When asked what his equivalent title in corporate America might be, Major General Charles Fletcher reflects for a moment before settling on COO. As his hesitation suggests, that's a pretty rough equivalent. After all, there aren't many chief operating officers who, like Fletcher, are responsible for the movement of people and supplies worldwide—by land, by sea or by air—to support missions ranging from humanitarian to combat operations. Or oversee a distribution process that, depending on how you measure it, represents $100 billion to $120 billion annually.
For Fletcher, however, that's all part of the job. This past summer, he was named Director of Operations and Plans for the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), with responsibility for directing the deployment of forces, and the distribution of supplies and equipment for humanitarian, peace time and war time operations for the Department of Defense. In addition, he is responsible for joint training, exercises and war planning as well as force protection for USTRANSCOM and its components.
During his 30-plus year military career, Fletcher, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, in 1972, has commanded at the company, battalion, brigade, and headquarters levels. He has received the Defense Superior Service Medal Legion of Merit (with Oak Leaf Cluster), the Bronze Star Medal for Meritorious Service Medal (with four Oak Leaf Clusters), the Joint Service Commendation Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster), the Army Commendation Medal (with three Oak Leaf Clusters) and the Army Achievement Medal.
Fletcher met recently at USTRANSCOM headquarters at Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois with DC VELOCITY Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald to talk about his experiences in Operation Iraqi Freedom as well as some of the more mundane challenges of daily supply management operations.
Q: USTRANSCOM is largely unknown to people outside the defense world. What can you tell us about it?
A: It started in 1987 as an effort to put the transportation assets of the three services under one command for the obvious benefit in time of war. It brought together what's now known as the Air Force's Air Mobility Command and the Navy's Military Sealift Command, and combined them with what was then the Army's Military Traffic Management Command.
Several years after that, following Desert Storm, people realized that you really have to have a unified command in time of peace as well, or they're not going to be able to transition to war. As a result, the charter has been expanded. We are doing things that I don't believe people envisioned in 1987. We now spend 75 percent of our time on non-war-related activities, particularly humanitarian response such as the tsunami relief operations. We were on standby yesterday for carrying a rescue sub to Australia. Last week we moved the president—one-quarter of our aircraft were supporting the president's move as he went to the Pacific and then on to the NATO talks. We moved Indonesians to Lebanon last week. Today, we're helping Tonga. Every day we find ourselves dealing with something different.
Q: As director of operations, what do you do? What would your equivalent title be in Corporate America?
A: Probably chief operating officer. It is my job to work with the regional combatant commands to make sure that their requirements are met by us as a supporting command. They tell us what needs to be done and we put together the assets to do that.We have three components, so we can look at an air solution, we can look at an ocean vessel solution, or we can look at a land movement solution. More often, we look at a combination of those solutions.
We have resources both on the military side and on the commercial side through standing contracts with privatesector service providers. We need to be able to create solutions and we need to create them using the right elements. If we can create the solution with commercial resources, that is often our first choice. If we cannot create it commercially, we create it using military assets and then, if possible, have a transition plan to move to commercial assets. We also have to keep in mind that while much of what we do makes use of those commercial assets, there are some cases in which the distribution function may be subjected to requirements that no commercial entity could accommodate. When I went into Iraq, we didn't have any commercial options to consider for the transportation system we needed, so we did that ourselves.
Q: Clearly, you serve a unique set of customers with unique—and very challenging—requirements. Do you think there's a lot the private sector could learn from you?
A: I think it's a two-way street.We benchmark our operations against the best in commercial business. We are really an information command that also owns assets. Because the majority of the assets we use in our peacetime operations are commercial, we are really a 3PL [third-party logistics service provider] in many cases.
We were at FedEx two weeks ago looking specifically at how they manage their various operating companies and how they do their IT as we look ahead to how we do our IT. We ask ourselves how we should handle requirements from all kinds of different agencies, not just the regional commands but the government of Tonga, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and all the different places that we have to go. How much of that do we need to centralize? How much of that is best left within our components' control? We look at commercial models, and we look at the similarities and differences between their operations and our own, and we try to open a dialogue with them. It is a very informed dialogue on many different levels. Take, for instance, radiofrequency identification (RFID). The military services have been in the lead where active RFID is concerned for many years. Now we want to follow the developments commercially on the passive side, so we are benchmarking with Wal-Mart, FedEx and others.
We only turn to a military solution when our need exceeds the commercial capability. It is a real push-pull with the commercial industries. Sometimes we push them to do things that they wouldn't ordinarily do.We can open doors that the commercial industry cannot open and we do that often. You can see that as we establish commercial contracts in Kuwait for support.We are really opening the door for a lot of U.S. entities or U.S. interests to further mature in areas they might not normally go.
Q: I'd guess that given the size and scope of your operaA tions, commercial businesses would be very interested in doing business with you.
