More Thoughts on Logistics – Containers

One of life’s great mysteries is why Americans instinctively ‘get’ doing large stuff.

It seems to be a particular US trait that they intrinsically understand the value of standardisation in tackling large projects or tasks.

One only has to look at US buildings to see this, every aspect of design and construction is defined, in unambiguous detail, in various building codes. The result may be buildings that seem the same and lacking in design flair compared to those in the UK that are lovingly created bespoke designs, but they take less time to build and are less expensive.  This is a massive oversimplification and I hope there are no architects reading this who will shoot me down in flames, but that is the perception!

The concept of intermodal transport is deceptively simple but without it, the global supply chain would be very different.

Goods leave the production line, loaded onto pallets, which are loaded into containers. The container is closed and transferred by road to a port, where it is stored with other containers until the ship is ready. The container joins the thousands of others and is loaded into the hold of a waiting container ship. To make things even quicker still, modern container ships don’t have hatch covers, just efficient bilge pump.

At the end of the sea journey the reverse happens.

It is an intricate and finely choreographed routine but underpinning it’s success is the concept of intermodalism; using several modes of transport to move a single load, without excessive handling. The container remains sealed and handled as one, whether it is being transported by road, rail or ship. The goods themselves are handled a minimum of times, more handling equals higher cost and lower speed.

The desire to minimise handling has resulted in ISO containers, pallets, shrink wrapping and palletised roll cages for example; modern logistics.

In the previous post on containers and pallets I looked at the larger sizes and in the post on logistics software and systems, asset tracking was the main subject.

In this post I am going to look at efforts to make use of smaller containers, sub division and maximising volume.

Back to the Americans…

Bicons, Tricons and Quadcons

This sounds like something from the latest Transformers movie but it is a deceptively simple concept, subdividing the standard 20ft ISO into smaller containers that are more convenient to handle in theatre and more appropriately sized for many loads but can be ‘clipped’ together to form a standard 20ft container, the ubiquitous Twenty Foot Equivalent (TEU)

A Bicon is half a TEU, Tricon, a third and Quadcon a quarter.

BICON Container
BICON Container
TRICON Container
TRICON Containers
QUADCON Containers
QUADCON Containers

They are consolidated for road, sea and rail moves by simply locking them together, Lego style. When clipped together in a 1 TEU sized package they can instantly snap in to the global civilian and military logistics system that is dominated by ISO containers.

When unclipped, they can be handled by small forklift trucks and loaders, the kind of which are often held by forward units. Full size container reach stackers are large machines and rarely forward deployed. Because of this, 20ft ISO containers are usually offloaded using DROPS style vehicles and left in place.

QUADCON Containers on a PLS
QUADCON Containers on a PLS

Instead of breaking down large containers for their contents, unit sized loads can be kept together in the supply chain as far forward as possible, reducing manpower, minimising double handling and reducing costs. Receiving units get the benefits of containerisation without the problems associated with handling large 20ft containers. The double door versions also mean that everything is easily accessible, avoiding the need to unload everything just to get that one item that will inevitably be at the back. There are many variations available on the basic theme, single doors, double doors, doors both ends, roller shutter doors and refrigerated to name but a few.

It’s a beautifully neat solution.

Storage Frames, Modules and Other Uses

As the Quadcon, Tricon and Bicon started to see  more widespread service, personnel in the field and a number of manufacturers started to realise they could be used for purposes other than simple storage, manufacturers responded with a range of ingenious solutions and adoption rates are increasing dramatically.

Manufacturers of the ‘con’ based solutions include Seabox, AAR, BOH Environmental, CMCI and Mobile Shelter Systems.

As an example, the US Army Force Provider Expeditionary (FPE) system uses a series of Tricons. Each FPE module comprises eight shower units, eight toilet units, four laundry units, and four kitchen systems. The equivalent of 8 20ft ISO containers supports 600 personnel and because of their modular nature, can be folded out and set up in minutes, comparing well with tentage.

Recent enhancements have included water capture and recycling technology, laundry and office units.

