In a world of sense-and-respond logistics, vehicles call in when they're low on gas and fuel is delivered before they run out.
Food and water supplies for U.S. troops fell to dangerously low levels during the invasion of Iraq.
The charge north was probably the fastest yet by a significant military expeditionary force, so fast that the supply chain had a tough time keeping up. Soldiers ditched malfunctioning Humvees and trucks in the desert or cannibalized them for parts. "It was very good that the conflict ended as soon as it did," said one participant in Operation Iraqi Freedom who was quoted in a 2003 Pentagon Office of Force Transformation report. "If it had gone on much longer, things could have gone very badly, very quickly," the Central Command official added, reflecting a widely held view about the logistics support during the march to Baghdad.
For the Office of Force Transformation, the Defense Department's in-house think tank charged with shaking up the status quo (it was disbanded in 2006), the Iraq invasion was evidence. It was further proof that although logistical support was far more agile than in the past, it still needed a revolutionary transformation.
Even before 2003, transformation-minded folks worried that logistics trailed behind advances in operations thinking. On the warfighting side, a consensus gelled that information technology would permanently change war. The new orthodoxy, netcentric warfare, holds that the military should become faster and lighter and able to find and shoot enemies before they attack by relying on battlefield sensors feeding data across a network of plugged-in troops. Bloody and manpower-dependent counterinsurgency operations have dampened enthusiasm for netcentricity, but few doubt that a variation of it is coming. Some logisticians decided they needed to get plugged in, too. If shooters were going to become faster and use situational awareness to make sudden battlefield adjustments, so should they. While reading up on network theory they came across a concept called "sense and respond," developed in the early 1990s by IBM marketing executives.
Rewiring supply chains for transparency and adaptability became a business obsession in the 1990s, as demonstrated by the attention generated by companies such as Wal-Mart, Dell and Amazon.com. Military logisticians, too, got into the game. By 2003, they had a far superior system than a decade before. Back in 1990, in the run-up to a war to rid Kuwait of Iraqi occupiers, the U.S. military dumped an iron mountain in Saudi Arabia. When materiel left American supply depots for the theater, nobody knew where anything was until the containers were opened and the contents sorted out in the scorching desert heat.
In 2003, only about 30 percent of materiel could not be immediately identified and located. Whereas in the Persian Gulf War, U.S. troops built up 60 days' worth of supplies before they attacked, they were confident enough in logistics capacity to keep only five to seven days of supplies on hand during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Logisticians adapted to an evolving situation. For example, when warfighters began to outrun fuel trucks, Marine Corps logisticians strung a 100-mile flexible fuel line across the desert floor.
Bulk Is a Target
Bullets, engine parts, food-military operations require constant infusions of stuff. It falls to logisticians to buy it, move it, track it and replace it. Consider the old military cliché: Amateurs discuss strategy while professionals discuss logistics. Despite improvements since the 1990s, military supply systems remain erratic. Sometimes orders show up after a week, sometimes after seven weeks. A normal reaction to inconsistency is to distrust the system that produces it. "No trust in the system leads to all sorts of bad habits, including more inventory than you need," says Alan Estevez, principal assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense for logistics and materiel readiness.
Having too much stuff in a battle theater is dangerous-not as life threatening as having too little, but nonetheless a problem. Bulk is a target. Stuff slows down troops, wastes their time. "You end up with butt-stroking individuals defending an iron mountain of food that you're planning on giving to them tomorrow," says Marine Col. Arthur J. Corbett, former director of warfighting requirements at the Corps' Combat Development Command, now director of the 12th Marine Corps District.
Supplies pile up because people, not unreasonably, will reorder things that don't show up soon enough. That clogs the system. Duplication exacts a steep opportunity cost-a plane carrying a redundant item can't deliver what's truly required. Hoarding has a cascading effect of pipeline congestion as people repeatedly reorder more materiel.
Consider a Navy ship's crew. "The first time that a Marine or a sailor walks into a head and there's no toilet paper there, the next time he walks into a head, he will take three rolls and put them into his locker," Corbett says "And from that day on, there will not be enough toilet paper on that ship. It's not that there isn't any on that ship; it's just that it's always in the wall lockers out of fear of future scarcity. . . . You can bet that's going to work in terms of other things like ammunition."
