Moving equipment efficiently and economically during NATO's drawdown in Afghanistan poses serious challenges to the major players deployed there.

“Everyone fixated on rushing kit into theater. Getting it back is left to chance,” says one British logistics planner.

This might sound pessimistic, but a glance at NATO figures for the size of the logistical problem is informative: The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) must withdraw 125,000 containers and up to 80,000 vehicles from Afghanistan by the end of combat operations in 2014. This includes at least 10,000-12,000 containers of equipment and 2,500-3,000 vehicles for the U.K., more than 1,000 vehicles and 4,000 containers for Germany, and close to 90,000 containers and 50,000 vehicles for the U.S. Other ISAF nations make up much of the rest.

The biggest change for the drawdown is that the means of equipment movement from Afghanistan is likely to be different from the move in. The reason is simple: Cost.

Lt. Col. Bertrand de Robien, deputy director of the French military center for multimodal transport (CMT), says 90% of materiel arrived in Afghanistan by air; the remainder came by ship and was trucked overland through Pakistan. But sensitive equipment will be moved back by air, either to transhipment hubs in the Persian Gulf, or directly to France. Even non-urgent but nevertheless sensitive materiel such as munitions are flown from Kabul to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where France has a base, and will be stockpiled until there is enough to fill a ship to Marseilles.

For the U.K., although the main deployment phases in 2007-10 saw most equipment arriving by sea and via Pakistan, the closure of those ports and borders saw a dramatic change, with well over 90% also arriving by air, either from the U.K. or by a shipment point in the UAE. Although there will be efforts to limit the amount of air movement, the sensitive nature of much equipment means that it will have to be flown to the UAE, at the very least, for onward transportation.

The route for Germany also relies on air movement. A logistics hub is being established at the Turkish Black Sea port of Trabzon. Here, more than 15 flights a week from Afghanistan will land so that equipment can be sorted for shipment by sea to Germany.

This route mirrors one pioneered by Belgium, which started its drawdown in 2012. The Belgian mission secured a base at Kabul International Airport, through which 54 vehicles and 39 containers were airlifted by 10 Antonov An-124 flights via Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, to Trabzon, and then shipped to Zeebrugge, Belgium.

Much talk has revolved around the opening of the Northern Line of Communication, a route from Uzbekistan through Russia to the Baltic states and beyond. This route, with the Trans-Siberian Railway, is an alternative to the land route through Pakistan to Karachi. However, there are limitations to the route. Russia says it will not allow “warlike equipment” to be transported through its territory, which could prevent movements. There have also been queries raised by other states in the area about customs clearance.

But most countries would like to use land/rail/sea routes as much as possible to lower cost. It is also feasible to use land/sea routes as opposed to air routes as there is generally far less urgency in the process. There are exceptions: Equipment France needs to deploy to Mali, such as Tiger attack helicopters, will be airlifted.

France, however, is largely unaffected by some of the friction points worrying logistics planners. The French drawdown was ordered in late 2011. By 2012, it was determined that there were slightly more than 10,000 metric tons of equipment, vehicles and other assets to be moved—called “units to transport” (UAT) in French logistics parlance—and the process started.

In January, there were 900 UATs left to transport, and by mid-May there will be a little less than half that, says de Robien. He explains that not everything will be brought back because France is leaving 500 military personnel behind to complete training of the Afghan National Army and the police.

The Royal Dutch Task Force (RDTF) completed its drawdown in 2012, after a process lasting just over a year. The RDTF had to move 450 vehicles and 2,300 containers of weapons, ammunition, office equipment and other materiel to the Netherlands by air and sea from Karachi, when that route was an option. C-17s of NATO's Strategic Airlift Capability transported sensitive equipment, along with Russian An-124s and Ilyushin Il-76s.

One big worry for NATO logistics planners in Afghanistan is that as the drawdown date nears, remaining forces will start to commit “commercial fratricide,” the unintentional competition for scarce resources.

There are only so many C-17 aircraft available, and even fewer An-124s, for which there are also commercial pressures. If everyone wants to start major movements of equipment in 2013, with 80-90% moved by mid-2014, there is a high likelihood that there will be common calls for these assets. Countries without heavy-lift capabilities are anxious about whether the U.S. Air Force will have spare C-5s or C-17s, particularly given that the NATO C-17 fleet will be working near capacity.

The same is true for local ground transportation assets inside Afghanistan. There are only so many reliable transport companies, and their services will be at a premium. The end of ISAF's mission means this will be one last income opportunity for many Afghan contractors.

The fratricide concept affects other areas, too. One standard assumption for most ISAF countries is that they can “donate” or “gift” equipment to Afghan forces. For example, the RDTF transferred 13 of its 81 Patria armored vehicles to Estonian forces, while Bushmaster and Patria armored vehicles and Mercedes-Benz all-terrain vehicles were taken over by the Dutch police training mission, which has since ended.

However, if all forces are donating equipment, the market becomes bloated with surplus, and recipients may be choosy about what they accept.

One issue to consider for non-U.S. contingents is that a massive amount of new equipment has been supplied by the U.S. to Afghan forces, so used materiel from other ISAF countries is far less attractive. The probability that there will be a lack of long-term support for equipment maintenance after the drawdown also reduces the luster of equipment gifts for the Afghan government.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Nicholas Fiorenza in Brussels and Christina Mackenzie in Paris both contributed to this report. Their contribution was not mentioned in the print edition.

Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST for an interactive view of some of the challenges to be expected in the Afghan drawdown, or go to AviationWeek.com/afghan