The military is making some headway in tagging its existing and incoming inventory items for better tracking, but systemic problems still plague the effort, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The report looks at item-unique identification (IUID) technology, a bar code-like methodology of making inventory items visible for tracking. A 2003 directive from the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics instructed the services to implement IUID for all items valued at $5,000 and above.
“They have had multiple delays in getting this up and going,” said Zina Dache Merritt, GAO director of defense capabilities and management.
The private sector has been keeping current, with 2,500 contractors marking some 11 million new and in-development items to date.
On the military side, officials so far have identified 4.9 million items as meeting the criteria for tagging, and have tagged 2.7 million of these. But that represents a slim fraction of the tens of millions of items in the U.S. inventory.
Part of the problem lies in metrics, with no quantifiable measures in place to determine how many items will be tagged, when and by whom. This has led to shortfalls in reporting.
“They haven’t put in place any way to measure their progress,” Merritt said.
The military’s goal is to have the majority of items marked by 2015, “but we don’t know what that majority is,” she said.
Even in cases in which items have been equipped with IUID tracking capabilities, the usefulness of the technology has been limited by a lack of interoperability among the components. In principle, IUID information should be entered into the components’ enterprise information systems for mutual visibility, but those systems are not equipped to handle the information, Merritt said.
Existing enterprise information systems were not designed to handle this level of granularity and as a result lack the ability to fully track and share information effectively. This can make a difference, for example, in situations where the Army and Marines share equipment in Afghanistan. In such cases, mutually visible inventory can be logistically significant.
Technical issues run deep. The Defense Logistics Agency reported that its inventory contains about 30 million items that meet DoD’s IUID marking criteria. But the agency told GAO it does not have the necessary marking equipment. Nor does it have information on how to appropriately mark legacy items with IUID labels, Merritt said.
At the same time, GAO reports some progress. Processes are being tightened up, and a central DoD registry is aiding with visibility.
“They are finally now bringing everyone together, finally putting in place reviews to see where everything stands,” Merritt said.
Ultimately, IUID could lead to substantial cost savings. DoD projected that full implementation could save $3 billion to $5 billion a year in the form of greater visibility of its assets across components and reduced equipment losses. That number could be inexact, however, based on certain assumptions DoD made, and GAO has recommended DoD take a second look at some of its estimates.