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Bullets and Coffee: Bridging the Supply Chain Gap

In sophisticated military operations, simple necessities keep troops well-provisioned.

The Army and the Marines are jointly developing capabilities for a distributed fighting force. Part of this means bridging supply gaps and ensuring the delivery of critical supplies.

And while bullets are critical supplies for a military force, coffee may be an equally important weapon.

“Although the United States Navy might win a war without coffee, it hopes never to be forced to make the experiment,” is a quote widely attributed to Samuel Eliot Morison, a World War II naval historian, who was speaking about logistics over long distances. The Indo-Pacific requires long logistics chains, parts of which could put even more service members in harm’s way in case of a conflict in that region.

Nevertheless, Marines are working on requiring fewer supplies in the future. “The Marine Corps is experimenting with operational foraging concepts to reduce the overall demand on the sustainment webs,” said Maj. Eric Flanagan, director of communication, Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

While this could lower the need to deliver food, water, coffee and necessities to troops in operations, other battlefield consumables must be brought to the front.

“I talked about multi-capable distribution of air, land and sea, a smaller littoral-type vessel that would not have to dock in a contested environment, not have to go ashore, but could do ship-to-shore logistics with an [unmanned aerial system] or robotic where you’ve got human control,” said Col. Shane Upton, director of the Contested Logistics Cross-Functional Team at the U.S. Army.

Col. Upton works on developing logistics platforms that could deliver critical supplies to a distributed force.

One of the tenets of how military action would play out with China is around a contested environment, where neither force has full control. Therefore, U.S. and allied forces would need to continue engaging the enemy without security in the rear for logistics.

And if robots can offload human risks, these are fit for delivering key supplies in challenging situations.

Current doctrine demands that these systems operate at decreasing scales as they approach troops in contact.

“You look at that distribution capability as a tiered approach: so we have to back up to the strategic support area, and you’ve got to get it into the [area of responsibility], then you’ll have a smaller vessel that would take maybe ship-to-ship, or out of a large port that’s not in a contested environment, unload that cargo, then take it to the smaller autonomous vessels,” Col. Upton told SIGNAL Media.

While these drones would have limited or no attack capabilities, their behavior would maximize enemy evasion.

“Unpredictable routes, you program them with multiple [routes], and you look at that distribution capability as a tiered approach,” Col. Upton said.

The Marines are using this experience to develop new skills among their ranks.

“We will also enhance our integration with the joint logistics enterprise and train our commanders to manage data and information from multiple sources, regardless of the environment and domain,” Flanagan told SIGNAL Media.

While data is a concern regarding slimmed logistics chains, just reaching where supplies are supposed to go is a challenge that may prove difficult.

To achieve these distribution feats, the key technology is positioning. Planners assume that Chinese technology would deny GPS signals in the Indo-Pacific.

“It’s just a vast area. Unlike navigating overland, you’ve got no landmarks to pick up for visual navigation,” said Chris Shaw, CEO of the Australian company Advanced Navigation.

Shaw’s business develops navigation technologies for situations where satellites are not an option.

“Advanced Navigation and many other companies are exploring newer, cutting-edge technologies; we’re working on navigation systems using quantum tech,” Shaw said, adding, “Quantum sensing traditionally has worked great in labs, but it’s difficult to translate the performance to the field for a number of reasons. By applying AI [artificial intelligence] software to the sensing, you can improve the capability and allow it to perform in more dynamic environments, so that’s where the two technologies go really well together.”

These powerful passive sensors can provide troves of information from the environment.

“Quantum technology can detect magnetic fields really, really accurately, and also, gravity disturbances as well,” Shaw said. And measuring these disturbances produces no signature, therefore keeping cargo and personnel safe.

For unmanned vehicles that can use terrain features and have flight capacity, vision technologies may add another layer of accuracy to their navigation systems.

Machine vision technology, AI, advanced optics and sensor fusion capabilities are how companies like Israel-based Asio Technologies can equip drones to find their way.

Still, innovative approaches are part of the solution. Another part may return to the days of Magellan or Drake.

“Older technologies, like using star mapping, are also being explored using newer sensing technologies and software techniques,” Shaw explained.

The challenges behind bringing ammunition to distributed Marines in the Pacific can sometimes surpass those of operating in space.

