How high-tech logistics could be game-changing for the US military
In military circles there’s been a lot of talk about game-changing, “disruptive” technologies that, when “applied to a relevant problem,” can “radically [alter] the symmetry of military power.” Given the potential threat posed by peer competitors like China and Russia, much of that discussion these days revolves around such high-tech capabilities as cyber tools, artificial intelligence, hypersonic weaponry, and space systems.
However, I would suggest that truly game-changing innovations are also found in the collection of technologies that, although perhaps less glamorous, are nevertheless poised to revolutionize what has long bedeviled military operations: logistics.
Legendary World War II general Omar Bradley famously quipped that “amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” Today’s military leaders are increasingly concerned about sustaining forces in remote areas where re-supply could be difficult and dangerous. The permissive supply routes that have largely existed in the 21st century cannot be assumed in confrontations with hostile, peer competitors.
For example, countering China militarily will likely require the ability to disperse forces from large—and vulnerable—military bases to “small geographically diverse operating locations” scattered in the vastness of the Pacific. Similarly, Russian ambitions in the Arctic may require the U.S. military to significantly boost its ability to operate in harsh Arctic areas with limited infrastructure and few resources. In short, America’s ability to conduct distributed operations in a contested environment presents many difficulties, particularly with respect to logistics.
So what are the possibilities for technology to address these logistical challenges? Let’s unpack a few.
Can technology help obviate the challenge of keeping the troops fed at far-flung outposts? Actually, yes. A number of initiatives may help mitigate this difficult problem.
A new program suggests that nutrition supplies might become significantly lighter and smaller—developments that could ease the logistics complications. Military.com’s headline about these efforts says much: “The Military Is Developing a ‘Close Combat Assault Ration’ Up to 40% Lighter than an MRE.”
The article explains that “[s]cientists are prototyping a “close combat assault ration” containing an assortment of nutrient-dense energy bars that may augment the standard-issue meals, ready to eat — MREs — or even replace them.” Besides being lighter, they are “extremely compact” – both are features that could facilitate transport to remote locations.
Another initiative, reported by Brian Albright, could not only improve the food experience for individual troops, but also lessen waste—which is another way of reducing the logistics burden. It comes from Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center, and the idea is to use 3D “food printers” to “allow soldiers to generate rations on site.” The experts believe this “would be much less costly than packaging and shipping food and eliminate waste.” (Emphasis added.).
Waste would be minimized if not eliminated because the troops could print “on demand” the food they wanted, in the amount they wanted. Needless to say, logistics are clearly aided when resources can be so efficiently used.
The ability of 3D printers to transform a range of ingredients into a variety of foods presents another advantage.
Specifically, food technologist Lauren Oleksyk said “as troops move forward..,a compact printer…would allow soldiers to print food on demand using ingredients that are provided to them, or even that they could forage for….” Foraging in the local area for ingredients that could be transformed into food nutritious and palatable to troops would be a significant benefit.
To me, one of the toughest problems to solve is that of getting water to troops in remote locations. As a general rule, a soldier can survive without water for only about three days. As you might imagine, water has been key in a number of military operations throughout history.
In the historic Battle of Hattin in 1187, thirst played a major role in the Crusaders’ defeat to Saladin. Historians also believe that his troops’ thirst helped to wreck Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria.
However, technology may help with this problem as well. A July 2020 article, in Interesting Engineering says that a joint team of researchers from the U.S. Army and the University of Rochester “has created a ‘super-wicking’ anti-gravity aluminum panel that uses solar power to purify water.”
Interesting Engineering, says the “system can cut down on contaminants such as dye, urine, heavy metals, detergents, and glycerin to a level that’s safe for drinking.” Accordingly, it “would mean safe drinking water for the Army as it moves around in parts of the world where water isn’t safe to drink.”
That same month Energy reported that [s]cientists in South Korea have developed a solar-powered membrane to turn seawater or waste water into drinking water using solar power.” The article further notes, unsurprisingly, that it “is also being suggested that solar technology could be used to provide sources of drinking water at military bases.”
