously consider whether they could continue to prosecute the types of operation they are doing at the moment. It would cause the Joint Commander to reassess because the situation had changed. We would be able to feed ourselves, we would be able to have fuel going in, and we would be able to fly ammunition in. But without that majority of information that comes through the surface line—as Ian has said, we can only move non-war-like through the north—we would have to take an operational pause.
* Quotations are from the uncorrected transcript and have not yet been approved by members of the PAC or witnesses.