NEW CUMBERLAND, Pa. –
After 18 years of operational support to the Global War on Terror it is easy to forget just how unpredictable things were for military services in early days, months and years following Sept. 11, 2001. At that time no one knew with certainty exactly where U.S. troops would be stationed, how long they would be there or what equipment they would need to move supplies.
John Heikkinen, a retired Army first sergeant who now works as the planning and operations specialist for Defense Logistics Agency Distribution J3, remembers a time when logisticians tried to prepare for that uncertain future by amassing as much equipment as they could get their hands on. As a result, he says, there is still a lot of good equipment in the military’s inventory that was only slightly used or never used at all. One such item fitting that description was the Rough Terrain Container Handler – a wheeled vehicle capable of moving and stacking large shipment containers.
“Typically the military services ship material in containers to our forward locations on trucks,” says Heikkinen, who is responsible for managing the DLA Distribution Expeditionary strategic enabler. DDXX enables regional DLA commanders with a deployable, scalable and joint distribution capability that supports combatant commanders, operational and logistical requirements for unified land operations and contingency operations. DDXX also provides support for humanitarian aid and disaster relief efforts in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The RTCH allows us to take the containers off the truck chassis and process that material, even in austere environments such as Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Although he knew the DLA Expeditionary team had a need for such equipment, Heikkinen also knew their price tag: about $1.2 million each. In a time of unprecedented budget constraints, the purchase of new machines would simply not be feasible, so the retired soldier started thinking outside the box.
“I knew the Marines had excess in their inventory sitting in a desert storage location in Barstow, California,” Heikkinen says, “so I sent a team out there to do a quick technical inspection to see if these were assets we could pull back into our inventory. As it turned out, the Marines had four assets they no longer needed, so we did an inner-service transfer agreement, which basically means that DLA took them off the Marine Corps’ hands at no cost.”
Although the equipment itself was free, there were still costs involved. Each RTCH had been sitting in storage for about 10 years, prompting the need to repair and replace various hoses and hydraulics. Then there was the cost of transporting them from their location in Barstow and paying for several upgrades.
“Essentially we upgraded the hydraulics, increasing their lift capacity from 50,000 pounds to 57,000 pounds,” explains Heikkinen. “We also improved the situational awareness for the operators. It now has a full camera system mounted on the boom, on the container lifting points, pedestrian backup cameras as well, so it’s a very safe system for the operator to be in. One of the other upgrades was the environmental kit we had put on it for changing hydraulic oils and fluids – there’s no possibility of spillage anymore, so that was a kit we had added along with a full complement of lighting.”
RTCH operators, Heikkinen says, will also be impressed with the upgrades.
“The cab is very comfortable,” he says. “It has ultraviolet protected screens in there and a very powerful air conditioning for these guys in here. The manufacturer said they removed about a mile’s worth of cabling in there and we went to a different electronic sensor, so not only do we save a little bit of weight on that, but this new modernized computer system allow our maintenance technicians to see exactly what’s happening with the machine through an onboard diagnostic, which greatly reduces downtime for maintenance.”
The total cost of transporting and upgrading the four RTCHs totaled just under $1 million, saving the agency nearly $3.5 million over purchasing four new machines. But just as impressive, Heikkinen, says, it the new capability granted to DLA.
“These new RTCHs have the ability to pick up 57,000 pounds from ground level to a carry position,” Heikkinen says. “It will work in an austere environment in rough terrain. It can ford up to 4 feet of water, go on 26% grade and it’s fully air mobile. This is the only container handler in the world that can be reconfigured to be flown on aircraft. It was a big win for DLA Distribution to procure these assets.”