The need for information dominance, as well as for smaller, lighter weapon systems on the battlefield, is pressing logistics to the forefront as military officials search for the most promising technologies that will speed crucial supplies to fast-moving forces.
How do you take a five-million-item database and make it agile enough to supply a U.S. military deployed to all corners of the globe?
Pentagon leaders are starting at the top, with vast new networks and software applications for the Defense Logistics Agency, and are inserting new technology all the way down the supply chain, from radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on parts in warehouses, to satellite dishes on battlefields that link rugged laptops to a central database.
This is a busy era at the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The 22,000-person unit manages more than 90 percent of the U.S. military’s repair parts, and 100 percent of its food, fuel, clothing, medical suppliers, and construction material.
But according to a 1998 DLA study, they have been doing it all with obsolete practices, falling far behind commercial logistics. With warehouses scattered around the world and military personnel making mistakes as they type on keyboards, their disparate databases often generate different numbers.
Today they are implementing 11 major initiatives from that study, building improved databases, software, hardware, and network systems, says Allan Banghart, director of enterprise transformation at the DLA.
They are focusing on five core programs: customer relationship management (CRM), supplier relationship management (SRM), distribution planning management system (DPMS), product data management (PDM), and business systems modernization (BSM).
BSM is a commercial off-the-shelf enterprise resource planning (ERP) system at the heart of the agency’s new business model, Banghart says.
DLA staffers launched the first release of BSM on July 31, 2002. Today it uses software from SAP, of Newtown Square, Pa., to perform finance, procurement, and quality-assurance tasks; it uses software from Manugistics, of Rockville, Md., for planning tasks; and it uses the agency’s own legacy system for order-fulfillment tasks.
As they roll out the installation, DLA staffers will replace their legacy system with a module from SAP. They will increase the database of items from 235,000 to the full 5.2 million components. By September 2006, DLA will run its entire operation in the BSM environment.
One of their main challenges is to make these changes on the fly. DLA workers process 45,000 customer requisitions per day, and award 8,200 contracts per day. They can’t afford to shut the system down to load new software programs.
And they’re getting even busier. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have boosted their workload 70 percent in four years. DLA sales totaled $17 billion in 2001, $21 billion in 2002, $25 billion in 2003, and $30 billion this year. At the same time, the agency has sliced its employees to fewer than 22,000, down from a peak of 65,500 in 1992.
Agency leaders are relying on the new software applications to make up the difference. They say BSM will allow them to collaborate with customers to get inside their logistics planning, management and execution cycles, and ultimately predict their future requirements.
BSM will also help centralize their scattered systems, says Banghart.
DLA’s legacy materials management system, called SAMS, now runs in six different instances. Users compare data in daily batches, so each version quickly evolves to be a little different, with variations in the data.
That makes life hard for the network’s 1,175 users, spread across DLA inventory control points in Columbus, Ohio, Richmond, Va., and Philadelphia, Pa.
On BSM, SAMS will run as a single instance on a commercial platform at the enterprise data center in Denver, Colo., built and hosted by Lockheed Martin. That will clean up the data and apply any updates in real time, he says.
Streamline the network
In another effort to streamline, DLA leaders announced in September that they would award a $290 million, 10-year Enterprise Data Center (EDC) contract to Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, Calif.
To reduce complexity and cost, they will consolidate 12 disparate data centers down to a few in the U.S., one in Europe, and one in the Pacific Rim, says Alan Lawrence, director of strategic programs for Hewlett Packard Public Sector, Washington, D.C.
“They now use 2,400 different servers, and we’re targeting a 50 percent reduction in that number. We will turn it into a scalable environment, so it’s easy to add memory, processing power, and possible to add 100 servers quickly if they need to,” Lawrence says.
The challenge is to have those centers operational by the end of 2006 without disrupting current operations.
Performing logistics on the battlefield
Army supply staffers today use 18 logistics programs, with names like the Standard Army Retail Supply System (SARSS), Standard Army Ammunition System (SAAS), Standard Army Maintenance System (SAMS), Unit Level Logistics System (ULLS), Integrated Logistics Analysis Program (ILAP) systems, and Property Book Unit Supply Enhanced (PBUSE).
