Transforming USTRANSCOM: is USSOCOM a model?

Transforming USTRANSCOM: is USSOCOM a model?

Cynthia Womble

Efforts to enhance the mobility of U.S. military forces are focused largely on platforms: how many are needed, and how should they be used? However, platforms are only a small part of the answer to the challenge of transforming our military mobility capabilities. An additional question needs to be asked: How can the total mobility forces best be organized to achieve the focused logistics and dominant maneuver of Joint Vision 2020?

The Department of Defense (DOD) no longer can afford the bloated transportation infrastructure of today. By reengineering the Defense Transportation System (DTS), DOD can free money and manpower for other transformation needs. One way this reengineering might be accomplished is by transforming the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) using the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) as a model.

Today, USTRANSCOM controls only portions of DOD’s transportation assets and processes. The USTRANSCOM mission statement, “to provide air, land and sea transportation for the DOD, both in time of peace and in war,” is misleading. According to joint doctrine, USTRANSCOM is the single manager for Defense transportation, with the exceptions of service-unique and theater-assigned assets. So the DTS is more than just USTRANSCOM; it includes, according to Joint Publication 4-01, Joint Doctrine for the Defense Transportation System, all of the “nation’s transportation infrastructure that supports DOD common-user transportation needs across the range of military operations.” The DTS consists of all military and commercial assets, services, and systems operated by, contracted for, or otherwise controlled by DOD.

A 1996 General Accounting Office (GAO) report concluded that Defense transportation costs were too high, processes even within USTRANSCOM were fragmented, and the cost of maintaining mobilization capability was driving the higher costs. GAO’s primary recommendations called for changes within USTRANSCOM to reduce duplication among its component commands.


The case for change in USTRANSCOM seems to be strong. To determine the feasibility of such a transformation, the first step is to compare the two organizations.

Both USTRANSCOM and USSOCOM are unified commands with worldwide responsibilities determined not by geography but by a unique function. Both USTRANSCOM and USSOCOM support combatant commanders with specialized and unique assets. Both have broad, continuing missions that are best executed under a single commander. USTRANSCOM provides strategic mobility, while USSOCOM provides trained and ready Special Operations Forces (SOF). To a degree, both USTRANSCOM and USSOCOM control a limited set of scarce resources that must be managed carefully and allocated worldwide. Neither USTRANSCOM nor USSOCOM has the resources to say “yes” to every request from a supported combatant commander.

USTRANSCOM and USSOCOM exercise combatant command over assigned forces and delegate operational control of those forces to supported combatant commanders as required. Through their subordinate component commands, both USTRANSCOM and USSOCOM have limited responsibilities for functionally similar forces and tasks under the combatant commanders. USTRANSCOM’s component commands are the Military Traffic Management Command (MTMC), Military Sealift Command (MSC), and Air Mobility Command (AMC). USSOCOM’s component commands are the Army Special Operations Command, Naval Special Warfare Command, and Air Force Special Operations Command.

USTRANSCOM and USSOCOM have some significant differences. The most significant is that USSOCOM was created by Congress and given the authority to train and equip forces, a power previously vested by law only in the armed services. The same legislation also established a new category of funding within DOD, Major Force Program 11, and gave USSOCOM responsibility for its management. This ensured that SOF had visibility at the DOD and congressional levels.

USTRANSCOM does not have acquisition authority. Instead, USTRANSCOM is authorized only to provide input to the services for the development, acquisition, and organization of mobility and transportation systems and platforms. USTRANSCOM is distinctive among the unified commands because of its role as manager of the Transportation Working Capital Fund (TWCF), which includes submission of the TWCF Program Objective Memorandum directly to the DOD Comptroller.

Organizational differences also exist between USTRANSCOM and USSOCOM. While both commands include Army, Navy, and Air Force components, only USSOCOM has established functional component commands under the command of the regional combatant commanders. The two commands also differ in the scale of their operations. USSOCOM manages a budget of over $3.7 billion and has just over 45,000 assigned personnel, including active-duty military, National Guard, and Reserve personnel and civilians. By contrast, USTRANSCOM manages a budget of over $4.2 billion and has 63,000 active-duty military personnel and civilians. Including National Guard and Reserve units increases USTRANSCOM’s strength to over 159,000 people. USTRANSCOM also differs from USSOCOM in that the commander of USTRANSCOM is also the commander of one of its subordinate commands, AMC.

USSOCOM does not offer a perfect model for transforming USTRANSCOM. USSOCOM is responsible for equipping and training SOF, and USSOCOM’s budget includes funding for assigned military personnel; however, these personnel still belong to their parent services. Some platforms have been procured on USSOCOM’s initiative to fill validated special operations requirements, but not all of the personnel required to operate these platforms are SOF. Any transformation of USTRANSCOM using USSOCOM as a model must include steps to mitigate these challenges.

