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Joint Asset Visibility: Why So Hard?

From a Department of Defense (DOD) logistics perspective, the attainment of asset visibility at the joint level will reduce the cost of resupply significantly and have a profound effect on warfighter readiness. In the last few years, the joint logistics community has made substantial advances in improving asset visibility, but it still has a long way to go before fully achieving such a capability. This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the complexities surrounding asset visibility and offer recommendations on how to improve it.

The term “joint asset visibility” as used here refers to supplies (expendable items) and equipment (nonexpendable items)—on order, in transit, in storage, or on hand—that are owned or destined for the military services, DOD agencies, or coalition partners. It does not refer to a software system. Although the DOD definition of asset visibility includes the tracking of personnel, this discussion will focus on supplies and equipment only.

Attaining Asset Visibility

Logisticians serving on the staffs of combatant commanders are keenly interested in knowing the aggregate status of supplies on hand, in transit, and on order for the military services and agencies that make up the joint force. This is particularly true for logisticians who have been designated to focus on a particular area of responsibility, such as a standing joint force headquarters, or those who have deployed as part of a joint task force.

Attaining asset visibility is incredibly difficult. It involves the entire DOD global supply chain (which dwarfs even Wal-Mart), binary code, the electromagnetic spectrum, worldwide telecommunications, local- and wide-area computer networks, and the integration and standardization of logistics data among the services and the domestic and international commercial sector. The architectural design of joint asset visibility should be viewed from what SOLE—the International Society of Logistics refers to as a “total system” perspective. The total system includes—

  • The acquisition, supply, transportation, and financial communities.
  • The wholesale level (the U.S. Transportation Command, Defense Information Systems Agency, Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), Army Materiel Command (AMC), Air Force Materiel Command, Naval Supply Systems Command, Marine Corps Materiel Command, General Services Administration, Army and Air Force Exchange Service, and Naval Exchange Service).
  • The retail level (the warfighting units of the military services).

The following findings from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom after-action reviews illustrate the magnitude of the visibility problem—

Continue with efforts towards data standardization to improve interoperability between Service legacy information systems. Improve the joint compatibility of communication and coordination connectivity within the Theater Support Component Command (TSCC) and other logistic planning and execution entities in the theater. Align joint theater logistics standards and cross-Service arrangements to eliminate stovepipe support of common-user items. Supply chain processes, sustainment, transportation, and force protection are all areas that should be standardized across all Services and these standards used in joint training. A joint supply and management system for common items, most notably food, fuel, and munitions, should be developed. Cross-Service agreements should be enhanced to benefit from joint theater logistical opportunities.

ITV [in-transit visibility] continued to be a problem during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), resulting in units having limited or no visibility of forward moving supplies and assets over extended lines of communication. As a result, cargo became frustrated, misdirected, delayed in delivery, improperly marked or lost. [The Joint Lessons Learned Approach Package, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Major Combat Operations (MCO) Finding: Joint Theater Logistics (JTL), 10 February 2005]

In OIF, the inconsistency in providing each of the required preconditions meant that enterprise integration and visibility did not exist. Limited system availability, poor data capture, unreliable communications, inaccessible data, and limited information fusion provided little more than “islands” of visibility in theater. This is best seen in the breakdown of the Army’s Standard Army Retail Supply System/Standard Army Maintenance System (SARSS/SAMS) and the Marines Asset Tracking Logistics and Supply System/Supported Activity Standard Supply System (ATLAS/SASSY) logistics systems . . . the most commonly cited tracking and visibility tool is Excel and e-mail. [Objective Assessment of Logistics in Iraq, DUSD (L&MR) and Joint Staff (JSJ4) Sponsored Assessment to Review the Effectiveness and efficiency of Selected Aspects of Logistics Operations During Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 2004]

Key Aspects of the Asset Visibility Problem

These lessons learned demonstrate that the most difficult part of supply chain management is not the physical aspect of buying, receiving, storing, transporting, or issuing items; the hard part is obtaining, managing, and sharing the related information about the chain. In reality, moving the information is more complicated than moving the item itself. The following questions are keys to understanding joint asset visibility—

  • What kind of information about an item do we need?
  • Are the data elements standardized for computer processing?
  • Where and how often do we want to capture the information?
  • Whose job is it to capture the information?
  • How do we capture the information?
  • What logistics automated information systems are required?
  • How can the information be shared electronically?

