Gen. Darren W. McDew is the commander, U.S. Transportation Command, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. USTRANSCOM is the single manager for global air, land and sea transportation for the Department of Defense.
McDew was commissioned in 1982 following his graduation from Virginia Military Institute. He began his flying career at Loring AFB, Maine.
His staff assignments include serving as a member of the Air Force Chief of Staff Operations Group, Air Force aide to the President, chief of the Air Force Senate Liaison Division, director of Air Force Public Affairs and as vice director for strategic plans and policy for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He also served as the commander of 18th Air Force, Scott AFB, and commanded at the squadron, group and wing levels as well as at an Air Force direct reporting unit. Prior to his current assignment, McDew was the commander of Air Mobility Command, Scott AFB.
During an interview with Airman magazine, General McDew reflected on the education and career opportunities during his career and how that prepared him to lead a command responsible for projecting the nation’s might and ideals.
Airman Magazine: Sir, thank you for your time. Please tell us about yourself and the United States Transportation Command.
General McDew: My name is General, which still freaks me out when I say it, Darren W. McDew. I’m the commander of the United States Transportation Command. I love talking about this command because I believe it is foundational to not only the country, but the world. Very few people truly understand what USTRANSCOM is, what we do and why it’s important that you have us.
First of all, when you hear transportation, everybody says, “I got that. I know exactly what that is. That’s planes, trains, automobiles and some boats. How difficult can that be?” It’s difficult enough to think about it this way: We provide options to the nation that few nations in the world actually have.
If you think about large adversaries around the world, potential adversaries, they want to have what we have. If you roll back and think about what is it that the United States military has that no other nation has and why are we the lone superpower left in the world, it’s simple: Our ability to project power onto someone else at the time of our choosing. Every other nation wants to have that and we do that through a couple of different ways.
We can provide you an immediate force tonight or a decisive force when needed.
We do it through three components of the services: The Navy component, Military Sealift Command, an Army component, Surface Deployment Distribution Command and an Air Force component, Air Mobility Command.
But when I took command, I didn’t find that quite sufficient in describing how we do what we do and why it’s so effective. There’s a piece that’s a preponderance of our force. It’s civilian industry and I have dubbed them my fourth component.
When I first rolled it out, I was worried. How will they take this? Will they see this as a land grab or would they fully understand my meaning? When I say fourth component, it’s because I care as much about their readiness, their capacity and capability as I do those military components. All of that comes together to make us, I believe, the last superpower on earth.
Airman Magazine: You have a varied history in your career. How has that seemingly divergent experience come into play at USTRANSCOM?
General McDew: Downright eclectic background, right? My background is not one you could have designed from day one. If you had told me as a young second lieutenant in Strategic Air Command, flying KC-135A models and sitting on alert at Loring Air Force Base, Maine, that I would one day be sitting in this office, I would have told you that you were absolutely out of your mind – crazy.
But along the way, if you told me I was going to work in the White House and work in the Senate and be the Air Force director of public affairs, I wouldn’t have thought any of that was possible either.
I was happy to get a four-year scholarship to go be a civil engineer in the Air Force. I had no money, but I had people telling me that I needed an opportunity to go to school and the Air Force provided me with that opportunity. I can’t do enough to pay that back. So now I sit here in awe of the people I get a chance to work with.
Airman Magazine: You mentioned directing the Air Force’s public affairs efforts; do you find that was good training for what you have to do now on Capitol Hill?
General McDew: Every single diversion I’ve taken, every single assignment on which I go, I am thinking, “Why in the world am I doing this”? It didn’t seem to make much sense at the time. In hindsight, I use every one of those skill sets today. I was built to be here right now. I’m not sure if anybody did it deliberately, but looking back on it, I can see where every single one of those skills comes in handy.
Airman Magazine: How do you educate the people who hold the purse strings on Capitol Hill about USTRANSCOM and the foundational nature of its mission?
