DOD builds high-tech supply chain

During the Persian Gulf War, the Defense Department relied on paper-based, "just in case" logistics to support its troops in the field. Officers would order a few items, ranging from sunglasses to ammunition, and if the supplies didn't arrive in a few days, they would order more, "just in case."

That system resulted in thousands of containers of mystery items that helicopters were sometimes called in to lift up just so military personnel could see what was inside.

Today, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has made possible what is known as "just in time" logistics. DOD can embed containers with electronic tags that can be read like bar codes using a handheld device or an automated scanning system (see "A visible improvement," opposite page).

Containers can be scanned at various points in transit, with the information captured in an online database so logistics experts worldwide can track the progress of supplies they ordered. DOD officials refer to this as "total asset visibility."

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

The Army recently awarded a three-year, $90 million contract to Savi Technology to enable military personnel to buy, directly from the company, a 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 in Afghanistan and future military actions 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 military component of the war on terrorism and would lead operations in a possible war with Iraq.

"Compliance with this RFID tagging policy is absolutely essential," Kern wrote. "No other existing system provides the necessary visibility or level of detail.... RFID is the only tool that allows [Coalition 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 chief information officer's office, said the ability to support "just in time" logistics in Iraq has enabled the United States to be fully prepared for war in half the time it took to gear up for Desert Storm. Total asset visibility enables users to "dive deep" into the flow of information and quickly get items to the units that need them, he said.

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

RFID technologies can be used for numerous logistics operations, such as tracking warehouse inventories, assessing in-transit and checkpoint transportation, and controlling military convoys.

Savi's RFID tags are the only tags that currently comply with the International Committee for Information Technology Standards' 256-2001 standard, a minimum DOD requirement, Verma said. That means only Savi's tags can be used for transporting containers, while other vendors' tags can be used to track goods once they are inside DOD facilities, he said.

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