Concerns are growing throughout the U.S. military about the potential difficulties in rapidly deploying large amounts of personnel and equipment into a theater of operations under fire during a major conflict and whether there will be any bases of operation to support them once they get there. Now, the U.S. Army says it is looking for ways to ensure that individual brigade combat teams will have supplies, especially fuel and water, to be able to keep fighting for up to a week without a guaranteed supply chain.
U.S. Army Lieutenant General Aundre Piggee, the service’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, publicly announced the goal, and explained some immediate hurdles, at an Association of the U.S. Army-sponsored Institute of Land Warfare breakfast on Nov. 6, 2018. At present, the service only expects combat brigades, which typically have between 3,000 and 5,000 individuals and hundreds of vehicles and other pieces of major equipment, to be able to sustain independent operations for a maximum of three days.
“Our goal [is] to have brigade combat teams sustain themselves for seven days without resupply,” Piggee said. “That is significant. Seven days, that is a challenge.”
But it’s a challenge the officer explained as being vital to overcome if the Army expects to conduct potential high-end conflicts against “great power competitors,” such as Russia and China, in the future. The Army’s top logistician echoed recent sentiments from other senior U.S. military officials that American forces have become complacent and overly reliant on well established logistical networks and fixed bases of operations after nearly two decades of low-intensity conflicts in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The video below shows U.S. military personnel inspecting Afghan truck drivers and their trucks, a core element of the American logistics chain in the country, before allowing them to deliver their cargo to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
“We were not used to moving and maintaining equipment because equipment was waiting for us at forward operating bases and contractors did most of our maintenance,” Piggee explained. “We are now training this capability every day.”
The Army has already been exploring a host of novel logistical capabilities that could improve the situation in high-risk environments. This includes major investments in unmanned, autonomous ground and air logistical platforms that will help ensure a flow of supplies in high-end conflicts without the same risks to Army truck drivers and aviators.
The service is no doubt in close contact with the U.S. Marine Corps, which faces many of the same challenges, and has already employed unmanned resupply helicopters in Afghanistan and is investigating the use of various types sizes of rotary- and fixed-wing drones to make sure there is always a way to get vital resources to personnel on the front lines. U.S. Special Operations Forces have used unmanned paragliders in the past for resupply missions in austere areas, as well. Marines and special operators, in turn, are likely to be very interested in leveraging any new technology and procedures the Army develops in order to improve their own expeditionary capabilities.
Army brigades are also increasingly benefitting from deployable 3D-printing capabilities, that allow them to produce some types of spare parts in the field on their own, reducing the need to reach back to larger bases for that type of support. The service’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) was among the organizations that pioneered these use of these mobile workshops, which can fit inside one or more standard shipping container, to make replacement parts and rapidly prototype new equipment in the field.
"We have greatly improved our supply of spare parts across the Army," according to Lieutenant General Piggee. "We do not need to make repair parts 8,000 miles from soldiers if we can print them on the battlefield at their forward locations."
But brigades will need to reduce their reliance on any form of outside support in order to meet the objectives for independent operations that Piggee has laid out. The Army says that the biggest hurdle is fuel.
Modern militaries are notoriously fuel-hungry and this goes well beyond the immediate need to have sufficient stocks to make sure a unit’s armored and unarmored vehicles are gassed up and ready to go. Emplaced artillery and air defense systems, electronic warfare equipment, communications networks, ground-based sensor nodes, life support facilities – including temporary living spaces and mess halls – all require electrical power and therefore generators. Depending on the environment, vehicles may find themselves idling or running auxiliary power units at all times to either generate heat or power air conditioning units, too.
Piggee says Army combat brigades will need to find ways to trim their fuel consumption by at least 30 percent to have any hope of operating for a week without resupply. The Army’s is already looking at increasing the use of electric or hybrid-electric propulsion and auxiliary power-generation systems on various vehicles, including the use of hydrogen fuel cell technology, to quickly reduce the need for fuel by between 10 and 20 percent.
