On the frontline: How army managers make a difference on the battlefield
Repairing military vehicles on the frontline was not an easy problem to solve, what it needed was a strong manager to lead from the frontMajor Oli Morgan CMgr
My first assignment after being promoted to major was as chief of staff of a project team in the Ministry of Defence’s procurement body, Defence Equipment and Support, based in Bristol.
The team I was posted into bought and supported maintenance equipment for the battlefield, which, at the time (2011), was mainly British troops in Helmand, Afghanistan.
Not long after arriving, my boss took me to one side and told me he had a job for me.
Mechanics from my branch of the army, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) were deployed to operating bases in Helmand to maintain vehicles, weapons and electronics. The technical teams were working in remote bases; the extreme heat and dust storms made fixing kit extremely difficult. The enemy was disrupting convoys with roadside bombs; to get garage equipment to these remote locations was dangerous.
My boss set me a challenge: find a way to give the troops a vehicle-repair facility we could get into the forward bases.
I’d commanded an Apache workshop as a captain in Kandahar a few years earlier, so I had an idea of the environment. But the remote forward locations were a whole different ball game. I realised that I needed to speak to the mechanics from the REME ‘Fitter Sections’ to really understand what they needed.
The threat of the enemy meant that the basics – compressed air supply for pneumatic tools – were in short supply. In the most remote locations, teams worked outside. By noon you could cook an egg on an armoured vehicle.
The long list of equipment, including a large shelter, had to fit into one box to be able to ship into the base. Not only that, it needed its own generator to be self-sufficient. It was like trying to fit an elephant into a matchbox.
I soon realised that, to get this to the troops quickly (and keep down the cost), we’d need to repurpose something. If we did a George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces and redesigned an existing deployable workshop system, we could put it (for a short time) in a different part of the battlefield.
As a young officer, I ran a platoon that repaired and serviced tank engines. It used a workshop facility that came in an ISO container (imagine a small shipping container) and was designed to be self-sufficient with its own generator.
After a whirlwind of briefs and business cases working alongside the project team’s container section, we cracked what we dubbed ‘Fitter Section in a Box’.
The technology demonstrator had been delivered in less than a month and at minimal cost.
Everything the mechanics had asked for was built into the 20ft container and it was good to go, even beefed up to withstand the punishing environment.
The next phase of the plan was the equipment trial in one of the most challenging and remote bases in Helmand.
I was sat at my desk, typing up my report, when it hit me. While I knew that I could wait on a report from the REME Fitter Section and make changes from Bristol, the right answer was to fly to them and assess if the workshop was delivering.
So I went to Helmand and ran the trial with a REME team.
Sure enough, the container not only delivered value for money, but transformed repair times in a facility that could be moved from base to base.
First-hand feedback made a big difference to fine-tuning the production model. To be effective running your team, sometimes you have to lead by example and show you’re prepared to do even the most difficult tasks.
In my case, leading by example meant that soldiers on the frontline got the best kit we could give them.
Major Oli Morgan CMgr is team leader for the army’s involvement in the Bloodhound supersonic car project