Transcript

USTRANSCOM Commander Gen. Lyons Holds a Press Briefing on Support for the Nation's COVID-19 Response Efforts

March 31, 2020
General Stephen R. Lyons, commander, U.S. Transportation Command

GENERAL STEPHEN R. LYONS: Hey, (Staff). General Steve Lyons here. How do you hear me? Over.

STAFF: Pretty good.

GEN. LYONS: Okay, great. Hey, well listen, thanks.

And thanks to everybody that's on the net. I appreciate it very much. And I appreciate the level of effort that the media's going through to keep the public informed of all that's going on in the crisis, and I'm happy to help in any way that I can. You, like a logistics enterprise, don't get to sit out a crisis.

So just a couple comments to start with, and then I'll go right to questions.

For those that may not be familiar with Transportation Command, as one of the 11 COCOMs in the Department of Defense, we run the department's global mobility enterprise; so our ability to project and sustain the force on a global scale.

So you think about airlift, sealift, aerial refuel, aerial medical evacuation, planes, ships, trains, trucks, if you would. That's a combination of both military capability, and many of you think of the gray-tail airplane, but it's also a commercial capability that we leverage as well, both in terms of sealift and airlift and other particular areas.

We do see -- as a result of the secretary's stop movement orders, we are seeing a reduction in movements, as you would expect, across the enterprise. But we are also seeing a necessity to continue to operate for mission-essential tasks and operations.

Our priorities directly mirror the secretary's priorities. We're focused on protecting and preserving the force against the CV-19 outbreak, maintaining mission readiness. Proud to report at this point, we -- we are mission-ready to do whatever the secretary asks us to do. And then, third, to support the FEMA and broader interagency efforts to counter the -- the coronavirus outbreak.

We've done several things in that particular area we can talk about along the way. We are supporting the State Department in their task force repatriation effort. We have moved things in support of HHS -- for example, corona test swabs -- across the globe. We've helped to move field hospitals that you see being built in places like New York and the state of Washington.

We're -- we're pleased to help. We're proud of all that we do every day.

And let me pause there, I'm happy to take any questions that you may have.

STAFF: Okay, sir. I'm going to go to Ryan Browne with CNN for the first question from here.

Q: Hello, General. Thank you for doing this. Two quick ones for you.

You mentioned the efforts to fly some of the testing swabs and the field hospitals around. Is there a limit on how much you can move or is -- is there more -- do you have more capability you could bring to bear to that effort?

Obviously, there's -- there's – it’s spread all across the 50 states now, so are you -- are you kind of putting -- raising your hand and saying, "We have these kind of assets. We could do more of this"?

And has that involved any of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet? Have you had to tap into that to, kind of, help move this stuff around?

GEN. LYONS: Yeah, Ryan, great question.

We've been able to respond to any of the mission requirements that have come to us thus far.

You know, with the -- with the reduction in major movements -- and we -- you know, we typically, on an average day, we've just got thousands of movements, moving across the globe -- we do have some capacity.

An area in which I look at capacity and I really -- from two perspectives, you mentioned CRAF, the Civil Reserve Aviation Fleet. On the cargo side, the Civil Aviation Fleet is really going pretty strong. On the passenger side, as you can imagine, it has dropped off significantly.

And so as we take on missions, we're specifically looking for opportunities to workload our commercial partners. We're talking to them regularly. I am concerned, to some degree, about the impacts on the passenger segment of the aviation industry. And so any opportunity we have to push workload in their direction, we're doing that. We're doing that largely with the repatriation efforts and -- and other efforts of that sort.

So hopefully that answers your question.

Q: That does.

And actually, if I could follow up on that very quickly, you mentioned the repatriations. Are you -- there seems to be a mix. Sometimes it's military, sometimes it's charter. Do you anticipate additional military repatriation flights in the next week or so? Or are -- do you -- or is that now, kind of, in the civilian transportation, kind of, hands?

GEN. LYONS: Yeah, you know, the way I would describe it is that our main effort in repatriation, those missions that are coming from the task force at the State Department -- and the State Department's really done a great job on this. And so we're their overflow valve. Those missions are being workloaded into the commercial sector, aviation sector. So to your point, our CRAF partners.

There are some residual movements that will continue out of -- you know, what I would describe on the margin. As we move gray-tail aircraft around the globe, where there's space available, opportune lift, you know, we'll present opportunities for those geographic commanders to put -- you know, to put emphasis on those as the situation represents.

But the main effort will be on commercial airlines. Over.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Okay, and we'll go to the phone now. Bob Burns, are you on?

Q: Yes, I am. Thank you.

