Can logistics software solve NATO’s troop mobility issue in Europe?

Grant Turnbull 3 April 2019 (Last Updated March 22nd, 2019 10:26)

When it comes to NATO and European security, debate often revolves around the quantitative and qualitative values of alliance equipment, compared to Russia, and resultant strategic implications for Europe. But a more pressing issue is often how that equipment - including vehicles, weapons and supplies - is transported to where it needs to be for maximum strategic effect. To address this, NATO is once again relearning lessons from the Cold War.

Can logistics software solve NATO’s troop mobility issue in Europe?
NATO is funding the development of new software tools that allow military planners to better understand vehicle mobility in different terrains, particularly how well different types of soils can carry weight and how long they can withstand repeated trafficability. Credit: US Army.

Logistics is often referred to as the “sinews of war”, linking forward-deployed units with support elements to ensure they are supplied, maintained and ready for the next operation. There is a saying in military circles – made famous by US Marine General Robert H Barrow – that amateurs study tactics, but professionals study logistics. Today, that phrase is more relevant than ever as NATO ramps up deployments around Europe.

NATO covers a vast territorial area, which in Europe alone stretches from the northern reaches of Norway to Romania on the Black Sea. This presents a series of challenges, not least the varied terrain and conditions that member countries have to contend with during peace and wartime operations.

In July 2018, NATO’s Brussels Summit declaration stated that the alliance was “committed to strengthening our ability to deploy and sustain our forces and their equipment, throughout the alliance and beyond”.

The aim was to improve military mobility by land, air, or sea as soon as possible, but no later than 2024.

“This requires a whole-of-government approach, including through national plans, with cross-government cooperation of civil and military actors, in peacetime, in crisis, and in conflict,” said the declaration.

One of NATO’s key priorities is shortening border crossing times, with recent experience seeing military convoys struggle to move between countries – owing to both physical and bureaucratic barriers. It has raised fears that vital reinforcements for countries at risk could be slowed down for something as mundane as a simple passport or document check. NATO therefore wants to train more regularly for military mobility and set up better “networks” between civil and military entities to facilitate better movement.

A military Schengen?

The European Defence Agency has spearheaded efforts to improve cross-border mobility, presenting an Action Plan on Military Mobility in 2018 following several studies. As an EU agency, rather than the NATO security alliance, it is seen by some as a better organisation for dealing with this problem due to the EU’s experience with open borders across its 22 members that are part of the Schengen Agreement.

The Action Plan called on EU militaries to set out their requirements for mobility: to identify infrastructure suitable for military transportation and may need to be upgraded (for example, weight capacity of bridges) and to consider options for streamlining and simplifying customs formalities. A progress report on the implementation of these objectives is expected by the summer of 2019.

“When we can predict what vehicle we need or in which terrain our troops have to fight, that gives us a big advantage over our enemy.”

NATO is also looking for technological solutions that will solve its mobility issues, creating software tools that allow it to better understand the vehicles and equipment that will be required for a specific theatre. “When we can predict what vehicle we need or in which terrain our troops have to fight, that gives us a big advantage over our enemy,” said Christoph Mueller, an executive officer with NATO’s Science and Technology Organization.

The alliance has significant experience in developing simulation tools that look to predict the capability of a vehicle when it is moving over specific terrain conditions. One of its key tools is the NATO Reference Mobility Model (NRMM), which was developed by the US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC) and Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in the 1960s and 1970s.

Challenges in crossing European terrain

The NRMM contains elements such as detailed soil data for different areas of the world and was originally developed to compare vehicle designs during procurement phases, principally to assess their mobility and whether they could traverse specific terrain conditions. Like different models of vehicles, types of soil can also vary across the NATO countries from sandy beaches to clay in areas of Eastern Europe.

“There are many different factors that can affect mobility…the type of terrain, the type of the soil, the constituents within the soil, the water content, it all has an impact on mobility,” said TARDEC  director Dr Paul Rogers. “You have to accurately characterise the soil and understand the strength of the soil, how well it can carry weight and how long it will withstand repeated trafficability.”

Over the years, the NRMM has evolved for use in complex decision analyses associated with vehicle acquisition and, importantly, operational planning support.

The modelling software “has proven to be of great practical utility to the NATO forces,” said a new NATO report on the NRMM, released in January 2019. “[But] when compared to modern modelling tools, it exhibits several inherent limitations.”

One source familiar with the project noted that the current model is now outdated and does not take into account today’s advanced off-road military vehicles that feature better mobility through stability control systems and adjustable tyre pressures. Computer processing and software modelling is also significantly more advanced than when the original NRMM was developed nearly 50 years ago.

Next-gen mobility testing software

It’s for this reason that a NATO Task Group is now developing a Next-Generation NRMM (NG-NRMM). The programme has collected real-world data at the Keweenaw Research Center (KRC), a research institute of the Michigan Technological University, which is specifically designed for ground vehicle research and features varied terrain including sand, rocks, and mud.

“If you wanted to understand how the vehicle performs with different tyres, you can easily swap them…without doing any physical testing.”

One of the objectives going forward for the NG-NRMM is to create a common framework that industry can use for predicting mobility, especially in soft soil, which is then used to test vehicle performance before it is even manufactured. NATO has worked closely with industry partners, such as CM Labs Simulations and MSC Software, to visualise the data collected and create an interface where the data can be manipulated.

“If you wanted to understand how the vehicle performs with different tyres, you can easily swap them…without doing any physical testing,” said Tony Bromwell at MSC Software.

The ultimate goal for NATO is to harmonise mobility testing and modelling standards, similar to how other areas such as ammunition are also standardised across the alliance. This will allow NATO to better prepare for future operations and to determine, not only where forces and their supplies are needed, but the method of transportation that is required to get them there without getting stuck in the mud.