Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks meets with Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, the commander of U.S. Transportation Command, on Aug. 18, 2022, at TRANSCOM headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks meets with Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, the commander of U.S. Transportation Command, on Aug. 18, 2022, at TRANSCOM headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. (Lisa Ferdinando/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — U.S. forces are equipped to handle multiple conflicts abroad simultaneously, though positioning troops and weapons throughout the Indo-Pacific to challenge threats from China poses logistical issues because it is such a vast region, Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost said Monday.

“China has shaped their instruments of national power to erode, disrupt or destroy our ability to oppose their revisionist aspirations,” Van Ovost, who leads U.S. Transportation Command, said in an address at the National Defense Transportation Association’s fall meeting in St. Louis, where TRANSCOM maintains its headquarters. “And of course, we must contend with the underlying physics of the problem set. Across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, the ability to generate and sustain operational momentum in compressed timelines, to more destinations, with limited capacity will be an imperative.”

Van Ovost’s speech followed the TRANSCOM release last week of an updated defense strategy, which lays out several priorities and operational challenges in meeting potential threats from Russia in Eastern Europe and China in the Indo-Pacific.

Van Ovost emphasized in her remarks that China is presently the United States’ No. 1 “consequential strategic competitor.” With a population of 1.4 billion, territory covering 3.7 million square miles and an economy worth more than $30 trillion, China has a well-developed military and wields enormous influence in the Indo-Pacific.

U.S. ships cruising the South China Sea have ratcheted up tensions between Beijing and Washington. Much of the dispute has centered on which parts of the sea belong to China and which parts are international waters. But the tensions have also focused on Taiwan, an island roughly 135 miles off the southeastern Chinese coast over which Beijing has long claimed authority.

"[China] is pursuing an aggressive naval shipbuilding program to advance its excessive claims in the South China Sea and undermine freedom of navigation elsewhere around the world,” the updated TRANSCOM strategy states.

“[President Joe Biden’s] National Security Strategy makes clear that China and Russia are working overtime to undermine democracy and export a model of governance marked by repression at home and coercion abroad,” Van Ovost said. “In their own ways, both seek to erode the legitimacy of established international norms and laws that have persisted for almost a century.”

TRANSCOM supports the military by sending personnel, equipment and weapons to areas of need around the world. Van Ovost said while the command has already shown great adaptability and efficiency during the past 35 years, modern conflicts — particularly in the Indo-Pacific — are going to call for new approaches, some of which would likely be unprecedented.

Commercial sealifts, for example, would likely be pivotal due to the geography in the region.

“The Pacific is big. It’s huge. And there’s not a lot of islands in there where you can park stuff,” Van Ovost said Friday ahead of her speech. “So, I think that operations [there] are going to require us to transload from commercial [modes] to military at a level we have not seen before.”

For months, TRANSCOM has been moving support personnel and equipment to Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Biden has said repeatedly the US will defend Taiwan militarily against any similar aggression from Beijing.

China sees the island as a breakaway territory, whereas Taiwan considers itself an independent country. Beijing has said it will act, if necessary, to protect its interests on the island and some experts have said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could motivate Beijing to take a more aggressive footing.

In August, China issued several warnings to the U.S. amid reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was planning to visit Taiwan. Some of the warnings sounded ominous and one threatened “strong and resolute measures.” Pelosi ultimately made her visit to the island without incident.

Speed would be one of the most important elements in moving troops and equipment to the Indo-Pacific, Van Ovost emphasized. A swift and mobile operation, she said, is critical to maintain readiness and deterrence in the region, which geographically spans from just east of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific to the eastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean.

“Getting to the final destination … our ability to do that at time and tempo that meets the joint force commander’s requirement is concerning,” Van Ovost said of the challenges unique to the Indo-Pacific.

Despite the concerns, the commander said TRANSCOM has a cache of experience that will help the command move quicker and anticipate future obstacles. A little more than a year ago, TRANSCOM evacuated close to 125,000 people during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and, more recently, it has transported billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Ukraine.

“I look at the scale that we did with respect to Operation Allied Refuge [in Afghanistan] … and the scope of what we are supplying Ukraine and some of our systems and processes are not yet fast enough to be able to do the timing and tempo that we would like,” Van Ovost said. “So, we are working on ensuring that we see the data to make better decisions to match our limited capacity to best effect for priorities around the world.”

Such data would allow the command to “push the right stuff at the right time” for what would almost certainly be a “high-tempo battle” in the Indo-Pacific, she added.

“If we can get there fast, we can deter so that we won’t get into conflict,” Van Ovost said. “If it takes us a month to build up a credible capability in the theater, that’s not going to work. That may lead to conflict. The National Defense Strategy really leans on … our ability to increase the doubt in the minds of [Chinese President Xi Jinping] and [China] that they can achieve their objectives.”

TRANSCOM will participate in large-scale exercises in 2023 that will shore up gaps in capability and readiness, according to Van Ovost.

“And they [China] are taking notes of what we are doing and how we are marshaling our forces. Those are some of the things I think about,” she said.

The struggles of supplying troops in the Indo-Pacific are nothing new to the U.S. military. Van Ovost said she believes U.S. efforts during World War II and in the Vietnam War will offer valuable lessons if more troops and equipment are needed in the region.

“This is going to be the light, lean distributed operation that we saw during World War II,” she said. “Maneuver is going to be what we are very focused on — and agility. Agility equals survivability, and you’re seeing it right now in Ukraine. Agility and survivability and it will be the same thing in the Pacific.”

Van Ovost, 57, is one of four women in the U.S. military who is a four-star general and the second woman to lead a unified combatant command. Prior to her appointment by Biden last year to lead TRANSCOM, she oversaw Air Mobility Command and was an Air Force pilot. She also held other leadership posts in the Air Force and for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Ours is a nation dependent on transportation. We are realizing that fact more now than ever, and it’s time for us to get on with it,” Van Ovost said.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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