Expecting Less and Getting It: Bleak Future Battlefields Require New Ideas
Among the many revolutions facing the Army as it prepares for bleak and lethal battles of the future is that of logistics. The Rolling Stones warned in their 1969 classic that You Can’t Always Get What You Want. That song title is something ground combat forces might want to keep in mind as they look over the horizon.
Strategic planners engaged in forecasting logistics see contested supply lines, sparse battlefields and highly lethal adversaries. Their crystal ball of combat action is reason for rethinking movement, maneuver, supply and resupply doctrine, eroding the belief since World War II that good logistics can beat better strategy by having the ability to fight and keep fighting until the battle is won. “We don’t necessarily believe that we will have the same strategic freedom of maneuver that we currently enjoy,” said Col. Christopher Corizzo, sustainment division director for the Army Capabilities Integration Center, who had a role in writing a February White Paper focused on logistics in future battles.
The paper warns ground forces won’t be able to depend on traditional high-volume supply and support. Front line units in future battles may be required to operate for a week or longer without resupply of fuel, water or ammunition, and with potentially limited access to advanced medical care or medical evacuation. “Leaders must be trained to execute logistics discipline to ensure success in an austere, intermittent multi-domain battlefield,” warns the paper, titled “Demand Reduction: Setting Conditions to Enable Multi-Domain Battle.”
The main problem, Corizzo said, is strategic supply lines will be highly contested in future warfare, making it more difficult for the U.S. to deliver support to forward units. It won’t be anything like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, during which U.S. forces lined up on the berms of Kuwait to pour into the country, followed by an extended supply line. If the enemy was ahead, it was possible to maneuver around them, minimizing risk, Corizzo said.
Future battles could be different, he said, with adversaries possessing long-range precision rockets that jeopardize logistics efforts, similar to the barrage of short-range missiles launched by Russian forces into Ukraine in 2014.
The Army is doing five things to prepare for reduced battlefield support:
1. Protecting the supply line.
Military planners are concerned that the entire supply chain is endangered. “During the past twenty years, potential adversaries have studied our operations and rapidly moved to develop capabilities exploiting observed vulnerabilities,” the White Paper warns. With a U.S.-based force that must move from home station to the theater of confrontation, cyberattacks that disrupt transportation, power, communications and ports can delay, disrupt or prevent movements, which is why Army installation management officials are boosting installation defenses and protection. In the operational zone, where the U.S. has benefited from air supremacy that has provided some assurance of resupply, the Army requires improved air defense systems.
2. Cutting consumption and improving efficiency.
Domestic bases have taken on the twin missions of energy and resource conservation in a push toward resiliency. The goal is for installations to cut costs while also being able to operate for a week or longer without outside help, especially in terms of utilities.
On installations, energy conservation includes steps like capturing rainfall and stopping leaky toilets. On the battlefield, where water is a precious resource, the objective is cutting the packaging weight of water and everything soldiers carry.
Fuel transport can be reduced by improving engine efficiency, something Corizzo said is showing results with reduced fuel consumption and more power.
Moving ammunition is a burden reduced by repackaging and by fielding advanced weapons like lasers, rail guns and other energy weapons. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky thinking. The Army showed off a 5-kilowatt Stryker-mounted laser during a March demonstration at Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany, and is working toward a more powerful laser weapon. By 2020, it hopes to have a 100-kW laser that could be mounted on most of its ground combat vehicles. Electromagnetic rail gun technology, capable of firing projectiles that can reach speeds of up to Mach 6, is also under development for use for long-range fires and air defense and as a potential main tank weapon.
3. Producing on the spot.
The Army knows how to recycle used water or purify what’s available. It also has power-generation efforts underway, from now well-established solar and wind power alternatives to biomass energy methods of producing electricity from plants and other waste. Power-beaming, a form of wireless energy transfer, is also possible.
In urban fighting, U.S. forces might tap into local power and water supplies.
Advances are being made in energy-harvesting technology, such as wearable equipment that generates electricity through movement, in the boot, on the leg or even a system that makes electricity from the movement of a rucksack sliding up and down a frame. The U.S. Army Research Laboratory is working on a way to produce hydrogen in the field using an aluminum-based powder and any liquid, including urine. “This is a way to produce on-demand power for use by soldiers and vehicles,” said Anit Giri, a physicist and materials engineer, who discussed the research in March during the Global Force Symposium and Exposition hosted in Huntsville, Ala., by the Association of the U.S. Army.
Advances in 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, also relieve pressure on logistics because it is increasingly possible to make a spare part on the spot. Not only can small, critical parts be made, but it is possible to build drones and autonomous systems with hard and flexible surfaces. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has patented a way to use a concrete composite to make large structures, including barracks. The composite can be made right there from locally available material to make semipermanent structures.
4. Letting the robot do it.
Autonomous systems and robotics can perform many tasks with reduced demand for supplies. Unmanned resupply by air and ground can move things faster and at less risk to humans, and without the same needs for water, food and medical care. Because of sensors they can carry, autonomous systems can expand the situational awareness of ground forces over wide areas, which can result in using less energy to conduct missions, the White Paper says.
Tasks done by robotic systems consume less energy because they don’t need food or water, reducing the number of consumers in the loop, Corizzo said.
Experiments have been underway for some time looking at the optimum number of ground vehicles that could be operated by one soldier or autonomously. With each vehicle able to carry 800 pounds or more, it would only take a small group to resupply a cavalry troop, Corizzo said.
The timeline isn’t certain, he said. Big technology breakthroughs may be five years off, and fielding as much as 10 years off.
5. Changing culture.
“Future commanders will need to contend with increased stress on the force, operations with joint and multinational partners, a mix of current and future organizations, systems with varying degrees of interoperability, and making sense of vast amounts of information,” the White Paper warns.
There are some simple lessons, and some more complicated. Idling a tank for two hours can burn 100 gallons of fuel, Corizzo said. The gas-guzzling culture could see change with some instruction when soldiers learn to drive a tank, but also needs culture change at the unit level, he said.
If they can pull this off, there are important benefits. Operational reach of combat forces could be extended if they need less stuff and risk of casualties could be lower if there are fewer people moving ammunition, fuel and supplies. The White Paper suggests U.S. commanders could have “an operational advantage to exploit windows of opportunity.”