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Closing patrol bases in a cost-effective way

Sorting out the stuff that is returned from patrol bases in Afghanistan is a salvager's dream writes Ian Carr from Camp Bastion's 'Warlike Scrap' yard.

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If you enjoy car boot sales, and your favourite viewing is ‘Scrapheap Challenge’, you would love Camp Bastion’s ‘Warlike Scrap’ yard.

There is everything that the confirmed skip diver might hope to find, and more.

There are tantalising heaps of empty ammo boxes, bales of barbed wire, printer cartridges, pulleys, pickaxes, wing mirrors, antennae and - well, you get the idea. And for the foragers, there are also plenty of mystery items to drool over.

Yet the title is misleading. ‘Warlike Scrap’ suggests a tangled heap of mangled iron waiting for a man with an angle grinder to come along in a Ford Transit. In fact everything is much more organised and proactive than that.

Unlike a normal scrap yard, this is not just a stockpile, but an organised production line. For here, in microcosm, the processes of the reverse supply chain are being piloted and perfected.

As the Afghan National Security Forces increasingly take responsibility for security, so some ISAF patrol bases are being broken down. As they are, kit and equipment that was in the base is returned to Bastion to await its destiny, which may well be reuse and reallocation.

The Warlike Scrap yard is playing an important role in the pilot phase:

The fundamental driver is getting the best value for the taxpayer, who after all has paid for all this stuff,” said Lieutenant Commander Steve Forge, Logistics Plans, Joint Force Support.

While the main effort is operations, so the flow is a relative trickle, but at some stage that pace will pick up and the logisticians will be ready for it. Lessons learned in Iraq point to the importance of maintaining a clear chain of responsibility and asset ownership at every step.

Lieutenant Commander Adam Parry is one of the minds behind the model:

What we have devised is the policy for forward consolidation and triage of assets. So, before a base is closed, the right amount of effort has gone into figuring out how it is going to close, and exactly what preparation needs to go into it.

Teams of experts from the redeployment support team, such as logisticians, ammunition specialists or medical specialists, will go forward to advise them on how to prepare their kit, and make sure they categorise it properly.

Categorising the kit and making sure that associated items such as spare parts for a vehicle are kept together means that everything can be properly accounted for.

It also means that items can be appropriately processed; ammo boxes cleaned of any traces of explosive and vehicles given a biowash and maintained to agreed operational standards before they move on from Bastion, battle-ready, to wherever their new home might be.

At Camp Bastion huge areas of real estate have been identified to receive this kit by category:

If the commodities are properly sorted they can be worked on at each stage so that we don’t just get ISOs stuffed with rubbish, and so that when it arrives at its final destination, at Bicester or Marchwood or wherever, they don’t open the doors and have a whole load of rubbish fall out,” said Lt Cdr Parry.

Images of house-proud parents opening wardrobes in teenagers’ bedrooms only to be engulfed in an avalanche of dirty laundry and long forgotten bowling balls and tennis rackets spring all too easily to mind:

We want units to leave theatre with a clear account and a clear conscience knowing that they have handed their stuff back into the system, so that accounts can be properly closed and so we can satisfy both ourselves, the taxpayer and the Treasury that everything has been done as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible,” said Lt Cdr Parry.

But it’s easy to see how some units, especially when called on to move quickly, can succumb to the temptation to cram everything into a container and leave things to the loggies to sort out at the other end:

It’s all very well us laying the law down, but we can’t point the finger at guys living an unpleasant existence, and who might be trying to pack up in difficult circumstances. You can understand their temptation to just throw stuff into an ISO,” said Lt Cdr Parry.

We know we are not going to get everything back in nice, neat, beautifully labelled boxes - but we are going to try and get as far down that path as we can.

Back in the Warlike Scrap yard the results are encouraging. But the pragmatists have a sneaky feeling that the mixed content lanes are going to be the busiest:

It’s very difficult to get full triage at a forward point in a small location where you maybe don’t have the room to sort things out, or you have only three ISOs in which to put five different types of asset,” said Lt Cdr Forge.

And then there is the universal problem of what is one man’s scrap is another man’s treasure trove. Lt Cdr Forge rummages around in a skip that has yet to be sorted through to illustrate what he means. In it are unused bow shackles:

These cost about £25 in B&Q; now there might come a time when we have all the bow shackles we need, but, until then, we will retrieve all we see.

Also in the heap there are pickaxe handles, car jacks and ladders:

Not only do we need to do this, but we need to be seen to be doing it. After all, it’s not our garage we are clearing out, it’s the taxpayers’ garage; we need to be able to explain fully how we have accounted for all this stuff,” he said.

Of course, things like new pickaxe handles are easy enough to identify, and a glance will tell you if it is fit for purpose, but some of the more specialist kit can leave the sorters scratching their heads. But the guys don’t give up that easily:

For example,” said Major Chris Donoghue, Logs Support, Task Force Helmand, “there’s a green box with wiggly wires coming out of it. We don’t know what it is or if it’s of any use so we get subject matter experts in to try and identify things we’re not sure about; we take photos and put out a newsletter to units.

It’s amazing how often we have got something the guys need.

And then there are the items that are ‘Attractive to Criminals and Terrorist Organisations’ to deal with. Things like old batteries and fire extinguishers may have no commercial value, but they can’t just be scrapped as, ecological issues aside, they could be used as components in an IED.

So they need to be either processed to remove the threat, or be taken out of theatre.

Cutting up or crushing the fire extinguishers was a pretty straight forward solution but more of a headache was the tons of old batteries. Even when ‘empty’ they could carry sufficient charge to power an IED switch.

So the only option is to remove them from theatre. The problem being that stringent Civil Aviation Authority restrictions apply to the transportation of batteries, because if their terminals come into contact, it constitutes a fire hazard:

We tried all kinds of things, like putting gaffer tape over the terminals, but we worked out that would take about two man-years of effort and around 85km of tape,” said Lt Cdr Forge, the man who came up with the eventual solution.

Pack the batteries tightly and separate each layer with cardboard - simple, viable, cost-effective, and of benefit to locally employed civilians who do the work. Which, in microcosm, sums up the ethos behind the reverse supply chain at all levels.

This article is taken from the November 2012 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.

Published 9 November 2012