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Military Sealift Command (MSC)
Prepare Now for Potential Future Supply Chain, Logistics Crisis
by Bill Mesta, USN Military Sealift Command
18 November 2020
NORFOLK, Va. --
Military Sealift Command (MSC) hosted Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, Supply Chain Stabilization Task Force Lead for the Federal Government’s efforts for procurement and distribution of critical medical equipment and supplies in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, as the guest speaker for its ‘Waypoints’ speaker series, Nov. 18.
The virtual speaking engagement was held to give the MSC team an opportunity to learn about the supply chain and logistics challenges faced by the task force during its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The information was presented in hopes that MSC would gain situational insight so the community could be better prepared to respond to potential future logistic crisis within its fleet.
On March 13, 2020, President Donald J. Trump declared a national emergency for the entire United States. From islands across two oceans to the major metropolitan cities of America, the scale of this historic event required the Federal Government to adapt its response practices and workforce posture in order to both respond to COVID-19 and simultaneously maintain mission readiness for future concerns, according to Polowczyk’s July 2, 2020, statement to the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I was the Vice Director for Logistics on the Joint Staff,” Polowczyk said. “I received a call Sunday, March 15, from the Director of the Joint Staff who relayed a request from the Director of Health and Human Services (HSS) who was requesting Department of Defense (DOD) assistance with logistics and supply chain planning. It became immediately clear that HSS had little expertise in executing a large scale large scale logistics event.”
“By Wednesday, I was charged with standing up a supply chain task force,” he added. “Also on Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was placed in charge of the COVID-19 response. So we shifted the response (lead) from HHS to FEMA. By Friday, I found myself in the Vice President of the United States’ office explaining how we were going to stand up a supply chain task force, what we were going to require to stand up the task force and we were off and running. By Saturday, I found myself briefing the Nation about our supply chain response.”
To address the imbalance between supply and demand for personal protective equipment and other medical supplies, the Supply Chain Stabilization Task Force was assembled on March 20, 2020. The Task Force consisted of a multi-faceted team across the U.S. government and liaisons from the private sector. This whole-of-government response included over a dozen agencies and departments, such as the DOD (including the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), HHS, (including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)), the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), embedded within the Supply Chain Task Force to coordinate response efforts, according to the U.S. House of Representatives report.
The task force used FEMA’s National Response Framework (NRF) to address the nation’s supply chain response to the pandemic. The NRF is a guide to how the nation responds to all types of disasters and emergencies. It is built on scalable, flexible, and adaptable concepts identified in the National Incident Management System to align key roles and responsibilities, according to FEMA.
“It is important to remember that our National Response Framework is locally executed, state managed, and supported by the Federal Government,” Polowczyk added. “As such, all of the requests for support started at the local government level and are sent up through state governments and ultimately to FEMA.”
“Keep in mind that our National Response Framework had never been activated for all 50 states and five territories (at the same time); so FEMA was faced with a significant task,” according to Polowczyk.
As the supply chain response was being implemented by FEMA it became apparent that many of the states in need of support were not experienced in executing a large scale logistics crisis response plan designed to manage disasters, according to Polowczyk.
In addition to the state and local level inexperience in supply chain crisis response, the task force was faced with challenges posed by the status of the Strategic National Stockpile.
The Strategic National Stockpile's role is to supplement state and local medical supplies and equipment during public health emergencies. The supplies, medicines, and devices for lifesaving care contained in the stockpile can be used as a short-term, stopgap buffer when the immediate supply of these materials may not be available or sufficient, according to HSS.
“By the time our task force at FEMA had been stood up, the Strategic National Stockpile had been expended,” according to Polowczyk. “Items such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and additional items needed for infectious disease control were not available.”
“Prior to the pandemic, the nation’s medical supply chain relied heavily on ‘just in time’ delivery methods to manage their supplies with very little inventory at hospitals, no inventory at the state level, and small amounts of medical supplies in the federal inventory,” he added. “At the same time there was only a matter of weeks’ worth of inventory available on the commercial market, as private suppliers had their supply chains designed to support ‘just in time’ sourcing.”
The ‘just in time’ supply chain concept is a manufacturing workflow methodology aimed at reducing flow times and costs within production systems and the distribution of materials, according to the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply. The prime goal of ‘just in time’ is for zero inventories across the organization and its supply chain.
“So as the task force began to address the medical supply chain, we were faced with a demand for PPE and medical supplies at levels 300 to 400 times greater than pre-COVID-19,” said Polowczyk. “For example, we were using about 1.5 billion Nitrile gloves in a week in the United States. So the task force was facing a very high hurdle as it moved to address the nation’s medical supply needs for the pandemic response.”
Building partnerships between medical experts, associations, government organizations and private industry were critical for the task force to address the nation’s medical supply needs in the face of the pandemic.
