by Joseph A. Zanchi and Alan J. LaBrode
As the 21st century approaches, state-of-the-art technologies are providing today's warriors with the highest quality rations in the world. Modern battlefield requirements demand ration support systems that adequately provide for the needs of the individual warfighter in extremely intense and highly mobile combat situations. The revised national military strategy of power projection of primarily continental United States (CONUS) based forces and planning for Joint Vision 2010 and the Army After Next require revolutionary approaches and "out of the box" thinking to support this dynamic battlefield of the future. The preeminent land power forces capable of dominance across the full spectrum of conflict require an individual mounted and dismounted warfighter who can be sustained in any field environment. Widely dispersed, quick-moving, deployed forces will require total battlefield asset visibility and velocity management of all rations.
The Army Soldier Systems Command's (SSCOM's) Natick Research, Development, and Engineering Center (NRDEC) (renamed the Army Soldier Systems Center's Soldier Center of Excellence on 1 October 1998) is responsible for the design, development, and testing of military rations for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Under the auspices of the Department of Defense (DOD) Combat Feeding Program, research and development efforts since Operation Desert Storm have led to significant progress in improving the quality, variety, and acceptability of rations while reducing their weight and volume. Volume requirements for shipping special-purpose rations have been reduced by up to 38 percent. Ration storage life also has been extended, nutritional quality and content have been increased, and the durability of packaged rations has been improved. Additionally, stocking and ordering rations have been made significantly easier.
Since its introduction, the MRE has been improved continuously. However, as a result of feedback from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, major customer-driven improvements have expanded variety and improved palatability, consumption, and nutritional content to enhance performance on the battlefield. These rapidly fielded, customer-focused improvements have been made possible through the efforts of the Combat Ration Integrated Product Team (CRIPT), whose members include the customer, combat developer, materiel developer, procurement agency, and vendors. Since 1993, 70 new items have been approved for inclusion in MRE's, while 14 of the less acceptable items have been replaced. The number of menus has increased, incrementally, from 12 to 24, and 4 vegetarian meals now are included (2 in each case). A new easy-open meal bag with commercial-style colors and graphics has been added, and nutritional labeling has been implemented.
A continuous product improvement program will enhance all of the fielded individual rations further by evaluating new items and preparing and transitioning performance-based requirements to the Defense Logistics Agency's (DLA's) Defense Supply Center Philadelphia (DSCP) for procurement. Current and future initiatives provide technology insertions to improve the MRE continuously to provide sustained energy, mental alertness, and eat-on-the-move capability for the warfighter, while reducing weight and volume, improving logistics, and enhancing performance.
Use of time and temperature indicator (TTI) labels on MRE ration cases has proven to be a great success in quickly and effectively monitoring the quality of pre-positioned MRE's. Because military rations must be pre-positioned, stored, and used under all environmental conditions worldwide, the TTI indicators are an important tool in ensuring that only the highest quality food is provided to our warfighters. The TTI labels attached to every MRE shipping case during assembly provide food inspection teams a new capability that virtually ensures "least fresh, first out" stock rotation. Since introduction of the labels, ration waste, spoilage, and inspection time have been reduced drastically .
The "bull's eye" TTI label has an outer reference ring and an inner circle that darkens with time. It darkens more quickly as the temperature increases. The quality of food products is highly dependent on the time and temperature of storage; therefore, the darkening of the inner circle is directly related to the quality of the food. In February 1998, the 106th Medical Detachment (Veterinary Services), with support from Eighth Army and the Pusan Storage Facility, retrofitted approximately 125,000 cases of MRE's stored in Korea with TTI's that were preessed to match the remaining shelf life of the MRE's. The remaining shelf life was determined based on the quality of the ration components observed during on-site inspections conducted by NRDEC personnel. This ration inspection helped to ensure that only high-quality rations are provided to our forces. As a result, the MRE's are more acceptable to the troops, more likely to be consumed, and consequently, they maximize the nutrient status of the soldiers. Future enhancements to the TTI label include a bar-code system that will provide readily accessible and retrievable baseline product data for inventory management and inspection, with encoded information adjustable to user requirements.
The UGRA currently is being field-tested. UGRA is a "build-to-order" ration that can be delivered directly by the vendor when given a 30-day maximum lead time. It has a 6-month shelf life. This all-commercial option will provide all of the components needed to prepare 50 perishable meals (A-rations) in the field. A medical supplement to the UGR streamlines the ordering process for medically unique components that augment the UGR for hospital field feeding. Each module is designed to support a 50-patient combat support hospital for 5 days.
