The Airlift Shortfall Deepens

April 1, 2001

After more than two years of study and analysis, the Pentagon has determined that the Air Force lacks about 10 percent of the minimum amount of airlift that it needs to carry out the national military strategy with only “moderate risk.”

In 1994, a review conducted by the Clinton Administration said the Air Force needed airlift capacity totaling 49.7 Million Ton Miles per Day. According to a new Pentagon study, however, the actual requirement is quite a bit higher-54.5 MTM/D.

This is the main finding of Mobility Requirements Study 2005, a broad-scope look at the condition of one of the nation’s most precious military assets.

The conclusion could signify that the Air Force needs to procure a total of, or as many as, 180 C-17 transports–60 more than are now on contract–in combination with improvements to the rest of the airlift fleet, former Clinton Administration Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said in releasing the findings to Congress in January.

The Bush Administration, however, is in the midst of sweeping reviews of all mission areas, coinciding with the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review. The MRS-05 study findings will likely highlight the issues confronting the airlift fleet, but the benchmark lift requirement will almost certainly change again this year, senior Pentagon officials said.

The Pentagon has had a long-standing goal of being able to fight and win two Major Theater Wars in close succession. However, the strategy has become controversial. If the Bush Administration abandons it, the objective figure could actually fall below 54.5 MTM/D. There is mounting airlift demand from all services, however–the result of a basic shift toward a rapid expeditionary posture. This by itself suggests that there will be no decline in requirements. (See “A Clamor for Airlift,” December 2000, p. 24).

Moreover, declining reliability and Mission Capable rates on the pivotal C-5 Galaxy fleet mean Air Mobility Command’s true gross tonnage capacity may already be below the level of 49.7 MTM/D, Air Force officials noted, suggesting the actual shortfall could be close to 10 MTM/D.

Could Be Higher

Finally, the MRS-05 estimate was not the highest by any means. The missions and variations in assumptions that were examined in the study generated a range of postulated airlift demands and went as high as 67 MTM/D. The 54.5 MTM/D figure would provide adequate airlift only for “high priority missions.” It is “the minimum moderate risk capability to support the national military strategy.”

The MRS-05 analysis was the “most comprehensive mobility study undertaken by the department to date” and took into account the input of “the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, unified command (CINC) [Commanders in Chief] staffs, and service staffs,” the Pentagon said in its executive summary of the mobility report.

“The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the service Chiefs, and CINCs have reviewed the MRS-05 study, and they support the establishment of a requirement of 54.5 MTM/D of airlift capability as the minimum moderate-risk capability to support the national military strategy,” said an unclassified version of the MRS-05 summary.

Providing the main impetus for the new benchmark was the two-MTW strategy itself. It alone accounted for 51.1 MTM/D of the revised airlift requirements.

However, analysts for the first time cranked into the airlift equation the possibility that some airfields might be hit with chemical weapons, taking some cargo aircraft out of action or slowing down loading and unloading as the troops labored in cumbersome protective gear.

They also looked at the ongoing lift requirements of forces not engaged in the two MTWs, effects of the US military having become more reliant on reserve forces, lift assets needed to support the requirements of allies in coalition operations, and the needs of Special Operations Forces.

A further consideration was the use of what are considered “strategic” airlifters in an “intratheater” role, exemplified by the use of C-17s in Operation Allied Force to transport heavy, outsize Army gear to small, forward strips.

Together, these “other” demands added to the total airlift requirement some 3.4 MTM/D of capacity. That is the equivalent of about 30 C-17s’ worth of cargo-carrying capacity on any given day and at notional ranges.

The study did not recommend a specific inventory of C-17s “to meet these higher airlift demands,” Cohen said. “Instead, the study identified a range of possible programmatic outcomes from 126 to nearly 180 C-17s,” Cohen explained, a figure that includes the fleet of 120 already on contract, but not a further 14 deemed necessary to accomplish the Special Operations Forces mission.

The QDR, Cohen noted, will “determine the appropriate number of C-17s based on judgments about the level of airlift capability that can be provided in the context of other defense priorities, the desired mix between organic and commercial airlift capability, and the right level of investment in C-5 enhancements.”

Modest Gains Needed

Overall, MRS-05 determined that the United States needs to make “modest improvements” in pre-positioning of equipment, surge sealift, intertheater lift, and transportation within the continental US but that these areas “are largely satisfactory.” The big shortages were found in air transportation within theaters and in meeting the needs of whatever forces are not engaged in an MTW.

Congress included language in the Fiscal 2001 Defense Authorization Act instructing the Air Force to conduct a separate review of the airlift requirements generated by the two-MTW strategy, calling airlift “the most compelling deficiency” faced by regional Commanders in Chief in carrying out their wartime plans. Lawmakers wanted the Air Force to take into account the Army’s new strategy of deploying forces quickly, by air, so as not to be left sidelined in a fast-moving conflict, as happened in Operation Allied Force.

The Air Force had already been working on an Analysis of Alternatives presenting an array of options to meet the increased airlift requirement established by MRS-05. Plans called for the completion of this AOA study in April. It will include estimated costs as well as qualitative pros and cons of each option presented.

The alternatives under review include purchase of up to 60 additional C-17s, re-engining and updating the C-5B or C-5A fleets (or both), and the expansion of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, in which commercial carriers agree to lease their cargo aircraft for military operations in time of national emergency in return for consideration in government contracts.

