Today’s U.S. military is a dynamic, rapidly
moving force that is designed to be effective in an asynchronous
battlespace. The enhanced mobility and speed of today’s
combat forces, which can perform in austere theaters with limited
infrastructure, create new challenges for military logisticians.
Logistics problems experienced during the combat phase of Operation
Iraqi Freedom presented a compelling case for change. Contemporary
military logisticians must meet the challenge of supporting
the transformed combat force with fast, accurate, flexible,
and mobile sustainment.
Historically, military logisticians supporting combat forces
have had limited information on assets, particularly in theater.
This lack of information led to ineffective inventory
management, waste, inefficiency, and delay across the supply chain. Ultimately,
these shortfalls affected the warfighters’ overall materiel readiness,
their ability to close the force, and the operational availability of weapon
systems. The lack of synthesized, end-to-end, real-time information on items
at rest and in transit undercut the combatant commander’s ability to
exercise directive authority for logistics.
The “bumper sticker” term
that frequently is used to refer to the availability of information on assets
in transit is “visibility,” but
visibility is not an end in itself. Visibility is a tool that helps to—
• Reliably deliver the required item to the right location, in the correct
quantity, when it is needed, and from the most appropriate source.
• Make tools and information available to the decisionmakers who exercise
effects-based management of the logistics network.
• Manage end-to-end capacities and available
assets across the supply chain to best support warfighter requirements.
• Enhance the ability of the supported combatant commander to exercise
directive authority over logistics.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) is an enabling technology that allows military
logisticians to synthesize and integrate end-to-end information about assets.
The Department of Defense (DOD) is a globally sophisticated user of active RFID,
with more than a decade of experience in this technology and the most extensive
RFID network in the world. Now, DOD is attempting to standardize the use of active
RFID and is moving ahead with the application of passive RFID technologies. (Active
RFID uses a battery within the tag to power the tag and its RF communications
circuitry. Passive RFID relies on radio frequency energy transferred from the
reader to the tag to power the tag.)
On 30 July 2004, the Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology,
and Logistics issued a policy requiring the implementation of RFID across
DOD. DOD is taking a leadership role in passive RFID, both as an early adopter
the technology and as the developer of the technology and standards for its
The RFID policy directs military services and Defense agencies to expand
immediately the use of high-data-capacity active RFID that currently is used
in the DOD operational environment. The policy also directs
the phased application of passive RFID by suppliers, who will be required
to put passive RFID tags on cases and pallets of materiel shipped to DOD
the packaging of all items requiring unique identification (UID). Beginning
in 2005, DOD suppliers will be required to put passive RFID tags on shipments
selected classes of supply going to Defense Distribution Depot San Joaquin,
California (DDJC), and Defense Distribution Depot Susquehanna, Pennsylvania
classes of supply will be included and nodes will be added over the next
several years, with full implementation expected by 2008.
The desired end
state for the DOD supply chain is a fully integrated, adaptive entity that
uses state-of-the-art enabling technologies and advanced management
information systems to automate routine functions and achieve accurate and
timely in-transit, in-storage, and in-repair asset visibility with the least
of human intervention. RFID is a foundational technology on the path to achieving
this vision. Ultimately, DOD will operate a single, seamless, responsive
enterprise visibility network that will be accessible across the network
backbone and usable
by both people and systems throughout the supply chain.
DOD envisions using RFID as an integral part
of a comprehensive suite of automatic identification technologies
(AITs) to facilitate
accurate, hands-free data capture in support of business processes
in an integrated DOD supply chain enterprise. DOD will apply
all of the AITs where appropriate in the supply chain to improve
support to the warfighter.
RFID-Enabled Supply Chain
The chart above depicts an RFID-enabled DOD supply chain. This high-level process
view provides a visual representation of how DOD foresees using RFID as materiel
is moved from the manufacturers and suppliers to the warfighter.
all operations within the DOD supply chain are captured on this chart. However,
the primary actions performed by the physical nodes to move materiel
through the supply chain are the shipping, receiving, and transportation processes.
The chart depicts materiel movement that physically “touches” each
node throughout the chain. Yet, materiel can start, move through, and end on
different paths between logistics nodes.
The chart at right shows how materiel
can move, in various segments, through the supply chain. All of the segments
depicted on the chart are affected by RFID.
Materiel movement includes retrograding through the supply chain. Again, the
direct impact of RFID on the retrograde and return process corresponds to the
basic shipping, receiving, and transportation processes.
With passive RFID, DOD
will capture more granular [detailed] data automatically, injecting advanced
technology at the transactional level. This will streamline
the movement of materiel through warehouses and depots, increase inventory accuracy,
and generate productivity improvements.
Active RFID is a cargo-tracking capability that provides
the ability to manage consolidated shipments. By adding passive
RFID to the technology portfolio, the military services will
be able to develop an end-to-end capability that relies on
complementary active and passive technologies to deliver an
RFID suite applicable to all assets that are in transit, in
process, or on the shelf.
Historically, information across the supply chain has been captured only at the
predefined nodal touchpoints. This data capture generally has been used to update
systems of record and, in some situations, generate status notifications. To
speed the adoption and implementation of passive RFID technologies and accelerate
the learning curve, the military services initially are using passive capabilities
for transaction sets similar or identical to legacy transactions. However, once
the foundational implementations are established, the true promise of passive
RFID can be realized.
