The Power of Disruption
In a nondescript quad of office cubes on the Pentagon’s second deck, there is a photocopied portrait of LtCol Pete Ellis hanging on the wall, and on the shelf is the cartoon book Elon Musk: This Book Is about Rockets. The picture is a simple reminder of one of the Corps’ most iconic disruptive thinkers; the book highlights the life’s work of one of the planet’s most recognizable 21st century innovators. Both figures serve as inspiration for the contingent of action officers inhabiting the cubes. This fire team-sized group of Active Duty, Reserve, and civilian Marines form the Next Generation Logistics (NEXLOG) Cell at Headquarters Marine Corps, Installations and Logistics (I&L). And although small in size, this entrepreneurial-minded team is rapidly reshaping the future of Marine Corps logistics.
The Marine Corps no longer has the ability or time to rely on “iron mountains” of supplies ashore to ensure operational success. Since its inception, NEXLOG has constantly scanned the globe to explore and exploit emerging technologies to enable the more precise sustainment of distributed operations described in future operating concepts. In parallel, NEXLOG has fostered a culture of innovation within the logistics community to discover and validate new ideas by promoting multiple warfighter-driven innovation challenges and developing strong partnerships across defense innovation, science and technology (S&T), capability development, and acquisition organizations. The team has achieved success by transitioning new capabilities to the Operating Forces. Most notably, NEXLOG advocacy has enabled the establishment of program offices for both Additive Manufacturing and Unmanned Logistics Systems – Air ((ULS-A) cargo drones) and supported initiatives to equip forward deployed units with 3D printers and 3D-printed quad-copters. To stay on course, innovation incubators like NEXLOG must be replicated throughout the logistics community—and perhaps the entire MAGTF. Leaders will benefit by empowering Marines to be disruptive and innovative in order to develop a survivable logistics architecture to sustain the multi-domain contests of the future.
While innovation has become a buzzword in defense circles, this well-intended call to action is often dulled by the realities of the status quo. Change needs more than mandates, studies, and commercially available technologies; it demands an organization that can shepherd innovation and allow technologies to grow, mature, and transition. NEXLOG has achieved success because the team members are guided by a passion to change the Corps’ future. From the start, NEXLOG has actively engaged its primary customers, the end-users across the fleet. The team routinely crowd sources ideas from the Operating Forces and rapidly builds experiments-driven data to identify which capabilities to further cultivate and transition. NEXLOG is empowered to take risks and to challenge the traditional defense capability development and acquisition models. It routinely creates new connection opportunities between disparate capability development efforts to generate greater advocacy and funding for innovation initiatives. It is strategically aligned to like-minded organizations that support defense innovation, to include the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit, the Strategic Capabilities Office, the Service Rapid Capabilities Office, and Special Operations Command. This “team of teams” approach has opened the door to multiple alternative and more rapid capability development pathways that leverage contemporary government contracting mechanisms such as other transactions authorities (OTAs).
In addition, NEXLOG has continued to scan the emerging innovation base, benefitting greatly by working with many non-traditional companies and organizations that build technologies for future logistics operations. The Marine Maker initiative, the primary catalyst for the rapid adoption of 3D printing technologies, was spawned by a garage-run small business owner and has grown into a 10-person, 15,000 square foot facility in Northern Virginia. NEXLOG is partnered with a mid-tier company in Knoxville, TN, specializing in new technology applications for ground mobility to crowd source ideas and rapidly prototype modular logistics vehicles leveraging a full digital design thread. ULS-A cargo drone developments have been a collaborative effort between United Kingdom drone developers; the Army’s Research Lab; Army Research, Development and Engineering Command; the Office of Naval Research; and several small autonomous companies from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Each of these companies varies in size and technical aptitude, but all come with a talent and drive to improve logistics chain management.