General, this is Bob Burns with Associated Press.

Are you -- is TRANSCOM flying test kits or other medical supplies or medical personnel to Guam to assist the Theodore Roosevelt with its COVID-19 outbreak?

GEN. LYONS: You know, Bob, we're watching that very closely. We don't have a requirement at the moment specifically -- you know, a separate requirement to do that. We do operate regularly what I would call channels, just regularly scheduled missions across the globe. Sometimes people characterize them as Patriot Express, that's the -- kind of the name of the mission that we have and those missions will continue to carry whatever priority cargo is required in whatever region of the globe.

So I haven't received any specific requirements on -- on the T.R. but, you know, if something comes our way we're -- we're more than willing to do whatever our Navy counterparts need. Over.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Okay, we'll come back to the press briefing room here for the next question.

Q: General, Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News. How do you practice social distancing on a C-17?

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. LYONS: I think -- I think the question was how do you practice social distance on the C-17. Is -- was that the question? Over.

Q: That is, sir.

GEN. LYONS: Yeah, it's a great question. And obviously when you're in the cockpit, there's no way to get six foot apart. And so, you know, the way that we're managing our flight crews is unique in many ways and we're trying to create an -- an isolated system of systems, if you would, even in motion.

So the way we treat our flight crews is, you know, they can't create social distancing inside the cockpit. Where we billet them is controlled, where they eat from, their food is delivered. So we're trying to create a very concerted cocoon, if you would, over our entire flight crew apparatus.

And knock on wood, that seems to be working to date. It allows us to continue mission and protect the force at the same time. But there are -- you know, you can't telework and fly a plane, at least not on the -- on the -- you know, on the lift side of the house. And so there are exceptions that we're working through to how to mitigate those. Over.

Q: And just a follow up, you mentioned this cocoon and that you can't telework while flying a plane. How many people in TRANSCOM have tested positive for COVID-19?

GEN. LYONS: Well it's a fair question. We're not -- you know, we're not talking about numbers related to specific units for many good reasons that we won't talk about specific numbers.

What I would characterize, though, is that at this particular moment in time, our COVID-positive rates are very, very low, single digits across the entire mobility enterprise.

You know, that -- that will change over time, I acknowledge that and every day we're making a concerted effort to understand how do we protect the force and maintain a level of resiliency to -- to operate this global mobility enterprise for the department.

Q: Finally, one last question. How concerned are you with your aircraft flying all over the world with this pandemic globally? How do you keep these crews from picking up the virus somewhere, let's say in Europe, and bringing it back to the United States?

GEN. LYONS: Well it's a -- it's a great question and we spend a lot of time working through this issue and particularly at the air component. But back to as I was describing earlier on the way we're managing our air crews and our attendants, very, very isolated. You might characterize it as isolation in motion.

But as they go into a particular country, it's very, very limited, straight from the aircraft into billets. They don't go out for food, they don't leave the billet until their next mission, and it's a very, very controlled environment, as you can appreciate. And that's how we mitigate moving from a country that might be a level-three country -- they never -- they never actually leave that base. And even inside that base, they're very, very controlled and that's the way we're managing that. Over.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Okay, before we go on, I'd remind you again to please mute your phone. We're getting some feedback from somebody. And with that, we'll go to Mr. David Martin with CBS. Are you on the line, sir?

Q: I am. General, could you give us some specifics on the number of missions you've flown, both for repatriation and in response to HHS/FEMA?

GEN. LYONS: David, specifically (inaudible) we have flown to date approximately three million COVID test swabs, for example, in support of HHS. That -- you know, that was a very specific mission. We're working broader missions for FEMA as they come.

And then specifically on the repatriation effort, you know, to -- to date that's been a couple thousand, either, you know, executed or being planned. We know that's going to grow significantly. We received a mission on Friday afternoon from the secretary to provide direct support to task force repatriation in the State Department, and we're -- we're -- we're great partners with the State Department as they've done a great job. And overall, I think they've moved closer to probably 27,000 to 30,000 AMCITs (American Citizens) and that number continues to grow every day.

So we are pleased to join our State Department partners and you know we've got several missions planned, a dozen -- probably half a dozen missions this week and continue to grow and we'll continue to support that effort in any way we can. Over.

Q: Just to follow up, are those half dozen missions like the previous ones, which are -- sound like they are space available on -- on flights that are normally going from these locations? And on the FEMA missions, are the only FEMA missions you've flown to date the -- the three million swabs? Because it sounds like you have a lot of unused capacity right now.

