A key lesson from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the value of having pre-positioned war supplies in Europe and exercising in the region regularly, the U.S. Transportation Command commander said on Tuesday.
“We were able to set our posture pretty early” on which ports and airfields were going to be used to support the Ukrainians, Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost said a Brookings Institution online event.
“That’s what we’re looking for in the Indo-Pacific,” she said.
Overall, the question for the command in all cases is “what needs to be moved,” Van Ovost said.
“The lesson we learned from Kabul: [and the evacuation of more than 120,000 Afghans following the Taliban takeover] we had to get the capacity early.” That meant coordinating with commercial air carrier partners and other nations to handle the refugees being airlifted by C-17s out of Afghanistan and then re-settled in other countries, including the United States.
At first for Ukraine, she said the possibility of having to again move large numbers of refugees appeared to be a possibility.
Two weeks before the Russians invaded, Van Ovost met with commercial carriers to explain what the command would ask of them. “They size their business on what they think they need to do,” she said. The carriers had become used to a higher tempo related to e-commerce substituting for in-store sales in the pandemic.
“Their go-to-war strategy is Christmas” with demand that is five times higher than the rest of the year. “I have a scale over 10 times” normal for TRANSSCOM’s go-to-war strategy.
Soon after Russia invaded, the command established “a regular battle rhythm” in its operations for Ukraine – 1,200 flights on commercial carriers and “73-74 ships using our commercial partners” to move artillery, ammunition, trucks, personnel carriers, radars and air defense systems to the staging area for distribution in Ukraine.
Looking to the future and the Indo-Pacific, Van Ovost said, “we need new concepts to prevail in the future” where every domain will be contested. “You’re seeing more maneuver concept” from the services and combatant commands when they plan for Pacific operations. … During the discussion, the Marine Corps Force Design 2030 and the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment Concept were mentioned as potential models.
Instead of the traditional “project, sustain and return” TRANSCOM model; it is now “project, maneuver, sustain and return,” she said.
“How do I plug in,” Van Ovost asked rhetorically. She added that for sealift, it also means a return to convoys, zig-zag maneuvering and underway refueling.
She said she worries the most about the availability of merchant mariners in a potential future conflict. Before the pandemic, the Maritime Administration estimated it was 1,800 credentialed mariners short of requirement. The situation hasn’t improved, Van Ovost said, pointing to recruiting problems. To retain them, she added that the mariners need to see how they can build a successful career path.
While the House Armed Services Committee last year approved a grant program for MARAD to expand its Centers of Excellence program to attract and retrain mariners, there were no funds set aside to pay for it.
Van Ovost saw progress in replacing the aging roll-on, roll-off fleet with refurbished used vessels.
She added that 10 more tankers will go to the U.S.-flagged fleet in the future, but she remains “concerned about not having enough” to meet requirements for a maneuver force. The 20 tankers would “work in the first island chain,” closest to China. TRANSCOM is now the single manager for bulk fuel for the Pentagon.