“It is more challenging to make products that last longer in an undersea environment than in space because you have water, high pressure, salt corrosion and other elements; it’s a really challenging environment, whereas in low-Earth orbit in space can actually sometimes be easier to design for,” Shaw told SIGNAL Media in an interview.

The Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft System (TRUAS) carried a payload over a short distance, dropping it at a specified location in the landing zone and returning to its starting point. The TRUAS has a 9-mile range and maximum payload of 150 pounds. Credit: Lance Cpl. Kayla LeClaire, U.S. Marine Corps
The Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft System (TRUAS) carried a payload over a short distance, dropping it at a specified location in the landing zone and returning to its starting point. The TRUAS has a 9-mile range and maximum payload of 150 pounds. Credit: Lance Cpl. Kayla LeClaire, U.S. Marine Corps

While GPS and a contested battle space are the first concerns, what these drones may eventually carry is the greater question. Another company is already thinking about these problems for a scenario where the layers of complexity include languages, cultures and distances.

“As we know, our own stocks of many critical weapons and material are likely to be depleted within the first two weeks of a peer conflict, and we will need to rely on a coalition approach to supply and demand for ammunition, food resources, medical supplies and fuel,” said Nick Woodruff, chief strategy officer at Research Innovations, an Alexandria, Virginia-based business.

The company developed a proprietary system called PRIISM, an analytics platform which tackles supply chain intelligence to match needs and stocks to assign payloads when required.

Another lesson from the war in Eastern Europe that could serve as an input in a crisis in the Indo-Pacific is coalition logistics, where each ally produces different supplies.

“As we see in the war in Ukraine, with 32 nations providing aid together and independently and managed through email, Sharepoint portals and Excel spreadsheets, logistics challenges present at the very beginning of war remain omnipresent,” Woodruff told SIGNAL Media in an email.

In terms of timely and accurate payloads for supply missions, whether by manned or unmanned systems, and data security to manage troves of information to decide what goes where, Woodruff had a warning: “This will be even more true in a littoral environment like [the Indo-Pacific], where data-centric systems, object-level security, decision advantage at the edge and seamless interoperability in supply chain-related workflows across nations won’t just be a nice-to-have but [will] be absolutely imperative to win.”

Therefore, automation technologies in the Pacific will not only be necessary when transporting cargo to engaged forces but also when deciding which payloads to send to those distributed forces, with few opportunities to receive supplies.

As these challenges are tackled, the force has successfully started tests and begun to apply concepts and technologies in development.

“The Marine Corps accepted delivery of five [Long-Range Unmanned Surface Vessel] prototypes between 2QFY22 and 2QFY23 for experimentation and analysis, and an early operational assessment will be conducted in Q3FY23,” according to the recently declassified March 2023 testimony before the Subcommittee on Sea Power of the Senate Armed Services Committee by Frederick Stefany, assistant secretary of the Navy, Research, Development and Acquisition; Vice Adm. Scott Conn, deputy chief of naval operations, Warfighting Requirements and Capabilities; and Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant, Combat Development and Integration, U.S. Marine Corps.

An unmanned vessel, like those already deployed in the Middle East, the Western Hemisphere or the Pacific, has different needs than a known manned platform.

“The Navy and Marine Corps are conducting studies to assess the supporting infrastructure requirements of unmanned systems, to include “motherships” to provide on demand command and control nodes in a denied environment, launch and recovery, maintenance, and resupply/refuel for all unmanned systems at sea, in all domains in addition to evaluating potential new concepts of operation,” the document stated.

According to this document, the current fiscal year should see refined concepts and advanced technology testing.

As the Marines become a force that requires fewer resources, training to demand slimmer logistics chains has become a part of their daily work.

For example, if locally hunted meat can replace rations for sustenance, transport missions will bring more ammunition.

“If you stroll through Marines training events, either they’re always skinning some snake, or they’re learning how to take apart an animal,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Carlos Ruiz. Maj. Ruiz stressed that as the force updates its technologies, training is evolving toward capitalizing digital native users.

Underscoring this, Maj. Ruiz suggested that it is not about finding a new set of minds but, more importantly, maintaining a mindset.

“It is people who came up with these technologies; it is people who will figure out how to employ them, but you need an aggressive mindset to use these things,” Maj. Ruiz told SIGNAL Media.