Anticipating two of the choices, USAF is lending assistance to Boeing, maker of the C-17, in marketing the aircraft to civilian carriers. If such sales took place, the Air Force would enjoy unit cost savings on future C-17 buys due to a busier production line and would also have access to outsize/oversize aircraft in the CRAF. Such aircraft have never been available in the CRAF program before, but their presence would ease the pressure on Air Force’s lift requirements growing out of the two-MTW strategy.

The deal is contingent on the Air Force itself buying at least 50 more C-17s from Boeing for $150 million a copy under a new multiyear contract. (See “USAF, Boeing Commercial C-17,” February 2001, p. 9.)

Alternatives involving the C-5 fleet will be scrutinized for cost-effectiveness, considering that some of the C-5A fleet has been in service for more than 30 years. The C-5’s reliability has worsened considerably over the past few years, but industry believes an upgrade would pay for itself in maintenance savings and improved on-time takeoff reliability.

20 More Years

Air Mobility Command programmers told Air Force officials that they see the re-engining of the KC-135 fleet in the 1980s as a model the C-5 could follow. The C-5 fleet has only used up about a third of its airframe service life and could potentially continue in service–with upgrades–for another 20 years. If the upgrade goes ahead, the modifications would be done during normal depot maintenance at a rate of about 12 aircraft per year, creating no operational impact on normal availability of Galaxys for missions. As they were upgraded and returned to service, the C-5s would offer an immediate mission capability improvement of 76 percent, up from the present 56 percent. The upgrade would include engines and engine mounts, hydraulics, and cockpit instrumentation.

Some of the MRS-05 recommendations dealt with improved procedures, such as “the early reallocation of airlift forces to a second theater of conflict and the early activation of civilian sealift assets,” Cohen told Congress. Other such improvements concern access to host nation facilities.

The Pentagon described MRS-05 as being an “end-to-end” study, looking at how equipment moves within the continental US to its embarkation points, and from the continental US to overseas theaters, and then within the theaters themselves.

The “inability to attain acceptable warfighting results” in wargames based on the current fleet of equipment–moving aircraft, trains, and ships “motivated the investigation of alternatives to current mobility programs,” the Pentagon noted in the study summary.

The new, more robust 54.5 MTM/D figure was judged the minimum level of airlift necessary to lower the risk involved in prosecuting two MTWs. Gen. Charles T. Robertson Jr., CINC, US Transportation Command and commander of USAF’s Air Mobility Command, told Congress that the lack of sufficient airlift assets constituted a “high risk” in terms of national strategy. His assessment was later echoed by Gen. Henry H. Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The assessment of risk, according to the MRS-05 summary, stemmed from a measurement of “the ability of US/coalition forces to achieve measurable warfighting objectives” in the sophisticated models and simulations played to evaluate the size and capacity of the airlift fleet.

The simulations and wargames were run using a notional war in the Middle East that was then closely followed by a war on the Korean peninsula, and vice versa. An Air Force official familiar with the models said shortages of aircraft in the wargames “cost us time, and that led to … setbacks which might have been avoided” if more air freighters were available to move fighter squadrons and outsize Army equipment, such as Patriot missile batteries and multiple launch rocket system vehicles.

Increasing CRAF Not Enough

The size of the CRAF was not deemed to be a significant problem, and sharply increasing the size of the civil fleet was also not considered a sufficient step in and of itself in addressing the airlift shortage. Increasing the number of civilian passenger airplanes available through CRAF raised the number of troops that could be deployed, but their equipment would have lagged behind.

“A big CRAF increase … was not a balanced approach” to fixing the airlift shortage, the official said. Moreover, ramp space at forward airfields was a “pacing factor” in determining proper sizing of the CRAF, he added.

This mismatch between passenger capacity and outsize/oversize cargo-hauling capacity was one of the reasons the Air Force agreed to help Boeing explore the creation of a civilian market for C-17s. Even a small handful of C-17s in CRAF would make a big dent in the airlift shortfall.

The report made no recommendations on how to address the airlift shortfall, but it did outline some notional alternatives on how the Air Force could get to 54.5 MTM/D.

If the C-5 fleet were to remain at a Mission Capable rate of 65 percent, a total of 176 C-17s would be needed, the study found. Re-engining and updating only the C-5B fleet would not substantially change this figure; 170 C-17s would still be needed with a C-5B-only refit. Upgrading the entire C-5 fleet–both A and B models–would produce an overall Galaxy Mission Capable rate of 76 percent, and this would translate to a need for 156 C-17s.

When the C-17 program was initiated, planned inventory totaled 210 aircraft. That figure was lowered to 120 in the Major Aircraft Review of 1990, undertaken by Dick Cheney, then Defense Secretary and now vice president.

Not included in MRS-05 was an analysis of the tanker situation. The 40-year-old KC-135 fleet is suddenly experiencing substantial maintenance problems stemming from its advanced age. The average KC-135 now spends approximately 400 days in depot maintenance. Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker AFB, Okla., performs the work, but it has actually had to turn away aircraft because its ramp has been full.

The Air Force is already deep into another study focused solely on tankers. It is called Tanker Requirements Study 2005, and it should trail the MRS-05 by a few months, service officials said. However, TRS-05 is classified, and the Air Force does not expect any release of its results. The study will determine USAF’s course in pursuing a KC-135 replacement, dubbed KC-X, which had been tentatively slotted to begin entering the inventory in 2013.

As early as this spring, the Pentagon may make a decision about whether to proceed into the development phase of the C-5 Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program.

Given that the 2002 defense budget prepared by the Clinton Administration is being submitted essentially without change by the Bush Administration, the earliest the new airlift requirements could be translated into buying mandates would be the fall, when the Pentagon and service officials begin serious work on the budget that will go into effect in October 2002.