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Joint Asset Visibility:
Why So Hard?

The Way Ahead

In the fourth and final article of his series on joint asset visibility, the author looks at some of the problems faced by those trying to provide joint asset visibility and the steps being taken to alleviate those problems.

A thorough logistics analysis of distribution problems experienced during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom reveals how important joint total asset visibility (JTAV) has become to success in modern warfare and how necessary it is to consider the entire global supply chain when developing JTAV improvements. SOLE—The International Society of Logistics supports this perspective by emphasizing fundamentals like JTAV and advocating that logistics be viewed as a total system.

Obtaining an overarching perspective is a tremendous challenge for the Department of Defense (DOD). DOD is not only enormous, its internal supply chain is truly global. Moreover, tens of thousands of disparate commercial companies, both domestic and foreign, provide supplies, transportation, and logistics communications and information-processing software and equipment to DOD worldwide. Coordinating the physical movement and storage of DOD supplies on such a global scale is incredibly complex. However, capturing the information pertaining to this movement and storage, integrating it within automated information systems, and ensuring that it is accessible to interested stakeholders throughout the global supply chain via wide area networks is far more complicated. With this in mind, DOD has initiated efforts to develop joint logisticians who understand the global supply chain and the logistics management information systems associated with it.

Need for Redesign

Lacking the information technology advancements that are available today, past DOD logistics leaders made far-reaching decisions based on a narrower focus of the supply chain. Stand-alone software systems were fielded without much thought as to how effective they would be in sharing their information with information networks. For instance, tactical Marine Corps asset management systems were not designed to be interoperable with the Army’s tactical systems. The plethora of logistics information codes and data elements used by wholesale logistics providers overwhelmed tactical logisticians. Some of these codes were redundant and unnecessarily complex and were designed for a specific software program, not the supply chain as a whole.

To ensure interoperability throughout the DOD global supply chain, the joint asset visibility architecture should be redesigned from the top down. The current systems were designed primarily from the bottom up; this is why many of the automated information systems are not interoperable. An extra effort should be made to ensure that data are not disjointed or systems designed solely from the narrow perspective of an individual service, agency, or functional (supply, transportation, or finance) community.

In Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report 05–345, Better Strategic Planning Can Help Ensure DOD’s Successful Implementation of Passive Radio Frequency Identification, William M. Solis recommends a comprehensive DOD approach to JTAV. This GAO report says—

While DOD has taken a number of actions to direct the implementation of passive RFID [radio frequency identification], it has not yet developed a comprehensive strategic management approach. . . .

Officials estimate system interoperability to be the most expensive element of implementation because of the various systems that will need to be integrated to exchange automated shipping and receiving data from the use of passive RFID technology. According to DOD, system interoperability entails the ability of systems, units or forces to provide data, information, materiel and services and to accept the same from other systems, units or forces and to use the data, information, materiel and services so exchanged to enable them to operate effectively together. Interoperability includes both the technical exchange of information and the end-to-end operational effectiveness of that exchange of information as required for mission accomplishment. DOD envisions a seamless integration between passive and active RFID technology; however, such a seamless integration cannot take place unless the information captured by the RFID technology can flow though interoperable logistics information systems. According to Navy and Army projections, it will be fiscal year 2016—and beyond for the Army—before passive RFID will be fully implemented into supply chain operations.

In turn, the DOD military components are also unable to develop comprehensive plans to support DOD-wide passive RFID implementation due to the lack of an overarching DOD comprehensive strategic management plan.

. . . an Air Force official explained that because DLA [Defense Logistics Agency] and each of the services are developing their own plans to incorporate passive RFID into existing business processes, there is a possibility that implementation in each service could be different, leading to limited interoperability among the services. If passive RFID implementation is not interoperable among the services, this could lead to inefficiencies that could be avoided if interoperability had been built into the services’ passive RFID implementation plans as these plans developed.

Understanding Multiple Logistics Systems

Because of the wide scope of DOD, few joint logisticians have a solid understanding of the logistics procedures of all four military services, contracting, and the wholesale and retail sides of supply and transportation. Nor do they understand the complexities involved in moving supplies and (just as importantly) moving information about the supplies. Almost all logisticians holding a rank of sergeant and above are involved in managing information, not physically offloading, storing, issuing, or transporting supplies. Their focus is on obtaining data and converting them into actionable logistics information. This job has been challenging because the software systems that they have been using are not interoperable with other systems, are extremely manpower intensive, and are difficult to understand.

Moreover, the accompanying software manuals are written at levels that are not understandable by the intended users. In fact, large portions of these manuals, which also must be used by privates and corporals, have been written by software engineers. All of this makes the job of logistics managers especially trying. Very few readable manuals are available to teach DOD logisticians about logistics
management information systems. Even logistics manuals that are not software related are difficult to read. Military Standard (MIL–STD) 129P, Military Marking for Shipment and Storage, for example, is difficult to comprehend for tactical users, who must follow its guidelines when shipping items from one deployed distribution area to another.