Proposed USTRANSCOM Transformation

What actions should be undertaken to transform USTRANSCOM using USSOCOM as a model? Changes are needed in four major areas. USTRANSCOM should be–

* Granted the same budget and acquisition authority that USSOCOM has.

* Given an expanded mission, to include all DOD operational and strategic transportation assets and supporting infrastructure and organizations.

* Reorganized internally to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

* Provided with a commander separate from the AMC commander.

Budget and Acquisition Authority

In order to integrate intertheater transportation effectively, efficiently, and seamlessly with intratheater transportation, USTRANSCOM must have acquisition authority similar to USSOCOM’s. As the single agent in DOD responsible for procuring operational and strategic mobility platforms and systems, USTRANSCOM should be able to eliminate unneeded duplication among the services, ensure robust and flexible mobility to meet joint and service requirements, and optimize the size and shape of the mobility force to enhance strategic responsiveness.

The need for USTRANSCOM to have more authority over transportation procurement is recognized within the command. USTRANSCOM is pursuing acquisition authority for commercial transportation services. Currently, USTRANSCOM is not interested in gaining acquisition authority to develop and purchase new mobility systems, such as ships and aircraft. Although seeking authority for commercial services is a positive step, it is not aggressive enough to gain the efficiencies and effectiveness possible with full acquisition authority.

Moving to direct funding may not be as big a jump as it may appear at first. Revenue gained from transportation services provided (managed in the TWCF) is not USTRANSCOM’s sole source of funding. Some funds for maintaining capacity for wartime mobilization are included in the service budgets. For the past several years, USTRANSCOM has been successful in gaining a separate funding line from Congress called Mobility Enhancement Funds (MEF). USTRANSCOM has used these funds for en route infrastructure repairs and improvements not addressed by the services. The existence of MEF demonstrates that USTRANSCOM and Congress recognize the need for a centrally controlled funding source to ensure funding of some capabilities that are required by all of the services but not paid for by any one service. Thus, direct funding of USTRANSCOM may not be such a radical transformation.

Expanded Mission

The mission of USTRANSCOM must be expanded to include all operational and strategic transportation assets and supporting infrastructure and organizations. A number of organizations within DOD have a primary mission of transportation. Only a few (namely the service-component transportation commands) fall under the purview of USTRANSCOM. Many of these organizations would be more effectively integrated into the DTS and more efficiently employed by joint forces if they were part of USTRANSCOM.

The Army’s 7th Transportation Group is an excellent example of the type of transportation activity that should be part of USTRANSCOM. This unit is charged with providing many transportation capabilities that cross the boundaries among tactical, operational, and strategic mobility. One type of watercraft operated by the 7th Transportation Group is the logistics support vessel (LSV). These capable vessels are not part of the DTS because they are classified as service-unique. However, many mobility missions can be performed equally well by an LSV (an operational-level, service-unique asset) or a small ship chartered by MSC (a strategic-level, common-user asset). Including LSVs in the DTS under USTRANSCOM would ensure that they are managed with other available transportation assets to meet joint mobility requirements, not just Army requirements.

Other organizations within DOD that could be used better as part of USTRANSCOM include Navy cargohandling battalions, the Navy Transportation Support Center, Army theater support commands in Europe and Korea, Navy fixed-wing passenger aircraft, and the prepositioning ship fleet. A study should be conducted to fully identify all operational- and strategic-level transportation activities and assets within DOD that should be included in USTRANSCOM. Activities that should not be considered as candidates for inclusion are those that perform only at the tactical level, which should remain under the control of the services.

Transportation Theater Component Commands

The third area requiring change is establishment of transportation theater component commands. Similar to USSOCOM’s theater commands, theater transportation commands would consolidate all the strategic and operational mobility organizations within a theater to improve responsiveness and efficiency, eliminate the divide between intertheater and intratheater lift, and streamline the reception, staging, onward movement, and integration process. Working for the theater combatant commanders and coordinating with USTRANSCOM, these theater transportation commands would allow the DTS to capitalize on the advantages of centralized control and decentralized execution. Any portions of the existing transportation component commands in a particular theater that are inappropriate for USTRANSCOM control (such as the Special Mission Ships Fleet within MSC) could be transferred to another organization.

For this change to work, the services and the theater combatant commanders will have to accept a paradigm shift in the way transportation assets are controlled. The tradition of placing tactical and operational mobility responsibility in the hands of the services will be hard to break. However, true efficiencies in Defense transportation and seamless mobility cannot be achieved without joint cooperation and optimization.

