Army logistics gets a new worldview

New program combines tools to give commanders a single view of shipments

Logistics is an unsexy but vital component of any successful military operation. During the past two decades, computer-based tracking technologies have emerged to help commanders plan and track supply shipments. The military services have developed many different systems that operate separately, and that has created headaches for warfighters who need to locate and follow important deliveries.

However, a new Army-developed technology is streamlining logistics by combining different tracking tools into one tool that provides commanders with a single view of the battlefield.

The Unclassified but Sensitive IP Router Network (NIPRNet) Globe Services (NGS) system gives users a simple and intuitive graphical interface to track supplies, said Jeremy Hiers, product director of transportation information systems, a part of the Army’s Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems. He said the driving force behind NGS was the need to consolidate the Army’s logistics tracking systems for commanders, who did not have a common operating picture.

With the old system, one application was used to plan where supplies were going while a different system tracked their movements. “You never really were able to put those two pieces together — the plan versus the actual location — until this system brought these two systems together,” Hiers said.

Army Transportation Information Systems

From left, Eric Wang, Lee James, Robert Lytle and Archie Mackie.

The new logistics capability became fully operational in September 2009. NGS was developed by three Army organizations: Product Director Transportation Information Systems, Product Manager Joint-Automatic Identification Technology (PM J-AIT) and the Army Corps of Engineers' Engineer Research and Development Center. Hiers explained that ERDC had a major role in developing the server technology for NGS and also handled the programming work necessary to allow all three organizations' servers to share data.

NGS is designed to provide warfighters with an easy-to-use and graphically rich environment to track cargo and plan supply routes. In addition, commanders can create maps, or globes, of an operational zone or theater. Users can customize the globes within several hours to meet specific requirements. Additionally, hundreds of people can simultaneously access the globes.

The mapping capability tracks military cargo containers equipped with active and passive radio frequency identification tags. To keep tabs on supply shipments in the field, the Army sets up interrogator stations along roadsides. That equipment scans the cargo data on the RFID tags and enters it into the system. After that information is in the network, commanders can call it up on map screens to see the location and arrival time of supply shipments.

Besides tracking supplies, NGS also allows commanders to coordinate the movement of cargo and supply units across a theater of operations by land and air. To provide a common operational picture, NGS uses Google Earth technology, which can quickly manage imagery and other types of data. One major advantage of Google Earth is its ability to share data, in this case map files and tracking information, on a common platform. The application also uses common data formats to further facilitate data sharing.

“Similar types of platforms can now share data utilizing NGS,” said Archie Mackie, assistant product manager of deployment and distribution at PD TIS.

Users can access the Google Earth-based mapping capabilities by downloading NGS, which contains a fully accredited version of the software certified for DOD networks. For security purposes, the system does not rely on commercial servers; it operates in a .mil environment.

According to PD TIS, the Army chose Google Earth because it was cost-effective and able to take advantage of existing government data. In addition, many users are already familiar with Google Maps. Mackie said another advantage of NGS is its ability to create an interactive interface that can generate a 3-D view from multiple data sources.

Google Earth also lets commanders customize their interface layers and dashboards. For example, one commander might want a view of all of the different road networks in an area of operations, while another officer might want the locations of all regional schools and hospitals for disaster relief. Other users might want to know the locations of all the data-scanning sites in the region where their convoys are moving. “Users can make the decisions they need to make, when they need to make them,” Hiers said.

Since its introduction, Hiers said, NGS has increased efficiency and reduced costs. Because it combines several other tracking and logistics systems, NGS reduces the overall operational cost in areas such as training, maintenance and modernization. “Instead of maintaining the same capability on two systems, we only have to do it on one," he said. "You upgrade in one place instead of having to upgrade on two.”

According to the Army, the cost of implementing, building and maintaining NGS was $4 million. That amount includes equipment and manpower costs. The cost is less than what PD TIS and PM J-AIT would have faced if each unit tried to develop its own NGS-type system. Army officials said NGS will cost approximately $500,000 per year to maintain.

Scalability is another factor. Hiers said that as the system expands, its modernization is enhanced by operating within a single environment. For example, when NGS launched, two systems that feed data to NGS required an upgrade to their mapping capability. “The maps were archaic," he said. "In some cases, they were outdated. It was very hard for a user to span around the globe and see different areas at once, and the data on the map was much less accurate.”

There are about 6,500 personnel using NGS. But Mackie said the number is growing daily. All major Army theater commands use NGS, including the Northern Command, European Command and Central Command. NGS is also available to the other military services, which can access it via the PM J-AIT website.

“It’s not an Army capability; it’s really the joint community capability that’s being utilized across the DOD,” he said.

As NGS continues to evolve, Hiers said he sees additional growth that could support the Army National Guard as it moves supplies across the country for military and disaster relief operations. NGS is scheduled to replace the guard’s Mobilization Movement Control system for planning route permissions and road clearances in the United States. Mackie added that the mobilization system cannot provide an accurate picture of supply movement, which is one of NGS' strengths.

The National Guard has already done some prototype work with NGS. Mackie said PD TIS helped support an experiment with the guard and Alabama to create a common operational picture for disaster relief at the state and federal level. The state and military were able to share files of disaster areas, and NGS allowed the guard to use the data to plan relief operations. The system’s architecture also allows other organizations and networks to plug in and use the mapping and planning tools.

“Sharing those common data files was one of the unique things that we can do now, which you couldn’t do with a hard-coded mapping solution," Mackie said. "Now we have a common platform sharing common data files throughout different environments.”

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About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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