The Airlift Gap

Oct. 1, 2004

The airlift operation that has sup-ported US forces in Southwest Asia over the past three years now ranks among the most extensive in history. Taken together, the efforts in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom can be put in the same general class as US airlifts to Berlin (1948-49), Israel (1973), and the Persian Gulf (1990-91). And Air Mobility Command leaders expect no letup for at least another 18 months.

At the same time, the Air Force faces an acute airlift shortfall. The capability of the fleet used in the 2003 Iraq War was well short of requirement; the gap was at least 10 million ton miles per day. Today, AMC leaders say, the gap is wider—at least 15 MTM/D, perhaps 22 MTM/D.

A series of analyses and inspections now being performed will help set the nation’s true airlift requirement and possibly pave the way for what may have to be a large new investment in transports.

“Our folks, across the mobility fleet and AMC, have been at an incredibly high, record-setting pace,” said Gen. John W. Handy, the commander of both AMC and US Transportation Command. “We’ve never seen the sorties that we’re generating right now.”

In July, Handy reported that AMC was mounting between 450 and 500 sorties a day, as compared to what had been a post-Sept. 11 level of about 400 missions a day. And that, in itself, marked a major spike in operations.

That Was Then …

“If you go back 12 years, when I was a one-star, … 250 missions a day was average,” said Handy, who has spent most of his 38 active duty years in the airlift business. “We thought we were pretty busy, and, for that time, we were busy.”

Now, Handy noted, “we have doubled what we thought was a significant mission load. As I look to the near term, I don’t see that [requirement] changing dramatically. I think the airlift situation is going to be under considerable strain. … It’s not going to get any better.”

Handy gave a candid and detailed assessment of today’s mobility status first in an interview with Air Force Magazine and then later in a larger discussion with military reporters in Washington, D.C.

He said that Air Force mobility forces, even as they carry out the resupply of forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, continue to support other theater combatant commanders who have their own exercises, redeployments, and contingencies to cope with.

It all adds up to an airlift fleet that is too small to carry the load and personnel who cannot maintain a breakneck pace forever.

Handy said that “morale is good” in his command, but “it doesn’t mean there aren’t problems.” He went on, “I worry about members and their families, perhaps more for the families.” Unlike aircraft, whose stress and strain can be quantified, there is no direct way to measure the strain on people. And, while airplanes can be fixed, that is not true of overstressed people, said Handy.

The Air Force relies on commercial passenger and cargo aircraft to handle surge periods—such as when large numbers of Army troops rotate out of theater and are replaced by US-based units—but even the commercial carriers “have been in an incredibly high optempo,” Handy said.

The command has also made exhaustive use of the Air Force’s reserve components and is struggling to find ways to meet Defense Department instructions to pare down the use of Guard and Reserve people and equipment.

Moreover, Handy said his command is constantly engaged in negotiations with field commanders, asking if they can accept a delay of one or two weeks in receiving certain cargo, and also trying to differentiate between genuine needs and nice-to-have, nonessential items.

It is “a day-to-day … minute-by-minute dialogue with the supported commanders,” he reported.

It was in 2000 that the Pentagon carried out its latest major assessment of US airlift capability. Mobility Requirements Study 2005 attempted to look five years out and determine what level of lift the nation would require at that time.

It concluded that the fulfillment of US military needs required a fleet that could generate 54.5 million ton miles per day of airlift. (A ton mile is a basic unit of measurement that equals movement of one cargo ton a distance of one mile.) At the time, the Air Force had only about 44 MTM/D of capability, or about 18 percent short of the need.

Quick Look

The situation has only gotten worse. This year, Congress tasked AMC to perform a “quick-look” comparison of the MRS-05 projection with actual experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. The quick-look study found that AMC is pulling aircraft away from other important missions to support the effort in Southwest Asia, according to David Merrell, chief of AMC’s studies and analysis division.

“Day in and day out, we have set aside more ‘withhold’ missions to support … combatant commanders, in other theaters,” Merrell said.

Merrell went on to note that, after the Air Force recalculated its needs based on the way forces now fight and need to be supported, the 54.5 MTM/D standard became obsolete. The latest estimate is approaching 60 MTM/D, Merrell said.