In an ideal world, any DOD-authorized individual would be able to access the Internet from a personal computer and obtain all of the pertinent information about an item. A wholesale buyer would be able to view information associated with the Material Inspection and Receiving Report (DD Form 250); a transportation coordinator would be able to view information found on the Government Bill of Lading (Standard Form 1103); and a clerk at a central receiving point would be able to view information contained on the Military Shipment Label (DD Form 1387).

As a rule, logisticians capture information about stored items daily and about items in transit whenever the items arrive at and depart from transshipment points or pass by predetermined information collection points. The term “transshipment point” refers to a place where cargo is stopped and reconfigured, such as an area where items are placed in a multipack container, onto an aluminum pallet, or into a 20- or 40-foot container. A transshipment point also refers to a location where the conveyance changes (for example, from one truck to another truck or from a truck to a plane, ship, or railcar). There are hundreds of different types of transshipment points. They can be domestic or international; they can be military or commercially run; they can be in developed areas or in austere environments; they can be under the watch of wholesale or strategic organizations, such as the U.S. Transportation Command, DLA, or the General Services Administration; or they can be managed by one of the services. They include depots, rail yards, airports and seaports, theater distribution centers, container handling areas, supply support activities, and central receiving and shipping points. They can be part of the Defense Transportation System or outside of it.

Since there is no such thing as a certified collector of asset visibility information, many different personnel are involved in capturing logistics data at the transshipment points and at more permanent storage locations. They can be Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, or civilians. They can be employed by DOD or by commercial industry and can have supply, transportation, finance, or information technology backgrounds.

The expertise of the personnel who capture logistics data is geared toward using whatever logistics automated information system is employed where they work. Workers for the DLA use the Direct Support System or the Business System Modernization program; workers for AMC use enterprise resource planning (ERP) software developed by SAP International; workers at Air Force-managed airports use the Global Air Transportation Execution System (GATES) and Remote GATES; workers at Military Sealift Command or Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command seaports use the Worldwide Port System and the Integrated Booking System. Army units use the Unit Level Logistics System, the Standard Army Retail Supply System, and the Standard Army Ammunition System. These are only a few of the hundreds of automated information systems that make up the feeder systems for wide-area networks, such as the Joint Operations Planning and Execution System (JOPES), the Global Transportation Network (GTN), the Defense Automatic Addressing System (DAAS), and the asset visibility application of the Global Combat Support System (GCSS).

Asset Visibility Technologies

Asset visibility-related information can be captured from the item’s packaging (such as the DD Form 1387 or the accompanying packing list) by typing it into a computer. Of course, typing data is time-consuming and leads to numerous errors. An alternative is to use electronic data interchange (EDI) and automatic identification technology (AIT) that are being developed and used by the military and the commercial sector on a global scale. Examples include bar codes, smart cards, and radio frequency identification (RFID) devices. The promise of EDI and AIT is mind-boggling since logistics information processing is a multibillion-dollar endeavor. This technology is constantly advancing as some of the best minds in the world work to exploit EDI and AIT possibilities.

The goal of EDI is to standardize the methods of electronically transmitting logistics data elements, while the goal of AIT is to reduce substantially the amount of human interaction required to capture asset visibility information. DOD must be able to adapt quickly, whenever appropriate, to the advancements of international and domestic logistics consortiums since it depends on the commercial sector as a source of supply and as a transporter of its supplies and equipment. These consortiums include the International Organization for Standardization; EPCglobal; the American National Standards Institute; the United Nations Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce, and Transport; GS1; and GS1 US.

