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USTRANSCOM head Gen. McDew outlines threats: cyberattacks, old equipment and unpredictable budgets

Gen. Darren W. McDew joined "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss his new position as head of U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base.
Aine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

General Darren McDew assumed command of U.S. Transportation Command, known as USTRANSCOM, at Scott Air Force Base on August 26 at a potentially critical time for U.S. security.

In the still-rippling wake of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the growth of potential threats to U.S. security in the form of cyberterrorism and disruption in the Middle East, the military is confronted with new changes and difficulties. TRANSCOM will have a significant role in facing these challenges head-on.

TRANSCOM is one of nine unified military commands, working with the specific purpose of enabling defense services with transport and logistical support. It manages all air, land and sea transportation for the U.S. Department of Defense and is key to the military’s flexibility in missions around the world. About 118,000 TRANSCOM employees are split into logistical components: surface movement, dealing with rail, bridges and roads; air mobility command; and military sealift command.

General McDew, who supervises all aspects of the command, rejected the idea that TRANSCOM is, in effect, the ‘moving company’ for U.S. systems of defense. Rather, TRANSCOM is an “enabling command,” he said—supporting the U.S. military in deployment, distribution and defense all around the world.

McDew is an Air Force pilot and has served, among other capacities, in the Joint Staff at the Pentagon; running the Air Force Senate Liaison Office on Capitol Hill; and as Air Force aide to the President. Those positions prepared him for command of TRANSCOM, he said, by broadening his understanding of the federal government.

“Thirty-three years of service, with a myriad of experiences, helps you learn faster; helps you relate to different parts of the enterprise; and ask better questions,” McDew said. “The fact that I understand how to fly airplanes and how to move goods and equipment around the world is important but not necessarily vital; I think what’s more important is the fact that I had a chance to serve at the Pentagon several times, serve at the White House, the U.S. Senate—which helps me understand some of the atmospherics surrounding some of the things we do.”

As Air Force aide to the president McDew accompanied President Clinton during his first term. McDew was simultaneously an operations officer, a ceremonial companion, and—perhaps most notably—possessor of the nuclear football, formally known as “the president’s emergency satchel.”

Now, McDew’s responsibilities are a little more extensive: on any given day, he said, about 1,000 railcars, 1,000 trucks, 1,400 sets of household goods, and about 500-600 sorties are coordinated by USTRANSCOM.

We like to say, the sun never sets on USTRANSCOM.

“One of the things that I get the opportunity to do is to lead, I think, some of the quiet professionals in the Department of Defense,” McDew said. “We touch every single operation that the Department of Defense does. So in every one of those volatile regions of the world, US Transportation Command is involved. We like to say, ‘the sun never sets on USTRANSCOM.’”

McDew is well aware that the enormous scope of his new command includes new and complicated security issues. He hit on several big problems that USTRANSCOM must face during his tenure:

The budget. “We have got to get to a place in this country where we have a sustainable budget, a predictable budget, delivered on time.” Consistency, McDew said, is even more important than size—so long as Congress continues to pass continuing resolutions, some USTRANSCOM programs may be put in jeopardy.

“We’ve got a number of modernization programs out there,” McDew said, including a new air refueling platform, the KC-46, which is currently on contract. Without financial certainty, neither existing contracts nor new programs are ensured.

Modernization. The budget problem is exacerbated by the fact that military hardware and inventory is aging. Many oldies are still goodies, McDew said: the KC-135, “an Eisenhower-era airplane,” will be in use for the next 30 years. But some aging sealift ships will need replacement within the next 10-15 years, McDew said; “And on the surface side, believe it or not, I’m as concerned about roads and bridges in this country as probably the Secretary of Transportation.

A KC-135 Refueler takes off.
Credit United States Air Force, via Wikimedia Commons
A KC-135 Refueler takes off.

“The mission at Scott is fairly secure in that it is a transportation hub; it is a node that’s vital, and everybody understands that it’s vital,” McDew acknowledged. “But the money to re-modernize things, to bring in new technology, to harden us to cyber defenses—all of that is something we ought to be concerned about.”

Cyberdefense. In a military world of increasing cyberattacks—on both military and commercial targets—McDew thinks TRANSCOM must play a critical role. “We are as a nation...behind a little bit on our policies and statutes when it comes to cyber. I’m not sure we understand this new war-fighting domain, and what it will mean going forward.”

Ninety percent of work at USTRANSCOM is done with commercial partners and their networks, McDew said, which means operations go smoothly but security is tenuous. “If I was an adversary, I wouldn’t go after the hardened target; I would go after the softer target. And so right now, some of our commercial industry teammates are a softer target than I am.”

McDew indicated that part of the difficulty lies in logistics and communication. Separate units in the military are responsible for different aspects of cyber defense: U.S. Cyber Command in the Department of Defense works on the military side, and Homeland Security heads the commercial side. The two departments are “not as completely aligned as we want them to be,” McDew said, although they do communicate with each other.

“I want to work somewhere in the scene between the two,” he continued, “because I am one of the few combatant commanders that is as concerned about the commercial side as I am of the DoD side.”

Long-term issues aside, USTRANSCOM remains very much involved with the day-to-day operations of U.S. defense systems and commercial partners. Of particular concern now, McDew noted, is Syrian airspace.

“There’s a coalition of people in the skies over Syria,” he said. “The U.S. and our coalition partners have an air tasking order, [in] which we have a very orchestrated—I would say almost a ballet—of who’s flying where, and when.”

The danger lies in non-coalition partners’ movements: Russian planes are not a part of the U.S. coalition’s tasking order, McDew said, so their operations—flying, bombing, landing—could lead to mistakes and misunderstandings which might quickly escalate.

Such is the danger of multinational involvement in certain ‘hotspot’ regions. But McDew stated that TRANSCOM’s most poignant efforts are done in the service of other peoples and nations, through the distribution of humanitarian aid. “We have the opportunity to impact the lives of people we’ll never meet personally. And if you talk to some of the youngest in the command...many of them will say that supporting the war effort is duty. It is memorable to do a humanitarian operation.”

Recently, TRANSCOM was on the ground in Liberia and other African countries affected by the Ebola epidemic, orchestrating the on-load and offload of equipment and personnel. The command, with the help of local businesses, devised a system to move large groups of infected people safely and without contamination of the vessel.

“It is the story of the world,” McDew said. “We in this country are blessed enough that we can help in a lot of places. When folks are in trouble around the world, they do call on the United States of America.”  

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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