A: Sure. I mean, we have moved over three and a half million people to and from southwest Asia since we started operations in Afghanistan. That's just one example, and that's a lot of business for a commercial carrier.
There is no other country on earth that can do what we do. We have a unique capability. That is what we bring to the table. Depending on how you look at it, our surface side business is worth $4 billion to $5 billion a year. Our total is $20 billion a year. Our distribution process, depending on how you measure it, represents $100 billion to $120 billion annually. Those numbers get the attention of a lot of people.
Q: I can only imagine. Based on what some analysts report, that could be as much as 15 percent of the entire U.S. market for logistics spending.
A: We try to spend it wisely. We devote an awful lot of our time to seeking the best commercial solutions. We really have to have a foot in both the commercial and military worlds in order to do that analysis effectively.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your career and some of your experiences. How did you become director of operations of USTRANSCOM?
A: Well, I often think it was blind luck. Last night, my 13-year-old son said, "Dad, I was looking at something and being a major general, that is pretty high." I said, "Yes, and you've got to be pretty lucky to be here." Seriously, when I was in Iraq I thought this is the thing that 30 years in the Army have prepared me to do. I think it takes a succession of events and career experiences to prepare someone for this job. You want someone who has an appreciation of the challenges of the distribution enterprise.
My experiences have certainly prepared me well for that. I spent the first 16 years of my military career in combat aviation. I think that really put me in a position to truly understand who it is that we are supporting. I was in Iran in 1978-79. I was in Korea in the DMZ. I spent a lot of time in military units in Germany. That gives you a real appreciation for the worldwide aspects of the operations. I've also spent time working specifically in the logistics area and in the Army Component of USTRANSCOM, the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, where almost all of the capability comes from commercial contracts. It made me aware of how the ocean carrier industry works and helped me understand its business model, as well as those of the trucking and railroad industries. You learn from experiences. If you don't understand how the contract providers operate, you might have the best of intentions but still make serious mistakes in leveraging their capabilities.
Also, of course, having been assigned to USTRANSCOM eight years ago gave me the opportunity to learn how the air mobility part of this business works. Plus for a good portion of the last 15 years, I've been working in and out of the information technology area. Those experiences have prepared me well for where I sit now.
I have learned that I don't know a lot and that I need to surround myself with people who are willing to learn and who are able to expand their horizons. I am blessed to have people here I've worked with on and off for 15 years. I don't think in my 30-plus years in the military, I have ever been around as talented a group of people as there are here today.
Q: You mentioned your time in Iraq. During the combat phase, as commander of the Third Corps Support Command, you found a way to maintain the continuity of logistics support for the Third Infantry Division during the most rapid combat advances in the history of warfare. You did so with very little, if any, existing infrastructure. Can you talk a bit about your experiences overcoming that challenge?
A: We followed the basic military precepts of preparing for an operation. We planned it. We organized ourselves. We identified the implied tasks of what we had to do. We practiced it and we worked it. When our original plan didn't work out, we were big enough to step back and say, 'That didn't work. Let's try something else.' We kept working it until we found a solution. We were never wed to any particular way of doing it.
One of the first challenges was determining how you command and control an organization that could potentially be spread out over 800 square miles. We had to focus our capabilities against the requirements and be mindful of the fact there would be insufficient assets to meet everybody's needs. So how do you do that? That is where we leveraged satellites. We began to work those into a comprehensive network. Then we knew we could talk to people and we could see things from the support side with some fidelity.
We also knew that everybody would be at risk, so we spent most of our training time doing convoy live-fire. We trained all of our convoys on how to survive an attack.
Once we got ourselves organized, the next problem was figuring out our requirements. To address that, we put together a team of 15 people in about five vehicles. We moved with the very forward elements of the Third Infantry Division into Baghdad. That way, I knew exactly what they needed because I was right there. I was out in front, and therefore, I could direct the activities of what was coming behind us. When I knew that the requirements exceeded the capabilities, I could go to my commander, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace (V Corps Commander), and say, 'Here's what we have, here's what we need in order to provide support, and here's what I suggest we do.' I had to give him options.We would focus our limited logistics resources against that which created the most capability for him during the fight to Baghdad.
Q: It sounds like that called for a bit of improvisation.
A: Every hour of every day. What we ended up with after three days was different from what we started with and different from what we had after a week. We had to innovate, organize and reorganize. There was, of course, a consistent application of common sense.
Q: Last August, I met with Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley and talked with him about some of the changes he is attempting to effect within the DOD and its business processes. Do you come to your new role as a change agent or are you looking to just continue to improve the process?
