A look at the options.
In the early eighties, the Army conducted a Battle Attrition Study and Review of Ammunition Rates and Scales for high-intensity combat operations and combined with projected usage of Bar mines, a move to self-propelled 155mm systems and longer lines of communication as a result of strategic plan changes.
The results were sobering, the existing ammunition stock and transport capacity would simply not be up to the job, a third of what was required in some areas. It was recognised that 75% of all available lift in BAOR would be required to keep up with the Royal Artillery alone. Although palletisation had made significant improvements in handling times it was still not enough and an increase in vehicles and personnel was not seen as likely, something else was needed.
We can safely say that the British Army pioneered hooklift systems in a military context, a real innovation that revolutionised logistics delivery speed. By applying commercially proven hooklift systems (Marel Corporation) with a robust multi-wheel drive truck and trailer, ammunition turnaround times were reduced by a factor of 6. The Demountable Rack Offload and Pickup System (DROPS) was used mainly in the artillery ammunition supply chain but also used for other commodities and specialist roles (bridging equipment for example)
The Leyland Medium Mobility DROPS were introduced in 1990 using a chassis originally developed by Scammell (of wheel nuts fame!). By the time the sales process had concluded Leyland had been purchased by DAF. The vehicle called the Medium Mobility Load Carrier (MMLC) had an 8×6 drivetrain and a payload of 15 tonnes. An important part of the overall DROPS system is the DROPS trailer which can carry the same payload as the towing vehicle. There were two variants of the DROPS trailer, King and Queen, the former being made by King Trailers and the latter, Reynolds Boughton. A 16-tonne low mobility version was also introduced in small numbers.
Four years after the Leyland DAF MMLC came into service the Foden variant was introduced at a cost of £75m. This was obtained in much smaller numbers (400 as opposed to over 1,500) but was significantly more capable off-road and designated the Improved Medium Mobility Load Carrier (IMMLC). The payload was the same as the Leyland DAF vehicle.
The general approach was subsequently used for other cargo types; ISO containers, trailers and smaller vehicles, and as the vehicle fleet migrated to MAN SVs, the hooklift equipment has evolved to make container handling more efficient, the latest being a £53 million contract to retrofit the existing Enhanced Pallet Loading System (EPLS) to 382 vehicles.
However, it is important to note what the R in DROPS is, rack, not ISO container.
The reason DROPS was introduced was as a means of dropping off multiple pallets of ammunition secured to a single rack, i.e., the rack is just a very large pallet. Individual guns would not have any means to offload pallets from a conventional truck and so the pallets en-masse (on a rack) were dropped off at ground level where they could be unloaded manually.
The image below illustrates this…
Speed (or cycle time) and the ability to offload at ground level without mechanical handling equipment was (and is) the point.
The step down from the 20ft rack or ISO container is the pallet, NATO, for the use of.
These are generally unloaded from vehicles or containers using forklift trucks or telehandlers (currently the JCB JCB 524-50 and larger 541-70). The key factor with either a forklift or telehandler is that they need to be present, with a qualified operator, fuel, support etc.
Apart from a very small number of tail lift and jib equipped MAN SVs, no solution exists for loading/unloading pallets from vehicles or helicopters without breaking them down into individual loads, unpacking all those ammunition boxes one by one in the image above, or see below for an example.
Is this actually a problem?
For individual pallets and loads, arguably not. There will of course be some circumstances where mechanical handling equipment is unavailable, or pallet loads cannot be broken down, a palletised fuel tank for a generator at a patrol base perhaps, but we can reasonably argue that this would not warrant investment in new systems.
There might be a good argument for pallet trailers, but that will be the subject of another post.
Somewhere Between a Pallet and an ISO
Where I think there is a stronger argument for improvements is in the space between a 1m pallet and a 6m ISO container/rack. As we look at MRV-P and increasing requirements for distributed operations there is a gulf between a pallet and an ISO but still a need for rapid handling without the encumbrance of having a separate forklift or telehandler to worry about.
We could quite easily use the BICON, TRICON or QUADCON form factor as a template.
These are half, third and quarter-size containers that can be handled with forklifts and clipped together, retaining the standard ISO container-type twist locks at their corners. There are many adaptations of these, from simple storage and transport spaces to fully integrated shelters and expandable units.
It is quite easy to find many examples of smaller container solutions, from ablutions to power generation, from expandable kitchens to medical stations, gyms and water storage. All are able to be integrated and maintained offsite, and then rapidly loaded and deployed as required.
For smaller loads, the JMIC system allows stores to be loaded and quickly accessed
The Joint Modular Intermodal Platform (JMIP) is an intermodal platform (or rack) with integral locking fittings that allow JMICs to be secured without any form of strapping.
All these solutions have known and standardised footprints, the hard work of defining that has already been done.
Designs like the Dytecna Cube were also interesting, using the pallet footprint for a demountable electronics enclosure.
The problem remains, how to get them off or on the vehicle and onto the ground, quickly, without having to resort to forklifts, telehandlers or cranes?
The first option is to equip units with container jacks, but for smaller loads.
These are simple devices that attach to the sides of a container, manually jacked clear of the vehicle flatbed, and after the vehicle has driven away, lowered to the ground and demounted from the container. They are cheap, easy to use and very simple, but not very quick. They would also require some additional modifications for flatracks that might be used for pallets.
They are also available at a smaller scale, the Unitrac 72 shown below for example
The now-defunct Ovik’s company looked at this a while ago with their Chameleon vehicle
These are also available on oversnow vehicles
Equipping more vehicles with small hydraulic jib cranes would also allow single pallets to be moved on and off
The last conventional option to look at is the skip loader, used by the KMW Mungo vehicle, for example, it being a militarised version of the Multicar M30 municipal maintenance vehicle. The skip loader design was chosen to reduce the height so it could fit inside their CH-53 helicopters.
The MI-BOX is a variant of this, aimed at the house moving market, where keeping loads flat and easy to access are key factors.
A more unconventional approach is the U-Tail or Alfa Dropbox.
This uses a dedicated vehicle and demountable shelters that when offloaded, are at ground level. They are ideal for walk-in and walk-out shelters, small plant and other uses such as ablutions or medical spaces. I like this, although it would require a completely new class of militarised vehicles, and thus less attractive.
There is a void between a pallet and a 20-foot ISO container or rack in the current logistics architecture.
We should investigate standardising on three building block architectures for all shelters and equipment;
- 1.2x1m NATO pallet
- Half-length ISO container/rack (BICON)
- 20ft ISO container/rack
A half-length JMIP would allow 2x2x1 pallets or JMICs to be loaded, moved and unloaded as one. The 2x2x1 assembly would also fit on a single 463L air transport pallet for ease of movement through the supply chain. The larger variant of whatever comes out of the MRV-P programme should also be able to accommodate a half-length container or rack, with the smaller variant able to carry a single NATO pallet.
For the emerging class of UGV’s, we also need to think about deployment and recovery options, if those UGV’s can be designed to fit inside either 20ft ISO, 10ft ISO or 1.2mx1m NATO pallet, then the whole range of civilian handling equipment becomes available to exploit.
A hooklift does not add a great deal of weight but it does increase the height, raising the centre of gravity, so alternatives might be useful to consider, but we should consider them nonetheless.
Of course, this is just theoretical musing, and there are plenty of other things to spend time and money on.