Like DOD, these logistics consortiums have very lofty goals. For instance the goal of EPCglobal, which is spearheading the development of an electronic product code (EPC) for RFID, is to provide “immediate, automatic, and accurate identification of any item in the supply chain of any company, in any industry, anywhere in the world.” However, the current reality is far removed from that goal. Passive RFID is in a relatively early stage of development, and many data standardization and software interoperability challenges must be overcome. Moreover, the advantages of RFID must be compared to its implementation costs and its inherent reliability. Just as important are information security factors, especially considering that, besides the typical computer attacks made by disgruntled computer “geeks,” an enemy will employ its best information technology experts in attempts to disrupt DOD information systems.

Once logistics information is captured, it must be processed and stored on a computer. The type of hardware needed is becoming less and less of an issue since today’s desktop computers have enormous capacities; besides, the bulk of the information is transmitted to a web-based network. However, many of our current asset visibility problems can be traced to the use of numerous automated information system software programs and applications. Most of these are legacy systems or simply revised versions of legacy systems. Some still depend on the 80-card column format developed in the 1950s. Others overly emphasize supply, transportation, acquisition, or financial information. Some automated information systems are designed to handle information on cargo moving by surface transportation, while others are designed to handle information on cargo moving by air. Some primarily capture Army information; others capture Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, or DLA information. Some information is captured via the Secure Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), while other information is captured with the Unclassified but Sensitive Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNet). Some software systems are designed exclusively for the military, while others are used only by the commercial sector, which, when considered as a whole, has many more logistics-related software applications than DOD.

Once the information is captured by the software or application of a single computer device, it must be transmitted to a higher-level computer system or local-area network until the information makes its way to a web-enabled wide-area network such as JOPES, GTN, GCSS, or DAAS. If the transshipment point is in a developed area where telecommunications are available to transmit the data to the World Wide Web, then the only major decision to make is how often to send the data. Data could be sent in real-time, near-real-time (which has not been defined by DOD), or as an information batch. Real-time communication requires a constant telecommunications linkage—something that is not practical if expensive satellite communication is required. If the transshipment point is in an austere environment, establishing telecommunications with the World Wide Web becomes much more difficult and expensive.

Like civilian industries, DOD uses the World Wide Web to access its overarching logistics management information systems. However, DOD does not have a single, all-inclusive, logistics network because a logistics-related Global Information Grid does not exist. Instead, DOD has many networks. Besides JOPES (which depicts deployment data), GTN (which depicts transportation data), and DAAS (which depicts supply data), DOD has many other high-level networks, each with its own server, software, and application system. The Army’s tactical systems use the Standard Army Retail Supply System for classes I (subsistence), II (general supplies), III (petroleum, oils, and lubricants), IV (construction and barrier materials), VIII (medical supplies), and IX (repair parts) and the Standard Army Ammunition System for class V (ammunition). The wholesale element of the Army (represented by AMC) uses the Logistics Modernization Program—an ERP software system developed by SAP. DLA uses the Business System Modernization program. The Marine Corps uses SASSY and ATLAS.

These high-level networks are fed by numerous automated information systems, so, in many cases, the information available on one network is not available to other networks. Since the data elements are not standardized, logisticians must access several networks to obtain the information they need. Even if the data are available, it can take several hours for a trained logistician to retrieve a few pieces of desired information. Consequently, compiling meaningful logistics reports takes an inordinate amount of time.

Frankly, these overarching logistics management information systems are difficult to use and do not readily provide the fidelity required. Currently, many of these local-area network and wide-area network automated information systems are being subsumed by the Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marine Corps’s versions of GCSS. These, in turn, will have to be interoperable with GCSS at the combatant command and joint task force (CC/JTF) level, which itself will have to be interoperable with the Global Command and Control System. Data standardization and interoperability issues associated with software applications and telecommunications are vexing problems because so many different logistics information systems are involved.

Determining What Information Is Needed

Let’s revisit the first step to attaining joint asset visibility: What information do we need? The answer is that DOD’s global supply-chain logistics managers need all kinds of information about an item. Moreover, although there are many common denominators, the various stakeholders, such as sellers, the acquisition community, the supply community, the transportation community, the financial community, and the chain of command of the buyers or owners of the items, require different types of information. The amount of data involved is startling.

