The DOD Marches On

By Mark Roberti

The U.S. Department of Defense has been making progress with its goal of using RFID and other technologies to create "total asset visibility" within its global supply chain.

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The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has been working since the mid-1990s to use RFID and other technologies to create “total asset visibility” within its supply chain, which stretches around the globe. The DOD has quietly been making progress, using both active and passive RFID systems.

The DOD has been using active RFID from Savi Technology to monitor the movement of containers from distribution centers in the United States to ports and bases overseas. Among the benefits of tracking supplies is the ability to ensure that goods reach soldiers in the field when they need them. Better visibility also reduces unnecessary reordering and bottlenecks in the supply chain.

The DOD announced in December that it had selected four companies to provide active RFID technologies. The contract is valued at $428 million and allows DOD units to purchase active tags from Northrop Grumman, Savi Technology, Systems & Processes Engineering and Unisys. The tags will operate under ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 18000-7 standards.

The new active technology contract, dubbed RFID III, is an indefinite-delivery-indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract established by the U.S. Army on behalf of all services. That means all branches can purchase RFID hardware, software and services from the vendors selected under the contract. The contract calls for the vendors to offer five tag types, ranging from a simple battery-powered tag with a serial number to a tag used for container security. Some of the tags will have up to 512K of memory, and others must support five sensors to detect light, temperature, humidity, shock and tampering.

The DOD also is making progress in deploying passive ultrahigh-frequency RFID based on the Electronic Product Code standard. The department uses active tags to track large containers and is using passive tags to get additional visibility at the pallet and case levels. The idea is to track pallets and cases arriving at distribution facilities, and then as they’re assembled into shipments going overseas.

The DOD now has more than 4,000 suppliers tagging shipments. A report issued by the DOD’s Office of the Inspector General in October revealed that of 220 audited supply contracts, 23 (10 percent) failed to include a clause requiring that goods be tagged before being shipped to RFID-enabled depots. When auditors examined the shipments of the 197 suppliers whose contracts did contain the RFID clause, they found that 84 of those suppliers (43 percent) failed to apply passive tags to their shipments, as stipulated in their contracts.

Alan Estevez, the DOD’s principal assistant deputy undersecretary of defense, defended the department’s performance. “You could say that 10 percent of [contracts] are not complying, rather than say that 90 percent are—it depends on how you look at it,” he said, speaking at the EPC Connection 2008 conference in October. Estevez added that the department recorded 180,000 tag reads in September—a 40 percent increase from the previous September—across the 17 domestic and two international RFID-enabled depots run by the Defense Logistics Agency.

In June, the U.S. Navy went live with an RFID system to track supplies and pieces of equipment as they pass through naval base warehouses in Pearl Harbor and the warehouse operated by Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 24 at the Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Base, all on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The system is expected to improve the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ asset visibility as materiel is transported onto and off of the island.

The DOD is likely to continue to make steady progress in rolling out active and passive systems to facilities and bringing new suppliers into the tagging program by adding RFID tagging requirements to contracts when existing ones expire. “We have not backed off at all,” Estevez said. “We are making sustained progress.”