What Can We Learn from the Field of Military Logistics?

Recently, I’ve been reading some articles in Army Sustainment, a logistics publication for the US army. “Sustainment” refers to sustaining troops in the field. I began reading this publication with the hope of learning something from the field of military logistics that companies in the private sector could apply in their supply chains.

The military has been a leader in logistics for decades.

The US military uses sensors and electronic wizardry to engage in something known as “network-centric warfare.” The idea is to link all computers so that commanders can have the same picture of the battlefield. Sensor data is key to this. In logistics, GPS and RFID are used to support the troops.

In the business world, we are starting to think more about supply chain risk management. But risk management has always been integral to the military’s efforts. The military is continually running scenarios and asking questions like: If we were to go to war against this nation or insurgent group, how would we fight the war? How would we get troops and equipment there? How would we sustain the troops once there, or if a particular port (or ports) were knocked out of commission?

And finally, the private sector is also concerned with finding and growing supply chain talent. I believe the military is far ahead of the private sector in this area.

I came across an interesting article in Army Sustainment — “How RFID and Smartphones Will Help Revolutionize Army Sustainment” — by Todd Guggisberg, who was trying to do the opposite of me: learn from the private sector and apply those advanced supply chain practices to the military.

One topic was demand-driven supply chains, the use of POS and other downstream data to help ensure that products are on the store shelf for customers. Currently, only dreamers are thinking about using sensors in a consumer’s refrigerator, for example, to “monitor and report the levels of milk and juice and the expiration dates of the food” and then having retailers adjust their demand and replenishment plans based on that data.

But having the military use RFID technology “for predictive sustainment and maintenance” does seem practical. “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 smart phones.” While sensors for milk in a refrigerator seems far fetched, sensors that report on every occurrence of a shell being fired by a tank does not.

The only downside to this is that network-centric warfare and sensor-based logistics are far more effective in traditional wars than in the guerrilla warfare that has been far more prevalent over the last  several decades.

Nevertheless, my guess is that in the not too distant future, the private sector will have a lot it can learn from the military.

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