Military logistics boosts asset visibility

Logistics, one of the weak links in the military campaign against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, proved to be a showcase of advanced technology this time around, but the Defense Department is still not satisfied.

The fusion of logistics information from satellites, radio frequency identification devices and other systems helped catapult asset tracking and visibility to unprecedented levels during the recent conflict in Iraq. But there are challenges that must be addressed for total asset visibility to be achieved in future conflicts, according to military officials.

Satellites and other systems have improved the in-transit visibility of military equipment and supplies, but more work needs to be done to better assess the needs of battlefield troops, officials say.

Additionally, the military must work closer with industry to achieve greater connectivity and interoperability among the logistics information systems used to order and track the progress of supplies.

Logistics efforts are talked about in terms of in-transit visibility (ITV) — giving commanders the ability to track the status of supplies they need for upcoming missions.

Marine Corps Col. Peter Talleri, chief of Central Command's logistics transformation and automation division in Qatar, said that the distinctive feature of Operation Iraqi Freedom is "asset visibility and rapidity...and, as with the rest of the war, technology is playing a vital role in support of logistical efforts."

"Central Command faced a logistics information arena that was fractured on many levels in the wake of Sept. 11," 2001, Talleri wrote in an April e-mail. "Joint visibility systems did not meet warfighter needs or were not fully developed. It was difficult to obtain a complete ITV picture without using multiple systems. Moreover, information latency was a hindrance to obtaining near- or real-time information."

Centcom officials quickly realized they needed an overall logistics information technology strategy to "bridge the gap" between existing and future logistic systems, he said.

The IT strategy was based on taking available logistical information that supported decision-making from "factory to foxhole" and enabled the execution of the combatant commander's, in this case Centcom commander Army Gen. Tommy Franks, direct authority for logistics.

Numerous emerging IT-laden logistics capabilities were funded and sped up to support the war, including:

* The Joint Logistics Warfighting Initiative's Shared Data Environment, which provides relevant data to decision-makers by providing real-time asset visibility of battlefield stock levels.

* Radio frequency identification devices, handheld scanners and other hardware, software and services that enable cargo information to be instantly beamed into a database that is accessible worldwide.

* Satellite tracking systems, including the Army's Movement Tracking System (see box, Page 34).

* The Global Combat Support System, which provides visibility of the logistical process from end to end.

Tools of the Trade

The Joint Logistics Warfighting Initiative provides Web-based, real-time logistics information to all users. The system, which enables users to share data, improves responsiveness and manageability for logistics commanders and managers at every level.

By transforming "service-unique" supply and maintenance support systems into a theaterwide asset visibility tool, the system provides the warfighter with real-time situational awareness of critical supplies and equipment, Talleri said.

Radio frequency ID devices enhance the military's ability to locate and direct consolidated shipments and unit equipment and provide in-the-box visibility by giving operators a way to remotely identify, categorize and locate materiel automatically within relatively short distances.

To monitor cargo and vehicles as they arrive in and move throughout southwest Asia, coalition forces used handheld tag readers and fixed and mobile "interrogators," which can read the tag information as vehicles pass through.

That information, along with other cargo- and vehicle-tracking systems, were fused together to present military leaders with a detailed, graphical view of not only what supplies are in specific containers at the camps, but also where they are throughout their journey to the front lines, said Maj. Forrest Burke, chief of logistics information management for the Coalition Forces Land Component Command at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.

"This is an information-centric war, and logistics is at the heart of it," he said. "I was a tanker in the first [Gulf] war, and when we needed supplies we went 'container diving,' looking for stuff until we found something useful...[a practice called] push logistics. Now, we'd like to practice 'smart pull' so soldiers can ask for what they need and we monitor the flow."

Satellite tracking systems can track near-real-time locations of vehicles, materiel and convoys. Satellite tags can help monitor the distribution of food, fuel, spare parts and ammunition that are moved to fighting units, Talleri said.

The Global Combat Support System offers a fused, integrated, real-time, multidimensional view of logistics throughout the battle space and the supply pipeline through interconnected information systems, Talleri said.

