Logistics and autonomous systems – the promise of transformed logistics

The popular discussion on autonomy in warfare is constrained to either describing the advantages of introducing autonomous systems for ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ work, or articulating the limitations of their use (including ethical limitations). Logistics can be filled with a myriad of routine tasks, but the last twenty years of war in the Middle-east have proven that the life of a logistician can be as perilous as any other. Automation offers military logisticians tremendous advantages and has to be a part of their future. The collective imagination has run wild with all sorts of autonomic systems that can complement the logistics capabilities we have, filling deficiencies in force structure or providing greater capacity.

It’s a fallacy to think military logistics is only now advancing on an automation. Military logisticians, alongside industry counterparts, have utilised automation in their daily business for nearly sixty years. The Information Age gave the Logistics Domain the advantage of computing power. Provisioning, supply chain planning and functions requiring calculation are entirely automated, much as you would find in any modern business. At a more tangible level, and as we all know, much of the ADF’s materiel is produced by machine. In the future we will see these machines, even production, pushed forward into combat forces. It is conceivable, if not outright probable, that we will see robots intrinsic to battlefield repair and production in the future.

The opportunities for automation in logistics are virtually limitless, only requiring technology and entrepreneurship to deliver results that will have demonstrable effects on operations. This article survey automation in logistics and highlight areas of promise for military logistics. A following article will discuss a more important topic – instead of autonomy of logistics, this second article will look at the logistics of autonomy. In other words, the article would look at how transformative technology will be practically sustained. Understanding the logistics of autonomous systems will factor in any decisions about whether the technology will be useful to militaries at all.

The use of autonomy for decision support (usually in the context of targeting) has been incredibly popular a topic; the ADF and coalition militaries operating such a density of disparate detection systems and information that we are approaching a point where artificial intelligence is needed to process it all. To a logistician, this is not a particularly new problem. Logistics information systems have been essential to commercial and military logistics since the invention of computers, and have enabled the archetypical complex system – the commercial supply chain – to be analysed to excruciating detail. These systems allow the military logistician to identify where personnel and materiel are, where they should be, what priority they are to be moved and to whom resources should be allocated. Above all else, these information systems have meant we require less logisticians behind computers.

Alternatively, and because autonomous systems enable us to more efficiently prioritise and allocate resources through analytics, we can create greater capacity in the military supply chain or other logistics functions. When greater logistics capacity is found, this naturally means more options open up for the strategist or tactician. The use of information-age technology has helped us overcome what has been described as ‘the logistics snowball’ – the propensity of poorly planned and executed logistics to expand logistics requirements as more and more people are directed to problem solving. The opportunities on offer to us with future forms of artificial intelligence are tremendous and must continue to be exploited.

But this is not just about getting the most out of the supply chain. Vehicle ‘health and usage monitoring systems’ and other technologies enable decisions about capabilities to be made at a faster tempo than ever. It’s been a rocky journey with the systems – for example, the ‘Autonomic Logistics Information System’ for F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has received a significant upgrade to overcome highly-publicised problems – but this really is a new era of information management and problems are inevitable. For these systems to offer the most to military logisticians, there is the issue of data management that we must eventually come to terms with – who owns it, when it can be used and for what reason – including ownership of the algorithms that may ultimately make decisions formerly the purview of military commanders.

The most important area for innovation within the Logistics Domain remains in improving decision support through logistics information systems. In technical terms, this is the logistics ‘control network’, and it is armed by supply-chain analytics. Most militaries cannot afford to be inefficient with the capabilities and resources that are on offer, and an efficient control network underpins logistics effectiveness. Most high-level post-operational reports undertaken by the ADF, or by external agencies viewing its performance, identify logistics information systems as requiring investment.[1] In the future artificial intelligence could see substantial improvements in the way logistics is managed, and will continue to both help reduce complexity as well as improve situational awareness.

Why is this the case? Firstly, the complexity of military supply chains has expanded with globalisation, increased civilianisation and outsourcing of logistics capability, and with the sharing of capability across coalition partners. New information systems, appropriately secure, will help us garner where risks lie such that timely plans can be developed. Shortages could be better avoided. Costs could be better understood. Supply through multiple levels of producers and manufacturers can be accurately tracked thereby alerting the military to risks relating to the manufacture of capability. Secondly, autonomous systems may have the computational power to predict and automatically react to ensure the right product is at the right place at the right time. This will assist in signalling industry as to where supply deficiencies lie, and can support mobilisation processes when strategic crises first appear.

It is important to be aware of the risks. Cyber threats are persistently targeting global business, so Defence must prepare itself during the transformation of its logistics capability. In a 2018 testimony to the US Senate, the Commander of US Transportation Command General Darren McDew, highlighted the cyber domain as ‘being the greatest threat to our military advantage.’ Malicious state and non-state actors are already targeting vulnerable, largely unprotected, commercial systems linked in with barely protected military logistics systems. This threat was verified in the Defence Science Board 2019 report on ‘Survivable Logistics’. Why would a hostile target a hardened, highly classified decision-support and command and control network, when a soft underbelly is already presented to them? A vulnerable logistics control network will cost militaries dearly.

I am optimistic for the technology in any case. It is unequivocally the best solution to the logistics problem of our time – productivity. Logistics autonomy gives us greater capacity to do more with less, or better still, much more with the same. It simplifies something that would otherwise be highly manpower intensive. There are considerable financial advantages to Defence and Government if such capabilities are programmed and funded, and military advantages that might just contribute to the elimination of the large logistics footprint within an operational area.

The second area worthy of our attention looking into an ‘autonomous future’ is ‘last-mile logistics’. There is no better target than a logistics target, for so many things are underpinned by supply getting to where it is needed whether it be in the air, on the land, or in the ocean. Naturally, these last legs of the military supply chain are always the most dangerous for personnel. Autonomous vehicles are obvious solutions to the problem of having to put people into perilous danger. There are a range of options to automate at this level; pairing autonomous systems with operators and logisticians in human-machine teams, or fully independent robotic systems.

Autonomous systems may also give commanders new options in the forward areas of combat. Small, agile, vehicles and aerial systems might contribute to supporting smaller and dispersed teams for a variety of logistics tasks. This will add flexibility to the combat force, and potentially increase the ‘mass’ of logistics capability available. There might be no need to use manned aircraft for refuelling, thus enabling a longer period of persistence in the air. The same could apply in the maritime environment. Medi-vac could be conducted using unmanned vehicles. There are limitless options available. The choice is now as simple as deciding to invest and make these capabilities to become a reality.

I have highlighted two areas of opportunity as we look at the way autonomy can offer advantages to the military logistics and force writ large. These thoughts, though at risk of becoming wishful thinking, are intended to suggest that there are significant possibilities available to militaries who invest in logistics autonomous systems. However, before technologists leap at this future, it will be important that they consider how these complicated pieces of equipment operate and are sustained. The real challenges of the robotic future are not going to be in finding the right systems to use. That only takes imagination, engineering and funding. The challenges will emerge from an ever-increasing reliance on technology than exists today. This reliance could change militaries entirely.

Part two – the logistics of automation – will be posted shortly.

 

[1] See Australian National Audit Office, Management of Australian Defence Force deployments to East Timor, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2002, https://www.anao.gov.au/sites/default/files/anao_report_2001-2002_38.pdf?acsf_files_redirect, p 62

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