Technology and what lies beneath – the full cost of modernisation

By David Beaumont.

You needn’t venture far to find an article or military concept which in some way promotes technology and capability modernisation as a means of addressing the next, albeit hypothesised, battlefield challenge. Great advances in robotics and automation, information and communication systems, weaponry and the introduction of innovative technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles seem imminent. Militaries, accordingly, are enthusiastically posturing themselves to exploit these technological opportunities as quickly as possible through rapid acquisition and methods of procurement. Others recommend militaries adopt the early adoption and deployment of technology to offer forces an asymmetric advantage. In these case technology purports to dramatically improve combat performance, make operations faster, forces more resilient, and reduce logistics demand. But the introduction of technology can also have hidden, sometimes operationally inconvenient, consequences. This is especially the case when technologies are complex and untested. Just as we look to the opportunities future technology will give the combat force, greater consideration should also be given to what lies beneath the surface of technologically-led modernisation.

The sad reality is that smooth introductions of complex technology into militaries are rare. Chris C. Demchak, in her book Military Organizations, Complex Machines, cautions militaries about understanding the full costs of technologies.[1] She analyses the introduction of ‘army’s new supertank’, the M1 Abrams, as her primary point of reference; a tank which was conceived to be simple to operate and sustain. This now well-known and battle-tested tank was conceived during the 1980s when the US military prepared for European conflict against a numerically superior Soviet foe. It was believed then, as is commonly viewed of technology now, that to overcome battlefield uncertainty and to achieve decisive combat advantage that technical advances should be exploited. In the case of the tank, technology would make the force more lethal and less personnel-intensive due to automation and a module-based repair approach.[2] In addition, the use of high-performing, reliable, technology would permit a lower ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio with less logistics personnel required to support combat capability.

As Demchak recounts, developers soon found that the tank was simple to operate, but it was far from being simple to repair and sustain. It could not be repaired without the involvement of contractors and the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), and the complexity of the technology involved often ‘mystified even the contractors’ engineers.’[3] The Army responded by procuring, through the contractor, ‘alternate test equipment’ which enabled a repairer to assess the problems in the tank. Following its introduction, even this test equipment needed specialists to be repaired. Amongst this developmental process, the US Army created new technical specialities to handle repair tasks. New materiel regulations were required, as was auditing compliance. Furthermore, due to unexpected costs and the insufficiency of repair parts available to support the tank on a global basis, the stock of such parts was managed with such scrutiny that greater numbers of people were required to sustain and manage the materiel.[4]

Three decades have passed since the M1 was developed and introduced, and the tank has certainly been effective on the battlefield.  However, the introduction of the tank meant the US Army had to change – even at the tactical level. The complexity of the equipment limited field repair, and the movement of modularised componentry transformed engineering problems into new distribution challenges. Repair jobs were more demanding because the number of systems, parts and potential maintenance problems increased. On operations and exercises, mechanics and sub-contractors from the OEM deployed in increasing numbers, performing repair that combat force maintainers could not but necessitating appropriate infrastructure to do so the same. Organisations altered, doctrine changed and logistic concepts were rewritten to suit these needs but substantial change was required to ensure the tank was ultimately employable.

The M1 was not the only technology introduced into a land force that altered the way in which it operated. Nor has it been the only technology introduced into a military to result in unforeseen changes to operations, or to introduce new logistics ‘costs’. Many of the issues encountered during the introduction of the M1 resurfaced in the US Army during the introduction of Stryker in the 1990s, and the US Army continues to grapple with unforeseen challenges with communications equipment that necessitated the rotation of OEM representatives into and out of Afghanistan and Iraq for operation and maintenance purposes. In these cases, the increased complexity of a system was matched by a commensurate increase in the quantity of personnel and level of support required to deploy and sustain equipment in an operational environment.

