Command interview: Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, USTRANSCOM
Gen. Van Ovost is the 14th Commander of U.S. Transportation Command, one of 11 combatant commands in the Department of Defense. USTRANSCOM’s mission is to project and sustain military power globally in order to assure our friends and allies, deter potential adversaries, and if necessary, respond to win decisively.
Gen. Van Ovost has a diverse operational and training background which includes command of an air refueling squadron, a flying training wing and the Presidential Airlift Wing. She is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and a command pilot with more than 4,200 hours in more than 30 aircraft, including the C-32A, C-17A, C-141B, KC-135R and KC-46A.
It’s a pleasure to speak to you this morning. So, how has the Air Force changed since you first joined?
Gen. Van Ovost:
Wow! I came on active duty 35 years ago. That's hard to swallow. That's a long time ago but I benefited from the first women who went to the Air Force Academy in 1976, about eight years prior to my entering, and the first woman who went to pilot training in 1976, as well. They paved the way so that I could do well at the academy and choose to become a pilot and I became a pilot.
My dream was to fly fighters but at that time, there was an exclusion law that did not allow women to fly fighter aircraft. When I graduated and went to pilot training, I was able to get to an airplane that got me towards my second dream of becoming a test pilot where I could fly any airplane, not just fighters.
That policy has changed over time. In fact, about five years after I graduated from the academy is when they allowed women to fly combat aircraft. I was on my way to test pilot school at a time where I got to fly all the fighters, which was really great.
Today you can graduate from a commissioning source, go to pilot training as a woman and go directly into the F-35. I'm super inspired by the ladies who have the courage and desire to go do that today. Along the way, we've changed a lot of policies which make it so that every person can have a more fulfilling career in service to their nation.
It's really inspiring to me to use and see all the opportunities that have blossomed because of all the folks who paved the way before.
You mentioned it a little bit, but can you speak to any additional barriers that you faced throughout your career?
Gen. Van Ovost:
Sure. As a pilot, I was not allowed to fly combat aircraft until later on in my career. But once women were accepted by law into fighters and bombers, it didn't really feel like we were included. In other words, we were getting training but not the informal mentoring sessions or other things that make you feel included. It didn't give it the same full experience that a male had, right?
I call that “accepted but not included.” Today, as we again are chipping away at policies that unconsciously or consciously don't allow us to have a fulfilling career, I really feel like it's become inclusive. Right now, if a woman goes to a fighter squadron, they're included right from the get-go when they walk into the flight room, which was not the case when I walked into the flight room.
I felt like I had to work harder than everybody else and prove myself every time. If I made a mistake, I would really beat myself up about it because I wanted to be the best, to show them that women and the women that would follow me can actually do this and do it well.
Gen. Van Ovost:
This is the resilience factor that every Airman has within them; how do you actually go about developing it and becoming more resilient? I thought that if I worked hard and just did my best that I would be recognized. And I was. It turns out that when you do your best, people try to give you new opportunities because they see your potential.
They see the potential in you. But it's not always—you're going to make mistakes, right? Imperfection is not incompetence. It's a part of change. If you're not changing, you're not growing. But change is hard, and it means that you have to learn new things and you could fail. But it's about rising back up.
I tell people, you know, failure is fertile ground. I've been there; I’ve tilled it, I raised back up. How did I do that? I had mentors along the way and folks that walked beside me and supported me. They supported my decisions. They gave me honest feedback. I had to have the courage to listen to that feedback and to incorporate it and believe in myself and have the confidence to say, “I can do it.” I've got the courage to continue to do these things.
Then, as I looked behind me, to the women who may want to do what I was doing, it really drove me to keep going. I wanted to make sure that the path was as smooth as possible and as wide as possible for talented women and men that wanted to walk through that door.
Just thinking about that continued to drive me to do better and better and to open those doors for others.
If there was one piece of advice that you could give to those people, what would that be?
