The following is a Supply Chain Matters guest blog contribution contributed by Matt Shatzkin, Ph.D.
In my previous guest blog, I defined the framework of emergency supply chains as two domains: support to military expeditions, and support to Non-Governmental Organizational (NGO) efforts supporting disaster relief.  This guest post will discuss several characteristics these domains share that serve as sources of their defining complexities.
The urgent nature of the emergency serves as an underpinning catalyst for many other causes of complexity. Whether a military expedition or a disaster relief operation, emergency situations constitute crises, in which many things must occur immediately. Victims must be treated, or they will die; rapid military response must be achieved, or the strategic advantage will be lost. The urgency of the crisis requires a rapid response, usually under little to no notice to conduct prior preparation or planning, to provide capabilities in a foreign country (Joint Staff J4 Logistics, 2012). Simply, urgency is the characteristic that causes these supply chains to operate very differently from conventional supply chains; the role of urgency in driving emergency supply chain behavior cannot be overstated.
Largely Manual Processes
Potentially as a result of the urgency and effectiveness characteristics, emergency supply chains rely largely on manual requisitioning processes. Downstream operations, in particular, rely more on phone calls, paper surveys and order forms, e-mail, and spreadsheets. This is in contrast to automated requisitioning systems and electronic means of recording information, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Point of Sale (POS), Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), or other advanced means.
Within military expeditions, the requisitioning system is a manual process due to the time and actions required to reestablish a preexisting requisitioning system within the new emergency supply chain. Because expeditions comprise a minority of the events military forces support, quickly reestablishing the automated system is usually not a habit within military units, so the tendency is to operate under a manual system during the expeditionary timeframe. This is also reinforced within Army Combat Training Centers, where units participating in maneuver exercises normally operate under the manual requisitioning system, as the short duration of the exercise (11 days to 3 weeks) seems to not justify the amount of coordination required between the military unit’s home training base and the support agencies at the training center.
Downstream disaster relief processes remain manual for different reasons. Somewhat ironically, although logistics and supply chain comprise a large portion of the disaster relief mission, logistics has remained somewhat of a lesser priority within disaster relief organizations.
Instead, it is viewed as more a necessary evil to accomplish the mission than a necessary enabler to the mission. Disaster relief operators are not logisticians, but instead conduct logistics by proximity; therefore their focus is not necessarily on improving logistics. This may contribute to the high turnover rate of people performing logistics functions within disaster relief operations each year (Davidson, 2006).  Additionally, further investment to improve manual systems to automated processes is not seen as a priority, because it is not attractive to the donors that sustain the disaster relief supply chain in the long term.
All of these aspects, coupled with the foundational focus on effectiveness over efficiency, steer both domains away from becoming a data-driven culture. In short, the amount of time required to record or collect the data via manual means does not contribute to the mission’s requirement of urgency or effectiveness; therefore, there is not an emphasis on collecting or analyzing data, at least not in the short run.
Required Support at Long-Range Distances
Both domains share the characteristic of providing support across long, extended lines of communication and distances, as organizations operating within both domains inherently possess an international focus (Davidson, 2006).  This requirement quickly leads to several other sub-challenges, including the lack of resources within the local area and the need to bring in supplies from afar, the need to coordinate with external local military, law enforcement, and coalition peacekeeping organizations, and the need to communicate requirements across international distances and borders. These requirements are often made more difficult due to the damage to local infrastructure and facilities, such as warehouses, ports, and runways.
Reliance on Airlift and Limited Airports
One of the most significant characteristics of the military emergency supply chain is the reliance on aerial transport (Department of the Army, 1993) This is necessary due to the responsiveness and suitability of aerial transport, as ocean surface transportation is not fast enough, seaports may be damaged beyond use, and ground surface transportation is not feasible with the international distances involved.
However, the dependence on air transport greatly constrains the overall amount of capabilities and supplies and the number of soldiers that can be deployed rapidly. As deploying soldiers is initially the priority, accompanying supplies, follow-on supplies, or sustainment capabilities may be delayed due to lack of airframes (Shatzkin, 2011).
Very quickly, military and non-military organizations compete for airlift (Government Accounting Office, 2010; (Department of the Army G4 and Sustainment Center of Excellence, 2010). Further, the limited capacity on the ground to receive and issue incoming supplies can backlog the receiving aerial ports. This may cause accountability issues and delays in processing time, particularly if incoming supplies are poorly marked.
