Stairstep Technologies in the Supply Support Activity

by Major Peter D. Crean

In every major deployment in its history, the Army has had problems with effective logistics distribution. These problems reached epic proportions in World War II, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf War, where soldiers at the front often had to "scrounge" for needed equipment while ports of embarkation and debarkation were overcrowded with supplies waiting to be processed and moved forward. This tendency, coupled with large fiscal and personnel cuts in the last 8 years and a revolution in the civilian transportation industry, have forced the Army to reassess how it distributes supplies, in both peace and war.

The Army is experimenting with several technologies that can improve distribution management. Three key "stairstep" technologies that are found in the supply support activity (SSA) are the bar code, the optical memory card (OMC), and the radio frequency (RF) tag. SSA's in U.S. Army, Europe (USAREUR), lead the Army in using these new technologies, but not without difficulties.


Some key components of distribution management systems used by the USAREUR SSA's are—

Automated Manifest System (AMS). AMS is an integrated automatic identification technology (AIT) that consists of OMC's, RF tags, and bar code scanning capabilities. AMS automates standard Department of Defense (DOD) transportation and supply functions, such as breakbulk, receiving, issue, freight consolidation, redeployment, and retrograde operations.

Bar codes. A bar code is a bandwidth of sequential lines that is read by lasers or lights to transmit data to a data base for processing. Bar codes are usually either linear or two-dimensional (2-D). Examples of both types can be found on the back of the U.S. military identification card (DD Form 2). The linear bar code is the one found below the date-of-birth block on the DD Form 2, and the 2-D type is found below the date-of-issue block.

Optical memory card. Also called an AMS card, an OMC is a credit-card-sized AIT component that provides electronic supply and transportation information. The OMC can interface with the Standard Army Retail Supply System (SARSS) for automatic receipt processing. It has a data capacity of up to 2.8 megabytes but cannot be erased and reused.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) equipment. RFID refers to a system consisting of tags, an interrogator (reader), a computer, and a docking station. It is an omnidirectional data collection and storage device that uses radio frequencies to read and transmit data. RF tag information can be sent to a data base either by conventional phone lines or by international maritime satellite. The standard SAVI systems RF tag currently used in DOD has 256 bytes of standard memory storage and 128 kilobytes of extended data storage capacity.

Movement Tracking System (MTS). Also called Defense Transportation Tracking System or Defense Transportation Reporting and Control System, the MTS is an adaptation of civilian equipment that uses satellite communications to provide visibility of the location of transportation assets, engine and systems status, and e-mail communications with the vehicle operator.

Intransit visibility (ITV). ITV refers to the ability to track the identity, status, and location of DOD unit and nonunit cargo and passengers from point of origin to the designated consignee or destination.

Lessons From the Past

To meet the logistics challenges created by a smaller force with increased deployment responsibilities, the Army has had to rethink battlefield distribution. In the last 9 years, Operations Desert Shield and Joint Endeavor have shown how far the Army has progressed to meet the new challenges. The logistics portion of the Operation Desert Storm deployment, though successful, is arguably a case study in how not to support a theater of war. At the beginning of the conflict, the Army had no standardized procedures for packing, marking, shipping, and tracking containers and equipment into the theater. As a result, the port of debarkation quickly became overloaded.

When the Army deployed to Bosnia for Operation Joint Endeavor 5 years after Desert Storm, overcrowding was avoided, because the senior logisticians took steps to control the flow of supplies and equipment moving into the theater. Every container sent from Germany to the intermediate staging base (ISB) in Hungary, and on to Croatia and Bosnia, had an RF tag affixed to it that identified its owner, destination, and contents. The 574th Supply Company's mission was to run the container-holding yard in the ISB. Through the use of RF technology, the 574th was able to maintain absolute accountability of thousands of equipment items and supply