The Fielded Group Ration Improvement Program continues to assess new and improved group ration components, including nondevelopmental and in-house-developed entrees, starches, vegetables, snacks, and desserts to determine customer acceptance and preference. Fiscal year (FY) 1998 field assessments of the UGR included monitoring the procurement, distribution, and acceptance of an all-commercial A ration and a field evaluation of new and improved H&S ration components. The UGRA award by DSCP to a prime vendor represents the first attempt to move unitized commercial A rations to the field, where it is being praised by cooks and soldiers. The UGRA data collection plan was completed and implemented in the second quarter of FY 1998. Two test sitesFort Hood, Texas, and Fort Stewart, Georgiacurrently are procuring the UGRA. All aspects of this concept are being monitored at both sites, including acceptance by troops, cooks, and food-service personnel and the logistics involved in its use. Fifteen menus were reviewed and revised to reflect NRDEC data collection and industry analysis of surge capabilities. Packaging improvements will continue to be incorporated to reflect state-of-the-art technologies.
Feedback has indicated that the process of ordering, issuing, and preparing meals has been simplified greatly while offering a menu that is both nutritious and highly acceptable and maximizing the "right size-right component" concept for the customer. It offers recognizable brand-name commercial products; reduces labor with easy-to-prepare, user-friendly components; reduces lead-times in ordering; and reduces Government inventories.
Field studies also were conducted in several areas to assess different levels of interest in improving food stability and determining the shelf life of rations in environmental extremes. An investigation conducted under the Food Stabilization Program revealed that use of solar shields yielded a 5-degree Fahrenheit decrease in internal temperature of container storage vans, which increased the shelf life of rations, validated TTI quality correlation, and determined objective color evaluations for heat-sensitive ration components as quality indicators. This information was forwarded to the Army Veterinary Command and DSCP for inclusion in DSCP Handbook 4155.2, Inspection of Composite Operational Rations, and distribution to inspectors. As a result of additional test data, storage temperatures of MRE's have been adjusted, which will result in a saving of $3 to $4 million per year in storage costs. Further, heat-sensitive ration components were reformulated and improved to increase heat stability.
As a result of the improved LRP design, there is now a peel-and-seal menu bag and a new, more logistically supportable case configuration. The new design represents a 21-percent weight reduction, a 38-percent volume reduction, a 20-percent increase in pallet load capacity, and a reduction of 19 MILVAN's per procurement in logistics shipping requirements.
The OTSG and the Joint Service Operational Ration Forum recently have approved combining the meal, cold weather (MCW), and LRP food packets. Twelve new menus were designed and have been approved by the OTSG for their nutritional content. The MCW and LRP will have the same components and menus; however, each ration will retain its current nomenclature and packaging color as requested by the military services. The MCW will have white interior and exterior packaging and the LRP will be brown and tan. Performance-based contract requirements for the newly combined ration are being coordinated.
Significant initiatives focused on eliminating foil-based packaging materials in MRE components and on developing a high-barrier menu bag secondary packaging system also are being pursued. Expected benefits include a net decrease in the cost of ration packaging, increased use of commercial nonfoil packaging materials, improved reliability, reduced battlefield waste, decreased MRE weight and cube, increased acceptance through brand-name packaging, and potential for expanded military use of low-barrier, biodegradable packaging materials
NRDEC is working aggressively to replace the flameless ration heater (FRH) with a new nonflammable ration heater (NRH) that is equally safe, affordable, and effective while offering unrestricted operation, transportation, and storage. The end products of the heater are nonhazardous and are environmentally safe for disposal.
Considerable effort also is underway to redesign ration menus to reduce the cost and logistics burden of purchasing, storing, and shipping food that will not be consumed, optimize warfighter satisfaction, and maximize acceptance, consumption, and nutrition. This effort is projected to reduce ration weight, size, and cost by 10 percent.
Proof Is in
Integration of the MCW and the LRP food packets, by using standardized commercial entrees and components and reconfiguring the case insert and sleeve, will provide total savings estimated at $400,000 per year. Additional savings in excess of $19 million per year also may be realized through a number of promising individual efforts under the Savings Through Value Enhancement and Operating and Support Cost Reduction programs.