A: I think it's very important for someone who has been at the far end of the customer side to begin to look back. As we at USTRANSCOM transition to measure our readiness—not in terms of the metric of delivery to a place but more to the satisfaction of a requirement—it may mean that we sub-optimize the transportation part, which we have always held sacrosanct, because we have a much broader view as the distribution process owner (DPO) and we understand the supplier base, the production capability, the user requirement, all of those pieces. We are able to look across it. We are now bringing in people who are not from the transportation community. We have supply chain experts to talk to us about how we can change our own work force so that we develop an expertise beyond the expertise that we are known for, which is moving things from one place to another place. It is a dramatic change in the type of person who will represent the core capability of this command.
Q: What's driving that change?
A: It is driven by the nature of what it is we are asked to do. It is driven by the amount of dollars that we have to do it. It is changed by the emergence of capabilities that we did not heretofore envision. As an example, when we had the attacks on truck convoys in Iraq, we had to ask the Air Force to fly more than they were flying. We now move a lot of stuff there by air that would otherwise go by ground. We changed our methods based on the circumstances we faced. The traditional model was, if we shipped it in by sea, we would move it by truck to its destination. Now we may send it to the theater by sea, offload it, take it by truck, and then fly it across the dangerous area to its destination.
What that means is that today, our mission has shifted from simply arranging for transportation to the more complex task of stringing together our various capabilities, taking into account such factors as economies of scale, the cost of the transportation, the availability of capacity, and the goal location for the goods and material.We have gone out and found commercial aircraft that will fly where traditionally we only included military aircraft. So in Iraq, we are flying 50 percent more now than we did a year ago and we are flying 30 percent faster, so we have increased both the size and the velocity of the operation and we are doing it with fewer U.S. Air Force aircraft.
Q: I imagine you have to be ready to change the process at a moment's notice.
A: Absolutely. When I ran the operations center here eight years ago, we had a set amount of resources, which were largely the aircraft of the Air Mobility Command and the ships and the capabilities to run the ports. We essentially ran those to zero when we had to for high-priority movements. Then we would have a lag time.
We might have been able to bring commercial capability into the mix, but we could never quite transition from one to the other because if we, say, packaged something to go on an Air Force aircraft, the pallet wouldn't be compatible with commercial aircraft. We would have to change our methodology, change our packaging, and change the identification and so forth. It would have been extremely difficult to do all that. Now, on the other hand, we do that routinely.
Q: USTRANSCOM has recently been named the "functional advocate for RFID" across the DOD. How does RFID fit into your vision?
A: In a previous job, I was the representative for the Army within this RFID enterprise. In that realm with the Office of the Secretary of Defense running it, the Army had spent $700 million or $800 million. We had an infrastructure built around it. We leveraged that to good use.
I think as we begin this more complex integration of commercial activities, what we are finding is that there are other ways to get information that are much less expensive and more reliable than a radio-frequency tag. I think if you start with the understanding that complete intransit visibility is the goal and that machine-to-machine interface is the method, then you can go to a lot of different solutions.
Radio-frequency active tags are at the high end, with the highest end being the satellite tag that carries all of the information related to a given asset and that can be programmed to do any task you want. Those tags can tell us if a door has opened, if the temperature has varied, if the container has been shaken, and those sorts of things. I think because we own the distribution process, it only makes sense that we would own the backbone of the process, which is the information and the tools within the information chain that make that happen.
Q: Looking ahead, what are some of the challenges you face?
A: I think the supply chain presents an important challenge for us. It will be critical for us to transition to people who think of things in terms of the supply chain and not in terms of the functional entities within it.
We are reaching out to both private industry and the academic world to try and do things better. For example, we went up to MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to talk to them. We are seeking their help and their assistance from an academic side to look at how we do things.
Q: At MIT, I presume you were at the Center for Transportation Studies. Did you meet with Yossi Sheffi? His work with the concept of the "resilient enterprise" seems to fit very well with the Iraqi experiences you described.
A: I did. I spoke to Yossi about the resilient enterprise. I spoke about how we became a resilient enterprise. I went through the process for his students, explaining how we went into Iraq and how we managed our supply chain there. I think they understand that our model is a little different, but also that we can benefit by learning from one another.
We've also been down at the University of North Carolina, working with them on similar projects. But we aren't just reaching out to academics; we want to see the practitioner's side of this field as well. We want to see how a company like FedEx runs its operation. When we go in to see what an organization like FedEx is doing, we often find that we are farther along than they are in some areas and that they are ahead of us in others.
It is interesting—and this was pointed out to us at FedEx—that many companies like to hire former military personnel because they are disciplined and they understand how to build a team. They understand how to empower the people on the team to do things. Yet when I see these former military personnel out there, they seem to be doing things with more discipline than we are often able to achieve within our own enterprise.
There is an awful lot we can still learn from industry as the supply chain matures in terms of the concept. What's probably most important is that we try to develop people with a true supply chain expertise as opposed to what we have now, which is material management expertise and transportation expertise. If there is one lesson that I've learned from my time in Iraq, it is the need for people who have supply chain expertise, which isn't transportation or material management, but rather a synthesis of the two.