Army Leaders Turn to New Tech to Fix 'Atrophied' Supply System

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dewey Adams, an allied trades technician assigned to 194th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 2nd Sustainment Brigade 520th Support Maintenance Company operates the Army’s first 3D printer, housed on Camp Humphreys, Republic of Korea, Oct. 29, 2018. (U.S. Army/Spc. Adeline Witherspoon, 2nd SBDE PAO)
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dewey Adams, an allied trades technician assigned to 194th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 2nd Sustainment Brigade 520th Support Maintenance Company operates the Army’s first 3D printer, housed on Camp Humphreys, Republic of Korea, Oct. 29, 2018. (U.S. Army/Spc. Adeline Witherspoon, 2nd SBDE PAO)

U.S. Army leaders on Wednesday discussed how using high-tech cell phone apps and 3D printing may help the service's sustainment machine keep up with fast-moving combat units preparing for the future battlefield.

Sustaining combat units with fuel, ammunition, spare parts and other necessities is a major concern among leaders as the Army transitions from a counter-insurgency focus to preparing for a major conflict with near-peer competitors such as Russia and China.

"Over the last 15 years, our supply system has atrophied," Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, told an audience at an Association of the United States Army sustainment event.

The increased demand for M1 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and other major combat systems has created a greater need for spare parts that have not been in high demand for many years, Hokanson said.

"With a lot of the parts, the demand [was] low and, in some cases, those companies have gone out of business or stopped manufacturing them," he said.

The Army has experimented with additive manufacturing using 3D printers that can rapidly produce parts made from metal or plastic.

GE Aviation has "bet the farm" on additive technologies to help improve its ability to design and produce improved military engines for AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, said Anthony Mathis, president and CEO for Military Systems at GE Aviation.

"We have invested probably on order of $2 billion on additive technologies, and we did that because you can get and make much more complex components that give you increased capability without all the extra costs," he said.

There are many types of parts that can be produced on forward operating bases and in depots, he said. But additive manufacturing may not be the solution in all cases.

"A little-known fact is, in some cases, we can print a metal part in hours, maybe days, but the post-processing of those parts can take months," he said. "Most people think you just print the part and then you put it on the airplane. Additive is not a cure-all for everything."

Lt. Gen. Aundre Piggee, deputy chief of staff for the Army G4, said the service's logistics and sustainment infrastructure needs to do better at keeping up with technology that's available today.

"At the tactical level, I constantly raise the need to utilize today's technology today, but the truth of the matter is we're in catch-up mode and we're not even there yet," he said. "We are not even at today. How do we get there?"

Piggee said a young captain asked him a few weeks ago why there isn't a phone app for scanning Quick Response (QR) codes on sustainment items.

"Think of the improvements to our inventory processes and accountability if we had this capability," Piggee said. "We need this kind of thinking from our future leaders and from our entire Army."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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