Airlift on Thin Ice

Oct. 1, 2008

For years, the Air Force’s airlifter fleet has felt the strain of relentless operational demands. That pressure has begun eating away at future capabilities of USAF’s transports. The service has launched studies of how best to remedy the problem, but what’s really needed is a long-term commitment to maintain something more than the bare minimum of air mobility forces.

That’s the word from Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, head of Air Mobility Command, as he sizes up the effect on the transports of seven years of nonstop warfare.

A C-17 outside a hangar at McChord AFB, Wash. The Air Force has been flying its C-17s so heavily that they may wear out eight years earlier than planned. (USAF photo by Abner Guzman)

Lichte notes that most AMC aircraft have been flying at rates well above planned usage levels for some time. Although the command is maintaining the pace and meeting wartime demands, there’s a price to be paid: Aircraft service lives are being consumed faster than expected. They’ll either have to be somehow rested in order to get them to last out their predicted service lives, or they’ll have to be replaced sooner than is now programmed or funded.

The situation is symptomatic of what happens when the fleet is held at “the ragged edge of the minimum” required to do the job, Lichte said.

Acknowledging that there’s always a major mobility study either just completed or just getting under way, Lichte said they all tend to recommend a fleet of airlifters within a particular numerical range. Within that range, buying fewer airlifters entails high risk of not being able to perform all required missions. Buying more lowers that risk.

“We always come up with a requirement,” he observed, “and then we immediately drop to the minimum of the requirement.”

He went on, “Everyone says, ‘OK, if the minimum is good enough, we should go to the minimum,’ ” but, when world events suddenly turn up the demand for mobility forces, decision-makers say, ” ‘Gee, maybe we better do another study,’ as opposed to … saying, ‘Gee, if we had gone to the high side of the envelope, maybe we would have had it covered.’ “

Here is a prime case in point: USAF is “burning up” its fleet of C-17s, AMC’s youngest and most versatile heavy airlifter, Lichte said. The Air Force planned to fly the C-17 “a thousand hours per year … for 30 years,” he noted. However, in recent years, usage rates have shot up to between 1,500 and 1,800 hours per aircraft per year.

“We know we’re going so fast that … instead of a 30-year life, it’s only going to be a 25-year life, or 22,” Lichte said.

In its unfunded requirements list sent to Congress earlier this year, the Air Force requested additional C-17s to make up for some of the excessive flight hours consumed during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. That request recognized not only the C-17’s heavy usage but also the fact that the earliest models are already 15 years old.

“We are halfway through its lifespan,” Lichte noted. Additional aircraft would help AMC manage the fleet such that the C-17s can collectively age gracefully and predictably, and remain in service as long as they have to.

Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division jump from a C-130 at Ft. Bragg, N.C. The War on Terror has required Air Force mobility aircraft to continuously transport and resupply ground troops. (USAF photo by SSgt. Jacob N. Bailey)

A Never-Ending Debate

To relieve the overuse issue, Lichte said, some C-17s might be shifted to the Guard and Reserve. Although the reserve component is flying at a higher than normal operating tempo, it still flies somewhat less often than does the active force.

“If we want to slow down the use of the airplanes,” Lichte said, “we’d think about putting them in the Guard and Reserve.”

The C-17 is not the only aircraft being overused, though. According to AMC charts, the C-130 fleet has already flown past 112 percent of its planned life expectancy. The C-5B is at 147 percent, the KC-10 at 156 percent, and the KC-135 tanker fleet at 184 percent.

The adequacy of airlift issue isn’t being ignored, but it tends to be debated over and over again. That’s partly because new missions for air mobility routinely present themselves and raise the question of how much is enough.

Air Force airlifters have in recent years been the high-visibility face of the US in humanitarian relief to victims of natural disasters worldwide. Airlift made it possible to open a northern front in the Iraq War of 2003. In August, C-17s were called on to quickly repatriate Georgian troops serving in Iraq when their country was attacked by Russia. The C-17s then provided supplies to the embattled capital of Tbilisi, in a mission not unlike that of the Berlin Airlift.

The C-17 is in production, and Congress has signaled that, for now at least, it wants to keep the line open. New C-130Js are being bought, though slowly. A major C-5 upgrade is in test. A new small tactical airlifter, the C-27J, has begun.

(However, a new tanker program, although authorized and funded, was suddenly aborted in September, due to contracting issues.) Still, aircraft programs don’t yield operational capability overnight, and the nation has to stick with it, Lichte asserted.

