Supplied and unmanned

10 July 2020

From horse-drawn carts to flatbed trucks, armies have always hunted for ways to sharpen their logistics – with new aerial technologies offering tantalising solutions. Andrea Valentino talks to William Marshall, an assistant vice-president at the New Jersey Innovation Institute, and Lieutenant Colonel Jakob Valstad, chief of operations at the Movement Coordination Centre Europe, about how militaries are experimenting with resupply drones, and whether unmanned machines really are the best way to keep troops watered and fed.

As recently as two centuries ago, pack animals were fundamental to military logistics. Surveying the wreckage of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington remarked that the Royal Waggon Train and its 1,400 horses were an “absolute necessity” in the fight against Napoleon. Subsequent wars, of course, have seen the horse and cart replaced by more sophisticated modes of transportation – yet even modern armies have found themselves hamstrung by bombed-out railways or potholed roads. But might a time come when people are fed and watered not from earthbound trucks and trains, but from up and over their heads?

It is not an outrageous question. Over the past few years, after all, armies have witnessed remarkable experiments in the use of aerial drones to resupply troops, delivering medicine or ammunition to units through the sky. If nothing else, optimism in this airborne future is reflected in the statistics. According to Research and Markets, the total market for delivery drones of all stripes is expected to grow by 20% each year until 2024, a boom that continues when you close in on the defence sector. As a slice of the overall unmanned vehicles market, military drones will be worth over $26.5bn by the middle of the decade, up from $12.1bn in 2018. At the same time, this growth is reflected in specific companies, and specific armies, from London to Lebanon.

Yet for all this frantic activity, the path to an automated supply chain is far from smooth. Apart from costing outrageous amounts of money, it remains to be seen if drones are robust enough – and armies organised enough – to cope with the pressure. Even so, there are plenty of reasons to try. Despite the challenges, adding delivery drones to the military toolkit has huge benefits, both for the troops themselves and for the top brass behind the lines. Nor do drones only have the potential to transform military logistics – with their versatility, they might also be used in life-saving humanitarian relief efforts.

Flying high

Even patriotic Americans typically only serve their country once. But in a career spanning more than 30 years, William Marshall succeeded several times over. Apart from a distinguished career as a police officer – he retired a captain – he spent several decades leading troops in the National Guard. And now, as an assistant vice-president at the New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII), Marshall is helping his nation for a third tour of duty, working with industry and his old colleagues in the army to develop the military technologies of the future.

To put it another way, Marshall has seen a lot, not least when it comes to drones. Even as a battalion commander in the 1980s, after all, he remembers how his tanks were always supported by an “aviation component” for reconnaissance missions – even if, in practice, that just meant rudimentary flying cameras. As the years passed, though, Marshall noticed their uses expanding. While drones are still indispensable in reconnaissance missions from Syria to the Hindu Kush, they are now far more than mere eyes in the sky.

“Drones are a force multiplier,” says Marshall. “For every soldier that we eliminate in the logistical camp – their beans, bullets and beds – you save about $1m. This becomes huge when you think about autonomous vehicles that you don’t have to feed or fuel, that don’t get sick, or that you don’t have to pay a pension to.”

In a sense, though, this optimism risks jumping the gun. For if defence ministries the world over are obviously keen to automate their logistics, the technology has historically struggled to cope. To start with, both logistical drones and their cousins in reconnaissance have typically lacked collision avoidance systems, sometimes causing them to crash when faced with an obstacle. Adverse weather has long been another problem, adds Marshall, noting that older drones can quickly be shredded by rainstorms or gusts of wind. No wonder a recent report by Drone Wars UK found that two military drones were crashing every month, or that 64% of accidents happen mid-flight.

“Drones are a force multiplier. For every soldier that we eliminate in the logistical camp – their beans, bullets and beds – you save about $1m.”
William Marshall

Whatever floats your boat

When it hit Puerto Rico on September 18, 2017, Hurricane Maria was the fiercest storm islanders had seen in over 80 years. Apart from killing nearly 3,000 people, its winds destroyed over 70,000 houses, causing around $94bn in damage. Everyone from the Defense Logistics Agency to the Marine Corps soon pitched in to get vital food and medicine to survivors, often stuck in remote villages.

