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Asset Visibility in the
Tactical Environment

The Army must ensure that its CSS systems are completely interoperable and capable of producing accurate and timely information that is useful in supporting the warfighter.

If the Army is to transform to a force that can respond rapidly with leaner sustainment and lighter deployment requirements, it must reduce its forward logistics footprint and increase its responsiveness. Future sustainment processes must be simpler and more responsive, agile, and flexible to meet sustainment requirements. A significantly smaller logistics work-force must be able to provide highly effective support over extended distances in shorter times. Technology and innovation must be used whenever feasible to increase readiness and operational reliability.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has made great strides in improving asset visibility at the strategic and operational levels. The Army learned from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm that it was unable to track supplies and equipment from the strategic industrial base to the theater of operations. This failure caused the theater logistics footprint to grow exponentially and placed a heavy burden on supply and transportation systems.

DOD recognized this deficiency and implemented steps to develop a DOD-wide automatic identification technology (AIT) vision to integrate existing and new technologies to support future operations. This vision emphasized the development of a suite of interoperable AIT media and infrastructure to support asset visibility within the Army’s logistics operations. Even though DOD was able to implement AIT at the strategic and operational levels, it was not as successful in devising and implementing a plan for operations outside of the normal peacetime environment. This was evident during the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when tracking supplies pushed from the strategic and operational levels was nearly impossible. Asset visibility should not stop at the strategic level but go as far forward as possible to support the tactical environment (“the last mile”).

Legacy System Shortfalls

Total asset visibility is achieved by using timely and accurate information systems that track the distribution of assets. Visibility begins at the point from which materiel is shipped to the theater of operations and continues until it reaches the user. Critical to visibility is the capability to update source data dynamically with the near-real-time status of shipments from other combat service support (CSS) systems until the shipments arrive at their ultimate destinations. However, this is a difficult task because the legacy logistics automation systems used in CSS activities are not interoperable with current and emerging AIT. Moreover, the Army’s logistics distribution processes are not using the type of technologies used by large distribution-based commercial enterprises.

To combat this short-fall and integrate interoperability into its systems, DOD has begun to form partnerships with commercial industries such as Wal-Mart in hopes of learning how they apply asset visibility technologies. However, unlike Wal-Mart, the military distribution system must support full-spectrum operations throughout the strategic, operational, and tactical environments.

During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the Army’s problems with tracking and maintaining visibility of deployed units’ CSS resources were caused largely by a lack of technology and the use of legacy logistics systems that provided only a limited capability to communicate throughout the supply chain. As a result, commanders at the tactical level developed a “just-in-case” logistics strategy. Since the CSS systems were not responsive and failed to provide near-real-time visibility of needed supplies and equipment, tactical commanders often placed several orders for the same item “just in case” the first order did not arrive. This practice placed a heavy burden on the industrial base, the war reserve stockpile, and the transportation system from the strategic to the tactical levels. During Operation Desert Storm, more that half of the contents of 400,000 cargo containers shipped to the desert—including $2.7 billion worth of spare parts—were not used, according to a Government Accountability Of-fice (GAO) report. With little or no visibility of what was in the containers, receiving personnel had to open them to identify the contents. This process wasted valuable human resources and caused customer wait time to skyrocket.

Funding for AIT

After Desert Storm, DOD tried to resolve the visibility shortfalls by working with several defense contractors, such as Savi Technologies, Inc., and UNISYS Corporation, to develop a test bed for integrating commercial off-the-shelf products into CSS processes and “bridging” those products to the Army’s legacy logistics information systems.

In March 2000, DOD implemented a plan that integrated logistics AIT into logistics business processes to facilitate the collection of initial source data, reduce processing times, improve accuracy, and enhance asset visibility. However, this plan was undercut by a lack of funding. Although DOD’s policy laid out milestones for implementation, it did not provide funding for the plan. The Department of Defense Implementation Plan for Logistics Automatic Identification Technology stated—

AIT devices are generally managed as automated data processing peripheral equipment and will be funded and maintained by using organizations. In accordance with the Defense Planning Guidance, organizations that operate nodes in the DOD logistics chain will fund, procure, and maintain the ability to read and write AIT media to meet mission requirements.

The AIT implementation plan placed the financial burden on the organization to use its current opera-tion and maintenance, Army (OMA), dollars to fund AIT. This burden was felt in the 19th Theater Support Command (TSC) in 2000, when it was attempting to develop and implement the AIT archi-tecture for Army logistics operations in Korea. To meet DOD’s mile-stones, the 19th TSC had to use its own funds and de-vise creative ways to acquire funds to support the DOD ini-tiatives and provide the theater commander with to-tal asset visibility. For example, the 19th TSC con-vinced the Army Logistics Integration Agency (now the Logistics Transformation Agency), which had the Army lead on AIT, to shift funding from Europe to Korea.

