- Richard Lum
Self-Deploying Supply Points
Bottom Line: Military logistics of modern life may see increased automation, capabilities, efficiency, and few people
Source: The Nippon Foundation
The legacy model of military logistics is a resource intensive enterprise consuming time, people, and material both to build and to maintain. Additionally, logistic nodes are “soft targets” concentrating bulky and critical supplies, often in far flung locations, requiring constant security and vulnerable to attack. The obvious financial cost accompanying the creation and maintenance of these nodes also requires equally expensive diplomatic and political efforts to ensure their continuation.
Despite the expense during a crisis these nodes prove invaluable and demonstrate the truism that logistics represents the “sinews of war.” Still, our legacy industrial age military logistics requires substantial time to build up and large numbers of personnel. For example, despite a decade of unprecedented cold war budgets, it took the military months to build up the necessary material for operation Desert Storm. Twelve years later for operation Iraqi Freedom the situation was much the same.
A New Model
One innovative approach for 21st century operations would feature self-deploying supply points instead of large, expensive fixed logistic nodes. These points would fuse multiple emerging technologies that could revolutionize military logistics. Such an approach would be based on a global network of autonomous ships, which could be kept powered at sea indefinitely. These ships could move quickly to a crisis site and rapidly establish a logistic hub with a skeleton crew augmented by an array of autonomous robotic vehicles (RV) and 3D printing capabilities to produce materials as on site. This approach could bring a flexibility and efficiency not usually seen within logistics.
In the future, as a crisis is developing and elected and uniformed leaders and diplomats are developing policy options, sustainment operations for possible military operations can be started rapidly. Autonomous ships can start moving toward the crisis site without having to occupy ground or put troops at risk. These preparations would not pressure or limit a leaders’ options. While en route, 3D printers could start creating materials for the anticipated operations. Autonomous machines such as automated fork lifts and transport drones would be used to move these materials from the ship to land sites.
Like commercial industries, military logistics will likely be transformed by technologies such as automation, digital fabrication, and renewable energy. Still, to effectively take advantage of these possibilities, a number of issues need to be addressed. While this new model would be less of a “soft target,” than current approaches, security measures would still be needed. Who or what would be needed to secure an autonomous supply point before and during use? How would an autonomous logistics ship also employ autonomous security capabilities? What are the diplomatic requirements for these autonomous supply points? Are changes to existing treaties or bilateral relationships needed? Finally, in an era of private companies like SpaceX and Walmart leading the way in next era transportation and logistics systems, what balance of public and private partnership might be needed, and what implications flow from those relationships?