The origins of the Defense Logistics Agency date back to World War II when America’s military buildup required the rapid procurement of vast amounts of supplies. After the war, a commission headed by former President Herbert C. Hoover recommended the armed forces centralize logistics provision. Integration began in the mid-1950s when the Defense Department assigned individual services items to manage for the entire military. The Army became responsible for food, general supplies, construction supplies, and clothing; the Navy medical supplies, industrial supplies, and petroleum; and the Air Force airlift services. Integration continued in 1958 when the Defense Department formed the Armed Forces Supply Support Center. For the first time, the services bought, stored, and issued using common nomenclature.
This integration, though successful, did not provide the uniformity recommended by Hoover. Each single manager operated under the procedures of its parent service: customers used as many procedures as there were managers. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara addressed this problem in 1961 by combining single-managers and the Armed Forces Supply Support Center into one agency. The Defense Supply Agency formed Oct. 1 and began operations Jan. 1, 1962.
DSA mobilized twice in its first five years. The Cuban Missile Crisis shocked the world in 1962. The agency supplied film to aircraft photographing nuclear weapons, assembled an invasion force that thankfully never had to launch, fueled vessels quarantining Cuba, and provided fallout shelter material for the entire country. Three years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson deployed an additional 44 battalions to Vietnam. The U.S. had been conducting an assistance mission in the country ever since French defeat in 1954. The agency responded to the increased need for its goods and services by hiring contract specialists, seamstresses, and warehouse workers.
Other growth pushed DSA past 62,000 employees. The agency acquired four depots so it could distribute assigned supplies, a mission assigned to it in its initial charter. When told to administer the contracts it wrote, DSA formed the Defense Contract Administration Service to ensure quality, funds use, and adherence to security protocols. At the same time, the Cold War demanded the U.S. keep sizable forces in the Pacific and Europe. Because these units needed subsistence, the agency started supplying mess halls in both locations and commissaries in Europe.
The need for efficient logistics beyond the continental United States continued to extend DSA’s reach. With units returning from Vietnam in the early 1970s, the Defense Department consolidated end of equipment-life services under the agency. Teams from the newly formed Defense Property Disposal Service deployed to Saigon to determine what items should be returned, what could be transferred to the South Vietnamese, and what had to be destroyed.
Disposal was important but localized. Managing bulk petroleum, on the other hand, involved DSA everywhere the U.S. had troops. As directed by Deputy Defense Secretary Kenneth Rush in 1972, the agency assumed responsibility for worldwide procurement and distribution. Initially opposed by the services because it meant civilians over whom they had no control would operate in hot spots such as Asia and Europe, the transfer became less contentious once DSA started saving them money.
One way the agency saved money was automation. DSA consolidated stock fund management, pricing, and billing in the Defense Fuel Automated Management System. Unfortunately for DSA, DFAMS did not communicate with its other automations. The most important of these was the Standard Automated Materiel Management System. Designed by DSA, SAMMS became the first program to integrate asset, order, finance, acquisition, and requirements functions of nonperishable and noncombustible goods.
Additional responsibilities led to a name change. On Jan. 1, 1977, the Defense Department, recognizing DSA accomplished more than just supply, rechristened it the Defense Logistics Agency. The newly titled agency demonstrated its broad remit over the next few years, not only acquiring complex items such as the meal, ready-to-eat; Kevlar helmet; and sleeping bag system but also working with the Army on the M1 Abrams tank and the Air Force on the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
DLA received even more responsibilities as the decade turned. First was an increase in consumable items. Transfers from the services grew the percentage of parts the agency provided just as the Reagan buildup was expanding the weapon systems those parts supported. Other missions came with the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. By designating DLA a combat support agency, the act involved it in war planning and operations support. Then, two years later, DLA entered an entirely new field when Congress gave it the National Defense Stockpile.
