Sealift and aerial refueling capabilities are top readiness concerns for U.S. Transportation Command, Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday.

Van Ovost leads Transcom, which is responsible for, arguably, the U.S. military’s greatest asymmetric advantage — the ability to get troops anywhere in the world and supply them. 

Transcom works with other combatant commands to ensure U.S. service members can accomplish their missions worldwide. 

“I’m extremely proud of our team of logistics professionals who lead the joint deployment and distribution enterprise [and] continually exceed expectations and ensure hope, deterrence and victory are assured as we underwrite our nation’s defense,” Van Ovost told the committee.  

The command is already facing the changing world posited in the National Defense Strategy. Transcom must plan and execute global operations in contested environments. This was generally not the case for operations in support of the war on terrorism.  

Transcom is already dealing with the Iranian-backed Houthis seeking to close the sea line of communication in the Red Sea. The command also deals with Chinese efforts to restrict peaceful passage in the South China Sea and East China Sea. 

It also must defend against cyberattacks.

“The fiscal year 2025 budget request continues to make strides in closing gaps in our mobility areas as we prepare for global operations in a contested environment,” Van Ovost said. “A contested environment is the reality of today, whether in the homeland or abroad, we cannot presume freedom of maneuver to execute our operations with full access to our lines of communication. Our organic fleets, coupled with the vital capacity provided by our commercial transportation partners, must continue to present credible capacity, meaning we must modernize our mobility capabilities to include cyber resiliency and digital modernization.

“A connected, aware and survivable mobility fleet and network is needed to maintain our advantage against a capable and determined near-peer adversary,” she continued. 

The general told the committee that her top readiness concerns are the same as last year: sealift and refueling. Von Ovost called sealift the “backbone” of the force. “However, the age of the [sealift] fleet is dragging readiness to alarming levels,” she said. “Seventeen of the 47 organic, Ready Reserve Force ships are 50 years old or older.”  

The command will need to address the readiness concerns that will come up due to the planned retirement of 27 ships in the next eight years. “We must add younger ships to the fleet,” she said. “Transcom supports the Navy strategy to acquire used vessels from the commercial market and further requests to provide the secretary of defense [with] discretionary authority to purchase foreign built, used ships under favorable market conditions without restrictions.” 

She also noted the Congress has the intention to build sealift ships domestically to recapitalize the Ready Reserve Force. Transcom is working with the Navy and Maritime Administration “to create an acquisition strategy for new construction that will complement the ‘buy used’ program,” she said. 

She noted that maritime stakeholders “have been experiencing challenges with recruiting and retaining qualified mariners, and we support MARAD and industry efforts to identify strategies that address the mariner shortage and ensure their readiness.” 

Air refueling is also a foundation to the command. It is a key capability to ensure U.S. service members can deploy anytime, anywhere, Van Ovost said. “It is our most stressed capability,” she said. “We must ensure continuous modernization and recapitalization of the aging fleet to meet the operational requirements of the modern battlespace.” 

The general doubled down on the Air Force plan for uninterrupted tanker recapitalization and accelerated fielding of the next generation air refueling system. “Over the past year, we’ve made great strides in … synchronizing global fuel management and delivery in collaboration with our key partners in the joint petroleum enterprise,” she said. This will assure end-to-end fuel distribution in a contested environment.  

Finally, the general asked the Senate to act on extending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and passing a national defense supplemental act. “To effectively sense adversary threats and activities in our logistics networks, the nation must utilize all available resources,” she said. “Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provides me insights into adversary intent, capabilities and activities to contest our logistics flows. The loss of this authority adds risk to my mission.” 

The national defense supplemental contains money vital for the health of the Transcom Working Capital Fund. This is needed to preserve readiness and ensure response options for the secretary of defense, she said.

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