As further evidence of the outstanding efforts to apply acquisition reform within the military ration program, SSCOM personnel were notified in June 1998 that the Military Rations Process Improvement Team had been selected to receive Vice President Al Gore's Hammer Award. They were chosen for this honor for their extraordinary efforts in developing innovative, performance-based contract requirements to replace hundreds of detailed military specifications. The team took the lead, with help from DSCP and the operational ration industry, to ensure that customers receive the best possible rations at the best possible price while complying with DOD directives on acquisition reform.
Warfighter2010 and Beyond
Revolutionary technologies are being pursued aggressively to provide novel, fully integrated combat rations and food-service field equipment. NRDEC's combat support systems food and food-service equipment business area and critical, focused technology thrust areas provide direct support to some highly leveraged technology initiatives. These initiatives promise to provide soldiers with improved "fuel" that is tailored to increase combat effectiveness and reduce battlefield stress.
Leap-ahead technologies in combat rations and field food-service equipment will enable warfighters to achieve full-spectrum dominance by using performance-enhancing ration components, diesel fuel reforming technologies, advanced waterless preparation equipment, smart processing and preparation, automation, and alternative-energy-driven systems. These affordable systems will reduce both logistics support requirements and the associated combat footprint.
A number of technology initiatives support key strategic military objectives
Cogeneration and diesel reforming technologies will enable the use of thermophotovoltaics instead of generators, thereby reducing thermal and noise signatures, increasing reliability, and reducing operating and support costs. [Thermophotovoltaics involves the conversion of radiant energy into electrical energy by using photocells.] Advanced waste management systems are projected to reduce field waste by 50 percent with a 20-percent reduction in processing costs.
Innovative, multifunctional, and "smart" packages that incorporate antimicrobial compounds and materials are being developed to absorb or control by-products, odors, aromas, or headspace gases that are emitted by ration components. These packages may be used to contain food products that are most negatively affected by long-term storage. This work will improve ration acceptability, safety, and consumption, thus improving the nutritional status of the warfighter as well as reducing perishable food waste. It also will increase the variety of fresh-like rations by inhibiting or retarding chemical changes or spoilage of minimally processed foods.
The science and technology thrust areas for combat rations and field food-service systems focus on meeting the performance requirements of Joint Vision 2010 and beyond. These technologies are positive force multipliers in both limited and sustained operations. They will enhance the warfighter's capability to process myriad information produced on the digitized battlefield and greatly improve his combat effectiveness, quality of life, and survivability.
Together with our customers, we have completed our first brainstorming session to define conceptual capabilities and the revolutionary technology needed to provide these capabilities in support of the Army After Next. These technological innovations not only will achieve greater performance capability, lethality, sustainability, and survivability, but they also will support transformation strategies that will result in revolutionary military logistics.
Contemplate a self-reliant, future warfighter and soldier system that, together, are able to make a swift and decisive first strike that is supported by a self-tailoring ration system. Such rations will have components genetically structured to release appropriate energy boosters, neurotransmitter precursors, illness suppressors, wound-healing compounds, and performance-enhancing formulations. These components will be controlled either by the warfighter using a nutritional status monitor or remotely by lasers. Pre-selected ingredients will be released at the appropriate time via a skin patch to ensure the soldier's optimum response to the combat, environmental, or tactical situation. A more revolutionary application of this technology may involve undergarments impregnated with selected nutrients. The right nutrients would be absorbed through the skin according to information from nutritional sensors embedded in the clothing system. Developing such self-tailoring rations and in-suit supplements will require a combination of innovations in food formulation, structure, processing, and methods of absorption. These breakthroughs could conceivably provide a 25-percent decrease in logistics requirements, a 100-percent utilization of rations, and a 50-percent improvement in warfighter health and performance.
The DOD Combat Feeding Program is indeed an unequivocal force multiplier supporting our greatest asset, the warfighter. Our partnerships with industry and academia continue to uncover new solutions and capabilities that leverage revolutionary technologies. These technologies provide fully integrated, novel systems supporting U.S. military objectives. It is our collective visionary perspective that will enable the warrior to dominate the 21st century battlefield. It has been said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. It is a journey that we already have embarked on and a challenge we clearly have embraced.
Reprinted from the January/February 1999 issue of Army Logistician.
Joseph A. Zanchi is a logistics management specialist in the DOD Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Combat Feeding Program, U.S. Army Soldier Center of Excellence, Natick, Massachusetts.
Alan J. LaBrode is a physical scientist in the DOD Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Combat Feeding Program, U.S. Army Soldier Center of Excellence, Natick, Massachusetts.