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Vendor to Foxhole Tracking

The U.S. Military's Combat Feeding Program pilot shows that RFID can be used to provide real-time visibility of rations as they move from the manufacturer to units in the field.
By Mark Roberti
Mar 29, 2004There are an estimated 120,000 U.S. war fighters in Iraq today. Each one eats three meals a day—every day. That means the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has to supply nearly 11 million meals a month. Tracking all those rations through the supply chain and making sure each war fighter doesn't eat breakfast three times a day or the same dinner for a week straight is a tall order. The Natick Soldier Center Combat Feeding Program, which develops rations for the troops, and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which provides most of the soldiers' supplies (except weapons), are turning to RFID for help.

Stations 1: EPCs are written to tags on cases

From Feb. 23 to 26, the Combat Feeding Program and DLA conducted an ambitious pilot at the Defense Depot in San Joaquin, Calif., to show that passive RFID tags could be combined with active tags to enable the military to track rations "from vendor to foxhole." The test was important because it proved that the military could achieve total asset visibility, including the first and last quarter mile. That means logistics managers overseas can know which rations are coming and direct them to the appropriate units in the field.

The test was also significant because it validated one of the military's primary reasons for deploying RFID technology. Today, the DOD has good visibility of containers that are outfitted with 433 MHz active RFID tags from Savi Technology. Bar codes on cases are scanned, stacked on pallets and then put in containers. The containers are tracked as they move through the supply chain. But the bar code system requires a lot of manpower to scan labels, and visibility disappears once containers are opened overseas and shipments are disaggregated. The pilot at San Joaquin proved that passive and active tags could be used to automatically aggregate data on shipments—link the identities of cases to pallets and the identifies of pallets to cargo containers—and then disaggregate the data as shipments arrive and are broken down. That means that if such a system is deployed, troops won't have to scan bar codes and can focus on their main mission—winning wars—without sacrificing supply chain efficiency.

The Combat Feeding Program and DLA are in the forefront of the DOD's effort to build a 21st-century military supply chain. The two units joined the then fledgling Auto-ID Center back in October 2000, drawn by the center's commitment to building a global RFID system based on open standards, interoperability, scalability and affordability. Gerald Darsch, director of the Combat Feeding Program, and Ed Coyle, head of the IT enterprise integration group at the DLA, joined the center's board of overseers.

The rations pilot was the culmination of 18 months of work. The Combat Feeding Program was keen to show that RFID could cut costs and improve the way rations are delivered to soldiers in the field. "No war fighter ever went hungry; that's the good news," says Darsch. "The bad news is we sometimes had more rations in the pipeline than we really needed, because we didn't have good control over what we had, how much we had and where it was. And there were instances when war fighters didn't get the full menu cycle, because it wasn't easy to identify the seven different breakfasts, and the 14 lunch and dinner menus. Some war fighters got more repetition in their meals than they should have. All of that justified, in our minds, that some sort of an improvement was needed."

DLA supported the project because it understood that the same technology and applications for tracking rations could be used for tracking clothing, helmets, pharmaceutical drugs and all of the many other products the military uses. The aim was to show that RFID data could be integrated and shared across the entire logistics system, and that many of the labor-intensive processes used today could be completely automated, providing better information at lower cost.

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