Exploring the “New” Half of Hybrid Logistics
The MAGTF is equipped with precision munitions, world-class communications, and state-of-the art weapons systems. These modern complex systems have increased the need to move large amounts of fuel, water, and ammunition throughout the battlespace. Further challenging these demands is the Marine Corps Operating Concept, which is driving the MAGTF toward units that are more distributed, lean, and agile. Additionally, potential adversaries are postured to observe and target vulnerable logistics chains in future contested environments. To meet these challenges, I&L has introduced the Hybrid Logistics Concept, which blends the “old” and the “new” to simultaneously evolve supply and maintenance, lift and distribution, medical, and other logistics capabilities while also revolutionizing toward future logistics technologies to enhance the readiness, endurance, and survivability of the 21st century MAGTF.
NEXLOG is taking the lead on exploring and exploiting emerging concepts and technologies to support the “new” half of the Hybrid Logistics Concept. To date, the team has focused exploration efforts on three primary thrust areas: additive manufacturing, ULS, and data-driven logistics (D2L). In parallel, NEXLOG is igniting an overarching logistics digital transformation effort focused on modernizing information technology platforms to better connect, adapt, and optimize logistics operations.
Additive Manufacturing. NEXLOG’s advocacy within the additive manufacturing thrust area is one of the team’s most recognizable achievements to date. NEXLOG started with a hypothesis that commercial additive manufacturing technologies could be applied within the Marine Corps to augment the conventional supply chain. The team followed this up with end-user experimentation rapidly deploying capabilities across the MAGTF from ground maneuver-focused units to intermediate maintenance activities. This approach has quickly positioned the Marine Corps at the forefront of the Department of Defense and the world’s militaries in the operational employment of 3D printing capabilities.
A notable example of this is the metal M1A1 tank engine impeller created by the Marines in 1st Tank Battalion and 1st Maintenance Battalion. Faced with a significant impact to readiness because of multiple parts failures and long lead times, Cpl Cami Snider and CWO2 Nick Jones reverse-engineered the impeller design and immediately prototyped the impeller using 3D printers. Through a partnership with Marine Corps Systems Command, Naval Research Labs, and industry, they installed and operated the first-ever ground weapons system with a metal 3D-printed replacement part. Additionally, forward deployed Marines with Special Purpose MAGTF – Crisis Response – Central Command recently produced 81mm mortar wrenches while the conventional supply chain expedited traditionally manufactured wrenches.
Beyond the immediate operational use of additive manufacturing, NEXLOG is supporting the innovative application of additive manufacturing in the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), ordnance, and construction fields. EOD Marines are creating a variety of tools, from training aids to ordnance preparation assets. NEXLOG is partnered with Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head, to explore additive manufacturing as an option to augment the defense industrial base with surge munition production. Capt Matt Friedell, the Additive Manufacturing Lead within Marine Corps Systems Command, is fostering partnerships with world-leading industries to develop 3D-printed concrete structures, with the vision to someday be able to “print” forward operating outposts autonomously.
From organizational to depot levels, additive manufacturing is empowering Marines to develop solutions at the point of need. While it cannot be expected to solve all future sustainment challenges, it will deliver options for the ingenuity and innovative spirit of commanders and Marines. The momentum NEXLOG has generated for additive manufacturing must be sustained to fully implement and integrate this technology into future logistics support concepts. This will enable Marines to create what they need, when they need it, where they need it—untethering themselves from the conventional supply chain and rapidly engineering capabilities to counter the emerging threats employed by an increasingly technologically savvy adversary.
ULS. Simply put, in order to provide effective logistics support in the future, the Marine Corps must develop an autonomous distribution architecture of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, surface, semi-submersible/submersible, and ground platforms capable of supporting all classes of supply. NEXLOG’s advocacy within the ULS thrust area has energized the development of multi-domain autonomous cargo distribution and maneuver platforms focused primarily thus far on ULS-A. The most recognizable advancements to date are within the ULS-A portfolio, where NEXLOG is exploring fully autonomous UH-1 “Hueys” with 2,000-pound cargo delivery capacity, in addition to smaller cargo drones with capacities of five, 50, and 500 pounds. The continued adoption of ULS platforms will optimize logistics by increasing delivery flexibility, reducing “human touch-points,” providing in-transit and asset visibility, and lightening the load on warfighters.
