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How RFID and Smartphones Will Help Revolutionize Army Sustainment

The latest technologies, including radio frequency identification devices and cell phones equipped to be handheld computers, could forever change the way the Army sustains Soldiers.

Around 1988, the computer modem began to revolutionize military sustainment down to the battalion level. Maintenance warrant officers and battalion maintenance officers stood in their motor pool offices watching red blinking lights on brick-sized boxes that transmitted their reports to a headquarters across post or across the country. This ability to move digital data represented the start of a new age in sustainment information sharing that led directly to today's high-technology systems such as the Battle Command Sustainment Support System (BCS3).

While the modems of the 1980s and 1990s are now discarded antiques, technology will again transform Army sustainment, this time in the form of radio frequency identification (RFID) devices used in conjunction with smartphones. These technologies will directly contribute to improved efficiencies and effectiveness in the areas of property accountability, maintenance, human resources, and health services.

Property Accountability
Major retail chains have already integrated RFID into their supply chain and inventory systems. In 2010, retail giant Walmart began embedding electronic tags into men's jeans, socks, t-shirts, and even underwear. This has helped Walmart understand which items need replenishing and identify when items are on the wrong shelves.

While the Army is not particularly interested in tracking underwear, it does have a routine requirement to maintain accountability of its equipment. Most important are sensitive or high-value items. By embedding RFID into all sensitive items, a company could complete an inventory of its arms room in seconds.

A noncommissioned officer could simply walk into the arms room and use his smartphone to read the devices implanted on the weapons and night-vision equipment. His smartphone would compare the on-hand inventory by serial number to the unit property book and send a report to the first sergeant and company commander. Simultaneously, the company commander's phone could send a text to the battalion executive officer while the information updates the Property Book Unit Supply Enhanced and BCS3.

Support units could realize even greater efficiencies by using RFID to track inventory items and their locations and record the time that each item sits in the warehouse. A comprehensive study by the Sam Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas states, "RFID improves PI [physical inventory] accuracy, which means that it reduces stock safety levels throughout the supply chain."

Usage Tracking
RFID and smartphones can also be used to manage usage and expiration data. Grocery store chains are using RFID to generate resupply requests as soon as items leave the shelf and to allow the distribution center to manage in-store inventories. The military could use this technology in many ways. Individual parachute logs could be tracked through a small RFID chip sewn into a parachute seam. The number of jumps, dates, and the name of the rigger that packed the parachute could all be read on a smartphone by the paratrooper, his jumpmaster, or the rigger warrant officer managing the unit's parachutes.

Managing class VIII (medical materiel) is a noto-riously time-consuming task for medical units. Even in basic medical equipment sets, keeping track of medicine expiration dates is difficult. Using RFID and smartphones will allow the squad leader to receive text warnings that medicines are close to expiring. The leader can then use his smartphone to order replacements from the brigade medical supply officer. Through this technology, the medical squad's efficiency and effectiveness both increase.

An even more sophisticated application of RFID technology is using it for predictive sustainment and maintenance. An RFID device could transmit fuel and oil levels and the results of a daily internal diagnostic computer check of every truck in a battalion's motor pool to the maintenance warrant officer's smartphone. This would allow leaders to focus their mechanics on only those vehicles that report an abnormality. It would update the Standard Army Maintenance System and BCS3 immediately.

One futurist, Dr. Patrick Dixon, who was named a "Global Change Guru" by the Wall Street Journal, speculates that RFID technology will soon be able to monitor and report the levels of milk and juice and the expiration dates of the food in your refrigerator.

While this information would certainly be helpful to the consumer, it represents a goldmine of accurate, targeted requirements data for the neighborhood grocery stores. They would know approximately how many gallons of milk to stock because the data would tell them how many neighborhood families are low on milk. Less milk in the inventory and less spoilage result in higher profit margins (efficiency). Simultaneously, it would help to ensure that the store is never out of milk or that the milk on the shelf has not expired (effectiveness).

Applied to the battlefield, RFID permits sustainers to view on-hand fuel, water, ammunition, and medical supplies all the way down to the individual tank or Soldier. The daily logistics status report becomes an autonomously generated report that is sent straight to the S–4's and commander's smartphones.

