Revolutionizing Logistics Support by "Thinking Small"

nanotubes photoIn a recent article in Army Logistician, RAND researcher Calvin Shipbaugh states that, although the last Army After Next (AAN) wargames were characterized by huge components like "gigantic tilt rotors, cavernous strategic-lift vehicles, and island sized-staging structures," the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) actually depends more upon new technologies on the opposite end of the size spectrum.

MEMS -- tiny micromachines, some so small that we can't even see them -- and the field of nanotechnology, the development of components between .1 and 100 nanometers in size, hold great promise for reducing the demand for logistics products and services. Nanotechnology extends miniaturization to a seemingly impossible level; a nanometer is so small that only three or four atoms can be lined up inside of one. In the article, Shipbaugh explains how miniature devices and nanotechnology promise to help revolutionize logistics support. 


MEMS devices are different than conventional microchips. They have built-in mechanical functions that allow them to act as sensors and actuators. Sensors are included in such commercial devices as automotive airbag controls and miniature blood pressure devices. Actuators extend the functionality of sensors by allowing them to respond to the environment with applications of force. The Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC)'s Army After Next Project 1998 Report states that "The single most important area for [logistics] improvement is the need to achieve radical reduction in sustainment requirements." 

Applications of MEMS in military systems will help reduce the biggest sustainment requirements -- ammunition, petroleum, and food -- in many ways. Here are just a few examples:

  • Ammunition. Microsensors and microprocessors will improve the precision of military weapons. This reduces the need for more munitions on the battlefield. 

  • Petroleum. MEMS devices can reduce aerodynamic losses in aircraft. This leads to a reduction in the demand for fuel. 

  • Food. MEMS can improve transportation systems by making aircraft and ships faster or more efficient. This will speed up the movement of supplies. In addition, MEMS devices and sensors could be used to maintain the temperatures of perishable products, thus reducing waste and spoilage.

MEMS will also enable a host of other smarter, more efficient logistics operations. Sensors might warn of the presence of toxic materials in a given location or notify personnel of petroleum or oil leaks and impurities. Buildings implanted with sensors could monitor personnel and packages. Micro-engineered machines with embedded repair mechanisms can detect imminent failure of critical components and fix problems immediately. 

MEMS devices will reduce the need for heavy, inefficient systems and bring the Internet onto the battlefield. For example, miniature reconnaissance planes are now being developed that communicate and transmit imagery instantly to a soldier's laptop computer.


Shipbaugh describes two types of nanotechnology: "Wet" and "Dry". This is one of the main divisions identified by the research community to distinguish possible routes to nanoscale devices. Dry nanotechnology involves making existing devices smaller; for example, extending microelectronics and other technologies like machining down to the submicron level. Shipbaugh provides the example of a "medical laboratory on a chip". Using dry nanotechnology with MEMS, a $5 dime-sized chip could provide an instant diagnosis for a medical technician. The technician simply places a drop of blood from his patient on the chip and connects it to a computer to retrieve the diagnosis report. 

Wet nanotechnology includes scientific techniques, such as artificial photosynthesis, that increase our ability to control matter. "Theoretically," Shipbaugh says, "it should be possible to build molecular structures that self-replicate, just as living cells are able to reproduce themselves" using wet nanotechnology. 

Nanotechnology is dependent upon the development of assemblers, which are machines that position and connect molecules into components. A successful assembler would encourage the formation of molecular bonds, and these bonds ultimately enable the manufacturing of nanoscale products. Replicators allow copies of the assembler to be made, which allows for the possibility of an unlimited number of products. 

Dry nanotechnology can increase the performance of electronics and permit extremely high-density memory storage and data operations. Wet nanotechnology may have military applications in such critical areas as power sources and biomedicine. For example, medical tissues generated through wet nanotechnology could help repair wounds. Food substances generated by nanoscience, although they may not be tasty, would satisfy soldiers' nutritional requirements. 

Small Technologies Require Big Breakthroughs 

The U.S. government is steadily increasing investment for research and development of nanotechnology. Despite this, Shipbaugh relays, "the timeline for initial development of assemblers and replicators depends on laboratory breakthroughs that are not easily predicted…if a full assembler actually can be developed within the next 10 to 20 years, and a useful replicator follows shortly thereafter, then an impressive capability for logistics sustainment will arrive during the third decade of the new century."

Shipbaugh recommends that the Army remain vigilant in monitoring the civilian world's progress in developing these small technologies, especially breakthroughs in assembler developments. The Army must look above and beyond the headline-grabbing developments. If the Army does not embrace coming breakthroughs in microminiature technologies and recognize the benefits of "thinking small," the revolution in technology might pass it by.