hen Johnnie Wilson was a captain in Vietnam, ordering supplies was a walk in the park. Well, almost. The young supply officer walked through acres of spare parts, equipment and uniforms with a clipboard in hand, jotting down what his unit needed.
Those days are gone. Wilson is now a lieutenant general in charge of the Army's supply operation. As the deputy chief of staff for logistics, he presides over a sea change in the way the Army moves spare parts and supplies between installations and across battlefields.
"We have made a quantum leap in how we account for and track materiel and supplies to sustain young soldiers," he says.
Wilson has spent the last few years working with corporate giants such as Wal-Mart and Federal Express taking advantage of successful corporate distribution techniques. "Many companies have been very open to us in terms of sharing information," says Wilson.
But there's a limit to the help the Pentagon can expect from the private sector. Besides moving materiel between depots and installations around the country, the military's logistics system has to operate in combat in countries where things like highways and bridges don't exist.
"You can generally predict logistics movement in peacetime. But in war, every day units are moving. The requirements for ammunition and water will change. It's a little more complex than Sears or Federal Express.
"If we have a situation where fuel fails to show up on time, or the ammunition fails to show up on time, we know what the consequences will be," Wilson says.
Some of the military's problems in moving materiel were put in stark relief during the Persian Gulf war. According to one report, poor logistics records of parts shipped to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm wreaked havoc on the supply system. Thousands of containers had to be opened, inventoried and resealed because supply officers had no other way of knowing what the containers held.
To prevent such failures in the future, the Army launched the Total Asset Visibility program. The system allows a supply manager anywhere in the world to check a database for the location and availability of everything from tanks to prepackaged field rations.
Troops in Bosnia are reaping the benefits of this program. Using radio frequency technology, Army logistics officers are able to locate supplies in the pipeline, right down to the container they are packed in, and track their movement and distribution.
The technology has a side benefit as well, says Mark O'Konski, director of the Army's Logistics Integration Agency. When a truck delivering supplies in Bosnia jackknifed recently, the driver was able to call for help using the communications equipment that comes with the new technology. Many of the Army's trucks are not equipped with radios, so the equipment gives them added security. Now every supply shipment in Bosnia is equipped with the technology.
"This has been very well received in the field," O'Konski says. "We've had no difficulty getting people to pick this up and use it."
With the new technology, an "RF [radio frequency] tag" is attached to every container that leaves a depot. The tag contains an inventory of everything in the container. Every time the container is loaded on a ship or truck, or passes central control points, such as air and sea ports, transportation nodes and receiving stations, that information is collected electronically and loaded into a central database accessible to logisticians worldwide.
At distribution points, supply officers query RF tags with hand-held "interrogators" to find out what is inside the containers. A supply officer can locate specific supplies or a particular container by punching a code into the interrogator, and a direction indicator will hone in on that container. In addition, the container will emit a beeping noise to speed the search.
The technology will prevent such scenes as the one during Operation Desert Storm, where supply officers had to crawl through countless containers to locate supplies, because they had no other way of knowing what was inside.
The new system will require a cultural as well as technological change. In the past, commanders had so little faith in the logistics system they would place multiple orders for the same item. That created huge backlogs in orders and overtaxed the transportation system. At times, the sheer volume of supplies moving through the pipeline made it impossible for logisticians to maintain accurate records and keep commanders informed of the whereabouts of their goods.
"User confidence in the [former] system was low," O'Konski says. "We had a lot of cases of double and triple requisitioning for safety's sake."
All that is changing. "Once senior officers and NCOs see this work they're very enthusiastic about the program. We've had very good reports from the theater," O'Konski says.
To fully integrate the logistics system into Army operations, a team of analysts is now working to modify Army doctrine, tactics and training, O'Konski says.
Eventually the Pentagon expects to have a DoD-wide logistics system that allows the Defense Logistics Agency to move materiel from one service to another as efficiently as the Army is doing it internally. Recognizing the Army's progress in logistics management, Defense leaders tapped the service to be the executive agent for the Defense-wide Total Asset Visibility Implementation Plan.
Under the plan, the Defense Department could draw down its $76.3 billion inventory of surplus items, Wilson says.
"We are working hard to show we are good stewards of the materiel provided to us," he says.