The standard shipping container might prove to be the key technology for defence in the next few decades. Shipping containers are being used for everyting from prepositioned supplies for the US Air Force, through interchangeable components on ships to multi-modal stealth platforms for Russian ballistic missiles.
The report for the US Air Force "Global Combat Support Basing: Robust Prepositioning Strategies for Air Force War Reserve Materiel" (RAND ), discusses the use of shipping containers for positioning air force supplies near where they may be needed around the world. The study assumes that the most urgent supplies will be transported by air in C-17 Globemasters, by sea in the new Australian designed Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSVs) and on land using civilian rail and truck infrastructure. The RAND study is a very detailed analysis of the trade offs between having a few large bases around the world with supplies and more smaller ones. The study favours more smaller supply depots, using shipping containers in place of warehouses.
While pointing out the advantages of standard shipping containers, for their compatibility with civilian transport infrastructure, anonymity for military supplies and security, RAND suggests that the USAF can't rely on these steel containers exclusively as they are too heavy to be transpported air. Even though a 40 foot container will fit in a C-17 the weight of the steel container reduces the usable load of the aircraft. For this reason the containers are normally used to hold smaller palletised loads, which can be removed for air transport.
However, RAND is being a little conservative in its analysis by only considering the use of standard steel containers and also limiting their use to transport containers. Shipping containers are made of heavy steel because they are, as is explained in the book "The Box", required to meet a standard which was over engineered in order to meet diverse international requirements.
Shipping containers are designed to have six other fully loaded containers stacked on top of them. If this requirement is reduced to two, the containers can be made much lighter. Also if the container is used as part of the supplies, rather than just a container for it, the weight is further reduced.
It is only when transported by ship, or stacked at depots, that containers are stacked more than two high. A two stack load is the practical limit for transport on railways, aircraft and small fast ships. Most transport modes will not stack the containers at all. As a result the military containers could be made lighter.
Containers can be made of materials apart from steel, such as aluminium and composites material, This is normally not done due to the cost and need to meet strongth requirements. If the strength requirements cost will still be an issue. However, cost can be overcome by making the container a part of the supply, rather than just a container. As RAND points out containers are useful for for support bases as they protect their contents from the elements and can be locked. They therefore do not need to be placed inside a warehouse. However, when delivered to a bare airbase for use, the contents of many of the containers will need to be stored in a building. This may be in a tent or a prefabricated structure, but the obvious place to store the material is in the container it was devevered in.
Containers are large enough to be used as accommodation, offices and workshops. It therefore makes sense to build container sized modular buildings and fill them with the needed supplies. The weight of the container is then not wasted as it forms part of the supplies, reaplcing other building materials. As more containers are delivered, the base will have more accomidation. Other large items of equipment can be made in container sized units.
As well as being able to be deployed on land, container sized items can be used on ships. The US Littoral Combat Ships uses standardised container sized modules for equipment, as is HDMS Absalon.
The RAND study points out that using standard civilian shipping containers is useful for disguising their military loads so as to avoid attracting unwanted attention to them. The miltiary loads can be stored and transported anomalously amongst civilian containers. Jane's Defence Weekly reports a more advanced version of this techniques in "Concealed carriage Club-K changes cruise missile rules" (8 April 2010). Russia is reported to have developed the Club-K Container Missile System (CMS), with a complete ballistic missile system in standard shipping containers. The containers can be transport by road, rail or ship, disguised as civilian containers,. If top loaded, the missiles can be fired directly from the container while still on the rail car, truck or ship. While this can be sued to disguise the military purpose of the load, it is more likely that the cost savings and flexibility of being able to use a low cost platform will be more significant.