From a cold start less than two years ago, small ULS-A platforms are now firmly seeded in the Marine Corps capability development process, backed by formal requirements and significant funding to support transition to a Naval Air Systems Command program of record. Additionally, NEXLOG is partnering with the Army on a three-year Joint Capability Technology Demonstration to prototype and operationalize medium ULS-A capabilities that will have a greater capacity and range to support larger maneuver units. These ULS-A platforms all offer increased availability and speed while reducing maintenance and risk to personnel in distributed and contested operating environments.
For larger, longer-range logistics, NEXLOG’s ULS-A team fostered and advocated for advanced autonomy and aerospace development. In December 2017, ONR’s Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System demonstrated autonomous cargo deliveries utilizing a UH-1H in Quantico, VA. NEXLOG also made the final push and fought for funding to get DARPA’s Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System—a large, modular, tilt-duct UAS—to flight testing in the summer of 2018. Both of these initiatives will inform the future of autonomy, aviation, and logistics distribution processes and reduce the risk associated with manned resupply missions in a contested environment.
As the ULS-A portfolio transitions, advancing ULS-Ground and Surface capabilities are the next near-term priorities for the NEXLOG team. Leveraging lessons learned and many of the same technologies used to advance ULS-A platforms will shape the development of these capabilities. NEXLOG also intends to capitalize on Joint ground autonomy exploration initiatives like the Army’s “leader-follower,” where convoy lead vehicles are operated manually while unmanned trailing vehicles receive data and directional commands from the lead vehicle.
Long-term autonomous platform experimentation within combat logistics battalions and other tactical-level logistics units is key to informing future ULS concepts of employment. Concurrent exploration of commercial ULS platforms like Zipline’s cargo drones is also critical. Zipline is operating the first national-scale drone delivery system, providing high-speed transport of blood and vaccines in all-weather conditions to remote locations in Rwanda. Continued advocacy from NEXLOG to develop multi-domain ULS platforms within the Department of Defense and rapidly adopt commercial autonomous technologies is paramount to closing current distribution gaps and assuring timely logistics support in all operational settings.
D2L. NEXLOG’s emerging D2L thrust area may prove to be the most impactful on future concepts of logistics over the next few years. The recently published National Defense Strategy calls for a more lethal and resilient force able to compete and win in an environment of long-term strategic competition, rapid dispersion of technologies, and new concepts of warfare that span the spectrum of conflict. The Marine Corps must be able to act rapidly with overwhelming lethality and unmatched readiness to support this strategy. Modernizing information technology is foundational to achieving this goal and must be a top priority.
Central to NEXLOG’s D2L thrust area are digital transformation efforts that will evolve the legacy logistics information technology portfolio and introduce contemporary data-driven analytics and artificial intelligence platforms. The D2L concept sets the conditions to harness commercial logistics data technologies to enhance and accelerate logistics support to the force. D2L is designed around mission outcomes and human decision makers, leveraging the knowledge, insight, and expertise of the entire logistics team from the senior leaders to the junior Marines.
As modernizing logistics information technology underpins speed and resiliency, it is the data which constitutes the strategic asset that must be more effectively leveraged. A purposefully designed data environment that integrates large volumes of data from the “edge to the enterprise” and effectively characterizes data for discoverability, sharing, exploration, and insights will empower every Marine to collaboratively plan and execute logistics actions. This data environment will provide the digital backbone to capitalize on recent advancements in information technology mobility. When D2L is realized, logisticians will be armed with mobile handhelds and suites of mobile logistics apps that improve logistics response times and cross-organization workloads and consistently perform in connected and disconnected environments.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a key enabling technology within the D2L concept. Rapid advancements in AI have the potential to change the very character of modern warfare. This includes enhancing human performance for improved speed and decision-making abilities, leveraging environmental and platform sensors to enable predictive vice reactive logistics, and reducing manpower requirements by employing autonomous weapons and equipment. As the D2L thrust continues to identify emerging AI technologies, digital capabilities will blur the physical and virtual worlds in a way that transforms our logistics organizations and operational design. The future will be defined by AI-enabled devices delivering increasingly insightful digital services everywhere, feeding machine-to-machine, machine-to-human, and human-to-human communication. Over the next year, NEXLOG will ramp up exploration and experimentation of targeted D2L technologies to guide investments in capabilities that will enable the MAGTF to out-think, out-maneuver, and outpace future adversaries.
