Logistics evolves 'just in time'

The new IT arsenal

As the United States builds up for war with Iraq, defense experts say that information technology is much different than it was during the Gulf War. This article is part of a series that examines changes in military IT during the past 12 years and culminates with in-depth coverage in the Feb. 24 issue of Federal Computer Week ["DOD deploys high-tech arsenal"].

The paper-based, "just in case" system of supplying troops during the Persian Gulf War has given way to high-tech, "just in time" logistics.

During Operation Desert Storm, officers would order a few items—ranging from sunglasses to ammunition—and if the shipment didn't arrive in a few days, they would order more "just in case."

That system resulted in thousands of containers holding mystery items. In fact, during Desert Storm, more than half of the 40,000 cargo containers shipped to the desert—including $2.7 billion worth of spare parts—went unused, according to a General Accounting Office report.

Fast forward 12 years, and military personnel use a Web-based system, handheld scanners, and radio frequency identification (RFID) hardware, software and services to achieve "total asset visibility" (TAV) for "just in time" logistics.

DOD's TAV network monitors and manages 270,000 cargo containers transporting military supplies throughout 400 locations in more than 40 countries. Now, military officials know exactly where a shipment is throughout its journey from the factory to the foxhole, and they can even reroute containers if a more urgent need arises after initial deployment.

The Army recently awarded a three-year, $90 million contract to Savi Technology Inc. for RFID hardware, software and services. The contract will enable military personnel to buy—directly from the company—a wide range of automatic identification and data collection technologies and software to track, monitor, locate, secure, process and deploy military supplies worldwide.

Last month, Gen. Paul Kern, commander of the Army Materiel Command, issued an order requiring that all air pallets, containers and commercial sustainment shipments supporting Operation Enduring Freedom or future operations be identified with RFID tags. That order came after a similar one last summer from Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, which is leading the active military component of the ongoing war on terrorism and would lead any operations in Iraq.

RFID tags on cargo containers enable systems to automatically capture data in real time and integrate it into the global DOD network to provide immediate information on the location and status of the containers and their contents.

"Compliance with this RFID tagging policy is absolutely essential—no other existing system provides the necessary visibility or level of detail," Kern wrote. "RFID is the only tool that allows [Coalition/Joint Forces Land Component Command] to identify critical cargo, locate it and anticipate its arrival. The technology is proven, widespread and is positively required for CFLCC operations."

John Osterholz, director of architecture and interoperability in DOD's Office of the Chief Information Officer, said the ability to now support "just in time" combat support in Iraq has enabled the United States to be fully prepared for war in half the time it took for Desert Storm. The TAV program enables users to "dive deep" in the flow of information and get items to unit that needs it quickly, he said.

Vic Verma, Savi's chief executive officer and president, said the integration of RFID technologies into DOD's management information systems has "made military logistics as predictable as FedEx logistics."

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