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RFID Vision in the DOD
Supply Chain

Today’s U.S. military is a dynamic, rapidly moving force that is designed to be effective in an asynchronous battlespace. The enhanced mobility and speed of today’s combat forces, which can perform in austere theaters with limited infrastructure, create new challenges for military logisticians. Logistics problems experienced during the combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom presented a compelling case for change. Contemporary military logisticians must meet the challenge of supporting the transformed combat force with fast, accurate, flexible, and mobile sustainment.

Historically, military logisticians supporting combat forces have had limited information on assets, particularly in theater. This lack of information led to ineffective inventory management, waste, inefficiency, and delay across the supply chain. Ultimately, these shortfalls affected the warfighters’ overall materiel readiness, their ability to close the force, and the operational availability of weapon systems. The lack of synthesized, end-to-end, real-time information on items at rest and in transit undercut the combatant commander’s ability to exercise directive authority for logistics.

The “bumper sticker” term that frequently is used to refer to the availability of information on assets in transit is “visibility,” but visibility is not an end in itself. Visibility is a tool that helps to—

• Reliably deliver the required item to the right location, in the correct quantity, when it is needed, and from the most appropriate source.
• Make tools and information available to the decisionmakers who exercise effects-based management of the logistics network.
• Manage end-to-end capacities and available
assets across the supply chain to best support warfighter requirements.
• Enhance the ability of the supported combatant commander to exercise directive authority over logistics.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is an enabling technology that allows military logisticians to synthesize and integrate end-to-end information about assets. The Department of Defense (DOD) is a globally sophisticated user of active RFID, with more than a decade of experience in this technology and the most extensive RFID network in the world. Now, DOD is attempting to standardize the use of active RFID and is moving ahead with the application of passive RFID technologies. (Active RFID uses a battery within the tag to power the tag and its RF communications circuitry. Passive RFID relies on radio frequency energy transferred from the reader to the tag to power the tag.)

Passive RFID

On 30 July 2004, the Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics issued a policy requiring the implementation of RFID across DOD. DOD is taking a leadership role in passive RFID, both as an early adopter of the technology and as the developer of the technology and standards for its use.

The RFID policy directs military services and Defense agencies to expand immediately the use of high-data-capacity active RFID that currently is used in the DOD operational environment. The policy also directs the phased application of passive RFID by suppliers, who will be required to put passive RFID tags on cases and pallets of materiel shipped to DOD and on the packaging of all items requiring unique identification (UID). Beginning in 2005, DOD suppliers will be required to put passive RFID tags on shipments of selected classes of supply going to Defense Distribution Depot San Joaquin, California (DDJC), and Defense Distribution Depot Susquehanna, Pennsylvania (DDSP). Additional classes of supply will be included and nodes will be added over the next several years, with full implementation expected by 2008.

The desired end state for the DOD supply chain is a fully integrated, adaptive entity that uses state-of-the-art enabling technologies and advanced management information systems to automate routine functions and achieve accurate and timely in-transit, in-storage, and in-repair asset visibility with the least amount of human intervention. RFID is a foundational technology on the path to achieving this vision. Ultimately, DOD will operate a single, seamless, responsive enterprise visibility network that will be accessible across the network backbone and usable by both people and systems throughout the supply chain.


DOD envisions using RFID as an integral part of a comprehensive suite of automatic identification technologies (AITs) to facilitate accurate, hands-free data capture in support of business processes in an integrated DOD supply chain enterprise. DOD will apply all of the AITs where appropriate in the supply chain to improve support to the warfighter.

RFID-Enabled Supply Chain

The chart above depicts an RFID-enabled DOD supply chain. This high-level process view provides a visual representation of how DOD foresees using RFID as materiel is moved from the manufacturers and suppliers to the warfighter.

Clearly not all operations within the DOD supply chain are captured on this chart. However, the primary actions performed by the physical nodes to move materiel through the supply chain are the shipping, receiving, and transportation processes. The chart depicts materiel movement that physically “touches” each node throughout the chain. Yet, materiel can start, move through, and end on different paths between logistics nodes.

The chart at right shows how materiel can move, in various segments, through the supply chain. All of the segments depicted on the chart are affected by RFID. Materiel movement includes retrograding through the supply chain. Again, the direct impact of RFID on the retrograde and return process corresponds to the basic shipping, receiving, and transportation processes.

With passive RFID, DOD will capture more granular [detailed] data automatically, injecting advanced technology at the transactional level. This will streamline the movement of materiel through warehouses and depots, increase inventory accuracy, and generate productivity improvements.

Active RFID is a cargo-tracking capability that provides the ability to manage consolidated shipments. By adding passive RFID to the technology portfolio, the military services will be able to develop an end-to-end capability that relies on complementary active and passive technologies to deliver an RFID suite applicable to all assets that are in transit, in process, or on the shelf.

Historically, information across the supply chain has been captured only at the predefined nodal touchpoints. This data capture generally has been used to update systems of record and, in some situations, generate status notifications. To speed the adoption and implementation of passive RFID technologies and accelerate the learning curve, the military services initially are using passive capabilities for transaction sets similar or identical to legacy transactions. However, once the foundational implementations are established, the true promise of passive RFID can be realized.

