Army gives EDI a tryout on the killing fields of Bosnia

The Army is ramping up electronic data interchange at joint
contracting centers in Bosnia and Hungary to see how well it will work near the front

A temporary contracting office in Kaposvar, Hungary, uses EDI to locate and buy
materials from U.S. suppliers for quick shipment to troops working with the NATO
peace-keeping force in Bosnia. A second EDI office will open in Tuzla, Bosnia, this month.

Contracting officers in Kaposvar have ordered items ranging from printer cables to
truck tires over the same Standard Army Automated Contracting System (SAACONS) used by
their stateside counterparts.

"As we've pushed the Army into the electronic world, we've wondered how
contingency contracting should be handled," said Col. Harry D. Gatanas, the Army's
contracting director. "This is a proof-of-concept project for EDI in a place where
you might not have the luxury of going to the local economy for supplies."

SAACONS users in Hungary fill out on-screen forms that feed data to the European
SAACONS system, which has six offices and a headquarters--the European Contracting
Command--in Bad Krevznach, Germany.

The European sites update a Progress Software Corp. relational database, then pass the
data over the Defense Information Systems Agency's non-secure IP routed network (NIPRNet)
to the United States.

Managers in Germany can make ad hoc Structured Query Language queries to the
contracting offices to see how many items were bought each day. They also can back up and
update the system remotely.

Alternately, the contingency contracting sites can send data to an International
Maritime Satellite Organization (INMARSAT) satellite. Both schemes funnel the data into
the Federal Acquisition Computer Network, or FACNET.

Gatanas said about 150 Army sites use FACNET, including Korean contracting offices that
came on line in late January. Most of the government's EDI infrastructure is tied to the
Defense Department megacenters in Columbus, Ohio, and Ogden, Utah.

SAACONS feeds its information to the Columbus site, which maps it into an X12
transaction set for EDI. The transaction sets are picked up by Defense Information Systems
Agency-certified value-added networks (VANs) whose subscribers are suppliers qualified to
conduct electronic business with the government.

The DOD megacenters now handle only four of the American National Standards Institute's
dozens of X12 transaction sets: 840 (request for quote), 843 (actual quote), 850 (purchase
order) and 997 (functional acknowledgement or return receipt).

Suppliers respond to an 840 quote request through their VANs. If the Army agrees to a
sale, the vendor arranges shipment. Payments are arranged in the same way.

Lt. Col. Jim Walsh, the Army's procurement staff officer for electronic commerce, said
a soldier with muddy boots and a hand-written purchase order ought to be able to walk into
a contingency contracting office and have the whole U.S. industrial base at his disposal.
Needed items usually are delivered within 10 days, he said, via a commercial carrier such
as DHL Worldwide Express.

The closer to the front lines, the tougher it is to get needed items. "We try to
work with locals whenever possible," Gatanas said. "We've told the Hungarians we
use this system for what we can't get locally."

SAACONS would let a procurement officer place and track local purchases, too, but few
Hungarian business are set up for EDI, and those that are don't use X12. Most European
vendors follow the international standard known as EDI for Administration, Commerce and
Trade, or EDIFACT.

Once enabled for EDI, the contingency offices will become "full-blown contracting
shops with the same capabilities as Fort Hood, Texas," Gatanas said. "The
difference is, instead of 112 terminals hanging off a huge Unix system, they have six or
seven PCs connected to a Hewlett-Packard 5000 Unix server."

The site in Hungary is a good one for an experiment with overseas EDI. If there's a
glitch, most items still could be found locally or a few hours away in Italy or Germany.

"This could be the model for future contingency operations," Walsh said.
"Our real concern is for people who might be deployed to places where there's not
much by way of buildings, phones or computers. This would have been great in Somalia,
Haiti or Rwanda. But you still need a delivery address. You can't just say, third soldier
on the right."

The current tests use embassies as drop points for ordered items.

Gatanas has solicited help from Colleen Preston, deputy undersecretary of Defense for
acquisition reform. "She recognized this as an acquisition reform initiative and
funded us for $230,000," he said. "We're really excited about this. It allows us
to work faster."

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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