The Stovepipe Challenge
RFID delivers near-real-time status and improves inventory control, particularly
in deployed or combat environments. It can make “track and trace” a
reality around the world, across system and organizational stovepipes. No longer
will DOD be limited to capturing information on at-rest and in-transit materiel
at fixed locations. As RFID tagging becomes more and more ubiquitous and RFID
technology becomes more portable, real-time information can be captured wherever
needed to support the requirements of the combatant commander. Equally important,
the adoption of passive RFID standards will circumvent the stovepipes
and barriers to information flow throughout the services that historically have
been a challenge for DOD. The military logistician will be able to deploy and
move a logistics infrastructure and visibility capability as rapidly as the combatant
commander can deploy and engage the combat force.
RFID is part of a larger suite of AITs that DOD will leverage in the supply chain
where appropriate to improve support to the warfighter. As an enabling technology,
RFID data must be available to automated information systems (AISs). Managers
of major acquisition programs must update their programs to incorporate RFID
capabilities where applicable.
Active and passive RFID will continue to complement one another
as passive RFID technology is implemented throughout DOD.
Many shipments moving through the Defense Transportation
System currently are tracked using active RFID and a barcoded
military shipping label. The implementation of passive RFID
will complement the current successes in using active RFID
for shipments outside the continental United
The association of a passive tag to an active tag will reduce container stuffing
and unstuffing time and provide more accurate “inside the box” visibility.
This passive and active association is created by building a “nested” structure
of passive tags (UID item packaging and case and pallet tags) that are subordinate
to the active tags (SEAVAN container and 463L pallet tags). Historically, active
RFID has been excellent at providing nodal visibility. The use of passive tags
will provide efficient and accurate item and content visibility. The marriage
of active and passive RFID will result in more accurate and timely automatic
capture and reporting of data within the multiple layers of information required
in DOD’s dynamic environment.
RFID deployment also complements the ongoing UID initiative. Although the UID
and RFID initiatives are closely related, they have fundamental differences.
UID is a permanent, unambiguous, and globally unique item identifier. RFID is
a means of collecting data using radio frequency technology. RFID will be used
as a hands-free data-collection method to identify UID items that are located
within various levels of packaging.
To identify a UID item using RFID, the data on the RFID tags on unit packs, shipping
containers, exterior containers, and palletized unit loads must be linked to
the UID information in a logistics system. Using RFID tags to collect data and
associating the tag data with UID information will help to maintain precise UID
in-transit visibility and improve data quality, item management, and maintenance
of UID materiel throughout the DOD supply chain.
Hands-free data collection will help extend and take advantage of the UID policy.
However, the UID initiative requires that a data matrix be applied to each UID
item. This data matrix is a two-dimensional barcode that is an alternative form
of AIT. Incorporating two-dimensional barcode and RFID technologies into AIT
equipment will facilitate the UID and RFID relationship.
The chart shown above depicts the “nested” structure
of active RFID, passive RFID, and UID items. In this nested
structural relationship, passive RFID will be used to verify
the accuracy, track the physical movement of, and virtually
build the contents of a 463L pallet or SEAVAN container. Passive
RFID will verify the contents in real time and convey this
information to the local AIS and the personnel physically loading
the pallet or container. Once the pallet or container is configured
properly, an active tag is attached to it to track and trace
its movement. At the final destination, when the pallet or
container is unloaded, passive RFID will again verify the contents
and track the physical movement of the materiel within the
destination node. These nested data also will be used to create
a transaction record and close the transportation transaction
once the items are received. The chart shown above right depicts
how the passive–active–passive relationship could
look across the DOD supply chain.
RFID Versus Barcodes
RFID is part of a family of AIT devices that includes barcodes, optical memory
cards, smart cards, microelectromechanical systems, and satellite tracking systems.
RFID and barcodes will coexist for several years because both technologies have
merit. However, RFID provides a number of positive benefits over barcodes. For
• Eliminates human error.
• Improves data accuracy and asset visibility.
• Performs in rugged, harsh environments.
• Provides a dynamic, multiblock read-and-write capability.
• Facilitates source data collection.
• Permits simultaneous reading and identification of multiple tags
Each military service and Defense agency should review its internal business
processes to refine the most appropriate employment of RFID. The widespread integration
of RFID into DOD business processes should be managed with the same level of
attention given to a major system fielding.
Although RFID technology ensures accuracy and timeliness of data within current
and future systems, implementing it will require significant planning, equipment
fielding, AIS changes, and training. Such an approach will ensure a long-term,
RFID is being recognized as a valuable component of the suite of AITs
because of the capabilities it provides. Active RFID has improved the ability
trace, and locate materiel on demand throughout the supply chain. Combining passive
RFID technology with the active RFID technology already in place will create
greater efficiencies and data accuracy in the DOD supply chain. Leveraging RFID
to the fullest extent possible will improve the services’ ability to get
the right materiel to the warfighter at the right place, at the right time, and
in the right condition.
The real value of RFID lies not in what it can do today but in what it will do
in the future. DOD is in the midst of the most fundamental transformation of
logistics capability ever attempted, and RFID is an integral element of that
transformation. By employing RFID, DOD is laying a foundation that allows military
logisticians to leverage new applications that enable them to see and manage
the supply chain from end to end and not be limited by enterprise-centric, stovepipe
systems. With RFID, it will be possible to control the supply chain from factory
to foxhole and deliver the right item to the right place at the right time, even
in the face of rapidly evolving conditions in the battlespace. ALOG
Alan F. Estevez is the Assistant Deputy
Under Secretary of Defense for Supply Chain Integration within
Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Logistics
and Materiel Readiness. He is responsible for development of
global supply chain management and distribution policies and
processes to support the operational requirements of warfighters.
He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and a master’s
degree in national security resource strategy from the Industrial
College of the Armed Forces.