US Gen. William Fraser, commander of Air Combat Command, retires this week. (Airman 1st Class Joshua Green/US Air Force)
US Air Force Gen. William Fraser, the head of US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), has had a diverse list of assignments throughout his career. He has commanded Air Force bomber wings, flown aerial tankers and worked in the National Reconnaissance Office. At TRANSCOM, he is in charge of getting US equipment out of Afghanistan. Fraser will step down as TRANSCOM commander this week and retire after almost 40 years of service, passing the reins to Gen. Paul Selva.
Q. How much equipment is left in Afghanistan, and what is the estimated cost for removing it?
A. My understanding — and this is based on firsthand knowledge — is that we are all doing everything we can to meet the requirements of the theater. The reason that I say that that way is because we still have sustainment responsibilities. So it is not just about retrograde.
A lot of people want to go immediately to the retrograde discussion. But we have to understand that we still have 34,000 troops [and] you still have other countries that are represented as a part of the force in Afghanistan. There is still a requirement to support, sustain and provide for [them], and we are continuing to meet the war fighter’s needs. I am very proud of what we are doing to do that, to ensure that nobody goes with wanting for something.
We do stay focused on the war fighter while at the same time working the retrograde. Retrograde is on time based on the plan, and based on the unit cargos and theater-provided cargos that are being turned in. As they continue with their plan to steadily close bases and send cargo back, we are providing the capacity and the capability to return that equipment back to the United States so that it can then rework and return to their units.
The cost of moving equipment from Afghanistan is still estimated between $5 billion to $7 billion. That hasn’t changed. That’s an all-encompassing figure. That is not just the transportation figure.
What does remain is about 15,000-plus vehicles and nearly 3,000 20-foot equivalents.
Q. Are all of the ground routes up and running?
A. The Northern Distribution Network is still being utilized for both the import and export. We do consistently monitor the flowing along all of our lanes and adjust as required. The Pakistan GLOC [Ground Lines of Communications] is open, multimodal sites are operating and the Northern Distribution Network [is open].
The Pakistan GLOCs — we have been through our ups and downs there, but I can report that the two border crossings are open at this time, and the flow through them is actually very good. I think that we will continue the key leader engagements to ensure that we have close coordination and cooperation.
Q. Are there any new Northern Distribution Network routes being opened? Have any of the relations with Russia right now impacted that?
A. We do not have any other new lanes that we are using through the Northern Distribution Network. We have continued to renew agreements that we have in place with all the nations that are a part of the Northern Distribution Network. We have also continued to be able to move cargo through Russia, so we have not had any impact to the Northern Distribution Network through Russia with respect to the ongoing situation in Ukraine.
Q. When those ground routes through Pakistan were closed, did that have any impact on the cargo plane fleet in terms of stress on the aircraft?
A. What has been reported before is the overflying, the flying hours program for the C-17, specifically. But some of our strategic air has continued to come down. We had been able to leverage off our commercial partners to do an awful lot for us. And it is that teamwork and the ability to leverage off our commercial partners that has helped us to reduce any additional flying that we may be doing with our strategic fleet.
As the C-5M comes on, we are seeing higher rates, in-commission rates and mission-capable rates. That has been very helpful for oversized cargo and for multimodal operations. We are very pleased to see the C-5M actually be used for some of our operations. But we continue to work closely with industry to strike that right balance. We are pleased with where we are right now.
Q. What is your prediction for the future of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) as their missions decline?
A. I think that the industry is going to continue to adapt to the future. As the workload comes down, business plans, business models are having to adapt and change. We continue to do the best we can with forecasting future business to our industry partners, and this is both on the aviation and the maritime industry so that they can best make their business decisions as we move forward in the future.
The CRAF program is a program that we took a two-prong approach and we did a CRAF I study. But we recently have completed a CRAF II study. We have a final report that is being worked up. And Gen. Selva and I should be able to sign that report out in the not too distant future.
It will have some recommendations in it that have been coordinated, have been discussed in an open, collaborative manner with industry. Based on the feedback that I am getting from industry, they are very pleased with the study and its results. That study helps us define the future and what the program should look like.
We have to figure out how to maintain the right balance of organic and commercial capability and capacity in the future. This study is helping us do that.
Q. All of the talk is clearly about the Asia-Pacific right now in terms of strategy and where the Defense Department is going. What type of stuff is TRANSCOM looking at for these types of scenarios?
A. That is an area that we have, with our global responsibilities, made sure we have never taken our eye off of it. [TRANSCOM] never left the Pacific. We have been engaged. We have been doing business for a number of years supporting multiple exercises in a number of different areas in support of Pacific Command.
As a functional command with global responsibility and operating in that area, what we have done is made sure that we continue our engagements in the Pacific. I have made several trips to the Pacific to engage a number of different countries to open that dialogue of what we see in the future as a TRANSCOM requirement for access. We have taken a look at some infrastructure and what is in the realm of the possible to support humanitarian assistance, disaster response. But we have also had good discussions about what is needed for the future, should the need arise.
Q. How do you prepare the CRAF to be ready after this lull in activity — to be able to possibly ramp up rapidly at an unknown time down the road?
A. Well, of course, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet is a volunteer program. And we have different stages. Right-sizing that for Stage 1, Stage 2 and Stage 3 is very important. Making sure that the right balance of commercial capability is there in the future at the various stages is something we are in dialogue with industry about to right-size. But airlift is only one portion, because we also have surface sealift transportation requirements, too. So we have to maintain balance across all our modes.
Q. How is the retirement of the KC-10 tanker going to impact TRANSCOM?
A. We are just pleased to see that the resources are there, and the Air Force has not had to make the decision at this time.
Q. Where does TRANSCOM stand in terms of the Office of the Secretary of Defense-mandated headquarters staff reductions?
A. Well, we could go back in the past. We saw that there would be pressure on the system from a personnel standpoint. With respect to our civilian personnel, we had already begun, some time back, not filling positions in anticipation of a potential cut. When the direction came for both billets as well as dollars, we were well postured to give up spaces, not faces. We have managed to meet both the dollars and the personnel billets.
Q. What does TRANSCOM look like in the future?
A. I think TRANSCOM is very well postured for the future to be that transportation provider of choice because of the flexibility and the agility that we have within the system and the relationships that we have internationally, but moreover with our organic and commercial partners to be able to deliver. That is why we want to be that transportation provider of choice that either the Defense Security Cooperation Agency or other government agencies turn to to accomplish their transportation requirements.
One of the things that I have appreciated is the flexibility and the agility that we do have within the system to meet emerging requirements or crisis requirements. We never know where that next call is going to come from. We are going to have to maintain those relationships and access so that when that call comes, we are able to respond in a timely manner. Coupled with the resources that we have, and the fact that we are a transportation working capital fund, gives us the ability to respond in a timely manner.