Supporters of sense-and-respond logistics contend that problems like this will never go away as long as supply remains a hierarchical, linear system. They envision a dynamic, networked world in which everyone is a consumer and a supplier in an integrated logistical and operations system powered by real-time information. A Marine gunnery sergeant would know exactly how much ammo his company had fired that day because a chip inside each rifle would keep track. Monitoring chips would be everywhere: inside armored vehicle turrets, vehicle gas tanks, on batteries, on cases of meals ready-to-eat.
In-theater logisticians would compare the real-time rate of actual consumption against the planned rate. They would make predictions about when a unit would need more ammo or anticipate when an engine would stop working. They could order supplies before the ammo ran out or the engine went bust. The most important missions with the most urgent needs would be supplied. And the supplies would come from whatever military service's unit happened to be nearby. An Army battalion short of hand grenades but about to commence a high-priority operation would get them from a Marine Corps unit on a lower priority mission.
"In a network, you have many, many more options on where to source something from," says Linda Lewandowski, a retired Navy captain formerly with the Office of Force Transformation. Supported by OFT, she had latched on to the sense-and-respond concept before Operation Iraqi Freedom. But it gained additional strength when, in 2004, the office hired Washington-based defense consultancy Synergy Inc. for $3.9 million to flesh out the concept for defense purposes. Lewandowski retired from the Navy in 2005 and is now director of adaptive enterprise solutions at Fairfax, Va.-based consultancy ICF International, which bought Synergy in 2005.
She acknowledges that OFT and Synergy took a no-holds-barred approach in shaping the concept. "Forget about the information systems that we have, the constraints organizationally, just forget about that. Start with a clean sheet of paper . . . that's really how the sense-and-respond concept was formed," she says.
Skeptics note that just the sensor portion of sense and respond, much less the rest of it, requires technological and doctrinal capabilities beyond those of today's military. The services are justifiably proud of their asset-tracking abilities, but their current equipment works only to the point of delivery, not consumption. For one thing, the radio frequency identification tags now used to pinpoint the location of bulk items still require technological refinement before they can be used ubiquitously.
Back in 2004, when OFT and Synergy began producing a series of sense-and-respond papers and presentations, they did the rounds on the Pentagon speaker circuit. "We did a lot of meetings with a lot of folks," recalls former Synergy chief executive officer Don Zimmerman with a wry laugh. Zimmerman now is an ICF executive vice president.
He says he classifies the audiences he and OFT personnel spoke to as those who were genuinely interested, "and the people who were really doing it superficially as 'Here's a new concept that we've got to deal with again from some idiots from OFT.' " It has since all but dropped from circulation as a buzzword.
Great Leap Forward
One nonbeliever is Allan Banghart, director of enterprise transformation at the Defense Logistics Agency. DLA provides the military with consumable items such as jet fuel, uniforms and food. "The way that it was envisioned by the Office of Force Transformation . . . sort of defied the laws of physics, and defied the nature of the battle space," the logistician says. One military unit doesn't want to worry about becoming the materiel supplier of another, he adds. Troops should focus on fighting, logisticians on supplying them effectively. He agrees that the logistics system can and should be better, but doesn't think a more efficient system requires a sense-and-respond quantum leap. Logistics organizations in the services and in cross-service organizations such as DLA are investing in new information technology systems, new capabilities. They cooperate more than they once did and want to root out the expensive overlap that's grown over the past decades.
DLA is in the final stages of fine- tuning implementation of a six-year, $500 million upgrade of its six 1960s-era data systems. The replacement is a single, modern Web-based unified system. "That is a huge transformational change," Banghart says. "And I can tell you it's huge because of how freaking difficult it was." The question is, can Defense change its logistics system by doing more of what it already is doing, such as buying new IT systems, or does it need to plunge into a risky and decentralized world of sense and respond.
Says Estevez: "I don't think there's a point where we're going to say, 'Oh, boy, here's the revolution; here's the great leap forward.' It didn't work so well for China."