The Stovepipe Challenge

RFID delivers near-real-time status and improves inventory control, particularly in deployed or combat environments. It can make “track and trace” a reality around the world, across system and organizational stovepipes. No longer will DOD be limited to capturing information on at-rest and in-transit materiel at fixed locations. As RFID tagging becomes more and more ubiquitous and RFID technology becomes more portable, real-time information can be captured wherever needed to support the requirements of the combatant commander. Equally important, the adoption of passive RFID standards will circumvent the stovepipes and barriers to information flow throughout the services that historically have been a challenge for DOD. The military logistician will be able to deploy and move a logistics infrastructure and visibility capability as rapidly as the combatant commander can deploy and engage the combat force.

RFID is part of a larger suite of AITs that DOD will leverage in the supply chain where appropriate to improve support to the warfighter. As an enabling technology, RFID data must be available to automated information systems (AISs). Managers of major acquisition programs must update their programs to incorporate RFID capabilities where applicable.


RFID/UID Relationship

Active and passive RFID will continue to complement one another as passive RFID technology is implemented throughout DOD. Many shipments moving through the Defense Transportation System currently are tracked using active RFID and a barcoded military shipping label. The implementation of passive RFID will complement the current successes in using active RFID for shipments outside the continental United States.

The association of a passive tag to an active tag will reduce container stuffing and unstuffing time and provide more accurate “inside the box” visibility. This passive and active association is created by building a “nested” structure of passive tags (UID item packaging and case and pallet tags) that are subordinate to the active tags (SEAVAN container and 463L pallet tags). Historically, active RFID has been excellent at providing nodal visibility. The use of passive tags will provide efficient and accurate item and content visibility. The marriage of active and passive RFID will result in more accurate and timely automatic capture and reporting of data within the multiple layers of information required in DOD’s dynamic environment.

RFID deployment also complements the ongoing UID initiative. Although the UID and RFID initiatives are closely related, they have fundamental differences. UID is a permanent, unambiguous, and globally unique item identifier. RFID is a means of collecting data using radio frequency technology. RFID will be used as a hands-free data-collection method to identify UID items that are located within various levels of packaging.

To identify a UID item using RFID, the data on the RFID tags on unit packs, shipping containers, exterior containers, and palletized unit loads must be linked to the UID information in a logistics system. Using RFID tags to collect data and associating the tag data with UID information will help to maintain precise UID in-transit visibility and improve data quality, item management, and maintenance of UID materiel throughout the DOD supply chain.

Hands-free data collection will help extend and take advantage of the UID policy. However, the UID initiative requires that a data matrix be applied to each UID item. This data matrix is a two-dimensional barcode that is an alternative form of AIT. Incorporating two-dimensional barcode and RFID technologies into AIT equipment will facilitate the UID and RFID relationship.


The chart shown above depicts the “nested” structure of active RFID, passive RFID, and UID items. In this nested structural relationship, passive RFID will be used to verify the accuracy, track the physical movement of, and virtually build the contents of a 463L pallet or SEAVAN container. Passive RFID will verify the contents in real time and convey this information to the local AIS and the personnel physically loading the pallet or container. Once the pallet or container is configured properly, an active tag is attached to it to track and trace its movement. At the final destination, when the pallet or container is unloaded, passive RFID will again verify the contents and track the physical movement of the materiel within the destination node. These nested data also will be used to create a transaction record and close the transportation transaction once the items are received. The chart shown above right depicts how the passive–active–passive relationship could look across the DOD supply chain.

RFID Versus Barcodes

RFID is part of a family of AIT devices that includes barcodes, optical memory cards, smart cards, microelectromechanical systems, and satellite tracking systems. RFID and barcodes will coexist for several years because both technologies have merit. However, RFID provides a number of positive benefits over barcodes. For example, RFID—

• Eliminates human error.
• Improves data accuracy and asset visibility.
• Performs in rugged, harsh environments.
• Provides a dynamic, multiblock read-and-write capability.
• Facilitates source data collection.
• Permits simultaneous reading and identification of multiple tags

Each military service and Defense agency should review its internal business processes to refine the most appropriate employment of RFID. The widespread integration of RFID into DOD business processes should be managed with the same level of attention given to a major system fielding.

Although RFID technology ensures accuracy and timeliness of data within current and future systems, implementing it will require significant planning, equipment fielding, AIS changes, and training. Such an approach will ensure a long-term, fully integrated solution.

RFID is being recognized as a valuable component of the suite of AITs because of the capabilities it provides. Active RFID has improved the ability to track, trace, and locate materiel on demand throughout the supply chain. Combining passive RFID technology with the active RFID technology already in place will create greater efficiencies and data accuracy in the DOD supply chain. Leveraging RFID to the fullest extent possible will improve the services’ ability to get the right materiel to the warfighter at the right place, at the right time, and in the right condition.

The real value of RFID lies not in what it can do today but in what it will do in the future. DOD is in the midst of the most fundamental transformation of logistics capability ever attempted, and RFID is an integral element of that transformation. By employing RFID, DOD is laying a foundation that allows military logisticians to leverage new applications that enable them to see and manage the supply chain from end to end and not be limited by enterprise-centric, stovepipe systems. With RFID, it will be possible to control the supply chain from factory to foxhole and deliver the right item to the right place at the right time, even in the face of rapidly evolving conditions in the battlespace. ALOG

Alan F. Estevez is the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Supply Chain Integration within the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Logistics and Materiel Readiness. He is responsible for development of global supply chain management and distribution policies and processes to support the operational requirements of warfighters. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and a master’s degree in national security resource strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.