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Shipping Out: ISO-based Deployment Systems

As they have with commercial logistics operations across the globe, commercial “shipping containers” have revolutionized military logistics. Today, nearly four decades after the International Standards Organization (ISO) brought size standards to a morass of conflicting designs and sizes, military logistics operations are still being facilitated, not only through the movement of internal supplies, but also through myriad new and improved specialized applications of containerized and “container-sized” systems.

The military’s recognition of the logistics value of the standardized containers was clearly evident in the 1990/1991 Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, during which ISO containers were a primary method for shipping supplies and materiel.

Evidence of “the container contribution” to that buildup was obvious in a September 1992 report by the General Accounting Office – now Government Accountability Office (GAO) – which noted: “At the completion of Operation Desert Storm, DoD [Department of Defense] faced the overwhelming task of returning about 35,000 containers of materiel to supply depots and units in the United States and Europe. About 22,800 of these containers held Defense Logistics Agency managed materiel, of which approximately 10,000 have been returned to supply depots in the United States. The remaining containers were sent to units in Europe, service maintenance depots, specific units in the United States, or to locations worldwide for humanitarian assistance. As of April 1992, most of the materiel had been moved out of Southwest Asia. However, supply depots were still receiving and processing the items into their supply systems.”

Standard ISOs during this period tended to be steel (other designs included aluminum/steel and fiberglass-reinforced plywood) structures that provided cargo-loading access through end-opening doors. The typical containers could be 10, 20, 30, or 40 feet long by 8, 8.5, or 9.5 feet high. The standard width of the intermodal container was 8 feet. In terms of construction, the walls of a typical steel container were usually constructed of corrugated sheet steel panels welded to the main structural steel top and bottom side rails and end frames. The end frames were fitted with standard corner fittings (steel castings) at all eight corners that were welded to the four corner posts, top and bottom side and front rails, and rear door sill and header.

The seven billeting facilities in the Expeditionary Force Provider Kit are mission essential for the 585th Engineer Company at Forward Operating Base Logar. The showers, latrines, laundry facilities, billeting tents and a dining tent contained in the EFPK can be operational in four hours. U.S. Army photo.

It was a convenient package for logistics operations.

While some of the resulting post-conflict logistics efforts during the 1990s focused on issues of In-Transit Visibility and Total Asset Visibility for the containerized cargo within these ISOs, other logistics planners focused their attentions on concepts of “sub-dividing” the ISO space into smaller containers that could be joined together into 20-foot equivalent unit (TEU) containers.

The joint U.S. Navy (NWP 3-62M) and U.S. Marine Corps (MCWP 3-31.7) “Seabasing” manual (August 2006) suggests a broad service appreciation for containerized logistics, addressing the packaging of dry cargo or freight for sealift in these smaller TEU containers.

“ISO-configured equipment (e.g., quadcons, tricons) provide an efficient means of consolidating legacy loads and transferring large volumes of cargo between ocean and overland platforms,” it noted. “Within CONUS and in most modern, developing OCONUS ports or transshipment locations, intermodal systems are predominant for airlift, sealift, and overland wheeled and rail distribution. Critical to the throughput across any of these nodes is ensuring sufficient MHE [material handling equipment] is available to effect transloading of cargoes.”

The tricon is configured so that when three of these units are secured together, the resulting package has the same “TEU footprint” as a 20-foot ISO intermodal container. This three-into-one concept combines the advantages of a segregated loading pattern with the ease of handling of a standard 20-foot container. Intended for use as a transport storage unit, the unit’s double-door access options greatly expand potential applications.

The quadcon mini-container, which was originally developed for use by U.S. armed forces, is configured to enable four containers to be secured together with the resulting package having the same footprint as a standard 20-foot ISO intermodal container.

Along with their critical contributions to standard logistics movement, both Marine Corps and Army planners are also embracing a range of new “dedicated” container efforts – including new quadcon and tricon designs that provide new options for transport and deployment of expanded tactical or support capabilities.

