Supply Master

Alan Estevez is making sure every military service member has exactly the right equipment at the right time-no more and no less.

A year ago, agents from the Government Accountability Office paid an Internet liquidator $483 for 42 pairs of cold-weather boots that had cost the Defense Department $5,670, or $135 each.

The footwear, still new, had been written off as junk when it appeared at a Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office in California without identifying paperwork. Not long afterward, the Defense Logistics Agency ordered 31,420 new pairs of the same boots. As the GAO reported in June, this is one example of the $3.5 billion worth of new or barely used supplies and equipment that the military declared surplus from 2002 through 2004, then spent at least $400 million to replace.

Alan Estevez is out to end such horror stories by helping military logisticians know the precise location and condition of everything they buy. An expert on radio frequency identification and its use for inventory management, Estevez believes duplicative purchases are "the biggest failure" of the military distribution and disposal system.

Luckily for the Pentagon, Estevez is the assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense for supply chain integration. For two years, he's been prodding the services and their 60,000 suppliers to encode shipments with identifiers for an electronic inventory database. Use of wireless RFID tagging, which the Pentagon helped develop, is coming into vogue among retailers. Says Estevez: "If you're Wal-Mart, then you want to know what's on the shelves and in the backroom and ready to move out, so you can sell stuff. In the military, it's the same. I want a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine to have what he requires for the mission we sent him out in harm's way to do."

Wal-Mart requires its top suppliers to stick tags on cases and pallets bound for 16 distribution centers serving more than 600 stores nationwide. In a parallel policy initiative, Estevez requires the same tags at depots in Susquehanna, Pa., and San Joaquin, Calif. By January, the directive will expand to 32 more. January 2007 is the deadline for full compliance.

Even then, the technology needs to be perfected and global standards set up. And there's no guarantee of major cost savings yet.

But Estevez doesn't concern himself with the numbers. "It's the kids we send into harm's way," he says. "If we're not doing this to make their lives easier, we should go do something else."