“All of our modernization programs are going to take a long time, … involving long-term commitments of resources and long-term public support,” he observed.

Two big mobility studies have affected the size of USAF’s airlift fleet in recent years. The first was the Mobility Requirements Study 2005—completed in 2000—which stated how much airlift was needed to carry out national strategy at that time. It stated a minimum airlift requirement of 54.5 million ton miles a day of capability, comprising both Air Force and commercial carriers. That was about 15 percent higher than what AMC could then provide. Moreover, it didn’t address the needs of special operations forces or set a course for tactical airlift.

Airmen bring a Stryker aboard a C-5 for transport from Joint Base Balad, Iraq. USAF recently approved parallel upgrade programs for the C-5A and C-5B fleets. (USAF photo by SrA. Julianne Showalter)

Its shortcomings aside, the MRS-05, as it was known, was rendered immediately obsolete on 9/11. In the seven-year Global War on Terror that followed, airlift usage shot up, and special operations forces and tactical airlift became hugely important.

Then, in 2005, a Mobility Capabilities Study was undertaken. It didn’t assess how much lift was needed in the way the MRS-05 did, but rather how much was on hand, and what could be done with it. The document was folded into the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, and as a stand-alone document, it was classified. Defense officials have suggested that this was done because, if no minimum requirements for lift were made public, no one could be accused of failing to meet them.

The QDR report contained a summary of the MCS, saying that existing airlift assets were sufficient through 2013. In strategic lift, it stated a range of 292 to 383 aircraft as appropriate.

Earlier this year, when deciding whether to keep a C-5 upgrade program alive, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council said that the Air Force must have 33.95 million ton miles a day of airlift capability in its own fleet, to be supplemented by commercial carriers. In July, among written answers to Congress for his confirmation to be the new head of US Transportation Command, Gen. Duncan J. McNabb said he does not “currently perceive there to be a shortage of intertheater airlift.”

The Numbers Game

Now, there are two major studies of air mobility currently under way. The bigger one, called the Mobility Capabilities Requirements Study, is being done by the Pentagon’s program analysis and evaluation shop, in partnership with US Transportation Command. Its charter is to “identify alternatives in mobility capabilities (including intertheater fleet mix) and requirements to support the defense strategy.” It’s supposed to be finished next spring.

Lichte noted that the MCRS will project requirements out through 2016. It will take into account whether the Air Force needs more airlift to accommodate the Army and Marine Corps, which are growing by a combined 92,000 troops. However, the study won’t be able to determine what will be needed to move the Army’s new Future Combat Systems, because the size and number of FCS vehicles remains unsettled.

The second study, being conducted by the Institute for Defense Analyses, has a shorter fuse. Congress directed this study, to be done by Jan. 10, 2009, to look at the trade-offs between buying more C-17s and fixing up the C-5 Galaxy fleet. As part of the analysis, alternatives such as heavier reliance on commercial lift, the cost of stopping and restarting the C-17 line, likely aircraft service life, and the prospect of using tankers to haul cargo are all to be looked at.

In April, the Government Accountability Office reviewed a draft of the study and found that it “lacks sufficient detail” to be of much use to lawmakers, and said it didn’t answer the questions it was intended to. The GAO suggested that Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief John J. Young Jr. be instructed to ensure the study is more “robust” and provides the needed data.

For about two years, Air Force leaders have been sticking to a figure of about 300 strategic airlifters overall as being a suitable number for the missions the service will have to perform.

Although there were only 180 C-17s on order when the MRS-05 was finished, the Air Force has had 25 airplanes added to the program by Congress since then. Ten were added in Fiscal Year 2007. In the Fiscal Year 2008 supplemental budget, 15 were added, bringing USAF up to a total of 205; the contract was being negotiated in August. The additional buy will keep the airlifter in production until August of 2010. In Fiscal 2009 defense budget bill discussions, the House Armed Services Committee approved a further 15, but this wasn’t matched in the Senate version. The issue was one to be resolved in the House-Senate budget conference.

Lichte believes the level of 205 C-17s is “in the right ballpark” of the number AMC needs.

Maintenance airmen work on a KC-10 engine at Travis AFB, Calif. The Extender is the Air Force’s “new” tanker, but is 25 years old. (USAF photo by MSgt. Lance Cheung)

“We understand that 205 is the program of record, and we’re managing to that,” Lichte said. That number assumes, however, that there will be success in updating the C-5 Galaxy.