Problems With Stairstep Technologies

The Army developed the AMS to increase the velocity of a wide range of supply and transportation functions. However, simply attaching an RF tag to a container does not solve the Army's distribution management problems. First, a soldier must scan the bar code stickers attached to the items he intends to ship as he builds the pallet or stuffs the container. The materiel release order control system (MROCS) bar-code scanner interfaces with a variety of supply and transportation systems to consolidate data and produce OMC's. OMC's accompany the container or pallet to its destination and provide total asset visibility (TAV) of the shipment's contents. The cards enable the destination SSA to do a batch receipt of the supplies, thus saving hours of labor otherwise needed to process each item individually. OMC's can be used to "burn" data onto RF tags that provide ITV of the container as it moves through the transportation system.

Together, the three stairstep technologies show where supply containers are located (ITV) and what they contain (TAV). Linear bar codes only give information about a specific item in a load and do not provide ITV or TAV. OMC's give TAV information about a container but cannot provide ITV during shipment. Military RF tags provide ITV but do not have enough memory to hold TAV data. Because they do not have a direct interface with SARSS (or, in the future, the Global Combat Support System-Army), military RF tags do not allow for automatic receipts when shipments arrive at SSA's.

USAREUR Dilemmas

At the distribution management center (DMC) in Kaiserslautern, Germany, I worked with the theater distribution center (TDC) on a daily basis. The TDC serves as a transportation hub for all interdivisional referrals, all military airlift supplies coming into Europe from the United States, a limited amount of supplies for the DOD Dependent Schools system and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, and supplies going to Operation Joint Forge in Bosnia by ground transportation. A common problem at the TDC is maintaining the accuracy of data on loads moving through the hub.

Typically, air pallets received from the United States are properly packaged with bar codes, OMC's, and RF tags, allowing for expeditious processing and visibility of cargo as it moves through the TDC. For various reasons, many SSA's do not have the capability to create OMC's and RF tags. Those SSA's have to process referrals with hard-copy documentation only. Therefore, cargo coming into the TDC from within the theater as a result of referrals from SSA's has only hard-copy documentation, which causes processing delays and lost visibility. At the TDC, shipments are broken down and sorted by destination DOD Activity Address Codes (DODAAC's). During the sorting process, cargo from many sources is consolidated for shipment to a final destination. Cargo coming into the TDC with OMC's is mixed with cargo accompanied only by paper documentation.

The TDC's mission is to ship cargo through without delay. Cargo that arrives with only paper documentation is not entered into the TDC's data base, because that can be both a timely and labor-intensive process. As a result, no data on items manifested with paper documentation are captured on an outbound OMC produced by the TDC. To further complicate matters, a batch receipt accuracy problem is created when the nonautomated cargo arrives at an SSA in the same container with items accompanied by OMC's. When this happens, the receiving SSA cannot use the OMC to conduct a batch receipt action for the supplies and SSA personnel lose confidence in the technology.

While building an OMC is not difficult, it is an additional step for SSA soldiers. When SSA's lose confidence in technology, they are less apt to take the time to create OMC's for cargo departing their facilities. OMC's also can be lost easily or separated from their load. Many of the multipack loads coming into the TDC contain separate OMC's for each consignee. The cards easily become separated from their corresponding cargoes, and time is lost sorting them out again. The result is lost time in shipment or loss of asset visibility.

Improved Confidence and Readiness

RF tags are used widely in USAREUR. In Operation Joint Endeavor (which later evolved into Joint Guard and then Joint Forge), over 20,000 RF tags were used between December 1995 and July 1998. Because RF tags provide real-time location data over the Internet about customer shipments, many units use RF data on a daily basis. Units that understand the benefits of RF technology typically place great confidence in the accuracy of data it provides, both for TAV and ITV.

To get the most current information on the movement of critical maintenance repair parts, SSA's can use an RF interrogator to access a USAREUR data base that is kept current by established sites, both in the United States and in Europe. The 1st Armored Division used data provided from RF technology to improve readiness and build confidence among its units in the supply and transportation system. Because they were confident that the part was on its way, they could reduce stocks on hand and avoid reordering, which allowed them to save money.