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Photo by Australian Department of Defence

Even the introduction of fleets of new logistics vehicles can require significant revisions of practice, and introduce their own complexities. Fueled by experiences from operations in the Middle-east, the Australian Army’s new transportation capabilities possess armour, weaponry, communications suites, self-offload ‘flat-rack’ systems, self-diagnosis software and other technologies that will significantly enhance battlefield distribution. However, as revealed in a recent Government audit, by seeking to create such impressive vehicles each new system challenged design specifications and introduced greater technical risk. Furthermore, these changes meant vehicles require more personnel of different technical variations to maintain. Although the project introducing these vehicles has extended over four decades, with numerous concepts alluding to the use of these vehicles prepared, Army is now adaptively responding to unforeseen complexities and operating principles even as the vehicles roll into the barracks.

Unforseen issues regarding the introduction of new technologies and capabilities can even extend beyond operator and maintainer matters. The shifting state of military capability can influence the calculus of strategic decision makers. High-end technology, its very sophistication making it difficult to produce, places actual combat capability at the mercy of global supply chains and product availability. The more complex the technology and diverse its origins, the more points of risk exist within these supply chains and greater monitoring is required. The practical difficulty in sustaining fleets of equipment makes equipment that should be available at short notice for meaningful tactical effect subject to strategic-level deliberations on their use. This is especially the case in smaller militaries which lack logistics depth in terms of strategic reserves of materiel and parts, access to robust defence industries in the national support base, or lack sufficient numbers of specialists relevant to maintain the technology.

Nor has technology adequately delivered on the promise of greater performance at lower logistic cost. As much as planners and commanders would like technology to reduce the logistics tail, technology continues to be the primary cause of its persistent growth. This is not necessarily a bad thing; modern militaries are vastly more capable than their predecessors because their equipment is underwritten by this ‘tail’. What should be of greater interest to us all is the changing nature of the logistics ‘tail’. As alluded to in the case of the M1, modern technologies have seen the ‘tail’ extending well beyond the organic capabilities – let alone capacity – of militaries. Industry has always been a partner in war, and its relationship with the military is growing closer. OEM and ‘contractor’ involvement in sustaining military technology is now a given for many fleets; navies and air forces have long histories with industry in this regard, but the increasing complexity of equipment is making this a major consideration in the sustainment plans for land forces. In any case, technology has most certainly brought with it tremendous changes in the composition of militaries, and who they rely upon to ensure their materiel preparedness.

The purpose of this article was not to dismiss the use of technology, nor to venerate a ‘simpler’ day where materiel mattered less to the form and function of militaries. Technology is a tremendous source of advantage that must be exploited to ensure forces have a leading edge in combat and sustainment. Rather, the article offers a reminder that technology changes more than just combat outcomes; it changes how forces operate, how they are organised, and the skill-sets required across the force. Militaries come to the fight altered by the technology that they choose to employ, and it is only when they change does that technology achieve its ultimate outcome. Understanding how technical complexity influences logistical performance is becoming increasingly important as militaries reinvigorate themselves and consider future battles.

The more time invested towards thinking about the impact of technological change on operational performance by logisticians, the less chance there will be that militaries will be surprised. Logistics concepts need to focus less on how things should operate based upon an imagined use of technology, and instead emphasise – in detail – how things must change when technology is introduced. This process may create vexatious problems for those in the combat arms who, in turn, may have to rethink their own assumptions about the future battlefield and how they operate within it.  Finally, all must work together to ensure that when logistics consequences of technology are known or experienced, efficiencies are strived for to prevent a spiraling in the quantity of support staff required in sustainment.  By addressing these issues, we can make technology work for operational performance, rather than having operational performance curtailed by self-induced technical surprise.

David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer, logistician and editor of Logistics In War. He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics.

Follow us at Twitter: @logisticsinwar and Facebook : @logisticsinwar. Share to grow the network and continue the discussion.

[1] Demchak, C. C., Military organizations, complex machines: modernization in the US Armed Services, Cornell University Press, USA, 1991, p viii

[2] Ibid., p 1

[3] Ibid., p 1

[4] Ibid., p 2

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