It’s an oft-cited fact that Cumberland County’s largest employer is the federal government, and its fastest-growing employer is the distribution sector.
But for roughly 500 county residents, their employer is both. One of the largest and most sophisticated distribution systems in the world is headquartered just south of the county line, and it’s run by the U.S. military.
“I think a lot of people still think of this as the ‘old army depot,’” said Brig. Gen. John Laskodi, commander of Defense Logistics Agency Distribution near New Cumberland. “I also try to not use the word ‘depot’ as much because it denotes a static facility, which we are not.”
DLA Distribution is the supply system for the entire U.S. Department of Defense, providing distribution for all operations at home and abroad. The Midstate base — technically in York County, but with a New Cumberland postal address — serves as both the headquarters office for all 34 DLA sites worldwide, as well as the central warehouse for the eastern seaboard.
Somewhat tucked away behind the Capital City Airport, DLA Susquehanna — as the DoD calls it — is not necessarily obvious to most people traveling down Old York Road. But once inside, the place is cavernous — the base itself is 848 acres, with 10.1 million square feet of covered storage space, according to a DoD fact sheet.
While the DLA headquarters and other regional military offices employ several hundred soldiers, the distribution operation itself consists of only 17 active duty military personnel, but with 1,625 civilian workers.
“A good portion of those civilian employees are former military, or are currently in the reserves or National Guard,” said Col. Brad Eungard, commander of DLA Susquehanna. “I would say we lose and replace about 10-12 people per month, so it’s not a huge churn. People tend to come on and stay a long time.”
DLA Susquehanna handles a lot of material. Roughly a quarter of the DLA’s entire inventory — 2.4 million different items, valued at over $105 billion — goes through the site. But more challenging than the volume is the variety. DLA Distribution has 243,000 distinct customers worldwide.
“That customer booking could be a student at University of Michigan who needs three ROTC shirts in Ann Arbor. It could also be a mechanic who needs tank parts sent to Kabul,” said Scott Rosbaugh, DLA Distribution’s head of strategic planning.
The workload at Susquehanna varies along with the military’s overall workload. At the peak of the Iraq war in 2007, the military was drawing down on its stock of materials, approximately 20,000 standard truckloads of equipment came in that year, and 40,000 went out. In 2015, that number had evened out to roughly 15,000 in and 15,000 out, according to statistics from Eungard’s office.
But while the troop surge in the Middle East may be over, the DLA’s work is still dictated by the U.S. military’s sprawling anti-terror operations.
Soldiers in the field are typically reliant on supply chains set up by their respective service branches, at least at first. But when operations are expected to last a while, the DLA may be ordered to create more permanent arrangements, opening new sites.
The most recent, Laskodi said, is a new distribution center in Djibouti, a small nation in the Horn of Africa that sits adjacent to Ethiopia and Somalia.
“We’re going to be on the African continent as long as counter-terror operations are ongoing,” Laskodi said. “Is it a ‘money maker’ from an operational efficiency standpoint? No. Is it something that’s needed to support our warfighters? Yes.”
The DLA also maintains “expeditionary” elements — distribution systems that can be deployed anywhere in the world. These include three mobile medical centers, each contained in 200 trucks, all of which are supplied with medical equipment through Susquehanna, which has a separate cold-storage and packing facility for vaccines, Eungard noted.
“We put a lot of work into the question ‘how do I make a depot-in-a-can and be able to put that anywhere in the world?’” Rosbaugh said.
But the backbone of the DLA is the Susquehanna distribution center, which is an aging facility, Eungard noted, but one that is still a marvel of efficiency, even compared to current commercial warehouses.
Movement of shipments through the warehouse is entirely done by carts which run automatically on tracks — more than 10 miles of it throughout the main building. Storage locations are served by lifts that also run on a built-in system of rails, serving rows of narrow aisles that tower several stories high. One room alone has 330,000 separate bin locations for small items; the next has 70,000 pallet locations for large pieces.
Much of floor space is also taken up by sorting. High-demand items are immediately broken down from their manufacturer packaging and put into containers for shipment to individual sites.
Many of these, Eungard noted, are not defense-specific items. Rows upon rows of crates destined for defense offices around the world contained pens, toilet paper, printer cartridges, and other relatively common items.
But on the other hand, the DLA must also figure out how to supply extremely bulky items to specific locations. Containers heading out from Susquehanna to the DLA’s Anniston, Alabama warehouse contain mostly parts for tanks, given that the Army’s armored vehicle shop is located in Anniston.
Susquehanna also serves as a “kitting” site, where components sourced from various manufacturers are assembled as they are needed by units in the field. This would include assembly of various types of first-aid kits, as well as rucksack and ammunition pouch sets.
“Vietnam taught us that people want things the way they use them in the field,” Rosbaugh said. “The Army doesn’t want us to deliver a dozen types of bandages and have the soldiers sort them into first aid kits.”
Every aspect of the DLA, including and particularly the Susquehanna site, has to be scalable in the extreme. The agency has to assume that the US could become embroiled in much larger conflicts at any time.
“The strategic environment continues to be difficult,” Laskodi said, noting that the US military could quickly “trip into a larger conflict” with North Korea, Russia, China, or other foreign powers with relatively little warning.
“We provide materials in peacetime, but we have to be able to surge in wartime,” Laskodi said.