TRICON Expeditionary Kitchen System
TRICON Expeditionary Kitchen System

A number of dedicated storage inserts for Tricons and Quadcons have been introduced using sliding trays, drawers and racks.

The weapons storage module features racks for rifles, draws for pistols and sliding trays for sights, consumables and armourers tools It is very Hollywood but the weapons store prevents spare equipment from being stored incorrectly, improves availability availability and is an organised solution for weapon storage and field maintenance.

Field maintenance modules are available for helicopters and vehicles with differing tools, test and inspection equipment. Instead of having tool boxes that get loaded into containers and unloaded in theatre, the container is the tool box. Inserts are not a random set of trays, shelves and draws, the complete system is configured using the exact equipment establishment of its recipient users, a place for everything and everything in its place, very organised.

BOH Field Puck Up containerised storage system

The Field Pack Up from BOH Environmental is an excellent example of such well thought through integration.

BOH Field Pack Up
BOH Field Pack Up

Modular warehouse units are available that fit inside Bicons or Tricons and in a fiendishly cunning design change, can also be mounted on a 463L pallet for time critical air transportation. There are many empty ISO containers in theatre but getting new ones out there means slow sea and road transportation. Time critical supplies are sent by air but as we noted in our previous post, ISO containers are anathema to air transportation because of their high tare weight. Using the modular warehouse inserts, the 463L is used for the air transport leg and then the carrier insert is neatly fitted into an ISO container or series of Tricons/Bicons for onward shipping in theatre.

All the benefits of containerisation without the weight penalty for the air leg; labour intensive packing and unpacking is radically reduced. Instead of breaking then traditional 20ft ISO container into smaller pallets or boxes at intermediate locations, this system allows smaller loads for forward units to be retained in a single contiguous package.

Unit stores, tools and test equipment can be easily held in these warehouse units in home locations so when the need to deploy arises, they simply packed up and deployed in one. No need to load from one stores to another, this is like going on holidays and not packing a case, simply take your wardrobe with you. Units become dramatically more deployable, a UK example might be a units G10 stores.

The MSS  Storage and Transport Frame is a stackable, collapsible, wire mesh container for the transport of medium and small items, has integral forklift sleeves and can be carried on a 463L pallet or optimised for Tricons. The Intermodal Storage and Transportation Frame is a also designed for maximum flexibility with various stacking and space optimisation options, it is relatively cheap as well.

Rack Storage and Transport Frame

A system that combines modified 20ft ISO containers and storage and transport frames is called the Expeditionary Warehouse System (EWS) that enables the near instantaneous establishment of a field stores warehouse. Individual compartments in the frames can be locked to deter pilfering or secure high value stores.

Expeditionary Warehouse System
Expeditionary Warehouse System

Armouring of containers is a new trend and RFID tagging allows individual containers to be tracked and they progress through the supply chain (we are not alone in having tracking problems, a year ago, US forces could not account for some 25,000 containers in Iraq!)

In the maritime domain, the 20ft ISO container is too large for the smaller vessels but Tricons and Quadcons provide the benefits of mission modules in an easier to handle package, perhaps there is a use for these in the C3 or C2.

More complex designs are also starting to emerge including UAV control, image analysis, data centres and communications equipment stores. With the increasing proliferation of ISR collectors like R-PAS, targeting pods, biometrics and surveillance systems there is a danger of data overload. Analysing this data and turning into into timely and actionable information is going to be an increasing problem, automated software to assist with this process is storage and processor hungry. Containerised data centre’s from Sun, IBM and HP are likely to be seen as an essential part of a deployed force’s establishment.

Flat Racks

When I looked at pallets and containerisation I neglected the humble flatrack. They are of course used a great deal, carrying everything from vehicles to generators but their main use was for delivering ammunition to artillery guns. A battery of AS90’s can chew through vast quantities of ammunition and the DROPS fleet was configured to feed this beast, heavy artillery barrages are less likely to be employed in future conflicts so the flatrack has found its main role of delivering ammunition relegated somewhat.