Gen. Van Ovost:
Believe in yourself and don't place limits on yourself. There's plenty of other people that want to place limits on things, but not you. You can do it. You believe in yourself. You're determined and you work hard. You can make it happen. You need to have a network, a network of people before you, beside you and behind you, that understand what you're trying to do and will give you that candid feedback and support you.
There will be some rocky times, but I had the courage to walk through those doors. It may not be a sure thing, but what you know is that if you don't try, you're going to really look back and go, “Gee, I should have done that.” So, have that network, have those mentors.
I promise you they'll support you and they will make the experience not just, “oh, my gosh, I have to go do this?” or “I'm not sure; I'm very nervous about it”. They'll make it fun. When I look back at some of the moments I lived through, I wasn't living the moment. In other words, it happened and it was really cool.
People would say, “Hey, you did that. You broke the sound barrier. What was that like?” I don't know. We were just so busy doing things that I didn't have time to sit back and go, “Wow, that was amazing. I'm having a great time.” If you're not having fun, people are going to see that you're not passionate about it. You don't want to do that.
So, with that, do you have any advice for your 18-year-old self?
Gen. Van Ovost:
Change is hard and growing is hard sometimes. I talked earlier about how failure is fertile ground. You're going to make mistakes. It is okay. Let yourself make those mistakes. One of the issues I had early on was that I sort of beat myself up about it. I'd relive the moment. Okay, you could relive the moment, but only to learn from the moment, then move on.
You've got to leave that behind you. You can't let it continue to eat at you. Otherwise, you start to grow this self-doubt and you may even start listening to that, right? So don't beat yourself up about it. You're human. No one is perfect. Together with your supporters and mentors, you're going to be able to move it forward. Don't look back and live in the moment. Have fun.
As you've gained rank and more responsibility, how have you made sure that inclusion is not just communicated effectively across the troops that you manage, but also that it's actually being implemented and is working at those levels?
Gen. Van Ovost:
It begins with leadership at all levels. You know, I've been there early in my career where I was in the room but it didn't feel like my voice mattered. Like that discussion [earlier] about acceptance versus inclusion.
When I enter a room and I'm with a cross-functional team or a leadership group, as we're making decisions, I look around for who's in the room. If everyone is walking and talking and looking like me, who came from the academy, chances are I'm not getting all the various inputs needed to make the most informed or best decision at the time.
Who are we missing? If there are people in the room but they're not talking, I ask them a direct question. Maybe they're just a natural introvert and they don't want to talk.
I would reach out to them. If I feel like they don't want to talk in the group, I'll call them to the office afterwards. “What did you think? How did you feel about that? Should we be doing this or not?”
So, being deliberate about them and also recognizing that in your workspaces and your cubicles and the flightline and the flight room, there are going to be people that are sitting in the corner that are very talented but are not yet courageous enough to get up and say something or do something.
Those are the people you need to call on and bring forward, and ask the flight commander, “Hey, did you ask so-and-so?” or “Where is so-and-so today?” When I do it as a senior leader, you start to see that be replicated at lower levels. Because I will ask, “where is so-and-so? Did they chop on this product? Are they involved in this?”
When I think about hiring staff members or civilians, we look to ensure that as many candidates can get on the slate as possible. Just throw everybody in because you never know—sometimes it's the right talent at the right time.
Everybody deserves a shot, whether they get selected or not. Everybody should try out and they should interview and get that experience so that they're ready for when their particular opportunity comes and that door opens.
What is the U.S. Transportation Command mission and what falls underneath your scope of responsibility?
Gen. Van Ovost:
The mission of Transportation Command is to project and sustain the combat force around the globe whenever and wherever our nation calls us to charge.
Transportation Command has three components. We have a sealift component, Military Sealift Command (MSC). We have a surface land component, Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC). And we have an air component, which you are probably familiar with, Air Mobility Command (AMC).
So, air, land or sea is how we deliver forces and equipment around the globe. Whenever you see U.S. forces deployed forward somewhere, chances are TRANSCOM brought them there.
