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How an Illinois military base transports an unprecedented flow of weapons to Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There is an unprecedented flow of weaponry moving from the U.S. to Ukraine, including another $3 billion worth announced just today. NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin got an inside look at how the U.S. is managing the logistics of transporting and protecting those weapons and ammunition. Hey, Jenna.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: OK. You went to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois to visit Transportation Command. What exactly is TRANSCOM?

MCLAUGHLIN: So TRANSCOM is kind of exactly what it sounds like. They're the branch of the military that are in charge of transporting all the things and people that the military needs to move around the world. So I was traveling with Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks. We were on this sort of whirlwind tour of the Midwest, at different labs and research facilities, and DOD was eager to send this message about its focus on American innovation and competition with China. So the reasons we stopped at TRANSCOM was first to hear more about the military aid being sent to Ukraine, but also to hear about the improvements being made to data sharing after a chaotic period of time last year where they were really helping in real time to evacuate people and supplies from Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I think anybody who watched the Afghanistan evacuation a year ago would see lots of room for improvement. So what lessons did they say they learned that they're now applying to Ukraine?

MCLAUGHLIN: Right. So the military officials definitely were not shy about how stressful it was to respond to Afghanistan. Some of the leaders were sleeping only a couple of hours of the night. They were using spreadsheets - you know, calling airlines last minute. That's not to say that they weren't proud of their efforts. They gave us a fact sheet about it. They said that 7,500 civilians were being evacuated every single day for 17 days in a row. Some of them had babies on board or needed urgent medical care. You know, when you're basically using one runway in a war zone, you don't have a lot of options.

SHAPIRO: That's very different from the situation in Ukraine right now. So what applies from a year ago to what they're doing at this moment?

MCLAUGHLIN: You're right. It it is a very different situation. They're able to send a lot of supplies to, you know, Poland and Germany. But the sheer amount of ammo, weapons systems and more that Ukraine is demanding is this massive logistical challenge that you can sort of take lessons from. TRANSCOM officials were excited about the new data-sharing programs that they're using because it makes it easier for different commands to see everything that's going on. It makes it easier for them to sort of make requests to private-sector companies in advance.

And now, in a way, as it's gone on, this war has gotten a bit more predictable, which makes it easier to help. Basically, Ukraine needs a certain amount of ammo. TRANSCOM knows that they're going to need to resupply, so they're actually sending some large ships now, in anticipation. It is slower, but these ships can carry a whole lot more stuff.

SHAPIRO: That predictability - those slow ships traveling long distances - seems like it would make this a target for Russian attacks. Is that a concern?

MCLAUGHLIN: Absolutely. There's, of course, the reality of physical attacks. That's a huge concern in war. But at the same time, TRANSCOM is also worried about cyberattacks here at home. That's something they're thinking about a lot. If you remember that oil pipeline ransomware attack here in the U.S. last spring, that disrupted fuel supplies to practically the entire East Coast for a couple of days. That didn't directly affect TRANSCOM. One of the senior officials told me that they used that attack, though, as a test case to think about what they'd do if they did lose access to fuel - some of the different routes that they'd be forced to take.

I also got the chance to speak with TRANSCOM's top cyber and intelligence officials. And I pretty much asked them, you know, we've been hearing so frequently about potential retaliatory cyberattacks from Russia. Is that still a huge concern to them, particularly for transportation of supplies, and what are they doing about it? Here's what TRANSCOM's chief information officer, Patrick Grimsley, said about it.

PATRICK GRIMSLEY: I think the - even across the commercial sector - everywhere you're seeing that scanning, probing, looking for vulnerabilities. You just haven't seen a lot of the big-impact things going after it. That doesn't mean that they're not trying, they're not looking or they're not gaining their accesses that they need to use at a time and place of their choosing.

MCLAUGHLIN: As a result, you know, TRANSCOM is trying to proactively work with companies, and the DOD requires certain cybersecurity standards from its contractors. But Grimsley acknowledged, their job is to mitigate risk - they can't actually eliminate it.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin. Thanks a lot.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.