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The Case for a Universal Multi-Domain Shipping Container

Logistics is the backbone to any operation for every Service where fast, efficient transport is vital to success. Logistic Officer Brendon Bishop highlights how standardisation of containers was revolutionary to the global domain. Yet are these successes sufficient for #AirForce2121? Identifying the shortfalls of current technology, Bishop offers the next step for logistics to enhance this essential operational element. As Bishop demonstrates, the integration of information technology and conversion to multi-domain standardisation is not only vital for Air Force, but for the globe.

Air and space mobility planners of the 22nd century will face unprecedented demand to move more things, to more places, in faster cycles. They are going to be challenged with aligning the availability of unique transportation modes to service a growing number of terrestrial and near-Earth destinations. Future Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) logisticians will be challenged to store, secure and move cargo in containers capable of making those journeys. Can our 20th century logistics deliver Air Force 2121?

Containerisation - a global phenomenon

Through fortuitous circumstances, the 1950’s saw two major innovations in the movement of bulk cargo, first by road, rail and sea, and then by military aircraft. Malcolm Mclean – a North Carolina trucking merchant – changed international shipping forever through his invention of the Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) standardised shipping container. The TEU shipping container realised significant efficiencies in the movement of global freight, and was the catalyst for Globalisation [1]. The second innovation was a US Air Force project to develop a standardised military air cargo pallet labelled the “SS-463L” project. The AAR Cadillac Manufacturing Corporation developed the HCU-6/E 463L Pallet, which became the mainstay for western military air cargo movement.

Throughout the early 21st century, every piece of materiel deployed in support of operations in the Middle-East travelled at least part of the journey in a TEU shipping container or on a 463L air cargo pallet. Military logisticians synchronised cargo loads to transportation modes and successfully mobilised significant military resources into the area of operations. The TEU shipping container and the 463L Pallet – as well as innovations in material handling systems – enabled logisticians to cross-load cargo from road, rail and sea freight to air freight and back again. But, these advances to expeditiously move materiel from the national support base to the operational theatre can have unintended consequences.

During the US Army deployment to Iraq in 2003, a surge in demand led to the utilisation of 40,000 shipping containers that subsequently overwhelmed the logistics supply chain in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, because of the lack of information infrastructure – with cargo manifests predominantly compiled by hand – no common operating picture existed for commanders to understand their available resources. Nearly half of those containers remained unopened and unused.

The TEU shipping container and 463L pallet changed the global civilian and military freight landscape in the 20th and 21st Century, but they have only partially solved the multi-domain military logistics requirement. These existing shipping methods still require reconfiguration to interface between terrestrial transportation modes; and neither consider the possibility of transport via space. The US Air Force Research Lab’s rocket cargo vanguard project demonstrates that the goal of movement of bulk cargo by spacecraft in support of terrestrial or orbital operations is no longer an object of science fiction. Delivering a multi-domain logistics solution for Air Force 2121 will require another evolution in the way Air Force moves freight.

The “Smart Box” revolution

The fourth industrial revolution has seen demand grow for real-time information at all points of the global supply chain. It is no longer acceptable to have a box that simply stores goods for efficient movement from point to point. Command needs to know the exact location of cargo in the supply chain. If delivery of the box is going to be delayed because a cargo ship has blocked a major canal and stalled global shipping as experienced with the Suez Canal’s blockage in March 2021, aviators need to determine what the delay will cost and develop contingencies. The shipping container must become a “smart box”. To get there, the box must be connected: it must incorporate sensors which report on location, internal environment and status of the goods within the container. It must feature enhanced container security measures, self-weighing technology, and ambitiously, must incorporate environmental control systems rather than just refrigeration.

Similarly, innovation in military air cargo pallets is required. AAR Corp has developed hybrid shipping containers that have the base of a 463L-Pallet. These custom air cargo boxes are designed to interface with common Western military aircraft materiel handling systems and eliminate the requirement for time consuming air cargo nets. These hybrid shipping containers have been a boon for larger military cargo aircraft where air load teams may load in excess of 16 of them in a single C-17A Globemaster aircraft. However, these hybrid pallets are not smart boxes and they are designed for air transport only.

The incorporation of smart box technological developments will enhance the information environment and further ease the aviators’ ability to manage a growing global supply chain. However, these developments only serve to resolve lessons learnt from 2003 and earlier. They do not innovate or fundamentally change the extant global supply chain. At any freight node where road, rail or sea transport interface with air transport, the TEU shipping container must be unloaded or reconfigured to air cargo pallets. The same is true in reverse. As the availability and economics of supersonic flight and space travel improve, aviators will question the economics of applying manual labour to reconfigure cargo at the interface between transport modes.

The case for Multi-Domain Shipping

The Air Force of 2121 must be able to mobilise and reposition across the competition continuum. Air Force 2121 will offer the Australian government air and space mobility, delivering cargo to terrestrial and near-Earth destinations. From one moment, it may deliver AusAID via an aging supersonic heavy lift aircraft, and the next, repositioning that equipment via orbit to deliver an effect against a competitor. The future Aviators will require a universal shipping container capable of seamlessly transitioning across the physical domains via any transportation mode. The future Air Force air and space points of embarkation will service a growing number of mobility platforms. For a small Air Force to continue to deliver the growing demands of the Australian government, the physical shipping container must evolve.

Supply chains must be freed of the constraints of 20th century shipping containers and air cargo pallets. A universal multi-domain shipping container is an answer to the future multi-domain logistics requirements of Air Force 2121. Such a container will be capable of cross-loading without reconfiguration enabling the Joint Force to deploy and redeploy via any transportation mode. Aviators will access real-time information describing the exact location and status of their cargo anywhere in near-Earth space. The universal multi-domain shipping container will enable Air Force 2121 to move anything, anywhere, anytime.

Footnote [1] Rodrigue, Jean-Paul., and Notteboom, Theo. “The geography of containerization: Half a century of revolution, adaptation and diffusion”, GeoJournal, Issue 74, 2009.

Brendan Bishop is a Logistics Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. During his time in Air Force, he has gained extensive experience and operational deployments with Air Force air load teams. Brendan has also completed postgraduate study in Project Management. The views expressed are his alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.


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