E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

Now that Wal-Mart can keep track of every razor blade and teddy bear it buys—and sells—I was pretty surprised to learn that the Pentagon can't trace thousands of weapons and other items. Looks like RFID chips are more likely to wind up in my driver's license and my clothes than monitoring shipments of Kalashnikovs.

The Bosnia Connection
Note: This is not a Beat Up on the Pentagon commentary, but rather an illustration of where and how those RFID chips could help keep the military, and by extension the U.S. in general, from entering into slimy business deals. And probably save a bunch of money. And be of assistance to our troops stationed overseas.

The weapons story's positively Byzantine, but I'll try to summarize it. A program was set up in Bosnia by European administrators to collect and destroy firearms left floating around after the 1990s conflicts. Somehow, U.S., Swiss, and UK companies, including arms brokers and freight firms, got involved via the military attaché offices and offered to buy the weapons that were to be surrendered.

The Pentagon's role in this mess consisted of plans to ship the U.S. share to Iraq as arms for the command force training the security forces there. The numbers are eyebrow-lifters: At least 200,000 Kalashnikov machine guns and tens of thousands of small arms. They never arrived. Lost in transit? More likely assigned other destinations by the intricate web of players. According to the Guardian story, "Arms traffickers are prime beneficiaries of government-to-government business as military industries are increasingly 'outsourced.'" Isn't that a reassuring observation?

Why Care?
Many of those weapons probably went to the highest bidder, who most likely did not wish its neighboring country well. (Or us, for that matter.) If those shipments were known to have tracking devices that could be not easily discovered or deactivated, our country would stand less of a chance of becoming snuggly with ugly people.

The Stockroom Syndrome
Sooner or later everyone buys a jar of mustard and then finds another already in the pantry. Unless you've spent your last couple of dollars on the duplication, no big deal. It gets a lot bigger, though, when you're talking about military equipment. How much bigger? Try $1.2 billion in Army supplies shipped to Iraq, "tires, tank tracks, helicopter spare parts, radio batteries, and other basic items" and no way to follow their movement. Did all of it get there? Who knows? Moreover, there's some "$35 billion worth of excess supplies and equipment" that no one can seem to locate.

Wouldn't it make sense to RFID tag all this gear as it's being prepared for shipment? Our armed forces serving in Iraq (and elsewhere) shouldn't have to see a No Tires Today sign outside the supply depot. Wouldn't it also make sense to know what you have so you won't keep buying duplicates that could very well become outdated before you get around to using them?

Maybe Wal-Mart should be running the Pentagon's inventory management program, such as it is.