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Extreme Challenges Require Tough Packaging
The U.S. military turns to quality wood pallets to supply the world’s strongest fighting force.

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 12/2/2002

When the Commander and Chief calls the military to action, wood pallets play a critical role in supplying America’s troops. For years, the U.S. military has led the way when it comes to logistics innovation. The U.S. military pioneered the use of pallets during World War II and experimented with auto-id tracking technology long before it became common in the commercial sector.

Military transit presents a wide variety of harsh conditions and challenges for transport packaging. The U.S. military ships heavy loads all over the world. From deserts to heavily forested areas, loads must be able to handle the rigors of war. Delays due to logistics problems can result in broken supply lines and even worse, loss of human life.

The U.S. military continues to run a world class logistical operation, and it still relies heavily on wooden pallets for the bulk of its palletized shipments. "The U.S. military racks, stacks and abuses pallets all over the world…Wood packaging remains our favorite choice," said Joe Maloney of the HQ U.S. Defense Logistics Agency. Last year the U.S. military purchased over 225,000 wood pallets.

When compared to other options, wood pallets are strong, repairable and easily disposable. Most military transit situations are not closed loops. Thus, packaging must be expendable. Wood pallets can be easily repaired on the spot, and unlike other raw materials, wood typically can be found all over the world. Alternate materials, such as plastic and metal, once damaged, are a total loss according to the Defense Logistics Agency. The Department of Defense (DOD) has tested plastic pallets and found them not to work well with the military’s logistics needs. Beyond the high purchase price, plastic pallets tend to splinter in cold weather and melt in warm weather according to Joe. The DOD has used some composite pallets in the field, and the soldiers did not like them as well because they were harder to burn.

Due to budget cuts, the U.S. military stopped repairing broken pallets in the late 1990s. Today, most pallets are either burned in the field or ground up once they become unusable. Wood pallets carry the right price too. "Wooden pallets have been consistently the most cost effective choice for material handling purposes," said Joe.

The DOD uses 8 –9 common sizes with the 40x48 wing pallet being the most common size. The military, especially the Navy, prefer wing pallets because they are easier to sling from one ship to another when troops are re-supplied at sea. Commissary operations tend to the use the 48x40 GMA size used throughout the grocery industry. The DOD operates warehouses all over the world. Racking systems and operations tend to be standardized for maximum efficiency. Loads tend to stay longer in military depots than traditional grocery warehouses. "Our material does not move quite that fast, especially when we are at peace," said Joe. Most military loads are palletized. Overseas shipments headed for foreign depots are typically packaged in cargo containers.

Palletized loads are placed all over the world in bunkers and military installations. These pallets must be durable and stand the test of time. Some pallets have been stored in bunkers with the same load on them since 1952 according to Joe. It is not uncommon for soldiers in the field to dispose of pallets by burning them as a source of light and heat. As a result, troop exposure to chemical fumes is a concern for any packaging that will eventually reach the front lines.

Most military loads are stored indoors and typically have 9-11% moisture content after one year in storage. Heavier objects, such as ammunition, are shipped exclusively on hardwood pallets due to the better performance characteristics of hardwood. The DOD uses combo pallets for many applications because they travel through automated material handling systems well and are fairly durable.

Concerns about plant health and international phytosanitary restrictions have led the DOD to implement strict standards on its wood packaging. The DOD does not want shipments held up due to pest issues. All empty and new softwood pallets are compliant with the EU emergency regulations. Fumigation with methyl bromide is not being allowed for U.S. military shipments due to EPA concerns about troop exposure to treatment chemicals. Currently, the DOD requires that all coniferous wood pallets and packaging be treated while non-coniferous does not have to be treated. The only exception is the Army. It requires all wood pallets and packaging be heat treated. The DOD will most likely require all solid wood packaging and pallets to be treated once the U.S. government enacts the IPPC standard as a rule for U.S. imports. Many existing loads have never been treated and will not be treated as long as they comply with the following criteria: no bark on the packaging, 19% or less moisture content and no bore holes over 3mm in diameter. Compliant, non-treated packaging can be marked with a DOD stamp and shipped without experiencing any border problems.

The DOD sources its pallets through the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia. The DOD works with pre-screened suppliers and sends out requests for bids periodically as needed. Due to contracting laws governing the military’s procurement system, online auctions have not been a viable option.

The U.S. military relies on wooden pallets for some of the toughest logistic challenges in the world. The DOD mobilizes entire units at a moment ’s notice, shipping heavy loads on strict deadlines. After considering cost, durability, disposability, environmental concerns and performance, wooden pallets prove to be the ultimate road warrior for supplying America’s fighting forces.

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