GEN. LYONS: Let -- let me ask -- let me answer both questions. On the repatriation effort, no, no, those are very, very specific individual missions. We stood up a -- a -- an actual repatriation task force here at TRANSCOM that's linked directly to State and we are scheduling commercial passenger airlines for those specific repatriation missions in support of the State Department. There will still be small numbers that move on a space-available basis but the main effort is through our -- our civil reserve aviation fleet partners that we use on a day-to-day basis.

On your second question with regard to support to FEMA, interagency, HHS, et cetera, there is -- there is more work ongoing, for sure. I highlighted the three million swabs. We're supporting the -- you know, the transportation support for NORTHCOM -- is to move the hospitals, for example, up into the Javits Center, up into Seattle, and many other mission assignments as they come.

So as -- as -- as missions come our way, we're prepared to support that. The secretary has made it clear that that's a line of effort, a priority line of effort, and we're prepared to respond to that, and we're working very, very closely with NORTHCOM, FEMA and all the other agencies as things -- as -- and -- and -- and frankly, there's just hundreds of missions every day that move from the Defense Logistics Agency and other agencies like that that don't even -- don't even come up above the radar.

STAFF: Okay. We -- are we still connected?

GEN. LYONS: We -- we still are.

STAFF: Okay. All right, with that, again, I ask, please put your phone on mute. And with that, I'll go to Tara Copp, if she's on the line.

 Q: Hi, yes I am. Thanks, General, for doing this.

I have a follow-up to Bob's question. You know, there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle today that the captain -- or, the commanding officer of that ship is desperate for tests. So, who would give you a request to get a TRANSCOM flight out there to get them tests and -- and medical assistance? And then secondly, on the 27,000 to 30,000, if I'm -- I'm correct, American civilians you've helped work through repatriation for, can you give us some of, like, where the -- where there were bulk numbers of citizens that you brought back?

And then last, on flying test kits around, do you have any breakdown by state of what flights you've flown, what materials you've delivered? Of course, there's a lot of interest from the states about who's getting what and -- and what's on deck. Thank you very much.

GEN. LYONS: Okay. To -- to your first question on the -- on the T.R., the -- you know, the -- the Navy has a lot of capacity available to it, and they typically, internal to the Navy, resupply their -- their ships that are underway. And so we -- we would -- by exception, if we got a mission either from Navy or from the Joint Staff if they ask for specific support, I mean, we'd certainly step in and support whatever they needed. But they've got a lot of capacity and -- and -- and I can't speak for what -- what that looks like on the ground, so I won't speculate to what the requirements might be. But we're -- we're certainly prepared to support them.

I think you asked for some specifics on the AMCIT repatriation mission. We'd just, again, say that Friday afternoon we received that mission and the first mission, as I understand it, is scheduled to head for Nigeria, and that schedule, I think, is -- is Thursday of this week. So that -- so I'll give you an example of the schedule that I'm looking at. It's -- it's 150 passengers coming out of Nigeria, and those passengers would come back into Dulles and -- and -- and be received into the continental United States. There's other missions of that sort, so you know, if you think about Central and South America, I think the focus right now is on Africa, and then obviously, we're seeing some missions start to emerge from the Indo-Pacific. But -- but that's building every day. I'll -- I'll pause for any additional comments. Over.

Q: Okay, and just, thank you for that.

And just, my last question -- do you have a breakdown by state of how many missions you have flown or supported through either charter air or mil air to get test kits out to the states, or medical equipment? Thank you.

GEN. LYONS: Okay. Well, you know, look, we'll take that -- I -- I think -- if you -- if your -- if your question's specifically about the 3 million, those test swabs came in directly to the FedEx Memphis hub for onward distribution to state and municipalities, as required and -- and as directed by the -- by the whole-of-government effort.

STAFF: Okay, sir, we're going to come back to the room here. We have a question in the room.

Q: Yes, sir. Mike Glenn with the Washington Times.

I was wondering, what percentage of work being done by TRANSCOM is devoted specifically to the coronavirus, COVID-19, and what percentage is still focused on your normal -- your -- your day-to-day operations? And could you talk a little bit about what impact all this might have had on readiness for TRANSCOM?

GEN. LYONS: Mike, good -- good questions.

We're -- you know, we're -- we're still operating the global mobility enterprise. We still must do that to maintain our level of readiness for the secretary. And so I believe we are doing that. I believe we are ready. I've just -- I reported to the -- to the secretary that we are ready to meet our mission requirements as -- as they come.

Proportionally, you know, we're still going through -- there's -- there's -- as you can appreciate, there might be some lagging movements on the stop movements, so we're still working through what the exceptions to policy are, what's absolutely essential inside the department to continue to move, what actually we're going to stop move on. So there's a lot of activity that's still underway. We do forecast that's on the decline.