Using RF technology also can improve readiness. For example, in the 1st Armored Division, one brigade uses RF tag data instead of SARSS or Logistics Intelligence File supply data to gain the most current supply status and improve its maintenance readiness.

While the Army is migrating toward RFID, we currently do not make full use of that technology. The United Parcel Service (UPS) uses an international distribution hub-and-spoke-style operation that is similar to the one used by USAREUR today. UPS does not use OMC technology of any type. All cargo moving through the UPS system is marked with and tracked by bar codes and RF technology. The bar code is scanned into a local Windows-based data base that feeds the central UPS data base at various times during a 24-hour period. The system has real-time query capability that permits tracking of specific items, even between scheduled data feeds. The ITV of cargo is provided by a system of RF transponders located at 24 locations in the UPS hub and on each of their delivery trucks. The individual truck driver has an electronic clipboard that the customer signs (with an electronic "pen" device) when the package is delivered. The clipboard documents that the customer has received the item and sends the information back to the data base using a RF and satellite uplink jack in the vehicle. Although expensive, the RFID system eliminates the need for OMC capability.

Overcoming Technological Challenges

If the Army adopted a suite of technologies that linked detailed supply data with applicable transportation data using bar codes and RFID, it could eliminate OMC's. However, this is easier said than done. Currently, the RF tags in the Army supply system do not contain enough memory to replace OMC's. This is not true in the civilian sector, as a scan of the Internet will confirm. (One site I visited recently lists more than 60 producers of RF technologies.)

Increased-capability RFID is only half of the equation. Current linear bar codes do not have the capacity to hold all of the supply data needed to populate a Standard Army Management Information Systems (STAMIS) data base. To do that, the current MROCS reader system would have to be updated to accept the newer, high-resolution, two-dimensional bar codes. These new bar codes can sustain damage and still be useful, while current linear bar codes are unreadable when even slightly damaged. This is an important factor when considering the field conditions in which forward SSA's often operate. Investment in two-dimensional bar code readers and associated technologies would keep pace with current trends in the civilian sector.

However, simply replacing OMC's with more powerful RF tags is not enough. If we want a truly seamless supply system, we have to know what is in the box and where the box is. RF tags provide visibility of what is in the box and the last known location by which the tag passed. However, they do not provide current data or the ability to redirect loads. MTS does that. By linking RF and MTS data to the supply and transportation STAMIS, we could achieve just-in-time logistics. Distribution managers on the battlefield could redirect supplies as they move on the main supply route to more urgent destinations.

The capital investment for these improvements is not cheap. Although the Army already is moving in this direction, fiscal constraints and conservative mindsets keep it from achieving a seamless logistics system. As we have seen with the OMC's, if even one SSA is not equipped with the complete suite of technologies, the system will not work. The Army will have to outfit all SSA's, transportation hubs, and maintenance facilities with the enablers at the same time in order for the system to work.

We are not far from the day when a supply clerk can process a requisition and follow the item through the supply and transportation systems by looking at one screen. As the UPS example shows, the civilian business sector is doing that now. The military only needs to adjust how it uses bar codes and RF tags to link ITV and TAV. A capital investment to purchase expanded memory RF systems and reconfigure STAMIS systems to accept 2_D bar codes can achieve that linkage in the near future. The payback will come in the form of a faster and more accurate distribution system. Investment in these technologies makes the concept of a seamless supply chain possible. ALOG

Major Peter D. Crean is assigned to the Office of the Quartermaster General, Fort Lee, Virginia. He has a bachelor's degree in political science and Soviet studies from Indiana University and a master's degree in logistics management from Florida Institute of Technology. He wrote this article in partial fulfillment of the requirements for graduation from the Army Logistics Management College's Logistics Executive Development Course.