RFID: Locked and Loaded for NATO

By Renee Boucher Ferguson  |  Posted 2006-02-20

RFID: Locked and Loaded for NATO

Those episodes of "M*A*S*H" when Radar gets a load of swimsuits in the dead of winter and a half-million tongue depressors instead of medicine were funny, but in real life, its no joke when the supply chain breaks down and lives are at stake. During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, the U.S. military found that out the hard way.

"In the Gulf War, the United States wasted $2 billion. They shipped five containers if someone needed one in hopes of finding something. After that, they came back and said, Lets address this," said Bruce Jacquemard, executive vice president of worldwide sales for Savi Technology, in Sunnyvale, Calif.

U.S. military officials came up with a plan to address the massive supply chain inefficiencies. The U.S. Department of Defense signed a contract with Savi in 1994 to build out and maintain its ITV (In-Transit Visibility) network, now the worlds largest RFID (radio-frequency identification) cargo tracking system, stretching across 46 countries and 2,000 locations.

Click here to read more about the DODs collaboration with Savi on RFID.

The system has worked so well that the U.S. ITV network has become a model for allied nations, and it could be a good proof of concept to the IT departments of U.S. consumer products and retail businesses that are now just starting to experiment with RFID.

In 2001, following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, NATO got involved, sending troops and supplies to Afghanistan and, in the process, modernized its supply chain. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defence and the Denmark Ministry of Defence also built out ITV networks, and the ADF (Australian Defence Force) has started its own initiative with NATO, as has Spain and Israel.

"Part of the history is that the U.S., of course, is one of the NATO nations. It had success with RFID in other theaters. As they began partnering with NATO in Afghanistan, they brought it to the attention of the NATO community that we could really benefit from RFID with the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] supply chain," said Brent Bingham, project manager for the NATO Consultation, Control and Command Agency, in Brussels, Belgium.

A successful Phase 1 RFID pilot was initiated in 2004, and NATO is currently in the second phase of an interim implementation to RFID-enable five key nodes along its ISAF supply chain that stretches from the Netherlands and two points in Germany to Uzbekistan and into Afghanistan.

The goal: to build out an RFID backbone, or infrastructure, that other countries can hook into with their supply chain systems and to facilitate a standards-based, interactive and interoperable supply chain among allied nations.

Despite the "interim" tag, the system is fully functional and will form the basis for a more formalized "Capability Package" that will provide a comprehensive infrastructure with global supply chain nodes in the future. Its just that, in the war on terror, NATO found it had to act fast.

"[NATOs] operations commander requested the capability to be there rather urgently and didnt want to wait for packages, so thats where we come in," said Dr. Levent Mollamustafaoglu, principal scientist and logistics section leader for NATOs Operations Research Division, in The Hague, Netherlands. "Because it is interim, [the ISAF RFID project] has a limited scope, limited nodes in which it is installed for a limited part of the supply chain. But what we are trying to provide is interoperability with national systems."

Following a yearlong assessment of its initial RFID backbone that Savi deployed for NATO, the NC3A awarded Savi a second contract in December 2005. Savi will upgrade and sustain operational support for NATOs ITV network, including the build-out of additional RFID tags and readers and an upgrade to NATOs existing software. It also calls for the installation of Savis CMS (Consignment Management Solution), which will enable NATO to maintain near-real-time visibility into the supply chain.

For Bingham, the goal is for RFID to become less of a gee-whiz technology and more of an integral component of NATOs global IT infrastructure.

Next page: Upgrading worldwide.

Upgrading Worldwide

"The old way isnt working," Bingham said. "Theres a lot of motivation to have this be the primary mechanism just because commanders get more I dont know answers and shrugs of the shoulders to the question [of Wheres my goods?]. The primary metric that has a value right now is just to have visibility. Once we have visibility, then well figure out how to improve the process."

Upgrading the network

Savis CMS 1.0 is designed to keep track of and manage consignments tagged with all types of AIDC (Automatic Identification and Data Collection) devices—such as sensors, bar codes, and active and passive RFID tags—for allied military organizations. It provides exception-based management alerts and support for visibility of assets.

During its first phase, NATO determined that the RFID-based network met its Standardization Agreement, garnering a stamp of approval from all 26 member nations in NATOs Infrastructure Committee. The approval allowed member nations, or those with NATO observer status, such as Australia, to share the cost of the overall project and, more important, to integrate with NATOs CMS system.

Can RFID and other wireless tools help fight terrorism? Click here to read more.

"Our objective now is to upgrade the network so that member nations can use their own tracking systems for national consignments while enabling them to be interoperable with NATOs RF [radio frequency] network for multinational, joint-force operations," said Bingham.

Earlier this year, Savi began upgrading NATOs existing system with a routing code developed in concert with the NATO Asset Tracking Group, a multinational group that sets standards for logistics and supply chain processes.

"The way we designed the code is each RFID code has its own ID tag. In the ID header, we put in a unique code, in concert with an ISO standard, so when you write that tag in the supply chain, the owners routing code is written in as well," said Eric Gill, program manager at Savi. "So when [goods] go by a reader, it doesnt matter whose tag it is—the Savi Reader gets it."

The reader sends the tag information to a local site manager through the CMS server. When the server receives the message, the first thing it does is check the routing code. If the routing code belongs to NATO, it accepts the message and sends an XML message to NATOs LOGFAS (Logistic Functional Area Services) system.

If the reader picks up a message that has a non-NATO routing code, it has a lookup table that sends the message to the owner nations server. What all this means is that nations can share their RFID reader infrastructure, according to Gill, who said Savis CMS system has been "very much designed around international parameters."

