Autonomous Vehicles: New Technology Revolutionizes Army's Principles of Sustainment

By Maj. Brian MathewsAugust 31, 2022

An unmanned forklift moves cargo Aug. 28, 2019, around North Forward Operating Base, Camp Grayling, Michigan.
An unmanned forklift moves cargo Aug. 28, 2019, around North Forward Operating Base, Camp Grayling, Michigan. (Photo Credit: Jerome Aliotta) VIEW ORIGINAL

In the April-June 2021 edit-ion of Army Sustainment, Maj. Gen. Rodney Fogg noted, “Distributed sustainment operations require the ability to be responsive and to execute in a disaggregated manner with the capability to disconnect and operate independently.” His observation suggests future battlefields will be crisscrossed with drone-led resupply convoys delivering combat-sustaining ammunition, rations, and repair parts. The objectives of these interdependent missions, derived from algorithmic determinations of a commander’s intent, will be synchronized and integrated across air, land, sea, and non-physical domains. Distributed sustainment operations—enabled through an integrated network of autonomous vehicles (AV)—will fundamentally change how the Army conducts tactical sustainment. Therefore, the principles of sustainment must adapt to account for this autonomous revolution.

The Army trains to fight and win large-scale combat operations (LSCO). This environment is intense, lethal, and brutal. It includes complexity, chaos, fear, violence, fatigue, and uncertainty. LSCO will challenge leaders to adapt quickly to create and maintain an advantage. Logisticians are responsible for planning and executing the tactical sustainment of combat forces in this environment. At every echelon of command, a logistician is working on calculating and synchronizing the delivery of ammunition, fuel, water, and food with the overall operational plan to sustain combat. Resupply operations have traditionally required large, cumbersome convoys traveling on congested main supply routes to deliver their cargo. AVs provide the opportunity to revamp this delivery paradigm. History demonstrates that the first mover holds an inherent advantage as new technology is created and adapted to combat. Conversely, the side that grasps the last war’s tactics is at a disadvantage. AVs will revolutionize the conduct of logistics.

Logisticians use the principles of sustainment to help guide rapid tactical decisions in this volatile, uncertain, and chaotic environment. These principles are anticipation, continuity, responsiveness, integration, simplicity, improvisation, survivability, and economy. Most of these principles will continue to apply in future conflicts as they have done so for centuries. The Red Ball Express in the European Theater of WWII exemplifies why simplicity and continuity are essential to keeping the offensive momentum moving forward. The Red Ball’s travel routes, departure times, and cargo prioritized the movement of men and material forward, creating continuity in the resupply of forces upon which commanders and planners could depend. The Red Ball Express created predictability amid the chaos. A logistician’s ability to respond to new demands, integrate support across the operations at all echelons, and improvise to overcome obstacles will remain hallmarks of a successful sustainer.

The timeless nature of these principles is their greatest strength. However, autonomous warfare will change the nature of war, and autonomous combat support platforms change the overall calculus of sustainment and two principles: survivability and economy.

Survivability, in particular, will be less relevant. Along the supply lines of Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy focused on preventing large, lumbering, slow-moving convoys traveling on established supply routes from reaching their destinations through improvised explosives devices (IEDs), a rudimentary form of automated combat. A Congressional Research Service study found that from 2006 to 2021, approximately 46% of service member deaths in Afghanistan resulted from IEDs. Semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles offer the opportunity to significantly reduce the number of troops required to conduct a convoy. The Army is developing leader-follower technology, which allows a manned lead vehicle to travel along a route and have some semi-autonomous vehicles following along in the sequence. A hypothetical 20-vehicle convoy with a driver and assistant driver per vehicle equates to a massive reduction in required manpower from 40 Soldiers to two. Eventually, this leader-follower concept would be adapted so all vehicles are remotely driven, similar to remotely piloted drones, or are entirely autonomous, which will eliminate the risk of small squads of Soldiers crossing the battlefield on their own. Without Soldiers in the vehicles, commanders will be relieved from one of their most consequential decisions of ordering Soldiers into harm’s way.

A convoy of semi-autonomous palletized load system vehicles roll past attendees during a vehicle dedication ceremony April 10, 2019,  at Fort Bliss, Texas, for 16 fallen Soldiers from the motor operator transport military occupational specialty.
A convoy of semi-autonomous palletized load system vehicles roll past attendees during a vehicle dedication ceremony April 10, 2019, at Fort Bliss, Texas, for 16 fallen Soldiers from the motor operator transport military occupational specialty. (Photo Credit: Jerome Aliotta) VIEW ORIGINAL

The threat of offensive AVs is the strongest impetus that will drive the incorporation of AVs into tactical sustainment. In LSCO against a peer threat, the U.S. will no longer be guaranteed air superiority. Recent 21st-century conflicts, like the Nagorno-Karabakh, demonstrate how loitering drones can be applied with devastating results to static and unprotected targets. A downfall of large resupply convoys is their predictable movement along standard routes. Common defensive tactics like changing the route or time of travel will not be effective against one or two loitering drones positioned at bridges or crossroads. This threat will halt the resupply of the main effort and delay an advance. To address this challenge, the field of logistics must migrate away from the principle of economy and leverage the scale offered by an autonomous fleet. Field Manual 4-0, Sustainment Operations, defines economy as “providing sustainment resources in an efficient manner that enables the commander to employ all assets to the greatest effect possible.” This principle will be replaced due to the widespread use of autonomous vehicles. The days of large, double-digit vehicle convoys will be over, and a new principle will accompany this necessary transition: flooding the zone.

Flooding the zone requires leaders to think outside of historical precedents. Under this construct, AVs covering the last tactical mile will include a mix of multiple modes of transport to reduce the risk of route predictability and choke points. Micro convoys of one to three vehicles will transport large parts and fuel, while autonomous mules trekking over the countryside will carry secure saddlebags of food and ammunition. These movements will be complemented by air fleets of quad-copters carrying urgent repair parts. This network of automated logistics will be orchestrated to arrive within a precise window at the logistics release point.

While the U.S. is slowly exploring AVs, some adversaries are already using drones to achieve strategic results. Examples of this are China’s enduring presence on small remote outposts in the Himalayas and islands in the South China Sea. In these instances, resupply is conducted via drone on a routine or emergency basis and supports a strategic objective: maintaining an enduring presence in a sensitive location.

The principles of sustainment have served logisticians well throughout their history. However, they must adapt to the introduction of AVs to remain relevant in the next conflict. There are prudent steps the Army could take today that will set the conditions for incorporating AVs in the future–the first of which is educating the force on developing these new capabilities. Incorporating Army Futures Command emerging technology briefs into professional military education courses is one simple step to educating the force on any new developments, not simply AVs. A second step is incorporating the offensive and defensive impacts AVs will have on future conflicts into current military plans. By proactively incorporating AV guidance and implications into fundamental planning documents like the National Military Strategy, the Army and the joint force can better posture themselves for the future. The next great revolution of warfare is autonomous vehicles, and the side that embraces this technology first will have the upper hand.


Maj. Brian Mathews is a Joint Chiefs of Staff intern serving on the Army Staff in the Deputy Chief of Staff for Installations, G-9. He holds dual Bachelor of Science degrees in Economics and Supply Chain Management from the Pennsylvania State University and a Master of Policy Management from Georgetown University.


This article was published in the Summer 2022 issue of Army Sustainment.


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