But nonetheless, as I talk about global mobility and for example, the scheduled missions around the globe which we call, you know, regularly-scheduled channels, for example, we'll continue to operate those, even though, you know, our utilization rate of those aircraft has probably dropped considerably, right, down to about 30 to 50 percent. We know that those are the lifelines for the units that are out in the field, so we'll continue to operate that, you know, regardless of utilization rates.

And then the special assigned missions, we anticipate those will -- will come down, you know, particularly as we really drew down the efforts for major exercises like Defender Europe and otherwise. And so -- and then we'll start to pick up in -- in other areas like support to the interagency in COVID efforts as that comes. So I wouldn't necessarily, you know, without looking (inaudible) I wouldn't characterize it as a percentage, but we shift -- we shift -- this is what we do every day anyway. We shift to where the global priorities are and as the secretary describes them, and that's the way the global mobility enterprise is built, to be able to shift to the priority requirements across the globe.

Q: Thank you very much.

STAFF: Okay, now we go back to the phone. Phil Stewart with Reuters, are you on?

Q: I am, thanks.

A question about just your -- your role in internal domestic U.S. potential support. Are you developing any -- any plans to potentially help ensure logistics/transportation of -- of -- of basic goods in the United States, should the supply chain in the United States break down?

Thanks.

GEN. LYONS: Well, you know, the -- the domestic freight, both rail and motor freight, that we utilize as the Department of Defense is largely a commercial backbone. And so we're working very, very closely with our commercial partners and the Department of Transportation. And all indicators are that -- that freight is actually moving. And in some areas, it's actually spiking, like on air freight, in ways that we wouldn't have seen otherwise.

So domestic freight, it -- it's a good sign because that supply chain must move regardless, right? I mean, the logistics underpinning of the nation must continue.

And so we're working with the Department of Transportation as they look at this and they -- they want to ensure that there's continued -- continued freight across the continental United States; for example, any policy implications that they need to look at.

And so we do not see any -- any downturn in freight for the most part. There are some specific sectors that will be impacted. I mean, we're working very, very closely with -- with the household goods industry, because at this time of year, we would normally be on a -- a steep ramp to the summer peak season. And now we're really, kind of, throttled back on that mission set.

And so, you know, every -- every industry sector's a little bit different. Passenger airlines very concerned about, Passenger -- freight is up, freight -- motor -- surface freight, motor freight, rail freight continues to -- to run unimpeded.

And then what -- I think to your broader question, for example, if the commissary or exchange services that support our families and service members overseas were at all degraded, we're certainly prepared to step in, and we've been talking to Defense Commissary Agency about those kind of contingency plans.

So hopefully that helps answer your question. Over.

Q: But, I mean, is there any sense that TRANSCOM may have to play a more active role in -- in doing the basic movement of -- of goods in the United States domestically?

GEN. LYONS: Not on the private sector, commercial side. There's no indicator that that would be required. We would use very similar sets of commercial providers as exist today in the existing supply chains.

STAFF: Okay. And with that, we'll go on.

Travis Tritten with Bloomberg, are you on?

Q: Yes, I'm here. Can you hear me?

GEN. LYONS: I can hear you, Travis, go ahead.

Q: Great. Thank you, sir.

I wanted to ask you a follow-up on Phil's question. I wanted to ask you about the moving industry and household goods movements. Obviously, those have been halted. And the industry is particularly vulnerable because it gets so much of its revenue from DOD, and they've warned that some of the companies may go out of business.

I'm wondering if you're concerned if the domestic moving industry could be gutted by this outbreak, this pandemic. And if this could further reduce the capacity to move troops around when we eventually do come out the other side, which has obviously been -- been a big issue?

And I have a follow-up question as well.

GEN. LYONS: So I think your -- I think your question's an excellent question.

And the answer is yes. I am very, very concerned, especially for our small-business partners that make up so much of the -- you know, the household goods moving industry.

You know, we're -- we're very, very active in our communication, both with the industry sector and the services who are, you know, managing the exception to policy on the moves, to make sure we're at least seeing -- seeing things the same way in terms of managing expectations and workload.

And I think this -- this -- you know, this package that the Congress passed last week, I think will come into play here. It will be very, very important that we protect our small business across the nation. And so we're watching that very closely.

Q: And if I could just follow up, I wanted to ask about the status of the global household goods moving contract, which I believe it was around this timeframe that you had, I think, hoped to wrap that up before. I'm just wondering how the pandemic has affected that timeline and how you're looking at that now.