There is still innovation to be head though.

The US Container Roll Out Platform (CROP) system uses a modified ISO standard flatrack whose unique feature is that it can be slid into a 20ft ISO container directly off the back of their DROPS equivalent vehicle. At the port of departure, the CROP is simply hooked onto the back of the vehicle and driven to its destination with absolutely minimal intermediate handling.

Containerised Roll On Platform
Containerised Roll Out Platform
Containerised Roll Out Platform
Containerised Roll Out Platform

Using a 20ft ISO container allows the pre packed load to be transported using ubiquitous container handling systems and it also provides security and environmental protection.

An enhanced CROP is available from Seabox that provides a facility to collapse the A frame hook for easy stacking, 8 can be carried per 20ft container, for a reverse journey.

Air Portable Containers and Handling

Standard ISO containers have to be robust, this usually means steel construction and results in a heavy tare weight. When travelling by sea, road or rail this tare weight, whilst important, is not critical. Air transport, on the other hand, is very sensitive to weight so carrying ISO containers by air is the exception rather than rule.

The smaller Quadcon can be easily carried on a 463L, as below, despite the weight disadvantage this may sometimes be offset for other reasons.

QUADCON Container secured to a 463L Pallet
QUADCON Container secured to a 463L Pallet

However, the benefits of containerisation apply equally to air transport as they do other means so there are containers in use, just not made of heavy steel. In the previous post on pallets I described the 463L and LD3 Unit Load Device but for forward field use the 463L is generally too large and certainly too expensive. The ULD is also awkwardly shaped as it has to fit into a cylindrical aircraft fuselage. The 463L generally does not have forklift slots so needs roller handling equipment, these are commonly found in aircraft floors and airbases but certainly not in forward locations although adapters can be fitted and some variations of the 463L do have fork lift slots.

The Dutch company VRR has been producing customised aircraft containers for many years, having a range of very interesting designs for applications that require rapid movement of equipment using civilian design derived aircraft, the example below is for spare parts carriage for NATO AWACS aircraft.

VRR Air Mobility Container
VRR Air Mobility Container

VRR also make a Merlin compatible pallet

The Chinook helicopter can be fitted with the Helicopter Internal Cargo Handling System (HICHS) that uses a series of rollers similar to those found in tactical air lifters and allows the rapid offloading of various pallet types.

Helicopter Internal Cargo Handling System
Helicopter Internal Cargo Handling System
Helicopter Internal Cargo Handling System
Helicopter Internal Cargo Handling System
Helicopter Internal Cargo Handling System
Helicopter Internal Cargo Handling System

The Chinook HICHS can accommodate both 463L and NATO standard pallets.

HICHS has reportedly had some availability problems with US forces in Afghanistan and the 463L pallet leaves no room for passenger carriage so alternatives have been rapidly introduced. Slinging loads increases drag and therefore reduces speed and range so wherever possible, internal carriage is preferred. Using this type of system pallets can be quickly unloaded using a roll forward maneuver, therefore avoiding time consuming handling. At a forward location it is obviously preferable to spend as little time on the ground as possible to reduce the time for an enemy to plan an attack against the aircraft when it departs the HLS.

If the Helicopter Landing Site has a forklift or other type of rough terrain reach stacker the pallets could simply be transferred from the Chinook directly to a vehicle for onward transport, minimal personnel involvement and minimal time on the ground.

AAR Corporation manufacturer a wide range of containers designed specifically for internal carriage in tactical aircraft and external slinging from helicopters including designs as diverse as kennels, refrigerated storage and weapon containers.

Many of these designs can also be carried internally in a Chinook.

Personnel numbers are at a premium in Afghanistan, every person really does count.

There are of course, no magic bullets and everything has to be paid for in one currency or another but looking at recent stories one wonders if with some small scale investments we could be maximising efficiency by the application of ‘off the shelf’ logistics systems that have been highlighted in this and previous posts.

