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What is Materiel?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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The term “materiel” is used in several slightly different ways. In the original sense, it refers to all of the supplies needed to keep a functioning army at work, from tanks to bandages. Civilians have also adopted the term to more generally refer to the goods which keep a business operating, whether or not the business has military ties. In the shipping industry, the term “materiel” is used to distinguish between the goods being moved and the property of the shipping company.

This word comes from the French, with roots in Latin, like most French words, and it was originally borrowed in 1814. It was later borrowed again and changed to “material,” making it one of the many words in the English language which shares a root with another word. The first documented instances of this word appear in military contexts, with other senses being acquired later.

Military material is incredibly varied. It includes weapons, ammunition, fuel, medical supplies, food, vehicles, and personal effects, like bedding, boots, and so forth. Militaries rely heavily on a stable materiel supply chain, and a reliable source of materiel. While a military is actively engaged in maneuvers, it is critical to have an uninterrupted supply of materiel, making supply chain security a priority for military forces, especially during invasions. A standing military also has very large materiel demands, reflecting the huge numbers of people who are always prepared to deploy as needed and the constant need for equipment used in training.

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In the sense of goods which keep a civilian business running, this word is used in much the same sense. Both civilians and militaries distinguish between materiel and real property or installations; an Army base or office, for example, is not considered materiel, but the supplies which stock it are most certainly materiel. For civilians, access to the goods they need is not as critical, but it can still be important, and blockages in the supply chain can cost time and money.

In supply chain management and shipping, the distinction between materiel and the goods belonging to the business is important. For example, some companies treat shipping containers as materiel, delivering loads in these containers and indicating that the containers are the property of the recipient or the sender, while others expect to see their shipping containers returned. Materiel and the goods belonging to the shipping company may also be taxed and tariffed differently, making the distinction rather critical.

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