Logistics: July 2, 2004


The U.S. Army is installing portable satellite communications systems so that supply and support troops anywhere in the world can instantly order new items, check the status of previous orders, and solve problems, via the Department of Defenses private Internet systems (NIPRNET, and the classified SIPRNET, plus email on the regular Internet). The first portable satellite dishes were provided on a large scale during the 2003 Iraq war. By 2007, the army expects to have over 700 CSS VSAT (Combat Service Support Very Small Aperture Terminal) satellite communications systems in use. These systems use a four foot dish, although new models have even smaller dishes.

The smaller, VSAT type satellite dishes have been around for over a decade, and they continue to get smaller and cheaper. What drives the cost of these systems, more than size of the dish, is the associated specialized electronics and computer gear needed to handle the data traffic from local users to and from the satellite network (which can be the Internet, or any other network plugged into that satellite system.) A small system, that can support 24 users, weighs less than a hundred pounds and costs about $16,000. The largest systems, that come in a large shipping container, support nearly 2,000 users and cost a million dollars. The army is buying more of the smaller systems, as it wants to get units down to the battalion level on the Internet while they are in a combat zone. 

The CSS VSAT systems, for example, are customized for supply and maintenance units. With the satellite connection, army supply clerks can instantly check on the status of supplies and replacement parts (which the army will fly in within a day or so, once it knows what is needed.) When a division is in combat, it can generate up to 18,000 supply requests per day. If you cannot get those processed quickly, you will soon be overwhelmed and the division will grind to a halt. The CSS VSAT was first used by several divisions in the 2003 Iraq campaign and made a huge difference. It took less than a hour to get the CSS VSAT set up. A wireless LAN was often used to connect the satellite to all the PCs in the divisional supply and maintenance units near the CSS VSAT. Then, the troops could immediately start checking status of desperately needed supplies, and enter requests that combat units had radioed in while the support troops themselves were on the move. The Internet connection also allowed support personnel to hold meetings via the net, rather than traveling. The troops also were able to cut back on trips previously needed just to move data (like requisitions for spare parts) from one location to another. In Iraq, this cutback in travel was seen as a lifesaver. 

By the end of the decade, the army expects to have these satellite networks working while units are on the move, meaning that the supply and maintenance process will move even faster, making the combat units capable of moving even faster and farther. 

Military supply (logistics) systems tend to lag behind their civilian counterparts when it comes to innovation and automation. A major reason for this is that military logistics systems are only stressed in wartime, and there arent that many wars. But the war on terror is lasting a while, and providing many opportunities to improve logistical procedures and see the results. 


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