“One of our take-aways was that there is an association for everything,” Polowczyk said. “We worked very closely with the American Hospital Association to understand our hospitals’ needs. We worked with nurses associations to determine the best way to support their needs. The task force also worked with the American Medical Association and the American Dental Society to determine their requirements.”
“We worked very closely with the American Association of Manufactures who were instrumental in our understanding of who could produce what and how we could expand the U.S. industrial base to meet our supply chain needs,” he added.
To execute a strategy maximizing the availability of critical protective and lifesaving resources, the task force applied a four-pronged approach of Preservation, Acceleration, Expansion and Allocation to rapidly increase supply and expand domestic production of critical resources to increase long-term supply requirements, according to the U.S. House of Representatives report.
• The Preservation line of effort focused on providing Federal guidance to responders and the non-medical sector, such as public service (police, fire, EMT), energy distribution and the food industry on how to preserve supplies when possible, or reduce impact on the medical supply chain.
• The Acceleration line of effort provided direct results to help meet the demand for PPE through the industry to allow responders to get supplies they need as fast as possible.
• The Expansion line of effort was charged with generating capacity with both traditional and non-traditional manufacturers, such as adding machinery or by re-tooling assembly lines to produce new products.
• The Allocation line of effort was the data-informed approach that facilitated the distribution of critically needed personal protective equipment to 'hot spots' for immediate resupply.
“The four lines of effort were implemented to buy time to do the one thing that was going to save us; which was expand the U.S. industrial base (to meet the medical community’s needs in addressing the pandemic),” said Polowczyk. “As a result of the task force’s efforts, the nation’s medical inventories for COVID-19 response related supplies have stabilized.”
“What is different today than it was in March is that the states now have stock piles of COVID-19 response medical supplies,” according to Polowczyk. “One hundred percent of the states now have a stockpile of supplies designed to last 60 days or more. Also, many of the large hospital systems now how enough supplies to last five or six months.”
“As of now, we have approximately 153,000 ventilators in the Strategic National Stockpile,” he added. “The Strategic National Stockpile contained approximately 18 million N-95 respirators back in March. We are on track to have approximately 300 million N-95 respirators in the stockpile by December.”
Polowczyk indicated that the lessons learned by the Supply Chain Task Force could be beneficial for Military Sealift Command’s future planning efforts.
“If you consider the current Great Power Competition and everything that MSC would have to undertake in a war time environment, some items this community should consider is how will you surge the critical supplies and equipment required to meet your mission? What does the supply chain for your critical supplies and equipment look like? How well is MSC set up to define and fund surge requirements and how well have MSC’s needs been articulated to industry? Also how are these surge requirements going to be resourced? What will it take for MSC to be able to surge in a time of crisis?” he said.
“Never forget that when faced with a supply chain crisis, it is really hard to surge zero and that time is of the essence,” according to Polowczyk.
One of MSC’s primary functions is to execute contracts with small business and industry partners to ensure its fleet of approximately 125 naval auxiliary ships are supplied and equipped properly to meet the nation’s requirements.
“Learning organizations strive to learn, and I think we at MSC have exhibited this continued learning throughout the history of our community and most certainly in recent times as we have learned how to continue our operations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rear Adm. Michael Wettlaufer, Commander, Military Sealift Command.
“In order for MSC to be able to manage a supply chain crisis, you have to be able to surge contracts; and surging contracts is MSC’s primary weapon system,” added Wettlaufer. “We can surge contracts like nobody’s business.”
As a standard practice, MSC is always in search of new commercial partners to ensure its fleet is capable of meeting all of its ‘no fail’ missions.
"We need to look at establishing relationships now with vendors who would provide the resources needed for us to support a rapid surge in a time of conflict or crisis," added Steve Cade, Executive Director, Military Sealift Command.
MSC’s workforce of approximately 7,600 people includes Civil Service Mariners (CIVMAR), active duty and reserve service members federal civil service employees and contractors. An additional 1,400 commercial mariners support MSC’s prepositioning, sealift and special missions.
MSC’s mission is to support the joint warfighter across the full spectrum of military operations including support for the current global environment, which has been described as the ‘Great Power Competition,’ and to respond to crisis and conflict if required. MSC provides agile logistics, strategic sealift, and specialized mission support anywhere in the world, twenty-four hours-a-day, 365 days a year.
MSC’s ‘Waypoints’ is a quarterly speaker series which features subject matter experts including industry leaders, military leaders, academics and historians. The speaking engagements are designed to enlighten and inform the MSC team about situations and events outside of the organization which could benefit future planning for its fleet.
This iteration of the ‘Waypoints’ speaker series was conducted remotely to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus among MSC’s teammates.
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