The 1990s were defined by peacekeeping missions and one conflict interrupting otherwise nonstop organizational change. The decade began with the Defense Department planning cuts to the services. The United States had just won the Cold War and, with the Soviet Union no longer a threat, security seemed assured. Before any reductions could occur, however, Iraq invaded Kuwait and America deployed half a million service members to the Middle East. DLA earned its first joint unit meritorious award housing, equipping, maintaining, feeding, and fueling this force.
The Defense Department started restructuring as soon as troops returned home. One initiative combined the contract administration offices under DLA. The agency converted its Defense Contract Administration Service into the Defense Contract Management Command as a result. The Defense Department also merged all distribution depots under DLA. Consolidation began October 1990 and was complete March 1992. New offices and depots pushed the agency to an all-time high of 65,500 employees.
DLA did not stay at 65,500 for long. Base Realignment and Closures 1993 and 1995 cut contract administration headquarters, eliminated distribution depots, reduced reutilization offices, and merged units. Mergers included Defense Construction Supply Center combining with Defense Electronics Supply Center to form Defense Supply Center Columbus and Defense Personnel Support Center collocating with Defense Industrial Supply Center, eventually to establish Defense Supply Center Philadelphia.
More reorganization followed. In 1995, responding to a BRAC 1988 decision, DLA moved its headquarters and the Defense Fuel Supply Center from Cameron Station to Fort Belvoir. In 1996, DLA accepted the Defense Automated Printing Service from the Navy. Four years later, it subordinated service centers to staffs. Along with the Defense Logistics Information Service, the Defense Automated Printing Service, now called Document Automation and Production Service, became part of DLA Information Operations.
Reorganization was not all the agency accomplished in the middle and later thirds of the 1990s. Although Operation Joint Endeavor in Bosnia was DLA’s most-involved peace enforcement of the decade, the agency also supplied Kurds in Operation Provide Comfort, provided humanitarian assistance to Somalis in Operation Restore Hope, and helped Haiti restore constitutional order in Operation Uphold Democracy. In the post Goldwater-Nichols era, these missions entailed more than sending supplies: they involved deploying teams with experts from every major functional area of the agency.
A new decade introduced new challenges. At the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, DLA shifted its support from Karshi Khanabad in Uzbekistan to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. After America launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, shipments to both Afghanistan and Iraq arrived via a newly constructed distribution center in Kuwait. A theater consolidation and shipping point followed later. Help came from the states as well, with the Defense Personnel Support Center employing a subsistence prime vendor for the entire Middle East. Overseeing the contract, modifying it, and transferring it from company to company became agency-level missions.
Hurricane Katrina returned attention to the United States in August 2005. Having developed a good working relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, DLA provided the organization food, water, housing material, sandbags, and generators. While the agency had responded to weather events in the past, Katrina surpassed these in scale and damage. After the response, DLA formalized its relationship with FEMA and incorporated disaster response into normal operations.
Another development outside the War on Terror came to fruition the year after Katrina. DLA had run the Standard Automated Materiel Management System for three and a half decades by 2006. Over that time, it had dropped from a leading to a lagging technology. A new material management program required a new material management design. DLA started pursing both in 1998. Eight years later, the technology – Enterprise Business Systems – was installed at Defense Construction Supply Center. The reorganization – Business Systems Modernization – gave the agency more control over processes, greater visibility of inputs, and new tools to serve customers.
The War on Terror did not stop for new technology or structures. Resistance in Iraq prompted the U.S. to surge forces in 2007. A favorite enemy tactic was hiding improvised explosive devises alongside roads. To counter this threat, the Defense Department fielded V-hulled mine-resistant vehicles. DLA catalogued parts for these off-the-shelf systems and bought spares early and in mass.
The War on Terror introduced other innovations. In 2009, to oversee expeditionary contracting, DLA formed the Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office. To reduce reliance on Pakistan’s ground line of communication, the agency helped U.S. Transportation Command establish the Northern Distribution Network. Nearly all goods transiting the NDN came from DLA.