Two parallel upgrades are being done on the C-5. One is called the Avionics Modernization Program, which adds new displays and electronics to the aircraft, toward improving reliability. By mid-August, 42 C-5As had received the AMP.

The second is the Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program, or RERP, which adds new engines and makes other structural changes meant to improve the C-5’s departure reliability, which has never been great and which has declined in recent years. The C-5’s mission capable rate, a key indicator of a system’s health, has been hovering around 50 percent for the last year.

Three C-5 aircraft were modified with the RERP: two C-5Bs and one C-5A. Flight testing of the three aircraft wrapped up in August, to be followed by operational testing. All the answers on whether the C-5 upgrade does what it’s supposed to—provide a 75 percent on-time departure rate—should be in hand by early 2010.

C-5Ms Make the Grade

In the fall of 2007, the C-5 RERP project was declared to be a Nunn-McCurdy breach, meaning it had increased in cost more than 25 percent above budget. In February, the Pentagon saved the program by certifying that it is critical, but to cut costs, it eliminated doing the upgrade on the oldest C-5A airplanes (except for the one already modified). Only 51 C-5B/Cs in total will get the RERP, which will bring them to what’s now called C-5M Super Galaxy configuration.

By law, the Air Force can’t retire any C-5As until RERP operational test and evaluation is finished.

Lichte said Air Force evaluators are “very impressed” with the C-5Ms in flight test.

“They haven’t had any problems with the engines or the avionics stuff. If anything goes wrong, it’s usually with some of the old legacy business, but even that has been performing very, very well.”

He is confident the C-5M will prove out.

“I’ve got my fingers crossed; I think this is going to work,” he said.

A KC-135 out of MacDill AFB, Fla., maneuvers on a runway as a C-5 Galaxy (background) takes off. The KC-135 and C-5 are among the Air Force’s oldest aircraft. (USAF photo by SrA. Brian Ferguson)

If it does, the Air Force will likely ask Congress to let it start retiring some of the nonupgraded C-5As. In April, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, then head of TRANSCOM and now Chief of Staff, told the HASC that if more than 205 C-17s are acquired, it should ramp down in Galaxys.

“If you build above 205 C-17s, it means taking capacity out elsewhere, which probably means C-5As,” Schwartz told the House panel. Schwartz has long maintained that to buy too much “organic” airlift capability would be detrimental, since it would reduce the amount of work available for commercial carriers, on which AMC depends heavily. Reduced work might cause participants in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, or CRAF, to exit the program, robbing the Air Force of an economical augment to its airlift portfolio.

“The CRAF right now is doing very, very well,” Lichte reported. “We’re providing them with a lot of business, and so they are very happy with that.” CRAF participants carry the majority of passengers that travel back and forth from their home bases to deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, while AMC carries most of the cargo.

However, with the airline and air freight industries suffering from high fuel costs and dropping demand, Lichte said AMC will be watching the market closely for signs that the CRAF could be in peril. In the near term, he doesn’t see a problem.

“Even if we decide … that we’re not doing Iraq and Afghanistan anymore, it’s going to take us another couple of years to get everybody … and … all the equipment back home,” Lichte predicted. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Should the passenger-carrying business fall precipitously, Lichte said there will still be a “business case” for companies to be in the freight-flying enterprise. However, if there is a steep drop in Defense Department passenger traffic due to a pullback from Southwest Asia, “they are going to have to find other markets,” Lichte acknowledged.

A huge factor in the mobility equation will be the new KC-X tanker. In February, the Air Force selected the Northrop Grumman KC-30 to replace the oldest USAF tankers, the KC-135Es. The Eisenhower-vintage KC-135Es have become so frail, Lichte said, that it is no longer economical to fly them, and the last E models in the fleet are either already being retired or are grounded pending retirement.

“It’s not like we really chose to do that,” Lichte said, but the engine struts on the E models—a critical item and costly to replace—are no longer considered airworthy.

“Every time we put an E model into depot, we found more and more problems. It was getting more expensive” to fix them. Ultimately, Lichte decided, “we just can’t do this any longer.”

