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Tracking Materiel
From Warehouse to Warfighter

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 supplies.

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.

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.

Finding Solutions

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.

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.

In-Theater ITV

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 forward.

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.

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.