After some false starts, the Marine Corps and Army are rolling out next-generation software systems designed to track logistics information all over the world. They’ll replace a hodgepodge of antiquated databases—some dating back 40 years.
Though the systems—Global Combat Support System-Army and Global Combat Support System-Marine Corps—share similar objectives, the enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems’ differences begin with the fact that two different vendors are building them. Both are based on off-the-shelf software, but the Army design uses a product made by SAP while the Marine Corps chose Oracle, a fact not lost on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) at a recent hearing of the Armed Services Committee.
“My understanding is that the two systems, as designed, are not even naturally compatible, and that the Department of Defense will have to continue to pay just to develop interfaces between these two systems,” McCaskill said. “I get a headache when I think about all the money that we have thrown away in the federal government on data systems and information technology.”
McCaskill said the Marine Corps obligated $1 billion on its Global Combat Support System (GCSS) while the Army committed $4 billion. She said DoD should choose one.
“It just seems unbelievable to me that we are paying for the development of two separate systems that don’t speak to each other,” she said. “Since the Army’s is more expensive, I’m hoping that [the Marines’ system] is the one that could be utilized. This could be a $3 billion moment. And we’re looking for $3 billion moments right now.”
The Army’s Office of Business Transformation told Federal News Radio by email that there are no current plans to merge or integrate the two systems, but that they would be open to the idea if a business case could be made. OBT officials say GCSS-Army meets their requirements. They do not know if GCSS-Marine Corps would.
“Both the Army and the Marine Corps would have to conduct a comparison analysis on the other’s system to determine the extent it would meet operational requirements,” the office said in a statement. “Cost to complete and costs associated with terminating one or the other are obvious challenges. Less obvious are impacts to achieving goals associated with our long-term business system information technology strategy.”
In the case of the Marines, the need for a single, reliable system for tracking assets and personnel came up during the fight in Iraq, said Marine Corps commandant Jim Amos.
“We got halfway through Iraq and the truth of the matter is we had a lot of equipment on the ground to satisfy those 35,000 Marines and sailors,” Amos testified before the committee. “We thought we knew how much we had, but we had a variety of systems, about 15 that were tracking it. We said we’ve got to come up with something different. Of all the software efforts we’ve ever done in the Marine Corps, and spent a lot of money and been disappointed often, this one probably has the greatest hope of all the ones we’ve had.”
Amos told McCaskill at the March 8 hearing that the Marines would provide information on the status of any effort to make the Army and Marine Corps ERP systems interoperable. As of Monday, the senator’s office had not received an answer, a spokeswoman said.
Drew Dwyer, deputy program manager for the Marine Corps version of GCSS, said his office expected the system to pay for itself by 2015, by preventing Marine supply officers from placing unnecessary orders and allowing the service’s logistics systems to operate more efficiently.
“Just a few years ago, many of these Marines were doing accountability in the worst conditions possible with pencil and pad and ledgers,” he said. “They’re human, and sometimes when people are firing at you, you might make an error or two. That might transcend itself and turn into hundreds and thousands of errors across the entire Marine Corps. Sometimes what supply chiefs do is buy lots more things because they really don’t have a good understanding of what it is they’ve got in their inventories.”
Dwyer said GCSS-MC will let the Marine Corps start unplugging stovepiped legacy systems that are difficult and expensive to maintain. He said it also will free up logistics personnel to do more important things.
“There were three-to-five people whose sole job it was to find status,” he said. “They weren’t the ones who received gear, they didn’t process it, they didn’t order it, they didn’t maintain it. Their sole job was to go out and find the status of things.”
He said the process of “finding status” under the service’s legacy systems could take as long as 36 hours. GCSS had cut that time to an average of less than seven seconds.
“That translates to lots of savings,” Dwyer said. “Because if they know if that a part will be there in 11 hours, they won’t even take a big truck off the lift. Because why spend the money arranging to have a young corporal come over, expend the 11 gallons of fuel it takes to move it out to the staging area with a heavy lifter and then bring it back in the next day? If the part’s going to be there, it’s cheaper to just leave it on the rack.”
The first block of the Marines’ system is being rolled out right now to units in Okinawa, Japan and in Hawaii. The 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force will have the system in place by summer—bringing it to a total of 8,500 users, Dwyer said. The system will eventually support up to 52,000. The Army’s ERP system, GCSS-Army, also is in the first phases of its rollout. The system has the same objectives—to get rid of spread-out, stovepiped logistics systems.
“With GCSS-Army, all individual logistics business processes become functional modules within a single master server that is accessible worldwide, including in-theater,” an explanatory video on an Army website explains.