SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill.– The United States military is the best-manned, best-equipped and best-trained force in the world, but that doesn’t mean a thing if it can’t get to the fight. The 138,000 military and civilian men and women of the U.S. Transportation Command and its service components – the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, the Navy’s Military Sealift Command and the Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command – “are really the jewel in the crown” of the American military, Air Force Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, TransCom commander, said in an interview here yesterday.

The command gives the United States the strategic ability “that is just tremendous” to move and sustain its forces globally, the general said. “That allows our warfighters to have great flexibility in their options,” he explained. “If we’ve done this right, they never worry about us. They just assume it’s going to be there.”

The command – established in 1987 –supplies the day-to-day needs of a military force fighting two wars and operating in more than 70 countries. With civilian partners, the command also stands ready to support humanitarian assistance missions such as the ones that followed the earthquake in Pakistan, the tsunami in Indonesia or hurricanes in the United States.

The command has its own alphabet soup of acronyms, officials here said, but the mission is simple: get the warfighters to the fight, sustain them during the fight and bring them home. TransCom uses air, sea and land modes of transportation to accomplish the mission. Command officials prioritize requests from the combatant commands and put together the best way to deliver the capabilities. Depending on the mission, requests may be filled by airlift, sealift, ground transportation or – more likely – a combination of them all.

McNabb said the transportation of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to Iraq and Afghanistan is a good example of the way TransCom works. In July 2007, very few MRAPs were in service in Iraq. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates asked Congress for more MRAPs, and the vehicles began coming off assembly lines and were readied for shipment to U.S. Central Command.

As the “distribution process owner,” TransCom has end-to-end responsibility for the supply chain, from assembly line to user. The command worked closely with industrial partners to plan the movement of the MRAPs to Central Command and monitored the various choke points along the way. The effort got under way in September 2007, and by the end of the year, 1,500 MRAPs were in the combat theater. To date, more than 10,300 of the vehicles have been delivered.

This was more than just collaboration, it was fusion, McNabb said.

“If you think about collaboration, a lot of that is just knowing what everyone is doing,” he said. “But if you think of why you want collaboration, it’s because you want to synchronize what they’re doing. That’s fusion.”

The command flew the first vehicles to the theater aboard heavy-lift aircraft. Later shipments went by sea. In addition, TransCom officials had to ensure there were people in theater who knew how to off-load the vehicles and ensure they were combat ready. The command also worked with CentCom logistics officials to get the vehicles from airports or seaports to the men and women who needed the protection these vehicles provide.

This was an example of all involved working together to identify potential bottlenecks for the distribution process and put in place ways to smooth the flow of goods and materials, McNabb said.

“Synchronizing” and “orchestrating” are two terms constantly heard at TransCom, and McNabb said he wants to improve the distribution coordination in the military. The TransCom organization charged with this responsibility is the Deployment and Distribution Operations Center, “a true fusion cell,” where members of the command and its service components receive the combatant commands’ requirements and generate distribution solutions, McNabb explained.

In determining the best solutions to fulfill the need, the group asks a lot of questions, the general said. Should the goods be delivered by military assets or by civilian lift partners? Should it be delivered by air or sea or by some combination of both?

“I want to put everything together in a way that is precise,” McNabb said. “You fuse your operation. You need to have redundancy in your system, but you want to make sure you have it all orchestrated.”

With new organizations called joint deployment and distribution operations centers, TransCom now has the end-to-end visibility it needs to do its job and provide warfighters with better service, McNabb said. The first of these stood up in CentCom in January 2007, and now all of the combatant commands have them, he said.

Technology will help with the transportation mission, the general said, noting that TransCom is the DoD proponent for automatic identification technology and radio frequency identification. Both provide better visibility of cargo in transit. “If you can see it, you trust it,” McNabb said.

The technology will allow maintenance or supply specialists to use computers to see exactly where their piece of cargo is. Overnight delivery companies pioneered the technology in the civilian world, and just as people waiting for a package can track where it is, DoD personnel will be able to do the same, McNabb said.

Eventually, the general said, this will change the customer’s behavior. Now, supply personnel may order parts two or three times, because they don’t know where their gizmo is, but they want to be sure they get it.

“FedEx changed peoples’ behavior with their tracking system,” he said. “People can trust that they will deliver it when they say. That’s how we want [servicemembers] to view the supply chain. They can watch it every day and verify that it’s moving. With that trust, you also save a lot of money.”

The command has many other initiatives working, including how best to deliver supplies to places where the infrastructure has been wiped out and coming up with better ways to write and monitor contracts. TransCom officials are looking at ways to increase access to Afghanistan, and are working with commercial carriers to ensure that vital part of the supply chain is healthy. They are taking best practices learned from civilian organizations and adapting them to military applications, McNabb said.

The fusion idea is at the center of all this, the general said. When TransCom’s new headquarters building opens here in 2010, the expanded operations center will include people not currently on the main floor.

“We don’t know what synergy will result from that,” McNabb said. “The idea is to get to where we are fusing all actions, and everything is on the table. When you have a championship organization like this one, people are always looking for ways to make it better.”

Job No. 1 for the command is to take care of the warfighter, the general said.

“The very next job is to make sure we can do this for the future, and that depends on a strong sealift industry and a very strong airlift industry,” he said. The economy has not been kind to the airline industry, McNabb said, so he is worried. He is meeting with airline chief executive officers in the coming weeks to see what effect the economic downturn will have on military operations.

“The partnership with air and sea lift companies is a very cheap way to maintain the military’s capabilities for war,” he said.

McNabb recently returned from visiting the TransCom assets in the CentCom area of operations, and from consultations with leaders in the region.

“What I found is how far we keep coming,” he said. From the ports to airfields, he said, everybody is looking at ways to improve services to the troops.

“It is the way that everybody is working as a member of the team that is amazing to me, and humbling,” McNabb said.

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