RFID goes to war

The U.S. Department of Defense's Alan Estevez explains why the Pentagon has placed a $100 million bet on the technology and how RFID may impact the face of battle.

Alorie Gilbert
Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
7 min read
Come 2005, radio frequency identification will no longer be an option for the U.S. military. It will be the law.

For the Pentagon, RFID systems are part of a major logistics revamp. And the deadline for suppliers to attach RFID tags to many of the goods they ship to the American armed forces is indeed looming.

The military has spent about $100 million in implementing the technology over the last decade. The buildup is aimed at reducing the loss or misplacement of supplies that added to the costs of the 1991 Gulf War. Another goal is to stop critical shortages of ammunition, fuel and water that plagued American troops during and after the invasion of Iraq a year ago.

Logistics did not cause battlefield deaths.

Supply problems did not cause any battlefield deaths in either conflict, according to Alan Estevez, assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for supply chain integration at the Pentagon. Still, he believes that RFID technology will help maintain the smooth flow of supplies to the front lines and has the potential to help save lives in future conflicts.

In early April, Estevez will be part of a Pentagon delegation meeting with suppliers to discuss the impending deadline. He talked recently with CNET News.com about the Department of Defense's history in deploying RFID systems and the future of the technology in the military.

Q: Why is the military is so interested in RFID technology?
A: If you look at the way we fight today and the way we fought the war in Iraq, a rapidly moving force needs dynamic battlefields. So it's really important for us to know what we have, where it is and what is being used, so that we can replenish the force and accurately manage our inventory.

The flip side of that--and really, our paramount concern is supporting our forces in the field--is that we owe it to the American taxpayer to be as effective as we can in the use of the resources that are given to us, and RFID is a tool that will enable us to better manage our inventory, while simultaneously better supporting our force.

I read that the Desert Storm conflict resulted in an "iron mountain" of unused supplies. How much did that cost us, in terms of wasted supplies?
Oh, I cannot answer that. That was, you know, 12 years ago.

In terms of last year's war in Iraq, it's been widely reported that there were, again, some supply and logistics problems. Could RFID help resolve such problems in the future?
RFID is one of the tools that will help resolve those issues. There are other issues at play, including transportation constraints.

But how would RFID help, exactly?
We were using active RFID tags in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but part of the problem that we have there is that it is ad hoc. So folks are trained to use it, but we had not worked it into our doctrine, and we had not worked it into our systems. So you are kind of slapping it together, which is the reason behind the policy from Michael Wynne (acting deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics), who is really the driving force behind this. The memo he sent out in October and reiterated in our Feb. 20 update was that we would implement the use of active RFID across the board now.

What is active RFID?
Active RFID tags have a battery, so they're capable of emitting signals, which increases the read range of the tag and also increases the amount of data the tag can hold. We at the Defense Department are using it for managing shipments in transit.

So, active RFID tags help the military keep track of large batches of supplies that arrive on cargo ships?
Right. And passive RFID is a step beyond that and will help us manage our inventory systems down at the actual soldier level. As a soldier, when I receive supplies, the passive RFID system will automatically update the inventory systems of record at that site so that soldiers, instead of having to worry about bar code scanning while they're under fire, can actually be doing the things that are important to them while still having an automatic update of their supply systems.

You kicked off your passive RFID program last year, asking thousands of suppliers to start attaching these special tags to their merchandise. How's that initiative going?
No one out there really has a full passive implementation at all today. Passive is truly an emerging technology that groups like us, Wal-Mart Stores, Target and a number of other companies are jumping on. Passive RFID involves a small device--which costs less than a $1 in today's marketplace--that essentially carries a small amount of data; a digital license plate, if you will.

What was the outcome of using all this RFID technology in Iraq last year?
We did use active RFID, and it worked up to a point in Kuwait in 1991. With the rapidly moving force in Iraq, however--with training and infrastructure issues--that process kind of broke down.

So, what did you learn in the Operation Iraqi Freedom conflict about how these systems work?
Well, we don't use any passive RFID in Iraqi Freedom. We only used the active RFID, and again, our lesson there is, frankly, that we need more of it. We need to embed it into our systems and embed it into our doctrine instead of having it as a stand-alone system that

We've probably spent $100 million over the last 10 years on active RFID implementation.
we learned how to use every time we go to war. But I keep bringing you back to the passive RFID, because that's where all the buzz is. We are essentially working with Wal-Mart on the same solutions that they are working on, on the passive RFID side, which will get you down to a more refined level of inventory management and inventory control.

Could the proper use of RFID help save lives?
Well, absolutely. And, again, our No. 1 goal is to better support the force. So, if I am able to determine what I have and where it is, I am better able to resupply that force and ensure that they have what they need when they need it in order to be effective on the battlefield.

In Operation Iraqi Freedom--and in Operation Desert Storm, for that matter--logistics did not cause battlefield deaths. But your ability to operate and your ability to move about the battlefield are constrained by your ability to support the logistics, and RFID is a tool that will enable us to better support that force in a dynamic environment.

How, exactly, are Wal-Mart and the Defense Department working together on this?
Well, we're having discussions on how we're using the technology and the application of the technology, so we can learn from each other. We're discussing what works with Wal-Mart versus what's working with us in our pilot phases, and we're working together on standards.

What is the Pentagon learning from Wal-Mart?
I think it's a shared learning. Essentially, we have the same game plan--track material into key supply points and track material out of those supply points.

We've heard a lot of hype around this technology. Is there anything that could derail the vision of passive RFID or at least snag its progress?
Frankly, I do not think so. I mean, there are issues to be worked through. There are some flaws--a more accurate word might be "glitches"--in the technology. It doesn't work well around metals; there are ways to overcome that. It doesn't work well around liquids; again, there are ways to overcome that. So, you've got to work through those issues, which is why we are doing some pilots. We need to do some standards work now with the electronic product code, part of the Uniform Code Council series of standards. So, those are the two biggest issues.

Are there any others?
There's the fact that you do have to put some dollars up and invest in order to reap your return on investment. And you won't see that return on investment tomorrow; it'll be over the course of time. There will be some immediate returns, however, and you just have to put up the dollars today to reap some of those near-term gains, but the bulk is in the long term.

These investments must be made not just by the Defense Department but by your suppliers. They have to make an investment, too, right?
Oh, absolutely.

How many suppliers are we talking about?
I have 46,000 suppliers in the Defense Department. This policy touches all of them.

How long will it take them, then, to realize a full return on investment in this technology?
I think that you can probably do that within five years.

How much is the Department of Defense spending on RFID technology?
We are working the numbers on what it's going to cost us to implement passive RFID, as we speak. So, I cannot give you that number. But I will tell you that logistics in the Defense Department is a $95 billion-a-year business.

What about active RFID?
We've probably spent $100 million over the last 10 years on active RFID implementation.

What about data security? Security for the military--even more so than for the commercial sector--must be a big concern.
I don't believe that is going to be an issue, quite frankly. On the passive side, the reader reads best at about 30 feet. The interface must comply with Defense Department security requirements. On the active side, it is already reading at 300 yards, and we have not had any data security issues with that, either. Frankly, if someone is inside--that close, with a reader--we have other security issues. But we are certainly running this through our data security infrastructure folks, and again, not running into any problems.