The engineering of war The Tech interviews a former army operations engineer

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Sarah M. McDermott—The Tech

With growing media speculation about the removal of U.S. troops from the campaign in Iraq, my engineering subconscious (naturally) began to consider the situation from a mathematical perspective. While overseas, the coordination of troops, munitions, aircraft, medical supplies, and combat vehicles is a strictly coordinated complex operation. In light of the current national canvas on the subject, I became interested in examining the potential withdrawal procedure from the standpoint of operations research. I had the opportunity to speak with Steven Clark, former Air Force Captain, who now works as a consultant for Analytics Operations Engineering in Boston.

Nina Sinatra: How did you become interested in the Operations Research field?

Steven Clark: When I first went to college at the U.S. Air Force Academy I thought I was going to pursue mechanical or aeronautical engineering for my major. However, the Academy has a large core curriculum requirement and I was exposed to some courses in the operations research field­ — a field I had never heard about. As I took courses and learned more about the major, I was really drawn to the interdisciplinary mix of math, computer science, management, and economics. I also thought it was a great way to work on a variety of problems and build up a range of experiences that could apply both within the military and beyond.

N.S.: How have your experiences differed from your time in the military to your work in the private sector?

S.C.: The biggest difference between operations research in the military and the private sector has to do with what operations research types would refer to as the “objective function.” Unlike the private sector, where the goal is generally to maximize profits or reduce costs, the objective for projects in the military is usually to maximize some form of combat effectiveness. These types of metrics can often be much harder to define, but include things like keeping the most number of aircraft ready to fly as possible (aircraft availability) by stocking the right mix of spare parts, for example, or minimizing the amount of time it takes to push materiel through the military’s supply chain to a theater of operations during wartime.

N.S.: How do you feel military engineering has developed in the past few years? Any predictions for the new decade?

S.C.: Operations research actually has its roots in the military when techniques like linear programming came into existence during World War II. Early applications to improve military operations are also where operations research got its name. Since then, the military has been at the forefront of adopting and utilizing cutting edge operations research techniques to constantly improve and manage all the equipment, supplies, and personnel it takes to successfully field a complex organization like the military. As battlefield technologies continue to improve and evolve, the application of operations research techniques have followed closely in step. Whether it’s determining the best way to route multiple autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) on a reconnaissance mission or how to use radio frequency identification tags to track and dynamically plan shipments through the military’s supply chain, operations research has proven to be an invaluable partner in maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of military operations and planning.

N.S.: The military campaign in the Middle East clearly presents significant challenges in operations research and engineering. From a mathematical or engineering perspective, what particular challenges are presented by the removal of forces and equipment from Iraq?

S.C.: One of the biggest challenges both inside and out of the military is finding the proper balance between the “answers” from operations research tools (like a mathematical optimization model) and the experience of dedicated people who at the end of the day have to make sure the job gets done. This challenge gets especially hard with an enormous organization like the military. It’s also one thing to apply operations tools to normal day-to-day operations at a company in the private sector or even within the military during peacetime operations, and quite another to apply them during wartime. Things like security conditions, available equipment, political circumstances, and mission requirements can change very rapidly making it difficult to implement robust operations research solutions. As a result, those tools have to be very good at providing high-level, intuitive guidance to decision makers while leaving enough flexibility for human planners to make it all work.

N.S.: As a consultant, you have had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects. Which have been your most memorable? Your most challenging?

S.C.: One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about being a consultant in the private sector is the opportunity to work for a wide range of companies. For example, in the past year or two I’ve worked for an intermodal railroad, a discount fashion retailer, and a RV enthusiast club. The intermodal railroad was actually a very interesting project. The railroad manages a fleet of shipping containers that customers load items into, transport to a rail yard via truck, and then load onto awaiting rail cars for transport across the United States. The challenge the railroad faced was how to set prices for each lane in their rail network to maximize profits, but yet use price to manage supply and demand in such a way as to keep the flow of containers balanced and avoid shortages and surpluses of available containers at the rail yards. Because the railroad had hundreds of lanes, it was very hard for the people in charge of planning to think about how prices on one lane would affect supply and demand across the entire network. However, this is exactly the type of scenario where operations research techniques shine. We developed an optimization tool for the railroad that would recommend price levels, but could also be re-run very quickly so that planners could experiment with various scenarios before making a final decision.

Nina Sinatra is a member of the Class of 2012.