Earlier this month in Washington, DC, over 1000 representatives from the military and the contracting community gathered for the third DOD (Department of Defense) RFID Summit for Industry. The U.S. military is undertaking a massive transformation of its logistics operations, and RFID is a key component of this global effort. Its RFID mandate reaches further than that of any retailer, as of most of the approximately suppliers employ from 1 to 4 people. This month the DOD began supplier shipments in four categories of material to two of its distribution centers, located in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania and San Joacquin, California.
The conference was a great forum for uniformed and civilian military personnel and the contracting community to both share lessons learned from initial implementation of the Defense Department mandate and exchange information on the technical and cultural challenges that lay ahead. Throughout the two days of presentations and panel discussions, one thing is clear: The Defense Department’s RFID efforts are being carried out for one customer, the U.S. soldier, sailor or airman – in DOD parlance, the “warfighter.”
The summit was chaired by Alan Estevez, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense for Supply Chain Integration. He stated that the Defense Department’s commitment to automatic identification technology is not a tech-driven undertaking. Estevez commented that: “It’s not really about the technology…as what you really need to look at is the business process. In an ideal world, you work the business process to its most effective and then ‘wheel in the technology’ to manage it. Sometimes however, a technology comes along that can cause you to reexamine the business processes to make it leaner and better.” Better, in the military’s business, means bringing the technology down to the tactical, even battlefield level, and that, according to Under Secretary Estevez, “is where the real payoff is.”
The summit’s keynote address, “Delivering Capability to the Warfighter,” was given by General John W. Handy, Commander of the U.S. Transportation Command. He observed that today, “The U.S. military has become a world-class deployment organization.” He cited the nearly unfathomable logistics operations that have been undertaken by the Defense Department in support of operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, as of February 2005, his command has moved over 2 million people since September 11th to the two theaters of operations. In fact, it has been responsible for shipping:
- 1.2 million short tons of materials
- 62 million barrels of fuel
- 313,000 containers
- 11,280 high-explosive containers
- 140 million meals
To put this in perspective, his staff has calculated that this logistics operation is “comparable to taking the entire city of San Antonio, Texas, all the people, all their possessions, and what they need to sustain them halfway around the world.”
General Hardy commented that in the military community, the focus on logistics transformation has been to create a visible supply chain from the “factory to the foxhole.” The foxhole is really an outdated metaphor, as in today’s world, this means an identifiable, in-theater destination for material, fuel and supplies. He related a story of how in the heat of the fall 2004 campaign to drive the insurgents from Fallujah, the Defense Department’s Operations Center actually fielded a phone call from a Marine Captain in the heat of battle. He called up saying, “we need Hellfire missiles here ASAP. I have a RFID tag here – can I get some?” The point of the General’s story was that the Captain actually had to make the phone call and try to read numbers off the smart label. In the DOD’s vision of the military of the not-so-distant, there would be no need for that call, as the resupply of ordinance would have been automatic.
Colonel Mark Nixon, Head of the Logistics Vision and Strategy Center for the U.S. Marine Corps, observed that RFID has enabled a vastly improved logistics effort in Operation Iraqi Freedom over that of the Gulf War a decade ago. In the 1991 conflict, one Marine officer observed that despite stacks and stacks of containers, “We had absolutely no idea where our stuff was.” Traditionally, this has led commanders to order parts 3, 4 or up to a dozen times to ensure the part reaches the necessary unit. Now, with far-greater in-transit visibility, there is far greater confidence in the distribution system, and by reducing the redundant orders, there have been dramatic costs improvements. More importantly however, the military’s lift capacity is a finite resource, eliminating these duplicative efforts reduces strain on the air, land and sea transport system and enables a fleeter, more agile military in the field with the right supplies being delivered to the right place and the right time – all in support of the customer – the warfighter in the field. As Col. Nixon plainly stated, “The warfighter can influence the battle by having better confidence in the distribution system…allowing him to concentrate on the matters at hand in the battle per se.”
During the Civil War in 1862, President Lincoln compared the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac to “bailing out the Potomac with a teaspoon.” Today, it’s heartening to know the military and contracting communities are unified in their efforts to transform a far-flung supply chain in support of an 18-year-old private on the streets of Baghdad or Kabul.