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Containerizing the Joint Force

During contingencies, 85 percent of all military cargo is moved by commercial sealift. Except for fuel, most of this cargo is stored and
shipped in 20- or 40-foot standardized, intermodal containers.

The incredibly simple idea of standardized, intermodal containers has revolutionized the worldwide movement of cargo during the past few decades. Standardization of the size and design of the containers themselves has led to the standardization of all other aspects of containerization as well, including the design of vessels, materials-handling equipment, container-hauling trucks, railcars, and seaports.

The use of containers significantly reduces the number of man-hours required to move and account for the items within the containers. This results in significant savings of time and money. Standardization also has led to intermodalism (the transshipping of cargo using two or more modes of transportation [sea, highway, rail, or air]). Intermodalism and containerization facilitate and optimize cargo transfer without the need for intermediate handling of container contents. Seaports throughout the world; manufacturers of container-handling equipment (CHE); and organizations dedicated to improving container operations, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which develop appropriate containerization guidelines, have all adopted and now foster the use of standardized containers.

Why Containers?

Using containers to move sustainment cargo provides significant benefits over alternatives such as breakbulk pallets, cargo nets, and plastic shrink-wrap. Containers provide protection from sun, wind, and rain; can be locked and sealed, thereby preventing pilferage and tampering; are multimodal (the same container can be transshipped easily from a truck to a ship to a railcar or even onto a plane); and can be stacked, thereby doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling the potential storage capacity or movement capacity of a ship or railcar.
Within the civilian sector, approximately 60 percent of all general cargo, which excludes commodities such as fuel, grain, and ore, is moved in containers. This percentage is growing every year. According to a February 1998 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation, lower tariffs, shifting global market demands, and the elimination of trade barriers are changing shipping operations. Containerized trade is growing at an annual rate of 6 percent at U.S. ports and at an even higher rate internationally.

During contingencies, 85 percent of all military cargo is moved by commercial sealift. Except for fuel, most of this is stored and shipped in 20- or 40-foot standardized, intermodal containers. The use of containers allows the military to exploit the extensive commercial containership fleets, the related infrastructure, and the internationally accepted containerization procedures. In addition to using the hauling capacity of commercial containerships, the U.S. Transportation Command’s (TRANSCOM’s) sealift component, the Military Sealift Command (MSC), has 19 large, medium-speed, roll-on-roll-off (LMSR) vessels, which carry vehicles and containers on wheeled trailers, and 8 fast sealift ships (FSSs).

Container Basics

ANSI and ISO guidelines state that intermodal containers should be either 20 or 40 feet long, 8H feet wide, and 8H feet high. Some older containers are only 8 feet high. The current U.S. commercial inventory of containers is almost evenly divided between 20- and 40-foot containers. This means that about two-thirds of all containerized cargo is shipped in the 40-foot containers because they have twice the capacity.

Some newer containers are even longer than 40 feet; some are 45, 48, or even 53 feet long. Nonetheless, they are still moveable by CHE designed for 40-foot containers. Most containers open on one or both ends rather than on the sides. A typical 20-foot container weighs about 4,500 pounds empty; this is called tare weight. It can store or transport an additional 40,000 pounds; this is called payload. Therefore, its total potential weight, known as gross weight capacity, is roughly 45,000 pounds. In comparison, 40-foot containers have a tare weight of 7,000 pounds, a payload of 60,000 pounds, and a gross weight capacity of 67,000 pounds. Unless stuffed with especially dense cargo like ammunition, most containers can be filled completely without exceeding their weight limits. Twenty-foot containers carrying bulk fluids have a payload of 6,500 gallons, while 40-foot containers have a payload of 13,000 gallons.

TRANSCOM owns or leases almost all of the 20- and 40-foot containers used in the Defense Transportation System. MILVANs (military-owned, demountable containers) and SEAVANS (military containers moved by sea) fall in this category. During the large-scale deployments of the past two decades, the Defense Transportation System has used both 20- and 40-foot containers. Most unit-owned equipment and basic loads (expendable supplies maintained at the unit level to sustain the unit during the first few days or weeks of deployment) have been shipped in 20-foot containers, while follow-on sustainment cargo has been shipped in 40-foot containers.

Containers can be placed on wheeled trailer chassis that are pulled by truck tractors over roads. Similarly, this container-on-chassis configuration can be rolled on and off containerships or onto flat railcars and moved by sea or rail. The flat railcars (flatcars) also can transport the containers without the trailer chassis. Depending on their design, flatcars can accommodate containers that are placed singly or stacked two high.

