Chain of command20 December 2018
It goes without saying that tracking the movement of materiel throughout the US military forces’ worldwide logistics chain is an immense challenge. Michael Shaw talks to Linus Baker, director of cybersecurity at the Defense Logistics Agency, and Kathy Cutler, its director of information operations, about how they plan to harness the power of the internet of things to track, trace and monitor the flow of vital equipment around the world.
Somewhere in the US, the government is hoarding diamonds. Under rules intended to safeguard so-called ‘strategic materials’ in the event of a conflict that cuts the continental US off from the rest of the world, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) is obliged to stockpile anything that would be valuable to the war effort that cannot be sourced domestically. This includes rare metals with names that trip off the tongue – aluminium and antimony, tantalum and tungsten – all the way to ores and compounds such as ferrochromium and fluorspar. Diamonds are judged especially important to conserve, given their use in drill bits.
Founded in 1961 in an attempt to unite all of the diffuse logistical arms of the US military into one cohesive institution, DLA is responsible for sourcing and distributing all equipment to the country’s service members globally. With approximately 25,000 employees, an annual budget of $700 billion and order numbers estimated at over 100,000 a day, the agency is one of the largest of its kind in the government.
– Linus Baker
It is also one of the most disorganised. In February 2018, Ernst & Young concluded in the agency’s firstever audit that over $800 million used to fund new computer systems and military construction projects could not be accounted for. DLA has also had trouble tracking its own materiel, as was revealed in a series of mock audits conducted by the department ahead of Ernst & Young’s in 2015.
“Stuff we thought should be on our books we didn’t have in our records,” said Simone Reba, deputy director of finance at DLA, in an interview with Politico. Another survey conducted by the Government Accountability Office in 2010 estimated that approximately $14-billion worth of inventory was taking up unnecessary space.
Fortunately, technology is providing part of the solution for DLA in ironing out these enormous discrepancies. In civilian life, the internet of things (IoT) promises that a multitude of devices – everything from central heating systems to fridges – will eventually be connected to cloud servers, and therefore controllable remotely from either a desktop computer or a smartphone.
According to Linus Baker, DLA’s director of cybersecurity, the agency hopes that the same principle could be used to replace its existing Distribution Standard System for logistics management and support.
“We are using technology such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and Bluetooth sensing to enhance logistics operations, and provide more real-time data to where supplies are in the logistics pipeline,” he explains. “We are constantly looking for places to put these ‘things’, to enhance supply chain management and optimise data gathering so we can ensure the customer has the right item, in the right place, at the right time.”
At the forefront
Non-computational devices have been connected to evolving forms of the internet since at least 1982, when researchers at Carnegie Mellon University hooked up a faculty vending machine to a departmental computer. It wasn’t until 1999, however, that work undertaken by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on RFID ushered in a wave of remotely controlled household devices. It is just one example of a host of new technologies the DLA has been eager to get its hands on in order to optimise its own internal operations.
“It is not just IoT,” explains Kathy Cutler, the agency’s director of information operations. “The unprecedented pace and amount of innovative changes in technology rapidity impact our day-to-day lives, changing how we bank, cook, shop, and even how we interact with one another. This is true in the workplace, especially with how we use technology and data to achieve our mission. We don’t see the pace slowing down any time soon.”
According to Baker, the integration of IoT in DLA’s logistical nervous system could not come a moment too soon, at present.
“Simply put, we are at risk of becoming inefficient,” he explains. “We must be prepared for, and be able to adapt to, changing conditions in the information environment. Status quo IT services will not meet future warfighter or DLA needs, and with that understanding we are transforming our organisation to focus on innovation as a way to stay out front of the many, broader IT reform initiatives taking place across government.”
DLA has its own such project – the Cyber Resilience Integration Initiative – which is now in its third year. It aims to enhance the agency’s prodigious logistics operations infrastructure with the latest IT technologies.
“We are integrating our cyberspace operations, which is a huge enabler, with our global logistics mission, where challenges, gaps and operational risks address priorities at a given time,” he adds. “Indeed, DLA is “constantly working within and outside the ‘.mil’ and ‘.com’ realms to increase our use of IoT in our logistics operations.”
On a practical level, that means working out how to use IoT to streamline management of the six million line items under DLA’s supervision. Indeed, IoT technology in the form of RFID tags and similar sensors are being used to monitor the flow of materiel, such as construction materials, medical supplies and clothing, from agency depots to wherever they’re required by US military personnel.
According to a survey conducted in 2016 by the Center for Data Innovation, this initiative has already led to 3.5 billion traceable transactions a month across 250 commercial transportation carriers and 67 different Defense Department logistics systems. Baker is confident that DLA will continue to reap benefits from IoT in the years ahead.
“Automating the gathering and usage of battlefield data will increase security, and allow the warfighters in the field to act quickly and decisively,” he says.
– Linus Baker
Put into practice
Naturally, the full integration of IoT in what is meant to be one of the most secure logistical agencies in the world begs the question: will the technology, in effect, make the agency more vulnerable to outside interference through hacking? In theory, security standards for IoT devices are ready to be set by the ‘Internet of Things Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2017,’ which has been written to ensure any new IoT products introduced into government networks remain patchable and do not include unchangeable passwords. The bill, however, continues to languish in congressional committee. “We are prepared to deal with these issues by proactive cyber and operations security processes,” explains Baker. In fact, DLA’s director of cybersecurity believes that “the biggest development challenge will be to keep the speed of change in technology up with our cyber-resiliency efforts. If both of those efforts stay in tune with one another, then the sky is the limit.”
Baker doesn’t just see applications for IoT in logistics – he sees it having benefits in combat as well.
“We are looking to share data that will allow the warfighter to make realtime decisions on the battlefield,” he says. He also foresees new opportunities for DLA in its relationship with the private sector, where the agency already works with over 12,000 different firms that are also busy integrating IoT into their own operations.
“We are looking to share data from commercial suppliers, and that data comes from sensors,” says Baker. “We would like to share this data across platforms to allow for comprehensive decision-making.”
Ultimately, according to Baker, IoT can help realise the goal of anticipating, instead of just addressing, kinks in DLA’s logistical chain around the world.
“We aim to use predictive technologies to anticipate warfighter requirements by combining big data, predictive analytics, automation, artificial intelligence, sustained supply chain visibility and continuous communication,” he says.