TRANSCOM Commander Toots His Troops' Horn
By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
National Guard Bureau
WASHINGTON, Jul. 12, 2002 Since the beginning of Operation Enduring freedom, the U.S. military has sent more than 158,000 people and 228,500 tons of cargo into and out of the Central Command area of operations. And the men and women of the U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., made it all happen.
TRANSCOM's mission is "to move everything that moves in the defense transportation system anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," the organization's commander, Air Force Gen. John W. Handy, said.
TRANSCOM is a unified command with components in the services -- the Army Military Traffic Management Command, Navy Military Sealift Command and Air Force Air Mobility Command.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, those assets, like much of the rest of the Defense Department, have been stressed and heavily reliant on contracted services. The war on terrorism has stretched airlift and air refueling capacities that were lacking even before the terrorist attacks.
Before Sept. 11, TRANSCOM bought about $800 million worth of commercial airlift services each year. "This year, with just the 9-11 and afterward events, we will commit (around) $1.5 billion into the commercial contracting world," Handy said.
He called this reliance on commercial fleets "a remarkable statement about the lack of organic capability in the world today than we should appropriately have."
So far, supplemental contract services have worked, but that might not always be the case, Handy warned. If the United States ramped up to take on a major contingency while continuing its mission in Afghanistan, "you'd see a dramatic increase in those contract requirements (that) quite readily could exceed even (contractors') capability," he said.
DoD is working to make up for its shortcomings in lift and air refueling capabilities. The Air Force is buying up to 180 C-17s and is looking to lease a number of Boeing 767 aircraft to augment the air refueling fleet. But these moves won't make the problem disappear.
Another option is to rely more on sealift when possible.
The military's preferred method of shipping equipment is sealift. It's less expensive and more efficient. One large, medium-speed, roll-on-roll-off ship, commonly called a LMSR, can carry as much cargo as 250 to 300 C-5 cargo aircraft, Handy said.
Using sealift by planning ahead when possible takes some of the burden off Air Mobility Command. "If we can minimize the impact on the airlift side of the force, then certainly using sealift is a remarkable way to do it," Handy said.
But sealift is time-consuming and, therefore, not always practical, he added. It takes up to 20 days to reach many parts of the world by sea. Many places the U.S. military needs to reach have no access to a seaport.
Afghanistan is a perfect example of a challenging environment for TRANSCOM. "We couldn't have picked a more dramatic place anywhere in the world," Handy said. The country is landlocked, many of its airport runways were damaged or inadequate to handle large cargo aircraft, and its infrastructure is next to nonexistent.
The U.S. and coalition militaries have to bring in everything they need, from bullets and vehicles to water and toothpaste, he said.
Coalition operations pose an added challenge in an operation like Enduring Freedom. The U.S. military bases plans on its own requirements. When TRANSCOM ferries coalition troops into theater, the numbers skew.
"We're quite happy to do that," the general said of the command's support to the coalition, "but it does add to that movement requirement that is not typically computed."
He said NATO recognizes the need to increase its airlift capabilities. Many NATO partners are working to invest in cargo aircraft such as C-130s and C-17s.
"We're constantly looking to help our NATO partners appreciate the value of lift," Handy said. "The more we operate together, the more the interest grows to look at common platforms to solve some of the similar problems."
If one thing has surprised the 35-year Air Force veteran since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, it's his people's ability to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
"I find myself saying, 'How did they do that?'" he said. "I tell people it's like watching people putting together a Rubik's Cube every single day."
TRANSCOM staff members have to look at air refueling capabilities, airlift, land and sea assets, and picking up people and equipment all over the continental United States and delivering them to the opposite side of the world, Handy explained.
"The thing that amazes me is this incredible capability and how well it's executed and how efficiently it's operated," he said.
Handy calls himself a "minority stockholder" in his own organization -- 57 percent of TRANSCOM's personnel are in the reserve components.
"I wouldn't want to go to war or even a small contingency without my incredible teammates from the Guard and Reserve," he said. "These are citizen soldiers that have families and jobs and another life out there, and yet they raise their right hand and come to us ready and willing and in most cases begging, 'Put me in the game, coach.'"
At the end of the day, it's TRANSCOM's people who get all that "stuff" moved around the world, not planes and ships, he said.
"C-130s and C-17s are mechanical, cold items. They're tools of the trade. Our people -- our active, Guard and Reserve, civilian members, and their families all combined -- are the reason we're so successful today," Handy said. "If you look across the board in TRANSCOM, the dramatic (positive point) that you see is the dedication and the professionalism and the eagerness to do the things that are right for our nation."