Unmanned Logistics – Getting the Delivery Through

Kaman K-MAX-unmanned-helicopter

The recent story from the MoD highlighted the job of a Combat Logistics Patrol. Operations in Afghanistan require a number of Patrol Bases (PB’s) and Forward Operating Bases (FOB’s) and these are expanding or being improved on a continual basis. The demand for materials to support operations from these locations is increasing, everything from ammunition, fuel for vehicles and generators, weapons, spares, consumables, building materials, medical supplies and even the post all have to be brought in by road or helicopter.

Efforts are underway to reduce this footprint; well drilling for raw water is a standard Royal Engineers task. A self-contained ablutions unit that uses diesel to heat water, power showers, recycle water and destroy waste is being introduced by next spring and on a small scale, solar panels reduce the need for batteries or fuel to power generators for recharging. It’s not about being ‘green’ but reducing the amount of material that has to be shipped through dangerous IED and Taleban infested territory.

There have been numerous stories in the media about hard-pressed bases going short of supplies; the effort needed to sustain operations is a significant one.

Because we have simply failed to secure significant parts of our operating area what might be a standard logistics patrol must now be a Combat Logistic Patrol (CLP). The patrol has to fight its way in or go in such force deter attack.  The CLP in the MoD news piece consisted of 116 vehicles, many of them comprising the Manoeuvre Operations Group (MOG) which provided screening and protection. Additional cover and reactive capabilities would have been provided by UAV and manned air assets such as the Apache Attack Helicopter.

The distance between Bastion and the bases is a mere 70km, about the distance between Leeds and Manchester. Going down the M62 might take an hour but this 70km took a day because of the terrain, tactical requirements and enemy activity.

It is difficult to estimate the volume and weight of the actual material delivered to the FOB’s in the Sangin Valley but the sheer effort, fuel expended, the planning involved and personnel required means that it is an expensive exercise so the less shipped the better. Each patrol is a risk, especially given the prevalence of IED’s and if this risk is realised significant delay can be introduced besides the obvious human and equipment cost.

Ideally, much of these supplies would be shipped in by helicopter but much of the material is bulky and/or too heavy for the Chinook (the helicopter with the greatest lift capability) and as helicopter operations have proven to be risky (the recent loss of 2 Chinook’s confirms the operating environment is dangerous) some cargo is simply not worth the risk of helicopter delivery. Of course, we don’t have enough helicopter airlift in theatre anyway, a subject covered many times on this and other blogs.

Air despatch by low altitude airdrop or parachute delivery is a possibility and is a well-practised capability but this needs a significant area to be dominated, swept for IED’s and mines and secured for the drop. The close terrain would also make air despatch and airdrop difficult and inefficient. The RAF and Army Air Corps do not operate small, extreme short take-off and landing aircraft that might be utilised, even in a limited manner, so this is a potential method also not available.

We find ourselves in a situation where the most practical, available and lowest risk method for the vast majority of the material is the resource-intensive and ponderous CLP.

US forces have deployed GPS assisted parachutes and even a powered, GPS guided parafoil for precision resupply but the payloads are relatively modest and only suitable for time-critical supplies.

So what we need is a method to keep the supplies flowing at a rate to sustain high tempo operations, at a reasonable cost in fuel and manpower whilst avoiding risky road moves.

Enter the Kaman K-Max unmanned.

We think this might be one to watch, it’s not cutting edge, it’s not sexy and it’s not expensive, so not likely to get much press or interest from the MoD.

But what it does do is offer the prospect of a significant increase in logistic capability for remote locations at a very reasonable cost.

The Kaman K-Max is a well-proven, rugged, cheap to operate and very simple heavy-lift helicopter in widespread service with many operators in all-terrain. It is designed to one thing and does it well. The twin intermeshing main rotor design negates the need for a power-sapping, complex and noisy tail rotor. Precision heavy lift for logging operations or siting electricity pylons, for example, needs stability and precision control, qualities that are usually low on the list of priorities for tactical military helicopters where high agility and acceleration are required.

The unique design provides an exceptionally low noise signature and a very high payload, the K-Max can lift more than it weighs.

Low noise, high payload, stability, ease of control and low cost (both capital and operation) make it ideal for shifting supplies. To operate in Afghanistan it would need a full defensive aids suite which would reduce payload and dramatically increase the cost.

Kaman and the US DoD are investigating a simple way of reducing the risk to a pilot or the cost of defensive aids by converting it to unmanned semi-autonomous operation. Landing and take-off can be controlled using a portable ground station and operator if required or can be fully autonomous.

If you don’t have a pilot you don’t need millions of pounds worth of defensive aids to protect him or her.

Kaman has partnered with Lockheed Martin (who provide the mission management technology) for a USMC and Army-sponsored trial phase which involved autonomous operations and precision manual control at landing sites. Trials and integration work continues but a number of successful demonstrations have already been completed.

The K-Max has been designed to be simple and cheap to operate with none of the usual complex helicopter systems such as tail rotor gearboxes, multi-engine combing gearboxes, multi-engine management systems and hydraulic controls. In its normal market, cost of operations, fuel efficiency and small logistics/maintenance footprint are its defining features. Performance is maintained at high altitude and high temperatures, in the Afghanistan environment, it would be able to lift between 1,900kg and 2,200kg depending on the unrefueled range required.

The distance between Bastion and FOB’s is small enabling heavier loads or multiple trips without refuelling. Fuel burn is minimal in comparison with other types, largely because of its efficiency and relatively low speed.

Looking at the published performance figures a single K-Max unmanned could carry out three round trips from Bastion to the Sangin Valley in approximately 2 and a half hours without refuelling, delivering in the order of 5-6 tonnes of material. Material going back to Bastion could also be carried on the return leg. This assumes daylight-only operations but the K-Max is certified for nighttime operation as well.

Taking these rough calculation further, 3 sorties could be carried out per 10 hour day including refuelling and quick maintenance checks, a single airframe could deliver approximately 15-18 tonnes per day.

At approximately $5 million each, they would seem to offer exceptional value for money and a very high-efficiency solution. The reduction in manpower alone, in comparison with resource-heavy CLP’s, will provide a significant cost-benefit.

Of course, not all types of material will fit within the weight and size limitations of this K-Max but a small fleet of say half a dozen, with 2 in rotating maintenance, would be able to deliver approximately 72 tonnes per day, in the environment described above, at a capital cost of much less than a single Merlin.

Much more could be achieved with round the clock operation although the fleet size would need to increase to accommodate extra maintenance.

Assuming a single Foden DROPS can carry 15 tonnes and the equivalent journey takes a day, the 72 tonnes described above would need a 5 vehicle convoy, plus its recovery support, escort and protection which might include Apache Attack Helicopter, UAV’s and the provision of a supporting Rapid Reaction Force, all for a full day. The same package would then have to do the same route again to go back to Bastion.

In being able to deliver urgent material support it would also alleviate the pressure on the Chinook fleet, reducing expensive airframe hours, thus freeing up more Chinooks for the task of aerial assault, medical evacuation and manoeuvre support rather than resupply.

Quite clearly it could not replace a 106 vehicle CLP but its constant delivery rate would much reduce the need.

Its lack of speed and agility whilst an advantage for its primary mission, may make it more vulnerable to ground fires (although it’s very low noise would help here and nighttime operation would significantly reduce risk) if one looks at the fuel, manpower, maintenance, wear and tear, planning effort and risks involved in road moves and the hammering the Chinook fleet is getting for the type of palletised stores that the K-Max unmanned could carry; surely it is worth a serious look.

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