That conclusion certainly doesn’t surprise Handy. The AMC commander, in his session with reporters in Washington, pointed out that MRS-05 initially determined that the nation needed an airlift capability of 67 MTM/D—far more than what the Pentagon finally proposed. “I believe it [the final figure] was negotiated down for affordability reasons,” Handy declared.

Now, the Joint Staff has embarked on a new, full-scale “Mobility Capability Study,” with the result to be unveiled next spring or summer. However, the quick-look review will help Congress make key judgments this year about how much money is needed for airlift.

Handy has testified to Congress that, even using the outdated 54.7 MTM/D figure, the Air Force requires a minimum of 222 C-17 strategic airlifters. USAF at present has only 180 under contract. If the Mobility Capability Study does indeed raise the bar to 60 MTM/D, as many expect, then the actual C-17 requirement will go up. It will be “more closely aligned to the 300 mark than it is to the 200 mark,” Handy asserted.

The general said he is confident that the Fiscal 2006 Air Force budget will provide funds to extend the C-17 line. Under the present contract, the line will close in 2008. Without more money, the shut-down procedure would begin in 2006.

Handy noted that House and Senate members, in their Fiscal 2005 defense budget language, have encouraged the Air Force to go beyond 180 C-17s.

Handy also supports the idea of selling some commercial versions of the C-17, as a way to pad the assembly line and keep it running at an efficient 15 airplanes a year. However, Handy said, he’ll have to see whether AMC can afford to give up those places on the assembly line to a commercial version—to be called the BC-X—because C-17 military airplanes are urgently needed in the force. At a minimum, Handy said, any commercial C-17s would have to be available for the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.

Handy said he is eager to see the results of the Joint Staff study. He’s hoping it won’t have “some of the miraculous assumptions” that were inserted into MRS-05.

C-5s Needed

The MRS-05 study had determined that the Air Force, even with 222 C-17s, would have to continue to operate a significant number of C-5 Galaxys. That has become problematic in recent years, as the C-5 fleet’s poor reliability record has compelled the Air Force to contemplate expensive upgrades.

The Air Force has two C-5 upgrades in mind: an avionics modernization program, or AMP, and a reliability enhancement and re-engining program, or RERP. The two programs would replace the aircraft’s dated electronics with digital equipment, reinforce some structures, and provide new engines and pylons. The goal is to raise the C-5’s mission capable rate from an average of 65 percent to 75 percent—the AMC fleet standard.

To upgrade a fleet of 112 C-5As and C-5Bs, the two projects combined would cost about $8 billion.

The Air Force’s new Fleet Viability Board conducted an 11-month review of the older C-5A fleet to see whether it made fiscal sense to go ahead with the upgrades. The panel released its conclusion in July, stating the giant airlifter could last until 2029 if it receives both the AMP and the RERP—and another avionics refit around 2020. (See “Washington Watch: USAF: C-5As Could Be Upgraded,” September, p 12.)

Handy was buoyed by the news that there was no apparent problem that dooms the C-5A to an early retirement.

“The report essentially says that there’s nothing dramatic that’s been found yet, and that’s good news,” Handy said. “I need that to be good news, because we really need the C-5 fleet. I don’t need a crisis.”

However, he was not happy with the way the board expressed the viability of the C-5A.

“To me, the determination of viability is to take a baseline weapon system and [determine] its viability over time, without modifications,” Handy said, and provide that baseline cost vs. the cost of upgrading the fleet. “You can sustain almost anything over time if you spend enough money to keep it viable,” he observed.

The board also said that, even with the AMP and RERP, the C-5A is not likely to achieve the 75 percent MC rate that AMC desires. The panel noted, though, that the C-5 is an enormous airplane with a huge inventory of parts, and its appetite for maintenance and replacements is not “out of line” with that of other very large aircraft.

Handy worries that sufficient funding for the AMP and RERP upgrades—and an additional avionics mod after that—may not be forthcoming, which would leave his successors with a high-cost, low-availability fleet that is not upgraded. In this, said Handy, he is not “pessimistic, but … realistic.”

“If the price is reasonable and it meets the metric of common sense and support to the warfighter, then we ought to do it,” Handy said of the C-5 upgrade. “But if we find, in the final analysis, that you just cannot make an airplane … viable, by the most simple definitions, then we’ll have to make the decision—as we have for at least 10 of them—to retire them.”

