military helicopter delivers essential supplies and equipment

How Machine Learning is Shaping Military Logistics: An Interview with Tagup Founder and CEO Jon Garrity

Effective military logistics is a critical determinant for mission success. However, numerous obstacles have hindered the effectiveness of America's defense logistics both domestically and internationally.

Firstly, logistics data is fragmented and siloed across disparate information systems, hampering access and utilization for timely and accurate decision-making. Moreover, existing military logistics systems lack crucial predictive modeling and simulation tools necessary for strategic planning.

Against this backdrop, adversaries are swiftly adopting cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence to enhance their military logistics at unprecedented speed. This presents both an opportunity and threat for the Department of Defense (DoD) and our national security.

I sat with Jon Garrity, CEO and Co-Founder of Tagup, to discuss the impact of advanced computing in military operations, Tagup’s work with I MEF and INDOPACOM to optimize Class VIII supply, and how the company is broadening its reach across service branches to develop the next generation of defense logistics. Read on for insights from our conversation and to learn about Tagup’s work with the DoD.

In a digital world, progress is only limited by the availability and quality of data. How have data limitations stalled the advancement of military operational processes, and how is that changing on the whole today?

The primary issue we've encountered with military data mirrors what we've seen in the private sector. Most commonly, data that is valuable for machine learning models is scattered across various systems, which tend to be siloed from one another. This fragmentation, coupled with a  lack of standardization and well-defined interfaces, makes it difficult to generate sufficiently concentrated data sets that could drive meaningful business or operational value.

That's changing. There are efforts underway to develop federated data models, which aim to provide a unified interface to several legacy data sources. This will mark a significant step forward, but it's still very early days.

There’s lots of talk of AI / ML being a combat multiplier and companies promoting their work in this arena, but not much operationalization. How is Tagup different in this regard?

Relative to other AI initiatives, we've been laser focused on the tactical end user. We place a deliberate emphasis on creating tangible business value and are disciplined about operationalizing our solutions. 

There are hundreds of artificial intelligence initiatives across the Department of Defense, with a significant concentration of efforts and funding directed by the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office (CDAO). Despite the substantial investment, we’ve observed that a minimal portion of this funding reaches soldiers on the ground, with most allocations targeting high-level strategic frameworks, such as ADVANA. However, the translation of these initiatives into tangible, on-the-ground value for troops has been limited.

Recognizing these challenges, we’ve made an effort to bridge this gap by prioritizing the end-user in our approach. Our goal has been to navigate around the common obstacles related to data aggregation and the practical implementation of AI solutions, aiming to deliver immediate value to those who need it most.

Can you speak to some of the funding / proposals that you’ve won to get a foothold in the defense sector?

Sure. Our journey into the defense sector began when we applied for a National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) Fellowship, which led to a Marine Corps Major, Gabe Mata, being assigned to work with us. At the time, we had no prior experience in defense and were focused solely on the private sector.

Major Mata spent six weeks with us in our Boston office, during which he gained a deep  understanding of our technology and its potential capabilities.He saw the value our solutions could bring to Marine Corps supply and maintenance operations, and wrote us a letter of support for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) proposal for the Navy—specifically with Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). 

This SBIR award was our initial breakthrough. We successfully secured Phase I and then Phase II, which allowed us to expand our services to include maintenance and supply capabilities for the I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) at Camp Pendleton, focusing on the Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR) and Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) platforms.

This early success laid the groundwork for our rapid expansion into Phase III and beyond, enabling us to extend our technology and services across various applications within the Department of Defense.

Tagup has primarily focused on Marine Corps Medical Logistics (MEDLOG) and the Defense Medical Logistics Supply Support System (DMLSS). How do you see the company expanding to help improve readiness in other areas / branches of the military?

We have had a significant focus on Class VIII medical supplies, but have experience with Class VII principal end items and Class IX repair parts. Our ambition is to extend our reach across all supply classes, leveraging our capabilities to enhance readiness, productivity, and budget efficiency across the board. 

We also plan to broaden our operations into additional Areas of Responsibility (AORs). Moving past our current engagements with I MEF and INDOPACOM, we aim to offer support to other MEFs as well.

The potential for value creation multiplies when we consider optimizing not just a single node of supply but a network of them. For instance, understanding the availability of materiel across the Department of Defense for any given operation is crucial for strategic planning and execution, highlighting the importance of a comprehensive view of materiel position and readiness.

Our expansion isn't limited to just the Marine Corps; we see applications for our technology across all branches of the military. Materiel national stock numbers (NSNs) and standards, which are consistent across the Department of Defense, facilitate this broad applicability. With the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) supporting material needs across the services, our technologies have the potential to significantly enhance the value of supply chains on a wide scale.

In essence, our expansion strategy encompasses three main dimensions: extending our support across all classes of supply (I through X), optimizing supply across multiple nodes and theaters of operation, and serving all branches of the military. This multifaceted approach is how we plan to deliver greater value to the Department of Defense and, by extension, U.S. taxpayers.

