Pallets and Containers

ISO Container

Completing our look at logistics I am going to delve into the complex world of pallets.

Anyone thinking that pallet dimensions would be coordinated with vehicle dimensions, aircraft hold dimensions and ISO containers are in for a shock!

We know that ISO containers are the desired method of shipping by road, rail and sea. Their large size and weight mean the opposite is true for air transportation and for small loads ISO containers don’t really make much sense.

For air transportation and small break bulk loads, the pallet is the obvious and preferred option.
There are 2 main systems.

The 463L pallet is a military system that uses a flush pallet designed for easy handling using cargo aircraft floor rollers. The standard 463L is made of aluminium with a wooden core and has slots for forklifts. because it is of smooth and uniform construction there is nothing to snag on aircraft floors, this means they can be easily moved within the aircraft without mechanical handling equipment and shoved out of the back door when airdropping. Each pallet can have a maximum weight of approximately 4.5tonnes and is 2734 x 2235mm. The only problem with the 463L system is their great cost which means they are rarely used intermodally, loads that are delivered to an airhead by air will be broken down and transferred to other types of pallet or container. Because the 463L pallet has so many uses outside of the transport sphere they have a habit of going missing. The associated intermodal platform supplements the 463L by using an intermediate pallet, the AIP is placed between the 463L and the load and used for transfers, thus keeping the expensive 463L within the air transportation system.

For commercial airfreight, the containers have to be very lightweight and conform to the hold dimensions and shape of the most common aircraft. the familiar aluminium notched rectangle is the most common and called the Unit Load Device.

The UK will be using the Airbus A330 as supplied by the Future Strategic Aircraft PFI Air Tanker which commonly uses the LD3 version of the ULD although it will be able to take 463L’s as well.

For ground transportation, the 463L and LD3 are impractical for a variety of reasons so the more familiar pallet types are used

Standardised Euro pallets come in 6 sizes but the most common are 800 x 1000 or 800 x 1200mm

ISO has 6 standard pallet sizes, 2 of which are the Euro pallet size and the other four are the most common types in other locations.

For military applications another standard is used, MIL STD 1660 is commonly used for ammunition pallets and designed for efficient ISO container packing. Amongst the many specifications, the size is 1016 x 1219mm

To see the benefits of the metric system for scaling and utility one only needs to look to the paper. The ISO 216 paper system has an elegant simplicity, A4 = 2x A5, A3 = 2xA4 for example and when scaling up or down the multiplication factors are consistent multiples of square roots. It might be a bit geeky but the difference this makes to photocopiers and printers is significant. It is one of those things that simply make sense. Bizarrely, North America is the only place that doesn’t use this eminently sensible approach and insists on using various combinations of imperial sizes, letter and legal for example. Toilet paper is usually in A6 format as well!

What has this got to do with military logistics?

I have just used it to demonstrate the logic of metric dimensions and the ease of which they scale and stack in multiples. 2 packs of A4 occupy the footprint of A3 for example.

The interlinking of metric and imperial measurements makes things immeasurably more complicated and as these different systems have evolved interoperability is still a problem. Equipment is built around one standard or the other, military airlift aircraft for example commonly use the 463L but civilian aircraft use the ULD.

Chinook internal cargo bay width, with the seats installed but folded, is approximately 2.1m and the length 9.1m which means the 463L cannot be used and if the MIL-STD 1660 is used, there is wastage on either side. this might not be a problem with a mixed personnel/stores load but it is not efficient.

Merlin internal cargo bay width is 2.4m and the length, a little over 7m. The width of the cargo bay means that it can use 463L pallets but there is some space left over lengthwise meaning only 2 can be carried.

Perhaps more importantly for helicopters, given they are likely to be at the end of the supply chain, is what can be done with those pallets once they have landed. 463L pallets are generally too expensive to be used in tactical roles unless airdropping and handling equipment is generally geared towards the smaller 1660 or Euro/ISO pallet.