A related development was reported in the past few days. Military.com describes a new, “briefcase-sized device that medics can use to transform even ‘ditch water’ into intravenous fluid — a life-saving battlefield necessity for treating wounded soldiers.” The manufacturer says:
“Without question, this small device will dramatically reduce the Army’s logistical footprint of having to ship and store lactated Ringer’s solution, which is the fluid of choice for resuscitation if blood is not available on the battlefield.”
There may be an even more dramatic technological innovation in the future: drawing water from the air—to include desert air.
In January 2020 Nextgov reported that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the Atmospheric Water Extraction project because, as program manager Seth Cohen said, “[t]he demand for drinking water is a constant across all [Defense Department] missions, and the risk, cost, and complexity that go into meeting that demand can quickly become force limiting factors.”
Consequently, DARPA has issued a “solicitation to develop cutting-edge devices that troops can use to capture potable water straight from the atmosphere.”
Militaries use vast amounts of fuel. In fact, the U.S. military is the “world’s single largest consumer of oil.” Getting fuel to isolated locations can be extremely challenging, considering a single gallon of gas weighs over six pounds. A 2008 article in Forbes illustrates the problem:
“An armored division of the Army can use as much as 600,000 gallons of fuel a day. A tank like the M1 Abrams gets about .6 mpg, and a cargo vehicle like the M-1070 semi-trailer (designed to haul tanks) gets approximately 1.2 mpg.”
Can technology help? Maybe. This past summer the Army reported it developed “a new, advanced scientific model that will allow vehicle maintenance specialists to turn to bio-derived fuels in austere locations.” The Army says:
“With this solution, the Army can reduce logistics costs associated with transporting and storing military fuel for military operations overseas. Instead, the Army can convert biomass, like wood logs, into usable fuel when and where it’s needed, or use any locally available fuels that have different specifications from the jet fuels in the United States.”
Furthermore, the military may be able to obviate the need for fossil fuels by using electricity. Troops already use electricity for battlefield communications and computing, but we may see electric vehicles as well. Though the technology is not yet advanced enough to support very heavy vehicles like tanks, the panoply of lighter vehicles could benefit.
Where to get electrical power? Solar power arrays, Reuters says, are already being used at forward bases in Afghanistan to “power batteries for communications, GPS and night-vision goggles.” According to Reuters, “the solar panels not only reduced the need for convoys, they allowed marines to shut off generators, hushing operations and making them harder for enemies to detect.”
An energy source with much greater potential might be found in micro nuclear reactors that are mobile. An advocate points out that “America’s military has operated mobile nuclear power plants for over 60 years — at sea.” If employed on land, “new mobile nuclear power plants would allow the Army to deploy a protected, lethal force deep into territory far beyond resupply bases and ports.”
Though the use of these plants are not without critics, last March the Pentagon awarded contracts to three teams “to each begin design work on a mobile nuclear reactor prototype under a Strategic Capabilities Office initiative called Project Pele.” Still, if such reactors can be operated safely and effectively in operational settings on land, they present an enormous opportunity to diminish the logistical complications the supply of fossil fuels occasions.
Remotely-stationed military forces may also someday draw solar power directly from satellites. CleanTechnica reported last week that “plans are in the works to harvest solar power in space and beam it down to you wherever you are, any time, any place, any weather.”
CleanTechnica pointed to Caltlech’s Space Solar Project which contends:
“Collecting solar power in space and transmitting the energy wirelessly to Earth through microwaves enables terrestrial power availability unaffected by weather or time of day. Solar power could be continuously available anywhere on earth. “
Caltech says their “concept is based on the modular assembly of ultralight, foldable, 2D integrated elements” and this enables “further reducing weight and complexity.” Consequently, they say their “concept enables scalability and mitigates local element failure impact on other parts of the system.”
Given the obvious military utility of such a capability, it isn’t surprising that CleanTechnica says that the Naval Research Laboratory has been working on aspects of this possibility since at least 2014. Additionally, it says that “earlier this month, the Air Force Research Laboratory announced that its ‘Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research,’a solar beaming project has just received the first key component for its Arachne spacecraft.”