The Army’s “Force Provider” effort provides several examples of the optimized packaging. Born in 1991 as a result of inadequate living conditions for soldiers during Operations Desert Shield/Storm, the Force Provider concept, dubbed “The Army’s Premier Base Camp,” provides a compilation of military and commercial products containing all the materiel necessary to provide climate-controlled billeting, quality food and dining facilities, hygiene services, and morale, welfare, and recreation facilities to support military personnel in rugged field locations.

Force Provider was Type Classified “Standard” in May 1994 as a 550-personnel module capable of being complexed/combined to support a brigade-sized force of 3,300 personnel. Subsequent reconfiguration efforts allow the new module – now referred to as Force Provider Expeditionary (FPE) to support 600 personnel per module via four expeditionary base camps supporting 150 personnel each. Each FPE module contains eight shower units, eight latrine units, four laundry units, and four kitchen systems.

FPE focuses on tricon-sized shipping designs for its individual units.

The Expeditionary TRICON Kitchen System is a container-based all-electric kitchen that can feed 150-300 soldiers three meals a day, and can be set up by two soldiers in about 30 minutes. Courtesy photo via U.S. Army.

In terms of hygiene services, for example, Force Provider’s Expeditionary Shower System (ESS) is a tricon (8 feet high x 8 feet wide x 6.5 feet long) sized, containerized, pre-configured, fold-out module to provide a clean environment for soldiers to shower in privacy. Weighing 6,450 pounds, ESS is environmentally controlled, with an onboard water heater and multiple showers to allow 24 soldiers to shower per hour (10-minute showers). Because of its containerized configuration, ESS can be set up in 15 minutes by two personnel.

Likewise, Force Provider’s Expeditionary Latrine System (ELS) is also tricon-sized in shipping configuration but once set up (15 minutes by two personnel), is folded out to an 18-foot-long module, featuring four low-water-use toilets and privacy stalls to enhance sanitation for up to 75 soldiers. Power requirements include one 30 kilowatt generator/208 volt, three-phase.

The Force Provider Expeditionary Batch Laundry (EBL) is a tricon (shipping size) self-contained unit providing the capability to wash and dry up to 100 pounds of clothes per hour in a clean environment.

Force Provider’s tricon-based Shower Water Re-use System (SWRS) leverages off proven technology from other military programs to create a self-contained unit that captures 75 to 80 percent of “the gray water” from other elements with a filtration system (40 gallons per minute peak flow/12,000 gallons per day capacity) with automated chlorine injection and membranes to remove soap, organic materials, bacteria, and viruses.

Another recent development, emerging in late 2009, was the Expeditionary Tricon Kitchen System (ETKS). Personnel from the U.S. Army Product Manager Force Sustainment System’s (PMFSS) Force Provider Team proposed the ETKS to meet the needs of soldiers deployed to remote locations in Iraq and Afghanistan who have recently been using charcoal and wooden pallets to create a “grill” to cook meals.

In response to the demonstrated need, the ETKS is a tricon-container-based (shipping size), all-electric kitchen that can feed 150 to 300 soldiers three meals a day, and is easily set up by two soldiers in about 30 minutes without any materiel-handling equipment.

The kitchen is based on an Operational Need Statement (ONS) that resulted following the establishment of an Expeditionary Force Provider system in theater. Service members reportedly spotted the kitchen element of Force Provider and recognized that as a solution to the cooking need. The resulting ONS validated a need for 88 kitchens.

“We had an aggressive schedule to produce and manufacture the kitchens,” said Michael Hope, team leader of the Combat Field Services Equipment Team. “Within five months, not only were all 88 kitchens delivered, but they also achieved helicopter sling-load certification.”

During an evaluation with cooks in Afghanistan, the cooks themselves suggested some modifications. After review, the team agreed they could and should be incorporated. Some of the changes included: changing to a convection oven; adding a weapons storage capability; including blackout curtains; and adding more storage spaces.

BOH Environmental LLC’s FPU Mobility Systems provide a modular, mobile warehouse for troops in the field. Courtesy of BOH Environmental LLC.

Examples of emerging industry tricon and quadcon design efforts have been highlighted at recent industry exhibitions.