How will you continue to gain traction and credibility with defense buyers?

Ultimately, success is fundamentally tied to demonstrating tangible results. There is a lot of hype around artificial intelligence, and a shortage of high-quality, tangible demonstrations of its value. We've already shown what our technology can do, albeit on a smaller scale, through our work with the Marine Corps and are eager to continue to prove out that value. 

As we push forward and broaden our scope across the strategies we've discussed, our focus will be on reinforcing our value proposition. We aim to further enhance military readiness, optimize budget efficiency, and boost productivity. I firmly believe that the most effective way to build and maintain trust and credibility with our defense partners and clients is by consistently delivering substantial and measurable benefits. Showing real, impactful results time and time again is how we plan to differentiate ourselves and reinforce our commitment to supporting our military's needs. 

Who is benefitting from the application of these artificial intelligence solutions? How specifically? 

Within the military, our primary users are in the supply domain, from supply depot to the headquarter level. Four primary areas of value creation are in increased readiness, improved budget efficiency, enhanced productivity, and streamlined decision-making.These benefits are being recognized by users across the entire chain of command.

A significant use case for our technology lies in the precise optimization of inventory levels, down to the detail of individual NSNs. By integrating forecasts of demand, understanding expiration dates, comprehending lead times from suppliers, and considering other crucial factors, we can determine the optimal inventory levels. This approach ensures that readiness and combat effectiveness are maximized within budget constraints.

These advantages are acknowledged at the supply depot level and become increasingly apparent as you ascend the command hierarchy. We offer unprecedented insights and transparency into how resources are allocated, including budget expenditures and manpower utilization.

Essentially, our technology equips senior military officers with a unified view of material availability and the overall state of supply operations, fostering informed decision-making and strategic planning.

When people think about AI in the military, they likely associate it with unmanned weapons systems and combat operations. What makes logistics as critical to winning wars as firepower?

The significance of logistics in warfare can't be overstated, aptly summarized by a possibly apocryphal quote attributed to General John J. Pershing during World War I: “Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars.” This principle is something we hold to be fundamentally true.

While the prowess of well-trained soldiers is undeniable, their capabilities are inherently limited without adequate logistical support. Logistics might not share the spotlight with combat operations, but its importance cannot be underestimated—it's the backbone that supports the force.

Artificial intelligence showcases its strengths in various kinetic applications, like image recognition and navigating uncertainties. However, logistics presents an even more fitting challenge for AI due to the vast amounts of transactional data and the complexity of ensuring the right materiel is at the right place at the right time. Numerous variables must be considered, from lead times and anticipated demand to troop movements and geopolitical shifts.

We as humans have developed some effective heuristics for identifying what materiel needs to be where and when, but it's impossible for us to factor in expected lead times for every individual NSN’s anticipated demand requirements at a given location in the future given troop movements or other geopolitical activities.

Artificial intelligence has delivered superhuman performance in more and more sophisticated games and simulations. As an example, you've likely seen what AlphaGo has done with respect to the board game, Go. Similarly, our platform, Manifest, excels in determining optimal materiel distribution amidst the myriad of uncertainties and variables, much like AlphaGo strategizes its next move without complete foresight. This capability underscores the transformative impact AI can have on military logistics, ensuring readiness and effectiveness through strategic material positioning and planning.

How is it that Tagup came to understand military logistical challenges, and why did you decide to solve them now?

Although most of our team members lack extensive experience in military operations, we've gained a deep understanding of military logistical challenges by immersing ourselves in the field, working closely with the warfighters themselves. This hands-on approach has allowed us to grasp the intricacies of what is needed, identify existing challenges, and brainstorm potential solutions.

I firmly believe that for machine learning to truly deliver value in physical applications like military logistics, it's essential to have a collaborative effort between subject matter experts, qualified data scientists, and software engineers. Even if you possess top-notch data science skills and are embedded within the military as either active duty or a civilian, the complexities of meeting data requirements, navigating infrastructure needs, and understanding the nuances of the problems make delivering machine learning solutions at scale incredibly challenging.

Through our close collaboration with the warfighter, we've gained invaluable insights into these challenges. One key principle we emphasize internally is the importance of rapid iteration. By continuously pushing updates to production multiple times a day while stationed on base, we ensure that the capabilities we're delivering directly address the identified military logistics challenges.

As for why we've chosen to tackle these challenges now, the landscape of artificial intelligence is rapidly evolving, with adversaries and near peers heavily investing in this technology. Considering the sheer scale of military logistics, the substantial value of materiel, and the critical importance to military readiness, I firmly believe it's imperative that we collectively address these challenges without delay. This is a problem that demands immediate attention and innovative solutions.

Tagup could apply its technology to any industry. Why are you investing in the defense sector?

You're absolutely correct that Tagup's technology has a wide range of potential applications across various industries, both in the private and public sectors. However, we've chosen to focus our investments specifically in the defense sector for several reasons.