General McDew: It sounds pretty complicated. When I do it because I need to understand who I am first. I’m an introvert so I don’t necessarily like talking in public. I’m an engineer by practice. That means I don’t necessarily want to engage you as a person, but I know that about myself. So I prepare.
The way I prepare is to try to understand how I can deliver, what I need to deliver and to whom I needed to deliver it. I tell the members of Congress it’s the least favorite thing I do all year. However, it’s absolutely the most important thing I’ll ever do. This enterprise, transportation, does not get the accolades, the notoriety or the understanding it deserves.
My big job is to try to get that out there when I go to the Hill. I try never to ask for anything. I don’t want any more in appropriation. What I want is better understanding and then through that understanding, I want them to think of us.
I say simply, “When you want to improve the lethality of the Department of Defense, think about how you’re going to get it there. When you want to make a combat force more lethal and agile, how are you going to do that?” If you ask yourself those questions, you will include logistics and transportation.
Airman Magazine: Does that include facilitating disaster relief around the world and within the continental United States?
General McDew: Absolutely. Anything that is an extension of what I call our “American Power Promise,” or ideals, is done through logistics and transportation. With the power we extended, we project those ideals. Sometimes we deliver it firsthand to foreign nations and some of it is right here in our own country. Last summer was a perfect example with all the hurricanes that hit the southeast quadrant of our country.
Airman Magazine: It has been a long time since U.S. forces had to deploy through a contested environment, be that sea, land or airspace. How do you balance out the prevailing mindset that comes from freely deploying forces for more than 70 years, with preparing for the deployment of forces against the opposition?
General McDew: I believe that you prepare for today’s changing character of war. It’s something the nation hasn’t had to deal with for a number of decades, since 1942. You begin with a good strategy. We now have a national security strategy, a defense strategy and a military strategy that lays out a framework for how we’re going to do certain things.
It is understanding that the nature of the fight we’ll face will be global and not necessarily regional. The impacts will be felt by all the combatant commands and not just by one. We will no longer see a place where we will think that the entire effect we have in say in CENTCOM, for example, and none of it will leak out around the world.
If we face a fight in Eastern Europe, then Northern Command has to be involved, Strategic Command is involved, Central Command is involved, Cyber Command is involved and, of course, [Pacific Command] as well. All of us are involved. So how do you prepare for that?
You prepare by understanding the global nature of war. We here at USTRANSCOM understand that we’ve got to set the globe on behalf of the chairman and the secretary of defense for the entire logistics and transportation enterprise. Then you have to understand whether the globe is imbalanced or out of balance with your resources. Today, I would say we’re slightly out of balance because we’ve been leaning heavily towards CENTCOM for a number of years.
Then if you realize you’re out of balance, can you the keep the balance you’re in and be willing to use the entire globe or must you actually reallocate things.
Today’s strategies acknowledged the fact that we don’t have all the resources we want to plant in every single combatant command’s area of responsibility, but what we can do is recognize that and swing assets when we need to. So you set the globe, take a look at the balance of the globe and then be willing and agile enough to use the entire globe. The ability to pivot is more important than actually having the assets parked there ready for something that may or may not happen.
Airman Magzine: Can you explain how the relationship works when you engage that fourth component – civilian industry?
General McDew: Yeah. The transition from being partners with industry to being a fourth component is more than just a label if you go back with me to 1950. Although I wasn’t alive, although it looks like I was around since 1850, but if you go back to 1950, we had 1500 U.S. ships sailing internationally engaged in U.S. trade with the U.S. flag. Today – 80.
If you look back at the numbers of troops, we had a fighting in World War I, World War II and through Korea; at how big the army was, how many soldiers we had in Europe, it is completely different than today, the number of assets.
So if you look at Desert Shield and Storm, we had 150 ships underway each day under USTRANSCOM’s control. All of that has really, really changed.
So now, what do you do? (The) civilian industry now does not add to us; they are part and parcel of what we do. Ninety percent of our capacity to send troops to war is on commercial airplanes. Forty percent of our cargo is commercial. So no longer do we need to worry just about the defense industrial base. I call them “the people that make exquisite things for us”. It’s civilian industry – They’re the people that do things for us. It’s the mom and pop trucking company. It’s a maritime company. It’s a rail company. Those folks are vital – pivotal to what we do.