The persistent lack of funding also caused significant problems in fully leveraging AIT and achieving total asset visibility during the first 12 months of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). OIF is one of the largest logistics efforts that the U.S. military has ever undertaken. For example, of the $28.1 billion that DOD originally obligated for OIF, the services and the Defense Logistics Agency reported that $14.2 billion were designated for operating support costs and $4.9 billion were allocated to transportation of the large numbers of personnel and huge quantities of equipment that had to be moved long distances into the Iraqi theater.

Logistics Deja Vu

GAO’s report to Congressman Jerry Lewis, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, stated that, “although major combat operations during the initial phases of OIF were successful, there were substantial logistics support problems.” GAO reported that one of these problems was the duplication of requisitions and circumvention of the supply system as a result of inadequate asset visibility. Units operating in the theater could not track equipment and supplies adequately because asset visibility systems were not fully interoperable.

The same logistics issues that prevailed in Operation Desert Storm caused commanders to resort to the “just-in-case” ordering strategy in OIF, even though DOD had directed all activities to implement its AIT plan. At the theater distribution center in Kuwait, hundreds of pallets, containers, and boxes of supplies and equipment piled up. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags were not used consistently in spite of an order issued in January 2003 by General Paul J. Kern, Commander of the Army Materiel Command, requiring that all air pallets, containers, and commercial sustainment shipments supporting Operation Enduring Freedom or future operations be identified with RFID tags. Months earlier, General Tommy Franks, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, had issued a policy requiring the use of RFID tags when-ever feasible to track assets shipped to the theater.

The tactical environment of OIF presented many challenges that doctrine or policy did not or could not consider. Without knowing where the required CSS resources were or if they were available, materiel managers could not conduct their mission effectively or efficiently. However, because Soldiers are professionals, they accomplished their mission by relying on their creative abilities and skill to solve problems “on the fly.”

New DOD AIT Policy

AIT provided some value at the tactical level after the systems network was established. However, funding shortages and the requirement for the user to fund AIT solutions hindered development of the AIT architecture to support operations in the tactical environment. Lessons learned from OIF were captured by several agencies in and out of DOD. These lessons caused DOD to reevaluate its AIT policy.

On 30 July 2004, DOD issued a new AIT policy that addresses the use of new technologies to capture asset visibility at the strategic level, including defense contractor organizations, but DOD did not provide guidance on funding AIT initiatives at the tactical level. However, the Army recently awarded a 3-year, $90-million contract to Savi Technologies, Inc., for radio frequency technology hardware, software, and services. The contract will enable the Army to buy a wide range of automatic identification and data-collection technology to track supplies worldwide. The Army and DOD will continue to commit money to AIT in hopes of developing an im-proved asset visibility system. However, the Army’s legacy systems still are not interoperable or capable of fully supporting near-real-time visibility.

The Army’s CSS systems must be responsive, predictive, and capable if they are to capitalize on AIT. The Army must transform its CSS systems so that they are completely interoperable and functional if they are to produce accurate and timely information that is useful in supporting the warfighter. (See chart at left.) This transformation is critical to support of changing battlefield conditions and information-centric operations. Dedicated effort and resources are needed to ensure that systems are capable of supporting asset visibility throughout the logistics pipeline.

The CSS system must meet requirements that change with little notice. Military leaders must assume that changes in priorities will be the norm on current and future battlefields, and they must be ready to respond quickly. The CSS structure should focus on providing support as far forward as practical in the tactical envi-ronment. All CSS logistics operations must be designed, coordinated, and executed with a view toward providing comprehensive and uninter-rupted support to the warfighter.

As the Army transforms, its asset visibility systems must migrate toward a true “joint-centric” system. Integrating systems and leveraging new technology will aid in CSS transformation. Through total asset visibility from the strategic to the tactical level, the Army will be able to reduce its logistics footprint and provide just-in-time CSS support to the warfighter.

Kevin D. Kingsley is the Chief of the Property Accountability Systems Branch, Combat Service Support Automation Management Office, Office of the G–6, 21st Theater Support Command, in Kaiserslautern, Germany. A retired Chief Warrant Officer (W–4), he has a bachelor’s degree in management from Upper Iowa University and is a graduate of the Sustaining Base Leadership and Management Program.