Let’s begin with the seller. The seller wants to know the purchaser and where and when to ship the item. The paper document used to capture this information is an invoice or a purchase agreement.

The acquisition community needs much of the same information. It also needs other information, such as the contract line item number, order number, acceptance point, discount terms, the name of the seller and whatever alphanumeric code is used to identify the seller, and the name of the individual accepting the item on behalf of the Government.

The supply community wants to know the name of the item; its identifying number, such as the national stock number (NSN), the contractor’s part number, or the Army’s line item number (LIN); and the unit of issue. The supply community also needs to know the required delivery date, the document number, the supply-related document identifier code, the quantity requested, the routing identifier code, and if there are any advice codes (which requestors use to inform supply managers of special circumstances).

The transportation community wants to know the gross weight of an item and its height, width, and length. Transporters also want information on any hazardous material, the name of the shipper, transportation modes, the freight charges, the commodity type, the seal numbers, the standard point location code, the standard carrier alpha code, the transportation control number, the transportation-related document identifier code, the aircraft mission number or the voyage number, and the number of pieces.

The financial community wants to know the transportation account code, the mailing address to which the shipping charges should be sent, the type address code 3, and the bill of lading number.

The chain of command awaiting the arrival of an item wants to know where the item is currently located and, more importantly, when it will arrive where it is needed. Logisticians would be interested in knowing if the item was under the control of a vendor, a DLA depot, a service depot, a U.S. or international airport or seaport, or some other transshipment point. They also might want to know if the item was being shipped in a multipack, pallet, or container and the mode of transportation.

The list below shows the wide scope of information required from a total-system supply-chain perspective. It is by no means all inclusive. Some of the data pertain to containers used to protect or transport the items.

Item Identification Codes

Some of the information shown on the list at right is unique to the military, while other information is similar to that used in the commercial sector. For instance, the military normally uses the NSN and the commercial and Government entity (CAGE) code, while the commercial sector refers to a stock keeping unit (SKU) and Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS). Some of the information describing the same type of data is expressed in many different ways. From a total system perspective, this is one of the major reasons that DOD data cannot be readily processed within the myriad wholesale, retail, service, and agency automated information systems. As a result, the wide-area networks that manage DOD logistics information are not as accurate, comprehensive, timely, or useful as they could be. To make a simple analogy, consider the word “pharmacy.” If we were to search a database dictionary looking for “pharmacy” by starting with the letter “f” instead of the letter “p,” it would take a long time to uncover information about this word—if ever.

DOD services and agencies do not use the same basic naming and numbering conventions. This means that the pertinent logistics information is not visible to or exploitable by the many military global supply-chain stakeholders. For instance, the vehicle that most military personnel call a “humvee” has no single, agreed-on name. The Federal Logistics Information System, DOD’s most authoritative source, calls this item a “truck, utility.” Others call it a “hummer” or a high-mobility, multipurpose, wheeled vehicle (HMMWV). It is also known as an M998A1; an armored 4x4 crew-cab pickup; a TRK UTIL M998A1; or a truck utility: cargo/troop carrier, 11⁄2-ton, 4x4, M998. Similar to the futility of finding information about the word “pharmacy” by looking under the letter “f,” the same futility would occur if logisticians conducting research on a “truck, utility” tried to access the data using the first letter of the abbreviation HMMWV.

Besides using naming conventions, the military also uses codes to identify items, which facilitates the electronic processing of information. As with item names, no single code (numeric, alphabetic, or alphanumeric) universally identifies a specific type of equipment or item of supply. The primary DOD supply code is the NSN, which is comprised of 13 numeric digits. However, the Army also uses the LIN—an alphanumeric code composed of one letter and five numerals, and the end item code—a three-character alphabetic code. DLA’s Defense Logistics Information Service (DLIS) database depicts both the NSN and the LIN, but it also includes and promotes the use of an item name code—a five-digit numeric code. The Marine Corps uses a six-digit alpha-numeric code called the item designator number. A HMMWV could also be identified by using a CAGE part number.