Flatracks are containers without standard sides, ends, or tops. They are used to move items that are too big to fit in a standard container. Some flatracks have end walls, some have four corner posts, and others have fixed A-frames on their ends and no sides.
Unlike a flatrack, a containerized roll-in-roll-out platform, known as a CROP, fits inside a container and is used primarily to haul ammunition. CROPs and the ammunition stored on them are removed from containers after the strategic leg of a force movement, such as from the continental United States (CONUS) to a sea port of debarkation (SPOD). CROPs, along with truck tractors, then are used to move ammunition forward. The tare weight of a CROP is about 3,300 pounds.

Some units have their own containers. The Army refers to its unit-owned family of containers as Equipment Deployment Storage System (EDSS) containers. Examples include the interval slingable units (ISUs), containers express (CONEXs), quadruple containers (QUADCONs), triple containers (TRICONs), and other specialty containers used for such purposes as mortuary affairs, refrigeration, or medical services.
ISUs 60 and 90 are 88 inches long, 108 inches wide, and either 60 or 90 inches tall. They are designed to be transported by helicopters, either internally or externally, and can be placed on top of 463L pallets.

Both 20- and 40-foot containers can be placed onboard C–17 Globemaster III and C–5 Galaxy aircraft, but, because of their heavy tare weight, they are not normally transported by air. Instead, 463L pallets are used to aggregate items for storage and air delivery.
A 463L pallet has no walls or top. It measures 108 inches long and 88 inches wide and can hold items stacked to a maximum height of about 8 feet. When shrink-wrap and cargo netting are used, a 463L pallet can hold a gross weight of 10,000 pounds. The tare weight of a 463L pallet is about 300 pounds.

The Containerized Delivery System (CDS) uses containers and parachutes to airdrop equipment and supplies to airborne units and other forces that are widely dispersed on the battlefield. The soon-to-be fielded Enhanced Container Delivery System (ECDS) will be a distinct improvement over the existing CDS. It will use a new, reinforced pallet that is similar to the 463L pallet but is easier to rig, lift, and transport. The ECDS can be moved by forklift or slingloaded. While the current CDS can handle only 2,200 pounds per system, the ECDS is projected to handle up to 10,000 pounds.


Short Distance Movement of Containers

Twenty- and 40-foot standardized, intermodal containers are designed to be moved short distances by various CHE. Examples include gantry cranes, straddle cranes, straddle trucks, rough-terrain container handlers (RTCHs), and crane trucks. Smaller containers, like QUADCONs, TRICONs, CDS, and ISUs, are designed to be moved by forklifts and other types of materials-handling equipment that are not capable of moving the heavy loads in 20- or 40-foot containers.

CHE is used to place intermodal containers on or off trailer chassis and to move containers with or without trailers on or off planes, ships, and railcars. Having the right type and quantities of CHE on hand is essential to maximizing the benefits of containerization. In fact, if the required CHE is not available where and when needed, the use of containers could have an adverse impact on sustainment operations.

How do most tactical units move 20-foot containers? They don’t. Most units, even logistics support units at the tactical level, do not have the necessary CHE on hand to move 20-foot containers. They typically have only forklifts that have a maximum lift capacity of 10,000 pounds. Moving 20-foot containers can become quite a problem, especially in undeveloped theaters or when combat units arrive in theater ahead of the units that are equipped to handle containers. This occurs fairly often because planners have a tendency to deploy combat units earlier than combat service support units during the initial stages of deployment.

The current deployment process usually relies on the use of established ports of embarkation and debarkation. Decisionmakers determine which equipment will be moved by air, land, and sea; they also decide which items will be containerized and if the containers will be placed on trailer chassis and moved by rail or sea.

As CONUS-based units deploy overseas, most, if not all, of their rolling stock (vehicles, trailer-mounted generators, water trailers, etc.) is convoyed to a seaport, where it is driven onto FSSs or LMSR vessels. The cargo and passenger areas of these vehicles normally are fully stuffed with related equipment, such as camouflage netting, fire extinguishers, and tentage. These items are known as “secondary loads.” Some unit equipment and supplies are loaded on the same flights as the owning forces when they deploy by air. In other cases, unit personnel will load equipment and supplies into commercial 20-foot containers that have been delivered to the base. These containers (on trailer chassis) then will be hauled by a truck tractor to the marshalling area of the seaport. Depending on the type of operation, containers—either with or without a trailer chassis—may be moved to the seaport by railcar.