[For example], it's what you're seeing in Ukraine going on right now. Not only do we deploy forces for NATO's support but also all the equipment that you're seeing. You're seeing exercises in the Indo-Pacific or, of course, in the Middle East, as we do force rotations.
Another significant component of Transportation Command, actually, is our commercial industry partners. Not many people know that, but they do a lot of work for us in peacetime and more. In fact, we can't do our job without the commercial component. For example, in Ukraine right now, we've flown just about a thousand air sorties to support Ukraine security assistance.
Approximately 75% of those were done by our commercial partners. They're really critical in the fight, so we have a great relationship with them. We work with them to ensure that they can execute around the globe.
Our networks of military capabilities around the globe—along with the commercial networks that have the contacts and contracts around the globe—ensure that our stuff keeps moving all the time. We are a supporting combat command, we support all the other combatant commanders.
There's a lot of stuff going on around the globe, so we're constantly balancing how to meet their needs with capacity around the globe in such a way that all of our national security objectives can get done.
What role does interoperability play in that mission?
Gen. Van Ovost:
It's so important with our services that we're interoperable here as a joint service. These are our command-and-control systems, our visibility system where we can see assets moving around the globe.
Interoperability for me is also our ability to work with our allies and partners. We have agreements with them to share airlift or air refueling or even parts and assisting in turning airplanes on the ground—refueling and rearming.
It's important that we're fully interoperable. That way we don't have to have U.S. capability in all locations.
Then, with our commercial partners, I think of interoperability, equipment and capability. If I want to be able to take a pallet off of a 747 and put it on a C-17, [I need to know] how that interoperability works at different airports. The same at seaports as we offload ships. We have to be interoperable between the ship capability and the rail and the road capability.
So, really important. We work with that every day as we bring on new partners and we look around the globe and partner with our allies and partners.
Does this mission also include disaster relief?
Gen. Van Ovost:
It does. Thanks for mentioning that. Now we like to say we deliver hope. Just recently with Türkiye, we flew in search and rescue teams. Within the first 24 hours of that terrible earthquake, we were able to begin loading to deliver the search and rescue teams. We've recently delivered a field hospital as well to support Türkiye. To provide support to USAID, which is the U.S. Agency for International Development, we carry their equipment and food and supplies into Türkiye for them and onward into Syria.
We know how important the mission aspect of it is. How important is the people part of getting relief into those areas?
Gen. Van Ovost:
It is so amazing to see the relief in their eyes and know families now can get medical care or finally have shelter. Frankly, when I think about delivering hope, I have to go back to Afghanistan, where I was the Air Mobility Command commander, and we did the Afghanistan retrograde followed by 17 days of a noncombatant evacuation. Just to see the dehydrated Afghans get on the airplane, get to safety, get to a tent, get food, get water, be able to take care of their families, seeing the kids playing at Ramstein [Air Base] and bring some sense of normalcy back to their lives.
Also, just a smile on your face. Anybody who was a part of that will never forget the lives that they saved in those 17 days. It's an indelible mark in my career.
Speaking of being a great mark in your career, 35 years is a long time. What keeps you motivated to continue to serve?
Gen. Van Ovost:
What keeps me motivated are the young men and women who aspire to serve, in particular, in our Air Force and Space Force. When I meet with them and we interact, they're just so bright and talented. They want to do great things. They're courageous and they can't get enough. They want to get in fast and they want to get going on their careers.
It's so inspiring to think of the people who went before me and me as I went before these young Airmen—all the tilling that has been done, that widening of the path, the smoothing of the path, changing policies so that men and women can have a more fulfilling career and they have more control over their career—that inspires me.
When we see policies that are, maybe inadvertently, negative towards women, we got to get in there and fix them.
There are great groups, barrier [analysis] working groups, that are getting after these things from an ethnic standpoint and from a gender standpoint, that are making real change happen. I'm very proud of our Air Force that we have fists to the table to try to fix these things—to recognize and understand what it would take to fix it and then fix it.
