With the help of total asset visibility, US generals now know the whereabouts on land, at sea or in the air, of every one of their bomb, fuel and baked beans containers. And the same technology is being tested to protect container transport between Rotterdam and the US from Osama and his cohorts.
In a modern army, for every frontline soldier there are at least nine soldiers involved in the supply lines from hinterland to battlefield. After all, without ammunition, fuel and food, not a shot will be fired. Since plundering the local population became frowned upon, the success of military operations has depended on well functioning supply lines. A famous example from history is the Red Ball Express –the column of trucks that followed General Patton during his lightning advance through France in World War II.
Operation Desert Storm was a strategic success but a logistical nightmare. More than half of the 80,000 containers shipped from the US to the Middle East had to be opened, often more than once, to see what was in them. As this container diving was not always done thoroughly, some soldiers had breakfast three times a day while others enjoyed three lunches. The same happened with ammunition containers that had to be opened to see what type of bullets or bombs were in them. Tens of thousands of containers were sent back to the US unopened.
During the First Gulf War in 1991, the supply lines of the US army still worked according to the ancient ‘just in case’ principle, an idea that was already familiar to the Carthaginian general Hannibal when he made his famous crossing of the Alps with elephants. Officers in the US made an estimate of what they thought the army would need in terms of ammunition, food and spare parts and subsequently pushed these supplies into the pipeline. Of course, extra supplies were sent in case a mistake had been made. Officers in the Middle East ordered spare parts and when they did not arrive after a few days, they ordered the same parts again, just in case.
Because of the long supply lines, Operation Iraqi Freedom was even more complex than the previous operation in the Gulf. According to unofficial figures, 60 million litres per day of diesel oil, one million liters of water, four thousand tons of ammunition and 330,000 meals are now pumped from Kuwait to Baghdad. In spite of the long supply line it seems the supply of troops in Iraq is a success.
Of course, some reservation is required here – the stories about what went wrong during a war like this usually pop up much later.
The big difference between Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom is that the US army moved over from the just in case to the just in time principle for all its logistic operations in the intervening years. In order to attain total transparency in the supply chain, the US Defense Department introduced an RFID-based system. This allows army personnel with the right access rights to consult a Sybase databank which tells them where in the world all 270,000 army containers are and what they contain.
In January 2003, General Paul Kern, commander of Army Materiel Command, ordered his logistic troops to provide all pallets for air transport and all containers with supplies for military operations with RFID tags that indicate location and contents.
Kern wrote: ‘While many civilian companies are still undecided about whether RFID can be used for streamlining the supply chain, the US army top has already entirely been won over.’
Prof Dr Walther Ploos van Amstel, Daniel Uiterwijk and Flip Wubben are from the Netherlands Defense Academy, and are with the VLM in the Netherlands