Tactical and Technical
ALTC Fiction Competition: Supply Chain of the FutureBy Matthew Ng August 6, 2020
The Australian Defence Force is modernising rapidly. Emerging technologies and operating methods present a range of opportunities to significantly enhance capability. To ensure this modern force is appropriately sustained into the future, the ADF’s logistics capabilities cannot afford to be left behind.
The Army Logistic Training Centre Fiction Competition encouraged writers and multimedia artists to visualise the future of logistics in the 2025 - 2040 timeframe.
Borneo, Malay Archipelago
Somewhere in equatorial Borneo, a digger from the 2nd Battalion, Australian Royal Australian Regiment shifted restlessly, squinting across the horizon across no man’s land towards the edge of the charred rice fields. He was a member of the newly formed Joint Task Force II (JTF-2) patrol returning from an intelligence gathering mission in collaboration with local authorities. He took some comfort knowing they were on the final leg back to their Forward Operating Base (FOB) after being gone for several weeks. They had been able to operate independently of the FOB thanks to a combination of on-demand resupply drones, atmospheric water condensers and by utilising renewable energy to power their equipment and hybrid electric vehicles. In the distance, smoke was billowing from the nearby village, where jihadist elements were known to be entrenched. The authorities had been unable to contain the aggressive insurgency that had spread like a cancer across the archipelago, and the ASEAN nation had looked to Australia and other regional partners for assistance.
Suddenly, he heard distinct whirring sounds emanating from the village and, moments later, a ding from his tablet’s Integrated Battle Management System (I-BMS) confirmed his suspicions: an armed quadcopter swarm had been sighted by a surveillance drone and were now rapidly approaching their position. The patrol wasn't alone! The digger saw no less than a dozen red dots on the I-BMS closing in and moments later, the patrol’s up-armoured Mercedes G-Wagons and Supacat open-top vehicles formed into battle order, racing back across the horizon towards their FOB. Hot on their heels was the unmistakable buzz of the quadcopter swarm.
Unable to engage the fast-moving swarm with the vehicle’s Kongsberg remote weapons station (RWS), the digger zoomed in on the drones and snapped photos, sending it both to the FOB headquarters detachment and the FOB rapid reaction force on Signal, the I-BMS encrypted messaging app. He had seen the terrorists’ DJI drones before, but not strapped with bundled grenades like their current improvised state! Fortunately, other members of the patrol had been managing to jam the swarm moments after they were spotted, preventing them from quickly releasing their deadly payload.
Moments later, the patrol launched their 3D printed mini quadcopters. The digger was curious to see how they performed, seeing as they were only printed, assembled and connected to the I-BMS a few days earlier. He watched with a mixture of awe and anxiety as the Wasps autonomously organised themselves into their own swarm, engaged and disrupted the DJIs’ guidance systems. Simultaneously, anti-UAV lasers on the reaction force’s Bushmaster and Hawkei vehicles that had raced out of the FOB brought several more quadcopters down in flames. Moments later, the remaining quadcopters dropped like flies, with most of them prematurely releasing their payloads out of harm’s way. One lucky grenade however landed near the front of a G-Wagon’s hybrid engine, the shock wave thumping into the cabin, inflicting a nasty head concussion on its driver.
It was all over by noon. The digger looked up at the sky and saw a larger modular drone whirr past, make several circles around the area of engagement before heading back to its base. Configured for intelligence and surveillance purposes, it had been monitoring the entire area since the crack of dawn and had watched the brief engagement. Finally, the digger opened the tablet one last time to send a Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) request and then type up a full battle report to send to higher headquarters onboard HMAS Canberra, several hundred kilometres away, knowing this was just the beginning
ANZAC FOB, Borneo
At the FOB staging area, it was time to conduct the battle damage assessment. Besides the wear and tear synonymous with several weeks out in the field, there were other more pressing issues that were noted by the maintainers of the 17th Combat Service Support Battalion (17 CSSB). One of the patrol’s other RWS fitted on a Supacat was completely useless thanks to some lucky armour piercing shrapnel whilst the hybrid electric engine of the damaged G-Wagon was smoking due to more shrapnel ripping its bonnet apart. The maintainers quickly got to work, compiling a list on their tablets of missing and destroyed vehicle parts and components whilst others extracted data from the deployed vehicles’ Health and Usage Monitoring Systems to examine for any further hidden defects.
As the latest data was uploaded onto the FOB’s data servers, the CSSB maintainers booted up the Watson 'deep learning software'. Developed by IBM, Watson had initially found its way into the US Stryker program to carry out predictive maintenance and reduce maintenance and lifecycle costs, and now the Australian Defence Force (ADF) had utilised the US experience to facilitate the Army’s operational readiness across the modernised vehicle fleets. Within milliseconds of being tasked to provide its maintenance analysis, Watson had gathered technical data from numerous sources such as the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and Capability and Sustainment Group (CASG) project offices, electronic technical manuals, user handbooks and previous work orders. Gone were the days of maintainers spending days on end trying to identify vehicle failures; their daily tasks now came from Watson’s recommendations based on years of historical trends, component failure rates, and operational usage data.