Because Congress has mandated that the E models be kept in condition capable of being returned to flight—at least until new-build tankers start arriving in service—USAF is being forced to spend money to keep them that way. Lichte was unable to say how much this costs, but noted that it is money that could be better spent on new airplanes. Even when Congress releases the last aircraft to be put in the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., it has insisted they be kept in “Type 1000 storage,” which means they will be mothballed rather than scrapped. To return these aircraft to flight status would cost a minimum of $14 million apiece, to replace the engine struts alone.

Technicians at Hill AFB, Utah, work on a disassembled C-130 Hercules. The head of Air Mobility Command wants to retire USAF’s older C-130Es, many of which are grounded. (Photo by Bryan Williams Jones)

Since the KC-135Es are no longer flying, AMC has decided to increase the rate at which it flies the KC-135Rs, which received a structural modification in the 1990s that made them “younger” than the E models, and gave them newer engines. Additional flight crews will be added, and E model technicians will be put to work on the Rs. However, AMC said that the Rs cannot keep up the pace indefinitely. They will have to be relieved by the new tanker, and soon.

Unfortunately, the new tanker program can’t seem to get off the ground. Congress and the Pentagon agree that the need is urgent to replace the KC-135Es, and Congress has appropriated money to get the project moving. However, soon after the Air Force awarded the KC-X to Northrop Grumman, Boeing protested, saying it hadn’t been treated fairly in the competition. (See “The Tanker Endgame?” June, p. 30, and “Travail of the Tanker,” August, p. 54.) The GAO, which adjudicates such protests, agreed, finding “significant errors” in USAF’s evaluation of the two competing bids. It recommended the competition be rerun.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates appointed Young to take over the tanker source selection, and to fix the identified mistakes without voiding the rest of the enormous data already obtained in the competition. However, citing “mistakes and missteps along the way,” as well as a “highly charged” political environment, Gates terminated the KC-X competition on Sept. 10. He said it wasn’t possible to fix the contract’s problems by the end of 2008, and left it to the incoming Congress and Administration to “craft a new acquisition strategy.”

Gates, in a statement for the press, said that in reaching his decision he concluded that “the current KC-135 fleet can be adequately maintained to satisfy Air Force missions for the near future.” He said extra money would be requested in the Fiscal Year 2010-15 budgets to keep the KC-135 “at high mission capable rates.” Gates added that he’d recommend that funding for the KC-X be continued, but suggested that Fiscal 2009 money would be diverted to other programs.

“It is my judgment that in the time remaining to us, we can no longer complete a competition that would be viewed as fair and objective,” Gates asserted.

The tanker has been the Air Force’s No. 1, most critical modernization priority for several years, and Lichte said, “I honestly do not care which tanker is the one we are given. We just need to get on with it.”

Further delay in bringing on the new airplane poses a grave challenge, Lichte said. He noted that, although the KC-135R—and much of the airlift fleet—is spending less time in depot, that’s due to the efficiency of the depot system. Actually, more faults are being found, and the list of old items needing ever-increasing inspections, repair, or replacement is growing long, he said.

“I am very confident that our KC-135s are good for the near term,” Lichte asserted. “But for every year that we [delay introducing a new tanker], it’s going to pop out on the far side.” He said that if the new tankers don’t arrive starting within three years, “we may be pushing out into 2050-something” with the KC-135R. “And at [that] point, we’ll be flying 100-year-old airplanes.” Given that AMC’s older types are showing so many age-related faults, such as corrosion, bad wiring, and failure of “life of the airplane” parts never expected to serve more than two decades, Lichte doubts the fleet can hold out so long.

This C-17 from the 58th Airlift Squadron, shown on the flight line at Altus AFB, Okla., is one of only 205 planned aircraft. That may be enough—if the C-5 can be successfully upgraded. (Photo by Greg L. Davis)

Modernize, and Quickly

His nightmare scenario is that the entire KC-135 fleet is grounded by a fleetwide defect, leaving the 59 KC-10s alone to perform the entire tanking mission.

“If something catastrophic happens,” Lichte said, “we would press the KC-10 into full-blown operation. But keep in mind, the KC-10 is 25 years old, now, too. … It’s no longer a teenager.”

The KC-10 was always intended to be a “bridge” to the new tanker, and there were ambitious plans to modernize it with new avionics and other enhancements. However, “whoops, we didn’t do it,” Lichte explained. “We didn’t have the money. And so now, we are in a program to try to modernize it as quickly as possible, at least on the avionics,” so it will be compliant with international air traffic management rules and able to fly in the “sweet airspace” of the most efficient routes and altitudes.

