General John M. McDuffie: Telling War Stories

When John M. “Mike” McDuffie talks about a crisis, he doesn’t mean a late shipment; he means catastrophes such as the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. As director of logistics for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant General McDuffie coordinated the race to move people, equipment, and supplies to Nairobi and Dar es Salaam—not just for the military, but for the FBI, the State Department, intelligence agencies, and search-and-rescue teams.

“The bombings were such dramatic events, and were such a long distance away, that it was a real challenge to get everybody all together on one sheet of music,” he recalls.

The embassy attacks drove home a vital lesson: they spurred the Department of Defense (DoD) and other agencies to cooperate on logistics planning. “We used the Africa situation to develop procedures, and created working groups to have cyclical coordination meetings,” McDuffie says. Now, for example, when the Fairfax Urban Search and Rescue Team deploys to a disaster overseas, the DoD can include that group’s equipment in its airlift.

Coordination is a major concern as the DoD embraces new logistics technologies. Each of the four military branches buys information technology independently. Getting them all to conform to standards, so they can better leverage their investments, has not been easy.

“We’ve come a long way in trying to force the information systems to be interoperable,” McDuffie says. “You want to talk about herding big cats? And, as in any other organization, when you don’t have the power of the dollar in your hand, they don’t herd quite as well.”

The DoD’s logistics operation is not particularly efficient, but it’s the most effective in the world—a success it achieves largely “through mass and bulk,” McDuffie says. Unlike a corporation, the DoD can afford huge inventories. When lives depend on the prompt arrival of tanks and bandages, safety stock is no luxury.

But with technologies such as radio frequency tags and optical memory cards, the DoD is becoming more efficient, he says. And as they work toward leaner operations, military logistics officers don’t have to shoulder a second burden that falls upon many of their corporate counterparts: convincing skeptics that logistics is a strategic asset.

A Feel for the Supply Chain

Drafted into the Army in 1970, McDuffie got his first feel for the supply chain as a maintenance test pilot. Logistics became his full-time concern in the mid 1980s. He has since commanded a 10,000-person worldwide logistics operation, and served as director of logistics and security assistance for the European Command and as a U.S. national logistics representative to NATO.

McDuffie assumed his position with the Joint Chiefs in 1998 and retired last fall. He now works as senior vice president and general manager of the defense programs and systems group at Anteon Corp., Fairfax, Va.