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Staying on track

David Pile
PA Consulting Group
1 February 2008

In late 2007, the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) Research Acquisition Organisation (RAO) awarded a joint industry and academic consortium a key research contract to develop and demonstrate advanced logistics concepts and technologies. While UK defence logistics has an enviable reputation for supporting UK Forces both at home and on operations, the dynamic diplomatic environment and rapidly changing military requirements, coupled with budgetary constraints are increasing pressure of the UK’s logistics capability – and any variations in performance are subject to the highest levels of public scrutiny via media interest.

“The more I see of war, the more I realize how it all depends on administration and transportation… It takes little skill or imagination to see where you would like your army to be and when; it takes much knowledge and hard work to know where you can place your forces and whether you can maintain them there. A real knowledge of supply and movement factors must be the basis of every leader’s plan; only then can he know how and when to take risks with those factors, and battles are won only by taking risks.”

Quote from Wavell, 'Speaking Generally', (London, 1946) pages 78-9


Working as prime contractor, PA Consulting Group is leading a joint industry and academic team to assess and develop new asset tracking concepts and intermodal containers.

The delivery of effective military logistics to a force deployed on operations is an enduring challenge.  Past and present military leaders have confirmed that the performance of the logistical element of a fighting force is a key factor to its overall success.  Current logistics systems and processes in the British Armed Forces have been developed in recent years, through experience and lessons from operations in the Middle East, Balkans, and across the African continent.  However, attempts to exploit new technologies and ways of working, demonstrated so successfully in the commercial logistics sector, have often been prevented by a lack of resource and the need to focus on supporting ongoing operations.  


As defence doctrine focuses more on expeditionary operations 1*, an area of logistics that is seen as being an enabler to success is intermodal transportation.  Intermodal transportation is defined as ‘The integrated use of all modes of transport to effect the timely, seamless and efficient movement of goods and services’ 2*. This definition encompasses both the physical and information domains; so in addition to physical systems being compatible, materiel visibility information must also be accessible throughout the supply chain.  This type of information allows commanders and logisticians to accurately track the storage and movement of assets, giving certainty in the development of plans, and supporting the calculation of re-supply requirements at all levels.      


The technologies used commercially, and in limited areas of the military, to provide materiel visibility data include barcodes, Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Radio Frequency Identification (RFiD) tag, General Packet Radio System (GPRS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) based systems.  The data provided by these technologies is then integrated to provide meaningful information e.g. a physical container is tracked physically by serial number, the container’s location data is then integrated with an electronic database holding manifest data, to provide the visibility of the individual items within the container. 


Recent military operations in the Middle East have shown that, particularly during the deployment phase, current military logistics systems cannot achieve the level of materiel visibility required by the MOD.  Also the lack of suitable containers that can be used ‘intermodally’ without additional handling is limited.  In addition, to these constraints, there are both political and cost pressures to reduce the amount of deployed logistical infrastructure, reducing risk and also the cost of delivering operations. 

The challenge that PA has been set by the MOD’s Research Acquisition Organisation (RAO) is to determine how to improve the MOD’s logistic capabilities to support operations, focussing on intermodal transport and materiel visibility, and given the practicalities of existing systems and technologies, the current operational commitments, and the limited resources available.

To meet the challenge, PA has assembled a team from across industry and academia including Consilium (part of Wincanton), Marshall Solutions, Marshall Specialist Vehicles, BMT Defence Services, Lotus Engineering and Cranfield University.  The team’s research is supporting the intermodality concept published by the MOD, and is focussed on improving materiel visibility by examining current and emerging technologies, and identifying and demonstrating appropriate intermodal container solutions.

In the commercial sector, materiel visibility solutions are increasingly being delivered using a combination of passive and active RFiD systems to great success.  The military environment provides significant challenges over and above the commercial world, for example the lack of fixed infrastructure, and the threat of enemy action constrain the choice of solution, and impose additional requirements that need to be met.  However, experience has shown that the development of bespoke military solutions to technology related problems has tended to be both expensive and slow to market.  Combining these two factors together, the PA research examines how commercial solutions can be successfully deployed in the military environment.  This may involve the re-packaging of existing equipment to improve protection, the inclusion of additional capabilities, or the integration of multiple commercial products in order to more closely match the MOD requirement.

The selection of a single or range of containers that meet the needs of every aspect of the armed forces is difficult.  The military use of standard 20ft ISO shipping containers is widespread, however their size and weight, restrict their usefulness in the forward areas of the battlespace due to the specialist Material Handling Equipment (MHE) required.  Below the ISO container size there are a plethora of products on the market that meet varying degrees of the MOD requirement.  PA will be evaluating a range of these products, and considering the option of developing a bespoke solution on a similar path to the US DoD Joint Modular Intermodal Distribution System (JMIDS).


The team will be focusing primarily on improvements that provide benefit across the supply chain, creating additional tempo, and supporting operational commander’s freedom of action.  However, low level interventions that provide local benefits, for example, widening the application of current successful packaging units, will not be ignored.  In summary, it is firmly believed that by combining the application of technologies and processes proven in the commercial sector, with modifications driven through relevant experience and analysis, the logistics capability of the British forces can be enhanced. 

David Pile is now Head of Sales at a major electronics supplier.

1* Operations where a military force can deploy, operate and be sustained, rapidly and with limited support.

2* JSP 886 Glossary of Defence Logistics Support Chain Terms and Definitions

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