Adequate training is not available to teach logisticians how to operate disparate logistics systems because much of the military logistics field has no civilian counterpart. It is relatively easy to develop military medical doctrine for first aid, for example, because a great deal of information is widely available and has already been published. In comparison, no civilian publications are available that describe how to deploy and sustain large forces over thousands of miles in austere environments.

To write useful, comprehensive doctrine about this type of topic takes a special individual—someone with strategic, operational, and tactical real-world experience and a broad logistics background, who can put the knowledge within a larger context and has the ability to write well. These individuals are rare. In academia, this role is filled by people who have doctoral degrees; they know the topic, they teach it, and they write about it. As a rule, in the military, because of the up-tempo of real-world deployments, adequate time and resources are not always allocated to the task of developing quality logistics information system manuals.

Assessing Stock Levels

Because past logistics leaders were not always able to attain a total system’s perspective, less than optimal decisions were made. In some cases, unit and direct support stocks were reduced to dangerously low levels. To prevent future stock outs of critical, life-sustaining items such as ammunition, fuel, food, water, and repair parts, inventories of these items should be maintained at several locations. Safety levels of stock are required whenever demand is inconsistent and transportation can be interrupted by weather, maintenance issues, or enemy action. Frankly, since demand is usually inconsistent and transportation is frequently unreliable, an inventory of safety stock must be kept somewhere and visibility of this stock is crucial.

Before the Internet, legacy systems were designed to stand alone. Without the World Wide Web, stakeholders had no centralized information repository from which they could access logistics information. As a result, many of the different services and agencies designed their own codes or naming conventions; methods were not standardized. However, with the World Wide Web, this has changed. All stakeholders now can visit logistics information repositories, like the Federal Logistics Information System, to find the naming, numbering, and coding conventions for items of supply. DOD activity address code (DODAAC) type address codes (TACs) can be accessed through the Defense Automatic Addressing System Center (DAASC). Approved unit names and home station addresses can be accessed using the Global Status of Resources and Training System (GSORTS) and the Defense Readiness Reporting System (DRRS). Now that these system-wide databases are in place, DOD joint logisticians can ensure that only one authoritative source is used for each specific logistics-related data element and that this source is known to the entire DOD community. In effect, all automated information systems now can use the same codes, names, and numbers. This is important because exactness is critical in the sharing and interoperability of databases.

The phrase “the last tactical mile” is misleading. It downplays the difficulties involved in using intratheater transportation assets for distributing supplies to ground forces scattered across tens of thousands of square miles. It also downplays the difficulty in obtaining and maintaining visibility of these supplies as they are moved and stored. Distribution has been a challenge primarily for ground forces. Their operating environments often have truck shortages, inadequate or overcrowded road and rail networks, and absent or insufficient telecommunications for controlling distribution. By comparison, ships at sea are usually well stocked and can be readily resupplied while underway or in port; moreover, these vessels are usually equipped with sophisticated onboard telecommunications. Similarly, deployed Air Force units usually occupy existing airfields that have lines of communication and life support, such as electrical power, running water, level ground, and some type of communications.

Steps Toward Improving Asset Visibility

To overcome the challenges associated with asset visibility, DOD and its services and agencies are pursuing many initiatives. For instance, DOD has established a combatant command logistics information technology roundtable in order to stay abreast of technological innovations that affect automatic identification technology (AIT) and asset visibility and to develop recommendations on how best to exploit those innovations.

DLA’s Defense Logistics Information Service (DLIS) has absorbed the JTAV software system that was previously managed by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, using it as a basis for its new software system called “Asset Visibility.” This new program uses commercial off-the-shelf software and has a 231-page user’s guide and a computer-based training program offered through its webpage.

To improve the logistics information flow across the DOD supply chain, the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) and DLA have established a single program executive office that will oversee TRANSCOM’s Global Transportation Network and DLA’s Integrated Data Environment. The goal is to provide cohesive information regarding the supply chain, specifically distribution and cargo movement.

To ensure the ever-increasing timeliness of data, DOD is making solid progress in connecting logisticians. With increasing frequency, the logistics data of dispersed tactical-level ground forces are being transmitted using very small aperture terminal (VSAT) technology. This allows direct support-level computers
and unit-level computers loaded with logistics software, such as the Unit Level Logistics System (ULLS), the Battle Command Sustainment Support System (BCS3), and the Assessment Tool for Land Systems (ATLAS), to connect to a device that links the computer data to an outdoor, dish-shaped transceiver located nearby. The dish antenna then transmits or receives data to or from an orbiting satellite within the antennae’s direct line of sight. The diameters of most legacy antennae dishes are 10 meters wide or more, but the VSATs are only 0.6 to 3.8 meters wide. They can process about 56 kilobytes per second.

