Preparing for worse in the worst of times

By Capt. Matthew Cline | 377th Theater Sustainment Command | Nov. 18, 2020

BELLE CHASSE, La. —

During a year characterized by unexpected tragedy, the planners at the 377th Theater Sustainment Command are preparing for many more to come. Soldiers at the headquarters building are taking part in a whole-of-force planning effort to ensure that despite the continued ravages of the pandemic, the command is prepared to respond to all of the other unpredictable disasters the upcoming new year can bring with it.

“We project for a myriad of things that could happen…hurricanes, terrorism, any chemical, nuclear, biological or natural disaster that we would be presented with in the Northern Command area is what we’re planning for,” said Maj. Mack Owens III, a plans officer in the G5 section of the command. “Our part of that is the sustainment piece of the mission.”

The command has served since March as the lead logistics support element on behalf of U.S. Army North during the ongoing nationwide coronavirus response. Despite the heavy demands of that crucial mission, the unit has also focused its planning efforts on disaster scenarios typically found in a non-pandemic year and has superimposed the complications of COVID-19 on their logistics projections. 

All of this culminates in a tabletop exercise held at the Combined Arms Support Command headquarters in Fort Lee, Va. where operational partners and participants from across the sustainment field conduct a mock run-through of disaster events and plan how the units across the country could respond to them. The movement and mission assignments for thousands of troops that could potentially be engaged when disaster does strike are planned out here on maps, charts, graphs and tables, and all led by the planning minds of the 377th Theater Sustainment Command.

These sustainers are looking ahead through the lens of the pandemic. A typical disaster response scenario like a hurricane in previous years would require the command to arrange for the cross-country travel and logistical provision for dedicated support elements to engage the affected area. Planning in the age of COVID-19 demands much more. The command now has to account for social distancing, personnel number projections, and case spikes while ensuring the disaster area receives the necessary support. Safety of the troops is paramount, but mission success is still the bottom line.

As Owens explained, even the planning process itself has become more challenging during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has made us cover down quite a bit,” he said. “We can’t have as many hands-on and face-to-face meetings and preparation conferences as we would like to have. We’ve had to rely on Microsoft Teams and other communications platforms to get everything done…it has complicated things but it hasn’t stopped the mission in any way.”

In October, the command hosted a sustainment planners’ meeting, which focused on an analysis of the mission in support of Army North and a projection of potential requirements. The Fort Lee event moves the planning process to what is known as the wargaming phase, which is essentially a course of action analysis to determine the most effective means of response with the assets at hand. 

One of the senior sustainers at the event, Col. Charles Moulton, the plans officer in charge for the command, looked forward to the demands of the tabletop exercise.

“First it’s a challenge, and we love challenges, but everybody on the team is going to rise to it and put out a good event,” he said. “It’s not your typical field exercise, it’s a staff exercise, but there’s lots of thinking, lots of preparing, lots of coordinating that happens behind the scenes and in preparation of the event. All of that is happening right now, and the tabletop exercise is really our opportunity to assemble all those thoughts and put it into a more cohesive picture.”

The event provides the command the opportunity to coordinate with major sustainment players across the national footprint, including the Defense Logistics Agency and Army Materiel Command. Importantly, it also allows for bridging opportunities between subordinate units like the 4th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and higher headquarters elements from U.S. Army North with the planners of the 377th Theater Sustainment Command serving as the liaison between the two. Ultimately, every participating unit provides a different perspective that is an imperative part of the final product.

While most of the nation continues to lick its wounds, these logisticians will continue to prepare for the battles ahead with another planning exercise slated later in the year to evaluate lessons learned at Fort Lee. Despite all the stress inherent to so demanding and complicated process, Moulton was admirably upbeat about the command’s success in the mission and the importance of the task at hand. 

“Its kind of like making music, initially you just have individual players, but eventually they start to come together as one,” he said with a smile. “Once we’re visualizing a plan that the commander can appreciate and understand and one that we can actually direct and develop future orders from, we’re doing our job right.”