Pentagon Asks Industry for Ideas to Protect Supply Lines
Snowbird Technolgies image
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Indo-Pacific theater stretches from the coast of California to the western shore of India, consuming more than 50 percent of the Earth’s surface with mostly water. When the Pentagon declared the region its priority theater, another challenge inevitably surfaced: contested logistics.
Al Shaffer, former deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, described contested logistics as “delivering and sustaining food, fuel, munitions and repair parts in an area of vast distances” like Indo-Pacific Command.
Supplying necessary goods across vast domains is further complicated by potential adversaries, “so we will be doing it not just with the tyranny of geography, but the tyranny of technology,” Shaffer said during a panel at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense conference.
The “tyranny of distance” is often used to describe the challenges of logistics in the Indo-Pacific, where supplies need to travel long distances at the mercy of adversaries.
The contested logistics conversation is also one of integrated deterrence, Christopher Lowman, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, said during a panel at the conference.
“And we recognize that in the various theaters of operation, especially in the Pacific, which is the department’s priority, that that particular theater offers an enormous amount of challenges,” he said.
The problem is not the Defense Department’s alone to solve — it is looking to industry to help think outside the box and bring new technologies to a complex problem, officials said at the conference.
“We have to be creative,” Jessica Appler, director of Maintaining Technology Advantage in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, said during a panel. “We have to figure out ways to adapt to these challenges to figure out how to shape our opportunities, not just wait for them to come to us.”
One solution could literally shape opportunities — or at least parts. Additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing, is a process that can design and print parts in the field from a digital model. A Florida-based manufacturing company is doing it from inside a shipping container.
Snowbird Technologies developed a solution called Snowbird Additive Mobile Manufacturing Technology — a large-format 3D printer installed in a container.
The technology uses a patented gantry system — a mechanical framework comprising tracks, rails and robotic arms designed for controlled motion and heavy lifting — installed inside the container, which is adjustable in size and can be anywhere from 10 feet by 10 feet up to 10 feet by 53 feet, Jeremy Heerdink, vice president of business development at Snowbird Technologies, said at the panel.
“It’s an all-in-one system,” he said. “I don’t have to print something, pull it out and stick it in a machine and finish it. I’m going to do everything [internally] with the system where I’m at.” The technology not only eliminates long and costly wait times and dangerous deliveries but can accommodate complex and even obsolete parts in minutes to hours.
The print area is up to 200 cubic feet and can print stainless steel, mild steel, carbon steel, titanium and plastic. The system can incorporate customer-specific printheads and uses dual wire feeders and coolant guns, eliminating the need for difficult-to-move liquids and dangerous gasses being transported to expeditionary environments, Heerdink said.
Lowman endorsed additive manufacturing as an emerging technology the Defense Department needs to jump on, and more broadly, advanced manufacturing, saying it can help “push demand satisfaction closer to the point of need.”
Air Force Lt. Gen. Leonard Kosinski, director of logistics for J4 Joint Staff, added: “Contested logistics can attack our current system, but we need to be able to think and act differently … in particular technological solutions with regenerative capabilities for the individual unit platform,” such as additive manufacturing.
Obstacles remain to implementing 3D printing at the tactical edge, such as accommodating its bulk on board ships, substantial energy requirements and a rigorous certification process for parts. The Navy-led Rim of the Pacific exercise last summer launched the first U.S. ship with a 3D printer.
While creation at the point of need could reduce the requirement for deliveries across contested environments, air transport can’t be eliminated completely. Which is why another company is focused on making it faster.
Nathan Forbes, vice president of defense programs at Boom Supersonic, said their supersonic aircraft could reduce a dangerous three-to-four-day transit time in theater, increase airdrop capabilities and improve survivability. Bottom line, a supersonic aircraft is going to spend less time in a contested environment, he said.
“When I think about those challenges, when I think about those solutions, speed seems to offer better advantages than anything else,” he said.
One of the biggest problems with strategic airlift is centralization, Forbes said. “There’s only so many aircraft, only so much capacity, there’s only so many airfields.” Being centralized “just brings a number of weaknesses in itself and it makes it easier to attack,” he said. Supersonic aircraft can improve airfield independence with improved drop capabilities, because “there’s only so many airfields in the theater.”
Reduced time in a contested environment also reduces crew time, Forbes noted. Three-to-four-day transit periods to strategic airfields in the Pacific is an “unsustainable” strain on the air crew, he added.
The Boom Supersonic model is called Overture, which is still in its prototype phase. The company says it will be capable of Mach 1.7 cruise speed, a range of over 4,000 nautical miles and designed to operate on sustainable aviation fuel. Overture is designed as a passenger aircraft, but “certainly there are opportunities to modify it and configure it for multiple military missions,” he added.
Forbes said the company has partnered with Northrop Grumman to analyze ways the aircraft could support more resilient strategic airlift.
“Supersonic airlift specifically can transport personnel, cargo — even patients as a medical evacuation aircraft — twice as fast as commercial aircraft today,” he said.
Speed is also a factor in yet another nuance of the logistics equation: the survivability and lethality of munitions. Improving munition performance could cut down on resupply efforts in contested environments, and the Navy is looking at energetic chemicals to do it.
John Wilkinson, director of Energetics Futures at Naval Surface Warfare Indian Head Division, said the challenge of logistics in the Indo-Pacific theater has been foreshadowed in Ukraine, highlighting the “staggering amount of energetic materials, which are hard to transport, [that] get consumed in a conflict.”
In the surface Navy, trans-Pacific travel time is measured in days to weeks, and time is not a luxury, he said.
“And you’ve got to go back and resupply. So, we have real challenges when … our combatant vessels go into a theater that’s weeks away from resupply. It’s very important for all the munitions to count in the case that we have an actual shooting war,” he said.
Energetic materials can bring improved range, speed, lethality and signature of legacy and future munitions, he said.
Wilkinson defined energetics as ingredients, formulations and energetic material systems that define the performance of range, speed, lethality, signature and safety logistics. He said energetics are “essential to every warfighting domain.”
Improving lethality with energetics means developing novel explosives, he said. More lethal warheads can decrease required salvo sizes and allow forces to remain in the fight longer. They also reduce the burden of high quantities of munitions for resupply during a conflict.
In an environment where the adversary is “not limited by our constraints,” and has advantages of minimal transport time, investment in energetics will enable U.S. forces to “deliver a stronger punch,” lengthen reach, make platforms more survivable and “remain in the fight as long as possible,” Wilkinson said.
As private companies push forward with innovative solutions, the Defense Department is recognizing the necessity of working alongside industry.
“We have some gaps in our capabilities and these gaps require integrated logistics expertise that is from the professionals in this room,” Kosinski told industry professionals at the conference. “Some of these gaps can be filled with emerging technological solutions.”
Other gaps need to be filled by thinking differently, he said. The problem Forbes called “broad and complex” will require both technology and creativity. Or, as Kosinski summarized, “modernization and imagination.”
New technology must be paired with innovative ways to use it, and the department’s partnership with industry will be “such an integral part” of accomplishing that, he said. “I think that real expertise, that cutting edge technology and ways of modernizing and imagining, is in this room.” ND
Topics: Defense Department