But try as they might, logistics on the island remained shambolic. Rickety supply boats kept breaking down – bigger vessels had to be abandoned in the face of storm-battered harbours – while their cargos were frequently lost or stolen. The situation got so desperate that the weary logisticians eventually turned to the NJII for help. So it was that in July 2019, Marshall and a small team from the institute embarked on a project to stop similar embarrassments from ever happening again.

Together with a team at the Defense Logistics Agency, the NJII successfully carried 50lb of food and water from their base in New Jersey to another point nearby, and then on to a Coast Guard vessel a mile offshore – all using an unmanned drone. Modest as it may sound, for Marshall that 2019 project represents a perfect example of how militaries are now thinking about drones and logistics. This is mostly thanks to technological advances. From tougher equipment to the miniaturisation of key components, he suggests that relief teams in Puerto Rico could have been “tremendously helped” by his newly reliable delivery vehicle.

The US military is hardly alone in testing the feasibility of similar drones. In the UK, for instance, the Ministry of Defence has been working with a number of companies to create drones that can get supplies to troops fast, especially across that infamous ‘last mile’. Apart from these fundamentals, meanwhile, the UK Defence Science and Technology Lab is using drones to move supplies between dispersed forces operating across the battlefield, or to get spare equipment parts from one ship to another. The Israeli Defence Force, meanwhile, is developing unmanned machines capable of airlifting medical supplies to troops in the field. Nearby Lebanon is getting in on the act too, drawing technical inspiration from commercial drones to sharpen its own military logistics.

Rise to the occasion

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about dronepowered logistics. “I believe it is still too technocratic and expensive to implement drones for use in the logistics environment,” says Lieutenant Colonel Jakob Valstad, chief of operations at the Movement Coordination Center Europe (MCCE). As Valstad points out, it is never easy to implement new technology in a straightforward way, and unmanned flying vehicles are no different. That is particularly true when it comes to resupplying front-line soldiers, vulnerable as they are to encirclement and enemy fire, even if he concedes that drones might one day be used further down the supply chain.

Far better, Valstad believes, for militaries to fix their logistics at a higher level, spotlighting the work of the MCCE as an example. Rather than messing about with potentially unreliable drones – even with recent technical leaps, military models are still twice as likely to fail as their civilian counterparts – Valstad and his colleagues encourage member nations to improve logistics pragmatically and collectively. The ‘lead nation’ concept is a case in point. By paying into a joint pot, but with one nation formally in charge, allies can enjoy vast logistical benefits using mainly conventional technologies.

Nor are these purely hypothetical aspirations. In 2018, for example, several Nato armies got together in Norway for the Trident Juncture exercise, working together to transport several tons of equipment from ships to shore. “In the end, all the participants were happy to share their sealift capacity, which reduced the costs for everyone,” Valstad explains. “Our organisation is quite unique in the way that it encourages huge trust among nations to use their strategic capabilities to support others.” To put it another way, if drones are buzzing towards the logistical future, they may not be flying there alone.

This hardly means, of course, that armies are going to step back from their UAV experiments. As Marshall says, the potential benefits of drones are simply too “huge” to ignore, something he believes might one day result in a fully automated military supply chain. Ironically, that may ultimately happen with help from civilian companies. After all, one Kickstarter-funded company is now building quadcopters for the US Department of Defense, while big companies like FedEx and Microsoft are moving down a similar path. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has gone so far as to claim that the US would be “in trouble” if companies like his turned their backs on military contracts. At any rate, it seems clear that military supply drones are not going anywhere, and may soon be as vital to military life as the Royal Supply Waggon was to Wellington and his redcoats.

Estimated market for military drones by 2024.
Research and Markets
Weight of supplies carried carried from New Jersey to a US Coast Guard vessel by a UAV.

Adding delivery drones to the military toolkit offers huge benefits, both for the troops themselves and for the top brass behind the lines.
While drones are still indispensable in reconnaissance missions from Syria to the Hindu Kush, they are now far more than mere flying cameras.

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