Semi-autonomous capability for tactical wheeled vehicles is a key element of force modernization for the sustainment warfighting function. A leader for this effort is the distribution requirements development branch of the Army Futures Command's sustainment capabilities development and integration directorate. Leader-follower capability is a combined developmental effort between the United States Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center and the United States Army Sustainment Center of Excellence.
The distribution requirements development branch is developing a leader-follower tactical wheeled vehicle (LF/TWV) capability as part of the autonomous ground resupply science and technology objective. LF/TWV capability means that a driver/truck commander (TC) two-Soldier crew in a leader vehicle can control the movement of unmanned follower vehicles. The goal is a truck company squad worth of wheeled vehicles controlled by three Soldiers (driver, TC, gunner) in a convoy protection platform (CPP) lead vehicle, such as a joint light tactical vehicle, leading nine fully cargo-loaded palletized load systems (PLS) unmanned follower vehicles.
LF/TWV provides a limited autonomous vehicle capability to tactical wheeled vehicles. The system provides the capability for a designated manned lead vehicle to lead a line of unmanned follower vehicles by using vehicle sensors with sufficient accuracy to operate unmanned safely. Using LF/TWV aims to improve force protection and increase the sustainment throughput of convoy operations. A single robotic mode of driving four to nine trucks with only two Soldiers through a high threat area is accomplished by electronically linking a Soldier driven leader vehicle with four unmanned follower vehicles with current technology and with nine unmanned follower vehicles with the refined version to be fielded in the 2030s.
With LF/TWV technology, you can run trucks 24 hours a day while allowing Soldiers to man CPPs, get crew rest, and perform other tasks within the tactical assembly area. When these LF/TWV-enabled convoys return from the mission, units will swap out crews. LF/TWV technology is not developed to reduce the number of Soldiers within truck companies, it is being developed to allow increased force protection and throughput vital for large-scale combat operations.
The distribution requirements development branch focuses initially on PLS truck companies because PLS trucks have a dual mission of line haul and local haul. Line haul is from the theater support area (port and intermediate staging bases) to the division support area. The local haul is from the division support area forward to the brigade support area and to the field train command posts, four to twelve kilometers behind the combat element, and to the combat train command posts one to four kilometers behind the fighting element. Currently, LF/TWV technology capability allows one leader PLS truck to control four follower PLS trucks day and night, in all drivable weather conditions, and over all drivable surfaces (primary and secondary roads, and off road).
Commercial vehicles are only capable of semi-autonomous driving on main roads—hardball surfaces with white lines on the pavement, allowing civilian vehicles to sense when they’re drifting out of lanes. Commercial semi-autonomous vehicles will respond with a driver warning, for example, a warning flash of light on the dashboard or a steering wheel vibration. Alternatively, commercial semi-autonomous vehicles will provide driver assist, and the vehicle pulls back into the center of its lane by itself. The PLS LF/TWV equipment uses the same commercially available sensors, including radar and lidar, and has the same paved road semi-autonomous capabilities. However, the military equipment for PLS trucks is unique because it has a specially designed software package utilizing the commercially available sensors for off-road cross-country leader-follower capability. As a result, PLS LF/TWV trucks have already demonstrated the capability to drive on any surface and in any conditions at a one leader truck four unmanned follower truck convoy as if every truck had a full crew operating it.
In September 2020, the distribution requirements development branch began a yearlong operational technical demonstration (OTD) by fielding the LF/TWV equipment to every truck in the 41st Transportation Company (Trans Co) at Fort Polk, Louisiana. The 41st Trans. Co. is one of two active-duty PLS companies in the Army. PLS companies consist of 60 PLS trucks organized into two platoons of 30 PLS trucks each. Each platoon is organized into squads of 10 PLS trucks. Although the end goal is for PLS LF/TWV capability to allow one leader PLS to move nine follower PLS so that one vehicle crew can move an entire squad of PLS trucks, 41st Trans. Co. has been training with the current capability of a 1:4 leader-follower ratio.
41st Trans. Co. is conducting a normal training cycle with the LF/TWV equipment and developing tactics, techniques, and procedures to incorporate the unique capabilities. Simultaneously, the distribution requirements development branch field team on site is collecting data. This field team uses the data to determine how doctrine, including Army Techniques Publication 4-11, Army Motor Transportation Operation, will have to change. In addition, the OTD field team is determining if any new types of training, including institutional and unit training, will need to be developed.
The 41st Trans. Co.’s mission on Fort Polk is to support the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) rotating units. 41st Trans. Co. isn’t normally introduced into the box. Still, during the upcoming late summer/early fall 2021 JRTC rotation, a PLS truck squad from 41st Trans. Co. will be deliberately introduced into the box to demonstrate LF/TWV capability. The PLS truck squad will run 1:4 LF/TWV convoys, half a squad of PLS, to provide support to the rotational unit at JRTC.
In fiscal year 2023 the Army will activate four more active-duty PLS companies in addition to the two currently operating: 41st Trans. Co. at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and the 15th Trans. Co. at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. All six PLS companies will have 100% of their PLS fleet outfitted with the LF/TWV equipment supporting a 1:4 LF/TWV ratio. By the 2030s, that capability will increase to the 1:9 complete PLS squad-size ratio.
However, as early as 2027, LF/TWV capability will be included in the new fieldings of other tactical wheeled vehicles. When the Army starts fielding the new M916 Light Equipment Transporter Tractor Truck, it will have the ability to accept the LF/TWV kit. Same with all of the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck and Family of Medium Tactical Vehicle platforms. The LF/TWV equipment can be fitted on all of the tactical vehicles within the Army wheeled vehicle fleet.
Since World War I, the Army has used trucks tactically on the battlefield and knows how to employ trucks successfully to accomplish any military mission. Tactical trucks have steadily evolved to go farther, be more reliable, and haul ever increasing payloads. The development of semi-autonomous ground distribution systems is a further evolution that provides enhanced freedom of action and more responsive resupply operations. LF/TWV technology gives the Army even greater sustainment throughput capacity, a means to self-secure transportation convoys, and gives commanders additional options for protecting Soldiers in hostile environments.
Capt. Ellen M. Johnson is currently serving as the company commander for the 41st Transportation Company, Joint Readiness Training C enter Fort Polk, Louisiana. She has a bachelor's degree from East Carolina University in communication with an area of concentration in broadcast journalism. She has a masters degree from Central Michigan University in general administration.
Capt. Eli D. Rothblatt is currently serving as the detachment commander for the 606th Movement Control Team, 142nd Division Sustainment Support Battalion, 1st Armored Division Sustainment Brigade. He has a bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University and a juris doctor from New York University School of Law.
Donald C. Overton is currently serving as the lead capability developer for tactical wheeled vehicles, Army watercraft, and autonomous resupply vehicles, which includes the Leader -Follower capability at the Army Futures Command, Sustainment - Capability Development and Integration Directorate (S-CDID).
This article was published in the July-Sept 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.