That much variety is a threat to streamlining the Army into an Internet-based organization capable of sharing data with computer nodes on battlefields around the world, say Pentagon leaders.
So Army planners are taking a step toward that vision of the “future force” by launching the Global Combat Support System-Army (Field/Tactical), known as GCSS-Army (F/T).
GCSS is an enterprise resource-planning (ERP) software program that is designed to replace 18 of the Army’s existing automated logistics systems with a single, fully integrated system. It will use Web-based architecture to interface with other Army and Joint command and control systems.
The prime contractor is Northrop Grumman Mission Systems sector, of Reston, Va., which will create the system at their new logistics complex in Chester, Va. That complex houses the National Operation Center (NOC), run by Northrop Grumman, and the Logistics Information Systems (LIS) Integration facility, managed by EER Systems of Chantilly, Va., a division of L-3 Communications.
As a Web-based application, GCSS will allow soldiers to share data across the Army’s myriad logistics realms, including transportation, supply, maintenance, personnel, medical, finance, and engineering.
The key technology for GCSS is its software architecture, which is based on the NetWeaver application from SAP. That data will flow across the existing Army Knowledge Online (AKO) network.
Army workers began installing GCSS in 2001 for National Guard and Army Reserve units. They will finish the job by the third quarter of 2007, says Army Col. David W. Coker, project manager, logistics information systems, Fort Lee, Va.
“In Operation Iraqi Freedom we lost the ability to requisition parts,” he says. “We moved so fast to Baghdad we lost connectivity on the battlefield, because our communications links were line-of-sight. So we ended up with isolated supply nodes on the battlefield, and it became a stubby pencil drill.” That was largely because of obsolete systems.
“The challenge the Army failed at was keeping up with the fast pace of technology,” Coker says. “Our legacy systems are obsolete; many operating systems are still DOS, and I still see [Intel] 486-processor computers out in the field. So we need to upgrade both hardware and software.”
When it’s running, 140,000 users will use GCSS worldwide, including active Army, National Guard, and Reserve. That’s a large percentage of the Army’s half-million members, he says.
“We see huge dividends in the program, since one system will replace 18,” he says. “We’ll have asset visibility, so we’ll be able to see the status of shipped parts, and we’ll get an integrated logistics picture, to support the warfighter at the pointy end of the spear.”
Before they can support battlefield logistics, soldiers must organize the warehouses where the gear is stored.
GCSS is part of a larger effort called the Single Army Logistics Enterprise (SALE), which extends from factory to foxhole, Coker says. The supply chain starts at the national level with factories and depots, and reaches all the way down to the unit level.
It starts with a database hub called Product Lifecycle Management Plus. That feeds data to a national-level ERP application called the Logistics Modernization Program. In turn, GCSS reaches toward the theater of war.
Finally, logisticians in the battlefield use the Movement Tracking System (MTS), a bolt-on to each vehicle, made by Comtech Mobile Datacom, Germantown, Md.
That device lets Army logistics workers see in-transit visibility of trucks, using a receiver and global positioning system. At the same time, soldiers driving the trucks can see themselves on computer maps, transmit their progress to central control, and even send emergency communications over an L-band satellite link.
“If Jessica Lynch had had this, they would have known where her truck was,” says Coker, referring to the Army private who was held prisoner by Iraqi forces for nine days in March 2003 when her supply convoy got lost during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Since then we’ve fielded 4,000 of them, both for status of assets and force protection. I was over there when we got a call that an American was kidnapped, and we put out a call on MTS and got him back within 10 minutes.”
Wynne pushes RFID
Logistics software systems are only as accurate as the information in their databases, so DLA staffers are also trying to automate the flow of individual pallets, cases, and items.
“We’re implementing automatic identification technology; barcodes, touch buttons, optical memory cards, and RF tags. Things we can use to do data entry without a keyboard, and improve the quality of data within our systems,” says Ed Coyle, chief of the Automatic Identification Technology (AIT) office for the DLA, in Ft. Belvoir, Va.