Separate AMC Commander

To transform effectively along the USSOCOM model, DOD needs to disentangle the command functions of USTRANSCOM and AMC. The current policy of dual-hatting the USTRANSCOM commander as AMC commander saves a general officer position. Since the number of general and flag officers in each pay grade is limited by law, creating a new four-star slot would be a new requirement for the service chosen to fill the position. However, this is a minor problem when compared to the benefits that could be realized by making the USTRANSCOM commander a truly joint, impartial position.

Providing more separation between USTRANSCOM and AMC will help prevent the appearance, and perhaps the tendency, to favor AMC over the other component commands. Complete impartiality will be required of the commander of a transformed USTRANSCOM in order to make procurement tradeoffs within USTRANSCOM’s budget that formerly were made in the service budgets. Separating the two positions also would allow the commander of USTRANSCOM to be selected for the first time from any service, not just the Air Force.

Benefits of Realignment

Funding USTRANSCOM in a way similar to USSOCOM would yield several benefits. Both DOD and Congress would gain more visibility of mobility and transportation activities and costs. USTRANSCOM would gain the ability to compel (by holding the purse strings) the component commands to integrate command and control computer systems and make other changes that it can only coordinate today. USTRANSCOM also would have the authority to determine the types of mobility assets to be acquired and maintained across the services in support of DOD warfighting and transportation needs.

A new, improved USTRANSCOM would reap benefits for all of DOD and enhance the Nation’s security posture. The quality and responsiveness of transportation and mobility service to the theater combatant commanders would be greatly improved. Efficiencies would be gained by eliminating unnecessary transportation and mobility redundancies among the services while maintaining consistent policies and procedures for similar capabilities. By controlling all operational and strategic mobility, USTRANSCOM would remove the seam that exists between intratheater and intertheater transportation, reduce confusion, and increase effectiveness in times of crisis. USTRANSCOM also would be able to provide, for the first time, truly “one-stop shopping” transportation support to all the services and unified commands to meet their requirements. Having a single activity manage all transportation and mobility assets would allow optimal scheduling, routing, and use of all scarce strategic and operational mobility resources, no matter which service component operates them or whose cargo needs to be moved.

Over time, a more efficient and effective DTS would reduce costs significantly by reducing overhead and duplication of effort, minimizing misuse and underutilization of mobility resources, and maximizing options available to the warfighter. This gain in efficiency will free up resources that can be applied to other areas within DOD to assist with the total Defense transformation.

Risks of Realignment

Such an ambitious proposal is not without risk. USTRANSCOM may become too powerful if it is granted budget and acquisition authority similar to that of the services. Consolidating all service strategic and operational mobility assets in the hands of USTRANSCOM and coordinating all movements through it, even intratheater movements, could reduce the flexibility of the theater combatant commanders and undermine theater unity of command.

This transformation would weaken the link between transportation personnel and assets and their parent services. For this reason, it is likely that USTRANSCOM would need to exercise oversight of advancement and promotion opportunities for those personnel in transportation military occupational specialties, similar to the oversight currently exercised by USSOCOM over SOF.

USTRANSCOM also could come into conflict with the services over acquisition programs, especially those that would have a direct impact on service recruiting, training, or manpower limits or otherwise affect the shape and mix of forces and personnel within a service. Another concern is that expanding the scope and responsibility of USTRANSCOM could lead to additional overhead costs for transportation. However, disciplined restructuring of the DTS following careful study of redundancies across the services should result in significant overhead cost reductions that will far outweigh any small expansion that may be required at USTRANSCOM headquarters.

Finally, congressional action is required to change U.S. Code, Title 10, to grant USTRANSCOM acquisition and budget authority similar to USSOCOM’s. Since the DTS has not elicited the same level of concern that SOF did in the 1980’s, some might argue that it is unlikely that Congress will be inclined to take action. However, waiting for the DTS to fail in a contingency before giving USTRANSCOM budget and acquisition authority may be waiting too long.

Reorganizing USTRANSCOM along the model of USSOCOM would remove service stovepipes that hamper flexible mobility support for joint operations. USTRANSCOM would remain solely a supporting unified command.

By transforming USTRANSCOM using USSOCOM as a model, the DTS can become more efficient, more effective, less costly, and ultimately better suited to provide the dominant maneuver and focused logistics capabilities envisioned in Joint Vision 2020. USTRANSCOM then will become the single, globally capable, intermodal DOD transportation activity providing responsive, efficient, fully integrated, ready, sustainable service to achieve the Nation’s security objectives.

Lieutenant Commander Cynthia Womble, USN, is stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. She holds a B.S. degree in industrial engineering, an M.S. degree in operations research, and is a graduate of the Naval War College. She served as an Associate Fellow on the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group and commanded Military Sealift Command Office Northern Europe during Operation Noble Anvil/Allied Force.


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