A Discussion of USTRANSCOM’s Support to Surface Force Projection and Associated Challenges and Initiatives

Sep 28, 2020 | DTJ Online, Surface Force Projection Conference

The Surface Force Projection Virtual Conference was held on July 29-30, 2020. The conference was presented by the National Defense Transportation Association (NDTA) and Christopher Newport University’s Center for American Studies (CNU CAS), in collaboration with the US Maritime Administration (MARAD), the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), and the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA). This year’s theme was Enabling Dynamic Force Employment Through Global Port Readiness.

On day one of the conference, VADM Dee L. Mewbourne, USN, Deputy Commander, US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) led a panel discussion on the command’s support to surface force projection, including associated challenges and initiatives. Panelist included senior members of the USTRANSCOM staff: Bruce Busler, Director, Joint Distribution Process Analysis Center; Brig Gen Michelle Hayworth, USAF, Director of Command, Control, Communication, and Cyber Systems (TCJ6); Andy Dawson, Senior Supply Chain Project Manager; and Robert Brisson, Deputy Director of Operations.

“USTRANSCOM is central to our nation’s ability to project military power from the continental United States. It’s a key tenant to the American way of war. Being able to project our forces anywhere in the world at a time and place of our choosing is a force multiplier and represents a strategic competitive advantage for the United States,” said Mewbourne. “We know power projection starts at home with the domestic transportation industry connecting ports to strategic ports via highways and rail. You are a component of our primary strategic advantage—the ability to project power and to influence the globe.”

Expanding on the importance of this relationship, Mewbourne stated, “Moving things has always been a team sport. Without the steadfast and continued dedication of each member of the team, our ability to leverage the nation’s transportation system to project power across the globe would not be what it is today. On the government side, we have the National Port Readiness Network, which is a multi-agency government body whose focus is ensuring the readiness of the commercial strategic seaports to meet DOD’s needs. This network is very effectively chaired by MARAD and includes TRANSCOM, the Coast Guard, SDDC, MSC [Military Sealift Command], FORSCOM [US Army Forces Command], and others. However, most importantly, we rely significantly upon the support from our many commercial partners, specifically the commercial seaports, the commercial rail and truck carriers, and the stevedores and longshoremen, and others that I may have missed. Through our resilient relationships with each of you, the DOD is enabled to win decisively.”

USTRANSCOM is working on the Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study 2020 (MCRS-20), as requested by Congress. To better reflect the National Defense Strategy, this study incorporates a focus on great power competition, with an emphasis on China and Russia and the ability of other great powers to contest the ability of the US to operate. “The contested environment has become quite a compelling topic to include both cyber and kinetic activity that could potentially degrade our ability to operate,” said Busler.

USTRANSCOM is also looking at the capacity and networks of seaports, as well as their role in power projection. A recently submitted a report to Congress, required by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), provided an assessment of all major commercial ports. USTRANSCOM used input from port operators to help formulate the current conditions and future capacity of the ports. The report also looked at how port revenues are generated, and the DOD and federal support for ports.

The other major element USTRANSCOM looked at was port readiness. As an adjunct to the mobility study, the command provided Port Look 2020, which looked closely at pacing demands on the East, Gulf, and West Coasts of the US. “Oftentimes people don’t realize we flow cargo off of all three coasts (sic) for any major power projection requirement, and then we’ll focus on the dominant coast once the flow is underway. But to do that, we have to look at the pacing demand and then how we workload each of the seaports,” explained Busler. “From that, we look at the combination of coastal outputs, look at the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and West Coast. And, to have resiliency in our port sizing besides the overall capacity—which is typically described as throughput for each of the ports to about 120 percent of the overall requirement—and that way, we ensure that we have enough primary seaports.”

Seaports readiness looks at the highway, rail, and water access to the port, as well as access features of the installation and including staging areas to support multiple brigade combat teams to be stationed there. Currently, all strategic seaports have either designated capacity or have identified alternative regional capacity to meet DOD needs. Ports that have specific areas of deficiency are working on or identifying projects to address these issues. Notwithstanding, Busler said that by and large port capacity is adequate for power projection with one notable exception. Concern exists over the Port of Alaska because of the proximity of military capabilities that have to flow through a single port.

Congress has asked USTRANSCOM’s opinion on what to do if a single port is incapable of performing its mission. This is driving the command to examine the confluence of primary and secondary ports. “Our position is that if a port would be degraded, whether it’s by a natural disaster or by a man-made event in the case of a crisis, for example, cyber activity, our preference is to have that port have enough resilience to overcome that. But if it doesn’t, we would then go to a secondary port—either another primary port or an alternate port—to continue the deployment flow,” said Busler. “Only where we have constraints like where there’s a single port within that region that we would be more concerned, and we elevate that concern through the declaration of risk.” 