Airman Magazine: You were talking about the reduced numbers of ships and, I’m guessing, that a large number of that reduced number of ships date back to Desert Storm or before. Is the age of our fleets a challenge?
General McDew: Yeah, it is. The age of our fleet is getting older every single day, but that’s across a lot of our fleets. It’s air, it’s surface equipment and also maritime. The maritime one is in really dire straits.
We are, I believe, still a maritime country. If you look at the products we move around the world. If you look at how we get our resourcing, how we ship in and out, a lot of that’s in the maritime domain. However, you couldn’t convict us in a court of law of being a maritime country. I think that 1500 down to 80 ships is something that the American public needs to understand. Do we still consider ourselves a maritime nation? Is it important that we have U.S. flagged carriers and U.S. trade markets around the world? I think it is and it’s also vital to national security and national defense.
Airman Magazine: It has got to be difficult convincing a public of that need when they’re used to having things delivered to their homes by just pressing a button on a smartphone. It’s there the next day. Magic. They don’t really give any thought as to how it actually got there.
General McDew: No one does, but that’s why you pay me the moderate of bucks you do, which I can’t complain about. But you pay us here in this enterprise to think about that. You know what’s beautiful about working with the people at USTRANSCOM, none of them will ever be written about in a history book. None of them will be on CNN. None of them will be on Fox News. None of them do it for that. They do it because there’s a great enjoyment in doing things for other people that makes a difference, even if no one actually understands it.
A couple of B-2 bombers take off from Whiteman Air Force Base. They magically appear over Libya. They do some severe damage. They magically appear back at Whiteman. There were dozens upon dozens of air fuelings that made that happen. They see Patriot missile batteries show up in Korea, magically. Lots of ships and airplanes had a part in that. A lot of planning had a part in that and I tell our folks all the time, you can watch CNN and know that you won’t get mentioned, but you know the impact you had.
Airman Magazine: Let’s talk about the development of integrated C2 – how important that is to your mission – as well as cyber.
General McDew: Well, one of the things that we’ve come to grips with herein, the time that I’ve been the commander, is that the challenge of our time is not necessarily a country that may want to take us on ( kinetically). It may not be a geographic region or maybe not be a specific adversary. It’s a concept. It’s cyber. Cyber is the challenge of our time and it is where we are most vulnerable, not as a DoD, as a nation. We have to come to grips with that.
A country like Estonia, that suffered a devastating crippling effect through cyber in 2007, now has religion about cyber, but they had to get there in a devastating way.
The contested environment that many of us talk about, is the way I was trained when I grew up. You take off from the CONUS and you’ll get within some magical threat ring of some surface-to-air missile and then all of a sudden you’re now in a contested environment.
Well today, that contested environment starts right here, right now, every single day. We’re no longer in the binary world where we’re one day at peace, and the next day we’re at war. There’s a gap in between and some of the really smart academic people have called it the Gray Zone – The Great Power Competition. Well in that zone resides cyber.
In that zone, what’s missing is the nation understanding what laws and policies need to change to protect America in that realm. Is it CYBERCOM’s job to do that? Is it Homeland Security’s job to do that?
My problem is I live in between the two of them. I care about the military component and security and I care about the commercial components and security. Therefore, I see the gaps in our national policies when it comes to how we protect the nation in cyber.
Airman Magazine: So for you, this really comes down to an asset utilization and supply chain security issue, you’ve got to make sure that everybody that you’re integrating into your mission is protected?
General McDew: Everybody. If you think of any unit, you want to move from fort to port, from port to port and then port to effect. It will be touched by a commercial industry somewhere in this country…
Airman Magazine: …and every one of them has got a laptop plugging into their shop to fix the air conditioning?