Similarly, NGOs have the challenge of moving supplies quickly, and are constrained to using air transport to do so. With limited infrastructure to process incoming shipments, flights carrying military forces may compete with inbound sustainment for disaster victims. This competition for processing can also occur at seaports with damaged capacity for receiving containers and other cargo.
Use of Pre-positioned or Purchased Supplies
Deliberate, nonemergency deployments rely heavily on pre-positioned stocks to facilitate uninterrupted sustainment. However, in emergency situations, pre-positioned stocks may be limited or completely unavailable. While military forces may purchase or acquire supplies through host nation sources, these supplies may also be limited, particularly during disaster relief in an area with considerable infrastructural damage (Department of the Army, 1993).
The scarcity of limited pre-positioned supplies or the supplies available for purchase affects military forces’ ability to address the new demand requirements of a new environment as it deploys. While military forces deploy some accompanying stocks and possess the ability to requisition from higher sources of supply, the accompanying stocks have to compete with deploying forces, and the requisitioning process, which is initially manual, may require longer than the urgency of the environment allows. An inability to fully address and reconcile the difference between pre-deployment demand and deployment demand may have an undesired effect on military forces’ ability to conduct operations.
NGOs have similar challenges with the lack of pre-positioned stocks and supplies available for purchase, and therefore must also rely heavily on a manual requisitioning system. These challenges are compounded by the requirement to process inbound items through customs and sort through unwanted donations—functions that detract from the NGOs’ ability to rapidly conduct recovery and relief distribution.
The Push-Pull Nature of Required Supplies
Discerning demand, in terms of type, quantity, and location is a challenge in both domains of emergency supply chains. The key similarity between military and NGO emergency supply chains is the dynamic of simultaneous push-and-pull operations.
Some required commodities can be pushed throughout the operation, with some refinement from downstream agents through reporting procedures. Such items are anticipated general requirements that can be sent from upstream without a specific requisition “pulling” them from downstream. Examples of frequently pushed items are fuel, water, and rations for military forces, and water for disaster victims. While these items can run the risk of not being needed as much as other items and therefore consume the otherwise scarce airlift, they are generally low-cost, and their demand can be anticipated with a higher degree of certainty.
In contrast, pulled commodities may need to be requisitioned by on-ground logistics forces due to the uniqueness of an operation. Such commodities are more specialized and potentially more expensive as a result. Examples are specialized equipment repair parts and specialized rations. Both domains may employ one of several methods to prevent supply chains from being interrupted, such as pre-positioning supplies, sending “push packages” for sustainment prior to the supply chain’s maturation, or purchasing supplies from the local economy. All of these techniques may mitigate the demand not met for specialty supplies. As discussed earlier, not all requirements can be stocked ahead of time, pushed, or purchased, so there remains a need for both chains to be able to requisition supplies from a higher source. Both domains are somewhat constrained to requisition and receive these required supplies under a manual system, particularly as demand builds in volume.
These are some of the leading characteristics that make emergency supply chains challenging to analyze, plan, execute and improve.  My next blog post will focus on the relationship between military and non-governmental organizations operating simultaneously within disaster relief situations.
Davidson, L. 2006. Key Performance Indicators in Humanitarian Logistics.
Department of the Army. 1993. “General Supply in Theaters of Operations.” Field Manual, pp. 10–27.
Department of the Army G4 and Sustainment Center of Excellence, 2010. Operation Unified Response (OUR) Army Sustainment AAR, General Officer Session, Transcript of Proceedings, pp. 1–81.
Government Accounting Office Report 10-801 2010. U.S. Southern Command Demonstrates Interagency Collaboration, but Its Haiti Response Revealed a Difficulty Conducting a Large-Scale Operation. Washington, D.C: Government Accounting Office.
Joint Staff (J4) Logistics, Joint Staff (J7) Joint Force Development. 2012. Operations of the Logistic Enterprise in Complex Emergencies. Washington, D.C.
Shatzkin, M. 2011. “The 407th Brigade Support Battalion’s Performance in Operation Unified Response: A Chapter in Expeditionary Logistics.” Military Review 91, no. 5, p. 52.
About the Author:
Matt Shatzkin has been an Army logistics practitioner for 27 years, achieving the rank of Colonel and earning his Ph.D. in transportation and logistics from North Dakota State University. He is the author of the book, “Understanding the Complexity of Emergency Supply Chains.”  He has executed supply chains in support of three military crisis responses, led research teams, and taught several classes on supply chain management for the Army War College and North Dakota State University.