U.S. TRANSCOM commander prepares to exit as big challenges face military

News-DemocratApril 26, 2014 

— Gen. William Fraser III has spent four decades in the Air Force in a wide range of jobs -- from piloting B-52 and B-2 bombers to serving as Air Force vice chief of staff.

Since October 2011, Fraser has served as chief of the U.S. Transportation Command, based at Scott. With only days to go before his retirement, one of America's most experienced four-star generals is preparing to exit at a pivotal time for the U.S. military.

The conflict in Afghanistan -- America's longest-running war -- is winding down just as tensions with a defiant Russia over Ukraine's future are heating up.

Meanwhile, Congress continues to swing a sharp budget ax, raising big worries about Scott's future, as well as every other stateside military base, and forcing the Pentagon to make a host of tough decisions regarding pay, retirement and weapon systems involving tens of billions of dollars.

Case in point: The Defense Department is expecting to cut $66 billion over the next five years from procurement and research-and-development projects if federal spending caps remain in place, the department recently announced.

The spending would hit many high-profile projects, including the Air Force's Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighter and the next-generation Boeing KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, along with a new rescue helicopter and surveillance and missile-firing drone aircraft.

In a recent interview, Fraser said he's not worried about the Air Force's future because he has so much confidence in the current generation of Air Force leaders, who can draw on the examples set by leaders before them.

"We've been through a lot of highs and lows," said Fraser, 61. "But I believe it's those leaders who came along and made the decisions they did that have allowed us to be the world's premier military. So I have nothing but confidence in the leadership that's coming behind us, that they will make the right decisions."

Fraser officially retires during a ceremony set for May 5 at Scott.

That's the same day that two other four-star generals take part in a double-barreled change-of-command ceremony: Gen. Paul Selva takes over as TRANSCOM's next commander, while Gen. Darren McDew takes Selva's old job as commander of the Air Mobility Command, which is based at Scott, as is the 18th Air Force, which McDew currently commands.

Fraser's confidence in the future, however, did not prevent the general from expressing concerns about the major challenges TRANSCOM, the joint services command that moves virtually everything for the U.S. military -- from food, boots and bullets to war zones, to wounded soldiers out of them -- with the help of a vast global network of military and civilian partners.

One of the biggest challenges is maintaining TRANSCOM's readiness in an era of fiscal belt-tightening.

"Our readiness is dependent upon the services' readiness and ability to be able to respond in a timely manner, whether it's air, land or sea," he said.

The thing about TRANSCOM is that it never takes a break, according to Fraser.

"We got to make sure we are prepared, we are ready," he said. "That's one of the things I tell this command. We know that TRANSCOM is going to get another call. We just don't know where it's going to be. Is it going to humanitarian assistance? Is it going to be a disaster response? A crisis because of something of a hostile nature is breaking out somewhere else?"

Another big issue facing TRANSCOM is cyber security, he said.

Fraser set up a cyber-security arm at TRANSCOM to monitor computer networks to make sure that information is flowing safely in and out of the giant joint command.

"Ninety percent of what we do is on the unclassified networks," he said. "We need to maintain the viability of those networks and ensure that (they are) protected from intrusions, but also that the right data are flowing, too, whether it's to organic (military) units or our commercial partners."

Fraser's tenure at TRANSCOM occurred at time of growing austerity across the Department of Defense, culminating with unpaid furloughs for civilian employees last year.

Even so, TRANSCOM ranked in the top 10 percent of federal workplaces, according to the Best Places to Work Index published in January.

TRANSCOM ranked 24th out of 300 federal agencies surveyed.

Fraser credited the high ranking to an ethos of empowering workers and encouraging them to collaborate to solve problems.

"A military organization is very hierarchical. And so there's a lot of stovepipes," he said. "So it was breaking down those barriers. Letting folks know they could work across the different directorates. They could reach out to the right experts to get the right information at the right time. Kind of flattening the organization, if you please."

When job furloughs were ordered last year, the impact was cushioned by deciding not to fill positions as people left.

"We 'gapped' them. This also forced people to figure out new means in order to get the job done. So they needed to think differently, and so we created that environment for them," he said. "Was it hard? Yes it was. At the same time when the cuts came and we were asked to give up some billets, we gave up spaces, but not faces."

Fraser has held leadership roles at virtually every level of the U.S. Air Force, in addition to working for a virtual Who's Who of top civilian and military Pentagon leaders over the past decade.

From 2009 to 2011 he served as commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command; for two years before that he served as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, focusing on international relations and political-military issues. And before that, from 1998-1999, he served as chief of staff for the U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nation's early warning systems and nuclear arsenal.

Fraser, in a reflective moment, thought for a moment on the attributes of a good leader.

"The ability to continue to listen and learn," he said. " And also the willingness to adapt in different situations ... One of the things that's obvious to me is (the importance) of relationships and teamwork. And not just paying lip service to it."

Fraser said he and his wife Bev, a photographer, plan to retire to the San Antonio, Texas, area, giving them a chance to spend with their grown son and daughter and seven grandchildren.

Fraser, a 1974 distinguished graduate of Texas A&M University, said he plans to spend time volunteering for his alma mater.

"I'm very fortunate that I still have my health," he said. "I think I got some opportunities out there in the future. I will work. I'm not 'retiring' retiring."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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