By Brig. Gen. Mark T. Simerly and Daniel J. KeenaghanOctober 1, 2019
Innovation is driven by the potential to solve existing problems in new ways. The development of blockchain technology offers increased data confidence and data availability that can help shape future military logistics and planning.
Data sharing through a blockchain can increase trust in detailed accounts, improve seamless communication, reduce data variation and mitigate friction points when information transfer needs to be timely and actionable. Further study and development of blockchain technology for use by the U.S. military has significant potential value for developing digital tools to advance advantages in logistics planning within tactical, operational, and strategic environments.
But first, what is blockchain technology?
Blockchain technology is digitally signed and time-stamped data clusters that are published and linked together like a chain, and it allows multiple users to publish at the same time through a secure algorithm in multiple cyber locations without the risk of data manipulation. There is only one version of the data, and all users have the same copy that they can separately review and confirm the authenticity of transactions without changing past authenticated data.
This concept holds significant potential for complex logistics applications in commercial, public and military environments.
THE BEGINNING OF GOVERNMENT APPLICATION
Across the federal government, agencies are showing interest in blockchain technology.
An underlying theme reiterated in the Government Accountability Office's Strategic Plan for 2018-2023 includes blockchain as one of the five emerging technologies with the potential to transform society.
In response to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, the Department of Defense (DOD) presented Congress with an overview of blockchain research across elements that included a description of potential offensive and defensive cyber applications, an assessment of foreign efforts, and an assessment of federal government use and critical infrastructure networks.
The Department of the Treasury completed a successful pilot using blockchain technology to manage and track inventory assets across a mobile workforce in near real time.
The Department of Health and Human Services has successfully launched the first public procurement blockchain. The model, called Accelerate, includes micro services that enhance distributed ledger technology with machine learning and artificial intelligence and inform more competitive contract pricing, terms, and conditions.
The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Troop Support in Philadelphia has learned from these government successes and explored the use of blockchain technology.
To understand the range of blockchain technologies for tactical sustainment challenges, the military should closely examine the potential of blockchain solutions to the challenges associated with in-transit visibility, data integrity, additive manufacturing, reporting, operational contracting, and logistic estimation.
For instance, by integrating blockchain within each step of an operation to secure and share data throughout the manufacturing process, including design, prototyping, testing, and production, blockchain may offer the Army a solution it needs to secure the "digital thread" integral to the Additive Manufacturing supply chain.
Blockchain technologies can also support food safety and health care challenges on the battlefield, build health data sharing platforms for increased security and efficiency, track, and trace the food supply chain to prevent food related outbreaks better and to improve the tracking of critical and temperature sensitive commodities such as pharmaceuticals and food.
With the increasing value of, and risk to, tactical data management, the Army should consider implementing blockchain into sustainment information technology architectures and information technology enterprise modernization.
In a secure environment, blockchain has potential for military application at each planning level and across all supply classes.
On the ground at the tactical level, leaders can have greater confidence in knowing what resources are on hand, in-transit, or available to request. This could provide supply personnel with near-real-time visibility for materiel, parts, supplies, and equipment, and it will offer greater order accuracy through smart contracts.
Having greater confidence in pre-positioned materials, movements of capabilities, and conditions improves operational planning visibility needed for success. Materiel traceability can be enhanced and can shape the battlefield for successful conditions.
Additional details would be available on assets in-transit for delivery schedules and warehouse storage planning. Distribution points could also increase their visibility into what lots or parts could be immediately sourced for high priority pacing items.
Strategically, there can be greater fidelity in communication network infrastructure, forecasting budget requirements, and tracking resources allocated to align with operational plans.
In 2017, the U.S. experienced unprecedented destruction in multiple geographic areas due to several natural disasters in rapid succession. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called upon DLA Troop Support to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in response to wildfires on the West Coast and three hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.
As part of DLA Troop Support's mission to deliver optimal global supply chain solutions, hundreds of contracts moved millions of equipment pieces to enable a ready and whole-of-government response. We developed a 'use case' for these efforts to explore how blockchain technology could have led to an increase in supply chain effectiveness and efficiency.
More than 62 million power grid items were provided to Puerto Rico in the wake of the Category 5 Hurricane Maria. Although the mission was a success, an assessment of the end-to-end processes uncovered multiple delays, miscommunications, excessive travel costs, a lack of comprehensive end-to-end visibility, and many wasted hours for manual corrections.
Research suggested the possibilities for adaptation and innovation through blockchain could increase effective communication of requirements, planning movement and flexibility, monitoring third party delivery and in-transit visibility timelines, compliance with regulatory demands, and transparency for audit. Cost reductions are anticipated in regards information lags, duplication, personnel, movement times, storage, and inventory losses.
These efficiencies enabled through blockchain technology would provide real, measurable savings and increase the efficacy of life-saving and recovery efforts.
A review of the supply chain's hurricane support suggests areas for further military research and pilot testing of blockchain applications. As a result, DLA Troop Support is engaging with commercial and government projects that are developing blockchain technology to learn more.
This provides an opportunity to be prepared to contribute to federal standards for military requirements and to remain current on advancing technologies. Pilot considerations for research and development of blockchain will look to increase confidence in data, decrease friction in acquisition communication and enhance data driven decision-making.
The long-term potential for DOD implementation would significantly shift the abilities of military supply chain and acquisition fields to increase visibility and provide enhanced warfighter support.
Brigadier General Mark T. Simerly is the commander for the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Under his leadership, the organization annually provides over $17 billion worth of subsistence, clothing and textiles, construction and equipment, medical supplies, and industrial repair parts for America's warfighters and worldwide customers. He is a graduate of the University of Richmond and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
Dan Keenaghan is the DLA Troop Support Process Compliance Director for audit and process improvement. As an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, he is an adjunct facilitator for the U.S. Army War College, Center for Strategic Leadership. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy.
This article appears in the October-December 2019 issue of Army Sustainment.