The U.S. Marines Corps is deploying radio-frequency identification technology to provide previously unheard-of visibility into the location and delivery of supplies and equipment.
Up to now, information about shipping equipment and supplies has been limited to port-to-port data—that is, when the supplies arrived at or left a port. But by years end, that situation will have changed for Marines in Iraq and elsewhere.
With real-time information on the location of parts, equipment and supplies at their fingertips, RFID will change the way Marines make tactical decisions.
“[RFID] provides the capability for a commander to have visibility in the logistics train. It allows him to make decisions on a real-time basis—something commanders have never had before,” said Donald Cooper, RFID project officer within the Marine Corps System Commands TDIS (Transportation, Distribution and Information System) team that is overseeing the implementation of RFID technology. “That is going to play into his assessment on the battlefield. Its a great intelligence factor and will determine when hes going to move people where.”
As part of the Department of Defense mandate that all military services use RFID by January, the Marines, in a joint initiative with the U.S. Army, began pursuing the technology about a year ago. The goal: providing commanders with the ability to track equipment anywhere in a theater of combat.
Last month, the Marines tested active RFID capabilities as part of a larger project within the DODs Joint Automated Information Technology project to overhaul specific applications, including the MAGTF (Marine Air Ground Task Force) Deployment Support System and AMST (Automated Manifest System-Tactical). Next month, the group plans to do a real-world RFID implementation that will spread 600 RFID interrogation devices throughout Marine Corps bases around the world, giving Marines the ability to track supplies.
“By having more than 600 points [of contact], every activity that has a requirement to receive or ship will have the ability to read or write a tag,” said Cooper in Quantico, Va.
Better Mission Planning
As a result, Marines in the field—basically, any Marine with a .mil e-mail address—will be able to access RFID information detailing, for example, when a piece of gear was put on an air pallet—and the possible time and day it will arrive at its destination.
“That was something you never saw before,” said Tony Brill, team leader with the TDIS group and a consultant with Northrop Grumman Corp., the Los Angeles-based systems integrator on the Marines RFID project. “Thats not just transporters [who will have access to information], but engineers and mechanics waiting for gear, so they can plan their mission out better.”
The results of a recent field test have been “outstanding,” proving the ability to track cargo moving from a U.S. base to its air deployment location with the Army and then track containers through countries and from base to base, said Brill.
That capability did not come without preparatory work. Cooper and Brill are in the process of implementing an RFID infrastructure at more than 40 military bases globally.
The two men are tasked with visiting each site and mapping, essentially, the lay of the land—where a fixed site needs to be put up, where equipment is moving in and out of, if there is a rail head, and where the multiple gates and staging locations are.
“Our requirement was to have equipment installed by the end of the year, on Jan. 1,” said Brill. “It looks like were going to meet that.”
The next step is to tie in multiple sources of information with the RFID information that is being collected. Currently, RFID information is uploaded to an ITV (In Transit Visibility) server, which takes the data and sends it off to the militarys GTN (Global Transportation Network). Since GTN tracks the strategic leg—the point of embarkation to the point of demarcation—it is part of the Marines joint initiative with the Army on this project.
Unlike the commercial sector, which is working frantically to pound out RFID standards, the military has that aspect down cold.
“There is only one way to write a tag,” said Cooper. “The Army is feeding information up the same way the Marines are.”
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