In the broader logistics industry, many of the major fast-moving consumer goods giants are turning to automation to future proof themselves in a rapidly evolving world dominated by e-commerce. Traditional brick-and-mortar stores are being traded for online stores and automated customer fulfilment centres. The parcel delivery industry is growing alongside – with some retailers choosing to partner with ‘gig economy’ parcel delivery services, or to produce their own in-house delivery capability.
Commercial logistics is accelerating, and consumers’ needs are increasing; demanding next day delivery of a broad range of goods, all available with the click of a button. The COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated growth in this area, particularly in the fast food delivery industry. Defence needs to grow and learn in line with commercial industry or risk being incompatible when the time comes to rely on national logistics to fight a war.
Drivers of automation
Automation reduces ongoing costs such as wages and injury expenses. It increases the speed at which items of supply can be processed through the supply chain. It also reduces corporate governance overheads and improves supply chain reliability by reducing errors. This in turn increases profit margin and/or reduces the cost of goods sold which gives the retailer a competitive advantage, allowing them to recruit more of the market share. Amazon has done just this, and Coles, Woolworths, and ALDI Australia all recently announced plans to enter the automation race within Australia.
How does it relate to us?
Logistic competitive advantage in military terms is the ability to sustain a force during a period of high tempo operations to a level that allows the force to outmanoeuvre the opposing force; whether it relates to superior rate of advance, endurance, firepower, or size of the force able to be projected. As an island nation, the ability to project and sustain forces abroad is vital. Even deploying over relatively short distances in support of our island nation neighbours can present significant logistical challenges.
As such, the ADF should aim to take advantage of the leaps and bounds in supply chain modernisation. Robotics and automation manufacturers are expanding, and technology is improving. At the same time, national freight carriers are becoming more interoperable with automated warehouses. Much of our national supply chain may soon become automated – leaving military logistics in the past.
The back end of ADF logistics should integrate seamlessly with civilian logistics industry. This is a vital interface between national logistics and the ADF. Much of our pre-existing joint logistics warehousing capability could be upgraded to autonomous warehousing, thereby reducing the need for civilian and ADF workforces within each of those organisations.
Of course, any military initiative must be capable of achieving warfighting ends. Therefore, any changes made must increase warfighting capability or capacity.
As such, modular, automated deployable warehouse systems would allow for automation of the ADF supply chain from the National Support Base (NSB) through to the warfighter. Deployable stores modules would be autonomously loaded, shipped, and digitally audited without human intervention. These modules could be stored in national ADF warehousing facilities either in a pre-packed task organised state for contingency roles; or ready to be autonomously packed on demand. Twenty-foot container modules would be broadly accepted by all road, sea and rail freight carriers, with smaller modules allowing for a broader variety of air transport options.
This concept has the potential to significantly reduce logistics staff ‘behind’ front line roles. Effectively eliminating the need for Combat Service Support Battalions and Force Support Battalions, refining and accelerating the supply chain between the NSB and fighting echelons, and modularising all items of supply. Individually deployed battle groups (BGs) would be supplemented with maintenance capability and the modular logistics capabilities required to generate specified logistics outputs such as ammunition and fuel supply. All other stores and equipment could be provided autonomously on demand. Levels of stock on hand would be considerably reduced with the automated supply chain providing Combat Service Support just in time. This makes the BG smaller, faster and more agile. It also gives it a competitive advantage.
The Fantasy Solution – Logistics 2040
The BG S4 adds items of supply to their cart, with software calculating the size of the load and optimising the packaging to ensure maximum transport utilisation. Most of the work is done through Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems with the S4 conducting the sense check and making adjustments based on anything the AI doesn’t know – the S4 has a feeling the commander may adjust the plan partway through the battle which will result in additional fuel burn for one of the combat teams. Although, yesterday they made no adjustments to the AI generated order, trusting that the systems in place would provide for the BG. It hasn’t let them down yet. They click submit and the demand is placed.
Meanwhile, AI is calculating the Brigade usage rates and requirements for battle days in advance with the plans uploaded by Brigade HQ. It is simultaneously creating purchase orders for fuel to be purchased and delivered from international suppliers based in an adjacent nation, automatically adjusting orders across multiple suppliers based on their fuel holdings, ability to deliver within the required timeframe, and current available delivery routes based on the enemy intelligence summary. The system is placing demands against automated warehouses within the NSB with deployable containers being automatically stuffed in perfect ‘Tetris’ format for optimised transport utilisation. Delivery into theatre is expected tomorrow using blended commercial and ADF transport options which are planned and executed by the same AI. Repair parts not in stock are sourced through an integrated international supplier network and transported into theatre using gig economy freight workers.
The speed at which logistics can ‘just happen’ allows logistics commanders to focus on warfighting. Manual usage rate calculations are a thing of the past. Logisticians return to being tacticians, focused on how to fight the current logistics battle rather than focusing on how to support the next.
Although this may seem like a far-fetched concept, the likes of Amazon are already operating very effectively in this space, with grocery chains moving closely behind them. Modularised and automated logistics is the way of the future. We need to modernise to continue operating effectively with national logistics partners through the remainder of the 21st century. The automation race has begun and entering the race now may just guarantee our sovereignty in the future. If civilian industry can optimise their supply chain using automation and AI to create such unparalleled competitive advantage, imagine the immense potential when militarising the same concepts. The competitive advantage we create over our adversary may just be what we need to survive our next war.