Gen. Duncan McNabb, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command (Transcom), tells the story of his meeting with Secretary of Defense William Gates when he was assigned to the post in September 2008. Gates, impressing on McNabb the significance of his new job in the midst of two wars, quoted Alexander the Great, saying, "My logisticians are a humorless lot ... they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay."
McNabb related the story with a laugh during a presentation on defense logistics at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' annual conference in San Diego this fall. But the story he told is of the daunting responsibility Transcom holds every day. The organization is, in its own words, "the single manager for global air, land, and sea transportation for the Department of Defense."
During his presentation, made jointly with Alan Estevez, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness, McNabb discussed the complexities in simultaneously managing the drawdown in Iraq and the buildup in Afghanistan. The scale of what Transcom had to manage was immense (as were the resources at its disposal), but the challenges will be familiar to logistics managers everywhere: delays in getting started, compressed timetables, and hard deadlines. Then there was the need to respond to the unpredictable: In the midst of all this, Transcom also took on responsibility for shipping relief supplies to Haiti following the earthquake there and dealt with major disruptions resulting from the Iceland volcano and the floods in Pakistan. McNabb is quick to praise Transcom's private sector partners in its success. And he and Estevez both emphasized that DOD wants to work more closely with the private sector in its efforts to develop leaner and more effective supply chains. "We're different, but not that different," Estevez said.
Secretary Gates visited Transcom headquarters in Illinois in April, along with Gen. David Petraeus, but not to carry out on Alexander's threat. On the contrary, he came to award McNabb and his team the Joint Meritorious Unit Award. I'm told that the only higher honor a unit can receive is the Presidential Unit Citation. Further punctuating the honor: It was the first and only award Gates had personally issued during his three-plus years as defense secretary.
Over the last couple of decades, business logistics has become more exacting and the price of failure to execute higher. For military logisticians, the price of failure has always been high for those they serve—thus, Alexander's high standard. We offer our congratulations to the men and women of Transcom for their achievement.