This lack of standardization is a huge, costly problem since effective data processing is highly dependent on exactness. For instance, because The Army Authorization Document System uses LINs instead of NSNs, this incredibly robust, web-enabled database is not compatible with those databases that rely on NSNs. Although it is possible to obtain information by converting LINs to NSNs, this process is time-consuming (especially if a large amount of data is involved) and significantly reduces the utility of automation.

The military also has several means of identifying ammunition and fuel. Along with the NSN, other codes for ammunition include the DOD identification code and the DOD ammunition code. Fuel can be identified by the NSN, a U.S. fuel code, or a NATO fuel code. For instance, aviation turbine fuel has an NSN of 9130–01–031–5816, a U.S. fuel code of JP8, and a NATO fuel code of F–34.

DOD uniquely identifies location in many ways. The commercial sector also uses several methods to identify location. Since 85 percent of military cargo is moved by the commercial sector, DOD must assimilate the methods of the commercial sector within its information processing environments.

A physical location can be identified by street address, city, state, and zip code (or some type of similar convention for international addresses). A virtual location can be identified using an email address or Internet protocol address. Similar to items of supply or equipment, an address is frequently identified by both a name and by a code (which can be numeric, alphabetic, or alphanumeric). For instance, JOPES uses a geographic name (called “GEO name”) and a four-character alphabetic designator called the “geographic location code.” The Defense Transportation Regulation (DTR), however, does not use the JOPES coding convention. The DTR and the GTN use three-character air terminal identifier codes and water port identifier codes to designate port locations. Some commercial activities identify airports using an alphabetic, four-character code called “ICAO,” developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Other commercial activities use an alphabetic,
three-character code called “IATA,” developed by the International Air Transport Association. (See the article, “Joint Force Logistics: Keeping Track of Forces on the Move,” published in the January–February 2006 issue of Army Logistician.)

The National Motor Freight Association uses standard point location codes, DLA uses type address codes, and the Defense Automatic Address Service Center uses both routing identifier codes (RICs) and DOD automatic address codes (DODAACs) to identify location. Ship-to addresses, mark-for addresses, supplementary addresses, plain language message identifier addresses, Army or fleet post offices, billing addresses, and in-the-clear addresses all describe location— physical or virtual.

As you can imagine, neither the military services, DOD agencies, nor the domestic and international commercial sectors have agreed on standardized conventions to identify location. However, with the emergence of the Global Positioning System and computerized maps, the concept of identifying location by latitude and longitude is gaining acceptance. Using a code that is based on the geometry of the Earth has tremendous advantage.

Unit Identification

DOD units and activities also are identified by written or spoken names and codes. JOPES and the Global Status of Resources and Training System (GSORTS) are the primary automated information systems that depict information identifying military units and DOD activities. GSORTS uses both a long unit name, which can be a maximum of 55 characters, and an abbreviated unit name, which can be a maximum of 30 characters. However, DOD has no centralized approving authority for service and agency unit names.

Because of the limits on the number of characters that can be used to describe military units and other DOD and Government agencies, many of the names are not readily comprehended by those unfamiliar with unit and agency types. For example, logisticians who are Sailors or Airmen or who work at the wholesale level may not be able to understand the abbreviated name of the Army’s 11th Armored Calvary Regiment: 0011 AR RGT (AR CAV RGT). Some might wonder if the “AR” stands for Army, Army Reserve, Air, or Armored. The logistics databases within DOD use neither GSORTS abbreviated names nor GSORTS long names to identify units. Different names for the same unit have evolved as the result of the many legacy automated information systems.

Likewise, different alphanumeric codes are used within DOD to identify units; the unit identification code (UIC) is the primary one. Units that have the same generic structure are also coded using the unit type code (UTC). The Army also uses a modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE) code to identify units. Another Army code used to identify units is the standard requirements code (SRC), which is based on the authorized level of organization code and the MTOE code. The SRC and the JOPES UTC capture similar data, although the structures of the two codes are entirely different. The SRC is a 12-character alphanumeric code, while the UTC is a 5-character alphanumeric code. Unfortunately, it is difficult to integrate the separate databases that use one or the other. Other codes that identify units or agencies include the six-character alphanumeric DODAAC, the three-character RIC, and the CAGE, which identifies non-DOD units. The standard carrier alphabetic code is used to identify commercial transportation companies.