GEN. LYONS: Well, at the moment, the work that's been done on that has largely been unaffected by the COVID outbreak, because all the preliminary work is largely completed. So at the moment, we're on the same timeline that we were originally, which is really at the end of April was our target to -- to make an award.

You know, we assess every day, based on the COVID situation, what we're doing and what we're not doing. So if things change in that area, we'll adjust them as needed. We're certainly not going to put, you know, people or industry at risk in any kind of way.

But there's -- administratively, we're continuing to -- to move on that.

STAFF: Okay, we're near the end of our time but we just have a few more questions. I'm going to try to squeeze in a couple more real quick here.

Courtney Albon, are you on? Courtney?

Q: Hi, yes. Thanks for taking my question.

I wanted to ask a broader tanker capacity question.

The Air Force announced yesterday that they'd elevated a new KC-46 cat one deficiency involving excessive fuel leaks. Are you concerned about how this issue might impact the program's delivery schedule along with the other cat one deficiencies?

And are you making any progress with the Air Force and Congress on finding ways to -- to mitigate the capacity gap there?

GEN. LYONS: Yes, Courtney.

I -- well, yes, I believe we're making progress with the Air Force and -- and Congress to ensure that we retain a taskable capacity for the combatant commands to support the joint force. You know, while simultaneously the Air Force works through the technical issues with Boeing to make sure that the KC-46 presents a viable capability that can essentially -- well, basically refuel everything that the KC-135 refuels today.

I -- I'm not going to get in -- you know, I'm not going to get ahead of the Air Force and their negotiations with Boeing specifically. I can -- I can tell you that things have been much more optimistic here of late. I think, you know, the big key there is to move to a mutually agreed upon technical solution and lay out those timelines.

For me specifically, I know that we've got to preserve aerial refuel capabilities for the joint force until such that the KC-46 is presentable. And we're working with the Air Force on that and I do think we have good agreement on a bridging strategy at this particular point.

Thanks for the question.

STAFF: Okay, and really quickly, I'm going to go to Jeff Schogol if he's on.

Q: Hi, this is Jeff Schogol with Task and Purpose.

I'm just curious: Has Air Mobility Command medevaced any patients to civilian hospitals or to -- or to military hospitals due to COVID-19?

GEN. LYONS: We have. And I'll spend a little bit of time describing that to you.

It's a good question, because the movement of a highly contagious patient is a much different challenge. And we did move a COVID-positive patient this past weekend from -- from AFRICOM, specifically from Djibouti, up to Landstuhl in Germany to get the level of support that particular patient needed. And -- and we are also working, candidly, to increase our capacity to be able to meet these kind of requirements because we know they're increasing.

So today, our approach to patient movement for COVID, particularly for highly contagious patients, is to move them in an isolation system, either air ambulance or you may recall the transportation isolation system that was developed during the Ebola crisis.

And then in addition to that, we're -- because that's a limited capacity, we're working with scientists around the Air Force and Defense Threat Reduction and NASA and some others to really study the aircraft circulation flow and implications of the movement of those particulates and -- and potential impacts on crews so that we can indeed move COVID-positive patients and passengers without an isolation unit while -- while adequately protecting the crew.

And we think we're making some progress there. It's a great question, thank you.

STAFF: Okay, for the last question we'll go to Theresa with Breaking Defense.

Q: Thank you, but I'm going to pass since Courtney asked my questions.

Q: A small follow up --

STAFF: Okay, I've got one last small follow up from Fox and then we'll -- we'll cut it off.

Q: General, you mentioned bringing some Americans home from Nigeria. I was wondering, is that a military aircraft that's going to be bringing them home?

GEN. LYONS: No, that'll be a commercial aircraft. Almost exclusively, I see us using U.S. flag commercial passenger airlines, the ones we use everyday, frankly, to move troops for the most part; we'll use those to support the repatriation effort.

Q: So you guys are like the Army Corps of Engineers from the air, and you contract the air mostly?

GEN. LYONS: We do. We have regular providers that are in the civil reserve aviation fleet, if you would, probably about 25 or 26 providers, and they provide commercial augmentation, both in day-to-day operations and then of course we would mobilize them if needed in a -- in a conflict.

And so we use those (inaudible) for the State Department mission.

STAFF: Okay.

GEN. LYONS: Over.

STAFF: Thank you very much for your time today, sir. Thanks for going a little bit over. I think we have most of the questions answered. If you have some lingering questions that you need answered, please send them to our duty officer and we'll do what we can to get you some responses. That's all for now. Out of here.

GEN. LYONS: Okay. Thanks, everybody, have a great day.