The NATO ISAF supply chain starts at the Joint Force Command Headquarters in Brunssum, the Netherlands. It then flows to NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen in Germany, where cargo aircraft takes in goods. From there, supplies are flown to Kabul, Afghanistan. A secondary supply chain route begins in Cologne, Germany, and then moves to Termez, Uzbekistan, and into Afghanistan.

"Were presently about 25 percent of the way into the site upgrade," said Gill. "We have done the server, and were at Brunssum at the moment. My engineering team will be traveling to Afghanistan."

The Savi team is implementing Symbol Technologies PDT 8146 mobile computers that are attached to Savi handheld readers. At the same time, the team has added Savi Mobile Readers that can read bar codes in NATO consignments, as well as RFID.

Symbol CEO Sal Iannuzzi says that RFID isnt ready for prime time. Click here to read more.

With military consignments, particularly in multinational environments, an automatic fixed reader is very valuable, according to Gill.

"Youve got one nation running it a couple months, then another nation takes over," Gill said. "To have an automatic system means less training and reducing the logistics footprint.

"NATO wants soldiers out in the field, but there are more soldiers manning logistics," Gill said.

Despite the supply chain consisting of only five nodes, aka supply transfer locations, the logistics issues are complex. Each country involved—the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Australia, Israel and NATO itself—sends its own supplies to support soldiers in the Afghanistan theater. Each countrys army has its own requirements and logistics processes, and each uses its own supply chain.

While NATO has not yet compiled any statistics, Binghams group estimates there are "many thousands" of spare parts and pieces of equipment moving through the ISAF supply chain, both NATO-owned and member country-owned.

Next Page: Gaining momentum.

Gaining Momentum

Once consignments are shipped to their starting points in Europe and move through the supply chain, there are additional challenges to contend with, namely Internet connections, ever-changing personnel and basic change management issues.

"Nothing is ever easy or free," said Bingham. "Weve had some unique challenges. When you start getting out in Uzbekistan—and, unfortunately, even Germany—Internet connectivity has been the biggest challenge. Weve had to learn to anticipate and plan way ahead in terms of getting those things in place. You cant just walk into a place and say, Turn me on."

Increasing visibility

At the same time, there is a lot of personnel rotation, so its a challenge to keep operators up to speed and trained on the CMS system. With the project to RFID-enable each of the supply chain nodes still in transition between the pilot phase and fully operational in Phase 2, Bingham said those out in the field are still on a learning curve as well.

"A commander right now has no visibility. He asks a question and, 10 phone calls later, someone finally finds the consignment he is looking for, and someone can tell him when it arrives," said Bingham. "Our first metric [of success] is that someone will be able to look on the Internet and say, We know where [a consignment] was yesterday because the tags tell us it was there, and based on flight schedules, it should be here tomorrow. We still have to climb that hill."

NATO is currently tracking tags to the CMS system and is about 10 to 20 percent from full visibility along the chain, according to Bingham. That said, expectations at the command level havent changed yet; people still depend on phone calls to track consignments.

But there is some momentum. "The logistics people, theyre excited about what they can see," said Bingham. "It makes them look good."

One major challenge NATO faces with RFID-enabling pallets and containers of goods is security. There are guidelines within NATO on what constitutes critical information and what will cause a document or item to be an unclassified or classified secret. The issue with RFID is aggregation of key pieces of information.

"If you get all the key pieces of sensitive information in one place and available to a snooper, thats where the risk comes in," said Bingham. "So you either encrypt data or protect it so they cant tap in."

As a nation with NATO observer status, Australia is able to participate in NATOs technology development initiatives, such as RFID. With troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ADF sends a fair amount of supplies to the Middle East. It works closely with the United States and the United Kingdom in moving repair parts for aircraft, weapons, communications equipment, medical supplies and protective clothing through their supply chains.

At the same time, the ADF is working to automate its own supply chain with newer technologies.

"We wanted a better means of ensuring the progress of goods and services through the supply chain and to allow full visibility of certain classes of goods," said Brigadier David McGahey, ADFs director general of material information systems, in Melbourne, Australia. "Some goods could move through the U.S. and U.K. supply chains, and we knew that in Gulf War 2 they had an RFID supply chain in place. We were keen to utilize that."

The ADF, like others in the initiative, is using Savis technology, in large part because Savi has interoperability through the use of ISO 18000-7, according to McGahey.

Along with implementing Savis CMS system, the ADF is in the midst of two adjacent projects for ITV and warehouse visibility. At the same time, it plans to connect CMS with its back-end ERP (enterprise resource planning) system.

"RFID [is] great technology, but unless its interfaced into transit, and back into ERP, you dont get an end-to-end view of whats coming," said McGahey.

McGahey said he expects to have the initial supply chain to the Middle East fully instrumental by the end of March and the first 30 Australian checkpoint nodes for distribution and inventory facilities in place by October.

Going forward

NATO requirements stipulate that by the end of 2006 all NATO member countries will have to have an interoperable system that works with its RFID backbone. The Capability Packaging approval for a more widely disseminated RFID program is expected sometime this year, with the earliest efforts starting in 2007, according to NATOs Mollamustafaoglu.

"In 2006, we will concentrate on interoperability," said Mollamustafaoglu. "Our idea is to encourage all NATO networks to get connected, whether they use bar codes or RFID."

In this current interim phase, NATO is working to solve issues around Internet connectivity, security and change management so that when the full-term capability is deployed, those challenges are solved.

"When you try to link different systems, technically it is not a big challenge," said Mollamustafaoglu. "But the business processes dont always fit together. Reusability is not always that trivial to be realized, even with NATO."

Mollamustafaoglu said the sheer fact that data may not be reusable to other nations is one issue to realizing the bigger picture with RFID, as are political procedural challenges.

"All nations coming together [is challenging]," said Mollamustafaoglu. "Even [for] one nation, the U.S., it can be a problem. Then add a multinational component on top of that."

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