A Sustainment Vision for the Future: Embracing Innovation and Disruption to Advance

Nov 9, 2020 | DTJ Online, Fall Meeting 2020 Videos

By Sharon Lo Managing Editor, Defense Transportation Journal and The Source


The NDTA-USTRANSCOM Fall Meeting took place virtually October 5-8, 2020. The event brought together more than 1,500 attendees from government, military, and industry to learn and collaborate. The theme for the meeting was Innovative and Disruptive…2020 Vision for the Future.

The Honorable Jordan Gillis, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment, provided a keynote address on the conference’s second day. Gillis revealed that while he had always been aware and appreciative of the support provided to the warfighter, until taking on his current role, he did not recognize the amount of effort required and the broad spectrum of capabilities that come together to support service members.

“As you all well know and can appreciate, the scale of this enterprise is enormous. [It] touches every corner of the globe, delivering supplies and personnel on a daily basis, creating new capabilities when needed, and adapting existing capabilities to meet emerging demands,” said Gillis.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertain operating environment it created had been a significant challenge for both the Department of Defense (DOD) and industry, it was a challenge Gillis felt had been met. The initial phases of the outbreak saw a transition from a high operational tempo to a near stop of commercial activity and disruption in military operations. During this time, DOD curtailed major training events, delayed deployments and redeployments, froze Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves, expanded its use of telework, and adopted virtual meetings.

As the outbreak reached peak periods, many National Guard members were mobilized to support local communities and active-duty components augmented civilian medical capabilities. Operationally critical missions around the globe continued with appropriate risk mitigation.

As the situation stabilized, DOD utilized industry and organic capabilities to deliver critical supplies worldwide and repatriate American citizens from foreign countries. “The department sought new ways of applying existing authorities and capabilities to meet both internal requirements and support the efforts of our interagency and international partners,” explained Gillis. “We adjusted approval authorities, we developed some new policies, created new working relationships within the department to bridge gaps, and leverage expertise to solve unique challenges.”

An example of a creative solution used to address emergent needs occurred when Air Force C-17s flew testing supplies from their source in Italy to Memphis, Tennessee. The supplies were then handed off to FedEx personnel for delivery to distribution points around the US. The use of military aircraft allowed for expedited movement during the peak of Italy’s outbreak and travel restrictions, and FedEx sped up the last mile of distribution.

Today, the department has largely returned to pre-COVID levels of activity. Although Gillis revealed that activity is different in subtle yet substantive ways.  “Throughout all of this, the support that our industry partners continue to provide and the challenges faced across the globe, in supply chains primarily, highlight the need to build resilience systems to respond to environments like this where the challenges and the landscape is constantly changing.”

“We can and must use the lessons learned from this disruption caused by a pandemic as we look toward future operations and emerging threats,” said Gillis. “Whether it’s a future outbreak or a conflict with a near-peer or peer competitors, we should expect to see disruptions to all elements of our operation from the domestic transportation network to deployment modes and nodes to our information technology networks to tactical distribution—all will be contested and challenged. Gone are the days when we can count on the people, equipment, and supplies getting to the fight unchallenged.”

He added that potential threats include disruptive fake social media or small-scale kinetic or cyber attacks at the installation, the port of embarkation, in transit, or at the port of debarkation. Regardless of the threat, the US must be able to get to the fight. To do this, resiliency must be ingrained at multiple levels to ensure the network, including its individual systems, organizations, and capabilities, can respond and recover quickly.

“We have to work to build in resiliency where possible by developing appropriate policy and doctrine to shape the development of cost-effective capabilities, improving the visibility of the network to allow timely and effective decision-making, and building robust data capabilities to anticipate requirements, and leveraging new technologies,” said Gillis.  

One of the department’s key efforts in this arena is developing the next Joint Warfighting Concept (JWC). This is a Secretary of Defense-directed concept to guide future warfighting development and is designed to address how the joint or combined force will confront America’s most pressing security challenges.

Yet to be published, the JWC is built around the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). It anticipates a potential fight against a near-peer adversary contested in all domains and spread across a large and potentially non-contiguous area. It assumes all domains are threatened and that the homeland is no longer a sanctuary.

It also assumes that there will be a direct targeting of logistics, so a Joint Concept for Contested Logistics (JCCL) has been developed as one of four supporting concepts to the JWC. The JCCL is informed by and informs what each military service should develop in their specific service-focused future logistics concepts. The JCCL proposes three lines of effort: Resilient integrated logistics Command and Control, assured joint power projection, and sustainment for distributed operations.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, DOD had also started an analysis of America’s ability to deploy from a disrupted homeland effectively. Gillis felt that lessons learned from the pandemic would likely apply to the analysis. The department is also looking at material solutions in its resiliency plan for future concepts.

“In the maritime domain, our ability to quickly deploy significant forces and efficiently use transportation assets is tied to the readiness of our surge sealift capability in the Ready Reserve Fleet,” said Gillis. “We all know that these vessels are aging and that the challenges of keeping them ready and the cost to operate them has reached a level where they have to be recapitalized.”

He added that the department and the Maritime Administration (MARAD) had made significant progress toward accelerating the fleet recapitalization. The military services are also working to develop next-generation capabilities and improve the energy efficiency of various platforms.

“Beyond the material solutions, information technology is and will continue to be a critical element of the resilience required by future conflicts. Maintaining visibility of the global supply and distribution picture will enable planners and operational commanders to make better decisions and capitalize on the advantages gained through logistics overmatch,” said Gillis.  

He described the USTRANSCOM-led effort to implement a Transportation Management System (TMS) as perhaps the most significant new technology for the entire Joint Deployment and Distribution Enterprise. TMS will improve the performance of the transportation network and provide critical capability to ensure auditability—capturing financial data and performance confirmation in a single system. The net result will be more effective end-to-end visibility of both costs and operations.

The department recently achieved the initial operational capability of the Munitions Readiness Initiative (MRI), a system that provides near real-time visibility of global munitions posture. This allows for timely, accurate, and data-driven decisions. When the MRI system reaches full operational capability, it will include the abilities to support wargaming and other scenario-based what-if additional analyses.

DOD is also integrating innovative technologies that will further contribute to logistics overmatch, such as additive manufacturing and forward locations, predictive maintenance, big data analytics, robotic and automation, non-destructive inspection, and advanced electronic diagnostics. While these are areas where DOD can often learn from industry, those in industry who have yet to invest or investigate these capabilities should consider this a signal of the department’s expectations.

“As we look forward to and continuing to recover from the COVID pandemic, I would challenge us all to seek opportunities to build resilience into our capabilities amid emerging threats,” said Gillis. “We have to identify the opportunities where we can leverage technology in partnership with industry and the department to increase the flexibility and agility that we will need in contested environments.”

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