As can be seen from this picture we tend to breakbulk loads and rely on old fashioned manpower. The scene below shows a Merlin, blades running, at an HLS near a FOB in Afghanistan. this scene may be atypical but there are 6 personnel and 2 vehicles, a Quad and Springer involved with unloading a relatively small amount of stores, perhaps just personal equipment. No mechanical handling devices are used.

A recent story from the MoD about nighttime airdropping of supplies and a new system that makes the whole exercise much more accurate meaning less area to sanitise for IED’s is also interesting from stores handling perspective.

The stores are then driven to the FOB/PB or other waiting vehicles, perhaps in a number of round trips. The story quotes 60 tonnes needing 20 personnel and a nights worth of dangerous activity, perhaps with as many as 3 or 4 aircraft involved.

So whilst the problems of pallet interoperability will likely continue to be an insurmountable problem, 463L, ISO, 1660 and Euro pallets are here to stay it would seem, are there any ways we can make this process at the sharp end more efficient?

Most loads comprise lots of small boxes, ammunition, ration packs, batteries, spares, medical supplies and other sundries so efficient packaging would seem to offer a lot of benefits. Airdrop pallets need to of course be tough, they may hit rocks or turn over on impact and have to be rigged very carefully so any airdrop system would need to take this into account. Slinging loads underneath helicopters to assist with rapid unloading makes them fuel-inefficient but in many cases, it is too dangerous to hand around whilst stores are offloaded, box by box and at many FOB’s there are no mechanical handling vehicles available to assist.

Looking at those grainy green images one wonders if we have really progressed from Market Garden or Burma, we might be able to drop onto a smaller area but it still needs manual handling on the ground.

In a previous post on the Springer, I asked if it was a retrograde step, the problem of retrieving stores from drop zones is not a new one and in what is a depressingly familiar tale, we have worked the answers out, deployed equipment and then got rid of it thinking we might not need it, only to have to relearn those lessons and start from scratch.

The Supacat ATMP can use a pallet loading trailer, the FLPT (Fork Lift Pallet Trailer) and SLLPT (Self Loading Lightweight Pallet Trailer) that are designed to reverse onto a pallet, hook it up in less than a minute and drive away. No breaking the pallet down, quick and easy.

These have all been sold now and whilst our soldiers are sweating it out transferring airdropped pallets by hand into the back of a Springer the trailers that might have actually been of some use are in civilian hands, transporting Rayburn cookers. The ATMP could even be fitted with a HIAB hydraulic jib if the trailers are not practical.

Another option may be simply to provide the FOB’s with a mechanical reach stacker. The C Vehicle PFI has provided 333 JCB 524-50 Telehandlers but these may not be suitable to cover the distance or terrain between the FOB and drop zone. We might call up those nice people at JCB and ask for several High Mobility Rough Terrain Forklift. The HMRTF can be underslung by a Chinook, carried in a 20ft ISO container and handle adverse terrain. Simply carrying a lightweight demountable forklift on the back of a truck would be yet another option and these are made by a number of manufacturers including HIAB, Loadmac, Manitou, Stonehall and Palfinger, as shown below.

One wonders if by using a truck and forklift combination the recovery operation above might have been quicker and carried out with less personnel.

This caught my eye and I wonder if there are military applications.

It is from a UK company called U Tail and although for military use it would need to be more robust I think it has potential.

The dimensions would have to be defined around the internal dimensions of the Chinook and Merlin. At approx 2m wide it could take 2 Euro or 1660 pallets and still fit inside a Merlin or Chinook. Lose stores could be pre-loaded into the container.

Airdropping might also be a possibility as it would comfortably fit within the 463L envelope.

Instead of relying on manpower, something we are chronically short of, especially in Afghanistan, using simple, off the shelf or easily developed technology we can make the delivery of materials to forward locations much more efficient.

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