The Northern Distribution Network and the Baltic Nexus

Remarks by Thomas P. Kelly, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the Commonwealth Club, Washington on January 20, 201

Minister Masiulis, Ambassador Pavilionis, Ambassador Nauduzas, Minister Rivasseau, distinguished guests, and friends:

It’s a great pleasure for me to participate on this panel sponsored by my Lithuanian friends. I spent three happy years in Vilnius as Deputy Chief of Mission, and one of the greatest benefits of my return to Washington a few months ago is the opportunity to collaborate with our Lithuanian friends and allies once again. This morning, I’d like to make some brief comments on the rationale for the Northern Distribution Network, ending with a few remarks on the role played by our stalwart allies in the Baltic Republics.

By way of introduction, I represent the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs in the Department of State, known colloquially as PM. We serve as in-house State Department experts on military and security assistance issues, and we are one of the key interlocutors for foreign governments on strategic security issues. We also serve as a bridge to the Department of Defense. When the DoD needs diplomats to accomplish U.S. security goals abroad, PM is on the job.

One of PM’s top priorities over the past few years has been to do the diplomatic work necessary to ensure that our soldiers in Afghanistan are properly supplied. As a landlocked country surrounded by some of the world’s highest mountains, Afghanistan has always posed logistical challenges. For both the Departments of Defense and State, establishing a northern supply route to supplement the traditional routes through Pakistan has been a priority since 2009. By definition, additional supply routes increase our operational flexibility, enabling us to more effectively move items in and out of Afghanistan to support the efforts of our troops and our allies.

With the help of our friends in Central Asia, the Baltic Republics, and Russia, the United States managed to establish a network of land, sea and air routes that approach Afghanistan from the north. We now refer to this as the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN. The NDN consists of integrated routes of transportation to bring cargo along commercial surface and air networks to our troops serving in Afghanistan.

The NDN team in the U.S. Government includes PM; the Bureaus of European and South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department; the U.S. Transportation Command; the U.S. Central Command; the Defense Logistics Agency; the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Staff. At PM, our key responsibility in this area is to secure international transit agreements that support the NDN.

Together with our partner nations along the network, we have transformed logistic support to Afghanistan in a relatively short period. Starting in March 2009, we began using existing rail and road infrastructure. To date, more than 58,000 containers of construction material, food, water, and other general supplies for U.S. forces in Afghanistan have been delivered via the NDN.

We have moved all of that cargo without additional construction, and partnering with the private sector — the NDN utilizes commercial companies from origination to destination, and our cargo is subject to the normal commercial shipping regimes of the nations we transit and at the final destination. Our commercial partners continue to provide best-value solutions, and they are always looking to innovate so that we get cargo to our troops cheaper and faster.

We have come a long way in building the NDN, but we hope to do more. Ultimately, we seek to ship 750 containers of cargo per week through the NDN. To put that goal in perspective, we deliver the equivalent of about 1,100 containers of cargo each week to Afghanistan from all routes.

The NDN has many paths. For example, there is a multi-modal route which enters the NDN at Poti, Georgia or Mersin, Turkey, and then transits the Caucasus and Central Asia. But the Baltic Republics offer a particularly important set of embarkation points for the surface routes to Afghanistan. The first shipment of U.S. cargo on the NDN was completed March 14, 2009, on a route that originated in Riga, Latvia, and continued through Russia into Afghanistan.

Riga was the primary point of embarkation in the Baltics initially. But we also send NDN Cargo through Tallinn, Estonia and one of my favorite cities, Klaipeda, Lithuania. Because of Lithuania’s strong contributions to Operation Enduring Freedom and the competitiveness of Klaipeda, Lithuania was added to the NDN in December 2010. Since then, it has facilitated the movement of over 4,000 containers of vital sustainment material to our troops in Afghanistan. I know that Minister Masiulis visited TRANSCOM two days ago, and that there are plans afoot for further modernization of the port facilities in Klaipeda. These upgrades could eventually support the reverse transit of our equipment as it comes out of Afghanistan and makes its way back home to the United States. This is an exciting prospect for me, because I know that port personally. From my perspective, it’s already admirably efficient.

I’d like to conclude with a personal reflection. As someone who worked closely with Lithuania on Afghanistan and many other issues during my three-year assignment there, I believe that its participation in NDN is the latest chapter in a long story of cooperation with the United States on our highest-priority security concerns. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Lithuania and its sister Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia have always been responsive to the United States. I’d just like to reiterate today what I’ve told many of my friends from the Baltics – your willingness to help us when we need your help does not go unnoticed. This kind of collaboration gives me great confidence in the staying power of our nation’s alliance with all three of the Baltic republics.