By January 2005, all shipments of military equipment and supplies destined
for Iraq or other battle zones must be labeled with an electronic tag that helps
track the content of each box or package.
The Defense Department is requiring all of its 43,000 vendors to employ these
tracking labels on all products shipped, or risk not getting paid. But as the
deadline looms, a great deal of confusion prevails among military logisticians
and contractors on how to go about complying with this mandate. The required
labels, known as “passive radio-frequency identification tags,”
are used widely in the commercial sector, but the industry is far from having
standardized technical requirements and protocols.
Making matters more complicated is the fact that the data inside every RFID
tag only can be retrieved if one has the right kind of “reader.”
The tag contains a radio transmitter that wakes up when it receives a radio
signal from a reader to which it then communicates its stored information via
radio waves. The readers are networked into the tracking organizations’
computer systems which then monitor and track the tagged items.
Both military and industry experts said the Defense Department’s RFID
mandate—designed to expedite the deliveries of critical military supplies—could
accomplish the opposite effect if these technical issues are not addressed right
Active RF tags—brick-size devices that emit energy and are battery-operated—have
been around since World War II, but the passive tags present a host of technical
hurdles, especially in a military environment. Both the Defense Department and
major corporations prefer the passive tags, because they cost less than 50 cents
apiece, compared to $100 each for the active tags.
A Pentagon spokesperson told National Defense that passive RF tags will be
mandatory for all orders placed after October 2004, and that contractors can
expect to see guidelines posted on the www.dodait.com website.
Senior military logisticians, meanwhile, appear uncertain on what exactly this
policy will accomplish and whether such a tight deadline is realistic.
The Army, for example, has more than $200 million budgeted for passive RFID
technology, but service officials are concerned that it may be premature to
spend that much money until the standards and protocols are settled.
Leading the RFID efforts is the office of Alan Estevez, the assistant deputy
undersecretary of defense for supply chain integration. During a meeting with
Estevez earlier this year, Army Brig. Gen. Charles W. Fletcher voiced reservations
about the Pentagon’s plan to enforce RFID systems. Fletcher is the Army’s
deputy chief of staff for logistics.
“I told Estevez, ‘You have to tell us exactly what it is you want
us to do,’” Fletcher said at an industry conference hosted by the
Institute for Defense and Government Advancement. “We are ready to spend
a couple of hundred million dollars on this. But if we don’t know how
it interoperates [with which type of readers] … this is of no value,”
he said. “We can say we are doing it, but we haven’t really created
Getting all the services to adopt common standards for passive RFID is the
“next challenge,” Fletcher said. “You have to pick what technology
you are going to go with … for all the services.”
The Navy, for its part, is working on multiple pilot programs, aimed at testing
different technologies. Officials acknowledge that the process has been more
convoluted than expected.
“Even Wal-Mart is really struggling to get all the major suppliers on
line as quickly as they wanted,” said Rear Adm. Alan S. Thompson, the
Navy’s director of supply, ordnance and logistics operations.
The Defense Department and Wal-Mart are the proverbial 800-pound gorillas in
the RFID industry. The giant retailer, however, is having difficulties implementing
standards across its 15,000 suppliers. Also facing a January 2005 deadline,
Wal-Mart decided to restrict enforcement only to 10 of its top 100 suppliers.
“On the government side, we assume everything is better in the private
sector,” Thompson said. “When we went to see Wal-Mart’s RFID
program, the reality was that there is a lot more work to be done in that technology.”
One of the most promising pilot programs is under way at the Norfolk Ocean
Terminal, Va., supervised by Capt. Loren Heckelman. The facility is operating
a tagging system that keeps track of every item passing through the terminal.
Despite many advances, the passive tag technology is not yet mature, Heckelman
told a Navy logistics conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association.
“We need more progress before it can support Navy requirements.”
According to Heckelman, “the biggest challenge is the wide variety of
containers and packaging that materials come through—from smaller envelopes
to large metal drums of liquid.”