Besides giving the Air Force a more reliable tanker, Lichte said a new machine will expand USAF’s tanker capabilities. It will have defensive systems, allowing it to get closer to the battle than its predecessors. Combat aircraft won’t have to fly as far or as long to refuel, keeping them near or over the target longer. Simultaneous ability to refuel with either a boom or a drogue means USAF won’t have to turn away anyone who needs gas in a hurry, Lichte said. A new tanker’s network-centric capabilities would give managers back at AMC headquarters at Scott AFB, Ill., the ability to position its aircraft, worldwide, as if they were on a huge chessboard, knowing at a click what each one is carrying, how much fuel it has, and where it can divert to if needed.

Being a 50-year leap ahead in capability over the KC-135, a new tanker would offer capabilities “we haven’t even thought of yet,” Lichte said.

In tactical airlift, Lichte said he thinks USAF will continue to buy C-130Js.

“We want a cargo delivery fleet of 132 C-130Js,” and to perform the AMP on as many older C-130Hs that are deemed capable of remaining in economical service, Lichte said. The service initially wanted to AMP 519 C-130Es and Hs, but after another Nunn-McCurdy breach, the program was descoped to include only 221 H models.

Lichte wants to get rid of the C-130Es, which are fragile and many of which are grounded because of cracked wing boxes. The C-17 and C-130 will continue to share the job of performing in-theater, tactical airlift, abetted to some degree by the new, smaller C-27J, on which the Air Force is partnered with the Army. There’s a business case for the C-27J, he said, for those times when “you’re not moving a lot, but it’s critical that you move a little bit, over a relatively short distance.”

A new capability has drawn into high relief the question of whether the Army really needs to be involved in the airborne resupply mission, Lichte said. That capability is the Joint Precision Air-Drop System, or JPADS. Using a GPS-aided navigation system not unlike that used on bombs, a JPADS-equipped, 2,000-pound pallet can be precisely parachuted to within a few feet of any coordinates. In one test, Lichte said, two pallets were dropped to the same coordinates, and the second actually landed on top of the first.

For now, JPADS is in its infancy and it’s too soon to wonder whether it can take over the mission of an actual aircraft, such as the C-27J.

“Right now, it’s a nice capability and it really enhances what we’re doing,” Lichte noted. “But I think the more … the Army and marines realize that we can do this, … then we’ll have to start questioning … why do you need a helicopter to take three boxes and something up there? Why couldn’t we just precision-airdrop it and put it right at the guy’s doorstep?”

The Labors of Hercules

The Air Force laid out a new master plan for its C-130 fleet in late August, under which it would build an inventory of 132 cargo-dedicated C-130Js (not including 40 more for special mission functions), retire all its oldest E models by 2015, and extend the service lives of 221 H models another 20 years.

The E models, which date to the 1960s, are suffering heavily from structural fatigue and parts obsolescence, and must be retired, according to Maj. Gen. David S. Gray, USAF’s director of global reach programs. The E model made headlines in recent years when it was discovered that cracks were developing in the type’s center wing boxes—the key structural component—and the afflicted aircraft had to be grounded. Gray said the E models that don’t have the cracks will soldier on without either a structural fix or the Avionics Modernization Program. The last of 89 E models now in the inventory will retire from active and Air Guard squadrons in 2015.

Savings from forgoing the upgrades and retiring the maintenance-intensive E models would be applied to buying more C-130Js, and USAF will seek approval for a new multityear contract, Gray said. He declined to say how many C-130Js the Air Force wants to buy annually, but Lockheed Martin has previously provided the service with quotes on up to 24 per year. The service has taken delivery of 51 cargo-version C-130Js so far (plus 17 weather and electronic combat models), meaning it wants another 81 of the transports, or just over three years’ production at a multiyear rate.

The Pentagon has blessed a plan to upgrade 221 C-130Hs with both the AMP and center wing box replacement, which Gray said they will ultimately need. The Air Force hopes to perform 24 of the double upgrades per year; 47 have been done already. Although there’s no funding yet for 47 further Air Mobility Command H models to be upgraded (82 noncargo, special mission aircraft, such as gunships, are also not funded), he said USAF will seek money in fiscal 2010 for those as well.

When the Hs have been modified, “what you’re going to have is an aircraft that has the structural ability and the avionics necessary to allow this aircraft to continue to operate worldwide for the next 20 years,” Gray asserted.

—John A. Tirpak and Marc V. Schanz