General McDew: Every last one of them. You might be able to remember back when people thought that this whole computer thing was going to be just kind of a phase and we shouldn’t make commercial industry start to computerize a lot of their stuff because it was too expensive for the mom and pop shops, Right? They were going to go out of business because of it. Well, people are saying the same thing as about cyber defense.
They will see it as a cost sink and not an enhanced capability until they are attacked. And most everybody right now believes it is an IT problem or a six problem – J6, A6, G6. This is a commander and CEO problem and if you’re the CEO of a company, if you’re the commander of an organization, and you’re not invested in the cyber solution, you’ve really got a problem that you don’t know about. And if you don’t think you’ve been attacked, you just don’t know.
Airman Magazine: Is it a challenge to get corporate partners that you work with to start buying into upgrading their cyber awareness and protection?
General McDew: Well, I will tell you that the companies that we work with through a lot of our alignments and partnerships: the civil reserve air fleet, the voluntary intermodal sealift agreements, our maritime security programs, they understand how important they are to national security and national defense. They come along, but sometimes their parent companies are looking at the bottom line. It’s harder to convince them to expend resources to do something that they don’t believe is as important to their bottom line as we think it is to national security.
For example, if you believe that you’re secure, my question is, “Against what?” If you’re a corporation in America, what you’re securing yourself against is a hacker or against espionage from a competitor possibly. Not a state actor. And so to convince some of these companies, they ought to spend money to blockade themselves against some state actors, some nefarious actors out there that could impact national security is difficult, but most of the people we’re with are patriotic in nature and the ones that aren’t, we’ve put it in our contracts so they have to comply.
Airman Magazine: What emerging technologies do you see as being something that can advance your mission, maybe streamline the workflow?
General McDew: We’re moving towards cloud technology and some people say, “Well, won’t that make you more vulnerable?” I don’t believe anything can make us more vulnerable than we are right now. Cloud technology does a number of things for us. It gives us scalable bandwidth, but it also gives us resiliency that we don’t have today.
We have quickly moved into the cloud in the last year and we now have resiliency that we could never have dreamed of. We’ve also discovered some things we didn’t know. We now know areas where we ought to be more afraid and we’re getting after those. We have cyber in all of our exercises. Cyber is now in all of our contracts. So now we’re starting to get stronger in areas day by day, then we’ve got to look at our data.
Big data analytics; most people want to bounce very quickly to artificial intelligence. That’s important. Some of our large adversaries are ahead of us in that regime, but where they really are ahead of us in his understanding data and making sure the data is accessible and aligned appropriately so you can use it for something good.
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Airman Magazine: How are you attacking that challenge?
General McDew: We’re working with a lot of people; some in industry, some throughout the government. We’ve got partnerships with the Defense Digital Service that’s helping us connect with some people in Silicon Valley to help us understand how we can get our data done better and faster. (We get) our cloud technology through Silicon Valley and some others. We’re reaching out to anybody who’s willing to help us with this. Some countries that are more advanced have understood that your cyber strength doesn’t have to be in your military to be it’s most useful. At the Department of Defense, we’ve got to understand that as well.
Airman Magazine: So moving everything into the cloud, disaggregating and decentralizing, makes you a harder target?
General McDew: At least a more difficult target to track. The fact that we are a global warfighting command that brings some functional expertise and having [command and control] across the globe; it’s pivotal that we understand how we do it and we have resiliency. We’re more resilient today than we were yesterday. We will be more resilient tomorrow than we are today.
Airman Magazine: In dealing with multiple commands, private industry and federal agencies I am guessing that your mission benefits greatly from total force integration. How big a role do reservists and the National Guard play in the USTRANSCOM mission?
General McDew: Some people throughout the department talk about total force integration. They talk about the active and reserve components and how pivotal the reserve component is to what they do. We would stop existing without our reserve component. They are our foundation, our everything. We have them interwoven throughout the entire enterprise. I can’t tell you who is and who isn’t, nor do I care.
Airman Magazine: What kind of challenges do you expect the new Mobility Capability Requirements Study will reveal?
