Reversing the Supply Chain

By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2007-08-28 Print this article Print

Reversing the Supply Chain

The "retrograde" process of bringing military equipment back home starts with sorting. Each piece of equipment must be categorized as serviceable, unserviceable or recoverable (meaning damaged but repairable), and then further sorted as scrap, hazardous material or requiring demilitarization. The items must be packed into standard containers, with radio frequency identification tags attached to the outside. The tags, from Savi Technology, acquired last year by Lockheed Martin, are programmed with codes to identify the items inside, their owner, stock number, final destination and other identifiers.

As of last November, Central Command operated 223 RFID tag-reader sites and 283 tag-writer sites in and around Iraq, according to a presentation to the Navy by Lt. Col. Patrick Burden, joint product manager in the Army's Automatic Identification Technology unit. Burden says that the same tags used on supplies traveling to Iraq can be reused for material on the return trip. But to do it, the tags have to be rewritten in-theater with new destination codes.

The Army has been performing that task, he says, using portable RFID kits. Each one is a small, hard-shell suitcase containing a Windows laptop, an Iridium satellite modem, a handheld scanner and a military shipping-label printer. The kits run off a vehicle power source or AC power and collect RFID shipment data. With the kit, a supply sergeant in a combat zone can log on to the Army Transportation Coordinator's Automated Information for Movements System II—which controls in-theater movement—and forward RFID shipment data to the satellite network via a radio frequency in-transit visibility system server.

Military leaders track some truckloads of cargo, especially explosives and other "high interest" items, with a Web-based mapping application called IRRIS, for Intelligent Road/Rail Information Server, which was specially built for the Defense Department by software vendor GeoDecisions.

The system monitors the location of trucks and train cars that carry transmitters that send signals continuously to orbiting satellites. The data can be blended with, for example, real-time weather, route and terrain maps, and information about the availability of secure holding facilities should trucks with heavy loads of combat equipment have to pull over. IRRIS creates real-time maps of cargo in transit and the problems it may encounter. Should cargo deviate from planned routes, the software can send alerts to the desktops and laptops of in-theater military personnel on the Defense Department's secured SIPRNet.

IRRIS didn't start as a logistics application; it was created in response to a lack of information about physical infrastructure, such as the size of berths at seaports, during the first Gulf War, according to Brendan Wesdock, director of military solutions at GeoDecisions. He has worked with the Defense Department for eight years on the system.

IRRIS grew when military field personnel started to ask for graphical depictions of supply routes, to, for example, more quickly understand bottlenecks, Wesdock says. The Defense Logistics Agency's primary logistics software, called Integrated Data Environment, whose data feeds JOPES, is one system that provides that kind of data, but not visually. "You can look at spreadsheets with numbers about problems en route all day long, but if you look at a map, you see the problem right away," he says.

Though the Defense Department insists that in-transit visibility is better now than it was at the start of the war, problems remain. RFID tags fall off or get ripped off in transit, radio frequencies are sometimes unavailable, and batteries in active programmable tags run out. All of which renders the cargo intermittently invisible to military computer systems. The Transportation Command says it is working on next-generation tags that are programmed to detect tampering and will be replaced en route when they go missing.

IRRIS, too, had issues early in the war, when the military's secured SIPRNet access in Iraq was provided mainly over satellite, which can be slower than, say, cable for software heavy on graphics. Since then, land lines have been installed at bases, allowing high-bandwidth connections.

But tracking tags that use satellites, rather than radio frequency signals, to communicate data can provide the military with better data on equipment transit, Wesdock maintains, because the signals can be monitored as often as every 30 seconds. "RFID only tells you where it was, not where it is," he says.

Keeping all this detailed data current during a withdrawal from Iraq is critical to a smooth exit, according to Legeret. While she doesn't expect RFID tag information to be complete for every item going back, it has to be for anything getting demilitarized, she says. For pedestrian supplies such as furniture, retrograde details don't have to go deep. "I don't need to know it's a chair with arms, just that there are 50 chairs," she says.

But no one wants to report to his commander that he has lost track of sensitive equipment. "We need to maintain visibility on that. We will always have complete information on that," she says.

The Transportation Command, meanwhile, studies supply and equipment traffic in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait every day, Fletcher says. Through the command's Global Transportation Network, he looks at all transportation "lanes," whether land, ocean or air, and how efficiently vehicles are moving.

Upon exit, Fletcher will intensify the scrutiny. For example, he met with Army officials in July to stress that although troops sometimes aren't as careful with data in a rush to get out as they are going in, they'll have to be to ensure that platoons, battalions and brigades keep track of their equipment and remain ready to redeploy if they have to. "I said, 'Precision of this execution is going to be a factor of accuracy of documentation. If you want to translate retrograde into readiness, you've got to invest [in good data] at the front end.'"

Next Page: Shipping Out Equipment

Senior Writer
Kim has covered the business of technology for 14 years, doing investigative work and writing about legal issues in the industry, including Microsoft Corp.'s antitrust trial. She has won numerous awards and has a B.S. degree in journalism from Boston University.

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