From managing goods to providing medical care, extreme conditions and uncertainties set the military apart from commercial endeavors. It is one thing to manage supply-chain logistics or to provide medical care at a stationary facility; it is quite another thing to do that when the delivery point is unknown and the receiving unit is constantly on the move or under enemy fire.
"At some point, all the nodes are moving all over the place. That's where it's most important to have accountability and visibility," says Gary Motsek, Deputy G-3 for Support Operations, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (G-3), Army Materiel Command in Alexandria, Va.
Maintaining a visible end-to-end distribution system has become critical to U.S. military efforts. Last fall, General Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, ordered "all air pallets, containers, and commercial sustainment moving to/from theater and intratheater movement to be tagged with RFID [radio frequency identification] at origin." This meant the military would now be engaged in just-in-time logistics. That was a big change from the first Gulf War, where each branch effectively employed "just-in-case" ordering that left iron mountains of duplicate and discarded goods behind after the fighting was done.
Tag, you're it
Using RFID tags, wireless readers called interrogators, and a web-based tracking system eased battlefield logistics by allowing soldiers to identify goods from perishables to munitions quickly and precisely. The RFID system that supported the new Total Asset Visibility mandate was provided by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Savi Technology.
Under the system, data identifying goods is burned to RFID tags that can hold up to 128k of data. These plastic tags are placed on the closed pallet or container or even on individual items, including munitions. Troops hit the field with kits that include tag interrogators which wirelessly collect tag data, upload it to a laptop, and send it on to a Web-based system.
Innovative U.S. soldiers in Iraq rethought tag use, says Motsek. "Some soldiers reburned the tag in order to track their vehicles."
Mostak says in the future, suppliers may need to build RFID technology into vehicles directly. "If I were king for a day, my ultimate goal would be for all items to have a tag -- rather than just on the pallet -- and [for] our commercial suppliers [to] be on board."
The retail industry is beginning to explore RFID. "Gillette will tag high-end razors to identify [market] shrinkage and the root cause of shrinkage," says Gerald McNerney, senior analyst Supply Chain Service, AMR Research in Boston. McNerney says RFID is already being used at ports and for homeland security. "You can use RFID tags to find evidence of tampering."
Mobile medical records
When the call for deployment came to the 325th Airborne Regiment at Fort Bragg, Major Timothy Rapp was working on a research project testing, in essence, a digital dog tag. Rapp, chief of the information technology engineering division of the Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Md., had issued each soldier in the unit digitized medical records in a card about the size of the traditional metal tag.