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War Experience Provides Rationale For Marine Corps Logistics Reform 

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by Sandra I. Erwin 

U.S. Marines in Iraq generally are having an easier time managing and distributing battlefield supplies than they did during the early phases of the conflict more than a year ago. But that does not mean the Marine Corps should slow down ongoing efforts to reform logistics procedures and upgrade information systems that track shipments and equipment requests, said Marine Lt. Gen. Richard L. Kelly.

As deputy commandant for installation and logistics, Kelly is responsible for the overhaul of antiquated business processes and computer systems that Marines have employed for decades but no longer are practical. Under a program called “logistics modernization,” Kelly plans to unveil new technologies such as web-based software that could make requesting spare parts, for example, as easy as ordering books from Amazon.com.

The logistics support of 25,000 Marines in Iraq has become easier, because they are stationed in semi-permanent bases. In the early stages of the invasion, the situation was grim, with the forces moving at rapid speeds, and the logistics units trailing way behind.

Those logistics nightmares did not surprise Kelly. “I could have written the lessons before the war began. It was very predictable what was going to happen, because we failed to modernize.”

The current environment in Iraq is “semi-fixed,” allowing for a more conventional logistics operation, Kelly noted. Iraq is a “maturing theater, so you don’t get many complaints today, as if during the war. … We have plenty of repair parts, plenty of rations, plenty of everything.”

But Kelly worries that complacency will set in and that the Marine Corps may decide to push logistics modernization down on the priority list. “Now that things are working well in the theater, the danger is that we take our eyes off the future of logistics modernization,” Kelly told National Defense.

“The institutional mindset is that if the hinge isn’t squeaking, why invest in it?” said Kelly. “Things are working pretty well in Iraq. We are not moving the distances we used to. I’m confident what we have in place today will sustain us as long as we are there.” Nonetheless, he added, “we should not lose sight of the fact that we have got to modernize institutionally for the future.”

The cornerstone program in Kelly’s plan to overhaul logistics is the global command and support system for the Marine Corps, or GCSS-M, a sophisticated web-based software application that tracks the availability of supplies, requisitions and repair orders. Military logisticians call this capability “total asset visibility.”

The Corps plans to select a contractor for GCSS-M later this month. The Marine Corps will spend at least $250 million on GCSS-M, during the next five years, but it will take many more millions to field the technology across the force, Kelly said. He wants to see the system in operation by 2006. It will be a “joint” technology, able to communicate with the GCSS-equivalent programs in the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Kelly does not want to see GCSS-M fall into the same traps that other programs do, when they are not managed properly. Although he did not specifically cite the Navy Marine Corps Intranet, it was apparent that Kelly considered NMCI a cautionary tale in how to approach information system upgrades to prevent costs and schedules from spinning out of control. Regarding GCSS-M, the Marine Corps intends to be wary of unrealistic contractor promises, said Kelly. “Some are notorious about sweetening the deal upfront only to come in and kill you with prices later on. … I won’t name names, [but] it’s important that we select the right vendor.”

Another important piece of the logistics reform plan is the education of the force, said Kelly. The information technology alone is not enough. Marine junior officers, non-commissioned officers and civilians in logistics jobs increasingly are being sent to school, to learn about modern logistics practices from the commercial industry.

In the future, the Marine Corps will have more tactical logisticians and fewer supply officers who manage inventory, said Kelly. “Our skill sets are going to change,” he added. “Staff NCOs will have to manage supply and demand, recognize areas where there are readiness problems and manage the capacity across the enterprise.”

Another issue in logistics reform is the need to operate vehicles that require less maintenance. Kelly pointed to a group of vehicles parked in front of this office, located near the Pentagon, at the Navy Annex. He noted that one military Humvee truck had a small tub under the chassis collecting dripping oil. “You won’t see that in the [Ford Crown Victoria] police cars,” said Kelly. “We need to build in high levels of reliability, maintainability upfront, so we are not given equipment that breaks down all the time.”

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