For that reason, I know we're going to continue to be the very best force in the world. We are at 50 years of the all-volunteer force. Recruiting and retention is critical. We’re changing policies and making a place to start your career inspired by working for something greater than yourself. Then you’re getting great training, great leadership opportunities even faster than you would get them in a normal civilian world.
At the same time, you're working with these high-powered teams. Many of the exit surveys, when people get out of the military, say the thing they will miss most is the camaraderie. It's the fact that they worked with great people towards a common mission, and that's what they miss the most. Start your career on a high and come join our Air Force.
In this era of great power competition, how do we alter the mindset that came with freely deploying forces for more than 70 years with now, possibly, having to do it in a more contested environment?
Gen. Van Ovost:
Here's the analogy. As I said, it was 35 years ago that I did Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, when Iraq had invaded Kuwait. And the concept was, you know, go into the Middle East and just start piling up all this equipment and this ammunition and this food and these tents in a couple of different areas. We could freely just drop it off. The stockpiles would just grow and we would use off of that and we would have these big kitchens and be able to push out all this food at one location. It was uncontested.
So, what is a contested environment across multiple levels?
Our competitors are trying to disrupt, deny or degrade our ability to project force around the world. Over the past 30 years, they know when America makes a decision to support another nation, we're going to marshal, we're going to move out, we’re going to get to the continent and start maneuvering.
They want to stop us here, before we even leave the United States, because approximately 85% of the force elements for the United States are right here in the CONUS [Continental United States]. When I think about how they're going to degrade, I think about cyberattacks or attacks on the electrical system or at the harbors where we marshal our armed forces and their equipment and put them on ships.
They would want to degrade that ability or disrupt that ability. So how do we posture ourselves to have resilient lines of communication across more than one port, more than one road and more than one rail, so we can marshal there [in multiple places at once]?
Then we have long lines of communication to the different continents. We have a long way to go, and how do we protect our stuff on the way there? How do we protect our ships and what do we use to escort them? That's the kind of concept of operations we're doing now. How do we protect our airplanes? Because our competitors are building weapons that are specifically getting after these high value targets—like air refueling. Why waste your time plinking off six F-35s, if you could just get one tanker?
So how do we operate differently? That's what we're focused on, these new concepts for the joint warfighting concept that are going to allow us to do what we call distributed operation. It allows us to maneuver forces en masse for effect—deploy to do something and then disaggregate to survive—in a way that we’re not an easy target like we were back in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
As the Transportation Command commander, we have more stuff going to more places in shorter periods of time. So, we have to help the theater commander maneuver the force and distribute the force at a time and place of their choosing. That actually compounds the problem, but we're doing these exercises to try to get after it.
It's not 10 feet tall, but we will have to do things differently.
Let me get back to diversity and inclusion. It's not about the technologies. It's about the people. It's the people that are taking today's tech and saying, “What if they could do this on an app? Why can't we do that?
It takes people thinking of different things and different ways to get after the problem. So, it is our youth. People that think differently are the ones who are going to help us with these new capabilities into the future.
In regards to accelerating change or losing, right. What role does allowing people to fail faster and move forward play in making sure that they get after those challenges that you mentioned?
Gen. Van Ovost:
It's critical. We used to think of a single failure as a real problem. But one test doesn't work. What we're asking people to do now is take calculated risk.
What do you know? What are the pros and the cons? Remember that if it actually works, the pros better be bigger than the cons, right? You have to think not negatively, but positively. If a certain method or tactic doesn't work the first time, maybe it's because we didn't execute it correctly or there's something else there.
Let's look at that failure for what we are going to learn. You should learn from every failure. Maybe if we did step A plus step B at the same time, it would work and that's where we need people that are thinking differently. “Why do you have to do step A and step B? Why can't we go right to 0 D?” Well, we never thought about that. We've not done it that way.
You have to create that safe space for them to do that experimentation. In other words, if I asked them to do an experiment and it failed and then I came down on them pretty hard and I took away their tools, they're not going to support me again, right?
