Pentagon awards U. Maryland $2.1M grant

Project leaders at College Park campus aim to streamline military supply chain

Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2005

The Pentagon awarded a $2.1 million grant to the University of Maryland, College Park, to help make the country’s military inventory resemble that of FedEx Express in an effort to get equipment and supplies to troops faster and more efficiently.

If the 12-month project is successful, it could mean the end of large stockpiles sitting dormant in military warehouses and the beginning of more targeted responses to troop supply needs in the field.

The university’s Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise, in partnership with its engineering school, is creating a Web-based supply network with existing wireless and radio technologies to modify an F⁄A-18 Navy fighter jet so that the plane itself transmits its repair and maintenance needs directly to aircraft crew well before it lands, thereby speeding turnaround.

Project leaders hope to reach a level of automation that will allow the military to better track supplies and cut down on materials hoarded in ‘‘iron mountains,” broad caches designed to meet any and all needs, even those that don’t ever come up.

‘‘It’s not just getting high performance, but at a lower cost,” said Jacques Gansler, former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics during the Clinton administration who now heads the Maryland center.

Gansler cited enterprises such as FedEx and Wal-Mart, known for being able to transport inventory around the world in a matter of a few days, and contrasted that with the situation of the U.S. military, which can take weeks to get equipment to its destination.

The companies use radio-frequency identifiers, which allow them to track inventory. Project leaders aim to use that same technology to keep track of military supplies, as well as keep better tabs on the failure rates of certain types of equipment so that spare parts are always on hand.

‘‘You can be a lot smarter about what you bring and how much you bring,” said William Lucyshyn, director of research at the Maryland center and a co-investigator on the project.

Considering that the United States spent more than $100 billion for logistics support in the past year, Gansler said, savings could reach in the tens of billions of dollars if sitting inventories were pared.

‘‘In the commercial world, carrying large inventory costs money. [The military] has $60 [billion] to $70 billion worth of stuff, and it’s all considered to be free, so there’s not the same incentive,” he said. ‘‘But there is the incentive to get parts to the field quickly.”

Kenneth Gabriel, project principal investigator, said their efforts could eventually benefit the domestic front.

‘‘It can be very efficient for getting supplies in terms of national disasters like Katrina, where you can direct flow of services and goods efficiently,” Gabriel said.

But before people get ahead of themselves, Gansler said, the military needs to undergo a shift from its practice of stockpiling supplies, in addition to any system changes that may occur.

‘‘People are already starting to realize in the commercial world that you can get something from FedEx right away, so they wonder why soldiers can’t get what they need that fast,” he said. ‘‘It’s not going to take years to change the system, but it will take years to change the culture.”