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
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
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.
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.
of a prototype 3G RFID tag shows the Iridium satellite
and GPS boards within the tag. These boards give
the 3G RFID tag its satellite communications capability.
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
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.