Scott AFB'S TRANSCOM commander tells how logistics will influence the military’s future
Scott Air Force Base plays a critical role internationally, housing the U.S. Transportation Command, which is one of 11 unified combatant commands.
TRANSCOM is responsible for the logistical movement of troops and supplies for the country’s military. The command’s role has been on display recently, coordinating and delivering supplies for the war in Ukraine.
“We’ve moved somewhere close to 195 million pounds of stuff around the world to get to Ukraine,” said Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost who leads TRANSCOM. “Logistics is very important to any operation, and I think our logistics prowess has shown itself over and over again.”
But this prowess isn’t guaranteed, she said. Adversaries are studying how the U.S. military moves troops and supplies around, searching for any vulnerabilities they can exploit in that logistical system, Van Ovost said.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Eric Schmid recently sat down with Van Ovost to discuss TRANSCOM’s ongoing mission in Ukraine and what kinds of challenges the command faces in the future.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Eric Schmid: What are the kinds of requests that you’re getting from European Command or other commands now for Ukraine, especially as we move into winter?
Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost: Russia is on this terrible campaign of crushing the civilians by killing all of the critical infrastructure, which means they have rolling blackouts, they don’t have the heat. We are focused on supporting them with things like generators, transformers, warm clothing, heating capabilities, tents, sleeping bags.
Schmid: Have these requests shifted from the artillery and other military aid you’ve supplied to more aid that is for the Ukrainians to survive the winter?
Van Ovost: No, what I would say is we have normalized our plan for providing equipment and munitions — that’s always running in the background. We meet all the time with Ukrainian officials and make sure the priorities are what the Ukrainians need, like right now because of the winter they pushed up the tents and heaters and they’ve moved down some other things.
It doesn’t mean they don’t need it; they need it all because they continue to get bombed.
Schmid: I want to move to this national defense strategy that was released this year. There’s a lot in it, so let’s discuss this concept of the “decisive decade” in the next 10 years. What does that mean?
Van Ovost: The president called the next 10 years the “decisive decade” because the strategic environment is changing at a very rapid pace. Basic sovereignty for nations. Basic human rights. The very principles of democracy are being attacked by both China and the naked aggression of Russia.
In this next decade the question is, are we going to lead this world into a more stable peace, because it’s unstable right now. Or will we be walking it into conflict. How do we band together with our allies and partners to ensure a more stable globe that acts with some sort of international laws, because if everyone can flagrantly break them, we’re in trouble.
Schmid: One of the other things that stuck out to me was this idea that logistics has a critical role in any future military action. Can you expand on that for me?
Van Ovost: Logistics has covered some operational risk for us. In other words, sometimes we make decisions and logistically we can pull out miracles to make it happen. Because we’ve done it so well. I think about what we’re doing with Ukraine, Operation Baby Formula, the syringes and the vaccines that we sent around the world.
We can make all that happen, but I don’t like to be the miracle worker, I like a very stable plan that we can actually execute. You can start a war, but if you want to continue you’ve got to have the supplies. You’ve got to bake all of that into the planning.
Schmid: How will movement in the future be more difficult?
Van Ovost: We’ve had freedom to maneuver around and stack up a whole bunch of stuff and then use that stack and then continue to fill it up unabated. But in the future, what we call contested logistics come into play. Our adversaries have watched us and how well we move logistics around the world and how we project power.
They’re looking at where the weak links are, and they’re looking directly at logistics. Eighty-five percent of our forces are right here in the United States. So if we’re going to go somewhere, we’ve got to marshal them and fly them out. If we can credibly always move right to your back door, you may think twice about taking the action you’re thinking about taking.
Schmid: Coming from that, there was also this emphasis in the defense strategy placed on a specific need to be able to act faster and that the scale of challenges are bigger than before. Explain what this means.
Van Ovost: Desert Shield was at the very beginning of my career when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with the intention of taking their oil fields. Our response was a six-month buildup of forces in the Middle East.
Today, there is no way we’ll have patience for six months. During that time we were not being shot at, they were not trying to infiltrate our networks as we were stacking up the capabilities because they didn’t have weapons that could reach us. Our competitors do have weapons that can reach us anywhere we want to start stacking capability.
As we think about the Indo-Pacific or even Russia, we’re going to have to move a lot faster. And those are the kinds of things we’re practicing so that our competitors look at it and say, ‘Not today. They can actually get there, and I didn’t realize they could get there inside 12 hours.’ That’s a game changer.
Schmid: What keeps you up at night? What is scary for you?
Van Ovost: I think about our foundational principles here in America: democracy, human rights, sovereignty, international rule of law. Right now, so many things are shifting so quickly that people are not taking a step back to understand what it really means when you put it all together.
When you put it all together, we’re in a dangerous world. We’ve been in a dangerous world before, and we led out of that dangerous world. We can and we’ll do it again, and you’re seeing it right now.
Schmid: The last thing I want to ask about is, I understand TRANSCOM is doing a lot with local universities in St. Louis, can you tell me about that?
Van Ovost: Although I characterize the future as concerning and maybe keeping me up at night, what doesn’t keep me up at night are our youth. Because they’re the ones that are going to break the paradigms, and they’re going to lead us into the future.
We have been partnering with academia, and that includes several universities here — SLU, Southern Illinois University and Washington University — on thinking about contested logistics and how we will operate in the future. The agreements that we have exposes the university students to the problems that we are having in logistics and gives them an opportunity to write papers or to do some experiments on how that they might solve it.
Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.