Vehicles with electric or hybrid-electric drives also have the benefit of being quieter and having reduced infrared signatures compared to those with traditional combustion engines, which has made them even more attractive to the Army. Unfortunately, these systems will still require charging stations, which typically involves a generator.
High-capacity batteries and fuel cells offer one way to ensure sustained operations over extended periods of time. Another option might be to have mobile solar-powered generators to provide an additional source of power if necessary. The Army is also exploring the potential of wireless, microwave or laser power distribution. This could, in principle, allow the service to “beam in” power to remote locations, but that technology is not yet robust for powering military operations at extended ranges.
Reducing a combat brigade's fuel demands would also provide a cost-cutting benefit. Delivering large fuel shipments, especially on short notice, can be an extremely expensive affair. Factoring in the costs of using a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane to fly it into the theater, a delivery of a relatively modest 9,000 gallons of fuel from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to a forward operating base somewhere in Iraq or Syria in 2015 cost the U.S. military between $25 and $35 a gallon.
“The electrical demands on the Army’s vehicles today are growing far beyond anything we’ve seen before,” George Hamilton, the individual at the Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in charge of Vehicle Electronics Architecture, said at a forum in November 2018. “Our focus is on developing and providing a modular, flexible and adaptable vehicle architecture that can expand to meet future demands of all kinds.”
The Army hopes to have the necessary infrastructure to support electrification of its vehicle fleets at least ready for testing in 2024. There are also plans to demonstrate a workable, all-electric drive system for armored vehicles by 2027, which would likely go into one or more designs in the service’s planned Next Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) family.
But, for all this talk about fuel, there are other challenges the Army will need to overcome in order to meet its goal of brigades conducting combat operations on their own for a week at a time. Water, an essential resource that gets far less attention, may turn out to be the bigger issue.
There is no question that a brigade combat team that runs low on fuel will find itself with reduced combat capabilities and more vulnerable to enemy attacks. However, a similarly sized unit without a ready supply of fresh water would become combat ineffective entirely much more quickly.
Scientific studies suggest that an average person can survive up to a week without water, but many experts say that this likely assumes optimal physical and environmental conditions. No matter what, any individual going days without water will increasingly be incapable of performing major physical tasks, such as combat operations. In its guidelines for preparing for and living in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends regular people drink at least a half gallon of water every day to ensure proper body function.
Following that requirement, a typical Army brigade combat team with between 3,000 and 5,000 individuals needs at least a total of a 1,500 and 2,500 gallons of drinking water alone, if not more, every day. This amount of water, which also weighs between 12,500 and 20,800 pounds, doesn’t take into account any additional potable water necessary for food preparation or localized medical facilities.
Keeping this supply of water on hand and being able to distribute it properly throughout the brigade requires its own resources. In addition, if something were to happen to those stockpiles, it would also quickly put the unit at risk of individual succumbing to the effects of dehydration and needing medical attention.
The Army has its own deployable water purification capabilities and various private companies are developing improved, mobile systems, but these would still require a ready source of water to begin with. Emergency resupply, including via unmanned air or ground vehicles, would be another option, but the entire point of the service’s new logistical plan is to make sure brigades can continue to fight even when their supply lines get disrupted.
Interestingly, hydrogen fuel cell technology may hold a dual-purpose solution to both fuel and water problems. The way in which these systems produce energy involves hydrogen bonding with oxygen, with water being a byproduct that a complete system can collect for reuse.
General Motors’ experimental Chevy ZH2 hydrogen fuel cell pickup truck, which the Army has tested, was able to produce two gallons of potable water for every hour of operation. A larger, mobile fuel cell power generating plant might be able to produce both energy and water for a brigade combat team during operations.
“I believe we are much better shape than we were just two years ago,” Lieutenant General Piggee said. “We have gone back to the basics.”
It will definitely be important for the Army to keep improving its logistics mechanisms so troops can fight for extended periods without resupply if necessary. But it will still be a major challenge to find ways for a brigade-sized element to keep enough fuel and water on hand for a week of operations without any outside support.
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