Truck tractors and trailer chassis are needed only to move containers; they are not needed when containers are used for storage. Since trailer chassis, like truck tractors, usually are in short supply, straddle trucks or mobile cranes are used to lift containers off the trailer chassis and place them on the ground at the seaport (or on top of other containers if space is limited). When a ship is ready to receive the containers, a straddle truck or mobile crane places them on trailer chassis, and they are hauled by truck tractors to the ship’s loading area at a pier. A gantry crane lifts the containers onto the ship. In developed SPODs, gantry cranes also unload the ships. Containers usually are unloaded at the direct support unit level (supply support activities).
Unit sustainment replenishment is transported from wholesale Government warehouses or commercial providers to container consolidation points, where it is placed into 20- or 40-foot containers (usually 40 footers) and transported to the sea ports of embarkation (SPOEs) by highway or rail. Major problems arise however, when modern facilities are unavailable at SPODs or when adequate CHE is not available.
Cranes and RTCHs are the primary military equipment used to handle containers. Both can move 20- to 40-foot containers with gross weights of up to 50,000 pounds over both improved and unimproved terrain. A RTCH is designed to operate on soft soil such as unprepared beaches. It has four-wheel drive and can operate in up to 5 feet of water.

Container Vessels

Besides CHE, another crucial aspect of containerization is the design and operation of the vessels used to transport containers. Several types of ships are used to haul containers. The most common ships in the commercial sector are large, non-self-sustaining ones. The phrase “non-self-sustaining” means that a ship has no onboard cranes to lift containers onto and off of the vessel. Instead, these ships rely on fixed facilities at seaports, primarily gantry cranes, which can reach across the wide beam of the ship, lift the container off the ship’s deck, and then place it ashore,


sometimes directly onto a trailer chassis. Gantry cranes also are used to load containerships.
Floating cranes are used to load and unload non-self-sustaining containerships at ports that do not have gantry cranes. The Department of Defense (DOD) owns 10 auxiliary crane ships that can be used to augment the capability of existing cranes at SPOEs and SPODs.

The newest commercial, non-self-sustaining ships are over 900 feet long, 125 feet wide, and have drafts in excess of 43 feet. Containers are stored both above and below deck, normally without trailer chassis. Containerships can carry the equivalent of 4,000 20-foot containers. A select few ships are even larger and can carry 6,000 20-foot-equivalent units.

In contrast, containerships that are self-sustaining have onboard cranes that load and offload containers. Therefore, they are not as dependent on sophisticated seaports. Combination containerships are vessels that can offload a portion of their containerized cargo but depend on seaport equipment or floating cranes to offload the rest.

FSSs, the fastest cargo ships in the world, have a top speed of 33 knots. They have onboard cranes for lifting containers and ramps for uploading or offloading roll-on-roll-off (RORO) vehicles or containers atop trailer chassis. Combined, MSC’s eight FSSs can carry nearly all the equipment needed to outfit a heavy Army division.

MSC’s 19 LMSRs, like civilian container vessels, are designed to offload at established SPODs that have developed infrastructure. Each LMSR can carry an entire Army battalion task force, including 58 tanks, 48 other tracked vehicles, and more than 900 trucks and other wheeled vehicles. The preferred vessels for sea transport of unit equipment and military rolling stock are FSSs and RORO ships, while containerships are preferred for sustainment cargo.

One of the newest vessels used in DOD is the Army’s theater support vessel, also known as a high-speed vessel. Its shallow draft frees it from reliance on deepwater entry ports. Therefore, it can bypass predictable entry points and access locations unreachable by FSSs, LMSRs, or commercial containerships. One theater support vessel has the capacity of 23 C–17 sorties. It can travel at an average speed of 40 knots, self-deploy over 4,726 nautical miles, and carry 350 fully equipped soldiers. It has a helicopter flight deck and can load or discharge its cargo in less than 20 minutes. TRANSCOM manages the theater support vessels for the Army.

Management of Containers

TRANSCOM, which has the broad mission of managing intermodal containers as they move through the Defense Transportation System, oversees the MSC, the Air Mobility Command, and the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC). SDDC coordinates the movement of containerized sustainment and unit equipment. It also provides oversight of commercial CHE and commercial surface transportation used to move empty containers from storage lots to military installations for stuffing. SDDC also oversees the highway or rail movement of containers to SPOEs and the movement of containers on vessels from SPOEs to the SPODs. Except for the stuffing of the containers by deploying units or DOD wholesale suppliers, most of the physical work involved in moving containers from CONUS locations to overseas sites is performed by commercial enterprises.

The use of standardized, intermodal containers is simplifying and expediting the movement of sustainment cargo over strategic distances. However, the efficient use of containers requires developed ports, specialized vessels, and CHE that can lift loads that are four to six times heavier than the capacity of the standard 10,000-pound forklift. Properly used, standardized containers can dramatically improve the speed of deployment, employment, and sustainment of joint forces. ALOG

Lieutenant Colonel James C. Bates, USA (Ret.), works for Alion Science and Technology and serves as a sustainment planner for the U.S. Joint Forces Command, J–9 Transformation, Distributed Continuous Experimentation Environment, in Suffolk, Virginia. He is a Certified Professional Logistician and a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College and holds an M.B.A. degree from the University of Hawaii. He can be contacted by email at James.Bates@je.jfcom.mil.