Transcom Challenges Include Cyber, Tankers, More Contested Environments


Cyber security challenges and operating with too few air tankers and in increasingly contested environments are some of the priorities that U.S. Transportation Command is focusing on today, the Transcom commander told a House panel this morning.

The fast sealift ship SS Capella, assigned to the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, returns to the Port of Alameda in California after completing a 120-hour turbo activation, Oct. 3, 2016. The U.S. Transportation Command conducts turbo activation to measure personnel and material readiness of the selected Ready Reserve Force. Capella, more than 40 years old, is still among the fastest cargo ships in the world and capable of transporting nearly all equipment needed to outfit a full mechanized brigade of the U.S. Army. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Billy Ho
The fast sealift ship SS Capella, assigned to the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, returns to port of Alameda in San Francisco, Calif., after completing a 120-hour turbo activation, Oct. 3, 2016. U.S. Transportation Command conducts turbo activation to measure the readiness of the selected Ready Reserve Force. Capella, more than 40-years-old, is still among the fastest cargo ships in the world and capable of transporting nearly all the equipment needed to outfit a mechanized Army brigade. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Billy Ho
The fast sealift ship SS Capella, assigned to the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, returns to the Port of Alameda in California after completing a 120-hour turbo activation, Oct. 3, 2016. The U.S. Transportation Command conducts turbo activation to measure personnel and material readiness of the selected Ready Reserve Force. Capella, more than 40 years old, is still among the fastest cargo ships in the world and capable of transporting nearly all equipment needed to outfit a full mechanized brigade of the U.S. Army. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Billy Ho
SS Capella
The fast sealift ship SS Capella, assigned to the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, returns to port of Alameda in San Francisco, Calif., after completing a 120-hour turbo activation, Oct. 3, 2016. U.S. Transportation Command conducts turbo activation to measure the readiness of the selected Ready Reserve Force. Capella, more than 40-years-old, is still among the fastest cargo ships in the world and capable of transporting nearly all the equipment needed to outfit a mechanized Army brigade. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Billy Ho
Photo By: Petty Officer 2nd Class Billy Ho
VIRIN: 161003-N-QL471-068

Air Force Gen. Darren W. McDew testified before the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and members of the HASC Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittees on the state of Transcom.

Transcom does its mission in two ways, McDew said: “We can provide an immediate force tonight through the use of our airlift and air refueling fleets. And we can provide that decisive force when needed through the use of our strategic sealift and surface assets.”

Both approaches are under stress in a time of budget challenges and in an increasingly complex operating environment, the general said, noting that he expects future adversaries to be more versatile and dynamic, forcing Transcom to adapt, change and evolve.

Potential adversaries also must be viewed through transregional, multidomain and multifunctional lenses, he added.

Contested Environments

Properly understanding potential threats from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea and worldwide violent extremists in a global context is of utmost concern for Transcom and for national security, McDew said. 

“In each of the scenarios, I believe logistics plays a critical but often overlooked role, McDew said. “Today U.S. Transcom is critically examining how we execute our logistics mission in the contested environments of the future -- a space we haven't had to operate in, at least logistically, for a very long time.”

VIDEO | 00:56 | Transcom Revises Logistics Plans

The general said Transcom is exercising in wargaming scenarios, forcing planners to account for transportation's vital role and, for the first time, potential loss of ships, planes and other assets.

“We have never battled lack of domain dominance for this nation in 70 plus years,” McDew said. “We're there now. We're in a different mindset today. We're looking at a different enemy, a different fight. We have to think differently and we're now incorporating attrition.”

Earlier this year, Transcom held its first ever contested environment wargame imagining a scenario where the U.S. military didn't dominate the skies or own every line of communication, he said.

“The wargame uncovered a surprising [number] of lessons learned, which we've already started absorbing into our tactics, techniques and procedures,” the general added.

Cyber Threat

The need for cyber security runs throughout Transcom operations, McDew told the panel.

“We aren't the only government agency to face these threats but U.S. Transcom has a unique problem set. Unlike other combatant commands, commercial industry plays a vital role in how we accomplish our mission,” he explained.

VIDEO | 01:12 | Service Transportation Risks Hurt Transcom

The DoD information network is relatively secure, the general said, but how does Transcom guarantee the security of military data on commercial systems?

Transcom operates in an ambiguous seam between DoD and the Department of Homeland Security, he said, which is responsible for commercial cyber security breaches.

“Our mission includes dot-mil and dot-com domains,” he added, “[and] we are accelerating several initiatives and also our thinking to try to help close that gap between DoD and DHS.

About a year ago Transcom started down a path of discovery on cyber, he said.

Over the last 18 months the command has had three cyber roundtables that included academics, business leaders, hackers and others, McDew said, “to take us from cyber awareness to cyber knowledge. And now we understand how nervous we should be in this domain.”

Ninety percent of Transcom’s daily transportation data runs through commercial networks, he added, “… so that's our challenge and we're trying to bridge that gap and make that understanding more relevant.”

Air Refueling Tankers

In response to a question from the panel about which area in his Transcom portfolio would keep the general up at night, McDew said, “Air refueling tankers.”

A KC-135 Stratotanker from Beale Air Force Base, California, refuels a KC-10 Extender, from Travis Air Force Base, California, December 22, 2016. The pilots and crew on board the KC-135 are with the 314th Aerial Refueling Squadron, Beale Air Force Base, California, and the pilots and crew aboard the KC-10 are with the 60th Formal Training Unit, Travis Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Bobby Cummings)
A KC-135 Stratotanker from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., refuels a KC-10 Extender, from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 22, 2016. The Air Force is considering retiring the KC-10, which first saw service in 1981. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Bobby Cummings
A KC-135 Stratotanker from Beale Air Force Base, California, refuels a KC-10 Extender, from Travis Air Force Base, California, December 22, 2016. The pilots and crew on board the KC-135 are with the 314th Aerial Refueling Squadron, Beale Air Force Base, California, and the pilots and crew aboard the KC-10 are with the 60th Formal Training Unit, Travis Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Bobby Cummings)
Beale Stratotankers
A KC-135 Stratotanker from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., refuels a KC-10 Extender, from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 22, 2016. The Air Force is considering retiring the KC-10, which first saw service in 1981. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Bobby Cummings
Photo By: Staff Sgt. Bobby Cummings
VIRIN: 161222-F-CY182-343

If Transcom had 1,000 air refueling tankers, it might be enough, he added, “… because any significant battle also brings up the rate of defense of the homeland and any corresponding [combatant command] near that area has to bring up its defenses. All of that needs air refueling tankers.”

The general said that one of his top recommendations for the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act would be to accelerate the tanker program as much as possible, reducing the risk created by too few tankers.

The Air Force is considering retiring the KC-10 aerial tanker and transport, deployed in 1981, and McDew says the new KC-46 won’t be delivered for three years “at the earliest.”

The plan to retire the KC-10 may have to be revisited, McDew said.

“Although I understand the expense that's going to come, we're trying to keep the KC-10s around longer than the plan,” he added. “But we have to find a way to climb out of the bathtub if the KC-46 is not to going to be online in a reasonable amount of time to allow us to potentially accelerate that recap.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)