DLA operations leader describes supply chain resilience for COVID-19

By Beth Reece

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Multiple customers rushing to buy finite supplies was one of the Defense Logistics Agency’s biggest challenges in its COVID-19 response, the agency’s executive director of operations said during a June 11 virtual panel discussion on supply chain resilience. 

As the pandemic spread from China and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to the United States, demand for DLA supplies far exceeded projections, Dave Kless told viewers of the Potomac Officers Club event. 

DLA works with the military services to continually refine anticipated demands for medical equipment, but Kless said the pandemic ignited new demands from across the Defense Department as well as whole-of-government partners. There was a lot of ambiguity in how to treat COVID-19 as it spread, he continued. “So early on, the demand we were receiving was for the total population, not a subset of medical personnel.”

Requirements for N95 masks increased by 3,500% between Feb. 1 and May 30 while demand for nasal testing swabs rose 876%. Like other federal agencies, DLA scrambled to increase production by a manufacturing base that was also struggling to cope with the effects of the coronavirus. About 692 vendors closed at the peak, significantly impacting the clothing and textiles industry, which Kless said has shrunk by about 90% in recent years. 

As clothing and textiles vendors in Puerto Rico reopened, the agency worked with them to shift production to increase personal protective equipment like masks. But even hardware and aviation communities had significant layoffs that resulted in a ripple effect across national supply chains, he added. 

“What we quickly saw in this pandemic was our traditional domestic suppliers could not keep up with global demand, and that global demand was not only to our DOD partners and combatant commands,” he said. “The nation looked for leveraging those same suppliers.” 

The Berry Amendment and Buy American Act require DLA to use domestic sources, but Domestic Non-Availability Determinations allow the agency to perform market research for global resources when domestic sources fall short. The agency has 11 DNADs for personal protective equipment to help it replenish the Strategic National Stockpile and DOD inventories, Kless said, but DLA will also continue seeking domestic sources. 

DLA balances the speed and cost of providing common supplies by leveraging the commercial sector to provide them rather than storing them in warehouses. It’s Warstopper Program also helps speed access to critical go-to-war supplies the services identify as being at risk for becoming scarce due to resource and industrial limitations, he said. Warstopper inventory, which vendors maintain and rotate so it remains fresh, enabled DLA to provide almost 3 million N95 masks for COVID-19.

“That then allowed these companies to focus on the national demand,” Kless said, adding that DLA also saw increased additive manufacturing from companies producing items like face shields for first responders.