Ice And Lemon With That?

You may talk of gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere
An’ you’re sent to penny fights and Aldershot it
But when it comes to slaughter
You’ll do your work on water
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it

Some things have not changed since Kipling wrote Gunga Din about a heroic Indian water-carrier with the British Army; the Tommies are still fighting Afghans beyond the Northwest Frontier, and water supply is still a vital element in the logistics chain. But back then the water came from a goatskin bag, “was crawlin’ and it stunk” — these days quality control has improved somewhat.
According to one US Army estimate, up to 65% of military road traffic in Iraq is taken up with transporting water to the troops. Cutting the number of trucks used for water will reduce the number of convoys that need protecting, and Allied Command Transformation Headquarters aims to do that by generating drinking water in the field. They recently demonstrated a mobile bottling plant that fits into a C-130 which can generate, purify and bottle 700 liters of water an hour.
Further down the line, DARPA are pursuing a project called ‘Water From Air’, looking at ways of extracting potable water from the atmosphere or from vehicle exhaust (water is one of the by-products when any hydrocarbon fuel is burned). Water generation was also one of the many features included in the original plans for Future Combat System, all part of the goal of traveling light and reducing the logistics tail.
But there is one big, rather simple problem, as explained in this piece on logistics in Iraq:

Dependence on bottled water in Iraq turned out to be a major sustainment and quality of life issue, Chambers said. Bottled water made up 30 percent of the distribution requirement even though bulk water was available, he said.

Because the bottom line is:

“Soldiers do not like to drink purified water.”

Which is why the idea of recycling urine into drinking water is even less likely to catch on, something that the Army has looked at on the grounds that “The technology is there. NASA is doing it. However, Thomas Bagwell, acting executive director for research at TARDEC, admitted that the last time he put this idea to soldiers, they chased me out of the room.
Water may be technically safe and potable, but it can still taste terrible and troops are understandably not going to want to drink it. If you can solve that problem, you can take out a huge amount of the logistics overhead. Maybe they should look at additives (flavoring? caffeine?), or maybe it needs some branding and an advertising push (“Real Water For Real Men”). But I suspect it will take a lot more to persuade people to give up bottled water for purified. And if you can work out how to do that one, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
— David Hambling
UPDATE: The Water Generation requirement was dropped from the FCS program during the last ORD review - thanks to Douglas Weber for the update.

  • Steve Weintz

    The numbers in this article are astounding (65% of logistic traffic??!!), and the human choices noted are fascinating. I wonder if this is a problem which could be addressed by the packaging and marketing we’re so very good at (although the troops are more leery of bull than the rest of us). Bottled in a groovy package, available in several soldier-approved flavors, produced by a “vaporator” disguised as a bottling machine and encouraged by real taste-tests and field trials, purified water might catch on. Perhaps the image of field water can be morphed from the “Tommie at the dung-filled water seep” to the astronaut cruising across the Martian desert…although, I as far as I know, there’s no Martians out there shooting at you…

  • sglover

    I know this is a bleeding heart liberal kind of thing to say, but it seems to me that the real story here is how technology that could conceivably help millions of people around the world — maybe even prod them to like America again! — doesn’t get any serious effort unless the Pentagon wants it. Sure, sure, if it gets developed, eventually it’ll make its way into relief agency kits. But given the level of desperation and grinding poverty in the world, maybe a little priority rejiggering is in order?

  • Eric Hundman

    While all the new possibilities for mobile water generation are interesting, David, I am not sure that the problem is so acute as you portray it here.
    You write: “According to one US Army estimate, up to 65% of military road traffic in Iraq is taken up with transporting water to the troops.”
    However, the source you link to for that estimate actually says: “According to the U.S. Army, up to 65 percent of the military road traffic in Iraq is transporting bottled water to the troops and support personnel there.”
    Your source (while admittedly unclear itself) does not say that 65% percent of road traffic is entirely taken up with water transport; it merely says that up to 65% of military road traffic is carrying some water.

  • David Hambling

    You’re right, it’s not 65% of the total road logistics effort, but clearly it’s a huge amount - the other piece I quote says -
    “Sixty percent of the tactical platforms were dedicated to delivering water, according to Chambers. ”
    AGreed this technology will hopefully be useful for emergency relief. Also that for the estimated 2.6 billion who do not have access to clean drinking water, the solution is not expensive high-tech water-from-air, but basic wells and boreholes. The WHO estimates that providing a clean water supply would cost about $20-$50 per capita. Arguably spending few million dollars on clean water in the developing world “prod people to like the US” and improve security in the long term more effectively than some items of military expenditure.

  • sglover

    Mr. Hambling — I realize you’d never want to use this gadget to irrigate village crops, any more than you’d use a nuclear-powered desalinization plant. But if it lives up to the hype, it sounds useful for disaster relief teams. Thanks for the WHO numbers.
    If I take the high-end per capita cost estimate, and multiply it by a round 3 billion, I come up with a dollar figure equal to about a third of our “defense” spending (more like a fifth, if you factor in things like DoE spending, VA spending, etc.). We get damn poor value for money out of “defense”.

  • Dave E

    I read about the concept of using combustion to make water on motorboats used during world war II. The idea was basically to attach a little pan to the exhaust. It was pretty efficient as I recall. Though i think it had to be filtered.
    What was even more funny though is that when they were looking for ways to get water to troops stranded on boats in the pacific they came up with the idea of basically shoving salt water up your bum. Now this isn’t as crazy as it sounds — as in in hospital a patient that can’t take water oraly is given saline (salty water) rectally. They did some trials in the desert, but unfortunately you need 1/2 the concentration of salt to make it viable.
    Oh well no close your eyes im going to do the butt chug

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