Providing essential supplies and services to troops on the front lines ranks among those unglamorous jobs that everyone takes for granted, but increasingly consume larger bites of the Pentagon’s half-trillion-dollar annual budget.
In many ways, the Pentagon has improved its performance in the business of battlefield logistics — delivering transportation, food, medical care, equipment repairs and maintenance to troops in Iraq and other war zones. But the Pentagon “supply chain,” which is now a $135 billion a year operation, continues to be plagued by what officials characterize as endemic inefficiencies that get in the way of customer service.
Senior officers in charge of battlefield logistics lament that after spending billions of dollars on information technologies that were supposed to increase efficiency, the results have been underwhelming. And more importantly, troops in combat are being shortchanged as a result.
Inefficiencies in the transportation system are one case in point, says Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, head of the U.S. Transportation Command. His organization is responsible for moving people and cargo via air, ground and sea. But those in charge of managing military transportation assets cannot always make the best use of the available resources because their computer systems are not linked to supply or maintenance systems. So if passengers are being dropped off at a military base overseas, for example, transportation officers may not know that certain cargo at that location needs to be picked up as well.
The fragmented nature of transportation and supply operations ostensibly was to be fixed a decade ago, when the Defense Department and the military services began buying computer networks that would allow them to work together and share information. But the result of those efforts has been a proliferation of information systems that don’t speak to each other, Schwartz tells an industry conference.
“Why do we have 300 information systems?” he asks. In Iraq, where the military services share bases, equipment and medical care facilities, disjointed systems create unnecessary administrative burdens. When Schwartz recently visited Balad, the largest U.S. military logistics hub in Iraq, he discovered that the Army and the Air Force were doing the same work but using entirely different systems and databases.
“Does that make sense? I don’t think it does,” he avers.
Another example of uneconomical use of transportation is the shipping of steel armor plates that are bolted on military humvee trucks in Iraq and Kuwait. The armor is flown in, on the assumption that it is needed urgently. But once the inventories reach a certain level, the transportation command wants to shift to lower-cost surface delivery. To do that, however, it needs access to the inventory data, which it currently lacks.
The transportation command is trying to integrate those information systems that are most critical to military operations, but the fixes are only “temporary glueware,” says Schwartz. In the long term, the Defense Department needs “open standards systems.”
Army Lt. Gen. Claude Christianson, director of logistics on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also expresses disappointment with the poor return on the Pentagon’s investment in information systems. During a meeting of military logistics commanders several months ago, says Christianson, the number-one topic was the lack of “visibility” within the supply chain. Technologies such as radio frequency identification, or RFID, have been in place for at least 12 years but so far have produced “mixed results,” he says. “We are spending lots of money on information technology and we find that we can’t see much more than we could before … We don’t know if cargo is backed up somewhere in the distribution systems … We are spending lots of money and time to do a job that we could do for much less.”
The Defense Logistics Agency can’t tell field commanders exactly when their parts will arrive, Christianson says. “Amazon.com would be out of business in a hurry if it didn’t know if the shipments arrived.” The upshot is that supply officers in combat have no confidence in the system. “They don’t know if the parts they’ve ordered have been shipped, or when they’ll arrive. So they take exceptional measures to reduce the risk. They may order an item six times or store 10 when they only need one,” he says. “These measures are expensive.”
Among those expensive networks that failed to deliver on its promise is the joint global command support system. “We’ve been developing GCSS since 2001,” says Christianson. “No one wants to use it because it’s too difficult and doesn’t help them do their jobs better.” An upcoming release of the GCSS software will fix some of the current shortfalls but the improvements will be only marginal.
“In the theater, it’s messy,” says Christianson, speaking about the logistics business. To ease the disruptions in the supply chain, the Defense Logistics Agency and the Transportation Command are merging their databases. Ideally, the Defense Department would like a joint GCSS system that all services will want to use, and that can be accessed by a single log-on, he says. “Today, you have to log on six or seven times among different applications.”
Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, commander of the First U.S. Army, says that even mundane tasks such as ordering truck tires can become an ordeal because the supply systems in the military are not integrated. He blames that on “proprietary programs we get from industry and we are stupid enough to buy.”
The message from these officials is that the business of logistics, at nearly one-third of the defense budget, is too big to be taken for granted.
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