Charleston Marine Containers, Inc. (CMCI), a Gichner Systems Group Company, is one of the critical suppliers of both tricons and quadcons for the U.S. armed forces.

For example, the company’s basic tricon variant designs include: tricon I – single-set cargo doors; tricon II – double-set cargo doors; tricon III – cargo doors both ends/1 side; tricon IV – cargo doors both ends/both sides; tricon V – cargo doors on 8-foot dimension; and TriCold® – refrigerated tricon. Their quadcon options include: quadcon I – 8 feet x 6 feet, 10 inches x 4 feet, 9 inches – 215 cubic foot volume; and quadcon II – 8 feet x 8 feet x 4 feet, 9 inches – 243 cubic foot volume.

Expanding on its specialized products, the company has recently introduced its new Expeditionary Rifle Platoon quadcon, which has been specifically configured for all of the table of organization and equipment (TO&E) in a Marine Corps rifle platoon.

“Before this, they didn’t really have any way to store their weapons or the logistics support for those weapons when they deployed,” explained John Klie, CMCI business development director. Showcasing the new design at a recent industry exhibition, Klie added, “Prior to this, they were always just kind of storing things loose in the quadcon or boxing and crating them up. This now gives them an easier way.”

In developing its new specialized designs, CMCI has been working with companies like Spacesaver Corporation, teaming CMCI’s specialty storage and transport expertise with Spacesaver’s UWR™ (Universal Weapons Rack), and KI (a registered trademark of Krueger International, Inc.).

Another innovative manufacturer of quadcon, tricon, and bicon (two together equal one TEU) units for defense logistics applications is Sea Box®, Inc., which has been selling and leasing new and used ISO shipping containers, cargo containers, mobile storage containers, and refrigerated containers for more than two decades.

In addition to the container manufacturers, one company that has been offering a range of new specialized “container-related” options is BOH Environmental LLC. The company’s customer service manager, Daniel Stevenson, described some of the initiatives at a recent defense exposition.

“We have ‘mobile module warehouses,’” Stevenson said, adding, “We try to stay away from the ‘container’ word. These maintenance modules can actually be deployed on their own, or they can deploy in sets of four on 463L pallets, or they can be deployed within one of our own container systems.”

The company describes its resulting Field Pack-Up (FPU®) Mobility System as “a system of systems” providing a modular, mobile warehouse. The all-steel, side-loaded intermodal ISO-certified storage and shipping container system is offered in FPU-20 (20-foot), BOH Cargo-12 (12-foot), and FPU-8 (8-foot)series configurations. The company currently has 4,700 FPU and containerized mission systems serving the U.S. military worldwide.

“We started out mainly in the Army and in the last five years, have spread to the Marine Corps as well as somewhat to the Navy and the Air Force,” Stevenson explained. “Our equipment is built to ISO standards and can stack up to nine high on commercial shipping. In addition to our warehouses, we also have command and control centers, as well as module systems that can handle HAZMAT [hazardous materials], weapons, ammunition, and small parts to large bulk parts.

BOH Environmental LLC’s FPU Mobility Systems provide a modular, mobile warehouse for troops in the field. Courtesy of BOH Environmental LLC.

“Right now the first five [Marine Corps] battalions are using our systems in conjunction with ‘virtual kitting’ to create what they call the Battlefield Logistics Supply Support System [BALSSS] kit. They are using that in the 1st MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] and they have also been testing it in theater in both Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.

“We are deeply embedded with aviation and ground supply operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan,” he added.

Turning toward the future, Stevenson said that the company “is in the process of configuring new systems. We are looking at building a system that will fit an ISO and also lock onto the bed of an MTVR [Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement] as well. We will configure that into an office, command and control, or data control center, and a maintenance shelter variant as well.”

Other ongoing government logistics research programs are emerging as potential subsystems within existing tricon and quadcon envelopes.