Ammunition is an obvious necessity for soldiers everywhere, and its weight has always been an issue. Not only does ammunition’s weight make it more difficult to get to remote areas, but also for individual soldiers to carry enough ammo into combat.
However, manufacturers are developing ways to lighten ammunition by getting rid of the heavy brass casings that have been standard for decades. Manufacturers insist that “their polymer-cased ammo designs offer about a 30 percent weight savings over brass ammunition, but also bring increased performance.”
A technological development that would dramatically reduce the logistical demand that traditional munitions impose on military operations is laser weaponry. Just today an article in the National Interest explained the utility of these weapon:
Lasers are quiet, meaning they can fire without a large acoustic signature which could give away an attack position, should a large missile or cannon be fired. They can offer a kind of silent attack. They are also scalable, meaning they can fire off to fully destroy and incinerate or merely stun or disable an enemy target, depending upon the power setting of the weapon. Higher and higher power lasers are fast emerging to the point where should technology and form factor miniaturization mature at the current pace, fighter jets, tanks, and other large-scale combat platforms will likely be armed with very high-power laser weapons.
Unsurprisingly, a Popular Mechanics article says all the military services are “pushing hard” to get laser weapons into their systems. A key reason relates directly to logistics: “their ability to fire a high number of shots without stockpiling bullets, missiles, or shells.” Specifically:
[A]s long as there is electricity to power the weapon it can theoretically crank out an endless number of shots. “Ammunition” is basically the cost of generator fuel, or about $10 per shot.
Thus, solving the electricity challenge could also go a long way in addressing the ammunition issue.
As you can see, no single “disruptive” technology will alone revolutionize key aspects of the military logistics conundrum. Instead, there are a collection of technologies that can synergistically transform logistics, and in doing so, enhance the ability of the military to conduct operations free from much of the legacy logistics structure that limited them.
Of course, this brief article addresses only some of the technologies that could allow revamped logistics to become a “disruptive” influence in a positive way. Among other things, enemy planners cannot necessarily count on being able to eviscerate U.S. military capability by disrupting supplies if American forces are markedly less dependent upon them.
For example, on demand 3D printing of replacement parts decreases the need for supply dumps of a vast array of items sophisticated militaries require. Last April an article explained how the printers could reduce the logistics load:
By 3D printing metal parts remotely, the CCDC [Combat Capabilities Development Command] aims to reduce the strain on the army logistics chain. Instead of requesting a replacement part from thousands of miles away, troops could print it and recommission a vehicle much faster and at a fraction of the cost. Rather than carrying truckloads of spare parts, including convoy loads, all a unit would need is a 3D printer and raw materials.
Additionally, “predictive maintenance” enabled by artificial intelligence can result in fewer systems needing repair, and more efficiency in fixing those that do. As one source puts it, for the military “the cost of unplanned downtime isn’t just money – it’s lives.” If the readiness of the assets at isolated locations can be improved, the mission might be able to be accomplished with fewer of them—something that, again, would itself diminish and simplify the logistics involved.
The more logistics can be revolutionized, the smaller the logistics footprint at forward locations. If fewer logistical troops were needed, that itself would lighten the supply burden. Similarly, reconfiguring combat formations – such as the Marines’ decision to eliminate tanks – can also ameliorate the logistical burden.
Even more radically, emerging neuroscience developments, and even human-machine interfacing carry the potential to so enhance the performance on individual soldiers, that fewer of them would be required in a given circumstance—and that would lessen the logistics requirements.
Importantly, many of these technologies have ready application in civilian settings. For example, the ability to provide power in the aftermath of a natural disaster is an obvious benefit, and one that if employed in an overseas disaster relief operation might garner goodwill for the U.S. This kind of “soft power” capability is often touted as being essential to an overall strategy for national security.
It is probably true that not all of the technologies outlined here will prove workable in a military setting. My bet, however, is that there will be more successes than failures, particularly given the potential civilian applications of most of the benign, ‘dual use’ technologies logistics involves. As I’ve said elsewhere, the U.S. is a technological nation, and we should not miss opportunities to use technology to enhance America’s security.
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