Simultaneously, other maintainers fired up the industrial electron beam 3D printers in the deployable digital maintenance modules and began to bulk load the CAD files of the parts needed to replace those lost in the field. A few button presses later and with the graphene-titanium powder added, the printers’ lasers got to work, and a burning smell filled the station. The lasers began to melt and fuse the powder together, forming a wafer thin layer. They swiftly moved back and forth, forming layer after layer, no two directions the same. The powder layers soon began to materialise into the new power generator for the busted G-wagon’s engine, and was one of the dozens of large and small subsystem components, from a tiny selector switch used on night vision goggles to the complex electronics of a RWS to lightweight armour sections, replacing the battle-worn, shrapnel ridden parts of the returned patrol’s vehicles. One enterprising lieutenant had even taken to print a pack loadable terrain model of the jihadist held village after mapping the village out on Google Maps to brief both his soldiers and commanders alike. In any case, the maintainers noted, waiting for a circuit board to print whose CAD file both the ADF and Kongsberg had approved was far less stressful than waiting weeks for a new one, shipped all the way from Australia as in the first decades of the 21st century.
Reverse engineered spare parts weren’t the only things being printed. In other additive manufacturing modules, the printers were at work printing just one thing: foldable solar panels, the thickness of paper. Graphene which had been extracted from the smoke of Australia’s ancient coal power plants1 were now being combined with silicon powder to print the fold-up solar cells onto reams of plastic sheets, under the directive of the commanding CSSB major. He had been wracking his brains to figure out how he was to fulfil the energy requirements he needed to follow the task orders from Forces Command to expand the Army FOB to supply a brigade sized battlegroup by the end of the month. After seeing the printable spare parts, printing solar cells became a no-brainer, especially when trying to initially establish the FOB’s solar microgrid system. It was fascinating to watch the solar cells being hooked up to the rapid deployment shelters and battery storage packs that allowed for round-the-clock use. All that was needed, the major noted, was the final delivery of battery storage packs, hospital equipment, hydrogen fuel cells and C2 systems. He opened the Centralised Army Logistics Management System (CALMS) app on his computer and, seeing his new task orders, began to create a new logistic node for the expanding FOB.
HMAS Canberra, South China Sea
The flight deck of the Navy’s flagship was a hive of activity as the operational tempo ramped up. On the flight deck, technicians of the 10th Combat Service Support Battalion (10 CSSB), Army medics and other flight deck crew moved clear as three drones, one of them having watched the JTF-2 patrol’s firefight, the other carrying an empty supply module, touched down silently next to each other. As the rotors whirred to a halt, the crews rushed to their respective drones and disassembled their modular payloads and the concussed driver, knowing full well further drones would be landing within 2 hours for further resupply missions.
In the operations control room, the commandant of 10 CSSB sipped her third cup of coffee in as many hours, shaking her head ruefully as she glanced at her colleagues endlessly discussing the battle report from Borneo and its associated drone swarm footage. She wished they were as fascinated with CALMS as she was, and knew they now took it for granted, given the countless hours of programming work that the new generation of tech-savvy logistic specialists had put into the software AI. Thanks to the quick reaction time of the drone, the concussed driver was in a stable condition and in good spirits, and had been telling everyone within earshot from the waiting medics to the chief logistics officer about the thrill on his first ride on the Ares drone.
As she watched the map track the drone arrivals, a ding on screen revealed her task order to set up the Borneo node was complete. Springing into action, she opened two more tabs on the CALMS browser, bringing up the FOB requirements and the national map of JLU stock holdings, systematically broken down into districts and regions. Requesting stock such as the fuel cells and deployable shelters was almost as simple as online shopping she thought, dragging and dropping what was needed to the FOB from nodes on RMAS Butterworth and the supply ship HMAS Stalwart (two temporary nodes created to support the mission) with the national logistics blockchain network updating minutes later to reflect this. For good measure, as per the CALMS virtual assistant’s recommendations, she also ordered fresh stock from JLU(N) to be flown to Butterworth. Within the hour, more Ares drones would be fitted, in the air and delivering its precious cargo to the FOB as the tempo ramped up even more. It was almost as efficient as Amazon Prime, she noted drolly.
The ADF now had a lasting presence in the Borneo archipelago. With the rest of JTF-2 arriving within the next few weeks, there would be little hope for the jihadists as the battlegroup split into highly lethal and mobile subunits, keeping the momentum in their favour and swiftly tightening the noose around their strongholds, thanks to the highly adaptable logistical supply chain and Australia’s robust logistics infrastructure. Although the commandant knew the CSSB’s work would likely slip by unnoticed, she was proud to see how far the ADF’s logistics had come.
- Wu, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, Y., Huang, L., Li, N., Zhang, T., ... & Chen, Y. (2013). Efficient and Large Scale Synthesis of Graphene from Coal and Its Film Electrical Properties Studies. Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, 13(2), 929-932.