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Improving RFID Technology

Since 1993, the Army has been pursuing the use of active radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to gain in-the-box visibility for both deploying equipment and sustainment stocks. Use of RFID tags was a response to lessons learned from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. Since then, growth in the use of tags clearly shows that RFID has become a very important part of today’s Total Asset Visibility plan.

Initially, tag use was limited to demonstrations in places such as Haiti and Macedonia. In November and December 1995, U.S. Army Europe deployed to Bosnia as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Implementation Force with approximately 35 percent of its items tagged. By the spring of 1999, approximately 70 percent of all items moved for the Kosovo Force were tagged. Both the Army Reserve and Eighth U.S. Army in Korea received RFID-tagged sustainment stocks from Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) depots on the east and west coasts of the United States. In 2001, approximately 85 percent of equipment and sustainment stocks shipped from DLA that flowed into Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan had RFID tags. In 2002, the commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) released a message requesting that 100 percent of the items moving into, through, or out of the CENTCOM area of responsibility be tagged to permit nodal asset visibility. On 30 July 2004, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics released a policy letter stating that “all DOD [Department of Defense] components will immediately resource and implement the use of high data capacity active RFID in the DOD operational environment.”

The Present

Active RFID tags require fixed infrastructure, such as read interrogators, to provide in-transit visibility at different nodes of the supply chain. However, the best visibility that this capability can provide is a pretty good fix on where equipment was last detected, not necessarily where it is currently located.

Even with the robust active RFID infrastructure currently in place, immediate asset visibility is not possible when deploying into austere environments. The fastest that the Army and DOD have been able to set up a fixed RFID infrastructure in an austere environment is approximately 2 to 4 weeks. By that time, under normal operational tempo for an ongoing operation in the deployment stage, combat equipment and supplies have already moved through the intermediate staging base. This leaves the RFID infrastructure to play catchup, which, of course, never happens until much later in the operation.

Fixed RFID infrastructure also adds materiel to an already overburdened support system. Power is required for the RFID interrogator and the computer that collects the data and provides them to the in-transit visibility servers. RFID also requires communications (by phone, local area network, or satellite) to report the location and asset information collected by the computer. Contractor logistics support is needed to install and maintain this fixed infrastructure, which adds to the security burden of area commanders. Power, communications, and contractor logistics support are not always available when and where they are needed, particularly during the beginning stages of a deployment.

Lessons learned from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom show that the best we can expect from the current RFID capability, as technically efficient as it is, is to know where supplies and equipment were, not where they are.

The Future

Although demand for active RFID has increased greatly, the technology has hardly changed in the last decade. The first step in creating the next generation of RFID tagging systems for asset tracking is taking three commercial-off-the-shelf products (the current standard DOD RFID system, a commercial global positioning system [GPS], and an Iridium satellite) and integrating them into one to create a new, enhanced capability.

RFID integrated with satellite communications and a GPS results in a single device that can overcome the “where is it now?” asset tracking problem. A prototype of this new capability being tested by the Army Logistics Transformation Agency is called Third Generation Radio Frequency Identification with Satellite Communications (3G RFID w/SATCOM). It has the potential to provide DOD with unprecedented on-demand supply and equipment in-transit visibility without fixed infrastructure. These new tags maintain all of the capabilities of their predecessors and, through the use of satellite and GPS, allow for true, up-to-the-moment global asset tracking.

The 3G RFID w/SATCOM system would be particularly useful in the beginning stages of a deployment, when regional combatant, joint task force, and other commanders find that their asset management information needs are most critical, by helping them in assessing their combat effectiveness. Under these circumstances, commanders require near-real-time and on-demand visibility.

The pursuit of Total Asset Visibility remains a critical element in achieving Focused Logistics and Sense-and-Respond Logistics concepts. The 3G RFID w/SATCOM system will take a huge step forward in attaining these goals. For the past decade, the Army has been using active RFID technology to gain asset visibility. Today’s capability provides information on where equipment was, not where it is. Additional RFID infrastructure is needed, which likely will increase the burden on an already taxed support system. While potentially reducing or eliminating the current fixed infrastructure, 3G RFID tags will provide unprecedented in-transit visibility. This increased visibility will enable the modernization of theater distribution and will be a key tool in connecting logisticians. ALOG

Jeffrey D. Fee is an action officer at the Army Logistics Transformation Agency at Fort belvoir, Virginia. He is the project leader for Third Generation Radio Frequency Identification with Satellite Communications.

Alan Schmack is a logistics management specialist at the Army Logistics Transformation Agency at Fort belvoir, Virginia.