In 2004, when OFT still existed and had power and money to advance sense-and-respond ideas, it funded the Marine Corps Pacific Command's experimentation center to do some computerized simulations. Getting warfighter input and incorporating it into the sense-and-respond concept was important to Lewandowski, who uses it to refute critics who say sense and respond is too ivory tower. The simulations showed that "yes, it would help our operations and be a force multiplier," says Shujie Chang, the experimentation center director. Strategists talk of a culminating point in battle, the moment when one side backs off (either offensively or defensively) because it has exhausted its resources. Sense and respond would forestall that point for U.S. forces. Periods of retrenchment no longer would be necessary; gas and ammo would be on the way before troops ran out of them. Real-time fulfillment of warfighter needs has another tactical advantage, too. The more a fighting force weighs, the more stuff it lugs with it, the easier it is to fall under attack. It's less maneuverable and makes a more rewarding enemy objective. "We need to be able to de- massify so we can not make a very lucrative target out of ourselves," says retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen Wallace "Chip" Gregson, former commander of Marine Corps Pacific.
"We've always had the assumption without even questioning it that if you need something, then it's a good thing to have lots of it available," adds Gregson, who championed sense-and-respond experimentation. He cites as an example of a clash between a highly massed entity and a lighter though technologically savvy force Israel's fight with Hezbollah in 2006. Hezbollah paramilitaries could lob missiles from a distance while not forming a distinct target. Though the missiles were relatively inaccurate, and the fighters hurled them against cities, a lesson remains for the United States: If there's an iron mountain "that we've got stuck somewhere on the ground within range of the enemy, it is going to be vulnerable," says Gregson. "The more [resources] you have to devote to your own support in a counterinsurgency operation, the less resources you have available to devote to the product end, the purpose end, of what you're trying to do."
Still, wouldn't sense and respond increase the individual risk for soldiers, who must now carry less and place more faith in an electronic sensor system? "Risk is a military virtue," Corbett says. Heaviness has risks, too-attrition, predictability, slowness. "For every enabling capability that we will gain from this, there will be, to a greater or lesser degree, a corresponding risk. No argument there," he adds.
It's mostly a theoretical debate for now, however. The 2004 simulations found that although sense and respond offered military potential, the technology to do it wasn't quite ready. The military can't wait to improve logistics; it's a pressing need now.
Evolution vs. Revolution
Few people argue against the goals of sense and respond. Something like it probably will occur in the future, but the road there will be paved in increments, they argue. In today's operations- constrained environment, funds for a big leap forward are not in the offing. "If you have one dollar to spend, would you invest it in sense-and-respond logistics?" asks George Topic, Joint Staff deputy director for strategic logistics, J4. "Or maybe you would spend it on improved bandages for medical care, or maybe you invest it in better intel."
Sense-and-respond proponents are not penniless. The Marine Corps Logistics Vision Team has arranged for tests of embedded fuel and battery sensors on two to three vehicles (such as a light armored vehicle, a medium tactical vehicle replacement truck and a Humvee) during two summer training exercises at Marine Corps bases, one at Quantico, Va., the other at Twentynine Palms, Calif. "We're keeping it simple upfront," says Nick Linkowitz, the vision team head.
Outsiders might wonder why, if companies can track everything they sell or deliver or make, the military is having such a tough time. After all, Wal-Mart is aware of every single gallon of laundry detergent that departs its shelves. Civilian cars equipped with OnStar or other such monitoring services have 24-hour representatives ready to give out directions or warn that the gas is too low. FedEx or UPS will deliver anything anywhere almost anytime and let customers watch online as their packages move around the world. But in a Wal-Mart, somebody manually scans every item that goes out the door. And the worst that will happen to Wal-Mart customers if the system fails is they'll have to go to another store to buy laundry soap. General Motors doesn't have a worldwide fleet of vehicles it needs to integrate into OnStar, nor a plan for integrating OnStar data into a concept of operations. Delivery companies have the benefit of fixed addresses, while war-fighters change location constantly. And delivery people don't care when or how you consume what they deliver.
Sense-and-respond logistics would be hard to implement, even its supporters will say. It's more sophisticated than any logistics system ever made. But in their eyes, that's a plus. "You can do better if you have a more sophisticated system," ICF's Zimmerman says.
Skeptics don't doubt that good will comes from moving toward sense and respond, but they are prone to be cautious. Revolutionary technology mostly appears so only in retrospect. The Internet required decades of digital growth before it became mainstream, notes Estevez: "Most revolutions are evolutionary."