The question is simple enough, but answering it, regrettably, requires one to probe the tortuous ways of military logistics.
The Pentagon spends $80 billion a year on logistics, and yet fails to help soldiers solve seemingly easy problems.
Just recently, a soldier from the Army’s III Corps stationed in Iraq was issued a new helmet, which broke. The soldier needed to order repair parts and a tan chinstrap to match the helmet. He went online, seeking the manufacturer’s e-mail so he could order the items.
He soon found out that things don’t work that easily in the Army. To order a chinstrap, a soldier has to know not only the type and helmet model, but also the “national stock number” of each spare part. The numbers are provided to a supply officer, who places the order, and, on average, waits 24 days for the supplies to arrive. Some describe 24 days as a best-case scenario.
The amount of legwork required to get a chinstrap may seem reasonable under most circumstances, but during a shooting war thousands of miles away from home, why isn’t there a better way?
This is certainly not how the Army should take care of its soldiers, and changes are overdue, says Gen. Paul Kern, head of the Army Materiel Command.
AMC has led a number of logistics reform efforts, some of which started before the Iraq war, followed by a new wave of Defense Department initiatives in response to complaints from commanders that essential supplies were either lacking or taking too long to arrive.
But despite significant improvements, there is much yet to be accomplished, Kern said in an interview.
“Clearly, we’ve got to solve the soldier problems of today,” he said. “The guy simply wants a new chinstrap.” Instead, “we give him a list of stock numbers, plus a whole lot of acronyms that he has to figure out, rather than just tell him: ‘Here’s a website. When you need a chinstrap, your platoon sergeant can verify you need a chinstrap, and we’ll mail it to you.’”
The Army has been trying to move in that direction for several years, but it has been a tough road, mostly because the logistics system was never designed to support the extended deployments the Army is seeing today. Neither was it designed to be user-friendly, or even use plain English. In the Army, Kern adds, “we have a tendency to talk in “tongues.”
AMC has been working on what it calls the “single Army logistics enterprise,” described by Kern as a “networked, web-based, real-time capability, very much like our youngsters are used to and what is used in the commercial world.”
A comprehensive plan for logistics reform was unveiled nearly a year ago by Army Lt. Gen. C. V. Christianson, deputy chief of staff. As commander of logistics operations in Iraq, he saw first hand the shortcomings of the Army’s supply system.
It’s not that the Army doesn’t care about the soldier in Iraq who needs repair parts and has to wait weeks or months to get them, he argues. The problem is that the logistics support system was not designed for the “dispersed” battlefield such as Iraq, where U.S. forces are spread throughout dozens of bases, across hundreds of miles.
“Even if you knew what the problem was, reaching out and delivering support for the precise place in the battlefield where it’s needed is a very difficult challenge because of the way we’re structured,” Christianson said. “We don’t have a structure today that’s distribution-based in nature. So if you equate it to something like a FedEx on the battlefield, it’s difficult to do if you’re not designed to respond like FedEx is.”
Although the Army does a good job providing those items that it knows are required, such as food and water, it has trouble meeting the demand for things for which the need had not been predicted, he explained.
“Someone’s going to eat three meals a day or drink a gallon and a half of water a day. You can compute the requirements, and regardless of the situation, you can get very close to the needs,” Christianson said. “But in the case of things like repair parts, when something goes bad on an airplane or you need a transmission for a tank, those requirements aren’t as easy to predict, and those are the ones that cause the largest problem for us.”
The issues Christianson outlined help understand why many soldiers “stockpile” spare parts and other necessities when they go to war, or why they place multiple orders for the same item.
“The reason why is they don’t know if anyone’s coming,” he said. “They don’t know if the requisition they sent yesterday for that transmission got there. The reason they don’t know is because they have no connectivity. They have no way to know if the status of their requisition is good or bad.”
The soldier who needs a chinstrap should be able to request it as painlessly as if he were ordering from Amazon.com.
“When you order a DVD from Amazon.com and it says, ‘Okay, it’s out of stock. We’ll have it to you in 10 days.’ If you go up on your machine 11 days later, you’ll have a little blip on there from Amazon.com that says, ‘here’s your order number.’ We need to do the same thing for our soldiers.”
Several projects already are under way to address these issues, not just by the Army, but also by the Defense Logistics Agency and the U.S. Transportation Command.
It remains to be seen whether soldiers on the front lines, one day, will be able to order repair parts on line, push a button and wait 24 hours for delivery. A safe prediction, based on the aggressive push for reform now under way, is that things in the future should get better, but maybe not to that extreme.