Lessons Learned from NEXLOG
The NEXLOG team has not achieved unwavering success; it has encountered many challenges and lessons learned along the way. NEXLOG has identified multiple gaps within the logistics domain and beyond that must be closed to support future operating concepts.
First, logistics concepts of support are not keeping pace with operational concepts. There are serious logistics implications that need to be considered to successfully sustain the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) and Littoral Operations in Contested Environments (LOCE) concepts described in the Marine Corps Operating Concept. To achieve success, logisticians must break out of their stovepipes and integrate across the MAGTF in realtime to develop feasible and survivable concepts of support.
Second, S&T efforts must begin favoring logistics. The past tells us that theater-level conflicts are won or lost by logistics, yet many strategic investments from the past 50 years have focused on weapons platforms, communications, and intelligence. Though acceptable under the previous paradigm of assured logistics, that paradigm has now eroded, and we must begin transitioning 21st century technologies to enable precision logistics. Additionally, there is a “valley of death” between the S&T community and the capability development process that is hindering the transition and adoption of new technologies. To close this gap, S&T future force integration plans must align to advocate priorities and identify follow-on capability development paths early in the research and development process.
Third, defense capability development and acquisition investments are built from Service-specific warfighting priorities in support of the national defense mission. In many cases, the supporting role of logistics makes it an easy target for funding cuts and realignments to bolster other Service-specific war fighting systems. This is manifested right now across the Corps through the readiness-related issues with attack aircraft platforms.
Fourth, the quantity of rigid policies and processes has grown exponentially in recent years. Because of this, new initiatives tend to require waivers as violations to policy. NEXLOG has met resistance during experimentation when mixing supply classes on drones, attempting to leverage cloud computing platforms already in use by other Marine Corps organizations, and gaining approval for low-altitude military airspace for small quad-copters. We must streamline and develop flexible policy that enables commanders to explore and evaluate new technologies.
Fifth, many of our future logistics technologies are not being developed by the Defense industrial base. While the industrial base may eventually develop these capabilities, right now most technology providers are non-traditionals such as Amazon or university spin-off companies. Currently, the world’s most advanced cargo drone delivery company will not sell its drones to the military. The company will only charge the military for “delivery as a service,” which is very difficult to contract for but which aligns investment with an increased incentive for the company to improve effectiveness while driving down costs. Current contracting and acquisition systems are not aligned to these non-traditionals, and the Department of Defense will need to rethink how to leverage these companies in the future.
Sustaining the Power of NEXLOG
The NEXLOG team has achieved measurable success since its inception. This small group of disruptors has spearheaded the rapid development and adoption of multiple game-changing technologies. It has ignited the innovative spirit of the entire logistics community to solve battlefield sustainment challenges in realtime. Balancing opportunities and challenges will require a sustained commitment to warfighter-driven logistics innovation. The results NEXLOG has achieved, in just under two years, validate its existence and confirm its approach. The logistics community must maintain this vector while seeking ways to evolve processes, reduce barriers, and build an innovative culture that radiates throughout the Corps to develop a more agile, lower-signature, and refined logistics architecture to outpace and defeat future threats.
>Author’s Note: LtGen Dana would like to thank BGen Kevin Stewart, Mr. Patrick Kelleher, Mr. Carmine Borelli, Col Howie Marotto, and Maj Chris Wood—the plank owners and innovators who brought NEXLOG to the forefront of Marine Corps logistics innovation.
>>Editor’s Note: To view a remotely piloted helicopter, go to:https://www.marines.mil/News/Marines-TV/videoid/573433/.