Human Resources and Health Services
The most contentious application of this developing technology is its potential to improve personnel tracking, administration, and medical information. Implanting RFID into Soldiers would increase human resources and medical efficiency and result in better support to the customer.

People have been implanting RFID in their pets for almost a decade, and the "chipping" of humans has already begun. Wired Magazine reports that nightclubs are using RFID implants for some volunteer customers. The chips allow customers to bypass club entrance lines. At Barcelona's Baja Beach Club, regular customers are injected with RFIDs linked to debit accounts, making wallets, identification, and cash passé. Furthermore, a company called HealthLink, Inc., is advertising the benefits of human RFID implants for medical reasons.

Soldiers deploying into theater could have RFID implanted into the nape of their necks or their forearms. The devices could store their personnel data as well as their medical histories. When Soldiers step off the C–17 Globemaster aircraft in Bagram, Afghanistan, the RFID would automatically update the units' personnel reports, start combat-zone entitlements, check that the Soldiers' shots are complete, and confirm that their emergency contact information, Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, and wills are all current.

The unit's rear detachment and family readiness group would get another text showing which Soldiers arrived at Bagram. The individual Soldiers would receive a text and link on their smartphones that would display a map of Bagram Airfield, where the designated living space is located, the hours of the nearest dining facility and any other information the command deems important. Finally, if a Soldier gets injured, the battalion aid station could quickly read the Soldier's medical data, evaluate his medical history, confirm his blood type, and determine any medication he currently uses.

An automated logistical specialist from the 593d Sustainment Brigade attaches a radio frequency identification tag to a CONEX at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. The tags are used by the Army to track items as they are transported throughout the world and are a key component in the responsible drawdown of forces in Iraq. (Photo by SGT Jason Adolphson)

Concerns and Issues
Obviously, there are many issues surrounding these technologies, and they are not simplistic remedies to our complex problems. Militarily, the first issue must be security. As the WikiLeaks situation demonstrates, governments face a perhaps impossible task in securing their information. Most RFID can be read by anyone with a little knowledge and access to a nearby RadioShack store. Scrambling the RFID signal is possible but is expensive and limited by the computational performance of current RFID technology. The suggested solution to prevent theft or surveillance of data is a foil-lined pouch.

Second, the transmit ranges of RFID devices are currently limited. Without an antenna, most devices can be read only within 100 feet, so the ability to track or read them from a distance is limited.

Third, the Army would need a herculean leadership effort to standardize applications and ensure their integration with the Standard Army Management Information Systems, the Army Battle Command Systems, and the Global Command and Control System–Army. Add a requirement to read and track North Atlantic Treaty Organization, coalition, and interagency information, and the Army has a monumental challenge. History shows that this is almost an unrealistic goal.

Perhaps the most important issues, though, are accessibility and privacy. Taken to the imaginative extreme, RFID might prevent a Soldier from ever being unreachable or untraceable. Theoretically, someone could track what he ate at the dining facility, how far (and fast) he ran during physical training, and where (and for how long) he slept.

These applications seem farfetched because we assume that a U.S. Soldier would never accept others infringing so deeply on his privacy. Yet we have seen people willingly give out more and more of their personal data. The ubiquity of Facebook and personal smartphones with constant global positioning system capabilities has demonstrated that people will not only accept constant monitoring but may actually seek personal transparency because of the convenience that the technology offers. Perhaps in the near future it will become impossible to interact with the modern environment without RFID. Doors literally may not open for you without a chip.

Even though these developing technologies threaten some of our ideas of security and privacy, there can be little doubt that the combination of RFID and smartphones is potentially a sustainment game-changer. Managing supply chains, equipment, personnel accountability, maintenance status, and healthcare could all be more efficient, improving support to our Soldiers.

The days of manual reports, checklists, physical inventories, and personnel musters are fading. The leaders who continue to rely on these antiquated ideas of management will waste their Soldiers' time, squander their organizations' resources, and provide increasingly diminished sustainment support to their customers. The technological steamroller of linked RFID and smartphones may not be able to fix everything, but it will almost certainly be a part of our future.

Todd H. Guggisberg is an assistant professor in the Department of Logistics and Resource Operations at the Army Command and General Staff College. He has a B.A. degree from Saint John's University and an M.A. degree from Webster University. He is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College and the Joint and Combined Warfighting School.

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