Missions at home and abroad kept DLA busy in its sixth decade. The shift from Iraq to Afghanistan in the early 2010s involved DLA Distribution, which collected construction material passing through Kuwait so it could be forwarded to Afghanistan without first returning to the states. Then, in October and November 2012, Hurricane Sandy strengthened the agency’s relationship with FEMA. A new mission came to DLA when it started supplying the U.S. Forest Service in May 2014. Later that year, it helped the U.S. Agency for International Development combat Ebola in West Africa. DLA was on the ground early, identifying contractors, renting warehouses, and establishing fuel points. After providing material for treatment centers, it supplied food, water, cots, and medical supplies to those operating them. While progress was being made across the Atlantic, DLA Disposition Services scrapped material in Afghanistan as Operation Enduring Freedom transitioned to Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
DLA alternated between warfighter and whole of government support for the rest of the decade. In 2015, it established a support relationship with the newly formed Defense Health Agency, a relationship similar to its ongoing – and growing – partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2016, the agency made regional commands its “single face” to combatant commanders. In 2019, the F-35 Joint Program Office designated DLA product support provider for North American warehousing and, with U.S. Transportation Command, global transportation.
Whole of government support entered new territory with COVID-19. DLA played a critical role combating the virus from the earliest outbreaks in the Republic of Korea to the latest shipment of federally provided at-home test kits. Ensuring military and family members had protective equipment, ventilators, and vaccines was only part of the mission. The agency also applied its acquisition expertise to mission assignments from the Department of Health and Human Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency. At the same time, it equipped hospitals deployed to America’s hardest-hit cities, supported sailors on vessels stricken with the virus, and managed protective equipment data for the Defense Department.
On Oct. 1, 2021, with the pandemic quelled but not eliminated, the Defense Logistics Agency celebrated 60 years supporting the warfighter. As America’s combat logistics support agency, DLA continues to provide the military services and other partners superior acquisition and logistics services.
Interested in the histories of some of DLA's major subordinate commands? Visit the following pages to learn more about specific parts of DLA, or choose one of the installation graphics to get a glimpse of their story.
DLA Annual History Reports
Strategic plans set the agency's long-term goals. Learn more about DLA's current strategic plan, or view previous plans:
All eight of DLA's Joint Meritorious Unit Awards have been earned since the agency was designated a combat support agency. The first recognized performance during the Gulf War. Subsequent awards recognized either support to named operations, whole of government responses, or significant savings.
Use the tabs above to learn more about each of the agency's JMUAs.
Date Received: Oct. 1, 1991
Period Covered: Aug. 2, 1990, to Feb. 28, 1991
Director: Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles P. McCausland
Date Received: May 8, 1996
Period Covered: Feb. 17, 1994, to Oct. 1, 1995
Director: Navy Vice Adm. Edward M. Straw
Date Received: July 23, 1999
Period Covered: Nov. 1, 1996, to Feb. 1, 1999
Directors: Air Force Lt. Gen. George T. Babbitt and Army Lt. Gen. Henry T. Glisson
Date Received: Jan. 15, 2003
Period Covered: Sept. 11, 2001, to Feb. 28, 2002
Director: Navy Vice Adm. Keith W. Lippert
Date Received: Aug. 15, 2005
Period Covered: Aug. 1, 2002, to Jan. 1, 2005
Director: Navy Vice Adm. Keith W. Lippert
Date Received: Oct. 4, 2011
Period Covered: Nov. 1, 2009, to April 30, 2011
Director: Navy Vice Adm. Alan S. Thompson
Date Received: April 29, 2014
Period Covered: Nov. 1, 2011, to Dec. 31, 2012
Director: Navy Vice Admiral Mark D. Harnitchek
Date Received: Dec. 19, 2019
Period Covered: Sept. 16, 2014, to Dec. 31, 2018
Directors: Air Force Lt. Gen. Andrew E. Busch and Army Lt. Gen. Darrell K. Williams
The mission and functions of the agency are rooted to the following charters:
Many directors and vice/deputy directors have led the organization through the decades, each with their own impact on the agency. Explore the tabs above to learn more.