The United States Army Functional Concept for Sustainment 2016–2028 (Army Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525–4–1), released on 13 October 2010, lists as a required capability of the future force the ability to move "critical supplies, personnel, and repair parts" to forward locations on the battlefield by air, using manned and unmanned systems. To bring this capability into being, Army sustainers must accurately define typical aerial resupply requirements.
Aerial resupply fills a key role in tactical logistics, especially at the brigade combat team level and below. Anecdotal stories of aerial resupply in combat abound, and the capability is essential in austere environments that have widely dispersed elements in the 30- to 60-kilometer range. In these operating environments, units receive routine resupply by air at locations that ground vehicles cannot reach. Aerial resupply is also frequently accomplished under "emergency" circumstances.
Determining the Type of Aircraft to Use
The Army Aviation Center of Excellence (USAACE) at Fort Rucker, Alabama, has a cargo unmanned aerial system working group to which the Army Sustainment Center of Excellence at Fort Lee, Virginia, has contributed logistics subject-matter expertise. USAACE recognizes the key role of aviation assets in combat sustainment now and in the future. The aviation community has three options for meeting this requirement: continue to use manned systems, use an optionally piloted vehicle (a conventional aircraft adapted for unmanned flight), or develop a cargo-capable unmanned aerial vehicle. The likely option will be a combination of conventionally manned and optionally piloted vehicle systems in the midterm (2016 to 2025) and longterm (2026 to 2035) until the Army has the capability to fly most aerial sustainment missions using unmanned platforms after 2035.
Although virtually anything needed by troops in combat can be flown to them, the most common items are rations, ammunition, fuel, repair parts, and mail. The weights and quantities of these items can be large, even for small teams or squads. It takes more than 4,000 pounds of cargo capacity to bring enough rations to feed 50 Soldiers for 14 days.
Remote locations that have artillery systems or mortars providing fire support to combat operations demand thousands of pounds of ammunition, often daily. One 500-gallon fuel pod weighs over 3,400 pounds but can provide enough fuel to generate electrical power and heat for a platoon-sized unit for up to a week. Repair parts for critical combat systems are needed right now. The U.S. Postal Service allows mailers to send a package of up to 70 pounds to a Soldier. If 25 Soldiers in a remote element are each sent a package from home weighing 70 pounds, that comes to 1,750 pounds.
Advanced Mobility Experiment
In January 2011, the Sustainment Center of Excellence participated in an advanced mobility experiment hosted by the Boeing Company at its Virtual Warfare Center in Saint Louis, Missouri. Based on combat conditions in Afghanistan, the simulation assessed the desired mission capabilities, concepts for employment, and value of unmanned aerial cargo platforms in the joint force. Participants role-played an air mobility operations cell, a theater-level remotely piloted aircraft cell, a combined joint task force headquarters, a brigade aviation officer, a joint tactical air coordination cell, a brigade mission command cell, and an opposing force cell.
The results of the experiment indicated that a tactical-level unmanned cargo aircraft ideally would be capable of carrying 4,000 to 6,000 pounds. The experiment results also indicated that if unmanned, intratheater lift existed, it should be capable of carrying up to 18,000 pounds of cargo. The results showed that an unmanned cargo system introduces an enhanced ability to provide sustainment from its point of origin directly to its point of need.
Sustainers now and in the future will have no shortage of critical, time-sensitive cargo missions that they will ask the aviation community to perform. The need for expanding unmanned aircraft system capabilities into cargo missions across all the services requires an active partnership between the Sustainment and Aviation Centers of Excellence. For its part, the sustainment community must lead the way in defining typical aerial resupply requirements because sustaining small tactical elements will remain a very big task.