The system cuts across DOD's information stovepipes "and graphically displays actionable data/information in an understandable and usable means that will enhance the decision-making process for the joint warfighter," he said.

Programmers have developed Web-based, classified tools that give logistics operators a fully integrated common operational picture with minimum delay (see box, Page 38).

John Osterholz, director of architecture and interoperability in DOD's chief information officer's office, said tagging and tracking cargo was a major wartime success, which was easily gauged by the rapid rate at which the Army and Marine Corps advanced north through Iraq.

"Precision identification of important cargo and low-density, high-demand items was key to keeping that tempo up," Osterholz said.

Humble Beginnings

Centcom started with a pair of broken radio frequency ID interrogators in the Middle East in September 2001, but by February 2003 had assembled an impressive logistics arsenal, including more than 60 read/write interrogators, 30 Global Combat Support System sites, about 30 Joint Logistics Warfighting Initiative relay boxes, and satellite tracking devices on more than 500 vehicles to track logistical convoys into Iraq, Talleri said.

The first two mobile interrogator kits, known as Transportation Coordinators' Automated Information for Movements System, were installed at Camp Doha March 31, Burke said, adding that 60 more will be installed throughout Kuwait and Iraq within a month.

The tools are part of this system, a joint DOD program that tracks passengers and equipment worldwide using handheld readers and portable computers that enable users to collect data for enhanced ITV.

"We've never done tactical ITV, it's always been done at the strategic level," Burke said. He added that more than 40 fixed interrogators are in place throughout southwest Asia and the military has plans to install more than 100 in the coming months to further enhance the Army's ITV capabilities.

Maj. Carter Corsello, support operations officer for the logistics automation office at Camp Arifjan, served as a logistics specialist during Desert Storm and said he saw "acres of containers" being stockpiled even though it was often unclear what supplies they held.

The containers often were checked twice daily — by the day and night shifts — because there was not an automated way of keeping track of what had been used. "Now, it's point and click and you know what's there," Corsello said.

As an example, officials from the Defense Logistics Agency traveled to a port in late March to collect information on 179 containers filled by commercial vendors en route to southwest Asia. Using handheld radio frequency ID tag readers, DLA officials collected the information then downloaded it into the corresponding Army repositories.

"It took them 20 minutes, including walking around the port," Burke said. "For a platoon [doing it manually], that would take about two days. That's a quantum leap."

Challenges Remain

Even though asset visibility and tracking reached new heights during the war, much work remains, Talleri said.

"A principal lesson learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom [is that] logistics IT remains underequipped with communications and lacks interoperability," he said, adding that industry must partner with the military communications community "to overcome these logistical challenges."

And the heavy lifting in Iraq may just be starting because DOD's logistics workload there will not peak until July, said Gen. Paul Kern, commander of Army Materiel Command.

Kern said the satellite and radio frequency ID systems that coalition forces are using in the Middle East have increased the ITV of military equipment and supplies. But much work remains to be done, especially in connecting to troops at forward-deployed locations, or at the "tip of the spear," he said.

"It will be two or three months before the logistics workload peaks, and then it will have to be sustained for two or three years," Kern said during a May 6 speech at an AFCEA International conference in Washington, D.C.

The Army alone has about 17,000 pieces of "rolling equipment" moving in and out of Kuwait, he said.

Another challenge is that although Franks and Kern required all DOD containers to include radio frequency ID tags, that doesn't mean everyone has the capability yet, Burke said.

Some tags don't contain detailed information, and the military services are all progressing at various speeds.

Other challenges include:

* Negotiating where to put the fixed interrogators in battlefield locations.

* Inconsistent power supply.

* Overreliance on satellite communications because of few fiber connections in the war region.

Still, Talleri said the past 17 months were a "heroic effort" on behalf of the Joint Staff, U.S. European Command, Transportation Command, the military services, the Defense Logistics Agency and the fighting forces. "Teamwork has achieved an unprecedented level of asset visibility in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom," he said.

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