One recent effort highlighted by the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center seeks to provide for the extended preservation of fresh fruits and vegetables through an ethylene control device (ECD) based on ultraviolet (UV) enhanced ozone technology. According to program descriptions, the ECD “is being designed as a modular enhancement kit for use in both military and commercial refrigerated containers including the Tricon Refrigerated Container (TRC), Army Single Temp 8x8x20 Refrigerated Container System (RCS), and may benefit other refrigerated container applications. …”

Although the services have made massive strides in the movement and accountability of their ISO containerized logistics systems, the expanding applications of those units continue to present logistics challenges.

Some appreciation for the scope of those challenges in theater can be obtained through a 2009 Army release describing container monitoring at Victory Base Complex, surrounding Baghdad International Airport. Noting that between 700 and 900 containers were being shipped in and out of the complex on a weekly basis, the release referenced a recent “container management conference” in Kuwait, where it was revealed that DoD had spent “more than $640 million on the purchase and leasing of containers in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The release highlighted the increasing accountability of the ISO containers, a requirement from U.S. Central Command since 2003, with a “Container Element” at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, serving as the headquarters for tracking containers being shipped in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, the challenges associated with containerized logistics will only be exacerbated as U.S. forces accelerate the responsible retrograde of equipment from Iraq.

Marines and sailors enjoy meals during the week-long test of the new Expeditionary Feeding Kitchen aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., Nov. 18, 2009. The Expeditionary Feeding Kitchen produced enough food for 500 troops to eat three meals a day, and is stored within a trailer-mounted, 20-foot ISO container. U.S. Marine Corps photo.

In a November 2009 GAO report, “Preliminary Observations on DoD Planning for the Drawdown of U.S. Forces from Iraq,” investigators observed: “Another factor compounding planning uncertainty is the lack of an accurate accounting of the quantity and serviceability of shipping containers in Iraq. Containers are unique in that not only are they items that have to be retrograded from Iraq, they are also a primary vehicle for shipping other types of equipment out of Iraq. According to U.S. Army Central officials, the data system in place to track containers is inaccurate and incomplete because, among other factors, it must be manually updated every time a container arrives at or leaves a specific location. Reports based on the data from this system indicate that the system is at best 25 percent accurate. Furthermore, updates to the location and status of containers may not occur routinely because of personnel shortages. For example, according to officials in charge of container management, 200 containers listed as located in Iraq were, in fact, in Afghanistan. Moreover, in addition to inaccurate data on the number of containers and their locations, officials also lack data on the serviceability of containers.”

While acknowledging recent enhanced accountability efforts by Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I), the report added, “Subsequent reports indicate that approximately 54,000 containers had been physically inventoried as of August 2009, which was almost 25,000 fewer than the number of containers in the data system. Out of these containers entered in the data system, the location of over 7,000 could not be verified and the serviceability of 39 percent remained unknown. Moreover, many containers in Iraq are being used for storage, office space, and living quarters, among other purposes, yet are not documented as such, and may not immediately be available for retrograde. Due to limited container accountability, MNF-I and U.S. Army Central’s ability to plan for the steady flow of equipment out of Iraq necessary to meet the drawdown timelines may be at risk.”

Meanwhile, it appears that military planners across the services are tightening their embrace of specialized containerized applications.

As these pages go to press, the Natick Contracting Division of Army Materiel Command’s Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) has just released a draft solicitation for the expanded joint service acquisition of four Expeditionary Tricon Systems (ETS).

“There is a Joint Services requirement for the ETSs associated with this Statement of Work (SOW) in support of hospitals and other deployable base-camp systems,” it states. “By introducing standardized assets to the Joint Services community, Force Provider Expeditionary (FPE) can improve its maintenance repair supportability. The commonality of repair parts will also assist other services in maintaining overall operational readiness … The effort described in this SOW is for the production of four ETS asset types (Shower, Latrine, Laundry and Kitchen), and preparation/delivery of related Integrated Logistics Support (ILS) … The ETS items described in this SOW are housed in expandable tricon shipping containers which measure 8’ x 8’ x 6’6” in their shipping configuration and expand on one or two sides (depending on the specific system).…”

This article was first published in the 2010 Defense Logistics: Supporting the Warfighter supplement to The Year in Defense.


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...