Tanker Trouble

Another question mark is USAF’s tankers. The Fleet Viability Board is due to report in November on the long-term viability of the KC-135 fleet. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has postponed until November any decisions about whether to go forward with the lease/purchase of 100 Boeing KC-767s to begin replacing the KC-135s.

The Defense Science Board reported earlier this year that the KC-135 fleet is probably not as badly off as had been reported earlier and still has some life left in it. Handy, however, said that this view is the “bumper sticker” that opponents of the Boeing tanker deal have distilled from the DSB report, and it is not accurate.

The oldest KC-135s—E model tankers—are now seriously threatened by corrosion and airframe fatigue, Handy said, and should be considered separately from the R model, which has had numerous improvements, to include new skins and engines. It is the 133 E model aircraft the tanker replacement debate should be focused on, Handy said. The Air Force wants to retire 100 of them and replace them in the Guard and Reserve with the less-geriatric KC-135R model—a move that would save about $1.2 billion, he said.

Congress has ordered the Air Force not to retire KC-135Es for now, pending the results of the MCS, corrosion investigations, and other factors. However, Handy said time has essentially run out on the Eisenhower vintage KC-135Es, which are the oldest airplanes in the Air Force.

Air Force Materiel Command informed Handy in mid-July that 30 E models have such bad corrosion on their engine pylons that they will no longer be safe to fly after this month unless they receive an expensive stopgap fix.

“There is a temporary modification available,” Handy said. It would wrap the corroded areas with new metal, but it costs $400,000 per airplane and would be effective only for about five years. At that point, a more extensive upgrade would be needed to fix the problem, at a cost of $2 million per airplane. Handy has no funds to perform either modification.

“Do I try to find $400,000, times 30, and temporarily fix them, or do I continue with the plan and just retire them?” Handy asked. “Well, the [Congressional] language says I can’t retire them.” He said it’s likely that AMC will “ground those aircraft and just let them sit while we try to figure out what to do.”

That’s “just not right,” he said. The issue is emblematic of age-related problems that continue to crop up and raise the price of keeping the oldest tankers flying.

He also said it’s regrettable that the Air Force is “essentially remanufacturing” the KC-135s, which are nearing 50 years old. This requires substantial cost and expense, since many of the parts have to be obtained from machine shops near the operating bases and Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker AFB, Okla. Tinker performs depot maintenance on the aircraft. Many of the needed parts have been out of production for decades.

Herks Under Stress

Another pressing problem is with the C-130 fleet. The demand for the C-130 in the Southwest Asian theater is high, because the aircraft—which can operate on small, austere fields close to areas of operation—sometimes offer the only way to rapidly resupply the troops.

“We know there’s a finite end to the ability to mobilize our C-130 force structure,” Handy noted. “We’re looking at December 2005.”

In that month, AMC will have exhausted the number of Guard, Reserve, and active units it can call on to provide C-130s for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan without breaking the rules on times between call-ups. The Air Force relies on its reserve components for most of its tactical airlift capability.

Workarounds are being explored, but many have already been used. The C-130s belonging to US Pacific Command and US European Command, as well as the additional capability that will accrue as more C-17s are delivered, plus the usage of commercial L-100s, which are commercial variants of the C-130, are all being tapped.

“Just about every idea you can think of, we have rolled into the equation,” Handy said.

Getting new C-17s and C-130Js “would minimize the impact, would extend that date, to a point we have yet to determine,” Handy reported. His commands are also scrutinizing the true needs for C-130s in various locations around the world other than the SWA theater.

The requirement for Southwest Asia alone is 86 C-130s, vs. an Air Force inventory of 311 aircraft, ranging from early model C-130Es and Hs to brand-new C-130Js.

Handy said that he wants to deploy the new C-130Js into the theater not later than December of this year.

“That’s my current line in the sand with the test community and Lockheed,” which builds the transport, Handy asserted. He set that date because, up until now, “we didn’t have a defined milestone that would be a goal for operational deployment of the aircraft.”

A recent Government Accountability Office report claimed that the aircraft are troublesome to maintain and not meeting requirements.