For example, a standard linear barcode can store 20 or 30 characters in its stripes, while a new two-dimensional barcode can handle a couple thousand characters in its mottled square. But barcodes need a line-of-sight view to the reader, which must be held inches away.
“The real killer app coming out now is passive RFID,” he says.
Pentagon leaders have required that suppliers attach passive RFID tags to certain material purchased by the Department of Defense after Oct. 1, 2004, and delivered after Jan. 1, 2005, according to the RFID policy memo dated July 30, 2004, signed by Michael Wynne, the acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics.
That order affects just clothing, food, repair parts, and weapons components today. But buyers will phase in stricter requirement over two years, Wynne ordered. So by Jan. 1, 2007, every Defense Department supplier must mark every item with a passive RFID tag.
Pentagon buyers will also phase the tagging requirement from entire containers and pallets of material down to individual cases and items, depending on their value. That’s because active tags are much more expensive, costing $50 to $100 apiece, compared to 50 cents to $1 for passive tags.
They also differ as active RFID tags have batteries, and can beam data up to 100 meters away. Passive RFID tags send data by reflecting the power from an interrogator, so they can reach only three meters. Another difference is the bandwidth; active tags use 433 MHz, while passive tags use 915 MHz.
Today, the active tags are a good investment only for the most valuable items. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, Army and Air Force units used them to mark 40-foot shipping containers and battlefield vehicles, but nothing smaller. In the U.S., DLA maintenance workers use them today to track parts when they disassemble helicopters at a logistics center in Corpus Christi, Texas, Coyle says.
“That’s where the technology is mature enough to add value to the supply chain,” Coyle says. “Tags are much less expensive now than a couple of years ago, but not as cheap as we’d like them. Our goal is to drive the price of these tags down as low as possible.”
The tagging imperative has implications for many military offices.
Before an item can be tagged, it must have a serial number. So all program managers must mark their entire stock of items with unique identification numbers (UIDs) by Dec. 31, 2010, Wynne decreed.
Programs that have already started this task include: AH-64 Apache, UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook, C-17 Globemaster III, B-1B Lancer, V-22 Osprey, and the program executive office for ammunition. For more information, see www.acq.osd.mil/uid or www.dodrfid.org.
Tags are useless without readers, so DLA depot managers must purchase RFID readers. They started with a contract to buy RFID readers from Symbol Technologies, Inc., of Holtsville, N.Y. Finally, readers are useless without databases, so DLA technology workers must get their software systems ready for an influx of new data.
Once the technology is in place, RFID tags will revolutionize military logistics, Coyle says.
“We’d like to have a sense-and-respond environment, where tags are monitoring logistics environment without human intervention, where the storeroom monitors its own shelves and produces replacement demands automatically,” he says. “It is within the realm of the possible, but we’re not there yet; we need more hardware in the warehouses, for example. We’ll look at that in the next couple of years.”
Automatic identification moves beyond RFID
In June, Defense Department leaders took a step toward streamlining their logistics when they awarded a five-year, $238 million contract to Intermec Technologies Corp., of Everett, Wash.
Under this Army contract, called Automatic Identification Technology Three (AIT-III), Intermec will supply all federal agencies - including the Department of Defense - with automatic identification systems, mobile computing, and wireless networking technologies.
As prime contractor, Intermec teamed with Northrop Grumman’s Information Technology (IT) sector, of Herndon, Va., to implement the technology. Together, they will supply a range of mobile computers, portable data-collection terminals, barcode scanners/imagers and printers, wired and wireless communications systems and security software, barcode labels, and technical engineering services. For more information, see www.dodait.com.
“There are some unique aspects to military logistics. When you send something into a theater of war, you can lose track of it,” says Larry Huseby, Intermec’s director of industry marketing.
“The DOD is unique from the rest of the world because they’re putting products, tools, and weapons into a theater of war where there’s no computer infrastructure. So critical information has to accompany whatever they’re moving.”
