New tracking technology enables Marine Corps
logisticians to tackle “the last tactical mile.”
After-action reports of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) issued
early in 2003 heralded the success of radio frequency identification
(RFID) systems and networks that profoundly enhanced the ability
to track in-transit materiel from the continental United States
(CONUS) to the theater. According to the reports, the military,
especially the Army, benefited from greater visibility of materiel,
reduced inventory, and increased speed in locating critical
However, those reports and OIF operational experience also showed that, once
RFID-tagged shipments were broken down at in-theater ports and airfields for
forward movement to the warfighter,
accountability for the items in them was soon lost. The truth is that, during
both the buildup and execution of OIF, the military did not track supplies to
the tip of the spear. The result was the loss of equipment, gear, and other supplies
and a lot of reordering. Some units, including Marine Corps units, were not using
RFID, which further exacerbated logistics problems.
uses a mobile reader to scan an active RFID tag attached
to a shipment of supplies bound for Iraq. Tracking
begins when the shipment leaves the Supply Management
Unit at Camp
In the end, Marine Corps logisticians were humbled
and embarrassed by some of the “nuts and bolts” logistics
problems they encountered. Because of these problems, marines
often did not have what they needed. They squandered a great
deal of time and treasure worrying about logistics management
problems whose solutions were potentially at their fingertips.
My unit, the Marine Corps’ Supply Management Unit at Camp Pendleton, California,
is the primary supply support unit for the I Marine Expeditionary Force. When
we returned from our OIF tour, we understood the imperative to make changes to
our supply process—and quickly. We recognized, at least at some level,
the role that RFID potentially could play in fundamentally changing the way Marine
Corps combat service support groups serve the end users in the foxhole.
We did not waste any time. We knew that tracking materiel to ports or airstrips
and then losing it would do little to transform our processes. While we were
late in getting into the RFID game, we sought to make up ground quickly by focusing
on the so-called “last tactical mile” shortfall still so evident
at the far end of the delivery chain. We sought to extend the near-real-time,
in-transit visibility (ITV) of the logistics supply chain that we enjoyed at
the strategic level down to the tactical level and, in fact, all the way to our
final consignees—the warfighters. When the assault on Fallujah, Iraq, took
place last fall, we were ready to support the warfighter with what he needed
when he needed it.
When the Marine Corps redeployed to Iraq in February 2004 in what might be called “OIF
II force sustainment,” we
used a new RFID concept that quickly moved the Marine Corps to the forefront
of emergent military logistics solutions. The concept involved the following—
• Attaching active, battery-powered RFID tags to materiel so that it could
be tracked as it moved through the supply system to the consignee in theater
by the lowest possible conveyance level.
• Instituting robust training of personnel before deployment from CONUS.
• Using portable deployment kits to set up checkpoints at each major camp,
and eventually at the battalion level, to ensure automatic visibility of shipments
throughout the retail supply chain.
Tagging to the Bin Level
To address the issue of inadequate in-depth visibility of materiel, we began
comprehensive implementation of RFID tagging down to the pallet or reusable tri-wall
container level and even to the bin or SKU (stockkeeping unit) level. When supplies
for multiple consignees were on the same pallet, we tagged separate bins of materiel
on the pallets for the individual consignees. The individual items inside the
bins were bar coded, and the bar code data were uploaded to the active tags,
which have a capacity of up to 128 kilobytes of data. During the conflict in
Fallujah, we were able to track materiel in near-real-time all the way to the
edge of the city.
In contrast to the Army’s practices, the Marine Corps tags materiel even
if we know it will be passing through areas that do not have interrogators. We
do this as a matter of policy to institutionalize the proliferation of interrogators
in the future so we will be able to tie the data feeds into existing inventory
management reports and systems. Tagging materiel so it can be tracked wherever
interrogators are available helps us to keep our supplies where they belong and
know “what we have where” with a business-like efficiency.
|At the Supply
Management Unit, collapsible plastic containers are
stuffed with supplies. Active RFID
tags are affixed to the containers
and to the packages and cartons inside them.
Training As We Fight
The Marine Corps philosophy of “train as you fight” was central to
finding a solution to our logistics challenge. In just a few weeks, we implemented
a unit-level training program to ensure that new personnel in the unit were competent
users of RFID technology. We believe that training personnel to use RFID technology
during support operations in the United States helps to promote its use routinely
in all operations rather than only during deployments. Currently, this approach
to institutionalizing RFID is unique to the Marine Corps. The approach is so
successful that the Corps is now providing assistance and training support to
deployed Army supply support activities.
Commercial off-the-shelf technology was pivotal to expediting RFID system implementation.
Working closely with the Installations and Logistics Department at Headquarters,
U.S. Marine Corps, we identified hardware and software early in the process that
would help us meet our required nodal visibility objectives.
Within months, we were able to deploy compact, lightweight early-entry deployment
support kits and mobile readers in the field along key nodes all the way to the
Syrian border. These new mobile RFID stations provided in-theater ITV that showed
current events at the container, pallet, and bin levels.
We also extracted “last known location” data from the ITV server
and used it to create shipment status information that was posted to the units’ standard
supply management reports. This provided an audit trail of shipments as they
passed through locations in the distribution pipeline (for example, the containerization
and consolidation points at New Cumberland, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina;
and Al Taqaddum, Balad, and Fallujah, Iraq).
Today in Iraq, through the use of a custom interface between the Automated Manifest
System-Tactical (for which the Army and the Marine Corps share responsibility)
and the Marine Corps supply system, RFID automation allows seamless collection
of source data for outbound shipments of reusable tri-wall containers and pallets
to marines in the field. With the implementation of the new tracking systems,
Marine Corps logisticians are able to use the Joint Deployment and Logistics
Model (JDLM), which is also used by the Army, to track shipments as they move
Marines love being “in the know” and never plan to go back to the “good
old days.” The new tracking capability enables better planning, reduces
unnecessary backup orders, and, most importantly, instills greater confidence
in logisticians and warfighters alike.
set up an early-entry deployment support kit at Camp
Al Taqaddum, Iraq.
The Payoff: A Shift in the Logistics Paradigm
Today, our new tracking capability provides us with cradle-to-grave status of
supplies with unprecedented accuracy and resolution. We have tagged hundreds
of containers and thousands of pallets holding tens of thousands of supply
items and experienced better than 90-percent read rates in hostile environments
throughout the supply chain.
The new RFID process has enhanced the precision and flexibility of our supply
operations, and we have gained the ability to locate or redirect “misroutes” as
soon as they happen. We can prioritize shipments like never before; for example,
critical repair parts for tanks are shipped ahead of pens and paper.
As a result of these improvements, we have reduced our overall shipments while
pushing materiel to the end user more quickly. Supply personnel know what they
have ordered, where it is, and when they can expect to receive it. Allowing logisticians
to see progress with their own eyes has increased their confidence in the supply
system. As a result, “just in-case” ordering has decreased substantially.
The Marine Corps has a long way to go to exploit the maximum potential of RFID
technology to enhance supply support operations. Our experiences in supplying
the 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, for the offensive on Fallujah
demonstrated that our forward-leaning approach is battle forged and that the
payoffs are real.
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph P. Granata, USMC, is the Commander of the 1st Maintenance
Battalion, 1st Force Service Support Group, at Camp
Pendleton, California. He has a bachelor’s degree from the State University
of New York at Fredonia. He is a graduate of the Ground Supply Officer Course,
the Amphibious Warfare School, the
Logistics Officer Course, the Advanced Logistics Officer Course, and the Marine
Corps Command and Staff College.