The Army is using VSATs in conjunction with its Combat Service Support Automated Information Systems Interface (CAISI). CAISI is a wireless interface that connects VSAT communications with local and wide area networks. The VSAT/CAISI network can be set up in less than 30 minutes. The current combat service support VSAT system weighs about 500 pounds and is transportable in four transit cases.

In addition to the VSAT, DOD is testing the joint modular intermodal distribution system (JMIDS). JMIDS will provide a means to move supplies from DOD depots and vendor locations to the tactical locations of forward-deployed forces. It has three components: a container (the joint modular intermodal container [JMIC]), a platform on which containers are placed for movement or storage (the joint modular intermodal platform [JMIP]), and an AIT device (currently an active RFID tag).

Although DOD has yet to make a decision on the final dimensions of the JMICs, they will be around 52 inches long, 44 inches wide, and 43 inches tall. Some designs show that JMICs will be able to be stacked one atop another. An empty JMIC will weigh about 325 pounds. (The DOD goal is to reduce this to 250 pounds.) Yet it will be capable of holding about 2,500 additional pounds. To save space, the JMIC is being designed to be collapsible when empty; when collapsed, it will consume about 40 percent of the space it would occupy when expanded. (The DOD goal is to reduce this to 25 percent.) Depending on design, JMICs will be forklift accessible from either four or two sides and will be capable of being hauled via sling load by helicopters, such as the UH–60 Black Hawk, CH–53 Sea Stallion, and CH–47 Chinook, as well as the MV–22 Osprey. They also will be transferable at sea from one ship to another via vertical (by helicopter) or horizontal (by cables temporarily connecting two moving ships) replenishment.

The JMIP is a flatrack known as a containerized roll-in/out platform (CROP), which itself weighs about 4,000 pounds. It is being designed for placement on the logistics rail systems of military aircraft without the need for 463L pallets. A JMIP loaded with 8 JMICs will fit within a standard 20-foot container.

The Army is continually improving its procedures for global supply chain asset visibility. The Army Materiel Command’s Logistics Support Activity (LOGSA) is working to integrate the Logistics Integrated Data Base (LIDB) and the Integrated Logistics Analysis Program (ILAP) into an overarching logistics database called the Logistics Information Warehouse.

To encourage an understanding of the importance of these logistics management information programs and others like them from a global supply chain perspective, the Department of the Army now recognizes those who achieve the SOLE Certified Professional Logistician designation by adding this to officer record briefs and official military personnel folders. (See the article, “The Certified Professional Logistician Program,” published in the March–April 2001 issue of Army Logistician.)

By using these innovations, logisticians in the near future will have access to the information they need to determine the whereabouts of supplies and equipment throughout the entire DOD supply chain, whether they are in transit, in storage, or in the process of being requisitioned.

Lieutenant Colonel James C. Bates, USA (Ret.), works for Alion Science and Technology as a senior analyst. He is a certified professional logistician and a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College and holds an M.B.A. degree from the University of Hawaii. He can be contacted at James.Bates@je.jfcom.mil.

Joint Modular Intermodal Distribution System
The joint modular intermodal distribution system (JMIDS) is an Office of the Secretary of Defense Advanced Systems and Concepts sponsored, Congress approved, $36 million, fiscal year 2006 Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD). The JCTD participants include the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Defense Logistics Agency, and the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence. The combatant command sponsor is the U.S. Transportation Command.

JMIDS is comprised of three main components: the joint modular intermodal container (JMIC), the joint modular intermodal platform (JMIP) and integrated automatic identification technology (AIT) that enables users to track and monitor shipments. 

JMIC is a joint service modular container that is designed for use with all classes of supply, locks top to bottom for stacking multiple JMICs, and is collapsible for storage and retrograde. In the future, JMICs may be provided to manufacturers for packing purchased items directly in the container for shipment to requesting units. The model of JMIC produced for the demonstration is available now under national stock number 8145–01–551–5311. Other JMIC models, such as open framed, are planned for future development.

JMIP is an intermodal platform that has locking features on its cargo deck for locking JMICs directly to it without the need for banding and strapping. It can be used for land transport of cargo or converted to be air transportable in cargo aircraft without the need of 463L pallets. It is designed to be inserted and extracted directly to and from cargo aircraft by tactical load handling system trucks, eliminating the need for materials- handling equipment at the airfield.  JMIP is not yet ready for procurement because of developmental issues that have required its return for further development.

JMIDS will provide the military with seamless intermodal connectivity, which will result in cost savings and faster throughput to the end user.