Handy acknowledged that “if you look at any new weapon system, when you’re trying to create breakthrough technology, there are challenges.” However, he said the problems cited on the C-130J are really not germane to the aircraft’s prime mission of combat air delivery. A radar problem cited in the GAO report only affects those aircraft used as hurricane chasers, not the combat freighters. Also, the size of the C-130J fleet is still quite small, so any problems will be magnified.

Velcro and Superglue

As for a complaint that the C-130Js lack sufficient armor, Handy asserted that this issue can be fixed with “Velcro and superglue.”

Handy said, “I am very optimistic” about the C-130J. “I have no reason to think … it will miss any of these timelines.”

The partnership with members of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet is in excellent shape, Handy said.

“We’re incredibly well-supported by our commercial partners,” he said. The members of CRAF have actually supplied more aircraft and moved more cargo and passengers than if they had been activated by the President to a Stage 1 mobilization.

However, Handy said it may be time to re-examine the CRAF program, not because it isn’t working, but simply because “it’s been a long time since the rules of CRAF were really scrubbed and looked at.” With the experience of the last three years, “our partners have sort of an optimum chance to [make] an input” that could better refine the program, Handy said.

“I’m very proud of it, but I’m never so proud that I would say we can’t improve,” he added, noting that there may be some better “consideration” the Air Force can offer its commercial partners.

A key lift change that took place just one year ago was the designation of TRANSCOM to be the distribution process owner for all aspects of US military logistics, Handy noted. This designation gave TRANSCOM the ability to scrutinize all aspects of moving people, equipment, and supplies, with the goal of shifting away from a “port to port” mentality to one of “factory to foxhole.”

It means that there is now a “TRANSCOM-like organization” in the area of operations, that reports to the combatant commander. The organization is 35 to 40 people, “with Ph.D.s in logistics,” who can see what’s needed in the theater and can call for it even before the individual units do. They can also eliminate the seams in transportation and distribution, Handy explained.

The impact, he said, is “if I have that kind of visibility” into what’s in each container, aircraft, ship, or train, “I can seamlessly coordinate the arrival of strategic stuff … to link up with the intratheater assets: C-130s, C-17s, or truck convoys.”

He said, “We have seen that our ports are cleaned out more efficiently because we know what the user needs.”

This process improvement has reduced the need for aircraft and other modes of transportation by eliminating the movement of unneeded gear and supplies to only those things that are really required.

“I hate to use the term, ‘just in time,’ ” management, Handy said, but the effect is about the same. Great care is taken to ensure that large stockpiles of materiel are not built up in places where they won’t be needed. Not only would missions be wasted bringing the materiel in, but also when it’s time to bring the stuff home.

The attention to process and flow is driven by the desire not to have more capability than is required, Handy said.

“I don’t want one more or one less C-17 or modified C-5 or tanker than the nation needs or can afford,” he asserted.

Although many may not think of the airlift fleet as a weapon system, the crews and personnel involved in supporting the troops abroad are in constant peril, Handy noted.

“We are routinely shot at,” Handy said. On his morning status report of overnight events and missions under way, he said it’s rare not to see “surface-to-air firings that happened in the last 24 hours.”

Three enemy shots have connected: man-portable missiles hit a C-17 last December, a C-5B in February, and a commercial DHL transport last November. The two AMC aircraft were put back in service in 35 and 55 days, respectively.

Nevertheless, enemies on the ground continue to take potshots at US aircraft using anti-aircraft artillery, man-portable surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms.

All AMC aircraft that operate in the war zone—C-5Bs, C-17s, C-130s, and C-141Bs—have a suite of defensive equipment such as chaff and flares for a limited defense against ground fire. The C-5A fleet is not so equipped and does not deploy to the theater. Crews assigned to the most dangerous places have received training in defensive tactics.

“The threat is out there, and we have dealt with it,” Handy said.

Still, Handy said the US has been lucky so far in not losing any of its precious airlift assets. The loss of even a single large aircraft would affect the nation’s ability to provide the airlift demanded by regional commanders.

Handy believes the airlift fleet is in good shape, provided that the issues of obsolescence and capacity are addressed in a timely manner.

“Are we about to break? No,” he said. “We’re not in a constant surge, deploying and redeploying assets. Right now, we’re on a more methodical, well-planned path.”

However, Handy warned, the stresses on the airlift fleet “are still very high,” and, “as I look to the near term, … I think the airlift situation is still going to be under considerable strain.”