A single IT support system capable of embracing every facet of RAF logistics should be up and running by the end of the decade. In a climate of cuts, cost-efficiency as much as military efficiency is the overall aim.
The logistics industry took its name and many of its best ideas from the military - the original definition of logistics was, after all, the science of moving and maintaining military forces. Now the services are reappropriating it and, with a nice symmetry, taking from the business world some ideas about how their own logistics operations can be improved and made more businesslike.
The Royal Air Force is in the middle of spending £430 million to bring its logistics operations up to date. It needs to. It has nearly 1,000 aircraft and devotes half its 75,000 personnel and £2 billion a year to logistics, the engineering and supply work (everything from maintaining front-line operational aircraft to making sure there are enough spares) that keeps them airborne.
Aircraft are useful only if they are combat-ready, and missiles only if every component, down to the last fuse, is in working order. To ensure this the RAF needs a constant and smooth flow of information - about the physical state of the aircraft, the availability of components and parts, delivery networks and a dozen other things.
The trouble is the computer systems that carry such information are badly out of date. Anyone who followed the Gulf War on television and saw the remarkable precision with which weapons-related information technology could help pinpoint and wipe out targets would be shocked at how comparatively primitive the service's logistics IT is. It was state-of-the-art 25 years ago, but computers have moved on since then. The result is that the service's logistics is backed by lots of different IT systems - around 120 at the last count - each supporting a different aspect, but many of them incapable of 'talking' to one another. For instance, while the supply systems' computers communicate quite well among themselves, they cannot communicate with other later systems covering areas such as work order control or maintenance planning. So no one gets a full, global picture of what is going on in engineering and supply.
The RAF's senior management recognised the problem in the late 1980s. They were coming under increasing pressure to run the service on more businesslike lines but knew they didn't have access to the kind of information they needed to do so. That couldn't go on, particularly in an era when the Government was demanding that the services be cost-efficient as well as militarily efficient, so the RAF decided to build a completely new logistics support system and launched a 10-year, £430-million programme called LITS (Logistics Information Technology Strategy) to carry its plans through. This is a single IT system powerful enough to embrace every facet of logistics and, crucially, to allow a free flow of information. One of the biggest single elements of the programme is a £175 million contract awarded last year to an IBM-led consortium to provide the main hardware and software packages.
If everything goes according to plan the whole LITS network should be up and running by the end of the decade. One crucial bit of it, the so-called Warehouse and Transport Management System (WTMS), is already installed at RAF Stafford - where the RAF's supply chain starts. WTMS controls the RAF's massive spares warehouses (the service holds and distributes 1.3 million lines of stock valued at £4.5 billion) and will link into a sophisticated consignment tracking system that will tell logistics officers exactly where in the delivery pipeline the equipment they have ordered is.
The RAF didn't need to look far for role models, says retired officer John Mace, who as Wing Commander Mace was responsible for introducing WTMS. When he began to consider what such a system might look like he turned to the high street. Big retailers such as WH Smith, Boots and Tesco had all developed rapid, accurate warehousing and delivery operations.
The RAF's requirements are not dissimilar to theirs, says Mace. It is no good trying to sell today's newspapers next week, so WH Smith has to get its papers and magazines to thousands of different destinations on time. The RAF likewise has to ship hundreds - sometimes even thousands - of spare parts worldwide every day, many of them, though seemingly unimportant, crucial to the smooth functioning of the service. 'If you've got a £10 million aircraft sitting on the ground for want of a 10p washer it concentrates your mind to get it there fast, to get the right washer there at the right time.' The RAF needs a system which will locate the item in the warehouse as quickly as possible, dispatch it by the most efficient means, and allow logistics personnel to keep tabs on it during its journey. The old system didn't do any of those things terribly well. The service used to misplace stock worth £3.5 million a year, says Mace. 'We'd eventually find it, but not having that washer in your hand at the right time is as good as not having it at all. Accuracy of stock holding and stock location - so that it's where you put it and you put it where you should have done - is the key to the whole business.' Under the old system the computer could tell you what the RAF held in stock (it could account for the equipment) but if the stores manager or the transport manager wanted to know where a specific item was he had to refer to card indexes and books, and none of that sort of information was integrated into the IT system. 'The poor stores manager or the transport manager had no IT support,' says Mace. 'What I did was to look at the real business of what we were doing. The business is storage, distribution and management of equipment and as a by-product we account for it. The starting point is that the emphasis shifts from accounting to management.' The warehouse management system that has been introduced - the Dallas system - constantly checks and double-checks that items are being stored in (and retrieved from) the right place. Every item and every shelf is bar-coded. 'When the storeman picks something from the shelf or puts it onto the shelf, the system uses the bar-codes to check that he's got the right thing in the right location.' If the item is being put in the wrong rack the computer which is digesting the information from the bar code scanner will issue a warning signal.
The system will eventually also include a sophisticated consignment tracking capability, very similar to those used by supermarket chains, to monitor the movement of goods along the distribution network. Consignments will bear bar codes which can be read at key points along the route.
Under the old system you would only find out about misplaced stock at the annual stocktaking, or when an aircraft engineer was demanding a component that wasn't where it should be. Moreover, until now, says Mace, officers waiting on consignments have had to guess where their goods are in the distribution chain, based on their knowledge of when they were dispatched and what the delivery route is. 'It's an assumptive system. You assume it's going to work. But if any link in the chain breaks you've got a whole load of people sitting around doing nothing and you've got an aircraft on the ground.' The Gulf War showed how limited the assumptive system was. 'With all three services using airfreight there was a mountain of equipment at Brize Norton,' says Mace. 'We didn't have bar coding, boxes had handwritten labels on them, there was no advance information as to what was there and what wasn't, and we had a team of people climbing over boxes looking for labels for particular items that were required.' LITS will go way beyond warehousing and distribution, enabling those charged with running logistics to see how every part of the engineering and supply system impacts on every other part and how they, as it were, affect the bottom line. When all the component parts of LITS have been put together the front-line engineer will have the back-up of a highly sophisticated supply chain and an equally sophisticated engineering support system. To make sure it all works as envisaged it will be tested first on one aircraft type, the Jaguar.
The RAF's top brass believe that LITS will not only revolutionise the service's logistics but make the whole operation much more cost-efficient. They had better be right. The Government structured its financial help in such a way that if the RAF does not produce the required efficiencies it will pay a big penalty.The RAF's experts told the Treasury that LITS would save the service £1,000 million in operating costs over 10 years, so the Treasury told the RAF it would lop £100 million a year off the service's operating budget for a decade.
What that means in effect, says Simon Webb of Price Waterhouse, management advisers to the RAF on the implementation of LITS, is that if the RAF doesn't realise the benefits of the new system it will have to claw the money back in other ways, by buying fewer aircraft or flying fewer hours. 'Failure of the LITS programme to achieve its anticipated benefits could jeopardise the ability of the RAF to meet its commitments to NATO and lead to a reduction in the UK's defence capabilities.'.