Firstly, the military possesses an enormous amount of data. Machine learning thrives on large datasets, and the military provides a wealth of this type of information. Although accessing and standardizing this data can be challenging, it was evident from the beginning that the scale of the military's data presented a significant opportunity for machine learning to generate real value.

Additionally, our commitment to the defense sector is driven by our desire to enhance the capabilities of the United States military. We're dedicated to ensuring that every unit is equipped with the necessary medical supplies to treat casualties and the right equipment to maximize mission success in the event of conflict.

Knowing that our technology could directly contribute to saving American lives serves as a powerful motivation for our team.

Walk me through each of your defense product offerings and how they work.

At the core of our platform lies Manifest. Manifest serves as the foundation, organizing crucial data, managing machine learning models, and handling essential processes like authentication, authorization, and low-level data management. Additionally, it provides the framework for user applications. Essentially, Manifest streamlines the process of delivering machine learning into production applications, ensuring efficiency and effectiveness.

Built upon Manifest are several specific components designed to address various aspects of military logistics. These components enable us to optimize inventory levels, recommend ideal resource allocations for exercises or missions, and ultimately enhance readiness, budget efficiency, and the productivity of warfighters, all while reducing the time to make critical decisions. Examples of these components include demand forecasting, consumption forecasting, and lead time forecasting, among others. Approximately ten of these underlying models are integrated into what we call a Bayesian simulator. This simulator allows us to analyze thousands of different scenarios and determine optimal materiel distribution to ensure supply capabilities are optimized for frontline operations.

Users interact with our product primarily through APIs for programmatic access and closed-loop applications. For instance, our system can automatically generate orders for replenishment based on anticipated demand, lead times for orders, and other relevant factors. Additionally, users can access our platform via applications, providing easy access to mission-critical data for personnel ranging from flag officers to privates, facilitating mission success at all levels of command.

Who is in charge of operating your software after it’s deployed?

After deploying our software, the responsibility for its operation varies depending on the specific use case and the preferences of our customers. We offer comprehensive training and support services to ensure our customers are equipped to effectively utilize the software. However, our software is designed to be highly automated and can operate seamlessly in the background without requiring constant human intervention.

There are certain applications where our software operates autonomously, without any need for human involvement. In these cases, the value of our technology accrues without direct input from users.

Our ultimate goal is to automate these capabilities to the greatest extent possible. We aim for machine learning-driven decisions to be implemented with minimal or even no human oversight. By automating routine tasks, we free up valuable time for warfighters to focus on tasks that leverage their unique skills and expertise. After all, their comparative advantage typically doesn't lie in administrative tasks like placing orders for materiel.

What is the value potential of Tagup working with the Department of Defense (DoD) at scale?

The value potential of Tagup collaborating with the Department of Defense (DoD) at scale is immense.

For instance, at 1st Supply Battalion, we've already demonstrated significant success by reducing required inventory by approximately 15% over an evaluation period, all while maintaining out-the-door readiness. Extrapolating from this, if we could achieve similar reductions in Department of Defense consumables inventory by 10% or even 15%, while still ensuring the same level of readiness, the potential cost savings would be substantial—likely amounting to billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars.

However, it's important to note that some military stakeholders may be more concerned with maintaining readiness levels than with reducing spending. For these individuals, the ability to increase readiness while keeping spending constant would be particularly appealing.

Conversely, there are stakeholders, such as Congress, who may prioritize cost savings. Being able to demonstrate substantial reductions in spending while maintaining or even enhancing readiness would be highly compelling to them.

Ultimately, our goal is to provide estimates on how much we can improve out-the-door readiness for a given level of expenditure. This metric is crucial as it showcases tangible outcomes, such as increasing readiness from 82% to 91% without increasing spending—a monumental achievement with significant implications for the Department of Defense as a whole. Scaling such outcomes across the DoD could lead to transformative improvements in operational efficiency and effectiveness.

As a start-up, what challenges does your team face in reaching said scale?

One major hurdle is navigating the complex contracting process and adhering to federal acquisition regulations, which differ significantly from those in the private sector. The DoD has specific requirements related to security and compliance that can slow down our progress.

Efforts are underway to streamline this process and make it more accessible for small businesses like ours to scale while working with the DoD. Despite these efforts, there's still a significant learning curve and bureaucratic red tape to contend with.

While we've experienced success at the tactical end-user level, expanding our scope and capabilities requires support at various levels—from policymakers on Capitol Hill to decision-makers at the tactical level and everywhere in between. Securing this support and navigating the complexities of the decision-making process within the DoD is a continual challenge that we're actively addressing. We're working diligently to build relationships and navigate these channels as efficiently as possible to accelerate our growth and maximize the impact of our technology.

What are you most excited about for the future of Tagup and the military?

The pace of technological advancement is unprecedented, and our ability to stay ahead of near peers is essential. Ensuring that the U.S. military remains the preeminent fighting force worldwide is not just a goal—it's a responsibility that we take very seriously.

We're just scratching the surface of what's possible, and I'm eagerly anticipating the journey ahead as we continue to innovate and make a meaningful impact on military operations.

March 22, 2024