Over to you Convoy CommanderBy Michael van Zuylen May 21, 2019
Your unit has decided it’s going to use the training range on the other side of the country for your next exercise. Like all good planning cycles you’ve been told two weeks before departure that you’re the convoy commander for the travelling 'caravan of camouflage' that will snake its way through the red lights and roadworks of Australia’s road network. Unfortunately, you’ve never organised a convoy before and when you seek out advice you find the unit S4 (the Logistics Major) has already left on the Advance Party and the unit’s Transport NCOs are busy doing the weed and seed paperwork, trying to find working vehicle weigh scales, and having to drive around that random truck and trailer combination that only they have the license code for. So you sit down to organise it with your only guidance being "Get from point A to point B and make sure it complies with the DRTM (Defence Road Transport Manual)".
I’ll preface the following advice as my own lessons learnt the hard way. This is aimed at All-Corps NCOs and junior officers. It is advice for domestic road travel, when conducting an administrative move. Like any advice column it’s not going to solve all of your problems and there are some who may disagree with me, most likely Road Transport Sergeants. However, if nothing else let this be a primer for you to do some deeper thinking next time you are stabbed to run a convoy down to 'the bay'.
Where to Begin
Firstly, read the relevant parts of the DRTM. Too often in Army there is a hearsay culture, with many too happy to go off "I got told this" or "last time we did it like this", instead of actually reading the policy and knowing the correct answer or procedure. Don’t assume anything. Check the policy and implement it correctly.
After you have read the policy, look at the manifest of vehicles you have to take. A recurring issue throughout Army is license codes. In essence, you will never have enough. So you need to get in front of the issue and do a rough calculation of how many of each license code you’re going to need. Your clerks can do PMKEYS print outs of the licenced members within your unit. This is the best method, because again you don’t want to rely on hearsay, like Johnny telling you that "Smithy has a HX77 code", when Johnny probably doesn’t know how to spell HX77.
Armed with your PMKEYS print outs, you can start to assign drivers and co-drivers to each vehicle. Don’t be afraid to get creative. I once saw a Road Transport Sergeant solve a difficult license code issue on our way back from Hamel 16. The issue was that we had Mack and 8 tone trailer combination, but no Mack drivers qualified to tow a trailer. The Sergeant had found out that some of the Unimog drivers had the 8t Trailer code, so he had a Unimog tow it back up to Townsville instead. This gave us much more flexibility in drivers for the impending 5 day drive.
Now you have established your driver dependency, it’s time to look at building your packets. Generally, packets are no more than 10 vehicles. However, with the new MAN trucks, it’s packets of 5. Everything you have learnt in your training is tactical and you’re also somewhat tribal. Your initial instinct is to keep the sub-units grouped together in their own packets for this thing called ‘command and control’, whilst having fast cars to guard your slow trucks. You have to fight this urge. All you will do by putting a motley crew of vehicles together is a slower average speed. When you stop you will need to find different sized parking spots, which is just unnecessary friction.
Firstly, put all your controlled stores in the first packet. You don’t want to be responsible for all the soldiers having to wait around for hours because the CO can’t do his controlled stores assurance at the end of the exercise. It also gives you greater flexibility in the event of a breakdown, as there will potentially be trucks in the rear packets that will be able to cross-load the important stuff, such as weapons and radios.
In your second packet, put all your faster vehicles, such as G Wagons, Land Rovers and white fleet. These vehicles will do highway speeds without issue, they won’t get stuck in tight areas and won’t run the risk of catching the packet in front. It’s normally a good place to put all your SNCOs and Senior Officers, as they will be more comfortable and therefore less irritable at the destination. Secondly, they will be able to get the jump on all those preliminary tasks such as range clearances, opening buildings, organising parking spots, etc.
After your faster cars, insert packets of Land 121 trucks. These new brutes are good performers and will keep a good pace on the highway, but like any heavy vehicle are going to be slow up the hills. Having like-for-like vehicles really pays off here. The packet commander will park up in truck stops and be able to set speeds that work for all the vehicles in the packet.