I have to create a safe space where everyone feels like they're included. They're part of the team. Their voice matters and they're part of the solution. But the moment I kill that trust, I start to break that space up. So, everyday leaders at every level need to continue to build that safe space for everybody to work. That's how we accelerate.
How can we leverage technology in order to help support the warfighter in accomplishing the mission?
Gen. Van Ovost:
I think about new ways of doing things with people. One of the big things is this generation is digital. We are in a digital service now—we've got to get the data; we've got to see the data. Let me tell you, logistics is what I call a noisy business.
There's a lot of data. This is about things. It is about physics. In many cases, whether it's fuel or bullets or people, it's about the physics of movement. That’s what I deal with across our enterprise.
So, the first thing we have to do is find that data that shows the physics of that movement, whether it's an asset, an item, a person or fuel that you're buying on the waterfront somewhere.
When you can see it all, then you can start to envision and place apps on it to try and optimize that movement. In other words, if I need a particular part for an F-35, do I need to go back to Seattle to get it or do one of our partners in the Indo-Pacific who are getting the F-35, like Japan, have it.
If it is on Okinawa, we could take it from Okinawa. Then, even though the part is there, what's the fastest way to get it to the location? So, you now have options where before you only saw one thing and that was in the warehouse in Seattle. Now I can see warehouses around the world. Then I could make different decisions. In fact, I could provide more options for the commanders.
That leads us to really a basic-level thing when it comes to logistics. We have to integrate logistics with all joint warfighting functions. A combatant commander or a joint task force commander needs to have confidence that if they execute a particular branch plan, they have everything they need to do that plan and they should be able to see it immediately.
When they make that decision, they should know how much they have for how long without guessing or just saying, “Hey, let's do this and logistics, you just follow up. I'm sure you're going to be able to make it happen.” We call that fairy dusting. Now we're actually putting all of that to play because we can see the data.
But there's a lot of data out there. We have to harness it and then build applications that allow us to use AI [artificial intelligence] and ML [machine learning] to make better decisions.
That data allows you as a leader and as a commander to make better decisions, because it is fact-based decisions?
Gen. Van Ovost:
So, it goes back to the discussion on “this is the way we have always done it.” I've always gone from here to here to here to here. It allows you to see opportunities that you have missed this whole time. We will be more effective and more efficient if we can see the entire playing field. Why? Because now I have the full strategy.
I understand what the joint force commander's trying to do with his or her forces. I understand what they will need because I know what their usage rates will be. I know what their flying rates are going to be. I know what their fuel rates are going to be. And so now I can, ahead of the operation, begin to maneuver to posture the supplies and capabilities that they need.
Remember, we're doing this in a more distributed fashion now. So where exactly will they be? What are their options? As they change options, I can now see the options that are now new to me. I have new options because they have new options. The entire joint force gets better when we are connected on one network, or one battle network, and have the logistics flows as a foundation to that network is critical.
There's a lot of emphasis on the Airmen of 2030; the Air Force of 2030. What role does TRANSCOM play in getting us there?
Gen. Van Ovost:
First of all, recruit and retain. It's a service responsibility, but we're all responsible to show and demonstrate that it can be done, that you can have a fulfilling career in our military, no matter what that is. As you know, I'm part of a joint force as the Transportation Command commander.
One of my key lines of effort, or key priorities, is to empower a competitive and resilient warfighting team. When I think of resilience, I think of people who have developed these skills and they're ready to tackle change and to grow; they are competitive, meaning they know they have the advantage, and to keep the advantage, they're going to have to stay ahead of the enemy.
They're going to be thinking of new ways of doing things and challenging themselves. A warfighting team that’s an inclusive team of people from different perspectives, super-talented folks, military from all services, civilians, contractors, and industry partners that get together to swarm on a problem. Their problems, as you know, they're getting more complex. So how they attack those problems—and how we give them exercises and reps and sets so they can build a very strong, high-power warfighting team to get after the problems—that creates a competitive, resilient, warfighting team that is key to everything, and that’s why it’s one of my focus areas.