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A complex operation is involved as the U.S. sends weapons to Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We wanted to know more about this enormous and complex operation. The U.S. has moved millions of pounds of material to Ukraine. According to the military, it's the biggest operation since the Berlin Airlift in the late 1940s. So we talked to the person in charge of shipping all those heavy weapons to Ukraine. The head of the U.S. Transportation Command, or TRANSCOM, is General Jacqueline Van Ovost. She's only - she's one of only two female four-star generals in the Department of Defense right now. She spoke to me from the National Defense University here in D.C.

JACQUELINE VAN OVOST: Essentially, what we are is a global transportation company. We have about 130,000 sailors, airmen, Marines, guardians and civilians - along with our commercial partners - that provide global transportation services. So now as I look to how we do this for Ukraine, and providing security assistance and as well as providing assurance and deterrence for the NATO nations, we mobilize here in the United States, and we bring forward our soldiers. We bring forward our equipment to help assure and deter, and we have brought millions of pounds - so far about 45 million pounds - of aid to Ukraine to assist them.

FADEL: Is that all weaponry, the 45 million pounds?

VAN OVOST: No, it's a combination of lethal and non-lethal aid.

FADEL: Mmm hmm. Now, you've had to move a lot of aid quickly. Were there any specific obstacles or challenges you had to get past to move it quicker than usual?

VAN OVOST: Our ability to move within days or even hours of the first request is because we so carefully collaborate and plan with U.S. European Command, who is in complete touch with Ukrainians to understand what their needs are and with NATO, all the way through to where our sources of supply are. So for example, with the non-standard ammunition - ammunition that we don't actually have in our stocks - where is that? And, you know, who's offering it, and how are we going to get it there? And we have to work together with our allies and partners. You know, we've had over 30 nations participate, and so how do we best orchestrate that large dance across the globe?

FADEL: Now, you mentioned that you also work with private companies - commercial airlines, commercial shipping - that partner with the U.S. military to transport these weapons. How big of a role do private companies play?

VAN OVOST: In what we do around the world, we are inextricably linked to our commercial partners. When we first started providing aid to Ukraine - lethal aid - on 21 January, it was what I call a white tail, or one of our commercial assets, that was landing in Kyiv before the invasion and beginning to supply them with that lethal aid.

FADEL: I want to talk about cybersecurity. It's something you have spoken about a lot. When you testified before a House subcommittee in March, you said cybersecurity is a major concern of yours because private companies, unlike the military, communicate in an unclassified environment. So right now, with heightened concern around possible cyberattacks from Russia, is it risky for the U.S. to partner with private companies to transport weapons?

VAN OVOST: As you know, I am concerned about cyber defense, both from a Department of Defense standpoint and from our commercial partners because we rely on them and their networks. But I tell you, talking to the C-suite leaders, they are very focused, themselves, on ensuring that they are a hard target. We've been partnering with our commercial partners to help them understand the threats and ways to mitigate those threats a little more.

FADEL: How unprecedented is this moment, in the sense of the speed and level of aid - especially lethal aid - that you're moving?

VAN OVOST: Well, you know - so I've been in the military 33 years, and I've seen nothing like it. Our ability to support another nation at this level is really - it's unprecedented. It shows, though, how when American leadership and NATO leadership come together, that we can move out and meet the promises - whether it's deterring Russia from attacking a NATO nation to supporting Ukraine in their defense of their nation and their humanitarian needs - that we will be there delivering.

FADEL: You are part of a transportation pipeline that is moving a huge amount of weaponry. Do you have any concerns that it could wind up in the wrong hands?

VAN OVOST: Well, certainly any of the equipment we move around to our allies and partners around the world - there is always a chance that some equipment will not be used in the way that we had intended or that it gets taken by another party. We have safeguards in place with respect to different types of equipment. But you know what? What I think about is the rationale for what we're doing right now, with the equipment that we're giving them and the support that we're giving them - that's what we want to focus on. Because we calculate those losses when we make these decisions and when the president makes these decisions, and it's our job to get out there and execute. And every capability and, frankly, every piece of aid that I can give each Ukrainian is important.

FADEL: I know I can't let you go without speaking to you about the fact that you are one of two women who are four-star generals in the Department of Defense. I mean, what is that like to be one of two in 2022?

VAN OVOST: (Laughter) You know, I never wanted to be one of two, but it's better than one of one, which is where I started, so (laughter).

FADEL: Right.

VAN OVOST: So - but, you know, what an honor it is to command the men and women of U.S. Transportation Command. And, you know, I've had great opportunities throughout my life. And I say to folks, if you marry up your passion and your talent, you won't work a day in your life, everything you do will be rewarding, and the system will reward you, right? And so I've had great opportunities that I've been able to capitalize on, and here I am sitting at the pinnacle of leadership, leading the men and women of Transportation Command and having taken part of both Operation Allies Refuge and now this - just this groundbreaking work with Ukraine and NATO. I just couldn't be prouder of what we do at Transportation Command and of the United States for the leadership role that we've played.

FADEL: But it couldn't have been easy coming up, I mean, a little bit lonely, right?

VAN OVOST: Yeah.

FADEL: I mean, one of two...

VAN OVOST: Yeah.

FADEL: ...And like you said, one of one at one point.

VAN OVOST: You can't be what you can't see. When you look up and you don't see someone that looks like you, it's very hard to think that you could actually do that, right? But I tell you, we just need to show out there that, you know, people - they can do it, right? Just because you don't see someone up there that looks like you doesn't mean you can't do it.

FADEL: General Jacqueline Van Ovost, thank you so much for speaking with us.

VAN OVOST: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.