Why you won’t recognise the Tactical Base of tomorrow

Contributor:  Richard de Silva
Posted:  04/19/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Tags:   interoperable

Before the start of the Afghanistan campaign, many forces had scant opportunity to fully understand the capabilities and challenges inherent to operations. Even upon entering Afghanistan, there was little hope of understanding just how long forces would need to be embedded, and what that meant for the long-term practical application of assets.

Over ten years into the campaign, more lessons have been learned than can be remembered, but progress in certain areas – be it technological, tactical, or other – has been made that will without doubt benefit future operations.

In some cases, this progress means overhauling entire processes when it is clear that something is just not working.

Major Tim Elliott, an officer of Her Majesty’s Forces, dedicates himself to Expeditionary Logistics and Support Capabilities. Speaking to a recent Defence IQ assembly, Elliott said that some time ago, he looked at the state of UK FOBs in Afghanistan and had a distinct reaction.

“My gut feeling was we’ve got to get our equipment integrated,” he said. “The systems aren’t talking to each other.”

Equipment integration is just one of two problems facing Elliott and his fellow soldiers. The other is that in making core changes to the equipment being used, those troops using the kit need to be retrained in its use.

A quick breakdown

Tactical bases (TBs) take many forms, and none are identical. However, categorising these bases and allocating standards, protocols, and needs for each is possible. The UK MoD has a 0-3 ranking system based on the size, location, capacity and available amenities at each base.

Level 0

Based on the frontline and essentially built from whatever the occupying soldiers can get their hands on, the Level 0 TB is usually – and mercifully – short term accommodation, but can last for several months if pushed to the limit. Its components are primarily comprised of whatever is physically issued to the troops, which means it is often based on hired land and outfitted with building nets and HESCO Bastions, and will also be provided a lightweight field generator. Soldiers still live off their rat packs. It is important to note that this is not a FOB, but instead acts as a patrol base, checkpoint, or potentially as a security “placeholder” before it is closed down and the site becomes a…

Level 1

Still within the area of conflict, an indirect threat exists that calls for greater long-term protection than the makeshift nature of the Level 0 TB. These are usually based in a field or clearing, and host more valuable infrastructure, airlifted in. This could include power generators, ‘thunderboxes’ (outhouses), and a basic water supply, although the arrangement is still organised in a series of tents. It is in these locations that forces must have a more permanent positive affect on the local population.

Level 2

This is where the TB becomes a FOB, holding not just a greater capacity in troop numbers, but taking over a larger expanse of real estate and offering enhanced power. Features may include additional equipment for soldiers, storage facilities, fuel supplies, an operations room, a C4ISR element and a commander.

Level 3

Level 3 is otherwise known as a Main Base, embedded beyond the main area of danger. However, it could be one of several, and is certainly not at the level of Camp Bastion, which in itself is bigger than the town of Aldershot, hosting up to 21,000 people. Instead, the Level 3 TB will have a great number of facilities, and will often have a satellite system of other TBs in the vicinity.

Where change is needed

One of the frequent errors that has yet to be rectified is in the notion of where personnel and equipment are placed along this line.

For example, engineers and logisticians – and the technology they work with – needs to be in Level 3, outside of the main area of conflict, so as to work in a protected, comfortable environment which has no trouble filtering in further supplies. Meanwhile, combat personnel need to be based in Level 0 or thereabouts because their primary purpose is to be in the thick of the action, suppressing the insurgency.

While seemingly obvious, crossover is sometimes necessary. Yet, by putting high-end, sensitive equipment into a Level 0 environment, the robustness of the technology cannot be guaranteed, the ability to maintain and repair that technology cannot be optimal, and the soldiers operating it are unlikely to have full training in its use.

“We’re just as guilty,” Elliott admits. “We don’t yet [deal properly with] that problem.”

According to the Major’s calculations, around £6bn of equipment has simply been left sitting across TBs in Afghanistan over the last 10 years, due to this very type of ineffective placement.

Therefore, for the current campaign, the problem space is vast. The core issues needing to be addressed in hopes to eventually solve this shortcoming can be pinpointed to the following:

Integrating equipment. Today, FOBs cannot be considered well-oiled systems as the equipment simply doesn’t speak to each other. This is an added flaw to the conventional problem of keeping the equipment up and running in hot and dusty environments.

Energy. There is a limited understanding of energy use from the top down, as well as limited options to innovate alternatives. In one instance, diesel is shipped to bases by land because there is no airlift option to undertake the task. As a result, many small convoys carrying fuel are in themselves burning a great deal of it just to get it to its destination.

Utilities management. Water, waste and fuel facilities are never optional for a high capacity base and around 70% of the logistic patrol load is comprised of these basic functions. Accessibility and sustainability again comes to the forefront.

Manpower. Training personnel is key, but no one is specifically taught how to operate from a TB because of the wide variances between them. This was apparently not an issue for British troops during the days of conflict in Northern Ireland, but has since seems melted from the requirements list. As the outlook suggests that many more of our future engagements will be conducted from TBs, this is a situation that must be overturned.

Fortunately, progress is being made. A few enterprising minds, cross capability figureheads and defence SMEs have banded together to develop what they call a “taxonomy” for TBs in order to solve these very problems.

Upon establishing the twin pillars of core infrastructure and services – the foundations for any tactical base – all other layers of the base are built up around them. The key finding of this research is that all elements of the TB are interlinked, presenting a positive “domino theory” of puzzle-solving. If you overcome one key problem, it actually solves five others.

A system of systems

The ‘Golden Thread’ to all of this is Generic Base Architecture (GBA), a new and ongoing development of open standards that will finally integrate all of these systems into one unit, allowing interoperability between the equipment used in all FOBs.

GBA is working in tandem with two other projects targeting the same end goal of full interoperability; Generic Vehicle Architecture (GVA) and Generic Soldier Architecture (GSA). Collectively this falls under the umbrella of the MoD DE&S led Land Open Systems Architecture (LOSA) project.

According to those in the driver’s seat, GBA will be open, modular and scalable, be fully applicable to the needs of current and future operations, and be a chance for industry and government to work closely together.

At present, the plan is to run GBA effectively for British Forces for 6 months to a year, at which point, provided it is successful, the approach will be proposed to NATO for Def Stan.

Canada and the United States have their own respective variants of this programme, the roadmaps of which are very similar to the British endeavour. Meanwhile, other nations have also been falling into line, with Norway using GBA as a near-identical template.

The UK itself is meeting its development timeframe and is clearly enthused by the possibilities this presents for its Future Force vision. Currently in the implementation phase, the transition period should start in 2013 and run its course into 2020, by which time the new age TBs should be in a steady state of operations.

Richard de Silva Contributor:   Richard de Silva

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