Politics & Government

Next Air Force chief leads military's vast transport command

Air Force General Norton Schwartz.
Air Force General Norton Schwartz. Tim Vizer / Belleville News-Democrat / MCT

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — Gen. Norton Schwartz bounds out of bed at 4:30 each morning and charges off for a four-mile run. By 7 a.m., he's settling into his office to begin another day as the quarterback of the Defense Department's vast transportation network.

As the commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, the gentlemanly four-star general directs one of the biggest and most far-flung endeavors in America's wartime military. It's also one of the most essential.

Each day, hundreds of airplanes, ships, rail cars and trucks — which Transcom operates through three component commands — engage in a by-the-clock ritual of moving cargo and people across the globe.

With a $10 billion budget and nearly 138,000 personnel worldwide, Transcom operates like a giant multinational corporation, measuring its output in statistical superlatives. The amount of cargo shipped through Transcom in the post-9/11 era, for example, would fill a line of tractor trailers from Seattle to Miami.

Ships with Transcom's Military Sealift Command have plucked survivors from tsunamis and sinking ships. Evacuation crews with the Air Mobility Command have rushed wounded soldiers to lifesaving treatment in the United States. The Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command choreographs a daily parade of trucks and rail cars laden with supplies and equipment for troops overseas

Schwartz, known to colleagues as "Norty," has been at the center of this sprawling universe since September 2005. He'd planned to retire this fall, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates upended those intentions by recommending that the Transcom commander be nominated as the Air Force chief of staff after a top-level Air Force shakeup.

If President Bush accepts the recommendation, as expected, and nominates Schwartz, the 56-year-old Transcom commander would be tapped to lead the Air Force at a time when it's been jarred by a series of setbacks and internal problems, including the forced resignations of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley over the handling of nuclear weapons.

The service's acquisition process was thrown into question last month when the Government Accountability Office concluded that the award of a $35 billion tanker contract was flawed and called for the competition to be reopened. The Air Force also is struggling with spiraling fuel costs, an aging fleet of aircraft, mounting budget problems and the wear and tear of combat operations.

By reaching outside the Pentagon into middle America for the next Air Force chief, Gates reaffirmed Scott Air Force Base's stature in the national defense grid. During a visit to the base June 10, the defense secretary described Scott as one of the three most important Air Force bases in the country, alongside Langley in Virginia and Peterson in Colorado.

Tucked "in the cornfields" of southwestern Illinois, as Schwartz puts it, Scott has more than 30 generals or admirals, a dazzling statistic considering that most bases have no more than one or two, if any. The base, which dates to the World War I era, is home to the 375th Airlift Wing and 66 tenant units. It constitutes an economic powerhouse, pumping more than $2 billion annually into the local economy.

Scott not only survived the last round of base closings in 2005 but also emerged on a growth spurt, with 800 new jobs. In addition to Transcom headquarters, which has about 1,400 personnel at Scott, two of Transcom's component commands are based at the base: the Air Mobility Command and the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command.

The Military Sealift Command is headquartered a half-continent away in Washington, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

To accommodate the growth of its operations at Scott, Transcom is constructing a three-story building near its headquarters that's slated for completion in 2010. The 180,000-square-foot building, among other things, will house the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, which previously was headquartered in Virginia and has relocated to Scott.

Making all of Transcom's pieces run smoothly makes up what Gates calls a "Herculean task." Transcom seldom grabs headlines, but its mission is vital to the nation's defense posture.

"What we do is not that glamorous but it's fundamental to the success of others," Schwartz said during a recent interview in his office. "The person who has the enemy at 12 o'clock doesn't have to worry about his backside."

Gates' decision to tap Schwartz for the top job in the Air Force, while unexpected, was praised as a smart move by military analysts. It focused new attention on the Transcom commander and the transportation system he's led for nearly three years.

As Schwartz's replacement at Transcom, Gates recommended Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, the Air Force vice chief of staff, who served at Scott as the commander of the Air Mobility Command from October 2005 to September 2007. Gates' choice of McNabb to replace Schwartz also has won praise.

The nominations of both positions require Senate confirmation.

"These two are individuals who are almost impossible not to like," said defense analyst Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "For people at Transcom, the transition from Schwartz to McNabb will be a very subtle change."

Both generals, Thompson said, "are very sensitive" to the men and women in their command and are also "very analytical and very disciplined" in their approach to management and leadership. "They don't make seat-of-the-pants decisions," he said.

Transcom relies heavily on commercial partners — including U.S. airlines and private merchant ships — to augment the government's resources in meeting the burgeoning demands of supplying troops and moving personnel.

More than 35 private air carriers and more than 1,200 aircraft — including major airlines such as American, Delta and United — are under contract to assist Transcom when needed. At least a fourth of the ships that the Military Sealift Command operates are under commercial contract.

The Transcom nerve center is the Deployment Distribution Operations Center, where dozens of specialists work around the clock in a cavernous control room tracking the movements of planes, ships and surface vehicles. The unexpected — from a storm at sea to an urgent request for medical help — is often the norm, prompting DDOC operatives to reorder priorities hurriedly.

An atypical crisis occurred this spring, when ATA Airlines declared bankruptcy, taking one of the commercial airline partners out of play.

"Depending on the event, it can get very intense," said DDOC chief Robert Jenkins, an Air Force colonel from Silver Spring, Md. "You never know what's going to happen day to day."

Transcom was created by the 1987 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which reorganized the Defense Department and allowed for the consolidation of military transportation functions.

The goal was to put transportation under one umbrella and end what had been often redundant and competitive operations. Today, Transcom is one of nine joint commands in the Defense Department, and Schwartz reports directly to the defense secretary.

"It was segmented, it was fragmented, it was incoherent," Schwartz said, recalling the pre-Transcom era. "In the intervening years, what I think has occurred is that we have a process and a system that is responsive and makes things happen by air, land or sea."

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the deployment of combat forces overseas have infused Transcom with an urgent wartime tempo. Since shortly after 9-11, Transcom has logged 103,000 airlift missions, 786 shiploads and, in the United States, 2.4 million truck shipments and 191,000 rail car shipments.

By Schwartz's assessment, Transcom in many ways is like an offensive lineman, often unheralded but always indispensable.

"It's hard to jazz it up, but it's like blocking and tackling," he said. "Teams don't score many touchdowns without a few blocks and tackles."