by Captain Eric S. Elsmo
The Army After Next is characterized primarily by vastly improved information technology that impacts all other developmental areas. One critical yet overlooked aspect of improved technology is modularity. Information technology, coupled with advances in systems engineering and modular design, will enable logisticians to meet effectively the changing requirements predicted for future combat operations.
The dictionary defines modularity as "a system that is designed with standardized units or dimensions, for easy assembly and repair or flexible arrangement and use." Because it is simple, the concept of modularity appears intuitive, conjuring images of children's building blocks, prefabricated homes, or modern office workspaces. In fact, these examples incorporate many fundamental and efficient elements of modular design. Modularity is not a new concept; products have incorporated elements of modular design for centuries. Frankly, it is only the degree of functionality and ability to be upgraded that distinguish successful modular systems from all others.
For example, the General Motors family of automotive products is modular by definition. Features and styles may change among brand names, while the chassis and frames remain the same. Yet how easy is it to change a Pontiac Transport into an Oldsmobile Silhouette? For modularity to be useful, it must be functional and easy to implement at multiple levels.
Complex modular mechanical systems used by the Army After Next will require a high degree of technology. The way in which components connect to each other becomes critically important. The ability to integrate moving parts into a modular format assumes far greater advances in systems engineering and interface technology in order for a module to plug in and out easily. Computer interfaces are relatively simple compared to mechanical modules. Mechanical interfaces also must incorporate electric, fluid, motion, and power transfers into their design.
Modularity Enhances Performance
Modularity will provide 21st century leaders with equipment designs that offer enhanced capabilities, such as flexibility, adaptability, and continuity. These enhancements will increase the efficiency of multilevel systems dramatically. A significant aspect of modular design is that benefits are incremental in nature, expanding on capabilities inherent in a system.
Flexibility is one of the most obvious but least understood benefits of a modular system. In modular design, flexibility refers to the degree to which a system responds to change. Flexibility must be incorporated into system architecture early in the design process, creating loose interfaces that promote variety.
The twist to equipment flexibility is that it has a direct relationship to force composition. So far, the Army has been tailoring force structure to equipment in order to meet national security requirements. Modular design will provide equipment flexible enough to reverse this process. Planners in the Army After Next will have the option of determining equipment needs first and matching forces later.
Equipment flexibility has far-reaching implications for doctrine and organization. If planning and budgeting are no longer based on manpower but on equipment, then force structure planning and budgeting must be refocused. Planning and budgeting for a modular force with modular equipment will not deal with specific systems but with a concept of system management and implementation. Future doctrine will be based directly on technological innovation.
Another advantage associated with modularity is its ability to adapt. Adaptability is characterized by a system's ability to respond to a user's needs. Adaptability differs from flexibility in that its focus is not on upgrading or changing system components but on matching and modifying those components to meet existing requirements.
Modularity also will provide systems with the characteristic of continuity. From an operational perspective, continuity refers to a system's ability to provide support without interruption. In combination with future ultra-reliable systems, which are projected to provide operational readiness rates of over 99 percent, modular systems will offer essentially uninterrupted service. This means that during combat operations, systems will fail only because of enemy intervention or acts of God.
Continuity has powerful implications, because logisticians in the Army After Next simply will not deal with the types of limitations associated with today's equipment. Issues such as maintenance and equipment readiness will not have the same meaning for logisticians in future combat operations. Consequently, combat commanders in the Army After Next will be able to focus on the tactical situation far more effectively than they can today.
Modularity Produces Efficiency
The combined effects of the enhanced capabilities associated with modularity will result in increased efficiency. Efficiency is the hallmark of a modular system. Efficiencies will be seen in time saved, reduced manpower requirements, increased output, and reduced costs. For example, modular weapon systems will give future commanders the capability to customize an individual piece of equipment, or groups of equipment, to meet the needs of a particular contingency. As Charles A. Krohn suggested in a September 1993 article in National Defense, "Design of armored vehicles should be based on a modular concept of systems and protection. So, for example, a tactical tank with heavy protection packages and a lighter strategic tank can both be designed to be deployed rapidly by air."
A tank, or any other form of modular equipment that is not part of the first wave of combat force, would not necessarily be standard equipment for a deploying unit. In the Army After Next, modular equipment could be created specifically for the contingency and be assembled during transit. The chassis may come from one location, while the turret may be sent from another, with the two marrying up in the theater of operations. The new piece of armor then would be employed during the logistics pulse or refit phase of the operation.
This armor example is simplistic since it only involves two components. In most cases, weapon systems would have multiple components coming from a variety of locations. It is critical to grasp the power that modular equipment design, coupled with velocity management, can offer leaders in the Army After Next. Adaptive modular equipment can provide commanders with new tools they can use to shape future battlefields.
Incorporating modularity in the Army After Next will take the responsibility for component repair out of the hands of the military and place it back in the hands of the manufacturer. By reducing or eliminating repair functions through modular replacement, the Army can realize efficiencies at every level. Most importantly, modular systems will enable the Army to get on with the business of fighting the enemy by enhancing the throughput of combat power.
The issue is not if modularity will be employed, but to what degree. Industry is being driven to modularity by quantum increases in information technology and by the impact these increases have on demand. Modular equipment design will enable military leaders in the Army After Next to do more with less: diminished repair equipment requirements, fewer people, and less money. And modularity will provide soldiers with more timea commodity of which they have precious little today.
Although modularity inevitably will be a part of the Army's future, this does not mean that we have the luxury of taking a passive approach and allowing industry to work out the details. Functional modularity for tomorrow starts with a well-planned and focused effort today. Those elements that are considered in the first phase of a product's life-cycle development are critical to success. Just a small change in the initial conditions of a system's development can drastically alter its long-term behavior.
For functional modularity to work, we must act now. The soldiers of the 21st century will feel the effects of the decisions we make today. It is our responsibility to plan for the future of our fighting force in the Army After Next, and modular system design must be a part of our plan. ALOG
Captain Eric S. Elsmo is an instructor at the Army Reserve Readiness Training Center at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. He holds a B.A. degree in communication from the University of Wisconsin Parkside and is a graduate of the Combined Logistics Officer Advanced Course, the Combined Arms and Services Staff School, and the Army Logistics Management College's Logistics Executive Development Course (LEDC). This article is adapted from a paper written to meet the requirements for graduation from LEDC.