General McDew: So if I had a crystal ball and talked about this new Mobility Capability Requirements Study that will be done in in the fall of 2018, it will be different than all the ones we’ve had previous for a couple of different reasons.
The biggest of which is we’re acknowledging a contested environment from day one. That’s huge.
We’re also acknowledging something that we’ve got to come to grips with – attrition. We’ve never in our history, accounted for the attrition of logistics and mobility in our war plans. For now, we’ve got numbers we’ve subscribed to for a number of years that say these are the numbers of assets we need to accomplish the mission. But, that assumes everything makes it. On time. Every time.
We don’t believe that’s realistic in today’s environment. The character of war has changed to a place not just with bombs and bullets, but also ones and zeros. It’s a reality that attrition will exist in the next war.
Airman Magzine: The national infrastructure is composed of a lot of legacy systems, bridges and roads, port machinery, ways of creating manifests and scheduling. All of these were designed long before cyber was a consideration. What are the issues, infrastructure wise, with which you’re going to have to deal with?
General McDew: In today’s environment, we’ve got to re-look at just about everything. Every piece of software that was designed more than about two days ago should be refreshed again. Every piece of infrastructure in the country needs to be looked at through the lens of not just the commercial viability and the things it provides, but is it a part of national security?
A road is not just a road. A rail network is not just a rail network, in my world. A sea lane is not just a sea lane, it’s the potential of our ability to get troops, or our influence, or our help, to places we need to get it, inside the country and outside of the country. Some places we’ve got good roads, good networks. The rail networks are in pretty good shape. Our fiber backbone – not so much.
Do we have a national security strategy when it comes to cyber? What would the American public say if we had a cyber 9-11 tomorrow? Are we ready for that?
That infrastructure is so important, but most people focus on the Department of Defense and less so about the nation’s defense.
I used this kind of anecdote a bunch of years ago. My daughter was very young. She came to me one day and I was about to throw out a plastic holder for a six pack of soda, and I thought I was pretty advanced because I was going to recycle it, but she told me I needed to cut it up, right? Because it was bad for the environment and the dolphins. I started thinking recently, when’s the last time we put something in schools to start preparing today’s youth for the challenges they’ll face tomorrow?
If we think cyber is one of those challenges, and I do, where is coding? Is it as important as washing your hands when you cough and sneeze? Is it as important is not spreading germs and disease? I think it is. We’ve got to decide as a nation what are those things that ought to be in schools. Young people need to start to understand that while they may be high-power users, they are not necessarily understanding what vulnerabilities they’re susceptible to.
Airman Magazine: This year marks 70 years since the Berlin Airlift. How important are the experiences from our past in shaping where we go in the future?
General McDew: Sometimes if we look back in history and learn from it, and I think you should, you realize that we’re all part and parcel to our experiences. Some people believe that you have to have had an experience in order to get through the next challenge. I don’t believe that.
I think that an experience can harden you, make you stronger and prepare you if you allow yourself to use that experience as a lesson and not a shackle. So many people shackled themselves to the past and do not allow themselves to learn from it.
So if you look at a lot of lessons throughout history, particularly like the Berlin Airlift and some others, not everything had been learned before. It was learned during and by bold and innovative Airmen. They were willing to take a risk to do what they thought was right, even though there was nothing in the rule books to explain to them how to do it.
So where’s that bold, innovative spirit that gets us through every challenge, every single time? My worry is it only comes around once in a generation, really pressed against the wall. I believe today’s Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have that in them if we’ll allow them to use it.
Airman Magazine: So what’s it like having top-cover from the Pentagon to move fast and break stuff? Does it feel like this is a time when everything is aligning where we can be that bold force?
General McDew: I think it’s aligned. So here are my personal thoughts on innovation.
Innovation is happening everywhere around our services every single day. Every Soldier, Marine, Airman, Coastguardsman, Sailor, innovates every day. It’s not part of a program. Its what we do. It’s in our DNA and everybody does it.
