The Buzz

Getting To The Next War is Going to be Tough: Why Military Transportation is so Important

Of all the challenges America's military faces, the one least susceptible to a fiscal or technological fix is geography.  The vast oceans that protected the United States from attack for much of its history are a major logistical problem when the military needs to get to a foreign conflict fast.  That's one reason why so much of the joint force was forward deployed in Eurasia during the Cold War -- military planners knew they couldn't react quickly to communist aggression if warfighters needed to be transported all the way from the Western Hemisphere.

Today, though, the network of bases and troop deployments that once ringed the Sino-Soviet periphery has largely been dismantled, and the recent actions of countries like Turkey and the Philippines suggest wartime access to other countries' facilities can't be assumed.  Thus military transportation will play a central role in determining whether the United States wins future wars in Eastern Europe, the Middle East or the Western Pacific.

The National Defense Transportation Association spent several days this week discussing the challenges that presents at its annual meeting in Saint Louis.  The reason it chose Saint Louis for the conclave is that the U.S. Transportation Command is headquartered nearby at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, and Transcom (as it called) is the nerve center for all military movements worldwide.  Transcom commander General Darren W. McDew didn't try to sugar-coat the challenges that his command faces in the current environment.

General McDew thinks that strategic lines of communication into future war zones will be subject to interdiction by adversaries, and that logisticians need to start thinking more seriously about the possibility of wartime attrition.  He also thinks that future enemies aren't going to conveniently arrange their operations to conform with the jurisdictional boundaries of U.S. regional commands around the world.  Fighting will spill across regions in a fashion that requires hard choices about which commands get what resources when.

And McDew is worried about cybersecurity.  Unlike the Pentagon's other eight unified commands, McDew has to rely heavily on commercial companies to accomplish his missions, and cyber protections are uneven from company to company in the sector.  When the U.S. was directing most of its military efforts toward the defeat of rag-tag insurgents in the Middle East, cybersecurity wasn't all that big a concern.  But if the enemy is Russia or China, network security could determine whether the war effort succeeds or fails.

McDew has a lot of experience at dealing with such challenges.  He previously led the Air Force's Mobility Command co-located with Transcom at Scott AFB, and he has experience flying most of that command's planes-- both airlifters and aerial-refueling tankers.  But as the four-star head of the military's single manager for all global transportation, he has to integrate planning and execution for all air, sea and ground movements.

That includes a lot of players, from the Air Force's mobility community to the diverse participants in the Navy's Military Sealift Command to the Army's Surface Deployment and Distribution Command.  Because it isn't feasible to organically sustain all the assets needed to project the joint force overseas in wartime, each of these commands must deal with a host of private-sector participants in accomplishing its missions.  For instance, the Navy has agreements with U.S.-flag ocean cargo companies, and the Air Force relies on a "civil reserve air fleet" of jetliners operated by commercial carriers.

Even in peacetime, it wouldn't make much sense for the defense department to carry out most of its cargo movements using high-priced military personnel and dedicated distribution channels, so it's a rare day that there aren't hundreds of commercial truckers and rail cars moving materiel around the country.  General McDew's job is to make sure all these moving pieces mesh seamlessly, and to be ready if the joint force has to surge overseas to remote war zones on short notice.

However, cyber threats are not the only challenge making his job more difficult.  One problem is that modern war doesn't unfold as a series of sequential steps, the way traditional conflicts did.  All of the phases in a conflict today may unfold simultaneously, forcing logisticians to respond in an ad hoc fashion that bears little resemblance to war plans of the past.  When you don't know what the enemy is going to throw at you next, it is difficult to allocate scarce transportation assets efficiently.