Field Feeding in the 21st Century

by Chief Warrant Officer (W-4) Carlos N. Keith

To guide a biscuit from Lisbon into a man's mouth is a matter of vital importance, for without biscuit, no military operation can be carried out.
—Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, 1812

    Today's battlefields demand ration support systems that adequately provide for the needs of the warfighter in all types of scenarios. The Army's field feeding systems must provide acceptable and nutritious meals to warfighters. Revolutionary approaches to field feeding are needed to support the Objective Force.

    For the Army to have a viable and adequate plan for feeding the force in the 21st century, it needs to develop new programs and policies for procuring, managing, and distributing its food supply. New ways to preserve, prepare, store, and distribute food on and off the battlefield are on the horizon. The principles of focused logistics will guide logisticians in providing the battlefield commander the right meal, at the right place, and at the right time.

    General Henry H. Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said, "The quality of combat rations is very good, probably as close to home cooking as you can possibly find." Today, the U.S. soldier is the best fed soldier in the world. To maintain this high standard, the Army needs to emphasize modernizing the current field feeding systems and developing ration systems that will keep pace with the Army's transformation.

    The Army is aggressively seeking new means of providing fully integrated combat rations and improved field feeding equipment. However, the Army field feeding program needs leap-ahead technologies that will help warfighters achieve full-spectrum dominance. One of the ways the Army can achieve this is by aggressively exploring robotic field feeding kitchens, irradiated foods, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) feeding initiatives.

Field Feeding in the Past

    Ever since the Army first "drew its line in the sand" at Lexington, Massachusetts, in the days of the Revolutionary War, its commanders have been responsible for providing their soldiers with quality, nutritious meals in various environments and tactical situations. From the first formal military program in 1775 to a class I (subsistence) ration breakdown point in Operation Desert Storm, the Army's food service program has undergone many changes in an ongoing attempt to adapt to soldier needs on an ever-changing battlefield.

    During World War II, field feeding procedures focused on a typical company kitchen consisting of three gas-fired stoves, an ice chest, several 32-gallon cans, and immersion heaters for sanitizing utensils. In an attempt to push subsistence forward to soldiers, several initiatives resulted in converting 2½-ton cargo trucks into mobile kitchens. However, the Army found this practice unsafe and returned to the traditional tent kitchens.

    After World War II, and during the Korean War, no visible efforts were made to improve the Army's inventory of field feeding equipment or subsistence systems. The methods of warfare also remained basically the same. Everything in front of the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) was enemy territory, and everything behind the FEBA was secure. Cooks would prepare hot A rations (fresh food) or B rations (dehydrated or semiperishable food) directly behind the FEBA. This allowed soldiers to eat hot meals three times a day, unless they were out on patrol. When hot rations were not available, soldiers ate the meals, combat, individual (C rations). C rations consisted of canned meat products, such as pork, beef, and spaghetti, that were designed to be eaten cold.

    In the mid-1970s, the Army introduced the mobile kitchen trailer (MKT) in another attempt to push subsistence support forward on the battlefield. The MKT replaced the M1948 field mess tent and is still the Army's primary field kitchen after 25 years. Many MKTs are old and in desperate need of repair. In an effort to maintain MKTs, the Army has increased the MKT maintenance expenditure limit. This helps, but putting new parts on 25-year-old trailers eventually will become uneconomical, and the MKTs will have to be refurbished or replaced. This is extremely important because the MKT is the Army's primary feeding system. For this reason, the Army needs to take a good look at revitalizing the aging fleet of MKTs to meet the demands of the future, starting with the oldest and most worn.

    In the 1980s, the Army lost 3,000 cooks and other logistics military occupational specialty spaces as a bill payer for an increase in its warfighting capability. This reduction in the cook force structure placed serious limitations on the Army's ability to prepare and serve A rations in the field. Because of this cut, the Army had to modify the ration-feeding standard to serve one meal, ready-to-eat (MRE), and two heat-and-serve rations per day, with an A ration served every third day. Commanders lived with this less-than-satisfactory standard through Operation Desert Storm. After Desert Storm, the Army initiated policies that gave commanders the flexibility to serve A ration meals daily (depending on mission, enemy, terrain, troops, and time available).

Army Field Feeding System-Future

    In the 1990s, the Army established a special task force to conduct a worldwide study to determine how to fix the existing field feeding system and to develop a field feeding strategy for the future, which became known as the Army Field Feeding System-Future (AFFS-F). The task force recommended and received approval from the Army Chief of Staff to restore 400 cook spaces to the existing force structure for the maneuver battalions and 66 food service warrant officer spaces.

    The study also recommended upgrades in field feeding equipment and an automated tactical class I distribution system. So far, an automated tactical class I support system has not been implemented, and class I operations are conducted using mostly manual methods.

