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Troop Support Event Poses Question: How and Where Can Blockchain Help?

By: John Dwyer III

During the 2017 hurricane season, the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support provided approximately 41,000 power poles, 88.1 million meals and 1,264 generators in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Responding to three major hurricanes was a record undertaking for DLA, and the mission was a success. But could the use of blockchain technology improve DLA’s support even more? That was the question posed during a two-day presentation hosted by Troop Support’s Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) office from Dec. 3-4 in Philadelphia.

CPI leaders, by direction of the Commander, Army Brigadier General Mark Simerly, reviewed Troop Support’s processes during their response to Hurricane Maria and recovery operations in Puerto Rico.

After review, the CPI office presented how blockchain capabilities could have improved efforts. “We think there’s a lot of potential [in blockchain],” CPI management analyst Elijah Londo said. “Where do we want to be as an organization in shaping and influencing where the [Department of Defense] goes with blockchain?”

CPI process director Daniel Keenaghan described blockchain as a digital, decentralized “distributed ledger” where identical copies of data are stored across multiple servers. Changes to the data, or “blocks”, such as updates to the ordering and delivery tracking information key to DLA’s logistics processes, are linked in a “chain” that builds trust through peer-user validation within the chain.

Changes are immediately viewable by all peers with access to the block of data, improving transparency and auditability of agency transactions. Currently, processes are tracked through systems and databases that are centrally managed by one agency or another.

Visibility can be challenging at times, and stakeholders have to synchronize data to make sure they are all tracking accurate, up-to-date information.

To help answer whether blockchain could have helped, Construction and Equipment (C&E) deputy director Marko Graham used a process map of C&E’s actions linking FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, Troop Support, and industry partners—key stakeholders who would be peer users in a blockchain scenario—to review where this technology might improve associated logistics processes.

Graham shared some challenging points in the process and how C&E worked through them, such as the efforts that went into the maintenance of an internal spreadsheet tracking requirements sourced through multiple vendors as items are purchased and delivered.

He then discussed these points using blockchain capabilities like transaction processing and in-transit visibility of shipments to evaluate the process improvements. “This is where I can see where blockchain would have been a big help,” Graham said. “Flowing [materiel specifications and tracking data] from the manufacturer buying the raw materials to…getting the transportation and getting it on the barges.”

According to Londo, the potential of blockchain technology exists. “The potential is absolutely enormous,” Londo said. “Talk about blockchain, [and] you’ll hear experts comparing it to transforming trust or transactions in the same way the internet changed communication. Other agencies and countries are also looking into this technology.”

Keenaghan referenced US and foreign agencies already experimenting with blockchain. Craig Fischer, for example, is program manager with the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Innovation and Transformation Office.

Fischer provided Keenaghan lessons learned from a blockchain pilot he conducted for equipment accountability, an application useful to any government agency. Keenaghan also shared that the United Arab Emirates has set a goal to have 50 percent of government transactions processed via blockchain technology by 2021. However, it’s still a while until the technology can be put to use at DLA.

“We’re researching the technology,” Londo said. “[We’re] getting as smart as we can about what it is, what industry is saying about it, what the future might look like, how it applies to supply chains, and how other industries are using it. We’re doing our due diligence.”

Simerly’s plan is to take the research as it applies to the hurricane response, a “use case”, and provide information for DLA to justify and apply research and development efforts with blockchain.

A restoration of power to Puerto Rico is a mission success, but advances in technology offer potential improvements to what Keenaghan says is “already amazing work.”

That’s what the CPI office is after through their evaluation and coordination with government and industry partners, such as the U.S. Transportation Command and container shipping giant Maersk, who are already experimenting with blockchain technology.

“There’s really no shortage of players out there,” Londo said. “At the very least, it’s a collaboration and knowledge share. And at its best, it’s actual partnerships and pilot opportunities.”

This CPI office hosted the event under the Troop Support Campaign of Learning (CoL). The CoL sets conditions to understand key challenges and conditions of the future sustainment environment. Through readings and events, in partnership with the military, industry, and academia, the CoL provides an avenue of disciplined, deliberate learning and dialogue to facilitate understanding and promote recommendations for future supply chain solutions.

John Dwyer III is a public affairs specialist with the DLA Troop Support Public Affairs Office.

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