Simplifying military logistics: Lessons from a load carrier - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 3 August 2023

Simplifying military logistics: Lessons from a load carrier

With the Indian Army placing orders for a fresh batch of Stallion load carriers, there is an urgent need to look at reducing costs


Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 4th Aug 23


All those who were in the army at the time of the Kargil conflict in 1999, or who lived or worked in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) during that year, could hardly have missed the long army convoys that carried army divisions into Kargil, wending their way up to Drass through the Zojila pass, or through the Rohtang Pass to Leh. For the first time since independence, the army’s convoys looked menacing, the legacy Shaktiman and Tata lorries replaced by Ashok Leyland’s sleek new Stallion 7.5-tonne, four-wheel-drive load carriers. Since that dramatic introduction, the Stallion has become the Indian Army’s staple load carrier, most recently ferrying Indian troops into Eastern Ladakh in 2020 to block thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers that had intruded into remote Indian Army positions with exotic names such as Depsang, Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), Galwan, Hot Springs, Gogra, Pangong Tso and Demchok. Just as the Indian military’s strategic airlift capability rests today with its fleet of C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift aircraft, the army’s tactical movement, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, depends heavily on its Stallion load carriers.


Which is why there are invaluable lessons in logistics to be drawn from Ashok Leyland’s announcement last fortnight that the Indian Army had ordered a fresh batch of load carriers worth Rs 800 crore. Our military operates a fleet of some 50,000 Stallions as tactical load carriers today. About 10 per cent of these – or 5,000 vehicles – retire every year and are replaced by new vehicles. With each Stallion costing Rupees thirty lakh, fleet rejuvenation alone gobbles up about Rs 1,500 crore each year. In addition to fleet renewal, the government’s budget allocation figures for 2023-24 reveal that a much larger amount will flow out on various dimensions of military transportation. Rs 6,717 crore has been allocated under the revenue transportation head, and another Rs 4,038 crore for transportation-related purchases under the capital head of new load carriers. Tenders have been awarded to private Indian truck builders for the production of “field artillery tractors” (FAT 4x4) and “gun towing vehicles” (GTV 6x6). The artillery uses these specialized vehicles for towing light and medium artillery guns, respectively. 

Given this massive expenditure, there are numerous ways the military can economise in selecting, acquiring, operating, maintaining and eventually disposing of this fleet. The first is by standardising its load carrier. There is probably little to choose between Ashok Leyland, Tata Motors and other manufacturers, but the military has signalled its intention to simultaneously pursue both indigenisation and standardisation. That means the vehicle fleet would consist largely of a single vehicle type, while vehicles of a marginally different type would be built with important commonalities with the base type, ensuring basic similarities. 


Standardising a load carrier would pare down the military’s spare parts inventory, which can number in the thousands for a single vehicle. Managing this complex spare parts inventory was, until recently, the responsibility of the unit that operated that military vehicle or weapons platform. The masters of simplifying military logistics were the Soviet Union, for the simple reason that its equipment-heavy armies, with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and air defence guns numbering in the tens of thousands, required their logistics to be simplified if their mechanised forces were not to be left hopelessly bogged down in the Russian steppe. Their solution was to choose simplicity over sophistication, using standardised parts to a degree never seen before. The nuts and bolts that fixed a T-55 tank’s bogie wheels to the vehicle’s hull were exactly the same as the ones used on the BMP-1 armoured carrier. If the radio set of a Schilka anti-aircraft gun was disabled, it could be replaced by one from a T-72 tank. And as the macabre Soviet army joke went, if a general from one division could not win a battle, he could be shot and replaced by a general from the neighbouring division.


Key to logistical simplification in a sprawling country like India is the incorporation of the civil retail trade network into the management of military equipment. So far, military equipment manufacturing establishments, most of them under the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) network, have centralised the manufacture, maintenance and disposal of the equipment concerned. However, instead of this, the civil trade network, located across the country, should be brought into this process, simplifying it greatly and reducing costs for the military users. For example, Ashok Leyland could use its countrywide retail truck network for transporting Stallions from the Vehicle Factory Jabalpur (VFJ), where they are manufactured, directly to the location of the military unit to which it is being issued. Having issued the vehicle to the user unit, the OFB and the VFJ are aware that, based on its maintenance and servicing schedule, it will require to be serviced in that location in a time frame that can be anticipated and catered for. The spares and components that would be consumed in accordance with that schedule can be shipped by VFJ to its retailer in anticipation of its consumption. 


Extending the principle of anticipating consumption of spare-parts and consumables and pre-positioning them in advance of requirement, the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as VHJ can digitise consumption patterns and locate the spares in locations where they are readily available and easily accessed.


Incorporating such a system for maintaining and managing military equipment would also create re-employment opportunities for retired military personnel who could be used beneficially for servicing and maintaining military equipment that they had worked on during the course of their service lives. Rather than losing the professional skills they had acquired in service, these highly-trained and motivated ex-servicemen could be given second careers, to the benefit of the expensive equipment they had handled during their extended tenures of work.


This decentralisation of logistical functions could be conveniently extended from vehicle handling and maintenance to functions such as the holding and distribution of rations, fuel, oils and lubricants (FOL). Organisations such as the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) are already being pressed into service in far-flung areas such as Leh, in Ladakh, to stockpile FOL for civilian usage during times such as winter when normal channels are blocked. Similarly, IOC facilities and personnel could be charged with holding FOL stocks for military units. There is no real end to the military functions that could be taken on by civil trade; or to the improvisations that could simplify battlefield logistics. The military needs to think through this imaginatively.

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