RF tags, for instance, don’t work with most 55-gallon metal drums containing
a liquid product. “If you put a tag directly on the drum, the tag immediately
deactivates,” said Heckelman. It’s simple physics. The liquid blocks
the tag from absorbing the RF signal when it’s interrogated.
Creative thinking helped overcome the problem, he noted. “Our guys went
to Home Depot and bought weather stripping, and put one little section of weather
stripping between the tag and the metal container, and it works fine. It doesn’t
deactivate the tag.”
The Defense Department nonetheless decided temporarily to exempt liquid containers
from the RFID policy.
“RF moves around, bounces off things,” Heckelman said. “You
have to be careful where you position your interrogators. In a tunnel, when
you move material around, you don’t want inadvertent responses when you
It is important for any organization employing these systems to get used to
the technology and train the work force—including the forklift operators
and van drivers—in understanding how RF works, said Heckelman.
The Navy remains hesitant to spend large sums on RFID, at least until Defense-wide
standards are adopted, he said.
“When we started to invest some money, we realized technology changes
so fast,” Heckelman said. The tags used at Norfolk cost 48 cents each.
“We could get a price break if we bought a million tags, but the technology
is changing so rapidly, and there is no Defense Department standard. …
We don’t want to buy a million tags” that will become obsolete after
a few months.
Future generations of tags will be cheaper, at about 42 cents, and eventually
heading to about 20 cents. That does not include the cost of the interrogators,
and it’s not yet clear whether every organization will have the same type
“Industry doesn’t have a standard,” said Heckelman. “We
don’t want to develop it ourselves and then not match across the whole
Another consideration for the Defense Department is how the data from each
tag will be managed and made available across the military transportation network.
“It’s useful to be able to read what’s inside a box, but
the data is not linked to the transportation systems,” said Army Gen.
Paul Kern, head of the Army Materiel Command.
“We need to connect with the transportation systems to have true in-transit
visibility” of all shipments, Kern said at the IDGA conference. AMC is
focusing on tracking food shipments, particularly perishable items, said Kern.
As far as the standards for the tags go, he favors a flexible approach. “We’ll
follow commercial standards. If they don’t work, we’ll do something
In the commercial sector, experts predict that “meaningful” standards
are six to 12 months away.
Mike Sheriff, chief executive officer of AirGate Technologies, is helping commercial
manufacturers come to grips with the RFID technology. In his opinion, “today’s
RFID landscape is more of a ‘black art’ than a science.”
This puts the users in a difficult situation, because they don’t want
to invest and then find out that the standards changed, he said in an interview.
“This is not an inexpensive technology.”
Sheriff also questions the wisdom behind imposing a January 2005 deadline,
when there are not enough RFID tag manufacturers to support both the Defense
Department and Wal-Mart in such a short period of time. “It’s a
manpower issue and a technology issue,” he said. “The majority of
companies won’t be ready for the mandated date.”
Many unanswered questions remain concerning the readers or interrogators for
the tags, he added. “The ultimate solution is one set of standards and
protocols that all the readers conform to. … I’ve been told it’s
just around the corner. But standards bodies can pick a date and it doesn’t
mean they are going to hit it.”
One potential bone of contention is the amount of storage memory in each card.
The Defense Department is pushing for a 256-bit standard, while the current
standard is 96 bits, said Sheriff. “They want more information in the
tag. The Defense Department feels 96 bits is too restrictive.”
The additional cost for increasing the memory is negligible, said Sheriff.
“The more important issue is to agree on the layout of the data.…
I think they are going to approve 256. The Defense Department will win out on
Many organizations have underestimated the complexity of the passive RFID systems,
he added. “It’s not a souped-up barcode label on a box. …
The RF tag is unique to what I’m trying to label.” Among the key
technical issues are the design of the antenna and the underlying product inside
the package. Liquids and metals pose the most problems, because they suck up
the RF energy.
Some companies decided to plug RFID systems into their wireless local area
networks, but realized their information technology support staffs are not experts
when it comes to RFID installations, said Sheriff. “It does take a great
deal of studying.”