Tracking Tanks and Guns On the Web, All the Way to the Persian Gulf

When you’re moving an army halfway around the world, transporting the soldiers can be the easy part.

When the U.S. military took on Iraq ten years ago, for example, most of the soldiers were flown to the Middle-East. But transporting their weapons, not to mention the food, fuel and all their other equipment, involved a logistical effort that General Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander-in-chief, described as “herculean.” At the height of the buildup for Desert Storm, 84 million tons of tanks, food and ammunition were arriving in Saudi Arabia ports every day.

Despite the military success, looking back, the Department of Defense realized it could have done a better job of transporting all that gear.

According to the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency, combat units who couldn’t tell if the supplies they’d ordered were on the way or not, placed thousands of duplicate orders for equipment. What’s more, poor logistics controls meant that an enormous amount of material was shipped which was not readily available to the troops. Logistics problems like these, says the agency, reduced “the readiness and effectiveness of combat forces and placed unnecessary strain on the transportation system.”

Determined not to repeat such mistakes, in 1994, the U.S. military began using radio tags to track the movement of equipment around the globe.

Similar to a shipping-industry initiative to improve the security of cargo containers moving in and out of major seaports worldwide, the system involves attaching Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) “smart tags” to shipping containers and equipment. The smart tags communicate over radio frequencies with strategically placed readers, which in turn transmit information on the status of the shipment to a web-based software system.

The system, which the Pentagon calls the Total Asset Visibility (TAV) network, keeps tabs on 270,000 cargo containers transporting military supplies through 400 locations around the globe. The radio tags, readers and software for the TAV network comes from Savi Technology, of Sunnyvale, Calif.

The British military is starting to build a similar system. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence signed a contract last week for some 15,000 of Savi’s radio tags, which will be attached to shipping containers and pallets carrying equipment for the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.

The systems will use both active and passive radio tags. Active tags are ones with a built-in battery, which allows them to broadcast a signal which can be read at a greater distance — one hundred yards or more — than passive tags, and while moving more quickly. With a continuous power source, active tags can also incorporate temperature or other sensors, so they could be used, for example, to monitor a shipment of perishable food items.

Without their own power source, passive tags are less expensive, but also more limited in their capabilities. They can be read only when they’re powered up by an RFID reader, which limits their range to under 10 feet. Active tags are useful in locations such as warehouses, where the range of movement can be restricted.

Just as important as the radio tags, for both the U.S. and the U.K.’s systems, is the software involved. The information recorded by the readers can be read over the Web. That means that military personnel anywhere in the world — whether in a distant foxhole or at a supply facility at home — can check on the status of shipments. Soldiers in the field can access the information from a portable laptop linked to the Internet via a satellite communications system, and even dynamically manage the shipments, such as if they need to be re-routed while in transit.

So this time, if U.S. and British soldiers find themselve on the ground in the Persian Gulf without all their equipment, they’ll be able to check and see exactly when it’s due to arrive.