SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — When Gen. William M. Fraser III began his military career in 1974, there was a massive drawdown going on from the Vietnam War. It became an inevitable theme for anybody who spent the next four decades in uniform.
Now, on the eve of retirement, he’s finishing his final Air Force post ensuring troops and equipment are moved out of Afghanistan, as the longest war in U.S. history draws down. There have been other tasks as leader of U.S. Transportation Command, a global mission headquartered here amid Southern Illinois cornfields.
Since 2011, he’s been in charge of 150,000 people all over the world who are involved with the deployment of ocean vessels, airplanes, trains and trucks. Distance, weather and government agreements are obstacles to overcome, as well as the threat of cyberattacks on a supply system that often relies heavily on contractors.
Shortly after Fraser took the helm, Pakistan closed access to roads and a strategic seaport that offered an easy way in and out of landlocked Afghanistan. He and his team had to help figure out high-stakes alternatives.
Fraser will relinquish command Monday in a ceremony that is supposed to include Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. Changes in military brass are common. The Post-Dispatch caught up with Fraser last week to better understand Scott Air Force Base’s role in global military operations and any possible changes in the budget-strapped future.
How is your job different today than when you started in 2011?
Not long after my arrival, the decision was made to accelerate the departure out of Iraq — to not only be out of, but have the troops home for the holidays, as well as all the equipment.
Surely getting out of Afghanistan has been the highest-profile task. Logistically, there’s more to it.
But also we are in the Central African Republic right now. We are supporting the French in Mali. We are supporting the U.N. mission and the movement of foreign military members to support southern Sudan. We are involved in a lot of exercises overseas.
In all the different areas you’ve been working in, what’s been the biggest challenge?
Afghanistan, first of all, is a landlocked country. So the Northern Distribution Network was developed. I was working with a number of other countries to get access to their capability and their capacity to move goods from the Baltics, through the Caucasus, Central Asia and into Afghanistan to provide support.
Neighboring Pakistan has the best route out of the Afghanistan via its port in Karachi. For a spell, that wasn’t an option, but U.S. cargo is now moving out of Pakistan?
And in through Karachi because we are moving a lot of foreign military sales cargo that has been bought for the Afghan National Security Forces. So we are still moving stuff in from Pakistan as well as bringing stuff out through Pakistan.
At a previous post, you were the assistant to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. You were assigned a task to ensure Israelis and Palestinians lived up to peace agreements. You have a background in aviation and diplomacy. What tip do you have for somebody going into the kind of work you do?
Relationships are key to a lot of things that we do. Having that trust and the right relationship, then we can get a lot of things done.
What’s the main obstacle that your replacement faces?
This command for many, many years was always in a growth curve. The missions were going up. The resources were plentiful. We’ve got fiscal challenges that are ahead of us.
It’s going to be a post-conflict mission?
The business will still be coming down, so how do you handle that going into the future? We’ve developed strategies, but I don’t know what is going to be put on his plate.
If the president said we want all troops and cargo out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, could that be done?
Yes. We have the capacity. We have the capability to be able to do that.
What is the biggest threat to U.S. Transportation Command? Is it cyberattacks?
It’s been one of my concerns since I arrived here. About 90 percent of what we do is on the unclassified network. Naturally, that is an area of concern from a cyber perspective, and so we have taken a number of initiatives over the last several years to better position ourselves going into the future to protect our networks.
Do you have any insight into what Scott AFB is going to look like in five years?
Great question, and I don’t have a crystal ball. But I am very proud of what we do here and how we do it. We are a very efficient, very effective command. I know there is no other place that can do what we do and how we do our job.
Why does U.S. Transportation Command need to be here at Scott?
There is great synergy that we get with other commands here.
Do you foresee any major changes?
Not in the immediate future, based on what I see. I see us continuing to collaborate and working together to find other areas in which we can find synergy, to make ourselves more efficient and effective.
Part of this report has been edited for space and clarity.