    Though AFFS-F was approved 10 years ago, current policy and staffing limit the types of rations commanders can provide their troops in the field. For example, the current field feeding policy in Army Regulation 30-21, The Army Field Feeding System, limits the types of rations used during field training to one heat-and-serve unitized group ration (UGR-H&S), one MRE, and one UGR-A ration per day. Though some would argue that serving the soldiers two A rations in the field would place a tremendous burden on a few cooks, I believe that the benefits to the individual soldier more than outweigh that argument. Therefore, I recommend that the major Army commands review the current field feeding policy and allow each commander more flexibility to choose the type of ration mix based on his unit's mission, the unit's ability to support the mission, and the soldiers' preferences.

Current Feeding Initiatives

    The AFFS-F has led to significant changes in our food service system. However, we are still far from where we need to be. Some of the ongoing AFFS-F upgrades and improvements are—

MREs. Improvements to MREs include approval of more than 80 new items since 1993; replacement of the 14 least-acceptable items; increase of meal varieties from 12 to 24; addition of four vegetarian meals; development of a new, easy-open meal bag with commercial-like colors and graphics; and addition of nutritional labeling.

UGRs. The UGR is designed to simplify and streamline the process of providing the highest quality meals in the field by integrating the components of heat-and-serve rations and A rations with quickly prepared, user-friendly, brand-name commercial products. The intent of the UGR concept is to consolidate everything needed to prepare a meal into one unit. It uses commercial items such as sauces and mixes to reduce preparation time in the field. The UGR greatly reduces the need to handle rations several times in the field, such as at bulk ration break points, and enhances and supports the battlefield distribution plan.

Kitchen, company-level field feeding-enhanced (KCLFF-E). The KCLFF-E is a component of AFFS-F that comes with a high-mobility, multipurpose, wheeled vehicle (HMMWV) and a high-mobility trailer. The KCLFF-E is designed to feed soldiers a hot meal in remote locations. It can be used to heat, deliver, and serve one heat-and-serve ration per day for up to 200 soldiers.
The containerized kitchen will replace the MKT. This photo shows the kitchen equipment included in the KCLFF-E.
The containerized kitchen will replace the MKT.

This photo shows the kitchen equipment included in the KCLFF-E.


Modern burner unit (MBU). The MBU is replacing the M2 gasoline burner. The MBU reduces the logistics burden and safety hazards of gasoline use because it burns less volatile JP-8 fuel. The MBU is ignited in place with an electronic ignition system, thus saving time by eliminating the pre-heat period required with the M2 and reducing the hazards associated with lighting and carrying lit burners into the kitchen.

Containerized kitchen (CK). The containerized kitchen is a combination of existing military standard kitchen equipment and commercial components integrated into an expandable 8-foot by 8-foot by 20-foot container. It is mounted on a tactical trailer and towed by the family of medium tactical vehicles (FMTV) 5-ton cargo truck. The major features of the CK include electric power from an on-board generator; environmentally controlled heating and cooling; 54 cubic feet of refrigerated storage space; the capability to perform roasting, grilling, boiling, frying, and baking; running water; a protected serving line; and a ventilated exhaust system.

Future Field Feeding Systems

The emerging Total Army Field Feeding-2010 concept will establish a new field feeding concept for providing soldiers with the nutrition they need to accomplish their missions. The focus is to support the Objective Force while continuing to support the current and interim forces. To accomplish this, the Army needs ration systems and equipment that can meet the demands of all three forces.

As food technology continues to advance, the Army must improve its delivery systems. The Army currently is researching three key pieces of field feeding equipment considered leap-ahead food service technology. They are—

Battlefield kitchen (BK). The BK will be an integrated, highly mobile field feeding kitchen. It will include cooking, refrigeration, and sanitation equipment while incorporating co-generation technology in order to reduce the logistics footprint. It is intended to be a direct MKT replacement. The requirement document for this piece of equipment is currently under development.

New types of rations. These include self-heating group rations that do not require a cook to prepare, compressed entrees that can be prepared and eaten in the future combat vehicle, and a first-strike ration that provides an eat-out-of-hand capability for use during the initial stages of deployment, providing increased carbohydrates with less packing and waste.

Refrigeration. The Army must move away from ice chests to refrigeration. This can come in many forms: the multitemperature refrigerated container, which will allow the distribution of perishable and semiperishable rations on a single platform; the use of commercial refrigerators such as those found in the CK; and technology such as the advanced design refrigerator 300, which provides 300 cubic feet of thermally efficient air transportable refrigeration.
The mobile kitchen trailer has been the Army's primary food preparation facility in the field for more than 25 years. The mobile kitchen trailer has been the Army's primary food preparation facility in the field for more than 25 years.