In their efforts to reshape the world, China and Russia have conducted activities below the threshold of conflict in both the information environment and cyberspace domain. “I think we’re all well aware of how congested that cyberspace domain is,” said Hayworth. “Our adversaries every day are attempting to take actions that would degrade our nation’s ability to project and sustain combat power at a time and place of our choosing” She added that because USTRANSCOM exists to ensure the nation can project and sustain that combat power, cyber mission assurance remains one of the command’s top priorities.

A 2018 global threat report determined the average cyber incident “break out time” was one hour and 58 minutes. This number indicates the amount of time it takes an intruder to jump from the initially compromised system laterally to other machines within the network. “So, this is how much time (sic) our cyber defenders have on average to detect that initial intrusion, to investigate it, and then clear that adversary from the domain before they have the chance to achieve their objectives—one hour and 58 minutes. It’s not very long to do all of those activities,” Hayworth explained.

To that end, USTRANSCOM has drafted a Cyber Domain Mission Assurance Strategy that outlines many of the actions the command will take to increase its cybersecurity posture. These actions can be categorized into four major lines of effort: Cyber Security, which looks to harden command and control nodes, as well as all IT and mission systems; Understanding the Operational Environment seeks to understand USTRANSCOM’s missions and how mission submission systems rely on the network in order to identify critical nodes and attack surfaces; Evolving the Relationship with USTRANSCOM’s Commercial Partners, and specifically working together to mitigate cyber vulnerabilities; and Developing a Cyber Security Culture to ensure that humans are not a “weak link” within the network.

Dawson provided an update on USTRANSCOM’s Transportation Management System (TMS) program, in which the command executed a prototype to assess commercially available transportation, logistics, and supply chain software. This allowed the command to examine its current processes, current management of deployment and distribution data, as well as some readiness data to see how these items are currently managed and consider how they could be managed in the future with a TMS.

The prototype has implications for USTRANSCOM and its interactions with the commercial industry related to its portfolio, cyber, financial management, and operations. Dawson shared several insights gained from the program, “we saw the ability to integrate inherently the activities to the left of the strategic power projection, and the power of integrating (sic) that deployment data from fort to port, activities at the port, and then from port to the theater of operations.”

He added that the ability to consolidate global requirements and movement requirements was another result. “We saw the ability to bring things together, not only those movements that were in execution but those that were in the planning process as military planners started to plan that move,” Dawson stated. “It was almost near consensus of those that participated in the prototype of the better in-transit visibility we were able to see of cargo moving through the defense transportation system. That was enabled by our system integrator, who worked with us to build a dashboard to virtually see within minutes what was occurring at echelon throughout the deployment process.”

An analysis of the program is currently underway. Once completed, a recommendation will be made to the Commander of USTRANSCOM on whether the TMS is applicable to the command and, if so, the scope in which it should proceed.

USTRANSCOM’s systems originated from the combination of three stovepipes—an Air Force stovepipe in Air Mobility Command’s systems, an Army stovepipe in the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s systems, and a Navy stovepipe in the Military Sealift Command’s systems. “When all three of those pieces of the services came together to be the components of TRANSCOM they took with them their stovepipe capabilities, and we’ve been operating this way. In some cases, we’ve got programs of record that do global c2 [command and control] that are built on 20-year-old infrastructure, built on 20-year-old software,” said Brisson. “Those types of things increase cyber vulnerabilities, come with costs for extended service warranties, and all things like that.” USTRANSCOM and its component commands are now examining programs piece-by-piece and making determinations on where to allocate funds to secure the most critical cyber vulnerabilities within these systems.

Brisson described the command’s Digital Modernization Strategy, which is built upon four main lines of effort. The first is a shift from a program of record focus to a capabilities-based focus. This entails tasks such as eliminating redundancies between the three stovepipes.

The second line of effort is to manage information to enable enhanced decision making across the IT structure. This involves building an enterprise data architecture that’s accessible to everybody that needs access to it both in and out of the IT structure. Doing so would allow for more effective information sharing in support of the national defense strategy.

The third line of effort is to build a framework that facilitates innovation. “We in the TRANSCOM headquarters can’t do this on our own. We have innovation going on inside of our components that every day makes us a better organization. But what we have to do at the command, at this headquarters-level, is put some design principles and things like that in place,” said Brisson. Such a baseline architecture would provide a solid foundation for innovations.

The fourth and final line of effort is to cultivate talent for a ready digital workforce. USTRANCOM’s workforce skews slightly older demographically. Providing proper and adequate training and opportunities for advancement to its workforce will ensure they have the tools necessary to be successful in a more digitalized, modernized enterprise.

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