In Defense Of RFID: Military Turns To Technology To Keep Tabs On Supply Chain

The use of RFID in the supply chain is not a new idea, but the Department of Defense is taking the use of this technology to a new level by utilizing RFID in every aspect of its supply chain. The move is not without controversy, however, raising some concern over the security of the technology.

The use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) in the supply chain is not a new idea, but the Department of Defense is taking the use of this technology to a new level by utilizing RFID in every aspect of its supply chain.

The move is not without controversy, however, raising some concern over the security of the technology.

The Department’s expectations of full implementation are improving inventory management and labor productivity, eliminating duplicate orders and bettering asset tracking. The ultimate goal of the DoD is to utilize the emerging supply chain technology for hands-free data capture and to develop an end-to-end supply chain enterprise.

According to the DoD, RFID technology will address a key challenge that has been noted at every level within the Department’s supply chain: a lack of visibility of item data.

RFID will become a key technology for the Department’s logistics and will support long-term integration of the Unique Identification (UID) into the end-to-end supply chain. Both active and passive RFID systems are planned, and the implementation will provide “in the box” content level detail for all classes of supplies, as well as provide accurate data collection for improved inventory management.

Active RFID has been in use for almost a decade at the Department of Defense, and was used successfully during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom on major items and consolidated cargo moving into battle. Passive RFID has been designed primarily for supply chain management, and is currently in use at the Defense Distribution Depot in Susquehanna, PA, as well as other distribution depots around the country.

Now, plans are in the works to implement the use of RFID throughout the Department’s supply chain in the next few years. The Department is also requiring all suppliers to be “DoD ready” in order to bid on contracts dealing with the Department. The technology will be implemented through a “phased” approach on both the supplier and Department sites.

A recent RFID deployment by Odin Technologies.

Since 2005, all DoD manufacturers and suppliers requesting new contracts have been required to be “RFID ready” for four different classes of products, including packaged operational rations, clothing, tools and weapon systems repair parts and components. The plan continues through 2007 with tagging required for all manufacturers and suppliers with new contracts on all individual cases, palletized units and all unit packs with UID’s.

Odin Technologies was recently awarded the passive RFID implementation contract by the DoD. The contract was awarded out of a pool of 11 bids, and the project will begin immediately. Odin will implement all Defense Distribution Centers with passive RFID systems for incoming shipments, and the rollout will enable the use of passive RFID tags on a broad-scale throughout the military supply chain.

Patrick Sweeney, Odin Technologies’ CEO and author of RFID for Dummies, said this form of data collection was originally done with “clipboards and pencils,” which provided valuable information, but at a high price.

“Through RFID, the data you can get back is astronomical,” Sweeney said.

An RFID chip.

Indeed, Sweeney predicts that in the next five years, manufacturers will have more RFID readers than telephones.

That’s not necessarily great news to Katherine Albrect, author of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID, and a vocal critic of the technology. 

“When it comes to security, how can you be sure the tags will not be tampered with,?” Albrect asked. “What if items are not in a shielded warehouse?”

Albrect cites two different threats to RFID when used in a supply chain application. First, a takedown of the system could occur, which would include software-related threats. Second, an attack through frequency jamming could blow out the system, a hardware-related threat.

“If you can concentrate your radio frequency onto the chip, you can not only wipe out the chip, you can cause a fire,” Albrect said, expressing concerns about the apparent ease with which an RFID system can be disabled. ”This is cause for a security concern and threats.”

Officials at the Department of Defense were not available to comment.

The passive RFID tags for data collection contain a Unique Identifier (UID), which is something like a license plate. The UID then connects to a secure database where the data is actually stored. According to Sweeney, this type of RFID tag carried a very low possibility of virus distribution, as opposed to active RFID, where more data is stored directly on the tag.

Passive RFID is significantly less expensive than active RFID, according to Sweeney. “The shipping containers would carry an active RFID tag, whereas everything inside the containers would be passive,” Sweeney said.

A standard RFID reader.

Passive RFID tags also have a very short reader range - about 10 meters - which reduces the possibility of data corruption. Active tags contain batteries that send out a signal over several hundred meters, which creates more of a risk. “The DoD has thought an awful lot about security,” Sweeney said.

Nineteen sites in the continental United States will be deployed with passive RFID by the end of September 2006.

Of course, a project of this size is not without its challenges, including implementation from a global standpoint. According to Sweeney, not all parts of RFID technology follow a global standard; implementation will vary from country to county. “That’s why we complete designing and testing before we go out into the field,” Sweeney said.

“The Secretary of Defense wants to see where all the goods are from the factory to the foxhole,” Sweeney said. “Our biggest mission is not to interfere with the DoD’s mission.”

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