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Enterprise Resource Planning: The Final (Automated Logistics) Frontier

Recognizing the need for one logistics system that will meet the need of all units, the Army has decided to adopt an enterprise resource planning system developed by SAP. The new system will revolutionize Army logistics automation.

Throughout the history of warfare, great intellectual and monetary investments have been made to improve warfighting capability. Progress has been substantial, but it has tended to occur sporadically. For example, most advances in weaponry have been evolutionary and have involved the improvement of existing weapons. Every few decades, revolutionary advancements increased potential lethality. However, there also have been long periods during which little to no change occurred. An early example of this is the bow, which was first used late in the Stone Age. The 4- to 5-foot-long bow used in India remained essentially unchanged for about 2,200 years. Another example is gunpowder, which was invented in China in the 9th century, was known in Europe by the year 1250, yet took another 50 to 75 years before its potential for lethality could be harnessed.

The logistics arena has shared the same rate of uneven progress. Providing logistics to a fighting force has been a particularly daunting challenge to military leaders throughout history. History’s most successful military commanders have always carefully considered the logistics implications whenever forming and executing an engagement plan. Conversely, several of history’s greatest strategists and tacticians were soundly defeated by miscalculating the logistics requirement.

Logistics Automation

The Army began automating logistics at the depot level in the mid-20th century when computers became available. Logistics automation worked its way to the unit level as computers became smaller and computer technology became more readily available.

On the surface, logistics automation appears to be a tame enough topic. However, when one considers the readiness implications associated with ineffective logistics flow and the Army’s adoption of automated logistics management platforms, it is clear that, although logistics automation has enabled great capabilities, it also is potentially a major point of failure.

The only revolutionary step taken in Army logistics in the last 30 years has been the automation of the Army’s manual supply system at the unit level. Since that point, progress has been made with evolutionary improvements in business processes and technology, but nothing that can be considered revolutionary. The table below illustrates how the Army has evolved automated logistics systems by simply transferring them onto more powerful hardware platforms without addressing the major historical problems and known capability gaps.

In essence, the Army’s pattern has been to duplicate the limited functionality of incumbent systems onto more capable hardware platforms. To address the problems that continued with the systems, local software vendors sold installations or commands programs to use with their systems that corrected the problems. These stopgap programs are known as “local uniques.” As a result, the Army-wide systems that were intended to provide continuity became a series of similar, but different, systems. The argument that local uniques are an improvement could be refuted by analyzing their data accuracy or latency response.

It can be argued that the only true advances have been system enablers such as radio frequency identification, portable data collection devices, the Combat Service Support Automated Information Systems Interface, and the Very Small Aperture Terminals tested and proven during several engagements leading up to and including Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

Some tactical logisticians would argue that the systems we have work just fine. However, it may be that our Soldiers have simply become accustomed to, and accepted, a lower standard of performance. Ample historical precedent exists to support the idea that we do not recognize what our equipment is lacking until we receive something better. For example, chariots were used to carry archers and scythes were affixed to the wheels to make them more lethal, but the chariot remained a chariot until it was replaced by the tank. It was only then that it was realized how much capability the chariot was lacking.

Enterprise Resource Planning Solution

While en route to replicating legacy systems a sixth time under the Global Combat Support System-Army (Field/Tactical) (GCSS-Army [F/T]), the project abruptly paused to receive fresh guidance from the Army’s logistics leaders. The new guidance stated that Army logistics systems would move to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution using a SAP commercial off-the-shelf software product. An ERP system integrates all data processes of an organization into a unified system, typically using multiple components of computer hardware and software with a central database. The ERP solution allows the GCSS-Army (F/T) development team to provide for data integration and to reengineer business processes. The table below illustrates how integration will resolve nagging historical problems.

Below is an illustration of one of the dynamic improvements under development. The interactive “Fill Rate and Demand Satisfaction Analysis” view allows a material requirements planning (MRP) controller (item manager) to view the current fill rate by MRP area (supply support activity) and take action on the stock numbers that are contributing negatively to the overall fill rate. This tool is only one of many developed by the GCSS-Army (F/T) development team to enable proactive and interactive materiel management.

A 4-month operational assessment of GCSS-Army is scheduled to begin in October with the Regimental Support Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, at Fort Irwin, California. A revolutionary step is finally being taken in the area of logistics software and business process reengineering. Coupled with Very Small Aperture Terminals, radio frequency identification, improved tracking technology, and integrated electronic technical manuals, this logistics system will deliver the vision that senior Army logistics leaders had many years ago for revolutionizing military logistics.

Chief Warrant Officer (W–5) Antonio Ocasio, USA (Ret.), works for L3 Communications supporting the Project Manager Enterprise Logistics System’s Global Combat Support System-Army (Field/Tactical) Project. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business management and is a graduate of the Army Logistics Management College’s Logistics Executive Development Course.