Future road logistics

The army resupply effort was dominated by rail transport from the 1860's till the end of the Second World War in Europe. Rail lines had to be maintained, train traffic be planned and the value delivered was a quick delivery of large quantities of personnel and material over long distances. Transportation beyond the rail heads (forwardmost unloading point) was much more troublesome. Horse carts were very inefficient and could properly extend the supply routes as a rule of thumb by only 250 km.* Canals were rarely usable. Transportation by motor vehicle was first used at grand scale in 1914 by the French and proved able to extend the reach at huge cost (wear and tear of the motor vehicles, fuel consumption) first in North African campaigns and later in a most impressive display from Normandy to the advancing front in 1944.

Rail traffic proved to be much more susceptible to disruptions by opposing forces efforts (mostly air attack on the infrastructure, but also on the trains themselves). Today's electrified rail lines with automated (electricity-dependent) track switches are probably even more vulnerable, and bridges can probably easily be busted by precision missiles in the first ten minutes to two hours of conflict. Rail bridges are very difficult to replace in wartime.

Limburg railyard after bombing, December 1944

The military lorry inventories of the Cold War were probably not up the the task of supplying enough fuel and artillery munitions (all else matters little) over hundreds of km at the required rates. Civilian lorries are now undoubtedly required to sustain the French army during high intensity warfare in Poland, for example. We already saw the vulnerability of such a supply line extension in Afghanistan, dozens of lorries were torched by hostile forces in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) on several occasions.

Still, the state of the art is to have most supplies moved by civilian lorries over hundreds to thousands of km to some (makeshift) depot where dedicated military lorries with combatant drivers, camouflage paintjob and better off-road abilities can pick the supplies up and try to deliver them to drop-off points close to manoeuvre forces.

Technological advances in the field of civilian lorries are posing huge question marks:

A) "platooning"

It's still in the testing phase, but lorries can connect by short-range radio communications (and in theory also by coded light signals) to move as one, both in acceleration and deceleration. This enables driving with extremely little spacing without crashes if the environment is suitable for this platooning mode. The wind shadow effect is the primary motivator for this; all but the forwardmost lorry have much-reduced fuel consumption. The road capacity (in supply mass or volume multiplied by distance divided by time) is increased by platooning, but that's not much of a motivation in the civilian world.

This technology might be used by army logistics to increase the throughput of roads (such as through the Suwalki gap), but you really only need to have it increased if you have very few roads you can use for logistics. This in turn means that the opposing forces have a rather easy time disrupting the supply line, as they only need to mess with one or very few roads and lanes.

Doctrines for military road convoys that I saw called for a spacing of 50...100 m between vehicles. This was needed to avoid crashes (especially with overworked, tired drivers), but also to limit the effect that dumb munitions air strikes and artillery have on convoys. (Traditional military road convoys may still involuntarily bunch up at crossroads, bottlenecks or obstacles.)

Platooning may thus be impractical (too risky) in real world warfare, regardless of whether civilian lorry technology gets optimised for it.

B) Autonomous lorries

Lorry drivers are poorly paid in Europe because labour laws restricting how much drivers from poor countries may drive in rich countries without moving to the rich country are not being enforced properly. The people in rich countries know that autonomous vehicles may be available soon and few of them still get a lorry driving license. The regulations regarding resting times further add to the attractiveness of the concept of an autonomous lorry.

Autonomous cars are actually much more advanced already than almost all of the public appears to know. Tens of millions of km were driven in fully autonomous mode by test cars already, and the distance between two necessary human interventions is in the ten thousands of km for the technology leader. The issue that holds the technology back appears to be the need for further testing and the desire to cheapen the necessary sensor equipment.

Autonomous vehicles could be used to move supplies, but there are question marks about this;

- how do they cope with a myriad of hostile efforts (software and physical) to disrupt the flow?

- how does the cargo get unloaded?

- how do they cope if the mobile internet is down, but destinations or no-go areas need to be updated?

Autonomous lorries may be dominant in the long-range transportation business by 2030, so what changes are necessary to military logistics concepts? Will the armed forces draw all their necessary civilian logistical support from the remaining manned lorry inventories? Will those lorries be suitable for the military supplies and their loading and unloading processes?

C) Electric lorries


Electrical (battery-powered) lorries seem poised to take over the short range delivery business, such as supplying wares to supermarkets. They would probably also take over the long-distance haul business due to their energetic efficiency if the mandated resting hours regime was remaining as a major determinant. There's less reason to expect their dominance in long-distance transportation with autonomous vehicles. Ammonia or hydrogen may instead be used as range extenders, or we stick to diesel and diesel analogies (bio diesel, hydrocarbon synthetic fuels). Battery technology progress may change this, but keep in mind that Europe is fragmented into dozens of countries and many long-distance hauling lorries would have to be able to be used in almost any of these. It's probably going to take a while till the businesses will fully trust battery power even if it is more profitable on long distances as long as things go well.

Let's assume that battery-powered short-range lorries take over the regional supply sector. Those vehicles might very well have a huge Venn diagram overlap with the remaining non-autonomous vehicles. I suspect this because it's difficult to arrange for loading and unloading without a driver if the lorry has to be used with great many business partners. A lorry used to transport goods from one factory to another on the same route every day could easily have the loading and unloading jobs externalised. A factory that supplies goods to hundreds of stores would rather stick to having a driver, and possibly a parasitic forklift on the back of the lorry.

A round trip from a German supply depot to Northeast Poland and back would be about 2,000 km, half of which with heavy cargo and potentially with electrical power grid failing in Poland. Battery-powered lorries are most unlikely to be suitable for this well into the 2030's if not forever. This applies even if the long distance hauling business does get dominated by battery-powered lorries.

Diesel-fuelled lorries meanwhile could simply add a couple barrels of extra fuel or be refuelled with simple equipment (even with hand pumps or by gravity) even during their unloading process.

So the whole electric lorry inventory might be utterly unusable for military logistics purposes for want of battery-powered range, and this might be the majority of 7.5 ton and heavier lorries and semi-trailer tractors by 2035.

Civilian logistics are bound to change again during the 2020's, and army logistics dependent on civilian road transportation capacities may need to adapt.



*: More about such logistics; book recommendation



  1. Lots of autonomous tech coming down the line, all built on humanities leaky ancient codebase.

    Day 1 of any barney, the zero days will block out the sun.

    "Oh. I didnt know we used THAT library."
    "Did we know that hard drive firmware could be exploited?"

  2. Instead of electric lorries, we should expand the use of electric railways for long-distance transportation. They can run continously and carry heavier loads.

    1. The electrified railway network is extremely good in Europe and clearly keeps failing to deliver to the expectations. It is as it is and doesn't deliver any improvements. Bus lines and lorry logistics appear to be vastly more efficient on the less frequented routes, leaving the connections between large cities as the only worthwhile rail lines.

      Furthermore, it's a non-existing thing in a European defence scenario because it would be disrupted to the point of 100% uselessness during a conflict with Russia.