The beauty is we’ve got senior leaders that understand how powerful it is and they’re opening up the floodgates to let these things happen. The best thing we can do is stop regulating it. The best thing we can do is take away the barriers to people being able to get something out.
For example, when I was the commander of Air Mobility Command, I realized I signed things on a given day that didn’t require my signature.
That does two bad things. One, it causes a lot of paperwork to get to me. Do you know how much staffing it takes to get from Airman Smith to General Smith? A lot. Just by taking that signature and placing it at the right level, which I believe a lot of our service chiefs are doing right now, lessens the burden on innovation. That’s one.
The other thing, and it sounds so simple, it just allows people to know that you trust them. I tell people all the time, don’t ask permission to do your job. I live in a corner of Illinois, so I don’t have as much oversight out here as they do inside the beltway. I take full advantage of that.
Airman Magazine: How important is innovation and technology in shaping the future of the Air Force?
General McDew: Sometimes we’ll take up a project or opportunity and be so impressed by the incremental change that we won’t go for the revolutionary change. Sometimes we’re so good at what we do that a marginal improvement is very good.
We still do things on the backs of our Airmen when we could take it off the backs of our Airmen with that revolutionary change.
AI – artificial intelligence, big data, cloud technology, gives us a chance to do something revolutionary, not evolutionary. Sometimes we’ll accept a small change in our professional lives. We got to get past that. Go back to those bold, innovative Airmen, who made a difference in something that challenged them personally and challenged their futures, but they did it anyway.
In the tanker technology world, instead of having a piece of software do a better spreadsheet for you and show you graphically where you should put an orbit, why not have it tell you how many airplanes should be produced, what maintenance and reliability it ought to have and will flag you when you’re short. Have it bring you decision ready stuff that only needs your brain power
Airman Magazine: Could you give me a verbal flow chart of how the process works; USTRANSCOM’s relationship with other COCOMS and the decision making process on transportation?
General McDew: As you’re looking around the globe, our focus is to make sure we’re not ever sucked into the emergency of the moment. Even when something is vitally important to be done right now, you want us all in, but not sucked-in.
We have to always step back and see what’s the best thing to do for the entire joint force and for the world as we see it.
The best thing might be put it on an airplane or it might be put it on a ship or it might be a combination of the two or it might be not at all. And we’ve got to be willing to make that assessment.
We do that in concert with the geographic combatant commands and the Joint Staff and the Secretary of Defense who set priorities for us. But, we’ve been given authorities to make some decisions where best to go and the best mode or node to use. And I think we’re pretty good at it and we’ve got to continually engender trust with everybody that we’re doing what’s right for everybody. And I think we do that pretty well.
Airman Magazine: Could you pick one, maybe two, of the biggest experiences in your career or mentors along the way that shaped you?
General McDew: So the relatively young guy sitting in front of you has been shaped over nearly 58 years of life through a wonderful set of blessings. One, I got a chance to be born in one of the most prosperous nations in the world. Two, I was born in an Air Force base to a set of parents who had decided to serve. My dad was an Airman and so I’ve considered myself an Airman now for 58 years.
Although I’m not in an Air Force command right now, I bleed blue as deeply as you’ve ever seen. The mentors that I’ve had most of my life are Air Force NCOs, my coaches, my mentors, the people that prodded me to do better in school were people that look like the folks that serve today in uniform. And I just wanted to be just like them when I grew up. They were people that saw something bigger and better and wanted to be a part of it. And I couldn’t wait for my turn. I just never could have dreamed it would turn out like this.
Airman Magazine: Do you have anything you would like to add?
General McDew: If I could end with one thing I kind of started with. I’m nearing 36 years of service. This is the best opportunity I’ve had in my life. The reason is because I get a chance to work with a bunch of people every single day who come to work to do what’s right for America and the world knowing they’ll get no credit. That’s a beautiful place to be. I wish more Americans knew them and they are not just in uniform. They wear civilian clothes. They’re not just in the DoD, they’re in our communities. They’re driving trucks, they’re unloading ships. They are true American heroes and they just don’t get enough credit for it.