Intermec will attach that information to crates and pallets using a variety of technologies, from 2-D barcodes to touch buttons and optical memory cards.
Contact memory devices called “buttons” are round, cylindrical, metal devices that look like four dimes stacked up, he says. Each one can holds 64 kilobytes of memory, which users can read by touching the button with a probe. Both rugged and rad-hard, they’re so tough that Navy workers glue buttons onto helicopter rotor blades to track maintenance records. Intermec buys buttons from MacSema, Inc. in Bend, Ore.
Optical memory cards have read and write capability, like a CD-ROM. They hold so much memory - up to 4‑megabytes - that customers can reuse these cards. Some companies update the manifest on each pallet as it’s unloaded, for example. To read it, a user removes each card from its sleeve on the pallet, and plugs it into a device called “the toaster.” Intermec buys optical memory cards from LaserCard Corp., Mountain View, Calif.
The AIT-III deal does not include RFID tags, which are covered in RFID-II, a separate Pentagon contract with Savi Technology, of Sunnyvale, Calif.
For years, business leaders have predicted that RFID tags would revolutionize the flow of goods around the world. But the Department of Defense and Wal-Mart are the only major organizations now requiring their suppliers to mark all goods, says Huseby.
Other retailers are lagging behind the trend because RFID tags are still too expensive. Manufacturers would have to make tags by the billion to drive unit cost down to 5 or 10 cents each.
“So RFID is showing most promise in the near term in supply chain applications where the tag is reusable, for instance on a pallet, container, or box. That drops the cost of implementation per tag,” he says.
At this scale, troops on a beach can use handheld computers to interrogate containers. If they’re looking for M-16 rifles, they can command the proper tag to chirp and flash a light. Then they can remove a single weapon from the crate, and reduce the inventory on the electronic manifest tag, he says.
Users call for better RFID standards
The cost of RFID tags will not drop until commercial users agree on better standards, says Jim Smith, senior vice president of operations for electronics marketing at Avent, in Phoenix, Ariz.
“Wal-Mart and Gillette are leading the way for use of RFID tags in the commercial world,” he says. “But economics have not driven the price down yet. Contrary to what you hear, it’s not a nickel a tag. They’re still paying 45 or 50 cents per tag.”
Part of the problem is that designers are still trying to perfect the technology. For example, some readers can only read a tag if it is oriented in the expected corner of a pallet or box. Engineers are also still trying to agree on a standard for information exchange.
To get there, an industry consortium must agree on better standards. EPC Global is a private sector organization that supports interoperability standards and the implementation of passive RFID. For more information, see www.epcglobalus.org.
RFID combines with sensors
Most commercial-sector companies invest heavily in their umbrella IT systems, but neglect to mark their goods with smart tags.
“There’s a gap between enterprise information systems that companies and government agencies have spent so much money on, and their physical assets. There’s a data divide, a disconnect,” says Matt Armanino, senior vice president of corporate development for WhereNet, Santa Clara, Calif.
“People still manage assets with human labor, they write things down. People still manually input to a system when things move; that’s slow, expensive, and error-prone. An automated system would be constant, instant, and seamless.”
So WhereNet builds local area wireless tracking zones, tracking signals from active RFID tags every few minutes or seconds. Soldiers at one Army depot use the system to keep track of parts as they disassemble satellite and radar systems for shipping, he says.
But these tags could do much more than merely locate an object. They could also send data from sensors.
Used on a refrigerated trailer, such a smart tag could send a status report every few seconds, tracking the temperature inside, whether a door’s been opened or closed, and the amount of fuel remaining in the compressor. Used on a forklift, the sensor could monitor whether the vehicle is turned on our off, how many hours it’s operated, and its fuel level and oil pressure.“This technology is not intended to replace barcodes or passive RFID. But it is crucial for high-value assets, or pallets and containers loaded with goods.”
Logistics company listing
Comtech Mobile Datacom
a division of L-3 Communications
Palo Alto, Calif.
Intermec Technologies Corp.
Mountain View, Calif.
Mission Systems sector
Information Technology sector
Newtown Square, Pa.,
Santa Clara, Calif.