New Food Technologies

    Researchers are making advances in food science, biotechnology, and food processing that will affect the Army's feeding plan and food choices well into this century.

    A number of problems associated with feeding soldiers adversely impact food quality. Since most of the Army's food supply must be shelf stable, the only currently acceptable food preservation options are thermostabilization (preservation by heat, usually under pressure, to destroy all microorganisms), dehydration, and freeze-drying.

    Food miniaturization is one area of food science in which scientists have made progress. They are miniaturizing fruits and vegetables in order to reduce waste and already have produced miniature lettuce and watermelons.

    Food irradiation is another process on the rise. Moderate doses of radiation destroy the microorganisms present in food. Irradiated foods can be stored in sealed containers at room temperatures for extended periods without spoiling. The fact that irradiation extends the shelf life of most foods has strategic implications for all of the armed services. Using irradiated food would mean that food could be pre-positioned in much the same way as equipment is pre-positioned. Unfortunately, the American public has yet to accept fully the idea of consuming irradiated food.
A 300-cubic-foot refrigerator such as this may be used to provide refrigeration in the field.

A 300-cubic-foot refrigerator such as this may be used to provide refrigeration in the field.


Today's Challenges

    As the Army moves into the 21st century, it no longer can rely on the craftiness of food service managers to keep soldiers fed. The next full-scale conflict promises to be a fast-paced and volatile situation. To keep up, class I automation must be flexible, responsive, and precise. It must be able to track and shift assets while in transit in order to deliver tailored food packages that support strategic, operational, and tactical operations.

    Funding is one of the biggest challenges to acquiring new and improved equipment to meet the demands of the 21st century. Until field feeding becomes a priority, the Army will never have the type of leap-ahead technology it needs to meet the warfighter's subsistence needs. Every year, field feeding competes with digitization equipment, fuel, ammunition, and weapon systems for funds. This has caused a system of "piece-mealing" field feeding equipment and systems to the units so that some have the new and improved AFFS-F equipment and others have a combination of old and new equipment.

    For example, in fiscal year 1999, some maneuver battalions in U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) received their first KCLFF-Es. Before being released to USAREUR units, these systems sat in a depot for 2 years because there was no funding to complete the fielding process. After receiving the systems, USAREUR found that 200 of the HMMWVs had rusted front posts and needed repair before they could be issued. The units also were being fielded KCLFFs equipped with M2 gasoline burners and simultaneously being fielded the new MBUs. The MBUs were swapped with the M2s upon receipt. However, some units must still maintain both M2s and MBUs on their hand receipts until the Army completes fielding the systems to USAREUR, which is scheduled for fiscal year 2004.

    The Army is not likely to be able to meet the field feeding needs of the Objective Force by incrementally improving existing systems. The Army needs significant improvements—the kind that will make a major impact on the way it feeds soldiers in the field. Only revolutionary changes in the current field feeding systems can achieve this. Loosely integrating systems into the field creates costly, cumbersome systems that are often out of date before they are fielded completely. The Army must improve the time lines for fielding new equipment and ensure that each unit receives its total authorization. Program managers must ensure that the equipment is released to the units as quickly as it becomes available.

    A growing concern is the use of contractors versus military cooks on the battlefield. The Army is moving toward replacing military cooks with civilian contractors. Contractors can be used to reduce the operating tempo and its inherent burden on soldiers. Using contractors, particularly in relatively benign environments, reduces the need to send soldiers to perform field feeding. This can have a positive affect on soldiers' quality of life and ultimately on retention. For the most part, contractors have their role in a stable field feeding environment. However, will they stick around when bullets start flying? The Army probably will use a combination of contractors and soldier support, depending on the tactical situation.

    Given the rapid changes in logistics operations and the current state of our field feeding systems, is the Army prepared for the unique challenges of feeding soldiers on the battlefield? No one knows how the Objective Force will be fed in the field. While the Army has taken steps to improve the current field feeding systems, it still has a long way to go before it will be able to support a fast-moving force while maintaining a smaller logistics footprint.

    Tomorrow's senior logisticians have several challenges. First, they must be able to articulate the importance of leap-ahead technology in field feeding systems. Second, they must push for the development of an automated tactical class I system. Finally, the Army needs to fix the process for fielding new equipment by fielding it as a complete package. For the Army's subsistence program to meet the challenges of tomorrow, some significant investment must be made today to upgrade its current field feeding systems.   ALOG

Chief Warrant Officer (W-4) Carlos N. Keith is attending Florida Institute of Technology, where he is pursuing a master's degree in logistics management. He is a graduate of the Army Logistics Management College's Logistics Executive Development Course, for which he completed this article.