A new logistics tracking system between the United States and Australia will help to ensure faster, more coordinated responses to humanitarian crises and other contingencies while laying the foundation for closer cooperation across the Asia-Pacific region, the senior U.S. Pacific Command logistics director reported.
Pacom, through its U.S. Army Pacific component, and the Australian defense force launched the Pacific Radio Frequency Identification System in April, Air Force Brig. Gen. Mark M. McLeod reported during a telephone interview from the command headquarters at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii.
The system incorporates technologies commercial retailers have come to rely on to track their goods from the manufacturer to warehouses and into buyers’ hands, McLeod explained.
It also leverages capabilities NATO introduced about three years ago with the standup of a network exchange hub that promotes information sharing about supply shipments bound for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
The NATO system uses radio-frequency identification to automatically locate and track shipments through ISAF-member supply chains. Nations connected to a routing hub in Luxembourg transmit logistics data to other users, giving the entire supply chain real-time visibility on the shipments.
The Pacific Radio Frequency Identification system introduces this capability into the Pacom theater to support rotational U.S. Marine Corps forces in Darwin, Australia, and expanded military-to-military cooperation across the region, McLeod said.
The Defense Department has long used barcode technology to monitor the flow of everything from washers and nuts for a particular aircraft to armored vehicles, he explained. This gives logisticians the ability to track shipments throughout the transportation process and keep tabs on inventory stocks.
The new system takes this effort a step further. It uses radio frequency identification technology to “read” barcode information on both U.S. and Australian military equipment and supplies. Australian RFID readers recognize the barcodes affixed to U.S. shipments flowing through Australia, then automatically transmits the information to the NATO routing hub. U.S. logisticians can then monitor the flow of equipment or shipments through delivery.
“It gives everybody near-real-time access,” McLeod said. “When an individual supply-line item passes along a tracking device, it is automatically read up into a database and distributed. There is literally just a matter of seconds involved in the transmission of the information to everyone’s servers about where their equipment is.”
The new logistics partnership saves the United States the cost of deploying and installing its own RFID systems in Australia at an estimated cost of about $560,000 over the next five years, McLeod said.
“This is a big win for U.S. and Australian forces operating in the Pacific, McLeod said. “This is ‘Pacific Rebalance’ in action.”
With a U.S. defense strategy focused heavily on the Asia-Pacific region and expanded U.S. engagement across the theater, the system supports closer U.S.-Australian interoperability during exercises, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions and other contingencies, he said.
The system also provides a framework that could be expanded in the future to include more regional allies and partners, he said. “This is another example of how partner-nation logistics cooperation effectively and efficiently expands military reach and capability in the Asia-Pacific region,” the general added.
Historically, the military has struggled with two primary obstacles to logistics-information technology: incompatible systems that made sharing difficult, and security protocols that limited what information could be shared, and with whom.
The since-dissolved U.S. Forces Command came up with an initial logistics information-sharing system about seven years ago, McLeod said. It required users from one country to email information to their partner-nation counterparts, who downloaded the file and uploaded it onto their own system.
“It was a clunky way of transmitting information, and not in real time,” McLeod said. “It depended on how much manpower and how much time you had, so it wasn’t an effective or efficient way of sharing information.”
The United States and Australia previously attempted to share logistics information using a direct link between their systems, but got bogged down by servers that had trouble talking to each other and accreditation processes that were slow and cumbersome.
They abandoned the project in early 2011 in favor of the current one that leverages NATO capabilities.
“The system is fully operational right now,” McLeod said. “It was turned on in early April, and it is up and running.”
McLeod emphasized the importance of logistics information-sharing, particularly during the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. “Knowing the times and dates when things are going to arrive empowers all the processes that we have in military logistics,” he said. “Efficient and integrated international supply chains aren’t just important to Wal-Mart. They are critical enablers for warfighters as well.”
This capability will be particularly valuable, he said, in the event that nations need to work together to respond to a natural disaster such as the Operation Tomodachi in Japan.
“We are looking more and more toward our partners and our partner capacity to integrate with us and be more fully interoperable,” he said. “This is one of those empowering enabler technologies that allow us to do that.”