Army to Live Off the Land in Contested Environments
After two decades of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in permissive theaters, the Army is pivoting to the Indo-Pacific, where a near-peer adversary and an expansive maritime theater present immense challenges for logistics and sustainment in a conflict.
That’s why the Army and the defense industry are investing in environmental research and technology to help the service and the Joint Force conduct and sustain operations in contested and distributed environments.
While a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific would be fought largely in the air and sea, the Army would still play a critical role providing long-range fires and other effects for the Joint Force. Preparing for that is a key focus for the Army of 2030, Maj. Gen. Kimberly Colloton, deputy commanding general for military and international operations for the Army Corps of Engineers, said at the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting and exposition.
“To maintain a military advantage over our adversaries, we must [better] leverage and exploit faster new technologies across all domains,” she said. “We know that forward-positioned ground forces, those able to converge effects from land, air, sea, space and cyberspace, can complicate our adversaries’ decision-making, disrupt their actions and assure our allies and partners.”
Supplying and sustaining those forward-deployed forces will require new technologies, tactics and thinking, which is why the Army in March created the Contested Logistics Cross-Functional Team based in Huntsville, Alabama, in partnership with Army Materiel Command, as announced by Gen. James Rainey, commander of Army Futures Command.
Given the distances involved in the Indo-Pacific theater, the Army is looking to reduce what it needs to carry and increase what it can extract or rely on from the environment, which is why the Defense Department and Army are investing in research and development for alternative energy sources, water purification and geospatial data gathering.
While the service already has capabilities to identify water sources in complex environments and to purify that water to sustain warfighters, this process can be streamlined further, said Dr. Martin Page, materials engineer at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.
“Water supply is one of the top demand signatures on the battlefield for resupply,” he said. “And as we think about moving forward toward contested logistics environments, with an increased focus on mobility and dispersion at large unit scales, we need to think about how we can reduce that [logistics] tail further and give our commanders options for technologies that can increase freedom of action, operational reach and endurance.”
Reducing demand and increasing production at the point of need are two key pillars of achieving a more sustainable water supply process, meaning that the Army is focusing on using each drop of water “as efficiently as possible” and on being able to produce water on the move, untethered from a water source.
“We found that water recycling or water reuse, specifically of graywater, can have a big impact in those types of environments, reducing demands by up to 50 percent in some cases,” Page said. “When we think about mobile operations, we’re thinking about looking at less showering and less laundry support in those environments in our planning. And so, we need to increase our focus on being able to produce water at the point of need.”
The Army, the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory and the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Ground Vehicle Systems Center are developing the Advanced Low Logistics H2O, or ALL-H2O, system, a wheeled system that is focused on hygiene support, demand reduction and increasing production at the point of need through the lens of hygiene support.
“It’s basically a system that can provide shower and laundry support, but it also has an onboard water recycling capability that can recover 75 percent of the water as clean water that can go back into the shower and laundry systems,” he said.
The All-H2O system was featured at Project Convergence in November 2022, and it underwent additional testing at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri this summer, working toward reaching technology readiness level six milestones.
“We are working on the system; we’re continuing to do research on increasing that water recovery beyond 75 percent. But what we’re finding is that for various reasons, we’re not going to ever get to 100 percent recovery,” Page said. “There’s always going to be some need for either resupply or point in the production, no matter how hard we try on that.”
Another critical challenge in contested environments is providing power, and the Army Corps of Engineers — in collaboration with the Department of Energy, Army labs and other services and agencies — is researching fuel cells and hydrogen for alternative energy generation and storage.
Hydrogen can be used as an alternative energy storage medium, both in stationary and mobile applications. The Army has invested in a research project called H2Rescue, a hydrogen fuel cell and battery hybrid emergency vehicle that can immediately begin exporting 25 kilowatts worth of power in an emergency.
“It replaces having to pull in additional generators,” Nicholas Josefik, engineer at the Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory, said. “This vehicle can drive about 1,500 miles on a single tank of fuel and can immediately begin powering, just plugging in whatever items you have.”
H2Rescue can be integrated into many different vehicle platforms, and the fuel cell can even produce some usable water, he added.
The Army, in partnership with the DEVCOM Ground Vehicle Systems Center Laboratory in Michigan, is developing this fuel cell-powered system that is for both tracked and wheeled vehicles, capable of exporting power and delivering hydrogen in the field.
“It’s another way to dispense hydrogen, to create power in the field and just give us different opportunities for types of energy generation,” he said.
Along with H2Rescue, the Army Corps of Engineers is also looking to generate hydrogen fuels in the field via a distributed low-energy wastewater treatment system that can harvest two different types of usable fuels, Josefik said.
“We’re able to harvest methane and hydrogen, along with treating the water and having usable water,” he said. “Our researchers are leading the way and looking at, instead of spending all that energy and time just to treat our wastewater, [harvesting] that into usable fuels and increasing our energy security, our resiliency and reducing our logistical burdens of bringing fuel in the field.”
In addition to water and power solutions, the Army is exploring technology to improve overall management of logistics in contested environments. The Army, along with the Army Geospatial Center, is investing in a project called the Geocentric Environment for Analysis and Reasoning, or GEAR, to help warfighters operate more efficiently.
GEAR is a tool that provides location-based information and data, and depending on that data, it determines how certain tasks should be prioritized, said Heather Speight, physical scientist at the Army Geospatial Center.
“If you have something that’s important to you, maybe three objectives that really matter, [we] put them on a map together and then see if there’s an area that seems to be the area that we want to focus on,” she said.
The Army Geospatial Center is currently working with U.S. European Command to develop GEAR, she said. The service mainly utilizes GEAR to gather data on airports, seaports and large cities, as well as the larger transit network.
GEAR can also factor in climate variables, Speight said.
“When we come to climate change considerations, a climate-informed assessment may need to include flooding, it may need to include climate migration, it may [need] to include sea level rise,” she said.
GEAR’s ability to collect and interpret relevant climate data and its effect on future Army operations, as well as its varying effects on different domains, is absolutely crucial, Speight said.
“Environmental issues and water issues fall into Army challenges,” she said. “One of our jobs here is to come up with ways that we are going to help [the Army] wrap its arms around those requirements and really help them understand those environmental challenges in a manageable and meaningful way.”
GEAR will allow the Army to integrate new information into existing workflows, which is key especially as climate change continues to alter existing environments, she said.
“The thing with GEAR is we’re allowing you to take the work you already do and conduct an analysis and then add a few more variables and see if the analysis changes,” she said. “In that way, we’re helping to really see whether or not climate is going to change things, or if really climate didn’t make that big of a difference, and we just continue with operations as normal.” ND