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August 31, 2010 7:00 pm

Wow, totally ‘awesome’ post (as they say this side of the pond) you truly are the Jedi Master of Logistics, and we are your humble Padawan’s…. :-)

August 31, 2010 8:17 pm

Excellent piece, well researched.

Add to that liquids/POLs can also be containerized so there is really no reason we can’t start living out of the box.

August 31, 2010 9:58 pm


I think you’re spot on in the last graf, boss. Your post two (I think?) logistics postings back about the MoD’s quiet success with the follow-on to Masshy wagons is just the right example with which to nudge someone inside the building. I notice (as I get ready to wade back into the RN-funding thread) that it only took you two full grafs to get your ISOs on shipboard, though ;-)


Long as we don’t have to wear those little rat-tail hairdos, I’m totally good with that. I learn more, and have more unexpected fun, frankly, in these logistics threads than nearly anywhere else on site (or online, for that matter, sad bastard that I am :)

August 31, 2010 10:15 pm

You also hit on precisely one of the things (a small number, unfortunately) at which the US are absolute world-beaters. Sometimes they standardize the wrong things (the crap gunnery aboard the Sherman tank, the F35 budgetary boondoggle) but Lord Americans can standardize. I suspect some of it comes from trying to turn what’s really about five or six countries a few layers under the skin into a coherent whole, in which rail gauges, Model Ts, and McDonalds probably played as great a part as the chaps on Mt. Rushmore.

Enjoyed spelunking VRRs site quickly, too: another hobby-horse of mine, greater Anglo-Dutch cooperation. Much more useful, in a number of itemized practical ways, than the Anglo-French concords being waved around by high Tories who like a good Burgundy with dinner. Probably my biggest single hobby-horse — my Mexeflote if you will :) — is cargo carrying airships. Get something on the scale of the largest SkyCat design from the start of the last decade, which already dwarfs the load of wide-body cargo jets, factor in containerisation on this model, and you could lift brigade-scale wodges of gear aboard not very many airframes.

paul g
August 31, 2010 10:52 pm

logistics is vastly underrated i could tell the story about hiring ships to take the AARVs down to gulf war 1 spending days prepping and getting to hamburg docks and then finding they don’t fit through the ships doors!!! (measure twice load once) funny now but after finding another ship bringing the aarv’s back again they were 3 weeks behind everything else and they were our cranes for pack lifts.
The joy of the systems brilliantly described here are they 365 systems ie can be used back at home, on the frontline, in war or in mercy missions, so dr fox unlike the challys doing “nothing” in BAOR get the wallet out and get spending (investing)!

Sven Ortmann
August 31, 2010 11:12 pm

“Add to that liquids/POLs can also be containerized so there is really no reason we can’t start living out of the box.”

A German military journal (mix of official propaganda channel and hardware news) recently reported about the first few dozen fuel transport containers for MULTI (~DROPS) use.

This makes me sick, for fuel is an obvious choice for this kind of transportation and we need much, much more of such containers!

Relatively static ops require much ammo abd little fuel.
Highly mobile ops require much fuel and little ammo.

It’s obvious that a large share of ammo and fuel transportation (everything above the “always” level) should be done with dual-use transport capacities for efficient use of logistic assets (-> money and manpower).
The DROPS approach is just perfect for this (much better than drums or even flexible fuel tanks on flatbeds).

September 1, 2010 9:09 am

It’s good that someone cares as much about containers as you care about containers. Having read that I now feel I am something of a student in the science of portable steel boxes and shall hold my head up whenever the subject comes up in conversation at the Mill Tavern. I’m not joking either, I quite fancy one for the garden, a shed for real men. Do they lock from the inside by the way?

September 1, 2010 10:59 am

I read recently that a common problem with military container logistics nowadays is returning empty containers as they are obviously not a high priotiry and thus tend to pile up in theatre. Would containers which can be disassembled and flatpacked be feasible?

September 1, 2010 11:17 am

Some consideration needs to be given about to best unload containers “tactically.” For a while now I thought there was some advantage to LASH. Better than craning them over the side or using some form of dock ship and landing craft.