National Defense Transportation Day: Reflecting on What is at Stake

May 15, 2024 | DTJ Online

In a world of shifting threats, a robust American transportation network remains vital to projecting power and preserving peace.

By Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost

As we celebrate National Defense Transportation Day, we recognize the importance of our roads, railways, airports, seaports, and the incredible professionals that contribute to our national transportation network. Whether we are strengthening our economy or competing against potential peer adversaries, it is the same transportation system that secures our nation’s prosperity.  

As the commander of United States Transportation Command, I oversee the global deployment and sustainment of our nation’s military forces. This mission is vital to our national security and hinges on the world’s most efficient and reliable transportation system.  

In 1957, the year President Eisenhower enacted National Defense Transportation Day, the threats were clear and real – conflict over the Suez Canal, crisis in the Taiwan Strait, and the Cold War accelerating into space.

Today, nearly 70 years later, we find ourselves in a strikingly similar situation – protecting vital sea lanes connecting Europe and Asia, providing military support to Allies and partners under attack, and competing against China globally.       

There is little doubt we are in the midst of a dangerous and decisive decade once again, and there should be no doubt that America will continue to lead. Our nation will rely on our transportation infrastructure, systems, and people to project military forces globally to deter aggression and, if needed, defeat our adversaries.

Demonstrating a Credible Transportation System

We have depended on our nation’s formidable ability to project power in every crisis. Just two days after Russian troops surged into Ukrainian territory, U.S. Transportation Command began transporting an initial $350M package of military assistance to Ukraine’s front-line defenders. To date, the U.S. has delivered critical capabilities to Ukraine, including life-saving air defense weapons, armored vehicles, munitions, and military training.

After Hamas’ unprovoked attack on Israel, the transportation system flexed again, flowing multiple air defense weapons and ammunition to the region to protect U.S. forces and support Israel’s defense against Iran and its proxies.

The speed of initial delivery, and the decisiveness of U.S. aid into Ukraine and Israel, demonstrates the power of the American transportation system. Moving military cargo from across America, along railways and highways, in and out of seaports, across oceans, and into the hands of allied nations within days and weeks is a strategic advantage enjoyed only by the United States.  

To scale for potential conflict, more investment is needed. Our adversaries are already disrupting the defense transportation network, most notably in the cyber domain. With more than 85% of our military forces residing in the homeland, deploying a dominant force from the United States will present a challenge not seen since World War II.

Fortifying our Defense Transportation System

Upgrading our transportation system must be focused and intentional, and it must start in the maritime domain. I fully support a new National Maritime Strategy to counter China’s growing dominance at sea.

With more than 5,500 commercial ships, China has one of the largest merchant fleets in the world while the U.S. has under 200 oceangoing ships. Additionally in 2023, more than half of the world’s commercial shipbuilding capacity came from China, while the U.S. accounted for less than 1%. China owns controlling stakes in 96 foreign ports in 53 countries, they make 80% of ship-to-shore cranes used in the United States, and they produce 85% of the world’s shipping containers. Simply put, China is harnessing its commercial maritime industry to dominate in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

In a high-end global conflict, more than 90% of United States military equipment would deploy aboard sealift vessels. Alarmingly, 17 of our 47 Ready Reserve Force vessels, critical for rapid deployment, are 50 years or older. This aging fleet jeopardizes our ability to respond quickly in a crisis.

Strategically located seaports also play a vital role in deploying military equipment. The Department of Transportation and Maritime Administration issue several grants to promote economic development, one being the Port Infrastructure Development Program. We will continue collaborating with both agencies to highlight the national security benefits of a project when investing with federal funds.

People are the difference between winning and losing, and merchant mariners are no different. Our military sealift force and commercial sealift industry share the same mariners, and recent manpower shortages have created a national security risk. I look forward to the outcomes from the congressionally mandated Merchant Mariner Workforce Working Group and the ensuing national effort to recruit, train, and retain enough mariners to support both economic and defense needs.  

To feed our seaports and ships, we will continue to support new measures to upgrade our strategic highway and railway systems. We are integrated at the state and federal levels to ensure public, private, and military interests are aligned. I support new measures in the Military Strategic Transportation Program to prioritize investment in the highway segments most critical to national defense.

I also support a freight rail network that can operate seamlessly across state lines and under predictable and consistent regulations. Deferring or delegating regulatory authority to state and local agencies can have an adverse effect on our ability to deploy and sustain military forces, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.  

Finally, our airports and commercial air carriers augment our military airlift system and help us project an immediate force around the world. We depend on them every day – commercial partners have delivered more than two-thirds of the munitions and equipment into Ukraine. Also, in 2021, we activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to assist with the Operation Allies Refuge. Six U.S. commercial airlines contributed 18 aircraft to assist with the largest humanitarian airlift in history.

Toward a Stronger Future, Together

From ships to ports, rails and roads, and airports and aircraft, our defense transportation industry is our nation’s strength.

At U.S. Transportation Command, we take this historic day to remember an unsung industry that all of us rely on every day. One that serves our nation’s commerce and military simultaneously.

We appreciate all the men and women supporting our transportation industry, especially our close partners at the National Defense Transportation Association. Thank you!

Together, we deliver!

Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost is the commander of U.S. Transportation Command. U.S. Transportation Command is a warfighting combatant command that projects and sustains military power at a time and place of the nation’s choosing.

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