Put your Bushmasters towards the end of your convoy. These venerable old beasts are great at thrashing around the bush, but are likely to have issues at 100km/h on the highway. I’ve found that keeping a packet of Bushmasters together is manageable at about 85-90km/h. This is somewhat slower than posted speed limits but it puts less stress on the vehicles and therefore reduces the chance of breakdown. These trucks are likely to be biggest risk of breakdown for your convoy, so make sure you have a recovery plan for them.
Which leads you to your final packet. This is your RAEME packet. Put your mechanics and recovery assets here. If (or more likely when) a vehicle breaks down, it can pull over and wait for the final packet of mechanics to come swing spanners at it and get it back on the road.
Now that your vehicle packets are looking good, you need to double check your route. You might get given the route - if this is the case, lucky you, proceed past go and collect $200 - but most likely this is going to be a you problem. Now, don’t be the guy who does a Google Map route and puts in servos every 200km as a rest stop. Remember you need to plan for the friction of roadworks, slow vehicles and general traffic. If you have MAN Trucks, you’ll need to keep a close eye on the permits. I suggest aiming at about 150 – 180km intervals. When you’re breaking up your route, err on the side of more rest stops. Try to get photos and an appreciation of how much space is at the stop and have contingencies for additional parking - the next servo down a few kilometres for example. Like anything, expect friction which will interfere with your journey. Don’t have your drivers going three hours without a stop because of traffic, that’s on you for your bad planning. You also need to consider your refuel plan.
Fuel is going to be an issue. Army’s vehicles chew through fuel, so expect at least one refuel stop. Preferably, get a fuel asset to support you. This should set off first (or even the day before) to establish a fuel point along the route to fill all your vehicles. They’re quicker than a Caltex and you don’t have the issue of fuel cards. However, this isn’t always going to be available so you’ll need to call into a Caltex along the route to top up the vehicles. Just don’t do what I did and try and manoeuvre a Mack towing a 20 tone trailer into the small Caltex in Broken Hill. Instead, seek out big truck stops on major arterial roads.
Once you have your packets and route planned, you now need to coordinate the execution of your convoy. It’s at this point that you need to identify some key staff to do the little jobs and keep you focused on the big picture.
You should start by delivering detailed convoy orders. Make sure everyone travelling in the convoy is across the plan. Use this as an opportunity to disseminate route cards, flap sheets and contact lists. Cover off on the convoy discipline you expect. Headlights on whilst driving is policy for Defence vehicles, but enforcing it makes it much easier for you in the lead vehicle to identify vehicles in your rear-view mirror. They’re also used as a signal for the packet commander up front: when they are turned off something is wrong. Remind your packet commanders about keeping front and rear contact with the vehicles in the packet. After passing through a slow point such as roadworks, the lead vehicle has to drive slowly until the rear of the packet is through or they’ll get left behind.
Beyond the headlights, you need to organise a comms plan. Don’t just rely on mobile phones. Having a radio in each vehicle to send messages down the line helps to keep the packet vehicles together or identifying friction along the route. If you’ve got great mobile phone comms, consider a group chat for each packet so that you can establish an all informed net.
Make sure you do inspections. You should physically inspect all the drivers’ licenses. These have a tendency of expiring around the time you plan on departing. Make sure they have signed onto their AD049 and that they have the Vehicle Accident Form. Check that they all have tyre changing gear, windscreen cleaner, comms gear and a fuel card.
Fuel cards are going to be the bane of your existence. I recommend you start with the expectation that your fuel cards won’t work and that if they do, your drivers will have no idea what the pin number is. Therefore, identify all the fuel cards before you set off, ask the Transport NCO for the pin numbers and have the drivers test them at the local Caltex. Having the fuel cards sorted before departure is an absolute must if you want smooth sailing.
The aim of the convoy is to get safely from point A to point B. If you achieve this, you have succeeded. Convoys can be more stressful than needed if you fail to plan adequate rest stops, have an inefficient refuel plans and poor comms throughout your vehicles. Things such as like-for-like vehicle packets and putting your controlled stores at the front of your convoy is going to improve the flow of vehicle movement and streamline the start or finish of your exercise.
The nature of Australia’s landmass is such that long road convoys of Army vehicles are going to continue to be a mainstay of the exercise season. I don’t pretend to have all the answers but if ever you find yourself, like I did, getting stabbed to do a five day convoy a mere two weeks before departure, I hope this article helps.