DOD has many middleware software programs intended to reduce interoperability and standardization problems. Although middleware can bridge information-processing gaps, relying on one software system or application to perform a specific function is much better than depending on software or application systems that are linked to other systems through middleware. Determining the cause of a problem is much easier when no middleware is required because only a single hardware, software, and telecommunications system is in operation. When middleware is involved, the diagnosis of a problem is magnified threefold since problems can be caused by the software, the hardware, or the telecommunications of any one of the three systems involved. As a rule, the less middleware involved, the better the electronic processing of information will be.

Communicating With Commercial Systems

Just as the physical movement of items alternates between the Defense Transportation System and the commercial transportation sector, the information pertaining to the movement of these items must be processed alternately by both commercial and DOD automated information systems. Not only is data standardization and interoperability a problem within DOD, it is also a problem within the commercial sector. This problem are magnified even further when information is processed by several commercial and DOD automated information systems. Unless dealing specifically with the military, the commercial sector does not recognize military coding conventions such as the UIC, DODAAC, RIC, and CAGE.

The commercial sector understands the need to standardize data and integrate computer processes. National and international organizations have been established to work toward improving EDI with the goal of reducing human manpower and error during information processing. The long-term EDI objective is to avoid the manual reentering of logistics information into subsequent systems once it has been digitized within an initial automated information system. The American National Standards Institute has chartered the Accredited Standards Committee X12 to develop uniform standards for EDI. (See “Transforming Joint Logistics Information Management” in the January–February 2005 issue of Army Logistician.)

The EDI products of standardized digitization are called “transaction sets.” Air shipment information, vessel content data, freight receipts, invoices, purchase orders, and order status inquiries are a few examples of transaction sets. The EDI standards are globally disseminated by the United Nations Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce, and Transport. As a result, DOD must keep pace not only with its own transformational logistics initiatives but also with the revolutionary initiatives being developed in the commercial sector since DOD is a subset (albeit a very large subset) of global commerce. Consequently, DOD data elements should replicate standardized commercial data elements whenever possible and redundant data elements should be gradually removed from DOD databases. For instance, the SRC could be subsumed by the UTC; the DODAAC could be subsumed within the UIC; and the CAGE code could be subsumed within DUNS.

Here are some examples of the need for data standardization. The different automated information systems depict the day of the year and the time of day in various formats. January 31, 2006, could be displayed as follows: 31Jan06, 1/31/06, 1/31/2006, and 0316. Different countries use different methods of depicting dates. Time of day can be depicted in local time, or it can be based on Greenwich Mean Time. It can be expressed using a 24-hour clock or with the use of a.m. and p.m. Moreover, with a global supply chain, the differences between the use of the metric system of measurement and the English system of measurement can lead to confusion. Barrels, miles, and pounds may have to be converted to cubic meters, kilometers, and kilograms. Fahrenheit may have to be converted to Celsius. Simply said, the more standardized the data, the fewer mistakes will be made.

Developing and implementing a standardized logistics management information system that achieves total asset visibility is an enormous undertaking. It will require the integration of numerous data elements from both the commercial sector and within the services and DOD agencies. Consequently, the more logisticians who understand the complexities involved, the better they will be able to overcome the systemic problems associated with EDI and AIT. The next article in this series on joint asset visibility will discuss where and how information for joint asset visibility can be captured.

Lieutenant Colonel James C. Bates, USA (Ret.), works for Alion Science and Technology and serves as a sustainment planner for the U.S. Joint Forces Command, Standing Joint Force Headquarters (Standards and Training), at Nor sional Logistician and a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College and holds an M.B.A. degree from the University of Hawaii. He can be contacted at James.Bates@jfcom.mil.