Saluting the RFID Pioneers in the DOD

By Mark Roberti

A lot of companies in all industries could learn from the U.S. Department of Defense, which is using RFID to transform its complex supply chain.


As journalists, we’re taught to be completely objective, but as anyone who reads a newspaper or magazine knows, that’s an ideal rarely reached. We’re human, and we have thoughts, feelings and opinions, just like everyone else. The best of us try to keep these out of our news stories, but since this is an opinion column, I’d like to acknowledge my admiration for the pioneers in the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), who are using radio frequency identification to transform the world’s most complex supply chain.

I call the DOD’s supply chain the most complex for several reasons. The department purchases just about everything imaginable—bullets, airplanes, drugs, socks, tents, food, light bulbs, laptops and… well, you get the point. In addition, it has to ship a lot of these items all around the world, including to places that lack modern infrastructure. Given the size and scope of the DOD’s supply chain, it’s not surprising that it was—and still remains—plagued by inefficiencies, waste and security vulnerabilities.

But the DOD has made great progress in rooting out these problems since it first began employing active RFID tags in the mid-1990s to track containers. I don’t know who the visionary was who, back then, turned to a small company called Savi Technology, but I salute that soldier. Today, the DOD’s RF In-Transit Visibility (ITV) Network, an active RFID-based cargo-tracking system, has nodes in more than 40 countries and 4,000 locations, and tracks an average of 35,000 supply shipments around the world per day.

In 2003, after Wal-Mart announced plans to track pallets and cases with passive RFID, the DOD saw the value in getting visibility at this level as well. And for that, I salute Alan Estevez, the Defense Department’s assistant deputy undersecretary, who had the vision to champion passive RFID within the department. I used to think he had the most unenviable job, because he had to get one of the world’s largest—and most bureaucratic—organizations to change the way it does things, and that’s never easy. But I admired his leadership, and it has begun to pay off

There are now many passive RFID projects being carried out across the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines—and I admire the leaders in each of these branches who have embraced change, such as Robert Bacon, director of the Navy’s Automatic Identification Technology (AIT) program office, and Colonel Patrick Burden, the Army’s product manager for Joint-Automatic Identification Technology (PM J-AIT).

In our cover story in the latest issue of our print magazine, we detail some of the more high-profile projects being conducted (see Targeted Attack). The armed services are achieving savings in labor and inventory by tracking parts for use in the maintenance and repair of nuclear submarines, helicopters and fighter jets. Parts tracking is also reducing the turnaround time at repair centers, ensuring ships and aircraft get back out in the field on schedule. Many of these successful projects will be highlighted by DOD speakers at RFID Journal LIVE! 2009, being held in two weeks.

Transformation doesn’t occur overnight, particularly when it comes to transforming the world’s most complex supply chain. The DOD has budgeted approximately $877.6 million for automatic identification technologies from fiscal years 2010 to 2015, and continues to expand its use of active tags. And Estevez will be the first to tell you that the passive RFID program is still in its infancy.

But the Department of Defense, frankly, puts many companies to shame when it comes to embracing RFID’s potential to deliver cost-savings, process improvement and greater efficiencies. The department is making sure troops around the world have the supplies they require, rooting out waste, improving services and bolstering security. I salute the Defense Department, and I encourage CEOs who have not yet focused on RFID to examine what the pioneers at the DOD are doing. If they can transform the world’s largest, complex—and, yes, bureaucratic—supply chains, think about what you could accomplish at your company.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.